Fair votes: good for Britain, bad for Labour

I have changed my mind.

For more than forty years I have argued against Britain using proportional voting to elect its MPs. I saw benefits in a system in which MPs answered to local constituents, and governments were chosen by voters on election day, not by politicians cobbling together coalitions in the weeks afterwards.

Those benefits remain (although the increasing prevalence of hung parliaments has weakened the choice-of-government argument). But for a range of reasons, the balance has tilted towards a different, more proportional, system. This week the Labour Party conference is debating this issue. Were I a delegate I would vote for change.

Before we delve into those issues, two preliminary points are worth making. First, too many people on both sides of the argument massively overstate their case. There are benefits and drawbacks to any voting system. First Past The Post (FPTP) is not the work of the devil. Proportional voting will not open the gates to the kingdom of democratic heaven. Reform will probably improve our democratic culture but we shall not suddenly acquire Singapore’s dynamism, Sweden’s public services, Monaco’s tax rates or the harmony of a contented Welsh valley.

Secondly, if Labour’s conference does back reform, it will be doing something truly remarkable. It will be putting the national interest way ahead of the party’s interests. If there is one certainty about changing to a proportional system, it is that voting patterns will change, probably a lot. Labour will win far fewer seats than it does under FPTP, will never again win a majority in the House of Commons, and might be propelled to the margins of British political life. Labour’s willingness even to consider such self-sacrifice is wholly admirable.

Given all that, why is the case for reform stronger than it used to be? In essence, FPTP produced a binary party arrangement that made sense in the twentieth century, when the big questions about our society offered a choice of big answers. Labour versus capital; socialism versus capitalism; bigger state versus smaller state. These debates were contested by two big parties with large memberships which together secured the overwhelming majority of votes.

A case can be made for saying that every twentieth century election produced the preferred government of most voters, even though no single party since 1945 ever won an outright majority of the popular vote. I would argue that this was case even in 1983, when the Liberal/SDP Alliance won 26% of the vote, against 28% for Labour and 43% for the Conservatives. Yes, Margaret Thatcher secured her landslide, even though her party won far fewer voted than her opponents. But every scrap of polling evidence showed that most people wanted Thatcher to be their Prime Minister, not Labour’s Michael Foot.

That binary world – socially and politically – began to fray towards the end of the century, but still produced democratically defensible outcomes, in terms of the choice of (almost always) majority government, until 2010, when David Cameron became Prime Minister at the head of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition.

Since then, FPTP has ceased to be an aid to rational democratic politics and become a liability. It has stumbled in the face of a variety of challenges: the end of binary, class-based party loyalties, the rise of new big issues such as climate change, Europe and nationalism (especially in Scotland) and – most devastatingly in recent years – the increasing power of diminished party memberships to pick their leader. The choice of Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn at the last election was not a sign of a healthy polity. Nor is the fact that today we have the first Prime Minister chosen not by the public nor even her party’s own MPs.

The scales then, have tipped towards a system that lowers the barriers to entry for parties wanting to challenge the current duopoly. If Labour and the Tories cannot be relied on to be responsible democratic actors on the inside, then we need an electoral system that enables their status to be challenged from the outside.

Taken together, the end of binary Britain and the intermittent control of our two main parties by unrepresentative minorities, have made proportional voting a more attractive option. Its disadvantages have not gone away – the end of our constituency system and the arrival of government-by-negotiation – but the disadvantages of FPTP are now greater.

So I hope Labour votes for reform, and in sufficient numbers to ensure its adoption by Keir Starmer and the shadow cabinet. But the party should make this decision with open eyes. Labour has remained a big party at Westminster, even under Corbyn, because in most seats any progressive who supported another party was wasting their vote. In a proportional system, that deterrent falls away.

Even given their peculiar circumstances, the elections three years ago to the European Parliament were instructive. They were fought under a proportional system. Labour, with 14%, came third, the Tories, with 9%, came fifth. Released from the fear of wasting their vote, more than three-quarters of all voters abandoned the two main parties.

Think of an election in five or ten years time, when progressives have an option of a Marxist party, a Green Party, a liberal party and a social democratic party – and all with a reasonable chance of winning a significant number of seats. Labour, waving the flag for social democracy, would be lucky to win 200 seats and may well struggle to reach 150. In a good year it might form part of a progressive coalition government, but possibly with fewer than half its ministers. Many voters might find that an attractive proposition, especially if it condemns the Tories to opposition. But is that what Labour activists want?  And what about the scores of Labour MPs who would lose their seats?

This is not just about number-crunching; it’s about our political culture. Many twentieth century high streets were dominated by Woolworth, with its wide range of goods for sale and a large and broad customer base. Then came niche stores and Amazon, squeezing Woolworths from both ends. We know how that story ended. Out-of-date, challenged by rivals, failing to adapt. If Labour adopts proportional voting but otherwise tries to carry on as normal, could its fate and its epitaph be the same as Woolworth’s?

This blog was first publ;ished by Prospect