By Anita Graafland
Why pick the Netherlands? Why not France, Germany, Spain or Italy, one of the bigger and ostensibly more important countries in the European Union? Well, the simple reason is that your author is Dutch and volunteered to search her memories of what it was like to grow up in a country where PR has always been the standard. But there are two other interesting facts: the Netherlands has taken proportional representation to extremes and the country is also the most equal in the European Union, whereas the UK has always been the most unequal, even before it Brexited. There may or may not be a link between PR and social equality, of course, but it’s food for thought for sure.
You see, proportional representation, for me, is all about compromise. It’s about everyone having a say, and about everyone feeling they are represented, however ridiculous or extreme their ideas are. At national level as much as at local level. If you manage to convince enough people to vote for you and your party, you should have a chance to make it into parliament and build your platform to reach more people. And yes, that does mean that dangerous people can get in. And that you’ll always have coalition governments, not a one-off aberration that you still complain about years later, but always and inevitably. And, incidentally, that it can sometimes take many, many months to form a new government – which is why having a solid civil service in place is absolutely necessary.
Compromise is the name of the game in the Netherlands, and everyone knows it: politicians and voters alike. No-one can be bothered to blame politicians for “selling out”, we know what they would ideally like to do if they had full and unfettered power. But we also all know that they’ll never have such power – and that the horse-trading begins the day after the elections. That it’s all about being polite and willing to listen, never about lording it over someone, because next time round you might have to work with the same people, but only then you might be the junior partner in the coalition. In a city, province, country, or larger union such as the EU you can have influence and use persuasion, but you’ll always need the buy-in of others – so you’d better not boss them around too much, as you might need them tomorrow. So proportional representation is about compromise and sharing, not about ruling and leading.
All that said, the Netherlands has gone the way of pretty much all western democracies. Society is fragmented, social cohesion is threadbare, and the outcome of its last election is proof. There are now 17 parties in the Dutch 150-seat parliament, the smallest three claiming a single seat, the largest a mere 33. I remember the days when the biggest party claimed 54 or 55 seats and governed with one other party to create a majority. These days, we need three, sometimes four parties to find that majority. And then suddenly, a party with only three seats can become a dealmaker or dealbreaker. So now, more than ever, every vote matters, everyone is represented and everyone could find they have way more sway than their numbers would suggest.
A word of warning to those on the left in the UK who feel that they’d surely be back in power if only they had PR: on 26 March 2021, the Dutch returned a parliament in which “the left” ended up with the exact same number of seats as “the extreme right”. It’s the centrists that won the day. And the Dutch equivalent of the Labour Party, which often ruled as the majority partner in coalitions when I was young, but which was decimated years ago, now commands far fewer seats than the Greens. Just saying.