Why Labour should support PR

By Stephen Flaherty, Nottingham East CLP

When I decided to write this piece for The Clarion, I was stumped as to how to frame it. Not because I couldn’t think of what to say but because there were so many reasons that I felt it was going to be hard to get the article below 15,000 words!

Don’t believe me? Here’s a list:

  • PR is fairer. It means people’s choice of politician will be more accurately represented in Parliament
  • PR engages people in politics: It encourages diversity in political choice and so doesn’t restrict people to choosing between one of two monolithic Parties (or another party with no chance of winning).
  • Because of the above, it forces the main parties to listen to and respond to ideas that are the concern of the electorate (as, if they don’t, other parties will.)
  • PR eliminates tactical voting. People can vote for who they believe in rather than the candidate with the best chance of keeping the Tories out.
  • PR eliminates safe seats (to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the method chosen) which has two effects:
    • No politician is safe from the wrath of the electorate, no matter where they stand.
    • At election time, parties are concerned with securing all votes, not just the ones from the hundred or so marginals.
  • PR is more progressive. A study of OECD countries shows that countries with PR tend to have have more progressive governments, whereas FPTP countries tend towards right-wing governments.

And I could go on. But you needn’t worry. I decided to pick just one and run with it. If it’s favourably received, I may do follow ups on the others.

The terrible legacies of 1945 and 1997

I was at a Labour event recently trying to plug all of this and I met a Labour councillor who said he’d never support PR because it would mean Labour would never get a majority government again. I could have disputed this – Labour have had majority governments in both Wales and Scotland under PR (still do have in Wales) but really I felt like asking “How’s that going for you?”

Labour have had three periods of majority government in the past hundred years. That sentence alone should make you wonder whether supporting FPTP is a good idea. If we exclude the Wilson government of the 60s (and even more so the Wilson/Callaghan government of the 70s, which was, essentially, a minority government) this gives us two main periods of government that were both hugely reformist: 1945 and 1997.

Because so much was accomplished in 1945 and because that government was terminated so quickly (before finishing the job) – largely as a result of FPTP, incidentally, Labour got more votes than the Tories in 1951, but less seats – there’s been a sense ever since that Labour must once again gain power and completely revolutionise the country. This ignore the uniqueness of 1945 and the fact that the arguments for most of Labour’s reforms had been won by then – note that the Tories didn’t try to undo all the changes Labour had made.

1945, because it was so radical, has had a bad effect. We tend to look at it and say “Wasn’t that great?”, which is fair enough, but we should be asking “Why was it so short? Why did we only have six years? Why did it take 13 years and a virtual collapse in the Tory party before we got back into power?”

Labour only won again after the Tories had become so corrupt and laden with scandals that nobody could vote for them. Even then, it was only by 4 seats and only lasted 6 years. Wilson’s Labour party lost in 1970. He was back for a minority government in 1974, despite getting less votes than Ted Heath (isn’t FPTP wonderful?) and Labour desperately clung onto power till 1979. And then there was Thatcher… All I’ll say about her is that in 1983 she lost votes, and gained seats – the combined result of FPTP and the SDP.

Come 1997 – eighteen years later! – the Tories had, once again, become so riven with splits and scandals that they lost the 1997 election. This isn’t to ignore Blair’s accomplishment in winning a huge majority, but merely to point out that any Labour leader would have won in 1997, possibly by not quite so much. It should also be pointed out that there was a secret pact between Labour and the Lib Dems in 1997 to not campaign too heavily in each others’ marginals, a state of affairs forced by FPTP. 18 years of opposition combined with an electoral system that forces you to court marginal seats led to a Labour party that was Tory-lite. Once in power, as the true nature of his government became apparent, Blair lost votes by the million and was only saved from opposition by the Tories’ inability to find a decent opponent. Once Cameron was elected, the game was up.

So, in answer to my question, it’s not going well. In fact it’s going terribly. In the past 100 years, there have been 27 years of majority Labour government and 5 years of minority/coalition Labour governments. The Tories, on the other hand have had 62 years of majority government and 6 years of coalition government. That’s more than twice as much as us.

More than twice as much as us!

How’s that going? It’s going terribly. More than twice as much as us!

People seem to think that this is a blip, an anomaly, that 18 years of Thatcher were a blip, that 13 years of opposition during the 50s and 60s were an anomaly, that all we need to do is rally, have one last push and we’ll be in no 10 with Corbyn and a radical programme. But it’s not. It’s the system. It’s FPTP. You can point to the SDP in the eighties or the revival of the Liberals in the fifties or to the collapse of the Labour vote under Blair in the noughties (and the concurrent increase in the Green and Nationalist vote) and say “if only people didn’t vote for those pesky Liberals/SDP/Greens/SNP/whatever, then we’d be in no 10.” But there will always be pesky Liberals/SDP/Greens/SNP/whatever and people will always vote for them. Fighting them under FPTP leads to Tory governments because of the nature of the system. Lets be honest, the blips here, the anomalies, they’re us! Labour governments are the exception, not the rule. Assume Corbyn did win the next election with a decent majority. What are his chances of winning the one after? If you’re honest, you’d have to say it depends on how badly the Tories are doing – Labour governments are the exception, not the rule. And whatever Corbyn does in power could be undone by the next Tory government.

Out of the last 19 elections – from 1945 onwards – there’s been a majority for Progressive parties in 16 of them – 84%! But in eight of those elections, we get majority Conservative governments and in two of them we get Tory coalitions. The Tories have governed for 42 out of those 72 years – 58% of the time, most of it in a majority government, some with huge majorities.

To sum up: FPTP isn’t just unfair. It’s biased towards the Tories. We should scrap it, and replace it with something that isn’t biased towards the Tories: PR.

Let us know what you think? Write a reply? theclarionmag@gmail.com

3 Comments

  1. PR is NOT more democratic since 0% of the electorate chooses the coalition which is decided only after the election takes place. It is NOT more engaging because the nature of the coalition is framed entirely by the party high-ups (witness last coalition) without reference to electorates.

    But above all one has to look at the specific situation in Britain: PR means no more majority Labour governments. This rules out progress towards the elimination of capitalism. No matter how much socialists transformed the Labour Party it would always have to eliminate policies which went beyond capitalism in order to satisfy coalition partners. Any party democracy we secure would also vanish as Conference policies would count for naught no matter how many CLPs and TUs voted for it in the face of coalition partners’ vetos.

    What liberals you lot are! And not just with a small “l”!

    1. If you’d read the article, you would have seen that it was almost entirely about your second point. A brief summary: 1) PR doesn’t mean no more majority governments – look at Wales. 2) FPTP is geared to give the Tories twice as many majority governments as Labour. I fail to see how we can make any progress towards the elimination of capitalism when the Party of Capitalism is in power for twice as long as we are and easily able to repeal any progress we make. Perhaps you could explain that to me?

      Regarding your other points: I’m not going to defend the coalition but I should point out that around 65% of the population voted for it, which gives it a lot more legitimacy than most governments, including the current one. It was widely speculated before the 2010 election that there would be a hung parliament, so nobody can say it was unexpected. It’s probably true to say that a lot of the Lib Dem voters were expecting a Lab-Lib coalition, but: 1) the numbers didn’t easily support it and 2) Labour weren’t interested. Personally, I think the LIbs should have sat it out (Charles Kennedy advocated this) but they were tempted by power. The Libs natural partners in government are, however, Labour and they were savagely punished for the Con-Dem coalition at the next election. So it’s untrue to say that the electorate have no influence over coalitions – how likely are the Libs to go into coalition with the Tories again?

      As for your fears about Labour Party Conferences counting for naught in the face of coalition… how much of the Tory programme got carried out in the last coalition? Most of it, including some quite radical policies that stuck in the craw of most Lib Dems but were forced upon them. In return, Clegg and the Lib Dems were thrown a few bones, but denied anything of significance. The party with the most seats dominates a coalition and that would always be Labour.

  2. If you’d read the article, you would have seen that it was almost entirely about your second point. A brief summary: 1) PR doesn’t mean no more majority governments – look at Wales. 2) FPTP is geared to give the Tories twice as many majority governments as Labour. I fail to see how we can make any progress towards the elimination of capitalism when the Party of Capitalism is in power for twice as long as we are and easily able to repeal any progress we make. Perhaps you could explain that to me?

    Regarding your other points: I’m not going to defend the coalition but I should point out that around 65% of the population voted for it, which gives it a lot more legitimacy than most governments, including the current one. It was widely speculated before the 2010 election that there would be a hung parliament, so nobody can say it was unexpected. It’s probably true to say that a lot of the Lib Dem voters were expecting a Lab-Lib coalition, but: 1) the numbers didn’t easily support it and 2) Labour weren’t interested. Personally, I think the LIbs should have sat it out (Charles Kennedy advocated this) but they were tempted by power. The Libs natural partners in government are, however, Labour and they were savagely punished for the Con-Dem coalition at the next election. So it’s untrue to say that the electorate have no influence over coalitions – how likely are the Libs to go into coalition with the Tories again?

    As for your fears about Labour Party Conferences counting for naught in the face of coalition… how much of the Tory programme got carried out in the last coalition? Most of it, including some quite radical policies that stuck in the craw of most Lib Dems but were forced upon them. In return, Clegg and the Lib Dems were thrown a few bones, but denied anything of significance. The party with the most seats dominates a coalition and that would always be Labour.

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