Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Promoting democracy?


There is a degree of poetic justice in the way in which a proposal to commit the Labour Party to supporting electoral reform was defeated yesterday. The votes of ordinary members (allegedly) were overruled by block votes cast by a handful of union bosses and leaders of other ‘affiliates’. It gets better (or worse, depending on your viewpoint); since an ordinary member can also be a member of a trade union and of one or more affiliated group, the same member can vote three or more times. There must be many ‘members’ of the Labour Party who ‘voted’ three times – probably once in favour and twice against, looking at the numbers (available here) – without ever having been asked for their opinion. A party which can operate its own affairs under such a flawed system, and justify retaining such a system, is not going to become a beacon for electoral reform.

This article yesterday (by an obviously Labour-supporting academic) set out some of the reasons for Labour’s persistent rejection of electoral reform. Ultimately, it seems to come down to the view that FPTP suits the Labour Party, and that there is no evidence that a system of PR would have made a Labour Government more likely. And it amounts to an admission that, as previously noted, the Labour Party would sooner allow the Tories to have absolute power for most of the time in exchange for Labour having an occasional turn, using an electoral system which encourages people to vote against the party they dislike most by voting for the only other one which stands a realistic chance of forming a government. The classic paragraph for me was this one:

“With the exception of the remarkable 1945 election, the British public have never voted in a majority for leftwing parties. Adding together the votes of Labour, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru at every other general election has never amounted to more than 50% of the vote. This is not to say that leftwing governments are impossible under PR, but there is virtually no evidence from British election history that more than 50% of British voters are prepared to vote for leftwing parties.”

It's an astonishing argument which amounts to saying that, because we can’t persuade enough people to support a left-wing programme (even supposing that we could call Labour’s programme ‘left-wing’, which is a whole other argument), we need an electoral system which allows us to impose such a programme based on a minority of votes. But is the underlying assumption – that under PR people would have voted for the same parties at every election as they did under FPTP – actually true? It seems to me unlikely; at the very least, freed of the pressure to choose between one of the ‘big two’ parties on the basis of which they hate least, and knowing that voting for their first choice party could no longer be described as a ‘wasted vote’, it is surely more likely that votes would be distributed rather differently. And that, in turn, might have had significant effects.

As an example of possible differences, even under FPTP, UKIP gained around 12.5% of the votes in the 2015 General Election. Had that been translated into seats, they would have held around 81 seats, a sizeable group in the Commons. And if people had believed that they could win, their vote might well have been higher. Had that happened, would the Conservative Party have fallen so heavily under the control of extreme Brexiteers, or would those extremists have remained more isolated in another parliamentary block? Would there even have been a referendum on the EU? Would their vote have collapsed in the following elections in the way in which it did? Engaging in ‘What If?’ is interesting, but ultimately a bit fruitless, other than to support the contention that the assumption that people would have voted the same way is unlikely to be valid.

The truth is that none of us can be certain what previous election results would have looked like under PR. Nor can we know what difference it will make to future election results. What we do know, however, is:

1.    It would be more likely that people would feel able to vote for their first choice party rather than vote for the party most likely to defeat the party they like the least, and

2.    The distribution of seats in parliament would more closely match the distribution of opinions amongst the electorate.

Arguing that securing a victory for ‘our’ party is more important than either of those outcomes is fundamentally undemocratic. But that’s where Labour now finds itself.

1 comment:

CapM said...

Given the record of the last Labour government and the likely approach taken by a Starmer led next one the left wing of the Labour party appear to endorsing a system where for most of the time vote Labour means getting Tory but every so often voting Labour gets you Tory Lite.