Mythbusting

There are many myths about Proportional Representation - none of the negative claims hold up under scrutiny.

As there are so many myths we recommend searching for a keyword on this page to find any that you're interested to find rebuttals for - press Ctrl + F at the same time or access a menu on a mobile device to type in a search term.

The 2017 General Election outcome was more proportional than that in 2015. The alleged problems with FPTP are going away.

Actually, the alleged advantages of FPTP are going away. FPTP hasn’t produced a decisive majority since 2005 and has now on three consecutive occasions produced results that neither reflect votes nor provide a ‘strong majority’ to a single party.

On the other hand, the disadvantages of FPTP are as serious as ever. Most votes were ineffective and 20% of voters said they were going to vote tactically to avoid wasting their votes, according to polling by the Electoral Reform Society.

The Conservative party received a larger proportion of votes than at the previous general election, but now has a smaller proportion of seats. The Liberal Democrats received a smaller proportion of votes, but a larger proportion of seats.

Haven’t we already had a referendum on PR?

No. The British people have never had a say on PR.

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 AV referendum was an overwhelming vote for the status quo. Aren’t you refusing to accept democracy?

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.

Why was AV chosen for the referendum instead of PR then?

You will have to ask the Conservative Party - who held 80% of the 2010 Coalition’s seats.

It looks like it was a deliberate choice. When Caroline Lucas proposed a cross-party amendment to include proportional systems as options in the Referendum, it was successfully voted down by MPs including Theresa May and all except two of her present cabinet.

From their 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 wouldn’t have changed the status quo of their ability to govern the country.

What makes you think there’s public support for PR?

Every opinion poll carried out since May 2015 has found overwhelming support for PR. The latest polling - from April 2017 - found 67% believe seats should match votes and just 12% opposed. This is pretty typical of recent polling about 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. No poll since 2015 has found anything but resounding support for PR.

You can get whatever answer you want with leading questions.

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.

People might say they want PR when asked, but there’s very little real demand for a new voting system. No one cares!

On the contrary, there’s unprecedented demand. 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 this year, 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. Contact Make Votes Matter to get involved.

PR would weaken the link between MPs and constituents.

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 Cornwall, for example, 57 per cent of voters did not vote Conservative in 2015, but 100% were represented by Conservatives. But everyone in Cornwall is represented by a Conservative MP.

How do systems of PR keep a constituency link?

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 causes instability so you end up constantly having elections.

In fact, studies have 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 stable.

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.

PR would lead to weak coalition governments which get nothing done.

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.

Can you give an example of a country with PR performing better than the UK?

Compare Norway with PR and so-called “weak coalitions” to the “strong and decisive” FPTP governments of the UK. Whatever you think of fossil fuels, Norway carefully set aside its oil wealth and now has the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund. On the other hand, the UK has nothing to show for the oil reserves it squandered over the same period.

With PR, you end up with 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.

Would PR mean more behind-the-scenes deals in “smoke-filled rooms”?

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.

Doesn’t PR just hand power to the party bosses who decide who gets to be an MP?

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 this 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.

PR gives too much power to small parties.

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.

PR lets in extremists.

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.

Didn’t PR lead to the rise of the Nazis?

In fact the Nazis would have come to power earlier if Germany had used FPTP, as they were the largest party in 27 out of 35 electoral regions in July 1932. Under FPTP, this minority would have translated into a landslide majority.

PR would be complicated and confusing – people won't know what their votes mean.

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.

But isn’t PR leading to more spoilt ballots where it’s used in the UK?

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.

Isn’t PR expensive and bureaucratic?

This is a non-issue. There’s no evidence that the electoral process is prohibitively complicated or expensive when PR is used. Most countries use proportional systems. 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.