"PR" changes its meaning overnight

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A funny thing happened to the abbreviation "PR" overnight. When I went to bed last night "PR" typically meant "public relations". When I woke up it didn't.

This morning, the people talking on BBC Radio 4 are using "PR" without explanation to mean "proportional representation" instead.

The election in the UK yesterday produced a truly strange result. "The people of Britain have spoken," said John Humphrys on Radio 4 a few minutes ago, "but it is not quite clear what they have said."

In brief, the party with the good-looking and telegenic leader (who had clearly won the tripartite leadership debates if anyone did) — the party which also has the most plausible and popular candidate for chancellor of the exchequer (roughly like the US secretary of the treasury) — came out with a very small number of seats in the legislature, while the tired party that currently controls the government (and hence has the constitutional right to propose to form the new government) now does not have enough seats to come anywhere near a majority, because there is a larger party, which has the most seats. If the tired party teamed up with the telegenic party the combination would have more seats than the large party, but still not an absolute majority of all the seats, because the large party which has a tradition of resisting change but ran on a platform of demanding it, is nowhere near having a majority of the legislature either. (It actually lost votes in Scotland, where it holds only one seat.)

No one knows what will happen now. Will the tired party really team up with the telegenic party to struggle on in power, by offering them the chance of PR? Or will the large party do a deal with the telegenic party to defeat the tired party and convince it to give up? What if the leader of the tired party refuses to give up and presses the Queen to allow him to continue as leader of the government? Could he get the tired party to team up with enough minor parties to render powerless even an alliance of the large party and the telegenic party?

The problem is that the UK's electoral system only works if one party gets a larger number of votes than any other party in more constituencies than all the other constituencies taken together. That didn't happen this time. Britain held an election, and nobody won. Proportional representation (firmly defended, of course, by the extremely popular but electorally ruined telegenic party) is a system under which (to put it very roughly) the number of members that a party gets in the legislature would reflect the number of votes that it got in the country. That isn't how it works right now. It is perfectly possible for a party that got fewer votes than any other significant-sized party to hold more seats in the legislature. (This is mainly because a party that tends to win its seats by larger margins may find that a large percentage of its votes are in effect wasted on reinforcing already ample margins of victory.)

So PR is the phrase of the hour. Only by offering a referendum on PR can either of the big powerless parties gain what they need if they are to govern: the support of at least the largest of the smaller and forever powerless parties.

I hope you have been adequately confused by all this. Because if you are not confused, you simply haven't been paying attention.

[Thanks to Tony Guilfoyle for help with fixing an error in the first draft.]

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