LCER campaigns to change the way we elect the House of Commons to a Proportional Representation system (PR) for three main reasons:
1) First Past the Post (FPTP) leaves the majority of voters in the UK (around 70% at the last General Election) with a vote that makes no difference to the final result. We think every vote should count.
2) First Past the Post usually elects governments with an overall majority of the seats but without a mandate from the majority of the voters. The current government has a majority of 80 seats (and all of the power) with just 43.7% of the votes cast.
3) First Past the Post creates a confrontational politics where each party has to prove they are the ones most likely to defeat the other parties. Negative campaigning is often more helpful in keeping broad coalitions of voters together, rather than trying to promote policies which not all voters may agree with. We want a politics that is based on policy and convictions, not tit-for-tat.
However, supporters of the status quo have various arguments for not moving to a PR system for electing the House of Commons. These are some of the most common, and why we think they are misguided:
1) We don’t want to lose the constituency link to an MP.
None of the major organisations campaigning for PR in the UK are in favour of losing the constituency link. LCER has signed the “Good Systems Agreement” which makes keeping a constituency link a prerequisite for a good electoral system. Many countries already using a PR system for their Parliament also keep a constituency link – for instance Scotland, Wales, Eire, Germany, New Zealand.
Moreover, under FPTP around half of voters do not have an MP they voted for, whereas with most PR systems around 90% of voters are represented by someone from the Party they support.
2) FPTP is a simple way of voting which everyone can understand, whereas PR systems are complicated and difficult to explain.
Scottish and Welsh voters have no difficulty in using PR systems for voting for the Scottish Parliament or the Senedd. There is no reason to suppose that UK voters are any less intelligent or capable than voters in Germany or New Zealand. Most countries that use PR have a straightforward voting system, and LCER is committed to supporting only those systems that are easy to use and explain, under the Good Systems Agreement.
3) We’ve already had a Referendum on PR, and it was decisively defeated. It would be undemocratic to try to overturn that decision.
The referendum in 2011 was on AV – the Alternative Vote, where voters are invited to cast a “second preference” vote in each constituency. AV is not a proportional system. The system was not strongly supported even by those who wanted change, arguments were never clearly expressed in the media, and the exercise became a popularity contest for Nick Clegg, who was at that point historically unpopular.
4) Unless you say exactly what system you want, how can we tell if we support it?
Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform is not going to be able to dictate exactly what electoral system a Labour-led government should introduce, and we would be silly to try. Labour will need to create a deliberative process to design the best system. However, we are sure about the principles we support, as laid out in the Good Systems Agreement: Constituency link to MPs; seats allocated broadly proportional to votes cast; avoiding Party lists; a system which is easy to use and explain.
5) FPTP delivers strong and stable government, whereas PR would result in coalitions of chaos.
Contrast the chaos in government under David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss with the strong and stable government of Germany under Angela Merkel and now Olaf Scholz.
FPTP doesn’t always deliver a Commons majority, and the negative campaigning that goes with it makes coalition-building more difficult. For instance, May had to in effect bribe the DUP to support her in government, and was still unable to govern the country effectively.
6) Coalition governments are inevitable under PR, even though nobody voted for them.
People vote in a General Election for the Party that they want to run the country. But the major political parties under FPTP are necessarily coalitions within themselves. FPTP forces parties to focus on swing voters in marginal seats, rather than on the needs and beliefs of the majority of the country. PR would enable voters to vote for the party that most accurately reflects their views, without wasting their votes, and with a realistic expectation of their party being in power.
A Labour government will be better able to make the changes we need if it is supported by a majority of the population. If that requires a coalition partner, this is surely preferable to yet more years of Tory neglect and destruction. But if Labour does a good enough job in government, there is no fundamental reason why it should not gain an overall majority under PR, as Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government did in New Zealand.
7) Unless Labour can gain an overall majority in the House of Commons, we cannot bring in a radical Democratic Socialist agenda.
The 1945 – 1951 Labour government transformed the UK. However, despite gaining a greater share of the vote than the Tories in 1951, Labour still lost under FPTP. Ever since then the Tories have been undermining the pillars of a fairer society that Labour introduced. The current run of Tory governments has scrapped insulation and renewables programmes, hobbled local Labour councils’ housing plans, slashed children’s centres, privatised swathes of local and national government, and now threatens the very existence of the NHS.
There is no point in making radical changes if they are simply going to be reversed in the next Parliament. PR creates a much broader consensus around policy, which leads to continuity. Germany has better pay, better benefits, better workers’ rights, better trade union recognition, better industrial policy, a more redistributive tax system, better public services, more state ownership – and all this despite many years of a centre-right led government.
PR forces parties in power to work with others in order to achieve the necessary support for the changes they want to make. FPTP encourages parties in power to pander to their own narrow membership base, and penalises Prime Ministers (eg Theresa May) that don’t do so.
8) PR would enable extremist parties to achieve representation in Parliament.
Fringe parties are no more likely to be elected using a Single Transferrable Vote system (STV) than they are using FPTP. Most Additional Member Systems (AMS) around the world have built-in safeguards to prevent the election of tiny fringe parties, most often a threshold percentage of votes before proportional seats are allocated.
Countries with parliaments elected under AMS often do have extreme parties represented, but they can then be seen for what they are and isolated politically, as the AfD has been in Germany. In the UK, the political views of UKIP, which was frozen out of Parliament by FPTP, have simply taken over the Conservative Party instead. Denying a Party representation when it commands the support of millions of voters does nothing to help combat its obnoxious views. Only openness, honesty and education can combat political extremism.
9) If Labour introduces PR for the House of Commons, it will be a green light for the Party to split.
Labour has faced the possibility of splits ever since it was founded. No member is forced to remain in the Party. Most of the time, those who leave have no effect on Labour’s support or vote. There is no reason to suppose that they would be any more successful under PR – for instance, neither Change UK nor the Northern Independence Party ever had enough support to win anything under any reputable electoral system.
Occasionally, members leave with enough political support to seriously damage Labour’s electoral chances. When the “Gang of 4” left Labour to form the SDP in 1981 they helped ensure a victory for the Tories under FPTP in 1983 (majority of 144 with 42.4% of the vote) and 1987 (majority of 102 with 42.2% of the vote). In each case, the anti-Tory vote in England split almost 50-50 between Labour and SDP/Liberal. Whether or not there is another serious split in the Labour Party, such electoral results are perfectly possible again under FPTP.
And clearly, the fact that we had FPTP in 1981 did not prevent a split. Although there may be some on the left of our Party who are unhappy with the leadership, there is no reason to suppose that they won’t leave the Party anyway, whether or not we commit to PR.
10) PR may be the best way of electing the House of Commons, but it will be difficult to achieve and we have far more important priorities.
Labour needs to speak to the voters about things which they can see for themselves, and show how we will create a fairer, greener, healthier and more united country. We would not expect electoral reform to be one of the top 5 policies being promoted to the general public by our Party during a general election campaign.
However, in many constituencies voters are not sure who to vote for to remove this failing Tory government. We cannot assume that Labour will be 30% ahead of the Tories at the next election. We need those who might otherwise vote Lib Dem or Green in Labour/Conservative marginals to vote for us, which they are more likely to do if they know we are committed to changing the electoral system.
The Tories are systematically trashing our democracy. We need automatic voter registration, a genuinely independent Electoral Commission with real powers to enforce good practice, beefed-up press regulation to stop the blizzard of political lies, and a wholly-elected House of Lords to end the crony-culture. Democracy might not be a number-one concern for voters, but unless we act to renew it we will not have the power to do any of the other things we believe in.
11) Labour is going to win a landslide at the next General Election anyway, so what is the point of calling for PR now.
The next General Election will be fought under FPTP. As Labour Party members, LCER will be fighting for that Labour victory. Once we are in government, we need to use that position to make the changes that benefit the whole country. One of those changes is to renew our democracy. Because the Labour Movement is now united in supporting PR, making these necessary changes will help strengthen our Party. But that is not the main reason – we should do it because it is the right thing to do.
Whatever the result of the next General Election, changing our electoral system will not be easy. Labour needs to commit to renewing our democracy in the manifesto, to ensure that we have the mandate to do so, even if it is not one of the main planks of the Party’s election campaign.
The damage done by the Tory-led governments since 2010 will not be sorted within 5 years. Changing the electoral system in the first Labour government will help ensure that progressive government continues long enough for Labour to put the country back on its feet and give our citizens the fair share of power and wealth they deserve.