The case for PR after May 7

Alan Thornett

Since the election there has been a debate around how the Tories emerged with an unexpected overall majority. One reason is that they demonised the SNP and raised the spectre of a Miliband government manipulated by Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. It was highly effective—at least in the context of the election rules.

There is a deeper reason, however which had less to do with the way people cast their votes and more to do with Britain’s grotesquely undemocratic the first-past-the-post voting system (FPTP). The Conservatives only received a parliamentary majority because of that electoral system under which the winner takes all and which produces elected dictatorships on the basis of minority votes.

A report published on June 1 by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) titled A Voting System in Crisis, points out that this was the most ‘disproportional’ (i.e. undemocratic) in modern British electoral history.

Not only did the Tories ‘win’ an overall Parliamentary majority (of 12) with just 37% of the vote—not in itself new—but the disparity between the votes required to elect an MP from each respective party reached an all-time high. Never in a previous general election have so many voters been unrepresented.
The figures are remarkable. It took a staggering 3.9m votes to elect a UKIP MP and 1.1m to elect a Green MP. It took 299,000 to elect a LibDem, 40,000 to elect a Labour MP, 34,000 to elect a Tory MP. In contrast it took only 26,000 to elect an SNP MP.

In other words UKIP came third in the total votes cast but was left with only one MP while the SNP won 56 seats with less than half the votes of UKIP. The less MPs a racist party like UKIP gets the better, of course. But nothing is gained by rigging the election against them rather than defeating them politically—particularly when this disadvantages the left as well.

The SNP to their great credit remain strongly in favour of electoral reform despite the fact that they benefited disproportionately in this election.
Contrast these results with a fully proportionate system. This would have produced a dramatically different parliamentary line up. Under this the Tories would have had 242 seats, Labour 199, Ukip 82, LibDems 51, SNP 31, Greens 24, and Plaid 3.
Rather than an overall majority, the Tories would have been 84 seats short of a majority. Labour, the LibDems, the SNP and the Greens would have 325 seats between them—just 2 short of a majority. The Tories might have been in a position to form a coalition with UKIP, but whether it could have done this in political terms is another matter.

Supporters of FPTP argue that the problem with PR is that it breaks the constituency link, which is not true of course. There are many ways of maintaining this link.
The ELS advocates the Single Transferable Vote system, which is more proportional than FPTP but not fully proportional, but maintains the constituency link. Under this the Tories would have won 276 seats, Labour 236, the SNP 34, UKIP 54, and the Lib Dems 26. The Greens would have won two more seats.

The ERS report points out that in this election 74% of votes (22m) were ‘wasted’—i.e. they didn’t contribute to electing an MP and that 2.8m voters were likely to have voted ‘tactically’—over 9% of voters. 331 of 650 MPs were elected on less than 50% of the vote, and 191 with less than 30%.

FPTP has always been outrageously undemocratic, of course. It was designed as a two party ‘buggins turn’ under which those two parties could have alternate periods in office—and with the smaller parties squeezed right out. This has been one of the biggest obstacles to building a broad party of the left in England since such a party became a possibility – and a necessity – in the 1990s because it means that small parties end up being denied representation even if they get the votes.

In recent years the electoral landscape has been changing. The two main parties have been in decline, the old voting patterns have been breaking up, and smaller parties (of both right and left) have been emerging with substantial votes— particularly the Green Party and UKIP in England and the SNP in Scotland. We now have what is effectively a six-party system. Under these conditions, the FPTP system has gone from the undemocratic to the outrageous.

This is a big challenge for the left. Electoral reform has to be taken a lot more seriously than has been the case in the past.

Electoral reform is not workers’ democracy, of course, but while we live under a capitalist system, we have to fight for a system of election in which the number of MPs would correspond to the number of votes a party receives in an election. The electoral field is a crucial area of work and it is difficult to do this effectively without some basic democracy.

Both Labour and the Tories have always defended FPTP of course and continue to do so, driven by dinosaur politics and power-driven self-interest, because neither could win a majority under a fair system—despite gestures towards reform from time to time. The LibDems had long supported electoral reform because the existing system ensured that they were under represented for many years.

Electoral reform was in Labour’s manifesto in 1997 but was kicked into the long grass once it came to office.

When the Power to the People Commission of Inquiry into the electoral system (set up by the Joseph Rowntree Trust) was published in 2006 both Blair and then Brown did their best to ignore it. The report called for an end to FPTP to prevent what it feared would be a meltdown in Britain’s system of representation. The current system, it said, was “killing politics” in Britain.

It called for a 70% elected House of Lords, state funding for political parties and electoral reform. It advocated a responsive electoral system— offering voters a greater choice and diversity of parties and candidates—should be introduced for elections to the House of Commons, House of Lords and local councils in England and Wales to replace FPTP.

Nothing came of it. The Commons debated Lords reform, under pressure from the cash for peerages issue, and MPs ended up voting for a 100% elected second chamber. This went far beyond Blair’s position of 50% elected and 50% appointed and it was never implemented.
When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister he said that he would welcome a wider debate on electoral reform. This, however, soon joined House of Lords reform in the long grass.

The left have always been divided over electoral reform under pressure from the Labour left many of whom have always defended FPTP sometimes more strongly than the right.

The 2011 referendum on AV (which rejected AV) was a disaster for electoral reform. It took place because was part of the coalition agreement with the LibDems. The Tories agreed to the referendum and then led the NO2AV campaign and made sure that it was defeated.
AV was defeated because it was opposed by the bulk of the political establishment, much of the left, including the socialist left, the media, and the trade unions.

Its outcome was a disaster not just because AV is better than FPTP, but because the referendum was a choice between AV and FPTP and a No vote was inevitably interpreted as an endorsement of FPTP. Cameron’s answer today to the disproportionate outcome of the election is that FPTP was put to a referendum in 2011 and people voted overwhelmingly in favour of it.

Labour was divided over it AV. Ed Miliband, as Labour leader, was for a Yes vote but over 200 Labour MPs and peers declared for a No vote.

The left was also divided. The Green Party and Plaid called for a yes vote whilst Socialist Party, Respect, the Green Left, the CPB and the Labour Representation Committee called for a no vote.

Most unions were strongly pro-FPTP. Some send out anti-AV leaflets to their members— including the GMB, Aslef and the Prison Officers’ Association. They joined the official No2AV campaign dominated by the Tories. Unite also campaigned against AV and for FPTP.

Paul Kenny of the GMB said his union had “long held the policy that the tried and tested first-past-the-post is the system that should be used for general elections for the UK Parliament”. He said FPTP delivered strong, single-party government, was easy to understand and had a “strong constituency link”.
The only two unions to declare for AV were the CWU and the PCS.

AV is not a proportional system, of course, and would not have produced a proportional Parliament—that would still have to be fought for. But it was a lot better than straight FPTP—particularly for small parties since it would allow voters to express their genuine preferences without the pressure to vote tactically because the votes of the lower placed candidates are redistributed until a candidate emerges with over 50% of the vote.

It would also ensure that all MPs are elected on the basis of majority support and would undermine, least to some extent, the ‘safe seat’ syndrome that disenfranchises swathes of voters at every election.

Some argued for a No vote on the basis that a Yes vote would set the kind of electoral we need back for a long time. This never made sense, since the thing that would clearly set back real electoral reform the most was endorsement of FPTP.

Labour is junking its previous political positions at a rate of knots since its election defeat, but we can assume that this will not include junking FPTP and putting a serious proposition for PR in its next election manifesto.

The left must not make this mistake and carry on in the same way. Since the election there has (unsurprisingly) been an up-swell of support for electoral reform, which will continue throughout this Parliament.

The Green Party’s Caroline Lucas said in her speech to the packed Brighton Festival on May 9: “The election results have served as a stark reminder that our political system is broken. The time for electoral reform is long overdue. Only proportional representation will deliver a parliament that is truly legitimate, and that better reflects the views of the people it’s meant to represent…” as well as to go on to argue for a progressive alliance against austerity and for progressive policies on climate.

She further argued for “case-by-case electoral pacts, to build a strong progressive alliance to challenge the Tories over the next five years.  Clearly in Wales and Scotland, where there are PR elections for the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament, this doesn’t apply, but where First Past the Post continues to distort election results, it should surely be considered.”

Left Unity rightly supports proportional representation but it needs to give the issue a higher priority, to understand that working together with others for a more representative electoral system is not at all counterposed to working to build campaigns against austerity and racism. It should seek urgent discussions with the Green Party and others to explore how best to work together on all these questions.

1 Comment

  1. This is an important topic. Despite the opening up of debate in the Labour Party by the success of the Corbyn campaign, there have been very few in influential positions in the Party, left and right, who support PR – the late Robin Cook was an exception.

    Realistically speaking, turkeys don’t vote for christmas and the only way to get PR is if the Labour Party were committed to introducing it in its manifesto and won enough MPs (under FPTP) either for an outright majority, or with votes of minor parties like SNP and Greens could get it through the House of Commons,

    Key to this is winning the trade unions, who have mainly opposed PR reforms in the past.

    The British Labour Party has of course both benefitted and suffered under FPTP. In 1951 Labour won the general election in terms of popular vote (by over one and a quarter million votes more than the Tories!) but lost on number of MPs. In the 1952 local elections (“Labour’s High Tide” as described in the book by Mark Jenkins on “Bevanism”, with the same subtitle), Labour actually won more than 50% of the popular vote. Yet Labour remained in opposition to government for 13 years. This shows that it would be possible to get a popular majority for a left wing programme, despite the electoral system, but the reality these days is that FPTP would prevent such an outcome ever being translated into a governmental majority. As the article rightly says, we are now in the era of (at least) six party politics and Labour needs to wake up and recognise that.

    AV is not PR, and nor for that matter is STV (when using smaller seats – eg 3/4 member). In the 26-counties of Ireland, where they have operated 3-5 member STV elections for many decades, there have also been disproportionate results (the 1983 European Election results, when the Irish Labour Party lost all its seats, being such an example). Glasgow City Council is elected by STV and in 2012 Labour won 47% of the vote and 57% of the seats. This position is likely to be reversed in favour of the SNP winning a landslide in 2016.

    MPs are not elected to be social workers (a respected and well-trained profession and not one for amateurs to dabble in). The counter to the ‘constituency link’ argument is to have MPs being elected based on their programme for government (an Open List system is probably the best) and also strong and representative local government that can both make local decisions based on real power and devolution, and be able to put pressure on legislators. The current Tory trend towards elected mayors is actually anti-democratic as we have seen in the Greater Manchester debate covered elsewhere on this site.

    The House of Lords should obviously be abolished and a new second/scrutiny chamber should be based on both local/community AND economic interests (ie directly elected workers representatives from the main branches of industry and workplaces). This would enable trade unions to campaign on legislation at the political level and stand workplace based candidates for the second chamber. Such reforms would not be a panacea, but would create a more democratic society within which trade unionist left wing ideas and programmes could flourish.

    A comprehensive package of reforms to both the Commons election system AND strong local government and worker representatives in a second chamber would be more likely to get trade union support and thus put pressure on the Labour Party leadership to change things.

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