Labour backs PR? Don’t hold your breath

Yesterday, Labour’s conference a motion calling for its next manifesto to include a commitment to introduce Proportional representation for parliamentary elections.

On one hand, it’s good to see the Labour conference finally catch up with us. We have long supported giving voters the Parliament they ask for.

Labour have, of course, introduced proportional voting systems before, in the Welsh and Scottish assemblies. Directly elected mayors are also elected by supplementary voting.  However, they have stuck with first past the post for Westminster because why wouldn’t they when it benefitted them.

Yesterday’s vote is significant in that it shows that the voices calling for change are growing. However, Keir Starmer and the Labour leadership have basically made it clear that it has as much chance of appearing in the manifesto as handing out a free unicorn to every 7 year old.

From The Guardian:

Before the vote, a senior Labour source downplayed the prospect of electoral reform even if Starmer wins the next election. “Anyone who thinks this would be a priority for the first term of a Labour government is kidding themselves,” they said.

However, what happens if, after the next General Election, Labour is short of a majority in the House of Commons. Obviously it depends on the exact numbers, but it is something we and the Greens could demand as the price of our support. From the Times Red Box this morning:

But Lara Spirit hears that those behind yesterday’s vote are jubilant. They don’t care, one admitted to her, about PR being in the manifesto, where its likely omission is currently considered fatal.

They wager that, should Labour win without a majority or with a slim and unstable one, Liberal Democrats and/or Greens will demand support for PR. And Labour will be forced to give it. In the eyes of those she spoke to celebrating yesterday, it’s now official Labour policy. In that scenario, how could they not?

The problem with that theory is that Labour is not known for humility in its negotiations with other parties. They have a deeply annoying habit of presenting their manifesto and telling those other parties that this is how it is going to be. They could just form a minority administration and dare us to vote it down.

We would have to assert ourselves to ensure that this was a priority in the first term.

Labour is wrong to suggest that this isn’t worth a new government’s immediate attention. First past the post has brought this country to the brink of disaster, with hugely damaging decisions being made by Governments chosen by a minority of the electorate.

Look at the 2019 General Election, for example. The Conservatives won 43.6% of the votes. Us and Labour between us had 43.7%. Yet the Conservatives were able to form a Government with an unassailable majority of 80 seats which enabled it to drag us out of the EU without checking we were happy with the terms. After a series of scandals, this Government has now basically crashed the economy against all sensible advice. Under PR, they would not have had that chance.

The challenge for those of us who support electoral reform is to present the argument to voters in a way that shows that it matters. We have to be proactive in winning that argument. There has to be some space for that discussion in our messaging to the Blue Wall. PR isn’t an insurance policy against bad governments, but it does protect us from the sorts of extremes we have seen in recent years.

If voters catch on to PR as a benefit to them, they will demand it. They may well wonder what took us so long.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Paul Barker 27th Sep '22 - 1:25pm

    Labour Conference doesn’t set policy but it is influential. The vote yesterday does represent a big shift in The Labour mood. Support for Fair Votes is at its highest ever level among Voters too.
    Its worth noting that Labour Target Seats now include none that we hold, there’s been a mood shift in Labour on that front too, with fewer activists seeing us as an Enemy.
    Small Steps but worth welcoming.

  • Peter Davies 27th Sep '22 - 2:03pm

    I’m not sure we should be welcoming the fact that we no longer hold any of Labour’s target seats but it might well prove convenient in this context.

  • Yes, it is very worthwhile to try and explain to people that introducing PR to the House of Commons is not just a matter of ensuring that parliament truely reflects how people actually vote and is about electoral justice and basic democratic fairness but that having an undemocratic system that wastes millions upon millions of votes at EVERY general election and is therefore grotesquely unrepresentative of the people’s democratic will also has REAL LIFE CONSEQUENCES such as the appallingly bad government we have at the moment with its total car crash approach to the economy , numerous other examples of utter incompetence and stupidity ie their pandemic handling, our exit from the EU, sacking vast numbers of often experienced police officers etc.

    One big reason the Tory Party is so scared of PR is because they know that with a more democratic electoral system in place that takes proper account of many more votes by wasting far fewer of them they would be forced to moderate their increasingly extremist libertarian loony economic policies as we have seen enacted in the last few weeks.

    Under PR, the Tories would have to grow up and at least attempt to govern for the broad mass of the population and not just institute economic policies for the top 10% and increasingly the top 1% in society.

  • To Tory voters who, in stark contrast to the professed stance of their party. ARE actually
    Unionists PR advocates could pont out that having PR for Westminster could help to bind the UK together and secure its future existence.

    There is little doubt in my mind that many Scots are tempted by the separatist arguments of the SNP as they constantly compare the reasonablely democratic institution of Holyrood with its PR system with Westminster and its archaic and grotesquely unrepresentative FPTP one. Westminster is still governing Scots on important and often controversial reserved issues like macro economic policies, immigration, foreign affairs and defence

    Setting up Holyrood with a PR system whilst leaving Westminster in an archaic time warp under stand alone FPTP was never going to be anything other than a problem when trying to combat the SNP and their arguments for separation.

  • Kevin Hawkins 27th Sep '22 - 4:40pm

    The only reason why Labour are showing interest in PR is that they have now lost four general elections in a row. If Labour win the next election there might be some sort of enquiry into the subject which will take years to report, with its conclusions then quietly ignored. The sad reality is that the Labour party will do what it thinks is best for them. Starmer simply isn’t interested in reform.

    Horrific though the prospect may seem the best chance for PR might be a Conservative win at the next general election. A fifth loss in a row might finally win over enough of Labour’s remaining anti-PR dinosaurs to make change a priority, and under a sympathetic new leader (Andy Burnham?) things might be different.

  • Jenny Barnes 27th Sep '22 - 5:13pm

    ” the best chance for PR might be a Conservative win at the next general election.”
    We’ve got a lovely new constitution. Shame about the smoking ruin of the country.

  • Tristan Ward 27th Sep '22 - 5:29pm

    No PR, in first session of Parliament, no deal with anyone. And that includes confidence and supply.

    Those of us who want PR are likely to have force it.

  • Paul Barker 27th Sep '22 - 5:47pm

    I have been following the debate in Labour over the past few Years & the Fairness argument has been the one driving change. Yes, Labour activists have noticed the way the System works against them – what’s wrong with that.
    We need to drop the idea that We somehow Own the issue of Electoral Reform, we should be welcoming people who have accepted our arguments. Labour have made a big step forward & we should praise that & encourage them to take the next step.

  • If Labour take that utterly despicable attitude AGAIN, then they might well find it impossible to ever recover. Historically, Labour has never exactly been particularly popular with English people. Scotland won’t wait for ever for what needs to be done at Westminster. I know that technically they have to get an official go ahead from Westminster to hold a proper independence referendum but if 45% plus of Scots constantly vote general election after general election to send mass numbers of SNP MPs to Westminster that will have some moral force attached to it and then Westminster might well be forced to give a second referendum which the SNP would have a good chance of winning. We must never forget how perilously close the SNP came to achieving their ultimate objective in 2014 and ending the United Kingdom of Great Britain and NI for good.

    That the Labour Party is seemingly prepared to countenace the ending of the United Kingdom after so much effort was put into saving it by Tories, Liberal Democrats, and, indeed, members of their own party in 2014 and others because they are not prepared to legislate for PR at Westminster is grotesque.

  • In Wales like Scotland we have the additional member voting system.
    The process is 2 ballot papers: 1. To elect Constituency member (FPTP) 2. a top-up system (party lists) making the Senedd near proportional to the votes case.

    In a recent constitutional convention there was a proposal to change to system to a total ‘party list’ system, which would remove the voters right to choose their Senedd member.

    The ‘Party list’ system is not much better than the FPTP system that got us into this crisis.
    I wrote to Adam Price (Plaid Cymru) – he assured me he and party policy supports changing to the Single Transferable Vote system as do the Liberal Democrats and the Greens on the committee.

    So, was it Labour or the Tories? Neither of which have shown much enthusiasm for PR.

  • Kevin Hawkins, I suspect the situation for their party in Scotland is what is really prompting them to change their stubbornly undemocratic stance. At the last general election they apparently got the lowest Labour vote share across Scotland since as long ago as 1918 of around 18 or 19% of the Scottish vote yet had just one MP elected in Edinburgh South which is a huge discrepancy between vote share and seats. They are fortunate that seat is quite safe as they could have been left with none at all. Scotland used to be the prime Labour banker outside of North East England and Wales.

    They should be worried that the Welsh may start to copy the Scots and start voting for Plaid Cymru in greater numbers. There is some evidence that may be beginning to happen in the opinion polls. Scots are very canny and pretty clever when it comes to politics. There are quite a few Scots who don’t really like the SNP or their independence stance but vote for them as they are perceived to be best able to stand up for Scotland within the UK and to put pressure on Westminster to take note of Scotland’s concerns.

  • Ernest, I have seen what is proposed for the Senedd in Wales and I think it is appalling. They have divided Wales up into sixteen mini electoral areas no doubt to preserve a real local geographical link in replacement of the previous FPTP constituency element but dividing it up into so many areas has a consequence that only about six or so members can be elected within each electoral list area. This has a severe compromising effect upon the proportionalality of the system.

    In effect, a party will need to obtain about 11% of the vote or so to obtain a single member within one of these electoral areas. This is a farcical effective threashold and is more than even the previous absurd one of Turkey which was set at 10% but which as now been reduced to 7% and the more normal 5% national threashold of Germany or the 4% of Sweden and Austria.

  • A better approach would be to keep the new 16 mini party list areas but to hold one seat back in each one to provide for nationally allocated levelling seats for parties passing a threashold of about 3% thereby producing a much better and more proportional relationship between seats and votes. This is similar to how Denmark’s, Norway’s and Sweden’s systems work.

    They should also have made the party list system an open or partially open one thereby giving the individual voter an opportunity to vote for their preferred candidate within the party list.

    Ideally, party list PR systems should be open or partially open in this way and not closed lists.

  • The present system in Wales can only really be described as a form of SEMI Proportional Representation because of two main factors and they are:

    1.) The imbalance between the number of Senedd members elected by the FPTP constituency element which is 40 out of 60 AMs and

    2.) The relatively few number of members elected via the PR lists ie just 20 AND the fact they are elected only within five distinct electoral regions rather than be elected within a single electoral region covering ALL of Wales.

    These two elements combine to harm overall proportionality. Ideally, these AMS Mixed Member PR systems should have FPTP members and PR list ones in balance with each other or near enough as the system is in Germany’s Bundestag with its perfect 50%/50% split.

  • Jason Connor 27th Sep '22 - 6:49pm

    I don’t understand why people are so easily taken in by the Labour party on electoral reform. They want power at any cost and would only remotely consider it if they are forced into a coalition or minority government at the next election. It is not a question of welcoming some activists who have made positive noises on PR over the years but many MPs and people with power within their party are not interested in it. I know from members locally that PR would be very low on their agenda despite a manifesto vote, it’s just hollow noise.

  • Unfortunately, FPTP single member constituencies produce such huge levels of disproportionality of election results that in mixed PR AMS systems you need to have a very substantial number of total members elected by the PR list element in order to compensate for this and make the system overall properly proportional. In Wales at the present time, this element is nowhere near enough.

    The fact that the Senedd is only SEMI PR is one reason why Labour keep on winning and of course because they win the vast majority of the FPTP constituency seats in the South Wales Valleys. Not unnaturally having had no change of government in twenty odd years is not a desirable situation for Wales and has led to some disillusionment with the Senedd.

  • On the United Kingdom mainland only Scotland’s Holyrood and the London Assembly can be described as being described as being proper, full examples of Proportional Representation. The Welsh Senedd is only SEMI PR.

  • I agree Jason Connor. Those electors who want PR can’t really trust Labour to deliver upon it. I would want a manifesto pledge to be written in blood before I believe it would actually happen. Labour has a history of leading people up the garden path on this issue and seemingly only wanting PR for their own selfish purposes rather than because it is a matter of basic electoral justice and genuine democratic values. I await real evidence of a significant change of heart.

    I think we may be in the first, early stages of it though. No doubt the situation in Scotland is worrying them to a certain extent and it is that which is moving things a bit. Also, there is some evidence from opinion polls and election results that the Welsh may be following the Scots in thinking why don’t we vote for our separatist party to get noticed by Westminster and make Labour in particular to take note of us in a who is best placed to stand up for Wales within the UK kind of way like some Scots use the SNP?

    A hung parliament situation is our best hope for PR at Westminster. Sadly though the Tories are so petrified of PR being introduced at Westminster they look like they are deliberately trying to lose the next election properly rather than risk doing well enough that they help to bring about a hung parliament.

  • Rif Winfield 28th Sep '22 - 10:16am

    What Labour have proposed for us in Wales is indicative of what they would arrange for the Westminster elections, i.e. a nominally proportional system which would place elections under the control of the major party machines and rob the electors of any choice as to which candidates they can vote for. Not only would it give the electors no choice as to which individuals they can elect, it would certainly put paid to any chance for independent candidates or those from minor parties. Be warned, it is an effective duopoly they are aiming at, with political control oscillating between the two major party hierarchies taking it in turn to rule, and all other candidates excluded. It is actually WORSE than the present FPTP system!

  • Tristan Ward 28th Sep '22 - 10:25am

    It’s very important we don’t argue about whether current party policy is good enough: all we have to say is:

    We want PR – it’s better and fairer than FPTP.

    Our proposals work – see [insert name of country here]

    4 Tory Prime Miniaters over the last 7 years is almost Italian in its instability.

  • David Evans 28th Sep '22 - 1:09pm

    My good friend Michael is absolutely right, except for one thing. “Political Chaos” is now the new “Political Stagnation”.

    Come on Michael – Political Stagnation is just oh so June 2022. 🙂

  • Why think Scottish independence is perilous? Then we could get on being several parties in different countries. If certain people hadn’t voted leave there would be zero problem, except for certain egos in England.

  • I think it’s fair that a Labour minority administration could dare us to vote down a Queen’s speech that doesn’t prioritise PR and we’d be on shaky grounds if we tried to force another election, assuming the numbers were there for that, and having been out of power for so long they could easily come up with a programme of government that we and our voters would like to see in place.

    So I think the smarter move right now is getting more people within Labour to push for PR, and threaten to introduce the subject as a private members bill as soon as we get the chance, then force them to vote down something adopted at conference. If they have any sense they’ll want to take charge, or at least be seen to be in charge of a change.

    It’s right we target resources on winning seats from the Tories, but where there’s a fight between us and Labour, or it’s unclear which of us is the challenger to the Tories, we should stress our support of PR and make it clear to would be tactical voters that we will fight for them to be able to vote for their first party of choice in the future.

  • I agree Wif Winfield. The proposed system for the Senedd is a disgrace and is actually worse than the botched reform Labour originally gave to Wales in 1999. The proportionalality of the system is already pretty moderate in that it can only really be described as a SEMI proportional one with the results it produces.

    List systems even the pure one that is envisioned are ok provided people have some form of opportunity to vote for individual candidates within the party list by the list being either completely open or, at least, partially so.

    Not only has an entirely closed list system been proposed but to add insult to injury the overall proportionality has been weakened still further, which was already pretty poor, by dividing Wales up into as many as 16 mini list electoral areas but not holding a seat back in each of them to provide for levelling seats as in Denmark, Sweden or Norway so a better match for the seats of a party and its vote share can be obtained.

    Labour should have either made the existing system into something more akin to the Scottish Parliaments one or the Bundestag in Germany or changed it to a Scandinavian type system with levelling seats.

    The system they have come up with looks very much as if it has been expressly designed to ensure permanent Labour or Labour/Plaid Cymru rule and to leave even the Tory Party at a disadvantage let alone Greens, Lib Dems and other smaller parties.

  • One of the tests that should be used to evaluate a good PR system is how does it treat parties with less than 10 percent support but which still have more support than truely tiny micro parties ie those with less than 3 percent?

    A good one should enable parties to win seats from around 3 to 4 percent upwards. I would suggest a decent PR system would enable votes to count from that effective threashold by the design of the system or an imposed one at that level.

    You can still have PR, have many votes contribute to the result and have parliaments etc not fragment into having too many parties in them making effective governments hard to form even with an effective/imposed threashold of that amount. Infact the Council of Europe advocates threasholds of 3% and severely criticized Turkey for having an imposed one of 10%.

    The proposed reform of the Senedd is ridiculous in having effective threasholds of around 11%. That will waste far too many votes and is not justified and seems to be purposely designed to harm even the Tory Party in Wales let alone the Greens, Lib Dems and smaller parties like Abolish The Welsh Assembly.

    It is desirable when designing a PR system that there is as much all round equality as possible consistent with stable and effective governments being able to be formed.

  • Indeed, Fiona. Whilst it is true that the Lib Dems can’t bang on about PR all the time it is appropriate that the party does, occasionally, stress that it is the party that has the most consistent pro PR record and is a strong supporter of PR.

    In my ultra Tory stronghold seat of Brentwood and Ongar in Essex with its plus 55% percentage point Tory majority and numerical one of 29065 Labour and the Liberal Democrats are almost exactly splitting the anti Tory vote between them. Labour came second last time but only just with 13.7% support to 13.6%. However, in terms of our local council, the Lib Dems have a far stronger presence on it with councillors in double figures compared to just three for Labour and the party has run it in the past. I have always thought that one reason the Lib Dems are more popular here than Labour is due to the party backing PR contrasted to Labour’s steadfast opposition.

  • Chris Moore 29th Sep '22 - 9:02am

    Hello Steven,

    PR comes way down the list of voters’ priorities. The tiny few who make PR their top priority will already be LD supporters or members.

    It’s highly unlikely that LDs are more popular LOCALLY in Brentwood because of PR. This will be down to the hard work of local LD councillors and a good record when we ran the council.

  • Nonconformistradical 29th Sep '22 - 9:24am

    @Chris Moore
    “PR comes way down the list of voters’ priorities.”
    Could that be because we’ve made a poor job of promoting it e.g. as an important step towards making governments pay attention to a much wider proportion of the electorate as opposed to just their own party supporters?

  • Yes, a much better job needs to be made to link FPTP with the consistently bad governments we suffer from.

    It is no wonder why Labour and Tory single party governments are so often inept and ignore the real longterm needs of the country when we have an electoral system in which MILLIONS UPON MILLIONS of votes eg at the last election 14.5 MILLION were cast for non winning candidates which was around 45% of the total and therefore were effectively chucked into the nearest bin.

    This statistic which was no one off accident needs to be more widely known. There is a direct link between FPTP and bad governments, looking towards the next election rather than longer term ext.

    If we had had coalition governments and PR in the 1960’s it is more unlikely the huge cuts to the railways wouldn’t have taken place and we would have had a transport policy with a more long term perspective like Germany has had.

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