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PR is not the road to happiness

As the likelihood grows of the Lib Dems holding the balance of power in terms of seats after May 6, so does the debate about what price Nick Clegg’s party might exact for joining a New Labour or Tory-led coalition government. Centre stage is the idea of replacing the present voting system with PR or proportional representation.

The Lib Dems have always been in favour of PR, which is not surprising. Under the present system, they could, for example, gain a larger share of the total votes cast than New Labour and yet end up with fewer than half the number of seats. Even the Tories could poll far higher than Gordon Brown’s party and still have fewer seats than New Labour. Democracy in action this isn’t!

Some people who are fed up with the present political system see PR as a way forward. It would, they argue, allow smaller parties to be represented in Parliament. PR could even open up the floodgates to “revolution or fundamental reform”, according to one response to our election policy of “hang on to your vote – build People’s Assemblies”.

But would it? PR assumes that

a) Parliamentary representation is the only possible form of democracy
b) Parliament in the shape of the House of Commons has real power
c) reforming the voting system will benefit ordinary people
d) the Lib Dems are alright really
e) the present capitalist state system can become the tribune of the people.

None of these presuppositions holds water, however. As we have demonstrated many times, Parliament has had no real power for over 140 years, when the executive first established a permanent stranglehold over MPs. Representation is an extremely limited form of democracy. It was first elaborated by Alexander Hamilton, one of the key thinkers behind the American Revolution. He saw it as a way of filtering popular sentiment while keeping it at arms length.

So what developed much later in Britain following the 1867 Reform Act was representation – but without power, which lay firmly in the hands of the state. The founding of the Labour Party did not fundamentally alter this relationship, even when it took office for the first time as a minority government in 1923.

This is because the government is only a part of the state system as a whole. And this state is indisputably capitalist by nature in the sense that its primary role is to uphold the status quo of private property and the wage contract system for workers, with force when necessary. Globalisation has brought the character of the state out into the open for all to see, with banks and corporations ruling through parties like New Labour and the state reorganised to facilitate global finance and the free movement of capital.

In this context, PR would not make a jot of difference. Sure, smaller parties would be represented in Parliament – the Greens, the neo-fascist BNP and the ultra-right UKIP to name but three. But the levers of power would remain in the hands of the ruling classes. The experience of Italy, which elects its MPs through a system of PR, is a clear example that a more balanced voting system does not result in progressive change.

Advocates of PR are in danger of missing the wood for the trees, the form for the content. A fairer voting system is obviously required because the first-past-the-post method used in general elections is clearly weighted against change. But something like PR only makes sense within a truly democratic political system built around ideas like People’s Assemblies. Otherwise PR could actually be used to reinforce the status quo.

This is, we repeat, a crisis election. Britain’s debts are enormous and the crisis convulsing Greece is a warning of what’s to come here. Whatever the manoeuvres around a post-election arrangement, whatever regime emerges will be down on our necks like a ton of bricks because that’s what the money markets are demanding. Voting for any of the parties planning these cuts would be like turkeys voting for Christmas, whatever the merits or otherwise of PR.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
26 April 2010

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