Many progressives are certain that the only hope of ending the Conservative regime is to replace the first-party system. Poll expert PETER KELLNER isn’t sure it’s a good idea
The business is done easily – and frequently: if we had a different method of electing our MPs, Britain would still be in the European Union.
The 2019 general election produced a large parliamentary majority for Brexit, as first past the post (FPTP) skewed the votes. Almost 17 million people voted for parties that wanted to arrest Boris Johnson; only 15 million people voted for the parties that campaigned to ‘make Brexit happen’.
Yet the new parliament elected 373 pro-Brexit MPs and only 277 for all other parties combined. It’s clear, isn’t it, that a proportional system would have allowed Britain to stay in the EU?
In fact, it is not so clear. In fact, it is impossible to be sure what would have happened with a different voting system. As with sports, if you change the rules, you change the behavior of the players.
In any event, the choice of systems should reflect deeper democratic principles than the anger that a particular competition produced the “bad” result. But as political interest is likely to affect what goes on, we should also note that Labor may well be the biggest loser in proportional voting.
Let us take in turn the questions of principle and of personal interest.
General elections have three functions: choosing a government, electing MPs to represent local communities, and providing a legislature that reflects the diversity of the electorate. Here is the problem. There is no system in which all three functions can be fully fulfilled. The FPTP ensures representation of local communities, normally provides government for which millions of people have specifically voted, but generally does not reflect the full range of views of the electorate.
Proportional systems are more apt to produce parliaments that reflect the views of the electorate, but dilute the community function (because they require either larger multi-member constituencies or additional provisions to ensure proportionality). They also lead, with rare exceptions, to coalition governments, often negotiated at length once the votes have been counted. These can provide good and stable administrations; but their agreed programs are those for which not a single voter has voted.
In short, there is no such thing as a perfect system. Compromises must be made. It is inevitable that different Democrats will have different priorities and favor different systems. Those who are less embarrassed by post-election coalition deals and who don’t fear larger constituencies, but who believe the spectrum function is paramount, will support a proportional system. FPTP is for those who want a clear choice of government and for each MP to have a constituency link. The alternative vote is for those who like majority government most of the time, but want to help the small parties a little bit and also keep the ridings as they are.
The UK system clearly punishes small parties with broad geographic appeal, such as the Liberal Democrats, Greens and, in recent times, UKIP.
Defenders of SMU cannot reasonably dispute the existence of this bias. They are, however, on firmer ground when they defend the election of majority governments with the support of a minority. The arguments over pro-anti-anti-Brexit parties in the 2019 echo those put forward after Margaret Thatcher’s landslide victory in 1983. Thirteen million Conservative voters elected 397 MPs, while the 16 million who voted Labor or for the Liberal Alliance / SDP only obtained 232. opposition deputies. Was Thatcher’s victory legitimate?
Yes in fact. In the 1983 and 2019 elections, the Tory leader handily defeated the leader of the Labor Party, when polls asked voters who would make the best prime minister. Four times as many people preferred Margaret Thatcher to Michael Foot (according to Gallup); twice as many voters preferred Boris Johnson to Jeremy Corbyn (YouGov and Opinium).
Plus, it’s not just that Johnson was Britain’s favorite prime minister 18 months ago. It is also that Brexit was not the only issue in the 2019 elections. No subject ever is. If voters had been determined to block Brexit first and foremost, we would have seen a lot of tactical votes, like in 1997, to defeat as many Tories as possible. It didn’t happen. The harsh truth is that many pro-Europeans were more eager to stop Corbyn than to stop Brexit. The fault, dear Brutus, was not in our voting system but in the choice of the leader of the Labor Party.
This is absolutely not to say that SMU is the best system. Overall, I prefer the alternative vote as the best, or least bad, way to compensate for the competing needs of choosing a national government, representing local communities, and reflecting the range of views of voters at the same time. legislature. Is it perfect? No; but no system is. Reasonable people can come to different conclusions as to what is best. However, we should all beware of fanatics who view proportional voting as the savior of democracy or the work of the devil.
While the questions of principle are less clear-cut than they appear at first glance, the practical implications of the current quest for electoral reform are simpler. The bottom line is that a new system will need Labor support. The Tories hate the idea and beat the Liberal Democrats in 2011. David Cameron gave Nick Clegg a referendum on the alternative vote and then won the battle to maintain the status quo. The only chance to switch to a proportional system is for Labor to support it wholeheartedly.
The question is, is it in the interests of Labor to do so? A glance at what happened to the center-left parties in other countries offers a terrible warning. As I recently reported in these pages, proportional voting systems have punished a number of sister Labor parties in recent years. The reason is simple. Proportional voting allows small parties to prosper. This is indeed part of the point. If, say, a tenth of the electorate shares a political perspective, shouldn’t they have a tenth of the seats in parliament?
Here is the problem. Suppose such a system had existed in Britain in recent years, it would have changed the dynamics of party competition. Today’s parliament could have dozens of MPs from small parties ranging from Greens to UKIP – even, perhaps, the British National Party, which the FPTP helped destroy. In addition, new parties may have emerged. An obvious candidate would be a Momentum-style Socialist Party much more hostile to capitalism than any recent Labor leader except Corbyn.
The transformation would not happen overnight, but after a decade or so there is a good chance that, as in other countries, Labor will be overwhelmed by other center-left or socially liberal parties. with a clearer brand image. Think of the German Greens, the D66 in the Netherlands, Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain.
With a proportional system, Labor would be deprived of the ‘wasted vote’ argument to dissuade people from supporting the Lib Dems, the Greens or a new left socialist party. The workforce could suffer much like Woolworths and Debenhams did when shopping habits on the streets changed. Just as underperforming department stores were punished by niche shops and online retailers, Labor could lose to parties with sharper appeal encapsulated in clear slogans on, say, tackling climate change. , scrapping nuclear weapons or imprisoning bloated bankers.
A disinterested Democrat might answer: why not? If this is how the spectrum of progressive views unfolds, shouldn’t each element be reflected in the House of Commons according to its level of support? It is a debate worth pursuing in university policy departments. The result could be a fairer, more inclusive and more efficient diet. Or it could be a more chaotic system with unstable governments unable to act strategically. The truth is, none of us can be sure.
With that in mind, imagine you are Keir Starmer, facing calls to support voting reform. You look at other countries and see proportional representation could ruin your party. It might not be, but would you take the risk?
Moreover, to become Prime Minister you have to win in the current system. It makes perfect sense to build bridges with other progressive parties, as Tony Blair did with Paddy Ashdown in the 1990s. It is worth making common cause with Ed Davey, Nicola Sturgeon and Caroline Lucas on climate change, fairer taxes, social protection – and relations with the EU. But embracing electoral reform would be playing Russian roulette with the future of the party. (The math might be different if there was a great public outcry for proportional representation. There isn’t.)
The lesson for pro-Europeans is just as clear. Like sailors in a stormy ocean, they must make the most of the conditions they face. Rightly or wrongly, the voting system will not be changed until the next election – or soon after. To pretend otherwise is pure displacement activity.
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