Why Socialists should support Proportional Representation

13 February 2021

Dave Kellaway looks at a better way of voting and why the left should not fear proportional representation.


“They might have won the election but they only won a minority of the votes you know, particularly if you add in all those who are not registered or did not vote”

How often have we said this or heard other people on the left say it? Thatcher won four

times but her highest vote was 43.9%. Tony Blair peaked at about the same but in his last

election formed a government with only 35.4%. Johnson presently rules, or rather misrules

us, after winning 43.6% of the vote. The last time a British government won more than 50%

of the vote was in 1931. Britain is practically the only European country which persists with

the undemocratic First Past the Post System (FPTP).


Yet often the same left people have been reluctant or even opposed to taking up a

campaign for a fairer voting system. This is what I have often heard from them:

“It leads to Labour seeking a coalition with more moderate forces”...“All the Blairites and

moderate Labourites want it so a radical Labour government will never get in”...“It lets the

fascists or racists get represented in not parliament”...“tinkering with bourgeois democracy

doesn’t change anything, it is the struggle in the streets and workplaces that is more

important than electoral arrangement”...“people lose their contact with a local MP”.


We heard a lot of these arguments when much of the left failed to support the 2011

referendum on a limited form of PR during the Cameron/Clegg government and it lost,

getting only 38% on a 42% turnout. Labour did not take an official position for or against.

Nevertheless, the tide seems to be turning and already 147 motions (and counting) have

been passed by local Labour parties for the 2021 conference. A great many submissions

have been made to Labour’s policy forum. Polls show over 75% of Labour members support it.


New activist campaigns have been established inside and outside the Labour party.

Links have been made with other democratic political currents like the Greens and Liberal

Democrats. The Starmer leadership are opening up a debate about British constitutional

arrangements. This article will try to explain why socialists should support PR and why we

need to actively campaign for it.


We support fairer voting systems


Even a six-year-old can see that FPTP is unfair. In 2019 it took 864, 000votes to elect one

Green MP and around 330,000 for one Lib Dem MP. It took 12 thousand fewer votes to elect

each Tory MP than for a Labour one. If you live in a constituency that has always had a

majority for one of the big parties you oppose, then your vote is wasted. It could well drive

you to not even participate in the democratic process or to vote tactically in order to get a

party in that you consider a lesser evil. Abstention rates in Britain have generally been

higher than in countries with PR. A 2018 video with John Cleese explains the basic details

here.

It took 12 thousand fewer votes to elect each Tory MP than for a Labour one. If you live in a constituency that has always had a majority for one of the big parties you oppose, then your vote is wasted.

Election campaigns under FPTP are totally distorted since the parties concentrate all their

resources and activists in the so-called marginal seats that change hands more regularly

from election to election. Political discussion and activity are much reduced in the ‘safe

seats’ that are always either Tory or Labour. It is much easier for complacency and even

corruption to flourish where you have one-party fiefdoms. We have seen this is local

government.


How First Past the Post blocks political parties


Undoubtedly the FPTP system has also contributed to how the two main political parties

have developed in Britain. The Corbynista experience has shown how the ‘broad church’ of

Labour is really an uneasy coalition between left social-democratic currents and social-

liberal centrists. In normal times the right and centre maintain strict control. The shock of

the Corbyn project will make it extremely unlikely that the right and centre will allow should

a project emerging again.


In countries where you have PR, you can have left social democratic, even class struggle forces, in separate political parties. One reason Starmer can go on the attack against Corbynism is that he knows how difficult it is without PR for a left-wing split to survive. This does not mean it is impossible for groups outside the main parties to have a political impact even without PR as we have seen with the Greens and UKIP/ Brexit party. But it is a lot more difficult.

One reason Starmer can go on the attack against Corbynism is that he knows how difficult it is without PR for a left-wing split to survive.

Even radical left groups have been able to build themselves effectively in fairer electoral

systems as can be seen in Portugal with the Left Bloc or in the Spanish State with Podemos.

PR on its own does not resolve the political problems of building a left alternative. The

radical left is without any institutional representation in Italy despite there being PR.

Podemos, in the Spanish State, is providing left cover for a moderate PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers Party) government by accepting government posts.


Will it push us into moderate coalitions?

Some people on the left say PR means you will need more than 50% to govern and this will

push you into making alliances to your right. On the one hand, it seems contradictory for

socialists to argue for fundamental change, a real break in the system and yet think it is

impossible to win an overall majority for this project. On the other hand, you can have a

situation where having a radical left current with between 5 and 10% can constrain a social

democratic government to at least partially defend the interests of working people. This can

be done through external support to a government, voting measures in parliament, without

taking ministerial positions – as we have seen with the Left Bloc and the Communist Party in

Portugal.


In any case in a blocked political system like in Britain those left forces inside Labour usually end up in far worst ‘alliances’ under Labour Governments, with little leverage to impose more progressive policies. Building a socialist alternative capable of breaking with

capitalism will involve mass struggles, revolutionary crises and interventions (perhaps for

prolonged periods) in parliamentary institutions.

Building a socialist alternative capable of breaking with capitalism will involve mass struggles, revolutionary crises and interventions (perhaps for prolonged periods) in parliamentary institutions.

Hung parliaments and coalitions are entirely possible under FPTP as we saw with the

Cameron/Clegg government after 2010 or the Lab/Lib pact under Callaghan in the 70s.

Devolved parliaments have also governed with coalitions. It is likely that if Corbyn had been

in hung parliament territory in 2019, he would have come to a pact with the Scottish

National Party.


As socialists, we do not want to abolish the gains of the current ‘bourgeois’ democracy - free elections, rights to assembly, free speech etc – but to build and expand them under a

socialist democracy. Even with workers or community councils exercising forms of direct

democracy there will be a need for the fairest possible system for counting votes and

respecting minority views.


The Labour leadership election and many other votes inside Labour use PR and some unions do too. Devolved parliaments set up by a Labour government have PR. It is a contradiction for Labour to continue to support FPTP for parliamentary elections.


Won’t it let the fascists in?


Another argument used by some on the left against PR is that it allows the hard right or

fascists to win representation. Remember the right-wing opposes PR because FPTP keeps

the radical left out of parliament too. It is interesting to note that nobody on the left in

countries like France, Italy or the Spanish state argues for the hard-right parties to be

banned from having parties or standing for parliament. Incidentally, I have not found one

left current who favours abandoning PR and returning to FPTP.


However, the left still supports the full force of the law being used against hate speech or

incitement to violence and organises mobilisations in defence of communities physically

intimidated or attacked by such reactionary forces. It is just that legal calls to ban them

would be understood as an attack on free speech by most people and would easily backfire

on the left as ‘all extremes’ are banned. If hard right or fascist MPs are elected it is a

political reality reflecting their relative support and it does not hinder a continued mass

campaign against their ideas and actions. You cannot wish their support away by legal bans.


It is not PR that has provided the political opening for their ideas. Often it is the failure of

the left of centre parties to defend the interests of working people. Participating openly in institutions can make it easier for their racist ideas to be examined and challenged.

Does it end the link to your constituency MP?


Another argument used against PR, not just by the left, is that PR destroys the direct link

between the local MP and their constituents. But how wonderful is that relationship

particularly if your MP does not share any of your political views? If you had multi-member

constituencies of 4 or 5 MPs you would be able to directly contact an MP of your political

persuasion to take up any issue. Your grievance can be more easily politicised through your

political party. In any case, this argument tends to privilege a sort of depoliticised, social

work view of political representation. Local political party branches should be taking up

grievances on a community level. Lots of people cannot even name their local MP so to

think this local link is a key question is exaggerated.


How can we campaign today?


You can sign up for the main campaigns. For people on the left the Labour Campaign for a

New Democracy has brought together different progressive campaigns such as Another

Europe is Possible or Labour Campaign for Electoral reform. They have model motions that

can be put to ward and general management committee meetings. Get PR Done is the

major national campaign which brings in the Greens, Liberal Democrats and the Electoral

Reform Society. Only three smaller trade unions have so far signed up. Motions need

passing in the big battalions and we should argue for PR voting in all union elections.


As a single-issue campaign on a key democratic demand, socialists should not have any

reservations about working with broader political forces. Nevertheless, it is important when

drawing up or motivating motions that we do not argue for PR because it will ‘moderate’

politics, drowning out the extremes and helping develop consensus politics for the common

good. I heard this argument in my local ward and it has to be taken up and challenged. We

are not in favour of PR because we want to push for a strategic electoral alliance with the

Liberal Democrats. Some of the moderate, pro-EU remain supporters argue along these

lines. Talk of progressive alliances of this type is a political line and is independent of where

we stand on PR. Groups like Compass have this idea of a progressive centre.


Faced with the triple ecological, pandemic and economic crises PR may seem a secondary

question. Indeed as an electoral mechanism, it is no magic bullet. There are countries with

PR and without PR where the left alternative is equally in the doldrums. But in the British

situation with our constitutional arrangements in crisis and what many see as a blocked

political system PR is an important demand that all socialists should support.

Dave Kellaway is a supporter of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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