Dennis Pilon, Wrestling with Democracy. Voting Systems as Politics in the Twentieth-Century West (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013)

It may be different elsewhere, but where I live (UK) anyone outside the rarified ranks of political scientists expressing more than the most casual and passing interest in voting systems is in grave danger of being labelled an "anorak" - a weird and obsessive individual, humourless and socially isolated, who pursues a strange and esoteric interest analogous to a lifelong devotion in collecting train numbers. Strangely, but perhaps significantly, "anoraks" are invariably male. But no "anorak alert" is required in relation to this book. Anyone expecting a detailed analysis of the pros and cons of FPTP, STV, second ballot, or party list PR will be disappointed. The clue is in the words "as Politics" in the subtitle.

Having discussed several other political science approaches to the study of changing voting systems and finding them, at best, inadequate, Dennis Pilon sets out to apply a "comparative historical" method. (22) The territory he explores is vast, both as regards time-scale and geographical extent. He takes us on a journey from the very late nineteenth to the early present century and to "the countries of north-western Europe and the Anglo-American countries of North America and Australasia." (10) which, in spite of many significant shortfalls, he takes as satisfying, by 1920, "the minimum conditions defining democratic rule." (39) When we reach the 1990s Japan is added to "the West".

An important key to understanding Pilon's argument is to recognise the contested nature of the idea of democracy. Though, he says, "political scientists often carry on as if democracy is obvious" it has never been fully established what "democracy is or should be in the west." (53) This is surely one of those truths that, though obvious, we still need to be reminded of frequently. For the neo-liberals of the last thirty years democracy is always linked with free markets as though this inevitable combination is both self-evident and unchallengeable. For the leftwing democrats the aspiration has always been to establish democratic control and accountability over the economy. How they have proposed to do this and the extent of the desired control has varied greatly from time to time and place to place. But it has always been present.

The century studied is considered in four periods; 1900-1918, 1919-39, 1940-69. and 1970-2000. In each there were clusters of changes in voting systems in "the West."

In the first of these, though there were demands for such change from a variety of other quarters including the socialist left, PR systems were only introduced - in Germany, Sweden and Belgium - when the established elites were faced with a significant challenge from the left. Pilon concludes that the "key catalyst shifting consideration of proportional voting systems from the meeting rooms of reformers to the halls of power was the rise of disciplined, organized mass parties of the left in the 1890s." (70)

This was continued in the years following the First World War when the "Conservative regimes dominating the European continent shifted decisively to PR as a key means of limiting the socialist left." (153) The situation in Europe was more complex after the 1939-45 war. At first, "the key occupying power, the United States, made its initial preference for PR clear as a means of limiting the left and holding national disputes in check." But as centre-right coalitions replaced centre-left ones and the Cold War took hold, "the post-war consensus for PR gave way to a new majoritarian strategy designed to marginalize the large, powerful, and electorally popular Communist parties" a process in which both "the American state and American academe provided support for efforts to dislodge proportional voting in favour of a US-style first-past-the-post system." (188) By the 1990s the situation had changed. The challenge from the left seemed to be in retreat. Sometimes, as in New Zealand, voting system reform reflected "struggles within the Labour party over its government’s neo-liberal policies." (225) It Italy and in Japan the situation was more complex. Pilon ends with a cautious peer into the future of conflicts over voting system and concludes "whether the dynamic sketched out here will continue to fuel them can be ascertained only by bringing these historical and comparative insights into dialogue with the context-specific exploration of these new conditions and possibly new dynamics." (233)

A very wide-ranging collection of (English language) sources is employed to support the interpretation of each episode. In pre-1914 Germany the left, in the shape of the SPD, by far the largest and most impressive socialist party of the time, had always demanded proportional representation, as had most other socialist parties of the era.. It figured as the first point in the SPD's Erfurt program coupled with universal suffrage. Yet Pilon is able to quote Donald Ziegler's unpublished study of 1956 to the effect that "In almost every case P.R. was used to combat the socialist movement, appearing chiefly where the latter threatened the interests of dominant social and political groups." (67) This happened with the elected industrial courts, social insurance boards, in many municipalities and a number of German states while still being resisted at national level where the majority system under-represented the SPD. When in spite of this the Social-Democrats became the largest party in the Reichstag in 1912 resistance began to weaken and a move to PR was defeated in 1913 by only one vote.(80-82).

There is probably is nothing more calculated to causing historians to detonate distress rockets than social and political studies by anyone with the word "scientist" in their job description suggesting something approaching a common explanation of the phenomenon over such a vast temporal and geographic sweep. One can almost hear the sighs of specialists in some of the various areas, and the mutterings of "It was more complicated than that." But Pilon's "comparative historical" method, means that all the particular historical episodes of voting reform are examined in the light of specific studies. No doubt in at least some case it would be possible to find others taking a different view and offering an alternative interpretation. The author of Wrestling with Democracy would express no surprise. "There are no singular or static processes that can be mapped. Historical struggles are too contingent; political actors and their choices are fundamentally too unpredictable." (232) What he invites us to do is to go back and look at what people are fighting for, what they are worried will happen, and see how that connects with this seemingly 'anorak' type subject of voting system reform. We will often find, he predicts, that some species of class struggle is going on. If nothing else, this book has opened up an important debate and it will be fascinating to see where that leads.

It would be churlish, after reading about such a range of countries over a period of more than a century, to complain that the scope of the study is too narrow. Yet, to continue the debate which this book should animate it would be interesting to hear about conflicts over voting systems in some of the countries mentioned, if at all, only in passing such as post-apartheid South Africa and the new democracies of South America. India is routinely labelled "the world's largest democracy." What could we learn about the politics of voting systems there?

Ian Bullock
University of Sussex

1,217 words

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