PR isn’t to blame

I’m still seeing people criticising the PR system for the gridlock in Germany (at least one has mentioned the Weimar Republic aswell, but more on that later). Well it simply isn’t true.

You see, it’s a little thing called democracy. In Germany the Bundestag actually (by and large) reflects the votes that people made, instead of warping the result out of all recognition as First Past the Post does. So, in Germany, if the nation is split, the Bundestag is split.

Make My Vote Count has a post about this today, including this interesting take on it from Anatole Kaletsky:

VOTERS OF GERMANY, I salute you! On Sunday you delivered a fair, constructive and intelligent verdict on your political class…

Germans were right to vote for political paralysis for the same reason that the French and the Dutch were right to immobilise Europe: because German politicians were all, without exception, determined to push their country in the wrong direction, and if you are moving in the wrong direction towards the edge of a precipice, immobility is a better option than dynamism.

Indeed, I heard one German describe the choice between the CDU / CSU and the SPD as a choice between jumping off a cliff and walking off it.

Nonetheless, there are some FPTP fanatics who believe that, no matter what, presumably even if the number of votes is tied, an election should always produce a clear winner. But does FPTP always produce a clear winner? Of course not. I’ve already mentioned the cases of 1974 and America in 2000. Unlike in the UK, post-war Germany hasn’t had to hold another election just months after a previous one.

You can test out how the Sunday’s German election result would measure up under the UK’s FPTP system. I’m using three different ‘seat calculators’ — Martin Baxter’s one, the BBC’s one from before this year’s election and an Excel document that I downloaded from somewhere, but I’ve forgotten where (Anthony Wells? Politicalbetting?). It’s called ‘swing_calculator.xls’, if that helps.

So the results in Germany were CDU / CSU 35.2%; SPD 34.3%; FDP 9.8%. I know it’s pretty crude, but I’m going to ask: what would happen in the UK if the Conservatives got 35.2%, Labour got 34.3% and the Lib Dems got 9.8%? Do we get the “clear winner” that FPTP fetishists bang on about?

According to Martin Baxter’s Electoral Calculus, Labour would end up with a majority of 36. According to the BBC’s seat calculator, Labour’s majority would be 42. And according to the Excel document, Labour’s majority would be 45.

But hang on. The Conservatives would have got the most votes, not Labour. The Conservatives would, quite rightly, claim that they have a mandate to govern, but Labour would be in power. Even if it wouldn’t cause political gridlock, it would certainly cause a huge uproar and really highlight the perversity of First Past the Post.

As for mentioning Hitler in relation to PR, well that’s just cheap. Germany’s crude, “pure” form of PR did make it too easy for smaller parties to get into the Bundestag, but PR wasn’t the cause of the rise of Nazism. You may have noticed that Germany and other European countries have used PR both before and since World War II without any other Hitlers cropping up again.

As it happens, I’m not overly keen on the German electoral system myself (I favour the Single Transferable Vote) — although it’s a hell of a lot better than FPTP. And Germans are perfectly happy with their voting system.

The Sharpener also has a post on this.

Update: Martin Stabe also has a very good post. He points out that if you take away the top-up seats that are elected under PR in Germany and leave just the FPTP seats, there would still be gridlock in Germany.


  1. Germany: don’t blame proportional representation

    I’m with Jarndyce: it makes no sense to use the situation in Germany as an argument against proportional representation in Britain. A letter to the Guardian by one Mathieu Capcarrere of Canterbury, Kent, perfectly captures what I have been thinki…

  2. Spot on… except for the part about the US election in 2000. The President is not elected by FPTP, but by an electoral college whose deligates are elected by FPTP. It’s this two-layer FPTP that led to the Florida chaos in 2000. A direct FPTP Presidential election would have led to a straight-forward Al Gore victory.

  3. Hang around long enough and things will happen

    Give it time, and Germany will have its parliament stuff all sorted out. Similarly, I thought, give it time and someone else will explain why the problem in Germany isn’t actually a problem. And true to form, it was Jarndyce….

  4. Actually blogged on this very issue

    I am a little skeptical about PR, as at the moment it is leading to smaller parties having power way above there voting share

    my own view is that PR would be nice, but until a system without bugs like the German system is devised best sticking with First past the post as it does lead to a clear victory

    as for First past post problems, some reforms of that would be needed here rather than transfer to PR

  5. ‘Those who criticise the outcome of the German election are in effect criticising the choice of the German electorate’

    It seems a lot of people are interested in this German election lark. People like Tim Hicks, Jarndyce and commentaters at the Sharpener, Martin Stabe and Doctor Vee, for starters). I’ve written a couple of cursory posts so far and…