Saturday , March 2 2024

Proportional Representation could empower a British Meloni

Our politics is in crisis and has been for some time. From last year’s Partygate to Truss and Kwarteng’s mini-budget calamity just last month, the nation’s woes seem to stem from a democratic deficit at the heart of the United Kingdom’s electoral system. The crisis began with the 2016 Brexit referendum instilling populist politics at the heart of the British government; all other crises flow from there. For those dismayed by their inability to affect the political arena in the face of a large Tory majority in Parliament, the solution is institutionalising proportional representation.  

Centrist podcasters and left-wing firebrands alike look to proportional representation (PR) as the antidote to the erosion of our institutions and the apparent populism within our politics — a brand new electoral system so that we never end up in this mess again. Some call for a ‘progressive alliance’ to coalesce around an electoral message of changing the system, and Labour Party members passed a motion at their party conference in support of PR, attempting to force their leader into committing to the change. But Sir Keir Starmer remains opposed — as do I.

The recent European election of Giorgia Meloni — a quasi-fascist and one-time admirer of Benito Mussolini — demonstrates the fallibility of proportional representation; the system where members of parliament are elected based on the percentage of the overall vote, rather than having individuals elected from each constituency as under First Past The Post (FPTP). Meloni came to power with just 26% of the vote and now wields the democratic legitimacy to roll out some of the most extreme right-wing policies seen in modern Europe. The introduction of a similar system in the UK risks opening the door to more extreme politics of the very kind its proponents oppose.

Every major European nation that uses PR currently has a coalition government, with several parties uniting to form a majority in Parliament. PR advocates theorise that coalitions result in more voices being heard in the halls of government, representing different views, and moderating policy. In reality, that’s rarely the case. The coalitions which form are blocks, which in a FPTP system would be regarded as one party; broad coalitions under whose umbrella many different views are represented. PR does not necessarily allow more views to be represented, as the resulting coalitions inevitably unite around similar values. However, the self-moderation of internal party politics is removed, and the senior partner in the coalition wields the legitimacy to force through radical ideas that may not be possible within the structure of a single party.

The more extreme elements of the Truss-Kwarteng economic plans were forced back onto the shelf by her backbenchers, and Boris Johnson was forced to U-turn on a litany of decisions. The party can be self-moderating, whilst the realities of building an electoral vehicle capable of winning under FPTP require a degree of arbitration to win moderate voters — as Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn found out in 2019.

Take the coalition that Meloni leads. She is the most right-wing leader of the parties represented, but her coalition features ex-prime minister and fellow right-winger Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, and the leader of the populist right-wing party, Lega, Matteo Salvini. In another system, these would likely form the same party under one umbrella, moderated internally to win election. Under PR, Meloni is able to lead her own — more radical — party, and pursue more extreme policies with the backing of her coalition partners and full democratic legitimacy.

Proponents of PR inadvertently demand the very government they abhor. Boris Johnson may have been a populist in his rhetoric, but he was no Meloni. Proponents of PR decry the growth of populism in the wake of the Brexit referendum as a symptom for which PR would be a cure: FPTP allowed Johnson a strong majority in Parliament despite achieving less than 50% of the vote at the 2019 election, providing him with carte blanche to pursue a Brexit deal contrary to the wishes of the public. Yet, had we used PR, the 2015 election — the election where Prime Minister David Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership — Nigel Farage would have entered Parliament as the leader of the UK Independence Party and likely formed a coalition with Cameron, together holding nearly 50% of the vote. The hypothetical Brexit Secretary Nigel Farage could have exercised far greater power in this scenario, and a confused mandate allows him to force Cameron to pursue a more extreme stance following the referendum.

It could be perhaps even worse for the proponents of PR. In the 2019 European Parliament elections, Farage’s new Brexit Party secured nearly 31% of the vote. Although the circumstances were unique and don’t translate directly into a general election, there was a world in 2019 where Nigel Farage became the leader of the largest party, heading up a coalition and having the mandate to pursue all the ideas that centrist podcasters and left-wing firebrands oppose most. It is clear that on their own terms, PR would be a disaster.

Our electoral system is rife with flaws, chief among them the ascension of a new government without a general election for the fourth time this century. PR would not solve the issue. It reduces democratic legitimacy and increases the likelihood of inadvertently providing electoral mandates ideas its proponents most oppose. If we institutionalise it, we risk unleashing a British Meloni.

About Calum Paton

Calum Paton is a political commentator with Young Voices UK. Calum is co-author of 2020 As It Happened and a history and politics graduate from the University of Warwick. He is currently studying law in London and is the managing director of political education non-profit, The Speaker. He has previously written for City AM, 1828, Comment Central and The London Financial.

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