Is the Netherlands election the end for PR?

This week saw general elections in the Netherlands which led to the nationalist Partij voor die Vriejheid (PVV) or Party For Freedom as the largest party in the country’s House of Representatives for the first time in its history.

The PVV is led by Geert Wilders, who has called for, among other things, a ban on mosques and Qurans, and “Constitutional protection of the dominance of the Judeo-Christian and humanistic culture of the Netherlands”. While coalition talks could take months and there are a number of mathematically viable options, Wilders looks set to be the country’s next prime minister, in a rapid departure from the Dutch stereotypes of being liberal, tolerant Europhiles.

Wilders has managed to do this despite the Netherlands using a proportionally representative electoral system where all votes are weighted equally and parties are returned to parliament fully in proportion to the number of votes they received. So I think it is pertinent to point out that proportional representation is not a silver bullet; it does not stop far-right parties from reaching the levers of power. Indeed, in 2015, had we used proportional representation in this country and had voters voted the same way as they did in reality, a Conservative-UKIP coalition would’ve been the only viable option, with 49.4% of the vote between them.

I don’t think comparisons to Nigel Farage or Donald Trump are necessarily helpful and I don’t think lamentations about why the Dutch public voted PVV are particularly instructive to a British audience. I’ll leave that for the psephologists and the experts in Dutch politics, of which I am emphatically neither.

Rather, I want to tackle the sentiment that, because proportional representation does not fully prevent governments like this from forming, it is useless. I want to tackle the idea that we should abandon winning over a majority of the public and instead focus on winning over a majority of parliament.

Firstly, it’s important to note that the PVV is halfway to a majority. It has 37 of the 76 seats needed and achieved this on 23.6% of the vote. So that’s 24.6% of the seats on 23.6% of the vote. So the PVV cannot govern alone. They need to form coalition partners and, assuming they just meet the 76 seats needed, will comprise less than half of the ruling coalition. So if this is fascism as enabled by proportional representation, it is a neutered, watered-down version which cannot govern on its own. It’s important to note that the PVV won a plurality in eleven out of twelve provinces and an outright majority of all municipalities. Because the Netherlands does not use single-member constituencies it is difficult to predict precisely what the election would look like if it had used them, but from the maps of the results, we can see the PVV would’ve run a resounding, outright majority. So rather than enabling the PVV, proportional representation has hamstrung them.

This has precedents in other western democracies. In 2005 and 2015, Labour and the Conservatives, respectively, were able to form majority governments on around a third of the vote. In 2015, the Canadian Liberals were able to form a majority government on 39.5% of the vote. On a more technical note, we’re not far off overtaking the Tories at the next election if current trends hold; we’d be able to do this if we hit around 15% and the Tories sunk to 19% – a great result for us but a wildly disproportionate outcome.

It’s not a new observation to say that majoritarian systems tend towards disproportionate outcomes – that is part of FPTP’s strengths, as described by its advocates. So we can see that while FPTP is superior at delivering majoritarian outcomes, there’s no inherent block on far-right or far-left parties. In 2005 or 2015 it may have been tempting for Labour supporters to defend FPTP on the basis that it delivered a strong majoritarian government, but this didn’t stop the Prime Minister changing mid-term and Labour being smashed at the following election.

We should support electoral systems based on first principles and based on our support for liberalism and democracy, and this support should not be conditional on whether it looks likely that our preferred party might get a shot in power unencumbered by compromise. It may be tempting to support FPTP when a party is riding high, but the pendulum always swings back, and the price of liberalism winning on a crowded field and a lower share may be that our opponents do exactly the same four years later.

* Ciaran Morrissey is a councillor in Sunderland and the prospective parliamentary candidate for Washington and Sunderland West.

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35 Comments

  • It’s not certain that PVV will form the next government. Two of the Big 4 parties after this election (centre-left GL/PvdA and centrist NSC) have already ruled out working with it. So it rather depends on what VVD does (and it seems unlikely that a party with a Turkish-origin woman leader could work with a far-rightist). If the firewall holds, then PVV can be frozen out. Unlike in, say, Sweden and Finland (where the far right does have some influence in government following recent elections) the political parties in the Netherlands do not seem to organise into Left~Right blocs, so alliances are more fluid.

  • “to point out that proportional representation is not a silver bullet; it does not stop far-right parties from reaching the levers of power”.
    This is as true in Israel as it is in the Netherlands. No Israeli party had been able to form a stable coalition since 2019. A total of 40 parties registered to run for the 2022 elections, although only 10 crossed the 3.25% electoral threshold to win seats under the closed list, proportional representation electoral system.
    With 23.4% of the vote the Likud party were able to form a coalition that included extreme right wing parties and returned Netanyahu to power with consequent disastrous consequences for the Israeli state and Palestinians in occupied territories alike.
    There is no perfect electoral system. The gridlock in US politics has been highly damaging and right-wing populist parties are gaining ground across Europe just as authoritarian regimes are spreading across the global south.
    This s why constitutional checks and balances including an independent judiciary are so important to the maintenance of freedom and democracy and why so many Israeli citizens came out on the streets to defend the independence of their judicial system earlier this year.

  • Barry Lofty 24th Nov '23 - 3:25pm

    I have to admit to being very concerned with the number of right wing party’s gaining power around the world and especially in countries who suffered considerably from Nazi invasions in the not so distant past, it seems we never learn? These right wing rabble rousers know just the right buttons to push to gain power for their own personal agenda very few, if any, have the answers to the complex problems facing our world today.

  • @ Joe Bourke It’s interesting having your take on this, Joe, given your grasp of early 20th century history and LLG’s land campaign etc.,

    In fact, with regards to PR, the Liberal Party could have had PR under the 1918 Representation of the People Act when Lloyd George was PM if they had really wanted it and believed in it – but in fact they actually opposed it and it was lost.

    Hansard in 1917 and 1918 makes very interesting reading on all of this……. you will find that Asquith in particular opposed it on the grounds that Fife would become too large a constituency and (apart from the Scottish University seats) PR was lost.

    As Professor Vernon Bogdanor said in his Gresham College Lectures (it’s on you tube), the Liberal Party only campaigned for PR later on when they realised that they would never again form a government under FPTP.

  • PR is a gift to minor parties. I was once its strongest advocate but no more. If it came about in the UK it would not be long before were were decimated, it would be manna from heaven for the Greens, Reforms etc etc.
    The Canadian Liberals realised that and rightly reneged on their promise to introduce it. I realise that my view will be anathema to the vast majority on this site but it is a time for practicality over principal.

  • One major problem with the Dutch electoral system is that the electoral threshold is only 0.67%. The lowest in the world! This has resulted in a large number of parties with tiny numbers of seats, and aren’t big enough to normally worth trying to form a coalition with.
    If the threshold were set high enough to wipe out these space wasters then their seats would mostly go to parties more moderate than the PVV and forming a government without them would be allot easier.

  • Totally agree with Ciaran’s final paragraph. Our support for an electoral system should be based on democracy and fairness, not on whether it helps the party we like – and broadly proportional systems are essential if we want fairness and to give a voice to all people. However distasteful we might find the PVV’s views, they got 24% of the vote in a free election and therefore should get the seats to match. The way to oppose them is to convince people not to vote for them, not to try to manipulate the electoral system to stop them getting in.

  • There is a danger in talking about electoral systems without considering other aspects of governance. We need to take more seriously things like the influence of money from various sources including foreign states on the results of elections. It is clear that money will buy influence on social media. This is something that is difficult to identify. There was a lot of publicity of the activities of Cambridge Analytica. The company may have disappeared but the people involved have not.
    We need to look at the reality of how much money individuals need to have to get themselves selected by a political party and then having the time to be an active candidate.
    And most of all we need to find ways of changing our education system so that all can explore ways of making joint decisions.

  • Chrish Moore 25th Nov '23 - 8:34am

    Hello Theakes, it’s true that bringing in PR would change electoral dynamics.

    Each of the main systems would have a different impact: the Dutch system, for example, with a very low threshold for representation would lead to a proliferation of parties. We might see a split in the LDs along the lines of the left-leaning D66 and right-leaning VVD in the Netherlands.

    That sounds negative: however these putative parties might both attract liberal voters that currently we put off and reside in other parties.

  • Alex Macfie 25th Nov '23 - 9:06am

    @David LG: The rather higher threshold in Israel (3.25%) ejected some of the moderate parties, notably Meretz, from the Knesset at the last GE, thus helping the (far) right, which proved more adept than the left at organising its various groupings to make the most of the system, into power. Be careful what you wish for.
    @theakes: Have you seen an electoral map of India? There are many small, mainly regional parties winning seats under FPTP (as well as a far-right government that won a landslide victory on 37% of the vote). FPTP penalises small parties whose support is spread out, but can over-represent small parties with geographically concentrated support (something we see in the UK as well). Besides, there are PR systems other than the pure Dutch system, as you should know.

  • Alex Macfie 25th Nov '23 - 9:16am

    It’s not difficult to imagine Reform UK breaking through under FPTP, if it builds on potential support in strongly pro-Brexit parts of the country like the rural east of England and the Red Wall. It could take a lot of seats from the Tories and sabotage them elsewhere by splitting the right-wing vote. Something very similar happened in Canada in 1993, when a new right-wing populist party, also called Reform, won 51 seats mainly in the west of Canada on only a slightly higher nationwide vote share than the Progressive Conservatives, who were reduced from party of government to a rump of 2 seats.
    Interestingly, Reform then supported PR, despite benefiting from FPTP

  • Alex Macfie 25th Nov '23 - 9:19am

    But it seems to have forgotten about that after its later reverse takeover of the Conservatives (which still supported FPTP despite being its most spectacular victim).
    As for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, they’re probably thinking like much of our Labour leadership, that FPTP is fine because they can benefit from it for now.

  • When looking around the world for examples the best is the further away. New Zealand is funnily enough the country most like the uk in many ways. Same size, an island, weather, legal and political systems. It was uk, cut and paste. Got rid of 2nd house in 50s, fptp in 90s, etc. Keeps constituencies, has 5% threshold, deals with overhang etc. It’s 1st 3 way coalition has just been signed in. Led by the national party who was in opposition after “winning ” the 2017 election with 47% of the seats from 45% of the vote. UK should follow up outlawing cigarettes by also adopting NZ’s electoral system.

  • Please forgive my gate-crashing if I say PLEASE READ THE LETTER THIS MORNING [Saturday] in the “i” newspaper, about the Lib Dems.

  • Gwyn Williams 25th Nov '23 - 10:42am

    @theakes. The Canadian Liberals have been in Government for nearly 70 of the last 100 years. FPTP benefits them more than the Progressive Conservatives.
    By contrast in the UK it is the Conservatives who have been in power for nearly 70 of the last 100 years. The penny still has not dropped for Labour.

  • William Wallace 25th Nov '23 - 12:18pm

    Under FPTP hard right and hard left movements are incentivised to infiltrate and capture the established party closest to them. This entrenches adversarial politics, and increases the chances that radical movements may capture unchecked power. The Republican Party in the US has in effect been captured i nthis way; and there’s a danger that the Tories in opposition might drift further to the right. As for Labour, there has been a long-term internal struggle that would have been better and mor open if there had been two parties, one social democratic and the other socialist.

  • Chris Moore 25th Nov '23 - 1:14pm

    Roger Lake, the letter about the LDs is behind a paywall.

    Could you summarise?

  • nigel hunter 25th Nov '23 - 1:55pm

    Division is going on in the US (BBC overseas corrispondent).Information that people are shifting from a state where they disagree with laws past to one that they agree with.Over time this infiltration (correct word?) can lead to polarisation ,us and them ,splitting US states into two ,Republican nation and Democratic nation.When you have two major parties, cos you do not have strong alternatives to control them, division splits into hostility and hate.

  • Peter Watson 25th Nov '23 - 10:34pm

    Roger Lake “Please forgive my gate-crashing if I say PLEASE READ THE LETTER THIS MORNING [Saturday] in the “i” newspaper, about the Lib Dems.”
    Can’t see/find the letter, but this Telegraph article and the book it reviews might also make for interesting reading: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/non-fiction/review-liberal-democrats-hope-despair-where/

  • Peter Davies 26th Nov '23 - 9:37am

    Another difference between the UK and the Netherlands is a written constitution. The most extreme parts of the PVV manifesto would require constitutional changes for which they don’t have the numbers even if can form a majority coalition. Under FPTP they would.

  • @Peter Watson
    Thank you for your response. I can give you the whole letter, offending no-one, I hope!

    P28 the Opinion page.

    BOLD HEADLINE: Lib Dems fire a
    blank on plans

    Text I had a Lib Dem poster
    dropped through my mail
    box. It says that after 13
    years of Conservatives
    it’s time for a change.
    I totally agree, but their
    poster gives no clue as to
    what they would like to
    do if they were in power.
    Or is the empty poster a
    clue in itself?

    I hope the writer of this letter will not be offended by my witholding his or her published first name. It begins with B and comes from Devises. We all, I hope, welcome this jibe or kick in the pants.

    My own answer — I hope it is true — is that some LDV planners have the matter in hand,

  • Given the huge range of political views, there must ALWAYS be PR; how it’s expressed depends on the electoral system.

    Explicitly PR systems create multiple smaller parties and potentially lengthy post-election negotiations to build a coalition.

    Conversely, FPTP systems like ours drive towards having only two big parties which, to stay big, must be the proverbial ‘broad church/big tent’. They must, in effect, run an ‘internal coalition.

    How good they are at managing that largely determines how successful they are electorally – much more than policies. That in turn depends on both formal organisation (it must give a voice to all) and on the culture (general acceptance that half a cake is better than no cake).

    IMO the Conservative organisation and culture is superb at running an ‘internal coalition’, making it the dominant party of my lifetime despite being the ‘Nasty Party’.

    Labour have an authoritarian culture that doesn’t handle diversity well. Hence its debilitating internecine wars.

    In theory, LibDems should thrive, being philosophically committed to diversity etc. In practice, they are even worse than Labour. Civil war had raged between Owen and Steele in the 1980s, so the organisation of the newly merged party was (consciously/subconsciously?) designed to eliminate any repeat by building an unchallengeable monolithic view.

    That aim was achieved but the unintended by-product was to squeeze out debate, breadth, and political smarts – no room for a broad church here. It’s made LibDems the least successful party.

    Time for a root and branch restructuring?

  • Peter Hirst 28th Nov '23 - 3:36pm

    Election campaigning and voter behaviour are both influenced by the voting system. introducing PR is essential because it is fairer as seats match percentage vote and so you can vote for whom you want knowing it will not let in a Party you’d rather not. It therefore should eliminate tactical voting. If a Party gains over half the vote in a particular constituency no voting method will prevent it winning. List systems based on large geographic areas might prevent a Party win seats that it would in smaller areas. Electoral systems are not designed for a certain outcome. They are designed for a certain process.

  • James Fowler 28th Nov '23 - 5:06pm

    Is the Dutch election result the end for PR?

    The sub text is that the PR debate here is very heavily skewed by the particular electoral history and system of the UK. It is most vocally supported by parties who think that Westminster (synonymous with the two main parties) has too much power. Historically, this has meant Liberals, but has also come to include Welsh and Scottish Nationalists, Greens and lately UKIP. All these parties traditionally think that ‘but for’ FPTP they would be better represented.

    The Dutch result is a reminder that PR rewards anyone who gains a lot of votes – including hard-right nationalists. But there is a more subtle warning, especially for the LDs, which is that it is unlikely that we would ever gain as many votes as we did in every election between 1983 and 2010 under PR. Perhaps this doesn’t matter – Parliamentary representation would still go up from where we are, but in my view only to a variable band of around 50-70 MPs, something that we have achieved before anyway. My prediction is that the real winners of PR would be the Greens.

  • The Dutch system is unusual as it is pure PR and the whole country is one constituency. This is not the sort of system we should be advocating for and few countries use it. I agree that the Greens and Reform would do well under such a system, but the Lib Dems would do best under an AV+ or STV system. By the way there is no reason why Wilders would not have won under FPTP.

  • Given that the Scottish Parliament (and consequent Scottish Government) are elected by a form of PR, do Lib Dems generally agree that this should give the Scottish Government more natural legitimacy than the FPTP Government elected to Westminster ?

  • Alex Macfie 29th Nov '23 - 8:11am

    PVV ‘won’ most municipalities in the Dutch GE (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2023_Dutch_general_election#/media/File:Tweede_Kamerverkiezingen_2023_v2.svg) implying that it would have won a landslide if the election had been held under FPTP with no change in voting behaviour. I have noted in previous posts here how a PVV-like party has won under FPTP (India, now) and how it might break through (Canada in the early 1990s). So PR is not what won it for Wilders; indeed it is because of PR that he and his party can be contained.

    Interesting that the Dutch call their HoC equivalent the “second” (Tweede) chamber.

  • Mick Taylor 29th Nov '23 - 9:46am

    Yes, David Raw. The Scottish Parliament is more representative than the UK one. Contrast the results for Scotland for FPTP Westminster elections and those for the Scottish Parliament! It would be even more representative with STV for the Scottish Parliament as well as in local government.

  • David Evans 29th Nov '23 - 4:13pm

    Hello David (Raw), It’s good to hear from you again.

    Your point about the Scottish Parliament being elected by a form of PR, and asking whether this gives the Scottish Government more natural legitimacy is an interesting one, and one I am not fully convinced of.

    The form of PR adopted in Scotland is one particularly susceptible to gaming which the SNP and the Greens are now beginning to do rather successfully (at our expense).

  • @ David Evans Thank you for the kind comment, David. I’m afraid the frequency of any comment I may make appearing isn’t entirely in my hands.

    As to obtaining the most desirable form of PR at Westminster happening (as required by Lib Dems ?), it rests upon the chances of getting a majority Lib Dem Government at Westminster. The nearest this ever came to pass was during the passage of the 1918 Representation of the People Act. Too many Liberals of both hues (LLG & Asquithian) opposed it when they could have had a majority. Hansard makes interesting reading.

    As for Holyrood (and Scottish local government), what we have now is the product of an agreement between Ashdown and the Blair Government. It was greeted as a triumph by Liberals at the time – they elected 17 MSPs. They now have 4 MSPs which shows that PR is no guarantee of Lib Dem success. Neither is FPTP when one considers recent Westminster by-elections in Scotland. The ‘Blue Wall’ strategy currently pursued ‘Down South’ doesn’t exactly resonate north of the Border, although I fully expect Labour to make a serious number of gains at the expense of the SNP next time.

  • It seems to me that when smaller parties have broken through under FPTP systems it is because they have found ways to “outflank” one or both of the major parties on key issues (e.g the Canadian New Democrats vs the Liberals) and rarely when they are positioned in between the two.

  • Alex Macfie 30th Nov '23 - 7:12pm

    @David Raw: There have only been two Westminster by-elections in Scotland so far this Parliament, and neither in areas of historic Lib Dem strength. So we ran token campaigns, similar to those we ran in non-target by-elections in England (Tamworth being the most recent example). Now if a by-election were to happen in Charles Kennedy’s old seat (for example), it would be a very different matter.

  • Nothing wrong with Scotland’s electoral system apart from the rather big problem that they ignored the overhang problem. Why? I have no idea. Germany and New Zealand use ams successfully as they bothered with the overhang. Not difficult

  • Alex Hosking 1st May '24 - 7:57pm

    STV would have been unlikely to produce such a result because extremists tend to underperform relative to their first-preference vote share, and the overall outcome would likely not have been as fragmented as often seen with the Dutch system, which opponents of PR frequently point to.

    The real issue is understanding why a party like the PVV can perform so well in such a progressive country. It seems that the positions of the left and right have flipped in recent years on issues such as free speech disenfranchising people on the left. This is why you end up with the PVV and Trump.

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