Global Ethics Corner: British Elections: To Represent or to Govern?

April 30, 2010

Are elections about representing people or solving problems?

Divided governments are often weak, and weak governments often have difficulty resolving contentious issues. Negotiated coalitions in parliamentary systems are an example.

Of course, some applaud a weak government believing that "the government that governs best is the government that governs least."

However, those who favor a government that solves problems face a difficult question. Should election results accurately reflect public opinion or should elections promote effective governance?

British elections are an illustration:

  • The Conservative Party favors the current electoral system of single member districts where a plurality wins. Given the Conservatives' geographic concentrations this also gives them the best chance to win a majority. This electoral system is most likely to result in a strong government, but these plurality governments regularly get less than 40 percent of the popular vote.

  • The Liberal-Democrats often get 20 percent or more of the vote but less than 10 percent of the parliamentary seats, and argue for proportional representation. This best reflects the views of the British public, and given the Lib-Dems' even geographic distribution, would maximize their seats. Proportional representation would also lead to weaker coalition governments.

  • Labour favors an alternative vote system, which would make it more representative but also weaker. Given the voting patterns in Scotland, this maximizes Labour's seats.

Which do you think is more important: accurately reflecting popular preferences or creating governments that are able to solve problems? Should this depend on the political party you support?

By William Vocke

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