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Representation for All – Labour’s Last Chance?

Brighton Pier (Unsplash, Ben Guerin)

I love Brighton. It has its share of shabby corners and deprivation but it’s still a remarkable town. As I stood on the promenade at the Labour conference, armed with GetPRDone’s promotional material on Proportional Representation (PR), it struck me that Brighton could even be a metaphor for a brighter, progressive political future. Led in part by Good Queen Caroline (Lucas), this plucky little reddish green island is surrounded by blue – of the sea to the south and of rock-solid Tory seats in all other directions. Despite its formidable blue ring, Brighton itself is imbued with the buzz of youth, of ethnic and non-binary gender diversity and of creative promise – exuberant graffiti and seriously eccentric small shops grace the Georgian streets and down on the beach the air is festive with whizzing, dreadlocked skateboarders and the spontaneous gatherings of Krishna dancers. Pop up artworks sit alongside the gay club badminton match and there’s a jubilant sense, sparkling like the sea, of tolerance, inclusivity and unbounded opportunity.

Ed: Update 17 October: Of course Brighton is where our sister publication, Sussex Bylines, is based. They too have written about the Labour Party conference, on Land Law Reforms.

Representation for all

The big question was, could the outcome of the conference PR vote echo the fairer, more progressive politics that the PR campaigns and Brighton represent? First, a quick resume: – 

80% of the world’s governments now use PR but the UK, like Belarus, still uses First Past The Post (FPTP), an electoral system which has a substantial right wing bias, (Iversen & Soskice). In 14 of the last 15 UK general elections the majority voted for progressive parties. Yet during this period the Conservative Party has been in power for the majority of the time. In the 2019 election their vote share of just 43.6% resulted in an 80 seat majority.

FPTP is a ‘winner takes all’ system in which just one party gets over the line. Winner’s votes that exceed the required amount are wasted because they are surplus, just as votes for losing parties are wasted because they have no representation.  In 2019, 71.2% of UK votes were wasted (Make Votes Matter) and 45% of UK voters were represented by an MP for whom they didn’t vote. Further, the presence of multiple opposition parties tends to split the opposition vote, thus perpetuating the winner’s hold on power. 

MVM – https://www.makevotesmatter.org.uk/

FPTP also distorts which voters do and which don’t get attention because, during elections, each party must focus just on winnable marginal seats whilst ignoring the rest. This contributes to the de-prioritization of no-hope constituencies and voter apathy (ER on safe seats). Unhappy bedfellows such as Labour’s Left and Centre are forced together to maximise their votes and voters may have to vote tactically against their preferred party to prevent their least favoured party winning in their constituency. In 2017 30% of the electorate voted tactically. 

FPTP is intrinsically unfair. We urgently need to replace it with PR – a more equal system in which each party’s seats  reflect the number of votes it receives. This is a fairer, collaborative approach which represents the political views of all of us, not just a single ‘winning’ minority. 

Mission Impossible?

I like to think that our PR promenading contributed to the fantastic 83% delegate support for PR at conference even though the motion lacked union backing and so failed (at 58% opposed). However, the unions received no positive direction on PR from Starmer, who remained inscrutably silent on the issue. One possible reason is that the Centre doesn’t want a system in which the Left could acquire a stronger voice. Another is that acceptance of PR could be construed as an admission of defeat. 

Starmer’s unwillingness publicly to endorse an electoral system now recognised by his membership to be fairer and more representative is troubling for progressives both inside and outside of Labour. Also, as the only large opposition party, Labour has a pivotal role in making the shift to PR. An electoral pact in which all opposition parties first work together to maximise the number of non-Conservative seats at the next election is likely to be the only mechanism for achieving PR. But, reasonably enough, they won’t agree to collaborate on this until Labour has PR in its manifesto. So Starmer’s resistance is slowing progress when there’s much strategic work to be done before the next election. Furthermore, Starmer’s silence sidesteps the important point that Labour can’t obviously win alone under FPTP anyway.

Winning will be extremely tough for Labour. The Conservatives benefit from their broad geographical spread of support. Labour, by contrast is hampered by its concentration of votes in urban areas, needing to get over 50,000 votes to elect each MP whereas the Conservatives need only 38,000. And Labour’s disadvantage will grow – forthcoming boundary changes may lose them a further 4 seats whilst the Conservatives gain 15 (Electoral Calculus). Best For Britain calculates that if Labour campaigned alone in the next election, it would secure just 283 seats, that is 43 seats below the 326 needed to govern with a majority. Similarly, the Fabian Society calculates that, campaigning alone, Labour would need to perform a miracle recovery in Scotland, whilst reclaiming 41 seats in the Red wall, winning at least 67 more seats from the Tories in Wales and the South, and securing at least 17 swing seats. An 82% success in these heroic endeavours would be required to yield the 123 extra seats needed for a majority of 1, and that’s with a popular leader.

This research puts Labour in a very weak position if it insists on ‘going it alone’. A Labour win without assistance requires something close to a miracle. 

Dangers of a Labour haemorrhage

The Left have long been angry with Starmer but PR advocates are now angry too and there’s talk of abandoning ship or even forming a new party. But PR can only be achieved if Labour holds its support base together. A shift away from Labour could only occur safely if confined to seats where it has no chance of winning, for example, in those 10 constituencies in 2019 requiring a swing of less than 3% from the Conservatives to LD (Left Foot Forward). But if Labour loses support indiscriminately either to existing or new parties it could lose its fragile foothold in seats where it is currently best placed to beat the Conservatives. Furthermore, the shift in allegiance would be to parties with little prospect of taking the seat. So the probable outcome of a non-tactical shift from Labour would be a further weakened opposition and a further increase in the Conservative majority.  

This puts progressives in a difficult position. FPTP forces voters to cling strategically to Labour despite their reservations simply in order to protect Labour’s winnable seats. This absurd scenario is one of the many reasons why we need to replace FPTP with PR. It’s a parlous state of affairs but the electoral maths indicates that bearing with ‘the Labour we’ve got’ is crucial to escaping Conservative rule and acquiring PR. Our instinct is to use our vote to register our displeasure . But if we want PR we cannot afford this knee jerk reaction. We need a ‘softly catchy monkey’ approach using fortitude and strategic patience. Labour has to stay artificially bloated for now, even to the discomfort of its members, in order to first punch its weight and see off its enemy.

Labour resistance 

Labour’s FPTP advocates argue that abandoning FPTP would require intolerable sacrifices. It’s true that Labour might have to relinquish their dream of exclusive power but they wouldn’t obviously stand to lose more seats than by campaigning alone. Seats where Labour is very weak will be difficult to win, with or without collaboration. Actually, research by the Electoral Calculus indicates that, with collaboration, LD, Greens and Labour all stand to acquire more seats than they otherwise would, with Labour gaining an additional 36. Similarly, Best For Britain projects that, working with LD and  the Greens, Labour could win up to 351 seats. This would give Labour a parliamentary majority and, as such, they would be the dominant, agenda setting party. So where, in these ‘win-win’ scenarios is the so-called sacrifice precisely? It’s true that we’d never know whether collaboration might have cost Labour a surprise seat somewhere, but Labour’s success shouldn’t rely on surprises, especially when there’s a better alternative.

Labour’s choices are most likely then to be between having no power (working alone) or some power (in collaboration with others), and power sharing is surely a risk worth taking if it means the difference between losing and winning elections. Furthermore, there is no evidence that FPTP is the road to socialism and, given FPTP’s regressive tendencies, even if Labour won the next election unaided, there’s no guarantee it would survive a further one without support from other opposition parties. 

But isn’t the horse trading over seats required for tactical collaboration anti-democratic? No, because we have to grit our teeth and see the Conservatives off before we can benefit from properly democratic governance. Under PR, parties would be freer to, for example, campaign to re-join the EU, to forge cross-party agreements on key issues and to adopt their own identities. The Left and Centre of Labour, for instance, need no longer be forced together like a murderous married couple by the ‘pitch towards centrism’ imposed by FPTP and could divorce. This may be what the Centre fears but it’s a new pluralism they surely have to embrace eventually.

And what of the PR bogeyman – ‘extremism’? Whilst extremist parties appear in PR systems, they can, at least, be contained by the representative majority of other MPs. By contrast, FPTP lacks the mechanisms for controlling extremism. In the UK, FPTP has effectively given a child a handgun – by allowing an electoral minority to deliver power to a single controlling party with an 80 seat majority we’ve ended up with a government revelling in unfettered dishonesty and corruption and hellbent on removing our democratic rights.

Get PR done – see https://getprdone.org.uk/

The Pointing Finger

We should endorse PR, regardless of our political colours, because it is a fairer, more representative electoral system than FPTP. PR doesn’t logically rule out the possibility of a Conservative win. But even if that happened, wouldn’t it be better to have a system where the ruling party has, at least, the support of the majority of voters? Starmer ought to grasp this point. He ought not to be content with so many Labour supporters being represented by a different party: 5.5 million Labour voters are currently represented by an MP from another party, mostly Conservatives.

We should also want PR because it is the route towards a more progressive politics and Labour must recognize its pivotal role in achieving this. Threats such as the climate emergency and the crisis of democracy in the UK are far better tackled together and we’ve no time to lose. So even if a Labour win is only considerably more likely with than without collaboration, we surely have an urgent moral imperative to choose the option that is most likely to succeed!

As I threw a final glance at Brighton Pier, its daringly long, rickety finger pointing into the unknown served as a kind of imperative to Labour – to dare to accept a fairer voting system and to recognize Labour’s core role as the enabler of progressive politics. These changes require grown up, joined up thinking and so it’s a risky, possibly rickety, leap into the unknown for UK politics. But one thing is definite – we simply can’t carry on like this. 


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