How do we win the arguments for Proportional Representation?

Labour’s National Executive effectively vetoed a motion passed by an overwhelming majority of party delegates at its Annual Conference to replace First Past The Post with Proportional Representation for British general elections. Doubtless this decision was influenced by recent opinion polling and seat projections which, if accurate, suggest that Labour are on course to win a majority in excess of three hundred seats. Who knows, perhaps such a disproportionate result may be the catalyst for electoral reform.

Before the next general election, whilst Labour grassroots members continue to pressure its leadership into supporting PR, we Liberal Democrats should change the terms of debate over electoral reform, and to that end educate the public about what PR entails.

In Britain, when electoral reform is debated, FPTP and PR are horrifically misrepresented. FPTP is portrayed as a standalone voting system, rather than just one of many majoritarian systems such as Alternative Voting or Two-round System. Meanwhile, PR systems are homogenised to the extent that majoritarian systems other than FPTP, namely AV, are misrepresented as forms of PR. Public miseducation about PR has allowed its opponents to craft horror stories of unworkable fragmented Parliaments and headache-inducing means of calculating results, patronisingly presenting FPTP as the safer, simpler system. If we hope to ever replace FPTP, debate over electoral reform should be about how we adopt PR rather than whether we should. This requires us to inform the public how the different systems work, not Single Transferable Voting, particularly in countering common anti-PR arguments.

A major argument presented against PR is that it would weaken the constituency connection between voters and MPs that FPTP purportedly provides. Under FPTP, voters often feel that their MP does not truly represent them, likely because they belong to a party not supported by even half of the electorate. In arguing for PR, in addition to emphasising the direct link between votes cast and seats awarded, we should also state that many PR systems do provide constituency connections, challenging anti-PR assumptions that the entire country would constitute one massive multimember constituency. STV, our preferred model, features multimember constituencies represented by teams of MPs reflective of local opinion. Additional Member System combines single-member FPTP constituencies with List-PR to ensure proportionality. And, List-PR may operate using multiple multimember constituencies, as with Scandinavian countries, rather than a single nationwide one, as with the Netherlands and Israel.

Another major argument presented against PR is that it allows extremist parties to enter Parliament and thus influence government policy. UKIP’s hypothetical win of eighty-three seats in 2015 and the likely inclusion of their populist, nationalist, xenophobic policies in any agreement with the Conservatives is often cited as an example. However, owing to FPTP’s spoiler effect, the Conservatives have persevered against a broadly divided left by co-opting UKIP’s or Reform UK’s policies, chiefly opposition to immigration, to attract their voters. Given the Conservative government’s recent actions, can anyone honestly distinguish between that ‘moderate’ major party and the ‘extremist’ Reform UK and UKIP? We must emphasise that PR systems often include electoral thresholds that prevent extremist parties from winning seats and Parliament from becoming kaleidoscopically fragmented. Such thresholds are usually three or five per cent of vote casts rather than one out of every 650 as insinuated by opponents of PR. Also, we should make voters consider whether it would be best for ‘extremist’ policies to be advocated only by parties with proportionate but minuscule parliamentary representation subject to a cordon sanitaire, or for such policies to be adopted and implemented by major government parties to frustrate fringe parties only electorally.

And the last major argument presented against PR is that it leads to legislative agendas which no-one voted for, in contrast to FPTP which delivers strong, single-party governments. Not only does FPTP not guarantee single-party government, as the events of the 2010s will attest, but the agendas of single-party governments are supported only by a plurality of voters, not a majority. We should emphasise that the legislative agendas created under PR, whether through coalitions or confidence and supply agreements, feature policies which are mutually advocated by parties which hold a combined majority of seats in Parliament and are thus agreeable to a majority of the electorate.

Although this may appear to confuse the issue, it is a lack of understanding by the voting public about how specific PR systems work, and the eager willingness of opponents of PR to misinform, that is actively barring the adoption of a fairer voting system, and a better style of politics.



* Samuel James Jackson is a member of the Executive Committee of the Calderdale Liberal Democrats, the Secretary of the Lower Valley Liberal Democrats and has served as a council candidate in the Ryburn and Park wards

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  • Sonia Duncan 11th Oct '22 - 4:05pm

    The best argument in favour of STV for Westminster elections is direct experience of using STV at council elections. Scottish voters are familiar with how STV works and their experience of STV in practice will undermine anti.STV arguments. That said, many voters in Edinburgh were less than impressed when it allowed the Liberal Democrats and the Tories to back Labour to lead the Council as a minority administration with only 13 councillors when the SNP had 19.

  • Adrian Sanders 11th Oct '22 - 4:09pm

    To win reform for something seen as complex and new, you dress it up as the traditional principle on which our democracy is based. FPTP was based on the winner being the candidate who polled at least half the votes plus one. But that only works when there are two candidates. PR is based on the patriotic British principle that a winning candidate must have polled at least half the votes plus one.

  • Arguments for PR should be based upon the traditional British idea of fairness. Why should there be UNEARNT majorities and often very large ones as many of the polls predict at the moment on clear minority vote shares? Why should some parties and, more importantly, the VOTERS for them, get OVER represented when the COST of that happening is LESS or NO representation for the VOTERS of other parties?

    VOTERS should be EQUAL at the ballot box whoever they vote for and wherever they are located in the country. Postcode lotteries as FPTP inherently creates with the different value a vote has in marginal as opposed to safe seats should be as unacceptable as regards democracy in Britain as most people find different levels of NHS provision in different areas is.

    The basic idea behind selling PR should be the VOTERS deserve to have the representation of THEIR choosing. If our democracy can’t achieve that and it doesn’t under FPTP then, frankly, what is the point of being a supposed representative democracy in the first place? We may as well go back to the days of the divine rule of Kings and Queens and have the Monarch of the House of Mountbatten-Windsor, King Charles III, rule us directly from Buckingham Palace.

  • Yes, Adrian Sanders, the proponents of FPTP can only make a credible case for it if there are only two candidates standing in each seat as FPTP is based-upon the notion there should be one winner and ONLY ONE LOSER in each single-member constituency.

    However, it is a long time since only Labour and the Tories contested parliamentary seats exclusively between them or there were seats only fought over by independents so, as a result, the number of losing candidates in each seat has markedly increased and therefore millions of votes across the country are effectively wasted and put into the nearest bin by the system.

    One fact the electoral reform groups don’t publicize but should is that the system was so wasteful of people’s votes that the number of votes cast for unsuccessful candidates was HIGHER at 14.5 MILLION than were cast for the governing Conservative Party at 13.9 MILLION in 2019.

  • FPTP was designed in an era where in Britain there were only two national parties, the Tories and Whigs (and later Liberals) or independents hence two candidates contesting each seat only.

    In 2022 on the ground we have MULTI party politics with Tories, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens and, in Scotland and Wales, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. FPTP is an ancient system inherently designed for either two party politics or non partisan independent politics. The country on the ground has long since outgrown it and we need to have an electoral system for multi party politics not one only suited to two.

  • James Fowler 11th Oct '22 - 7:57pm

    The simple answer (in my view) is that you can’t and you don’t. Changes to the voting system – if they come – will have to be smuggled through as part of a Parliamentary deal rather than a referendum. But I think the only time in my lifetime when such a move could have been made successfully stick was shortly after 1997. Labour, of it’s own accord, could have passed a ‘trial’ AV for 2001 which would not have disputed after the fact and become the new normal. That’s about as far as it goes.

  • It all depends on who you are speaking to at the time, and what their understanding of PR actually is, but I’d say Steven is right that the main thrust of the argument and justification for a change of system is that we should have a fair voting system.

    I think it’s best to combine this with a bit of electoral history as to what elections were like when FPTP was first used, it leads onto explaining why it’s no longer appropriate and we can do much better. Opponents rely on most people believing the current system must be fair because we’re supposed to live in a democracy, and change is being pushed by sore losers who want to rig it. So we need to start by helping people realise that a majority in the House of Commons or any individual seat does not mean the support of the majority of voters.

    Being enthusiastic about an alternative system helps. It gives a tangible sense that an alternative isn’t just possible, it’s reasonable.

  • Stand alone FPTP should be scrapped because the system doesn’t represent the voter’s democratic will to an accurate enough degree. Often the results it throws up are more akin to a random lottery than a rational, logical or fair system of democratic representation eg to take just one example out of many over the years the system lost the Liberal Democrats an MP in 2019 even though the party gained 4% more of the national vote share over that of 2017. The electoral system should always REWARD parties who increase their popularity with the electorate not penalize them.

    Another example from 1983 was that Thatcher’s Tories GAINED MORE REPRESENTATION ie 38 seats more even though her party LOST popularity from 1979 to 1983.

  • The system is so crude, simplistic, inaccurate, irrational and unfair it can’t even guarantee that the party with the most support will always have the most seats eg in 1951 the Labour Party polled its highest ever vote share but the system gave most seats to the Conservatives enabling Winston Churchill to form a single party government and to turf Attlee out of office.

    Conversely, a ‘wrong winner’ result happened in 1974 the other way around when the Tories polled more votes but the system gave the Labour Party more seats so Heath’s Premiership was ended.

  • Keith Sharp 12th Oct '22 - 5:49am

    Samuel raises many of the most regular attacks on PR systems. We have, I believe, to do be able to rebut these but also put forward a positive reason for voters to want a voting system change. We know there is widespread dissatisfaction with the way politics works in this country (61% dissatisfaction in 2019 according to the BBC); we need to link that to the way we elect our politicians and who forms the government as a result.

    But we do need to rebut these attacks as well – if you go to LDs for Electoral Reform, you will see an FAQ section. Crucially this links to leading democracy organisations as well (Make Votes Matter, Electoral Reform Society) as this campaign has to be won by non-party/all-party organisations as well. A combined effort.

    (Keith Sharp is Chair, Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform)

  • Chris Moore 12th Oct '22 - 8:14am

    Oh dear, let’s not be naive:

    1. Labour rank and file will also drop their interest in PR once a Labour majority goverment is installed. Please learn from history.

    2. Any Lib Dem GE campaign centred on excruciatingly detailed explanations to the electorate of the particular flavour of PR that we favour and why and how wonderful it is will be a massive vote loser. It will mark us out as totally irrelevant to the concerns of nearly all the voters.

    We have limited air time and we need to focus unerringly on the terrible living standard issues facing most people.

    3. The only way to obtain PR is to win a thick wedge of LD MPs and a hung parliament. We will not achieve that if we have a GE campaign focussed on PR.

  • Ianto Stevens 12th Oct '22 - 9:09am

    Agree with Chris More. It may be worth emphasizing that a single transferable vote does allow voters to put the party they disapprove of most as their last preference.

  • We have been going on about PR for yonks, Really it is a waste of energy. Once a party has a majority they soon lose interest, and that will apply to Labour. Let us not forget that the Canadian Liberals promised PR when in opposition and during the election, but as soon as they were in power it was dropped, and that will apply to Labour.

  • Agreed with Chris Moore. PR will not solve any of the problems we currently have with healthcare, cost-of-living, energy security, etc. At best it might allow in ten or more years time the formation of a government that could be (but won’t necessarily be) better at solving them.

    It’s the right thing to do, but stick it on page 57 of the manifesto where the politics nerds like me who care will see it anyway, get it implemented if you get chance, and focus on things with rather more immediate impact and urgency for your attempts to convince voters you have the best ideas.

  • Sadly, I reluctantly have to admit that PR is not the most important policy on the minds of the UK electorate at the moment, given the mess our country and the rest of the world is in, our problems being made worse by a misguided and inept Tory government. In the short term my only hope is that the Lib Dems can continue to highlight , along with others, how unrepresentative this Truss government is and how dangerous their policies are to our economy in more ways than one!

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Oct '22 - 3:19pm

    @Ianto Stevens
    In a single transferable vote (in a multi-member constituency) one is putting candidates in order of preference, not parties.

    Which enables voters to place in their preferred order candidates not only from their preferred political party but also candidates from other parties if they so wish. Which takes much power away from parties and gives it to the voters. Which is probably why authoritarian parties don’t like the system.

  • I agree that it’s not a big winner for pre-election debates, but I’m not sure anyone was suggesting that. Unfortunately, the best time to talk about PR is in the immediate aftermath of an election when people are more interested in analysis of what went on, and may already be disgruntled about it not being fair. The rise of social media has allowed campaign organisations to very quickly distribute effective graphics comparing votes with seats won, often tailored to particular regions for extra interest.

    Between elections there’s scope for discussing how different HOC votes are impacted by our unfair system. The @PropVoting twitter account tracks votes to see if the outcome would change if party seats were in proportion to votes. It’s crude, yet effective at getting the message out that it really doesn’t need to be like this.

    Making reference to these non-party associated organisations to gently make the case for PR whenever the opportunity arises away from election time is I think the best way to get a change in thinking in the general population. Bonus points if you point out that STV overcomes most of the criticisms laid at list systems.

  • Until or unless we get PR voting, I just do not believe the changes, reforms & then a degree of continuity required for prosperity & a better society can be achieved.

    Labour’s wish to inherit the unwarranted representation from a FPTP win provides 5 year elective dictatorships, during which they can fiddle the rules in their favour and ignore whatever views and needs they wish to and bring in whatever measures they like, Johnson style.

    There was no £30bn iD database in the Labour manifesto when they tried to invent reasons to justify such a ruining of civil liberties and nobody was asking for it. Brown refused to drop the control fr– kery even in his weak position in coalition negotiations with a 2010 Nick Clegg.

    If Labour form their working majority of monopoly power based on 40% or so of the vote, they will bring in various changes, such as a welcome re-introduction of various public ownership. After 1-3 terms of Labour government, with a vote falling each time, the Tories ( or some other right wing variant) have re-grouped and got back into power for their fourth four terms of power, selling off anything that moves, offering tax cuts based on income from the privatisations and we are back into the dreadful, unstable British pattern under FPTP. An inbuilt right wing default of privatisation, suppressed pay bargaining and Unions, low wages, under funded public services, with high costs and profits.

  • John Littler 14th Oct '22 - 9:28pm

    1). STV would be the easier sell to the British public, given that it topples the Tory argument about PR losing the link with constituents. Indeed, Multi member constituencies would normally give people a choice of individual MPs & parties to go to.

    It also makes the popular activity of gerrymandering the boundaries by governments in their favour ineffective, because any likely changes of voter preferences would make for a very tiny percentage of totals.

    On the degree of proportionality, STV would be close enough except for constitutional purists, but it could be pointed out that if people wanted accurate proportionality, they could just add a regional top up list of a smaller number of MP’s.

    STV offers a further advantage over the EU party list system. STV gives the power to the voter as to whatever combination of parties and individuals they choose and in whatever order. The latter gives the power of hierarchy and candidate priority to the parties.

  • 2) STV also offers a system where as much as could be reasonably expected, everyone’s vote counts & has a good likelihood of contributing to someone being elected, so long as they don’t vote for unpopular fringe candidates. Many constituencies would have Tory, Labour & LibDem MP’s & the odd Green.

    The drawback to STV is that the way the votes are counted, crossed off & transferred to the 2nd and 3rd etc candidates, sounds complicated to explain to the voting public, even if writing 1, 2, 3, 4., 5, 6 into candidate boxes is very easy to get. Opponents would make much hay over the extra administration cost for longer counts. It should be broken down to that of a coffee or less every 4-5 years.

    The Irish have taken to STV & would provide lots of anecdotal support. It has covered the period in which it left it’s backwards religiosity behind and went way forward into the 21st Century.

    I believe that without PR voting, the UK will remain unbalanced economically, unstable and in decline, with poor public services, suppressed pay bargaining, low wages and anything but progressive, but with the occasional wild political swing, as appears to be coming.

  • Andrew Tampion 17th Oct '22 - 7:48am

    One way to promote PR would be to put it forward as the electoral system for a future reformed and democratic House of Lords.
    However it is important to recognise that FPTP has advantages and also that there are problems with PR for example as John Littler points out some PR systems give undue power to political parties.

  • Peter Hirst 17th Oct '22 - 5:32pm

    Let’s look at the implications of FPTP. These include tactical voting that corrupts our whole political system. The idea of voting for another Party (candidate) because it has a better chance of beating the one you detest is fundametally immoral. This in turn corrupts our whole democratic system. If choice means anything it must include being able to vote for what you want, knowing it will not allow a less liked option win, something that FPTP allows.

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