Of all the arguments against proportional representation, the laziest one is that it benefits extremist parties such as the hateful BNP. David Cameron rolled out this canard once again today at Prime Minister's Questions, saying that it was a PR system which allowed the BNP to get people elected to the European Parliament.
And in one sense, he does have a point. The party list system used in the European elections is probably the easiest one in which smaller parties can prosper, among them extremists like the BNP.
But there's certainly no easy relationship between even a party list PR system and success for extremist parties like the BNP. If there were, why did the BNP not get anyone elected in 1999 and 2004, when exactly the same system was used for the European elections? The truth is that then not enough people voted for them to be able to win any seats in the European Parliament, whereas this time they did.
And that isn't even the whole story. In Yorkshire and the Humber, this time round the BNP secured fewer votes in total than they did in 2004. But because turnout had dropped significantly and the Labour vote in particular collapsed, this was enough to get them one of the seats on offer.
But the thing is, I am not aware of anybody who thinks we should introduce party list systems for Westminster elections. They are not a great system, as they give far too much power to party machines to determine who is elected. If you look at the systems which are in place across the UK, it doesn't seem to be the case that any of them particularly help parties like the BNP get elected - just the reverse.
For the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, the system used is the additional member system, with first past the post constituencies supplemented by regional list top-ups. Both parliaments have now had three elections using this system and not one fascist has ever been elected to them.
It's the same story if you look at STV, the system used for the Scottish local elections. Across the whole of Scotland, not a single BNP councillor was elected in 2007. Compare that to the London Borough of Barking, when the BNP picked up 12 seats in 2006 - under first past the post. And look at the Republic of Ireland - they have NEVER had a fascist party elected to the Dail and I've looked at all their election results back to 1937.
Indeed, because there is no relationship between votes and seats under first past the post, the BNP often find it quite easy to win seats on quite low percentages of the vote, especially in areas which have low turnout and/or have a history of being run by a single party for a long time (eg Burnley and Barking).
At a national level, the only reason the BNP has never had someone elected to the Westminster parliament is because its vote is not sufficiently concentrated to allow it to win such seats. If the BNP all piled in to just a few seats, they could easily get people elected to Westminster - and probably on a lower percentage of the national vote than they would require to win seats in a PR election.
And the basic point is that there is no electoral system which can guarantee that extremist parties are excluded. Under any system, if people vote for them in enough numbers, they will win seats. The key thing is not to try and rig electoral systems to stop them, but to address the reasons why people are voting for fascists in the first place. And that has far more to do with a sense of alienation and frustration than it has to do with the electoral system used.
Indeed, the fact that first past the post is associated with single party majority government, - often the same for decades at a time, especially at a local level - is, I would suggest, far more likely to create the conditions under which fascist parties can thrive than a system where people know their votes will count.
I would say the evidence contradicts Mr Cameron's claim: fascist parties are more likely to get a foothold under first past the post, rather than under the various PR systems used in the UK. But it's unlikely to stop Cameron from repeatedly trotting out the lie that PR benefits the BNP. And that lie must be repeatedly exposed for the nonsense it is.
Recommended Lib Dem blogs and websites
- Andrew Reeves
- Caron's Musings
- Charlotte Gore
- Cicero's Songs
- Cllr Debra Storr
- Councillor Alex Graham
- David Boyle
- Duncan Borrowman
- Fraser MacPherson
- Freedom Central
- Himmelgarten Cafe
- Jock Coats
- John Hemming MP
- Lib Dem Blogs Aggregated
- Lib Dem Voice
- Liberal Burblings
- Liberal Bureaucracy
- Liberal England
- Love and Liberty
- Lynne Featherstone MP
- Mark Reckons
- Millennium Elephant
- Norfolk Blogger
- Peter Black AM
- Quaequam Blog!
- Sara Bedford
- Scottish Liberal Democrats
- Social Liberal Forum
- Stephen Glenn
- Steve Webb MP
- The People's Republic of Mortimer
- UK Liberal Democrats
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Miscellaneous non-political sites
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- PR to aid the BNP? That's a lie, Mr Cameron
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