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THERE is a petition addressed to Keir Starmer that is doing the rounds on social media. It calls on Labour to make a policy change and support a Proportional Representation (PR) voting system; in other words, to make the numbers of seats won in Parliament match up — at least approximately — with the number of votes won by a party in an election.
That’s certainly not how the system currently works. It is one reason why we both support PR and why we’ve both signed the petition. We’re angry that a party which won 43 per cent of the overall vote last December now holds an 80-seat Commons majority. Thanks to our wretched first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system we’ve ended up, once again, with what is essentially a parliamentary dictatorship.
The comments on the petition show we are not alone.
Frank wrote: “PR is fairer and the ONLY way to get Tories out.”
Ruth: “We appear to live in a one party state.”
Johanna: “PR is the only logical answer to get the government we voted for.”
Julia: “We won’t get rid of inequalities without PR.”
Giles: “I live in a safe seat; my vote has never made a difference.”
Z: “I want solution-focused action, no more mudslinging.”
Michael: “I live in the Cotswolds. Never had anybody represented my vote yet and I am sixty.”
Christopher: “In GE 2019, proportional representation would have avoided the Cummings plutocracy we have now.”
For Morning Star readers, socialists and members of the Labour Party, what’s not to like about these and hundreds of other comments? Getting rid of a Tory government? Wanting to create a far more democratic voting system? Creating a less toxic political culture?
FPTP is a stitch-up. A post-election opinion poll of Labour Party members in December 2019 revealed that 76 per cent of them favour bringing in a proportional representation voting system. They urgently want to replace the archaic FPTP stitch-up created in an era before women won the right to vote.
That was also the loud and clear message sent from a recent internal policy consultation when more than 400 submissions called for PR to become Labour’s policy on elections.
But Starmer doesn’t seem to get it. Labour’s recent consultation on constitutional change didn’t even address the relationship between votes and seats in general elections, focusing instead on devolution. This prompted even the centrists at the Guardian to write a relatively critical editorial on Sir Keir.
Now a bit of maths. If you consider the level of victory Johnson’s Tories have just achieved, it is comparable to Blair’s so-called “landslide” in 1997. Then, Blair gained 43.2 per cent of the popular vote and only 0.4 per cent less than Johnson did last December. Following 1997, Labour lost ground in every subsequent election and clung on in 2005 with just 35.2 per cent. But under the “logic” of FPTP, Blair still kept a sizeable majority.
If Johnson follows a similar slow fall from electoral grace, we’re foreseeably waiting until at least 2029 before we see a Labour government once again under FPTP.
And what about the views of others who don’t vote Labour or Tory?
More possible developments, such as voter ID and boundary changes (put on hold for now owing to Brexit) may tip the scales even more in the Torries’ favour. These changes will disenfranchise mainly Labour and other non-Tory voters.
Labour also must accept the likely permanent loss of Labour’s former Scottish voter base either through Scottish Independence or the SNP simply continuing as they are. And to assume “Red Wall” voters will be hopping on the next bus back to Labourland is far-fetched, especially in an era when social-democratic parties have been flattened across Europe. Anyone heard of Francois Hollande lately?
An electorate that perceives Brexit as a purely Tory venture is also going to persevere no matter how badly things may go in the short-term.
All of these factors make a Labour majority in 2024 appear a delusional mountain for Starmer to even attempt to climb.
More maths. Under FPTP, here are the daunting numbers that Labour faces if it is to win the next election with a majority of simply one seat. According to the June 2020 assessment by the Labour Party itself, Labour would first need to win 124 more seats than in December 2019 and secondly increase its total number of seats by 60 per cent. No party has ever achieved either feat.
We can look abroad to see countries where a FPTP-rigged system once also returned mostly conservative governments. Take New Zealand. The National Party, its own conservative party, won 12 out of 17 post-war elections from 1946 to 1993. This is comparable to the UK Tory party winning 8 out of 13 in the same time period. But after a 1993 New Zealand referendum brought in a form of PR, Labour and the National Party basically split victories between 1996 and 2014.
Most recently, in 2017, even though losing on overall number of seats, Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party was able to form a government along with the New Zealand Greens and the nationalistic New Zealand First. Ardern’s government is seen, at least by some, as a watermark standard globally by which to judge the English-speaking Left. PR was a critical factor for Kiwi progressives.
Alongside these pragmatic reasons, there is also a strong moral case for PR. MP Clive Lewis sees PR as a way to tackle what he calls the “crisis of democracy,” Labour’s own “crisis of culture” and his view that “ if the rules of the system are broken, don’t fight by them.”
Brexit exposed this crisis more than any other issue, with both Remainers and Leavers only seemingly agreeing on one thing: that the spectacle had become a pantomime.
Within Labour itself, at least some of its current toxicity can be attributed to the fact that groups with significantly different ideologies are gathered under a single banner. It is the FPTP system that mostly keeps them together. In Switzerland, by comparison, there are two Green Parties of different hues. In 2007, the centrist wing split off to form the Green Liberal Party. Both parties have seats in the Swiss Parliament allocated on the basis of PR.
In Finland, which also has PR, five parties —- and not incidentally, all led by women —- rule in a coalition government of the left headed by the Social Democratic Party.
To return to the UK in the present: Labour must commit now to enable planning and a culture change to begin to happen. The devil will be in the detail of the opposition parties working together to get the Tories out in 2024. But if Labour commits earlier, then the detail can be resolved.
And if just two letters of Labour’s 2024 manifesto can be written in coming months, they will re-energise the widespread opposition to the party that millions of us hate ferociously: the ruling-class Conservative and Unionist Party.
Those two letters in the manifesto must be PR. The time is now, Sir Starmer. It’s time to get PR done.
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