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Be careful what you wish for… voting reform could kill Labour

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer and Deputy Leader Angela Rayner - Credit: PA

Many progressives are certain that the only hope for ending Tory rule is to replace first past the post. Polling expert PETER KELLNER is not so sure it is a good idea

The case is made easily – and frequently: if we had a different method for electing our MPs, Britain would still be in the European Union.

The 2019 general election produced a big parliamentary majority for Brexit because first past the post (FPTP) distorted out votes. Almost 17 million people voted for parties that wanted to stop Boris Johnson; just 15 million voted for parties that campaigned to “get Brexit done”.

Yet the new parliament elected 373 pro-Brexit MPs and only 277 for all the other parties combined. It’s clear, is it not, that a proportional system would have enabled Britain to stay in the EU?

Actually, it’s not that clear. In fact it’s impossible to be sure what would have happened under a different voting system. As with sport, if you change the rules, you change the way players behave.

In any event, the choice of systems should reflect deeper democratic principles than anger that a particular contest produced the ‘wrong’ result. But in as far as political self-interest is bound to affect what happens, we should also note that Labour could well be the biggest loser from proportional voting.

Let us take the issues of principle and self-interest in turn.

General elections have three functions: to choose a government, to elect MPs to represent local communities, and to provide a legislature that reflects the diversity of the electorate. Here’s the problem. No system exists in which all three functions can be fully achieved. FPTP ensures the representation of local communities, normally provides a government that millions of people have specifically voted for, but usually fails to mirror the full range of views among the electorate.

Proportional systems are better at producing parliaments that reflect the electorate’s opinions, but dilute the community function (because they require either larger multi-member constituencies or top-up arrangements to ensure proportionality). They also, with rare exceptions, lead to coalition governments, often negotiated at length once the votes are counted. These can provide good and stable administrations; but their agreed programmes are ones that not one single elector has voted for.

In short, there is no perfect system. Trade-offs must be made. It is inevitable that different democrats will have different priorities and favour different systems. Those who are less bothered by post-election coalition deals, and don’t mind bigger constituencies, but believe that the range-of views function is paramount, will back a proportional system. FPTP is for those who want a clear choice of government and for every MP to have a constituency link. The Alternative Vote is for those like majority government most of the time, but want to help smaller parties a bit and also to keep constituencies as they are.

Britain’s system plainly punishes smaller parties with a broad geographical appeal, such as the Liberal Democrats, Greens and, in recent times, UKIP.

Defenders of FPTP cannot reasonably dispute the existence of that bias. They are, however, on stronger ground when they defend the election of majority governments with minority support. The arguments about the pro-versus-anti Brexit parties in the 2019 echo those made after Margaret Thatcher’s landslide victory in 1983. Thirteen million Conservative voters elected 397 MPs, while the 16 million who voted Labour or for the Liberal/SDP Alliance secured just 232 opposition MPs. Was Thatcher’s victory legitimate?

Yes, actually. In both the 1983 and 2019 elections, the Tory leader defeated Labour’s leader hands down, 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).

What’s more, it’s not just that Johnson was Britain’s preferred prime minister 18 months ago. It is also that Brexit was not the only issue in the 2019 election. No one subject ever is. Had voters been determined to block Brexit above all else, we would have seen a great deal of tactical voting, as in 1997, in order to defeat as many Conservatives as possible. It didn’t happen. The harsh truth is that many pro-Europeans were keener to stop Corbyn than to stop Brexit. The fault, dear Brutus, lay not in our voting system but in Labour’s choice of leader.

This is emphatically not to say the FPTP is the best system. On balance, I prefer the Alternative Vote as the best, or least bad, way to trade off the competing needs to choose a national government, represent local communities reflect the range of voters’ views in the legislature. Is it perfect? No; but no system is. Reasonable people can come to different conclusions as to what’s best. However, we should all beware fanatics who regard proportional voting as either the saviour of democracy or the work of the devil.

If the issues of principle are less clear-cut that they seem at first sight, the practical implications of the current quest for voting reform are more straightforward. The key thing is that a new system will need Labour’s support. The Tories hate the idea and outmanoeuvred the Lib Dems in 2011. David Cameron conceded to Nick Clegg a referendum on the Alternative Vote and then won the battle to keep the status quo. The only chance of switching to a proportional system is if Labour backs it wholeheartedly.

The question that arises is this: is it in Labour’s interest to do so? A glance at what has happened to centre-left parties in other countries offers a terrible warning. As I reported in these pages recently, proportional voting systems have punished a number of Labour’s sister parties in recent years. The reason is simple. Proportional voting allows small parties to flourish. That, indeed, is part of the point. If, say, a tenth of the electorate share a political outlook, should they not have a tenth of the seats in parliament?

Here’s the problem. Suppose such a system existed in Britain in recent years, it would have changed the dynamic of party competition. Today’s parliament might have dozens of MPs from smaller parties ranging from the Greens to UKIP – even, perhaps, the British National Party, which FPTP helped to destroy. Moreover, new parties might have sprung up. One obvious candidate would be a Momentum-style socialist party far more hostile to capitalism than any recent Labour leader apart from Corbyn.

The transformation would not happen overnight, but after a decade or so, the chances are that, as in other countries, Labour would be outflanked by other left-of-centre or socially liberal parties with a clearer brand image. Think of Germany’s Greens, Holland’s D66, Greece’s Syriza or Spain’s Podemos.

With a proportional system, Labour would be deprived of the “wasted vote” argument to deter people from supporting the Lib Dems, Greens or a new left wing socialist party. Labour could find itself suffering much like Woolworths and Debenhams did when patterns of high-street shopping changed. Just as under-performing department stores were punished by niche shops and on-line retailers, Labour could lose out to parties with a sharper appeal encapsulated in clear slogans on, say, fighting climate change, scrapping nuclear weapons or jailing bloated bankers.

A disinterested democrat might respond: why not? If that is how the range of progressive opinion pans out, shouldn’t each element of it be reflected in the House of Commons according to its level of support? It’s a debate well worth having in university politics departments. The result might be a fairer, more open and effective polity. Or it might be a more chaotic system with unstable governments unable to act strategically. The truth is, none of us can be sure.

Bearing this in mind, imagine you are Keir Starmer, facing calls to back voting reform. You look at other countries and see that proportional representation could wreck your party. It might not – but would you take the risk?

Besides, to become prime minister you must win under the present system. It makes complete sense to build bridges to other progressive parties, as Tony Blair did with Paddy Ashdown in the 1990s. It is well worth making common cause with Ed Davey, Nicola Sturgeon and Caroline Lucas on climate change, fairer taxes, social care – and relations with the EU. But to embrace voting reform would be to play Russian roulette with the party’s future. (The calculation might be different if there was a great public clamour for proportional representation. There isn’t.)

The lesson for pro-Europeans is equally clear. Like mariners in a storm-tossed ocean, they must make the best of the conditions they face. Rightly or wrongly, the voting system won’t be changed before the next election – or soon afterwards. Pretending otherwise is a pure displacement activity.

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