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Proportional Representation

Wednesday, 29 Jun 2005 09:15
What is Proportional Representation?

Proportional Representation (PR) is the principle behind a number of electoral systems, all of which attempt to ensure that the outcome of the election reflects the proportion of support gained by each competing group.

PR contrasts to the Majoritarian principle, in which whichever party or candidate obtains a plurality of votes within any given constituency wins that contest outright. Majoritarianism is the principle that underpins the First-Past-The-Post system that is used for elections to the House of Commons, along with other systems including alternative vote, bloc vote and various single member constituency systems.

Similarly, there are a number of different systems based on PR. The party-list PR system is used in the UK for the European Parliament, Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly's regional elections. The single transferable vote system is used for Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

The extent to which an electoral system is PR-based depends on the number of candidates elected per constituency and the existence of any thresholds for successful election. A number of electoral systems combine elements of both, such as the single non-transferrable vote and cumulative voting systems.


PR is a relative novelty in British politics, although it has long been used in Europe. Support for PR has been growing since the 1970s, and its leading champions in the UK are the Liberal Democrats.

The growth in support for PR has stemmed largely from recent concerns about the First Past the Post system. In the 1970s, First Past the Post failed to produce the strong majority accountable Governments that was said to be one of the key points in favour of the system. And throughout the 1980s, the growth of the third party share of the vote increasingly showed the handicaps of the First Past the Post system on parties other than the Conservatives and Labour.

For example, in Labour's 1997 election landslide, the Liberal Democrats secured 16.8 per cent of the total national vote, but won fewer than 10 per cent of the seats.

Labour promised a referendum on PR on coming to power in 1997, ostensibly as a result of an agreement with the Liberal Democrats, but nothing has since come about. However, a combination of PR and First Past The Post (the Additional Member System) was used for the elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh National Assembly, and the electoral system for the European Parliament was changed to a closed party list PR system.

In the Scottish elections of 1999 and 2003, and the Welsh elections of 1999, the electoral system failed to return an absolute majority for any one party, requiring coalition administrations to be formed.


Arguments cited in favour of a change from First Past the Post to PR include:
  • The fairer treatment of minority parties and independent candidates
  • Fewer votes are 'wasted', as fewer people's preferences aren't taken into account
  • Greater effective choice for voters. By reducing the dominance of the large parties, PR may encourage turn-out and reduce apathy
  • By rarely producing an absolute majority for one party, PR ensures greater continuity of government and requires greater consensus in policy-making.

    Arguments cited against PR include:
  • PR provides a route for extremists into the political mainstream, who would otherwise be excluded by the structure of FPTP
  • PR produces 'weak' coalition governments rather than 'strong' majority governments, which can lead to indecision, compromise and even legislative paralysis. It can also reduce accountability to voters, as an ousted party of Government can reinstall itself by finding new coalition partners after an election
  • The adoption of list systems breaks the link between the elected representative and his or her constituency
  • The greater complexity and choice that PR allows can put voters off voting, by requiring them to have a greater knowledge of individual and party positions.

    There is also an institutional paradox built in to the British political system, working against the adoption of Proportional Representation. Any party that comes to power under First Past The Post is likely to appreciate the advantages that it gives to the Government: a strong mandate, (usually) a lack of coalition partners, and considerable freedom of action. Therefore, arrival in Government under First Past The Post is likely to dampen any party's enthusiasm for PR - as some suggested was the case with Labour in 1997.


  • In 2001, under First Past The Post, the Labour Party won 62.5 per cent of all the seats in the Commons (412) with just 40.7 per cent of the total votes cast (10,724,895)
  • In 2001, the Liberal Democrats won 7.9 per cent of the seats (52) with 18.3 per cent of the total vote (4,812,833)
  • In the election of February 1974, the Conservatives received more votes than Labour (11,872,180 to 11,645,616, or 37.9 per cent of the total to 37.2 per cent), but won fewer seats (297, as against 301)

    Statistics 1, 2 and 3: (Source: Electoral Reform Society website)

    Proportional Representation Quotes

    "You appear to me to have exactly, and for the first time, solved the difficulty of popular representation - and by doing so, to have raised up the cloud of gloom and uncertainty which hung over the future of representative Government and therefore of civilization."
  • John Stuart Mill, philosopher, Letter to Thomas Hare, March 3 1859

    "I have become convinced of the need for electoral reform in Britain."
  • Tony Blair, quoted in the diaries of Paddy Ashdown, former Liberal Democrat leader, October 2000End of story