Tag Archive | "proportional representation"

“Don’t Take No For An Answer: The 2011 Referendum and the Future of Electoral Reform”

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“Don’t Take No For An Answer: The 2011 Referendum and the Future of Electoral Reform”

Posted on 10 September 2011 by admin

Authors: Lewis Baston and Ken Ritchie

The May 2011 national referendum was only the second ever in the history of the United Kingdom. Those who had campaigned for decades for electoral reform were given, finally, a chance to make the case for change as the nation decided for or against the Alternative Vote (AV).

Yet, whilst opinion polls in the months before the vote showed the Yes campaign to have a small lead amongst the public, on polling day it was comprehensively defeated: more than two-thirds of voters opted instead to maintain the status quo. The Yes side won in only ten of 440 counting areas.

Don’t Take No For An Answer tells the story of that referendum, in all its blackly comic detail – from duck houses to deathbed conversions.

Yet it is not simply an historical account. It seeks to understand what went wrong for the Yes campaign, and why. It also looks to the future – how to ensure that electoral reform returns to the political agenda and how to run a reform campaign capable of success.

Don’t Take No For An Answer is an analysis of the mistakes made in the past. But it also contains a message of hope – that the chance for a referendum will come again and, this time, those in favour of reform will not take no for an answer.

Published on 16th September 2011 by Biteback Publishing

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Whatever the result, Thursday’s referendum will not mean the end of the road for electoral reform in the UK

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Whatever the result, Thursday’s referendum will not mean the end of the road for electoral reform in the UK

Posted on 04 May 2011 by admin

AV is seen by many as a ‘stop-gap’ measure on the road to true Proportional Representation, but is this really likely to be the case if the Yes campaign is successful? Writing in a personal capacity, Lewis Baston looks at the recent history of electoral reform movements in the UK, and the prospects for further reforms depending on the result of Thursday’s referendum.

The Alternative Vote (AV) referendum on 5 May is, on the face of it, a choice between two slightly different single-member constituency majoritarian electoral systems. Some people can make a choice on that basis. Peter Kellner and Peter Hain, for instance, have always favoured AV, over the options of either First Past The Post (FPTP) or Proportional Representation (PR). Similarly, some others simply do not see the appeal of preferential voting and sincerely favour FPTP. However, no decision is made in a vacuum, and for most of the rest of us the context is relevant when considering how one might vote. There are partisan and strategic calculations at work in the referendum, and one should not be too high-minded about this fact. I have discussed the partisan consequences of AV in another piece.

The outcome, in terms of a simple Yes or No, will have unknown effects on the further progress of electoral reform. The case can be argued either way, despite some efforts on the part of each of the campaigns to suggest that the referendum will close the issue. Arguments about future consequences are all conjecture, but the ‘finality’ argument seems a poor one either way (as it was when it was used to support the 1832 Reform Act). Alan Renwick, for instance argues quite persuasively that it is likely that a Yes on AV will lead to further change because it makes change itself thinkable and because it may well lead to more inter-party agreement and hung parliaments.

But there is an alternative argument. The history of constitutional reform is littered with cases where things that were supposed to be stopgaps lasted for decades – such as FPTP itself in 1918, or the House of Lords after 1911. If AV wins, small-c conservatism will work in its favour – it will be argued that the issue has been decided, and that the new system should be ‘given a fair chance’ or ‘allowed to bed in’. Clegg himself seems to have abandoned his party’s long term goal of PR, saying on 21 April that:

We aren’t going to enter into a Maoist, perpetual revolution… This is a once in a blue moon opportunity to change the electoral system. It’s completely wrong to somehow suggest this is a stepping stone for something else.

This gravely weakens the strategic pro-PR case for voting Yes in the referendum, which depends on the Liberal Democrats’ ability to use an increased incidence of hung parliaments under AV to demand further reforms in future. Someone who is in favour of PR can reconcile themselves to a No vote. FPTP may well be swept away in the 2020s even if it survives 2011, while AV might prove more resilient because it is a more robust majoritarian system. Jack Straw, for instance, favours the Alternative Vote for this reason. It produces a higher measurable level of consent both for single-member constituency representatives and, usually, for a national government. It enables the logic of majoritarianism to be renewed and interpreted for a multi-party system. Straw’s hope is the flipside of David Owen’s fear, that AV will be a roadblock to PR.

From the reformer’s point of view, AV does not have the renewing potential of proper PR, which can unlock fluid political competition. In New Zealand, PR has enabled political positions like neoliberalism and the old left to fight openly for their ideas rather than operate behind the scenes in party caucuses and elite influence. It may not look this way on Friday, but opposing AV could end up being one of the biggest blunders the British right has ever made. AV is a small-c conservative reform: as Lampedusa wrote, sometimes ‘if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’.

In any case, John Curtice and others have demonstrated that FPTP is increasingly unlikely to achieve what its supporters claim, namely a decisive outcome to a general election (not that it has much of a track record of doing so anyway). Hung parliaments are likely to be the norm, rather than the exception, in the future, and there will be another reforming moment which hopefully will not be sold out, as those in 1997 and 2010 were, by politicians adapting rapidly to the culture of Whitehall.  There will most likely be another hung parliament in the next 20 years (probably the election of 2020 will produce one) and therefore the possibility of another go at electoral reform. When politicians talk about ‘a generation’ they actually mean only about 20 years, but they wish to make it sound longer.

Win or lose, the result of this referendum will not alter the disconnection between the electorate and the political system. Problems of low turnout and election results not reflecting the way people have voted will still be with us either way. Reform propositions sometimes emerge better and stronger from initial defeat in this sort of timescale, as Scottish devolution did between 1979 and 1997. This referendum is no more the end of the struggle for real electoral reform than the 1979 referendum was for Scottish self-government (or Welsh nationhood).

Hopefully lessons will be learned this time, just as lessons should have been learned from the Jenkins process. The reform option should not be the product of a ‘wheeze’ cooked up in Downing Street (as it was in 2009) or a compromise that emerges from hasty coalition talks that nobody supported on the way in to the discussions (as in 2010). There should be up-front legislation ensuring that it cannot be allowed to drop down the agenda; reformers would be justified in insisting on this given what happened after Jenkins. Whether a referendum is the best mechanism for public involvement in the process, after this unedifying campaign, is also a suitable point for consideration.

The reform proposition should be the product of due deliberation, but times have moved on since 1998 and there should be some real public involvement in the process of designing the alternative. This might take the form of a ‘preferendum’ on different reform options as in New Zealand, or more likely a Canadian-style Citizens’ Assembly. There is no need for the latter method in particular to be tainted if AV has failed in 2011. It is also more likely to lead to a genuinely different system being offered rather than the imposed choice being between two systems as similar as FPTP and AV.

However, referendum day approaches rapidly. The polls seem to agree that No has a strong lead in voting intention, and a crushing win for No probably would cause the political class to shy away from the subject of reform for longer than a narrow margin would. A narrow win for either side would keep the pot boiling. Even if it were ‘No’, one could argue that it would be winnable if there were a better reform proposition than AV, a better campaign, or a vote at a time when relations between the parties containing substantial numbers of electoral reformers (Lib Dem and Labour) were less poisonous. A Yes vote – with one’s fingers crossed – seems indicated. And that is – probably – what I shall do.

Link to piece on original site

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Britain’s unequally sized constituencies are a non existent problem

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Britain’s unequally sized constituencies are a non existent problem

Posted on 08 January 2011 by admin

Britain’s unequally sized constituencies are a non existent problem, to which the coalition government has adopted an extreme and perhaps unworkable solution. (Crossposted from LSE)

The government is seeking to fundamentally change how local constituencies for Parliament are drawn up. Its alleged ‘reform’ bill returns to the House of Lords shortly for a final look. Comparing its proposals with the requirements used in other liberal democracies, Lewis Baston shows that the UK already has some of the most equally sized constituencies in the western world. In trying to solve a non-existent problem, Conservative ministers in particular are bent on requiring unworkable levels of equality in constituency sizes. The government is pursuing an extreme solution that will fatally damage the organic unity of local communities, which both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have traditionally protected and valued.

It may seem a matter of obvious common sense and fairness that constituencies should be ‘equal sized’ – the government certainly insists that it is so. They propose that constituencies for the House of Commons should have the same number of registered electors, within plus or minus 5 per cent of the national average (and with only 2 or 3 allowed exceptions).

Yet in fact no other country in the world has actually achieved this degree of equality without adopting proportional representation and multi-member seats. Even apparently highly equalised systems for drawing constituency boundaries in Australia and the United States involve more variation in constituency sizes than the government proposes to allow within the United Kingdom.

When introducing the Second Reading of the government’s Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill in September, Nick Clegg said this about the proposal to ‘equalise’ the size of the registered electorate in each constituency:

On the broken scales of our democracy, 10 voters in Glasgow North have the same weight as 17 voters in Manchester Central. That is not a single anomaly, because those differences are repeated up and down the country. As of last December, Wirral West, Edinburgh South and Wrexham had fewer than 60,000 voters. Falkirk, Banbury and West Ham had more than 80,000. That unfairness is deeply damaging to our democracy.

Yet by this standard, boundaries in many of the principal countries using single member constituencies must be ‘deeply damaging’ to democracy, since my Table below shows that current UK system in now way performs particularly poorly by international standards.

Variations in constituency sizes across liberal democracies using single member seats

Notes: The dates on the census or other count of relevant population took place does not normally coincide with the election dates. For the countries above the relevant population count dates are UK proposed (2009), USA 2012 (2010), USA 2002 (2000), England current (2000), UK current (2000), Australia (2010), Canada (2006), Jamaica (2007), and France (1986). For France, although districting was done on a population basis in 1986 the figures given are for electorate in 2007

Sources: US Census Bureau, Australian Electoral Commission, Elections Canada, Electoral Office of Jamaica, http://aceproject.org/, David Jarman and www.swingstateproject.com for tabulation of USA 2000.

Numbers in all shaded cells are approximations.

The key column in the Table is the ‘Variation in seat size’, which is a measure called the standard deviation of the size of constituencies. Here the national relevant population is divided by the total number of constituencies (being given the value of 100 to allow comparable results). The Table shows that the outcome of the government Bill would not be to make Britain level up to a common standard already being achieved elsewhere. Instead it would require the UK to reach a level of arithmetic equality that is unknown in comparable national legislatures, (and that would also be based of course on severely flawed UK electoral registers).

There are two broad dimensions to equalising constituencies:

  • What to do with the anomalies – islands and national minorities – and how many particularly small or large constituencies should be tolerated because they are special cases.
  • The level of uniformity imposed on the majority of ‘normal’ cases.

The different measures in the table capture different dimensions of equality – how far out of line the anomalous cases are, and how unequal the system is as a whole. It also shows the proportion of seats that meet two criteria that have featured in debate in the UK, namely being 5 per cent or 10 per cent away from the national quota. The government’s bill requires that over 99 per cent of constituencies are within 5 per cent of the national quota (the exceptions being two Scottish island seats and perhaps one in the Highlands). No other comparable legislature hits 90 per cent. In terms of the overall deviation from the standard size, the government’s proposal is twice as ‘equalised’ as the US House of Representatives.

It is worth asking why, despite legal and constitutional rules about equality, Australia and the United States fail to equalise their constituencies. The answer is that both countries respect the boundaries of their component states and territories when drawing up national legislative districts. Australia divides its 150 House seats into 8 states and territories, and the 435 seats in the US House of Representatives are divided into 50 state delegations. Some states in each country are small – seven American states have single seats, and five more have an allocation of two seats. The result is that Montana comprises a single Congressional district of 994,400 people, while the slightly bigger state of Rhode Island has two small districts with around 527,600 people in each. Ten voters in Rhode Island have the same voting power as 18 Montanans. If the United Kingdom respected proportionally as many sub-national units in a 600-seat Commons as the US does for its 435-seat House, then there would be 69 localities with boundaries that could not be crossed.

The government legislation proposes that there should be just six recognised sub-divisions in across the whole of the UK – namely the four component nations, plus Na h-Eileanan an Iar and Orkney and Shetland. In fact, the English boundary commission will probably respect the boundaries of the nine government standard regions for England. Ironically then, the already existing UK boundary system is closer to American and Australian practice, because respecting county boundaries in England outside London involved 46 units with established community identities being given whole numbers of seats.

Isle of Wight

Taking the powerful elected Senates of Australia and the United States into account only widens the huge differences in voting power. In terms of total members of Congress (House and Senate), an inhabitant of Wyoming has 10.3 times as much power as a Californian, a differential that makes the gap between the Hebrides and the Isle of Wight appear small. The inequality in voting power in the United Kingdom caused by constituency size is therefore patently not deeply damaging to British democracy.

Constituency equalisation that was about as good as that for the US House of Representatives could be achieved for the Commons with a much less extreme legislative definition of equal size that would work with the grain and attract more political consensus. For instance:

  • The law could allow 10 per cent deviation from the national average, which would mean that county boundaries could nearly all be respected.
  • The law could recognise other special cases. such as the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and Anglesey,
  • And the final Act could allow some latitude for urban seats where population is grossly in excess of the registered electorate.

The government has portrayed its scheme as a modest, tidying up job. In reality it is a radical and extreme shift towards requiring a level of equality in constituency size that no other country in the world attempts, at the expense of riding roughshod over virtually all organic local identities. It has so far escaped proper scrutiny. The House of Lords forthcoming deliberations on the Bill will provide a last opportunity for the true nature of the coalition’s proposals to be exposed and a last chance for its worst and most unworkable features to be ameliorated.

For further analysis of how the constituency proposals will affect the parties see:

Lewis Baston, ‘Do Turkeys vote for Christmas? Yes, when it comes to Liberal Democrat MPs and the boundary review for Westminster constituencies. Nick Clegg’s party will lose a fifth of all its MPs’.


Ron Johnston, ‘Pursuing a passion for parity, the coalition government is axing one in every 4 MPs in Wales, but less than one in 14 in England. How the UK draws its electoral map will never be the same again’.

This blog article is based on the new report, All are equal, but some are more equal than others (click here to download) published on 7 January 2011 by Democratic Audit.

The coalition government is introducing major constitutional changes but does not have a coherent overall constitutional strategy. The results will not provide a stable basis either for British liberties, democracy or its constitution

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Whistling in the wind (30 September 2008)

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Whistling in the wind (30 September 2008)

Posted on 30 September 2008 by admin

Labour’s plan to rewrite the Act of Succession is very small beer, but few Conservatives dare to entertain radical constitutional reform either

Electoral reform is a difficult sell at the Conservative party conference; promoting it sometimes seems like trying to sell Chelsea tractors at the Greens’ annual gathering. But there are some stirrings, and some new arguments about the constitution and elections are being heard at Birmingham. Tories who support proportional representation have in the past tended to be liberal in their general approach, but reform is finding some adherents among hard-edged right wingers such as Douglas Carswell, MP for Harwich since 2005 and one of the more interesting thinkers within the Tory party – one of the few MPs who can refer to Weber and Gramsci and sound as if he knows what he is talking about.

Representation in parliament is one of the last monopoly public services left. Carswell asked at an Electoral Reform Society fringe meeting in Birmingham why it was that in a world where people are used to shopping around, telephones and electricity had been made competitive, there was still a single supplier of representative services that you had to like or lump. In an environment where consumer choice is the dominant force, and people increasingly look at politics as consumers, why not have multi-member constituencies? Competition and choice improve standards. Lazy MPs, or those who did not represent the views of their constituents properly, would face internal competition, and there would be fewer barriers to new talent and new ideas coming forward. While Carswell is vague on which electoral system he favours with his multi-member seats, his vision is perfectly compatible with the long-term electoral reform goal of the Single Transferable Vote (STV). It is also part of Conservative history – after all, Disraeli introduced the three-member boroughs and the “limited vote” in 1867.

Carswell is very much a maverick Conservative, and he was joined on the ERS panel by more familiar Tory voices. Eleanor Laing represented the pleasant, moderate face of Tory partisanship and constitutional immobilism, and Bruce Anderson adopted his familiar role as the voice of candid reaction who frankly acknowledged the benefits of elective dictatorship – as long as it was the Conservative party doing the dictating.

I doubt that many opponents of the Conservatives would be unduly worried by the arguments of Laing or Anderson, but Carswell’s case would be unsettling. He uses reforming language to argue for quite radical Conservative projects – a more securely founded Conservative government would have the hegemony necessary to deal with the alleged progressive bias of the broadcast media, the civil service and the education system. Carswell also favours direct democracy and the right of recall. His embrace of change is based on more intellectual self-confidence than the old fashioned belief in grabbing the controls of the machinery of the centralised, elitist British state and making it serve Tory ends. New Conservative constitutional reformers can talk confidently about trusting the people, because they believe that the people ultimately agree with them. And left of centre constitutional reformers feel some anxiety that Carswell may be right about this. The interesting debate may end up being between radical Conservative direct democracy, and progressive reformers trying to define the acceptable limits of popular control.

Unfortunately, neither front bench seems interested. Labour’s increasing timidity about constitutional reform is sad indeed. From the radical change promised (and largely implemented) in 1997, the party now trumpets reforms such as changing the Act of Succession to make the first-born, rather than the first-born son, heir to the throne, as radical. This reform affects one, theoretical, person in perhaps 70 years’ time. The Conservatives are vaguely aware that the current electoral system is biased against them, but grumble in an entirely ill-informed fashion about constituency boundaries. Their main solution is to try to game the current system better than Labour by swamping marginal constituencies with Ashcroft money. It may work in the short term, but it is a cynical exercise in gaining and maintaining power on a minimum of public support that will ultimately do politics no good. It is a sign of how seductive the embrace of the Westminster establishment is that neither main party really intends to do much to shake up the power structure.


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Fixed terms? No thanks (10 October 2007)

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Fixed terms? No thanks (10 October 2007)

Posted on 10 October 2007 by admin

They are not the answer – we need to start from proportional representation in order to move towards constitutional reform.

I don’t believe in fixed-term parliaments. I don’t believe in Father Christmas either. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that I think they are intrinsically bad ideas – either of them – but that I don’t believe they exist.

In reality there is a spectrum of possibilities between the present system that is in effect at the personal discretion of the prime minister, and the fully fixed terms that govern the electoral cycles for the US president and Congress. In the United States, the mandate for the executive is personal to the president and there are constitutionally defined rules of succession that govern those very rare mid-term changes in president. Congress is separately elected and cannot – short of impeachment – overthrow the executive.

The problem in Britain is that in a parliamentary system the executive is formed from the legislature and depends on its confidence for the continuance of government. It would be difficult, and not conducive to good government, if a parliament such as the one elected in February 1974 (in which even a combination of the Liberals with either Conservative or Labour would not have produced a majority) had been required to stay in office for four years at the mercy of Ulster unionists and Scottish nationalists. Sometimes things change during a parliament, with byelections, defections and radically different issues emerging mid-parliament that throw up new political alignments. While perhaps not a huge issue, a rigid timetable such as the one proposed by Sir Menzies Campbell would sometimes require elections to be held in inappropriate circumstances. I can well remember 2001, when a May election (after precisely four years) was planned but postponed for one month because of the foot and mouth outbreak – this would be impossible under the Liberal Democrat proposition.

Therefore there has to be some sort of escape clause to dissolve parliaments before the full term is up. Once one has conceded the principle of an escape clause, the difference between fixed-term parliaments and the current position is then merely a matter of degree and technique. It is very doubtful to what extent fixed terms can really be entrenched in UK law – short of writing a constitution it would be open to any future parliament to reverse a law or resolution for fixed terms or abolish any external structures set up to try to entrench a fixed-term rule.

As we have seen in the last few weeks, being ready to fight an early election is a matter of political machismo, and for an opposition to try to deny the government the ability to call an early poll would invite allegations of being, in Margaret Thatcher’s fine Lincolnshire word, “frit” – a much better way of putting it than the current vulgarity that is “bottled“. The demand for fixed terms is part of a wider tendency to try to take the politics out of politics, and steadily reduce the scope of decisions that can be taken by democratically accountable politicians and out-source it to rules and supposed non-political managers and experts. Some of the most preposterous, such as Conor Burns’s fit of the vapours at Conservative Home imagine that, shock horror, party politics wasn’t the main factor in election timing before that horrid Mr Brown did then didn’t want an election this year. The truth is that election timing is inherently political, determined by a range of political factors, and it is desirable – and actually inescapable – that the decision will be taken politically.

Germany has fixed term parliaments, but it is obviously possible to engineer an early election as in 1972, 1983 and 2005 even under the eyes of a constitutional court with powers distinct from legislature and executive. What we are actually missing is a head of state, with real political powers, who would be in a position to accept or deny a dissolution request, but the preservation of the monarchy requires that it be kept away from such highly political matters. An elected president would be more capable of withholding consent for dissolution than the monarch.

There is something to be said for giving the control over calling an election to the House of Commons itself, to reduce the remaining areas of royal prerogative a bit further and put parliament in charge, but one should be under no illusions as to what that would accomplish by way of regulating the timing of elections.

To come up with a workable solution seems to require radical constitutional change, such as separation of powers, a written constitution or the abolition of the monarchy. As part of a written constitutional settlement, a fixed term may not be a bad idea, but as a stand-alone reform it does not work and it should certainly not be first on the shopping list of desirable reforms. A better way of progressing would be to have a parliament elected by a more proportional electoral system. In a system in which coalition was the norm, election timing could be an aspect of the partnership agreement. First past the post is a major reason why governments will try to manipulate election timing (or, as in the 1950s and 1980s, manipulate the economy around a four-year electoral cycle) because the rewards for getting the timing right are so disproportionate. There would be less incentive to play games if parties got more or less the proportion of seats that their proportion of votes can justify.

Political discretion over when elections are called is a non-problem. I have great respect for some of the people arguing for it, but I must part company with them on this one. It is the last, not the first, constitutional reform to consider.


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Godwin, PR and the Nazis (12 Jan 2006)

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Godwin, PR and the Nazis (12 Jan 2006)

Posted on 12 January 2006 by admin

Godwin’s Law states that:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

A usual corollary of the Law is that said online discussion comes to an end and the side making the comparison is deemed to have lost. I would like to extend the Law to discussions on proportional representation, because sooner or later someone starts talking about how PR brought Hitler to power, and I am heartily sick of this sordid little political libel. Let me explain.

For a start, many – most – countries have used PR systems, and only one, at one specific juncture, has produced Hitler. Like analogies drawn from biology, a single case can be used to show more or less anything. Compare the devoted and selfless parenthood of penguins to the student-like lifestyle of the spadefoot toad, that sleeps most of the time, only getting up to eat and have lots of sex when the rains come to its desert homeland. Rather than making the glib comparison outlawed by Godwin, people making this case need a more elaborated account of why they link PR with the rise of Hitler.

There is a tiny foothold of fact on which this edifice of supposition rests. The Nazis received a foothold in parliament in the 1920s under the Weimar PR system, as extreme parties with small levels of support sometimes do. Sometimes extreme parties remain a festering presence, as currently in Belgium under PR and France with its majoritarian system, and sometimes they fade away as in the Netherlands or Australia. The difference is less in the system than in the broad social and economic conditions of the society in which they operate, and the behaviour of the other parties.

In the German case, Weimar was born under a bad sun, in the trauma of defeat and revolution in 1918-19, with at best half-hearted support outside the ranks of the social democrats. There were attempted coups in 1920 and 1923, hyperinflation and the occupation of part of the country in 1923-24 and of course the great slump after 1929. Political violence in Weimar Germany was not just a few fights at public meetings, but a simmering state of civil war, in which even the constitutional parties had private armies and the Nazis in particular used murder and terrorism to control the streets in the early 1930s. Weird and unsavoury ideas about how to restore German power were common currency in the country’s universities in the 1920s. What was remarkable about Weimar was how much relative stability and progress there was in the brief good years of 1924-29 against this background.

Under FPTP, the Nazis may not have been in parliament in the 1920s but the prior existence of a small parliamentary group was not the most important factor in their breakthrough election of 1930. Support for the traditional right wing parties collapsed in the elections of 1930 and July 1932, and so did the vote of a range of special interest parties such as the Farmers’ Party and the Middle Class Party that had polled relatively well in 1928 and 1930. This support switched in massive numbers to the Nazis. Support for the Catholic Centre Party, and for the parties of the left, was relatively unaffected by the rise of the Nazis, although within the left the Communists gained at the expense of the Social Democrats. By 1930, any system would have made the Nazis the biggest right wing party – and under FPTP the July 1932 results would have produced a large Nazi majority.

In no Weimar election, including the ugly and coerced election of March 1933, did the Nazis obtain a majority of votes cast, and therefore they never obtained a majority of seats in the Reichstag on their own. The Nazis were put into power not so much by PR as by the contemptible behaviour of what passed for the respectable right wing of German politics. They had never really been reconciled to the Weimar system and after 1930 became progressively more anti-democratic in a lame attempt to stop their vote bleeding over to the Nazis. They were willing to overlook the Nazis’ brutal disregard not just for constitutional law, but things that are normally considered less contentious, such as not approving of murder. By the time the worst of the slump in 1931-32 was upon Germany, the extremes – Nazis and Communists – were effectively colluding to build a revolutionary climate. They would periodically agree to pass parliamentary resolutions giving amnesties for political violence.

The reason Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933 was essentially the stupidity and malice of the conservatives. One faction feared that another faction, under General von Schleicher, was actually going to make a success of government. The Nazi vote had fallen in the November 1932 election and von Schleicher was planning to split the party and install an authoritarian military regime (which was more or less the best that could have been hoped for from the situation). His aristocratic predecessor, von Papen – one of history’s prize idiots – instead did a deal with Hitler under the impression that he could control the ugly little Austrian corporal (an illusion shared by some in Britain, with less excuse, a few years later). So weak were civil institutions and democratic norms that within a few months the Nazis had banned all the other parties and started to ‘co-ordinate’ the rest of civil society.

The real faults of the Weimar constitution were not so much in the electoral system (although it was undoubtedly flawed) but in other clauses. The dismantling of democracy started in 1930, when the government started ruling by presidential decree, and proceeded apace in 1932 when another government suspended devolved rule in Prussia. The ability of the Reichstag to pass an Enabling Act giving all power to the government in March 1933 killed off the system. A more entrenched constitution, with fewer get-outs and trap doors, could not have been dismantled like this. However, faulty constitutional engineering does not guarantee a slide towards dictatorship: other countries, including our own, have dangerous constitutional trap doors without falling so disastrously down a hole.

To expose the fallacy of the ‘PR gave us Hitler’ argument beyond doubt, just do a thought experiment. Imagine a German constitution which imposed FPTP in 1919. The result would have been, at that stage, a majority government for the Social Democrats on a minority vote. The forces of reaction and nationalism would not have wished the SPD the best of luck, formed a loyal opposition and waited patiently for the next election to see if they could do better next time. PR in 1919 offered the best chance of integrating the middle classes and the right into a constitutional system; the fact that it proved impossible and that a uniquely poisonous strain of extreme nationalism emerged is a complicated question. Historians distrust monocausal explanations, particularly ones as indirect and feeble as blaming PR, for complex phenomena like the rise of Hitler.

Godwin’s Law is about the tendency to introduce irrelevant emotionally charged material into what should be a rational debate. It’s important to discuss Nazi history (though perhaps not quite as important as commissioning editors for TV documentaries seem to think), and there are sometimes valid reasons to suspend Godwin’s Law. For instance, the dark political talents of Slobodan Milosevic, and his policies of blood and soil nationalism plus mass murder pursued while bamboozling the western democracies, do have some uncanny echoes. But it’s sheer ignorance, or wilful manipulation, to reach for that convenient swastika to plug a hole in a faulty argument.


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