Problems with Proportional Representation

If you want to democratize the electoral system proportional representation (PR) is a good idea, but not a perfect one. As everyone focuses on the advantages of PR, in the spirit of critical analysis I will give several reasons why it could fail to be adequate.

Poor People Vote Less
Poor people (and people of color) are less likely to register to vote, and less likely to vote. (Does anyone have statistics on this?) If representation is set so that each district has approximately the same number of people, and if the Census accurately counts poor people (not true for the US Census) then having a district with a poor majority can give them fairer representation than PR.

With PR, poor people are less likely to vote so their political power is diminished. Because poor people have a lower turnout, a district with a poor majority will also have a lower turnout. However as the district receives equal representation to other districts, the poor people who do vote in the district receive a greater say compared to people voting in higher-income districts (because it takes less votes to win an election in a poor district).

If districts are small enough (Congressional districts generally aren't), and if we have a high enough level of racial and class segregation in housing (it is pretty high), and if poor people vote based on their class interests (which doesn't happen nearly as much as it should) then working class parties could win a large number of seats. Under certain conditions (admittedly ones that are unlikely to exist in the US) they could win more power this way than under proportional representation.

There are several Congressional districts that have historically or currently been very progressive. A district in New York had a communist representative during the Thirties (or sometime), and there are likely districts in Los Angeles and Chicago that are progressive.

PR needs some kind of affirmative action for poor people.

Oppressed Minorities Can Benefit from First Past the Post
If a group of people is oppressed, particularly due to language, culture, religion, or ethnicity, and is geographically concentrated - then they may benefit from a first past the post voting system.

For instance, in Canada the Bloc Quebecois, a Quebec nationalist party with progressive tendencies, has won 16-17% of the seats in the national parliament with 10-11% of the votes by sweeping the seats in Quebec.

To Pass Progressive Policy the Left Needs a Majority
When the Left has won an election and formed a government it often faces intense pressure from corporations, international bodies, and domestic political parties who unite to oppose its agenda. The Left has a hard enough time getting its program enacted when it has a majority government. The corporate media intensely criticizes the government, corporations withhold investment (or move to other countries) and launch anti-government campaigns, the domestic political parties unite in their opposition, international financial bodies downgrade debt and refuse loans, government bureaucrats stall or refuse to enact progressive policies, and rich people avoid/postpone paying their taxes.

If beyond all of these pressures, the Left only has a minority government - then it is even more likely to compromise on its agenda or have a very short stay in power.

If you have a first past the post system, you can have social democrats winning a majority like the New Democratic Party did in Ontario in 1990 with only 37% of the vote. That gave them five years to shape the future of Canada's largest province.

On the other hand, winning a majority with 35-45% of the vote might be too early, and lacking popular support and a mobilized public (social movements and an active civil society) destined to failure. That's what happened with the NDP in Ontario.

Electoral Activism Takes Away Our Power
If we focus our energy on electoral activism right now, then we are setting ourselves up to either lose or to have someone win who sells out. Politics corrupts. So long as our society is unequal politics will reflect and aggravate this inequality.

We need a revival in the labor movement and other social movements. We need an active population. Only then can we base an electoral movement on people, not money.

The Solution
What we really need is greater economic equality. So long as someone can donate $100,000 or $10 million dollars (as George Soros did for the Democrats recently), voting just doesn't cut it. A small group of rich people is a lot easier to mobilize than a large group of poor people because each rich individual has a lot more (financially speaking) to gain or lose.

UK Elections - PR can hurt the Left

The UK has a skewed electoral system where the Conservatives need to get 2-5% more votes than Labour to win the same number of seats. For instance, the last time the Conservatives won a majority they won only 60 seats more than Labour, despite having a 7.5% majority.

The government has been moving to correct this, for instance they recently reduced the number of seats in Scotland (a Labour stronghold) by 10.

For the upcoming 2005 election, Labour holds a small lead over the Conservatives. However they don't have to worry so much as they could win even if they tied in votes.

UK Elect has some very nice maps that demonstrate the regional nature of political party support in the UK.