The Case for Proportional Representation

OULC member, Owen Winter, who is the co-founder and director of Make Votes Matter, argues that Labour should back proportional representation in order to radically shift the balance of power in the country. 

“For the many not the few” is a message that resonated across the country last June. Labour was the party that stood up for the unrepresented, for ordinary people against the vested interests backed by the Tories. The phrase is more than just a soundbite; it appears in our constitution and informs much of our policy platform. But if we want to truly shift the balance of power in this country, we need to reassess our decaying democratic institutions. Most importantly, we need an electoral system that empowers people, rather than restricting democratic participation to the small number of swing voters who live in a dwindling number of marginal seats.

Our First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system divides the country into single member constituencies with MPs elected by a simple plurality of votes in each constituency. The system sounds simple but it grossly distorts election results, severing the link between support at the ballot box and seats in Parliament. Under FPTP, if you vote for a losing candidate, or for a winning candidate who has already received the required number of votes to win, your vote is essentially wasted and cannot alter the final makeup of Parliament. At the last general election, 68% of votes were wasted in this way, leading to a Parliament that fails to accurately represent the public. We need a voting system where all votes count equally, regardless of where you live or who you vote for. We need proportional representation (PR).

Not only is FPTP undemocratic, its purported benefits are falling apart. FPTP is supposed to deliver strong and stable government, but for the last three elections it has failed to deliver a large majority to any party. You can’t look at our current coalition of chaos, with the DUP who received less than 1% of the vote propping up the Conservatives, and think that FPTP has delivered stability. It is also supposed to guarantee a local constituency link, but with vast areas of the country becoming effective ‘electoral deserts’, local views are failing to be represented. When some MPs are elected with as little as 29% of the vote, is it any surprise that they are unable to articulate the views of all of their constituents?

Electoral reformers are often accused of being ‘political anoraks’, but our choice of voting system is far from just about fairness or partisan advantage. FPTP has serious real world effects on the way our country is run. There is a substantial body of evidence that countries with PR systems are more likely to have outcomes which we, as Labour members, can all get behind. PR countries tend to have lower income inequality, are likelier to share out public goods more evenly and take greater action on climate change. While there is considerable debate among academics as to how far PR is directly responsible for such outcomes, there is a strong case that a more proportional voting system, because it encourages politicians to reach out and work beyond their own sectional interests, is at least partly driving these results.

If Labour wins the next general election, it will have the opportunity to make a lasting impact on how society is organised. We as a party should combine bold social and economic policies with a radical programme of democratic reform, starting by abolishing our outdated voting system.

The Labour Party has historically been hesitant when it comes to changing the voting system, but we should remember that it was Labour that played a leading role in introducing proportional electoral systems to the UK’s devolved parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and London during Blair’s first term. The vast majority of Labour supporters back reform, with 76% of Labour voters saying they would support a commitment by the party to introduce a new voting system. MPs from across the board, including John McDonnell, Chuka Umunna, Cat Smith, and Stella Creasy, have come out in favour of reform. At a grassroots level, members are pushing PR up the internal policy making agenda. Now, it is time for Jeremy Corbyn to call for a more proportional voting system.

As the major party which is more open to reform, Labour is key to securing a better voting system. As a Labour member, you can help make electoral reform a reality by exerting continued pressure on Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs). Make Votes Matter and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform are already taking action now, passing motions in branches and CLPs, speaking to Labour members and pushing for a debate on PR at party conference.

The next time Labour comes to power, we will have the opportunity to bring our democracy into the 21st century and shift the balance of power for generations to come. Labour members need to ensure that this opportunity is not missed.

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