The shade of Earl Russell, ‘Finality Jack’, still moves among us, and his name is Clegg. The deputy prime minister’s brief in the new administration is political reform, whose compass, he promised in yesterday’s statement, will be wide – as wide as Russell’s vaunted ‘final’ settlement of 1832. Clegg describes the electoral system as ‘broken’. The Electoral Reform Society branded the general election result ‘unrepresentative’. The criticism is invited by the umbrella labelling of the electoral reform statutes of 1832, 1867, 1884, 1918 etc. as ‘Representation of the People’ Acts.

The complaint that the system is unrepresentative is levelled indifferently at the simple plurality voting system (‘first past the post’), and at the remaining ‘pale, male, stale’ demographic in the House of Commons. These two complaints are distinct. Clearly proportionality defangs the first charge, of unrepresentativeness, or at least those forms of PR that make seats won directly proportional to votes cast. But it doesn’t fix the Commons’ dominance by middle-aged white males.

Under the present regime, party activists get to decide who stands in winnable seats – though local activists often grumble about HQ-favoured candidates being ‘parachuted in’. But this goes for many versions of PR too, such as the Additional Member system. Indeed, these strengthen the hand of party bosses, who (as in Germany) can in effect nominate their favoured slate of successful candidates in rank order.

In fact the very idea of ‘representative’ government needs a closer look, partly because the word represent itself needs it. Represent can mean ‘resemble’ or ‘stand for’. My bungled grisaille of a horse ends up looking more like the queen. What or whom does it represent? A picture of a cactus can represent a cactus by, for example, looking like one. Or something can represent by standing for something else (‘and the pepperpot is the Holy Ghost’).

The Commons doesn’t look, physically, like anything much except itself. Of course, that idea of representation may be somewhat literal-minded. The representation could be structural: say, by requiring that the relative strength of parties in the House mirror the quota of votes cast for them in the election.

On one side, PR’s opponents say that ‘hole-in-corner’ policy deals thrashed out in coalition talks, such as the ones last week, forge a programme that no one voted for. On the other, fans of PR argue that simply plurality means, in principle, that a party can get a mandate for its full manifesto programme on 35 per cent of the popular vote, or 21 per cent of eligible voters, as Labour did (given the 61 per cent turnout) in 2005.

Neither case is fireproof. Each relies on an unargued notion of representation. Both assume that the democratic ideal would be to have a full programme mandated by more than 50 per cent of the electorate, whose wishes it would then represent. What is the content of the proposal put to the people; and who decides that? Who decides who decides?

Anyway, manifestoes are typically pick-and-mix wish-lists cooked up by party activists and finessed by grandees mindful of electoral obliteration. The idea that these wonkish portmanteaux represent, in toto, a consummation devoutly wished by those who elect the party’s candidates to Parliament is mildly touched.

If so, it’s beside the point to say that coalitions are bad because they yield programmes nobody voted for, or that simple plurality is bad because it yields a programme that (say) only 21 per cent of people voted for, so that salvation lies in the Borda count, or a refinement of D’Hondt. Unlike cacti or the queen, there is not some thing already out there, the will of the people, for the electoral system to depict. As with tactical voting, the electoral system itself shapes the manifest wishes of the people.

That’s not to say that nothing is any better than anything else (‘let’s make the country into one giant constituency, with a single Tory MP’). But reform relies less on abstract ideas of representation than on pragmatic and ad hoc factors. Cleggie seems to have succumbed to Earl Russell’s Hegelian moment.