Monday, November 05, 2007

If it's Monday it Must be no Belgian Government

Five months ago, on 10 June the good people of Belgium voted in a General Election. Five months on, they still have no government. In Wales it took the best part of two months to form a coalition. Those who propose that PR is a fairer electoral system must explain how it could be introduced in Westminster without potentially paralysing our political system. Whatever its failings (and it has many) at least our first past the post system usually produces a government with a mandate. The trouble with PR is it produces a government that no one wanted to carry out a mish mash of policy compromises which no one voted for.

46 comments:

Alex said...

And the problem with no government is...?

I just hope that, since there is no effective parliament, no salaries are being paid to parliamentarians. Sadly I suspect not.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Iain. A mandate that the elected dictatorship then ignores as soon as it likes. No government means less loony laws passed only to gratify the control freak tendencies of the buffoons elected to Parliament.

Newmania said...

The great fear is that if Scotland goes its own way , and it will , Brown will offer the Lib Dems PR and destroy our democratic accountability forever, to retain any power he can in England

Anonymous said...

It also raises the interesting question - just how much government does a country need to keep functioning? You could argue that this, and the experience of countries like Italy, have shown that much of government activity is largely irrelevant to the functioning of a capitalist economy.

Marco Biagi said...

Oh please. Belgium is having a once-in-a-century constitutional crisis. PR-elected governments will tend to consist of compromise between multiple parties, yes, but the input of each party will be in tune with the proportion of the population that voted for it, and majority PR governments will represent the views of a majority of the population.

Compare and contrast that with Labour's overall majority based on the consent of a third of the UK population, or with Labour's potential majority through first-past-the-post on a uniform swing that makes the Tories the largest party. Face it, Tories take issue with proportional representation because of that least admirable facet of Conservatism - the knee jerk rejection of new ideas simply because they are new.

RobW said...

Without PR though you will never solve the disillusionment problem.

Many people don't vote because there is no choice in politics.

They should at least introduce a system where you can vote for none of the above.

Tristan said...

But we /need/ government. How else are we going to be looked after by the state? How else will they prevent us from doing what we like with our bodies or force us to attend school for even longer? We need government to look after us!

I'd like to present the flip side of Iain's question, how are we to stop arbitrary government without PR? We have a government elected on a minority of votes with a large majority of seats which uses that to further its own interests and play politics.

Its time for the Tories to wake up and realise PR, or extending voting choice, is good for them politically.

Then again, we can't have the proles actually getting the government they vote for can we? That would be anti-democratic!

Madasafish said...

>zeon
You chose a bad example. Italy does not need an elected government. It has the Mafia...

scott redding said...

Iain, I think you know full well that the problems of forming a government in Belgium have far less to do with PR and far more to do with the linguistic/economic divide between Flanders and Wallonia.

Simon said...

Took about a week to form the Irish government with 3 parties in coalition. Also the fact that 49% of people can vote al their lives and never have a single MP that they vote for over them is hardly the model of democracy. In Ireland depending where you are that number is 17% ish. The reason that people get a mish-mash of policies is because people want a mish-mash. We have in Ireland twice (I think) voted on getting rid of PR. Every time it is defeated easily, because people like it

Anonymous said...

FPTP produces a Government with a majority not a Government with a mandate. A mandate implies that a majority of people are in favour of the Government not just a plurality.
There is nothing wrong with a bit of legislative gridlock, the Executive would stay in place until there was a new one and the country could do with a decent period without new Acts of Parliament getting in peoples way.

Gavin Whenman said...

Belgium doesn't have a government not because of PR, but because it's effectively two countries - Flanders and Wallonia.

Arnie said...

So it is better for the minority to have everything that they voted for, or the majority to have some of what they voted for?

Why should a party be able to implement all of its policies if it cant even get 50% of the vote?

Tapestry said...

If Belgium had FPTP, it might actually survive as a country. PR has crippled Belgium. It could well disintegrate as it has no effective system of government as a direct result.

If we had PR in Britain we would undoubtedly have the Euro by now. The political parties would have formed a coalition and the UKIPs, RPs etc would have been ignored as they were in Germany, France etc. In the UK once the Referendum Party offered a referendum on the euro, it had to be matched by the big parties.

Likewise on the Constitution, It was UKIP that offered a referendum first. That was matched by Michael Howard, then Blair and then Chirac copied. It was the UK's FPTP that saved Europe from the Constitution first time around. It nearly did again had Brown called the election.

PR excludes majority-favoured polices through coalitions of politicians backing their own beliefs and interests against those of the majority of citizens.

FPTP allows minor parties to influence events, and ensures the views of the people are delivered into government, through the outright victory of one party over the others.

can't be bettered.

Anonymous said...

This is a question that also needs to be asked of those in favour of fixed term Parliaments as there is no set way out of the deadlock.

On, that's you isn't it Iain?

Anonymous said...

Hang about. The Belgian situation must be a Tory fantasists dream, shouldn't it? Forget small govt, it's no govt at all! ;)

There are many who advocate Lord Salisbury's govt as one of the best we've ever had - why? Because he didn't do anything!

Anonymous said...

I think to blame Belgium's problems just on PR, is a little on the dishonest side.

If the Tories lose for a fourth time, or have to do a deal with the Libdems, who knows PR may not seem such a bad idea then.

BNPELECTIONRESULTS said...

but wasnt the major government strangled by its own slim majority... having back bench rebels dictating what the front benches do.... something which this labour government has also had to put up with when the staunch anti blair rites have joined with the opposition...

it is true we need first past the post but in some respects we still need some form of pr as a top up so all peoples votes actually count... lets not forget at least 10 percent of the population do not vote for the main three parties yet have no voice in the houses of parliament...

Anonymous said...

And how is Belgium suffering without a government? I've not heard stories of mass starvation and the collapse of society.

Maybe the population can manage just fine with out a huge and expensive government.

Anonymous said...

I also remember the shambolic French elections in the late 1950s before de Gaulle was called out of retirement. One failed coalition after another until in the end the country cried out for a 'strong man.' There's the risk.

So first-past-the-post may be the least lousy system.

But as Zeno says [9.47 AM] how much government do we need? In my book, just enough to mend the drains, maintain the armed forces, the courts and the prisons, and feed the (deserving) poor. All the rest could be dispensed with.

Johnny Norfolk said...

Just ask an Italian what he thinks of PR, and he will tell you that it has given Italy 60 years of weak government.
We would be mad to go down that road but nothing suprises me about Labour Britain.

Anonymous said...

Another problem with PR is the dreaded party list - as a participant for many years in the selection process for such lists, you reduce the healthy possibility of the electorate voting for the man/woman of personal worth rather the Party.

I would also like to flag up the pernicious influence the tiny extreme Parties have in the Israeli Government due to PR.

Cicero said...

You do not mention that virtually all the other EU states have PR Iain- and Belgium is facing a linguistic crisis as much as an electoral one.

FPTP forces coalitions within parties: or I hardly think that TORCH Libertarians and Cornerstone social conservatives would inhabit the same zone. At least with PR the policy differences are a lot more open to the electorate- as are the inevitible compromises.

Unless we get major constitutional change- including PR- the professional politicians of all parties that Peter Oborne attacks will continue to undermine democracy. Is that what you want?

Anonymous said...

I bet Belgium is now being run by a group of unelected officials. The same thing happens in local government in this country. Our LEA was dominated by a Director of Education who managed to fool the various parties on the hung concil into allowing him to follow his own policies. Result - headteachers refusing to meet with him or follow LEA advice. I'd rather have "elected dictators" (bloody stupid phrase" who I can get rid of than a faceless pen pusher who I cannot control.

Man in a Shed said...

Iain, in England "at least our first past the post system usually produces a government with a mandate" doesn't apply.

The current government spends most of its time ruling England, when the most votes went to another party.

Nobody in England - not even Labour party members - voted for Gordon Brown or a party proposing him as leader.

Man in a Shed said...

I should have added - we will get PR the day that Gordon Brown loses faith in holding onto power any other way ....

Anonymous said...

Yes, FPTP is really wonderful isn't it. After all how could one possible improve on a system that:

gave one party the majority of seats in England at the last GE although another actually got more votes;

that means that the UK general election is, in effect, a competition for a few hundred thousand votes in 100 or so key seats (bugger the rest of us);

that has allowed govts both 'red' and blue to do as they will despite being supported by only a relatively small - in recent times, tiny - proportion of the electorate;

and so on... I thought the Tories had decided to stop being the stupid party? Old habits die hard eh?

A final point: if the Tories were actually a proper unionist party they would back PR simply on the basis that ending Tory under-representation in Scotland and Wales who do a lot to bind the UK together.

As I don't give a stuff for the union personally I have to conclude that we are fortunate in our enemies....

Machiavelli's Understudy said...

Last time I checked, Belgium was still on the map and hadn't spontaneously combusted...

Newmania said...

Cicero - I disagree. PR means Party lists which takes power away from voters .By not providing majorities it hands power exclusively to a few in the middle which is also bad enough now . It is crucially impossibly to kick out a broad ruling coalition taking power still further away from voters .AS such a coalition of courtiers would be likely to see their bread buttered on the EU side you can just about forget bothering to votes at all.


ASWAS- Patronising nonsense. The point of PR from a Labour Point of view is to use it so that second preferences count for as much as first. Labour will then be able to add its Public sector and welfare paid vote to all those on the “Progressive” side and as neither will vote Conservative , the largest single English party would be consigned to furious disenfranchisement . Liberals will in effect be voting for the labour Party as a second preference with more input than their small popularity merits . It has nothing whatsoever to do with either liking or disliking the new .

Elections would be a process where a context is set for a Government rather than one in which a Government is actually elected. In this case new is worse...

strapworld said...

I prefer Royal Houses fighting it out and the winner ruling.

Lets go back to the future. Bring back The Tudors, Stuarts. Normans. Saxons. etc. etc. etc.

lets have the good old feudal system.

neil craig said...

This is a good argument Iain but not against PR being a "fairer" system but against it being a more effective one.

The other side is that a government with power but without the support of the majority may find itself effective in bad ways.

A system that forces everybody into a 2 party straitjacket, for fear of being disenfranchised would presumably force Belguim into a 2 party state of Walloons & Flemings in which whichever has a marginal majority (I have no idea which) would have permanent control. An example of this is what FTPT did to Northern Ireland. Indeed the existence of Tory governments which, in FTPT terms, appeared to have virtually no support outside the south of England & Labour ones which appear dependent on Scotland, wales & the North of England have greatly exacerbated the nationalist problem here.

There are worse things than having no strong government (indeed Scotland seems to be getting on better than before on a minority government) & having a effective government which represents only a cohesive minority is one of them.

Ed said...

Newmania your theory about party lists is unfortunately nonsense. Effectively the central party HQs decide who goes on the ballot paper in most constituencies. The local associates get a choice of pre-approved candidates and as we have seen recently, HQ can remove a person they don't like as well once selected. The end result is basically the same.

Arnie said...

Just a quick note, PR does not always equal party lists. Look at STV in the ROI

Marco Biagi said...

In response to the person scared of the eternal Lab-Lib coalition effect of PR...

Of course Labour would try to use preference voting to lock out the Conservatives. Labour are just as interested in turning the system to their advantage as the Tories.

The Jenkins Commission estimated that had the 1997 elections been fought under preferential Alternative Vote, because of the second preferences of Lib Dems being hugely for Labour, Labour would have won more extensively.

However, that is now an out of date assessment of one form of preferential voting. Think of all those leafy suburbs in the south of England where people vote Lib Dem because they get Focus leaflets pushed through their door. Do you really think their second preferences these days would go to Labour? Do you really think that England could not emulate Australia and have long-term right-wing government if it was so convinced? And if not, wouldn't that be because the right evidently was not winning the argument?

The claim that under PR England would be an eternal Lab-Lib coalition is as much of an empty fear as that it would be an eternal Tory fiefdom if Scotland were independent.

Ian James Johnson said...

I wish I could say I'm surprised that readers know more about Belgian politics than Welsh politics, but I'm not really.

Firstly, most people ignore that there are many variations of PR - with different plus points and negatives. As someone wrote above, the Single Transferable Vote system used in the Republic of Ireland allows voters to distinguish between candidates from the same and different parties, preventing Central Office from dictating preference of candidates, as in a closed list system.

Secondly, FPTP works well where you have a two party system, but less well in representing people in a multi-party system, as in Wales or Scotland, where FPTP would see majority governments elected with a relatively small percentage of the popular vote.

The system used in Wales involves a mixed version of FPTP (40 seats) and a top up system (20 seats) based on regions and the d'Hondt system. As such, it gives primacy to FPTP, with some PR tagged on the end. Frankly, it's a bit of a dog's dinner, but that's what happens when these things are put together by (Labour) committees (even ignoring the blatant gerrymandering of the two-vote system by Labour in the last Government of Wales Act that prevents candidates from standing for constituency and list seats).

The main reason for the delay in a government in Wales was, of course, that this is the first time that an election has thrown up the possibility of a different government. The Labour Party marched into the election telling everyone that they would win a majority, regardless, and had no Plan B when, as expected, they lost some seats under FPTP (but gained some back under PR).

Given that FPTP would consign Wales to Labour government ever-more, even with only 35-40% of the vote, I can't see how it could be to our benefit here. A proper PR system, on the other hand, would allow us to get rid of some of the deadwood.

Madasafish said...

In politics I work on the following logic:

If one of the major parties supports something and one opposes it, I have no idea if the proposal is good or bad so I make my own judgement.
If both support it, they either have some vested interests or they are both lying or possibly it is a good thing. I start in the order I have listed.

As far as FPTP, both majors support it. They both have vested interests - and it is so clear why.
(They both supported the Iraq war: nuff said?)


The current system is not designe dto be the best for the voters.. of course not. It's jobs for the boys and Buggins turn.

That's why in the past 17 years we have had governments both incompetent and ineffective and useless.

Or if FPTP is so good, why have we had a syuccession of Governments which pass zillions of laws .. and achieve very little.

The status quo is indefensible.. except by those who benefit from it.

Newmania said...

The end result is basically the same.

Is it ?


The same for the Parties perhaps but different for the voters who will be voting for a Party not a candidate. This means that the MP will not be answerable to real people at all.
This in turn has an effect in the type of candidate the Party will pick .

HQ`s ability to control the Party is far from limitless Ed I `m not sure you aren`t be overly cynical. There is an obvious way in whciha party list removes a link between constituency and candidate and if it is imperfect now it would be worse surely

Roger Thornhill said...

Maybe we need a system that allows us to vote AGAINST someone as well as for someone, or alternatively, have one vote and use it as a positive FOR someone or as a negative AGAINST someone.

This way, people can at least vote to prevent the most distasteful party getting in.

Newmania said...

The claim that under PR England would be an eternal Lab-Lib coalition is as much of an empty fear as that it would be an eternal Tory fiefdom if Scotland were independent.


Neither of these are empty fears ? This is the crux of politics in the UK at this time.PR would hand power in England from the largest party to the smallest.While there are drawbacks to both systems it is hard to imagine anything worse than this.

Anonymous said...

throughout the '80s Scotland was governed by a Tory government it did not vote for pushing through policies nobody (in Scotland) wanted. In 2007 England is being governed by a Labour government it did not vote for pushing through policies that they do not want. And this is thanks to first past the post. In Scotland we have a SNP government attempting to get it policies through but having to compromise and work with other parties. The advantage is that in Scotland a First Minister must be elected within a set time. The Belgians must be too busy running Europe to notice they have no government!!

Anonymous said...

The trouble is that the Belgians are now being ran by a civil service- the good news is that the scope for introducing new taxes and regulations are very limited. The trouble is that there is no way of scrapping previous introduced taxes and regulations. The bad news is that the Belgian Tax payer is still paying the salaries of a few hundred Members of Parliament and their associated spad's.(might just be worth it as a price paying for no more regulations) but the unanswered question is who is accountable - a perpetual problem under PR.

Now I suspect that the problems that electors complain about in Belgium are no different from here- hospital waiting lists, poor schools but their they are the responsibility of the regions so the Central Government is not that important - after all what is the Belgian Foreign Policy on anything and does it matter? Belgian Defence Policy? -well the last time Belgium fought a serious war was in 1918 (May 1940 doesn't count)although I think was there was a couple of companies of one Battalion of the Belgian army in Korea.
The two things that keep the country togther- the Monarchy and the national Football team

Anonymous said...

Why are rambling on about voting systems...Belgium's problem is that the country wants to split into two, roughly along language barriers.

'Belgium's two largest regions are Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, with 58% of the population, and the French-speaking southern region of Wallonia, inhabited by 32%' says Wikkip

What we might see is the first 'natural' federalisation under the EU State. We should be debating that.....

Anonymous said...

Rather a superficial take on PR, Iain. Belgium faces unique circumstances. First past the post is simply unfair, and nothing you can say against PR will change that.

The Remittance Man said...

To the pro-PR types out there how about this:

Remove the executive from parliament entirely by having a directly elected PM. Keep the Commons elected as it but have a House of Lords elected by some form of PR.

I'd argue against direct PR as it is too fraught with problems, but either a regional system as is used in the Euro elections or a single transferable vote system like they have in Ireland might be possible.

The beauty of my system is that once again there would be seperation of the powers (the original intention of a powerful parliament); every constituency would have an identifiable representative; and, the Lords, as a true scrutinising body would be democratically legitimate.

As a by-product it would be much harder for anyone, of any political hue, to sell seats in the legislature again.

Anonymous said...

It's the political culture wot does it.

neil craig said...

Remittance Man if we had a PR elected Lords we would (assuming as i do that when it comes down to it most electors prefer PR) eventually the Lords would come to dominate.

I am assuming that an elected PM would also be done by the sort of multipe choice proportional systems all the parties use to select their own leaders.

I take your point about the separation of powers & how unfortunate it is we have lost it.