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A guest blog by Dylan Difford. Dylan is a researcher specialising in elections and voting systems, as well as formerly a regular contributor to the Electoral Reform Society blog.

In much of the democratic world, formal coalitions are comfortably the norm. From Germany to Ireland to New Zealand, governments comprising multiple parties – built from a negotiated public agreement that details the policies it will pursue and how inter-party disputes are to be managed – is simply politics as usual.

Although sometimes perceived as alien, coalitions are no stranger to the UK – a common occurrence in Scotland and Wales since devolution, as well as a long-term presence on many local councils. Yet it remains one of Britain’s 101 Lazy Political Clichés that coalitions lead to weak and divided governments, whose ideological composition is not decided by voters, and which struggle to pass legislation due to the whims of demanding and divisive fringe groups.

Of course, to many familiar with coalitions, such a description is not just perplexing, but outright projection on our part. Anybody following the recent drama over the Rwanda Bill, or any other major factional dispute in our governing party in recent years, will notice that it is a not unreasonable description of current Westminster politics.

Ultimately, both single-party majority governments and coalitions can vary in their level of success, harmoniousness and stability. But where coalitions formed under PR voting systems have real advantage is the control held by voters, particularly over the ideological composition of government, and the popular legitimacy borne of representing a majority of the public – both things arguably lacking from our system at the minute.

Throwing the Rascals Out?

To those of us raised in the UK, to hear that PR coalitions actually give voters more control might seem a little odd, especially considering one of FPTP’s few alleged advantages is its supposedly unique ability to help kick bad governments out of office. But this is undermined by FPTP’s record in the UK.

The first and third largest increases in an incumbent government’s vote share in modern Britain (Conservatives in 2017, Labour in 1951) resulted in those governments losing their majority! Conversely, the Labour government in 2005 saw their support collapse to just 35% of the vote, but, thanks to FPTP, were still able to boast a clear parliamentary majority, even with nearly two-thirds of voters rejecting them. On top of this, a mix of hung parliaments, narrow majorities and by-election losses has meant Britain hasn’t actually seen one majority government replaced by another since 1970. Hardly a powerful reward/punishment mechanism working as advertised.

PR’s far stronger relationship between votes and seats, on the other hand, means that any substantive decrease in support for a governmental party will almost certainly lead to it losing seats (and vice versa). While this is no guarantee that a governing party that loses support will lose office, that isn’t the case under FPTP either. At least under PR, a party’s change in parliamentary strength will be relative to its change in electoral strength.

Controlling Composition

PR’s stronger relationship between votes and seats also gives voters a greater level of control over the ideological composition of the governing majority. This is particularly the case in countries with two-bloc party systems, which are most notable in Scandinavia, but seen in New Zealand and Spain too. There, parties arrange themselves into two alternative majorities, with any government typically formed according to the relative performance of the parties within that bloc. This level of voter control over government direction can be easily contrasted with a two-party system: not only can voters decide which direction to go in, they can decide the relative size of the ‘factions’ within the blocs.

This is undoubtedly preferable to the situation under FPTP, where fringe groupings within ‘big-tent’ parties are able to exert disproportionate influence over what these parties can do – something noticeably seen in the last few years in both the UK and US. Unlike smaller parties under PR, these factions have no democratic accountability – voters did not give them that power, nor do they have the direct ability to remove it from them without punishing the whole ‘tent’.

But even in countries without a bloc-based system, where coalitions are usually formed ‘across the centre’, as in Germany and the Netherlands, images of ‘backroom stitch-ups’ that disregard public opinion are still a crass misrepresentation. Parties will try to form a majority that combines workability with ‘feedback’ from elections, this can include parties ruling themselves out of power following election losses, as the Christian Democrats did after the last German federal elections.

While there are undoubtedly some coalitions that are formed out-of-the-blue or even in spite of pledges during a campaign, these are an exception, almost always formed as a last resort, and typically result in severe electoral punishment for any ‘betrayer’ parties next time round. Plus, even in such instances, the governing majority will still typically comprise parties representing a majority of voters, unlike Westminster’s artificial single-party majorities created on clear minorities of the vote.

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Ultimately, coalitions arising from PR give voters clearer and more reliable control over both ends of the governing process – governments are formed, govern and, in the end, are judged by voters in proportion to their popularity. A PR-enabled two-bloc system in particular would present voters with a choice of two alternative governments, but also the freedom to decide their ideological composition – something we do not have with Westminster’s present two-party system.