Mythbusting

Click on the myth to reveal the truth!

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+ We've already had a referendum on PR

No. The British people have never had a say on Proportional Representation.

The 2011 Alternative Vote (AV) Referendum was on a system which, by David Cameron's own admission, is often less proportional than FPTP. If AV had been used in 2015 it would have given the Conservatives an even larger majority on the same vote share (according to analysis by the Electoral Reform Society).

The results were precisely what you’d expect when people know they’re being offered a rigged choice between two bad options: most people stayed home. Turnout was just 42%. Less than 29% of the electorate came out to defend FPTP. The only overwhelming thing about the AV referendum was the overwhelming lack of interest in either of the options.

When Caroline Lucas proposed a cross-party amendment to include proportional systems as options in the Referendum, it was voted down by MPs including Theresa May and a majority of her current cabinet.

From the Conservatives' point of view, offering only the Alternative Vote had two obvious benefits. Firstly, there had never been public demand for it - so it made change less likely. Secondly, if adopted, it would've retained the disproportionality which has historically benefitted them.

+ Nobody cares about PR

On the contrary, there is unprecedented demand for reform. After the 2015 election half a million people signed petitions calling for PR. Perhaps even more impressive, 100,000 people signed a Parliamentary petition in April 2017, triggering a debate in Parliament. That’s two years after a General Election, a point in the electoral cycle at which demand for fair votes is usually at its coolest. Not only that, but thousands of people are taking action to change our voting system. Dozens of local groups are running street stalls and events, and several major demonstrations have taken place in recent years.

Every opinion poll carried out by a member of the British Polling Council since May 2015 has found overwhelming support for PR. It’s true that opinion polls have to be approached with caution, but the strength and consistency of support for PR here is impressive. Polling agencies have formulated the question differently - from asking about the principle of seats matching votes, to directly asking whether PR should replace our current FPTP system. The results have been broadly the same regardless of how the question is put.

This simply isn't true. All the systems proposed for use in our General Elections retain or strengthen the constituency link.

Under FPTP, everyone has a single local MP - but for millions of people this is someone they profoundly disagree with. In Ceredigion, for example, 71 per cent of voters did not vote for the winning candidate in 2017.

The Additional Member System is already used in Scotland, Wales, London, Germany and New Zealand. Under AMS, everyone has a single local representative just as they do now, but additional members are also elected from regional top-up lists so that seats match votes overall.

The Single Transferable Vote – used in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scottish local elections – uses small multi-member constituencies. Several MPs would represent the balance of opinion of the area, and constituents can choose which to approach.

+ PR would lead to weak, unstable coalition governments and constant elections

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Most developed democracies use PR and have coalition governments - including Germany, Norway and Switzerland - and this has been proven to be a very effective way of governing. Countries with PR have been shown to perform better on average in quality of democracy, in building more equal and egalitarian societies, and in responding to long-term issues like protecting the environment and tackling climate change.

FPTP simply isn’t delivering stability. It’s hard to describe recent British, American or Canadian governments - or the last pre-PR regimes in New Zealand - as stable.

In terms of elections, studies have actually found that countries with FPTP on average have unplanned elections slightly more often than countries with PR. People often focus on extreme examples like Italy, forgetting that 80% of developed countries use PR - the vast majority of which are very stable.

+ PR leads to a government implementing a manifesto no-one voted for

Everyone would like to see the manifesto they voted for put into action. But most people understand it’s deeply undemocratic to impose their vision on everyone if it’s not what the majority voted for. When no one party gets a majority of the votes we can either hand power to a minority, or we can compromise and find an arrangement that most people are happy with.

There’s no reason why this compromise should happen “behind closed doors” or in “smoke-filled rooms”, as is often claimed. In Denmark, for example, parties declare their acceptable coalition allegiances in advance of an election - the process can be completely transparent. There’s no reason we couldn’t do that in the UK too.

+ PR hands too much power to party bosses

That depends on the system of PR. Where STV or open lists are used, voters directly choose between candidates as well as between parties. Where closed lists are used, parties choose the order of candidates on their lists, just as parties choose who to put forward as their candidates under FPTP.

It’s worth remembering that our current system gives just as much control to party bosses as the most primitive form of closed list PR. To take one example from the 2017 election, the Conservative Party reportedly imposed candidates on the local party in Bridgend against the wishes of local activists.

With FPTP, some parties select their candidates through highly democratic processes, while others do not. The same would be true of closed top-up lists. In fact, in some countries with closed lists - such as Germany and Norway - party bosses are prevented by law from intervening in candidate selection, which must be done democratically.

+ Using PR, small parties and extremists can wield disproportionate power

With PR, all parties win a share of the seats that matches the share of the votes they received. Bigger parties have more options when forming coalitions and more posts in the resulting governments. This rightly gives them more power in forming and steering a coalition government. Smaller parties may achieve some of their objectives in government but will always be in a weaker negotiating position. Only FPTP hands the power of majority government to parties on a minority of the votes. FPTP is far more likely to foster extremism. The fact that most voters are ignored and millions have no voice in our democracy is the perfect environment to breed disillusionment. FPTP is also far more likely to put extremists into government, because winner-takes-all systems allow one side to seize total power on a minority of the votes - as happened when Trump became president despite a heavy loss of the popular vote.

PR allows a light to be shined on parties. When extremists win representation they are often exposed as unaligned with the interests of their voters, incompetent, or both. Where extremists win seats in countries with PR the other parties often rule out any coalition with them - as happened in the Netherlands. This is a far more effective and democratic way of limiting extreme voices than denying their voters any representation at all.

+ PR is too complicated, expensive and bureaucratic

PR is easily understood and used by voters in most of the world’s democracies and developed democracies. It’s incredibly patronising to suggest that British voters are less competent. Whilst the methods of allocating seats might be more sophisticated than FPTP, sometimes complexity is required to make the system fair. In any case, what voters see on the ballot paper would be just as simple as with FPTP.

The Government recently cited the proportion of spoilt ballots in Police and Crime Commissioner elections as evidence that PR is too complicated for British voters. This is strange because PCC elections do not use a form of PR, and they also appear to suffer from a widespread deliberate, ballot-spoiling, according to the Electoral Commission. The Scottish Parliament elections - which do use PR - have a lower percentage of spoilt ballots than our FPTP General Elections do (0.29% to 0.33% in the 2015 election). The Northern Ireland Assembly elections - which use STV - had marginally more spoilt ballots (0.75%), but nowhere near the levels in PCC elections cited by the Government.

There’s no evidence that the electoral process is prohibitively expensive or bureacratic when PR is used. It's ridiculous to say that the UK wouldn't be able to cope with the bureaucracy - especially when many elections within the nations of the UK already use PR. Under any system, elections will be an incredibly tiny part of our public expenditure. If we take democracy seriously, surely our priority should be doing elections as well as possible - not as cheaply as possible.