The Brits Follow in Our Footsteps

Nick Clegg is not just a charismatic politician. He has an agenda: electoral reform. Namely, he wants the United Kingdom to change to a system of proportional representation.

Tomorrow’s parliamentary elections forebode a shock to the two-party system of government that has become a fixture in Britain for the last 90 years. Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, skillfully took advantage of the first televised debate to position his party as the sensation of this campaign season. Yet Clegg is not just a charismatic politician. He has an agenda: electoral reform. Namely, he wants the United Kingdom to change to a system of proportional representation.

Clegg and his party colleagues claim that the current “first-past-the-post” system, in which the United Kingdom is divided into geographic constituencies and the winning candidate in each constituency is elected to parliament, distorts the will of the voters and perpetuates the ruling duopoly of the Labour and Conservative parties. Under the British system, the votes given to losing candidates are wasted. Under the proportional system, the Liberal Democrats would comprise the largest bloc of seats in parliament. Many voters also stay home on polling day since they assume that their party has no chance of winning in their constituency.

Clegg is likely to emerge from these elections as the kingmaker. It is he who will most likely determine the identity of the next prime minister. Clegg is conditioning his entry into a future coalition on the enactment of political reforms. Labour has somewhat indicated its approval of Clegg’s demand, while the Conservatives oppose. If the Liberal Democrats gain seats in the elections, the electoral system will be a fundamental topic of discussion in Britain.

Here is one reason to lift our heads in pride: The British want to adopt the Israeli system, which is also practiced in most European countries. While in Israel the electoral system is assailed as one that “hinders stability,” with critics here demanding that it be changed, there, in the mother of all democracies, people understand that only proportional representation guarantees a fair representation of the public’s will. This despite the fact that it complicates efforts to muster a parliamentary majority, requires compromises and confers excessive power to small parties.

The Israeli electoral system was devised almost by improvisation. It is a continuation of the tradition of Zionist democracy, which dates back to the period of the Zionist Congresses and the pre-state Yishuv. The election committee that was created by the provisional state authorities could not agree on a desired system. Thus, in October 1948, given the specter of war and the mass-enlistment of citizens into the army, “this theoretical argument is unimportant. If we want to hold snap elections today, we have no other suggestion other than to choose a proportional-national poll. Any other method of rule demands much more complex preparations.”

The first prominent figure to despair of the method was Israel’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, a statesman who was forced to compromise with the religious parties on two vital issues: abandoning plans for a constitution and the creation of separate education systems. From the 1950s, Ben-Gurion spoke in favor of adopting the British method so as to guarantee a parliamentary majority for one party. Even he failed to introduce this method here, and we are all better off for it.

In a tribal society like Israel’s, partial or full-fledged regional elections − as suggested by those who champion change in the electoral system − are a recipe for exacerbating social tensions. In the regional system, like that of Britain and the United States, the stronger parties determine the district lines and push aside the weak and minority constituencies.

One could imagine how this would be applied in Israel: Arab population centers in the triangle region, Wadi Ara, the Negev and the Galilee will be annexed to neighboring Jewish towns as a ploy designed to keep Arab parties out of the Knesset. In ethnically mixed cities, Arab votes will be thrown into the garbage anyway. The loyalty oath proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu will seem like a warm hug compared to the political shattering of the Arab voting bloc that would surely result from district gerrymandering. And what will become of the Haredim? Will Bnei Brak constitute one separate district, or will it be split between Ramat Gan, Givatayim and Tel Aviv?

The proportional system did not undermine political stability during the reign of Mapai, a party that ruled in an oligarchic manner for an extended period until it stagnated. Even today, the problem is not the electoral system, but the electoral product. The public has had its fill of the larger parties. From 95 Knesset seats in the 1981 election, they garner just 55 seats today. Whoever wants political stability needs to form attractive parties rather than smash the democratic system.

Clegg is running on a platform of a just idea, but he should learn a lesson from Israel: The kingmaker can crown the next ruler and receive government ministries for his party, but he cannot change the fundamental aspects of the system. The Dash party handed the premiership to Menachem Begin and Yisrael Beiteinu did the same with Benjamin Netanyahu, yet both parties’ demands for election reforms have been shelved. One can surmise that the same fate awaits the Liberal Democrats after the elections in Britain.