First Past the Post is an archaic, outdated electoral system that has failed its basic litmus test at two of the last three elections. Its proponents claim that it delivers “strong and stable majority government.” Yet the last three elections have produced two hung parliaments and one majority so meagre it forced the Government back to the polls when it couldn’t pass anything. So given this failure, why hasn’t the Labour Party embraced a change to our electoral system?
If a week is a long time in politics, just think how much seven years is – especially the last seven. The world has undergone an unforeseeable shift since reform was last seriously on the table during the AV referendum (which even its advocates conceded was a weak form of PR). All three major parties have changed leader at least once; neither the then-Prime Minister or his deputy are still MPs. Britain has voted to leave the EU. The host of The Apprentice is President of the United States. Most importantly, the mighty Bristol Rovers have been relegated twice and then achieved back to back promotions!
But despite the soul-searching on how to reconnect the alienated with mainstream politics provoked by the rise of antidemocratic and far-right movements, few seem to have considered whether a measure that would make our politics more representative could be part of the solution.
Electoral reform probably wouldn’t be a silver bullet, as plenty of European countries can currently attest. Anti-EU sentiment has driven the rise of populist parties across the bloc. However there is an argument that a post-Brexit Britain which has (at least temporarily) lanced the populist boil is better placed to reap the benefits of PR, without it opening a Pandora’s box of increased support for the far-right. It would certainly be much wiser than carrying on down the same road that led us to the disconnection with politics we see now: forcing 35-40% of the public to pick one bloc or the other, and giving near-carte blanche to whichever party comes first, regardless of the range of opinion within the voting coalition that powered them there. This is a recipe for alienation.
Detractors of reform say that ending FPTP will bring about constant coalitions. But this need not be a bad thing. FPTP is hardly delivering clear majorities today. And allowing the full range of opinion within voting coalitions more muscle to get their way within PR’s party coalitions could prevent the disaffection that led voters to stay at home or turn to Ukip. More coalitions could allow each individual party within a coalition to be more radical and representative of its party’s base – a Lib-Lab-Green coalition could adopt the Lib Dem drug reform policy and Green environment policies (as an example) alongside Labour’s main programme. Potentially, it could even allow the left and right of the current Labour Party to decide what their red lines for working with each other are, given that Labour is already effectively a coalition of left-wing strands of opinion.
And evidence from nations lacking radical right movements, such as Ireland, gives a hint to other ways PR could reconnect people to politics – an Electoral Reform Society study shows TDs (Irish MPs) elected to multi-member constituencies under the Single Transferable Vote are much more active in their constituencies than British MPs. No doubt history has a role to play in the lack of a radical-right movement there – but then, that was the argument for why the radical right was unlikely to ever succeed in Britain not too long ago. We would be unwise to be blind to the alternatives.
Only two major parties in Britain oppose reform. Unfortunately, they happen to be the two parties who won more than 90% of MPs between them at the last election. There is almost blanket opposition to reform among Tory MPs. However, while the debate has understandably taken a back seat within Labour since the AV referendum, support for reform is fairly strong across many groups of the party. Antipathy towards reform is probably strongest within the Old Right strand of party – the GMB was a major financial backer of NO2AV, which was also backed by the likes of Ian Austin and Caroline Flint. Support for reform is probably strongest in the soft left and Blairite wings of the party, but there is also a strong pro-reform contingent among the radical left – John McDonnell, Cat Smith and Clive Lewis all support reform, which makes it odd the current Labour leadership hasn’t been more bold. At a more local level, many CLPs are passing motions in support of reform, and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform recently released a report on PR and socialism.
Electoral reform could also help to resolve the running debate over mandatory reselection. One of the complaints from advocates of mandatory reselection is that sitting MPs in safe seats have a job for life. Some forms of PR (such as closed list systems) could keep the best of both worlds, doing away with safe seats (each party would be allocated seats based on performance in a region rather than in winner takes all constituencies) and allowing the order of the party list to be be determined by a hybrid of trigger ballots and full ballots of party members. The trigger ballot process could be used to determine if an incumbent remains on a party list; a form of STV ballot could be used to determine the order of candidates on a list – and using a system other than the block vote would potentially reduce the impact of slates and the damaging effect of “factional solidarity” evident with more controversial candidates such as Peter Willsman. This would allow for unpopular MPs to be effectively deselected by being put at the bottom of the list– yet those genuinely popular with their constituents could convince enough of them to vote for their party that they are still elected. For example in Manchester, Graham Stringer is seen as being at risk of losing a trigger ballot. If a 5 seat Manchester constituency was created, based on results in 2017 Labour would be allocated 4 of those seats with 71% of the vote. As a compromise, if the 4 other incumbent Labour MPs were placed ahead of Stringer on the list he would be all but deselected. However, if he and the Labour Party were popular enough, there is no reason why Labour would not be able to reach the quota to be allocated all the seats and re-elect Stringer.
Though this is one option on offer (and my personal preference would be the Additional Member System), this article doesn’t seek to debate which electoral system is the best, but that we would simply be reckless to continue with a system that has clearly fostered many of the problems we see now. Given that the Labour Party even uses AV to conduct elections internally, right down to CLP and branch level (something that has changed the results of our own leadership elections – arguably making them more representative of the party as a whole) it is surprising that our current policy platform is silent on even considering a referendum on electoral reform. While the most recent coalition in the UK couldn’t be described as progressive, more often than not the left of centre would hold the balance of power in Parliament. In fact, in 14 of the last 15 general elections, political parties to the left of the Conservatives won a majority of votes, while the Conservatives won the most seats 8 times.
Labour stands on the cusp of power. Given that the 2017 manifesto states that “A Labour government will establish a Constitutional Convention to examine and advise on reforming of the way Britain works at a fundamental level,” electoral reform should clearly be on the table. But as we have seen from the likes of Justin Trudeau in Canada and Tony Blair in Britain, parties that talk the talk on electoral reform often fail to walk the walk once they have a majority., Given that the Labour Party believes that “power, wealth and opportunity should be in the hands of the many and not the few” – as it states on the back of the card owned by every one of the 500,000-odd Labour members – given that the Labour Party exists to be bold and radical, given that the Labour Party exists to take on the establishment and challenge the status quo, we should resist the temptation to follow their lead. The Labour Party should embrace electoral reform.