Reforming the UK’s electoral system: The view from Labour

At the time of writing, Ukraine dominates the news, a shocking reminder of how precious and precarious democracy is. As Tom Brake of Unlock Democracy has written, “Whilst we feel enormous sadness at a moment like this, it also reminds us why the work we do matters.

The political battle to reform the UK’s electoral system is of course incomparable to the very real battle faced by the people in Ukraine. But the terrible events of recent days should motivate us all to defend and fight to extend with renewed vigour democracy in the UK. That aim is the essence of the Labour for a New Democracy (L4ND) campaign.

There are many well-evidenced reasons why, for Labour supporters, it makes sense to do away with First Past The Post (FPTP). In 19 of the last 20 elections the majority of the popular vote has been for parties to the left of the Conservatives yet we have had Conservative governments for two thirds of that time. The relative inefficiency of Labour’s vote means it repeatedly fails to do quite well enough to get over the line in many seats whilst in others its votes pile up to no effect. 34 of the 35 ‘safest’ seats in the UK are held by Labour.

This right-wing bias in majoritarian electoral systems has been written about by respected academics, including Jonathan Rodden who last year joined a L4ND roadshow event to talk about this phenomena. Simple self-interest should convince Labour that levelling the electoral playing field through introducing proportional representation (PR) is a good idea.

But it is in fact the straightforward, principled democratic case for electoral reform which most motivates the Labour membership. Forced to trek across the country come election time to door knock in seats ‘where it’s worth it’, the overwhelming majority of Labour Party members have concluded it is simply wrong that so many millions of voters don’t count. For a party whose core values include equality, this most fundamental of inequalities can no longer be ignored.

Over half of all Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) now have pro PR policy – from St Ives to Caithness, Sunderland and Easter Ross – with long-held by Labour and never-held by Labour seats alike as well as support from all political wings of the party. At Labour’s 2021 Annual Conference the membership made it clear that electoral reform should be a priority. More pro PR motions were submitted for debate than on any other issue on record; an unprecedented 80% of CLP delegates then voted for Labour to back PR in its next General Election manifesto.

So, if the membership voted this overwhelmingly for PR, why was the policy not adopted? The short answer is that for any Conference motion to pass it requires majority support from across the voting college, made up of CLP delegates and affiliated trade unions. The union vote, weighted to reflect the size of different unions’ membership, was 95% against adopting PR (excluding abstentions).

At first sight this appears to be an insurmountable level of opposition. But the longer, and more hopeful answer to why PR has not yet won a Conference vote is that the reality is more nuanced – and our chances still very good.

For a start, five smaller unions did vote in favour of PR. Furthermore, most unions do not take positions at Labour’s Conference if they have not first defined policy through their own internal democratic processes. At the time of Labour’s 2021 Conference, two of the largest unions whose vote makes up a significant proportion of the overall 50% the unions hold, had not debated PR. In the event, Unison abstained when it might have been expected to vote for the status quo in the absence of any policy. And only weeks after Labour’s conference, Unite held its Policy Conference and passed a motion clearly opposing FPTP and committing to a process of political education on electoral reform.

Alongside trade union campaigners from Politics For The Many we continue building trade union support for PR which will be discussed at both Unison and CWU Conferences this spring/summer. We remain optimistic that whenever PR is next debated at Labour Party Conference, it will win out.

Those familiar with the Labour Party will know there are multiple sites of power and decision-making within it and winning backing for a policy at Conference does not alone guarantee its inclusion in a manifesto. But there is every indication that the Parliamentary Labour Party, including increasing numbers within the Shadow Cabinet, is shifting. Few Labour MPs publicly defend FPTP and many recognise that the wider democratic reforms they want – such as to the House of Lords and furthering devolution – will not bring as meaningful change if the rotten system propping up the House of Commons is not also fixed.

Our coalition – which brings together Labour-facing groups such as the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and cross-party campaigns like Make Votes Matter – will continue to promote the case for PR for the House of Commons within Labour and encourage party stakeholders to think strategically about how to secure it. We appreciate the ongoing forbearance of fellow electoral reform campaigners outside Labour – including the Liberal Democrats and of course LDER – as we work towards Labour drawing a conclusion they long ago reached! Over coming months dialogue with the wider democracy movement must continue so we are able to bring pressure to bear in the right way, at the right time, from all of these directions.

If we do that, we can seize this opportunity. With this atrocious government sagging in the polls, it is possible they can be deprived of their majority at the next general election. If that happens, we could have the best chance in decades to finally secure meaningful electoral reform.

Laura Parker will be speaking at the Conference Fringe on Sunday at 1pm.

* Laura Parker is from Labour for a New Democracy

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33 Comments

  • Brad Barrows 10th Mar '22 - 5:43pm

    The fact that the majority of the vote is to the left of the Conservative Party is totally irrelevant if the ‘middle party’ chooses to go into coalition with the Conservatives, as happened in 2010. The Liberal Democrats needs to reassure voters that it will never repeat the error of backing the Tories and finding itself supporting policies that the majority of party members and voters opposed. Announcing that the party will refuse to enter into any arrangement with either main party but will approach each issue on a case by case basis is probably the only way this can be done with also alienating Conservatives who may be tempted to vote for the Liberal Democrats.

  • Peter Martin 10th Mar '22 - 7:12pm

    ” In 19 of the last 20 elections the majority of the popular vote has been for parties to the left of the Conservatives”

    Aren’t you ignoring the last two European elections, held under a system of PR, and the reality that UKIP and the Brexit Party were the main beneficiaries of that system?
    Anyone looking for allies in the campaign for PR would need to include these parties. It’s not just co-incidence that the ultra right do much better in the EU than most other places. The voting system does help them.

    It is generally a mistake to assume that voters are unaware of the voting system and will continue to vote in the way they do under FPTP. It is also a mistake to assume that voters are unaware of alliances that may be formed between the parties. Tory voters will often use the Lib Dems as a vehicle for a protest vote whereas they wouldn’t dream of using the Labour Party. This is why the Lib Dems recently won in Chesham & Amersham and North Shropshire. It wouldn’t have mattered in Labour had put up very centrist candidates, and many on the Labour right have no significant differences with the Lib Dems, they still wouldn’t have attracted the Tory protest vote.

    An open alliance with Labour risks all that.

  • Tristan Ward 10th Mar '22 - 8:14pm

    If we want to get PR we will just have to force it on an unwilling party as the price of our support. I am afraid I do not trust Labour to deliver it any more than I trust the Conseevative party.

    So far as I am concerned the biggest failure of the Lib Dems in coalition from 2010 was the failure to get PR.
    .

  • Simple self-interest should convince Labour that levelling the electoral playing field through introducing proportional representation (PR) is a good idea.

    It’s hard to see why they’d want to change to a system which would result in their votes and seats haemorrhaging away to smaller parties. Labour already have PR with 31.1% of MPs on 32.1% of the vote.

  • James Fowler 10th Mar '22 - 9:39pm

    It’s good to see people in Labour forcing voting reform on to their Party’s agenda. Reform can only be achieved with Labour’s acquiescence, but I’m not holding my breath.

    I don’t set much store by the ‘natural left majority blocked by unfair system’ argument, frequently made though it is. What definitely is blocked is a more nuanced spectrum of smaller parties that would gradually come into existence under any form of PR. Looking abroad, I would expect to see Far Right, Conservative, Liberal, Social Democrat, Regional Nationalist, Green and Far Left Parties all gain regular, and sometimes significant, representation. There would always be a coalition government.

    Is this a ‘good’ thing? On balance, I think yes. Denmark doesn’t seem to be badly governed. But I’d caution that this system comes with its own problems, and can degenerate into extreme factionalism – see Israel. I like the German system where the 5 percent threshold (mostly) locks out the loons.

  • Steve Comer 11th Mar '22 - 7:43am

    Having a threshold of 5% does not only “lock out the loons.”
    In Cyprus the threshold (now 3%) has had the effect of locking out ALDE member party the United Democrats, yet the “loons” in far right ELAM polled enough to get representation. In north Cyprus the 5% threshold has worked against centre-left and pro re-unification parties.

    PR systems do mean you can have fewer ‘big tent’ parties, and can lead to more shades of opinion being given space. For example there are two Liberal parties in Denmark, Estonia and the Netherlands (one Classical Liberal and one Social LIberal).
    In Ireland you have both a Labour Party and a Social Democratic Party represented in Dail Eireann.

  • John Bicknell 11th Mar '22 - 8:35am

    The Labour and Conservative Parties are motivated by attaining power, and holding on to it. This is shown in Laura Parker’s argument that ‘the parties of the left’ have a natural majority, and, under PR, could effectively fix the system to ensure a permanent grip on power. A Liberal position would be to ensure that all viewpoints have a chance of being heard. There is a case for PR, but I’m not convinced that this is the best, or most ethical one, to use.

  • Russell Simpson 11th Mar '22 - 9:35am

    I think the electorate has to be respected. In 2010, whereas most libdem members would probably have preferred a coalition with Labour, I believe Clegg was right to “choose” the tories because that’s who the electorate chose. Not because the tories got more votes than Labour but because, as a consequence, the numbers didn’t really work with Labour. Given that PR wasn’t in the tories (or Labour) manifestos, there had to be a referendum. The mistake Clegg made was (although AV was an improvement on FPTP) it was very much second best and Clegg should have only gone in to a full coalition if PR ref was offered. The general principle is that the libdems should be, in theory, open to any coalition. They can hint that certain possibilities are unlikely but I think the UK public deserves all options available post election.

  • Russell Simpson 11th Mar ’22 – 9:35am………….I think the electorate has to be respected. In 2010, whereas most libdem members would probably have preferred a coalition with Labour, I believe Clegg was right to “choose” the tories because that’s who the electorate chose…………

    The electorate didn’t choose the Tories; they chose no-one..As for the supporting the Tories over Labour; do you believe Labour would have introduced the NHS fiasco (a policy which even the Tories distanced themselves from), secret courts, the bedroom tax, drastic cuts to the most vulnerable in society, etc,?
    It was our leadership’s support for these ‘unliberal’ policies that saw us almost destroyed at local and national and international level..

  • Russell Simpson 11th Mar '22 - 10:31am

    @expats
    Well, I think the electorate did choose the tories. As I said, I think most libdem members would have preferred Labour (who incidentally proposed bigger cuts than the coalition did). How would a coalition with Labour have worked? It would have needed to include the nationalists. And Labour wasn’t really very interested in being serious about staying in govt.

  • Jenny Barnes 11th Mar '22 - 10:39am

    We should learn from the Coalition disaster never to do it again. Confidence & Supply at most, with a promise of PR and no referendum. If we put PR in our manifesto there would be no consititutional bar to that – not that the other parties care much about the constitution that isn’t written down anyway.

  • This is a “believe it when I see it” situation with PR and Labour. Once it is voted through as official Labour policy it then needs to find its way into its next manifesto as a priority. Even then it will need sustained pressure for a bill to be presented and voted through.

  • Peter Candlish 11th Mar '22 - 11:09am

    The only govt likely to introduce PR is a Lab-SNP-Lib Dem (& Green) one with the Conservatives opposed – which is probably what we on this site realistically hope for even as we oppose 2 of the 3(4) parties. It will not be a Coalition but Confidence & Supply deal probably.

    So, whilst these parties have diverse intellectual foundations, there is a risk that if they don’t pass PR in some form whilst in Govt, we drift practically into a 2 party, polarised state like the US with Conservatives and anti-Tories. The SNP for example must fear they must surely achieve their goal or wither (not die) in the next 10 years.

    The even worse alternative is perpetual 1 party state under the Conservatives. Bad even if were a Conservative, following the dictum: power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    Nevertheless I am not optimistic the top brass in Labour, a naturally authoritarian party, will even allow PR to be in its manifesto. This at best then leads to a referendum , as happened on AV, in which the small c conservative majority to be persuaded by a right wing dominated media to stay with current system: Save our local MP from faceless coalitions stitched up in back rooms.

    So good luck and god bless but …..

  • Labour have certainly moved a long way towards Electoral Reform but its not as clear as the Conference Vote suggests. Only 2 Labour Factions backed Reform – Momentum & the tiny Open Labour. The various Pro-Leadership Factions all opposed the Reform or sat on their hands. That does not suggest support for Reform across the Labour spectrum.

  • Alex Macfie 11th Mar '22 - 1:05pm

    @Russell Simpson, @expats: It[‘s difficult to say the electorate “chose” anyone to govern. We don’t know for sure what was in the minds of voters when they put their Xs on the ballot papers. What we can say is that the Parliamentary arithmetic following the 2010 GE made a Conservative~Lib Dem coalition the only workable majority government (unless one considered a Grand Coalition).

    @Jenny Barnes: Manifestoes have no “constitutional” meaning at all (and making manifesto commetments legally binding would be unworkable). There is a gentlemen’s agreement (not always followed) whereby the Opposition does not vote down a governing party’s manifesto commitments in the HoL, but that is merely convention, not law. I also diagree with the idea that Confidence & Supply is better than coalition. For us it would give us all the drawbacks of coalition (including the association with the larger party’s policies) with none of the advantages (like actually having a seat at the table when government policy is being discussed). Our mistake in 2010 wasn’t going into government, it was how the leadership conducted itself when in government.

  • Russell Simpson 11th Mar '22 - 1:57pm

    @Alex
    Agreed. That’s what I meant by “chose”, ie the result.
    @Jenny. “Confidence and supply at most.” I wouldn’t vote for that party. If PR was in the manifestos of Labour/Libdem/Greens/SNP/PC and they were able to form a govt then it would be defendable to implement PR without a referendum (we really don’t want another one of those if we can avoid).

  • Malcolm Todd 11th Mar '22 - 4:36pm

    “Given that PR wasn’t in the tories (or Labour) manifestos, there had to be a referendum.”

    Why? Just for example, I don’t think gay marriage was in anyone’s manifesto in 2010 either (not even the Lib Dems!), and introducing it was arguably more significant to most people than any voting reform would have been.
    (To be clear, I was all in favour of the reform – but it wasn’t one that had been endorsed by the voters beforehand.)

  • Brad Barrows 11th Mar '22 - 4:53pm

    The Liberal Democrats will never be trusted by millions of voters until they know how the party will behave if an election results in a Hung Parliament. The line, ‘we will talk first to whichever of the main parties is bigger’ is not a line that will work – why should people risk voting Lib Dem to try to prevent a Tory or Labour victory when they run the risk that the party may end up supporting the party they hate? The only line that will work in an election is that the Liberal Democrats will not join in government but will vote on each issue according to Liberal Democrat values. There is nothing wrong with having a minority government running a country, reliant on persuading other parties to support their ideas and being forced to drop policy proposals that do not have majority support.

  • I believe that, at all times,
    a standing alliance arrangement,
    a standing coalition arrangement,
    or anything like the 2010 ConDem arrangement,
    which included Con or Lab,
    would alienate a significant proportion
    of reform minded activists, parties, and electors.

    Many reform minded activists, parties, and electors
    would welcome the concept of such arrangements.
    However, the devil is in the detail:

    a. Con and Lab would both refuse to ‘engage with’ any arrangement
    in which they were not allowed to dominate the agenda.

    b. All other parties would refuse to ‘engage with’ any arrangement
    in which they would lose their unique identity.

    Thus, reform minded activists, parties, and electors
    must abandon all wishful thinking
    about any such arrangement which included Con or Lab.

    Indeed, a Campaign for Reform must specifically and overtly exclude
    any and every ‘whiff’ of any such arrangement which included Con or Lab.

  • 2. Other than in a hung Commons beyond the next (final FPTP) UK election,
    neither Con nor Lab will ever engage
    with any worthwhile cross party arrangement:
    a. Prior to the next (final FPTP) UK election,
    they will both claim to be ‘trending towards’ a triumph all by themselves.
    b. Following the next (final FPTP) UK election,
    without a hung Commons,
    one of them will have established an elected dictatorship,
    and will have no need for any such arrangement.
    Thus, a Campaign for Reform must abandon all wishful thinking
    about recruiting either of those parties
    into any pre election cross party arrangement.

  • I believe that, for the next (final FPTP) UK election,
    reform minded activists and parties must focus solely on options for a combination of:

    a. Prior to the next (final FPTP) UK election,
    a Campaign for Reform must focus solely on
    a Tactical Voting arrangement to force a hung Commons
    (by unilaterally ‘gifting’ marginal seats
    from the stronger of Con and Lab to the weaker of Con and Lab
    without any ‘whiff’ of the beneficiary party ‘returning the favour’).
    LD will be uniquely positioned with the elector power
    to ‘lead’ such an arrangement
    (i.e. ‘leading’ the SNP, Green, Reform, and PC parties).

    b. Following the next (final FPTP) UK election
    (i.e. in a hung Commons)
    a Campaign for Reform must focus solely on
    a Confidence and Supply arrangement
    (i.e. not a standing alliance arrangement,
    not a standing coalition arrangement,
    and not anything like the 2010 ConDem arrangement)
    with the least obstructive of Con or Lab in a hung Commons;
    with control over the agenda for constitutional reform as the sole ‘red line’.
    SNP will be uniquely positioned
    with the seat power to ‘lead’ such an arrangement
    (i.e. ‘leading’ the LD, Green, Reform, and PC parties).

  • David Garlick 11th Mar '22 - 8:06pm

    @Brad Barrows. Yes the Coalition was a disasterous mistake for all concerned except thee Conservative Party. WE should admit it, Get over it and get it right going forward. If we can’t get past it then how the dickens can we expect the public to do it.
    I was against coalition.

  • Christopher Burden 12th Mar '22 - 3:03pm

    Language – nuance, matters. When speaking of a GE DO say No Overall Majority ‘NOM’ never ‘Hung’.
    ‘Hung parliament’ gives a misleading and damaging impression of politics, of … impotence? failure? weakness? .. when it is just that an election has not delivered a simple majority to any party.
    Hung derives from the US judicial process when Jurors cannot agree on guilt or innocence – only? particularly? in Capital cases and the system really has failed in some degree. It
    has no place describing (British) politics.

  • Brad Barrows 12th Mar '22 - 3:25pm

    @Christopher Burden
    I like the language of a ‘hung parliament’ so long as we can promote the image of the government being hung on the end of a rope being held firmly by the non-government majority of MPs. The Liberal Democrats should always campaign as wishing to be part of the opposition seeking to control the government of the day while advancing their own priorities on an issue by issue basis where a majority in the Commons exists on that issue. Campaigning to be king-maker by choosing which of the big two should form the government is destined to fail as a strategy in that if the Party ever enters a coalition, it will be hammered at the next election when all the Party’s voters who were disgusted by the choice of coalition partner take their votes elsewhere. If this lesson from 2010 has not be learned by now, the Party may as well disband.

  • @Peter Martin 10th Mar ’22 – 7:12pm: I don’t think you can take the results of European Parliamentary elections as a useful guide to what would happen in Westminster Parliamentary elections held under PR. The 2019 European Parliamentary election in the UK, in particular, was held under unique circumstances, so its result cannot be extrapolated to other elections.

    “It’s not just co-incidence that the ultra right do much better in the EU than most other places. The voting system does help them.”

    There aren’t actually very many other jurisdictions in the world that use FPTP. The only other European country that uses it is Belarus, hardly a shining beacon of democracy. FPTP happens to be the system used in the world’s most populous democracy India, where the ultra-right is in government. Arguably the country in Western Europe where the ultra-right is strongest is France, which uses a two-round majoritarian system (one step removed from FPTP) for national Parliamentary elections.
    And the experience from the UK and US seems to be that the ultra-right succeeds by infiltrating the “mainstream” right-wing party.

  • @Brad Barrows:

    “The Liberal Democrats will never be trusted by millions of voters until they know how the party will behave if an election results in a Hung Parliament.”

    The Lib Dems entered the 2017 GE with a pledge not to enter into any coalition or coalition-like arrangement with either of the two larger parties. And we kept to that pledge when the GE unexpectedly resulted in a Hung Parliament.

  • Brad Barrows 13th Mar '22 - 12:14pm

    @Alex Macfie
    Yes, Tim Fallon promised that and, of all politicians of the past decade, I trusted him more than anyone to honour that pledge, which he did. That said, Tim is no longer leader and I fear there are many in the Party who would happily make such a promise before an election but make a different judgement if the election result led to an attractive offer being made by one of the bigger parties. It still bothers me how Nick Clegg has never – to my knowledge – apologised for choosing to break his solemn pledge on tuition fees, instead apologising for having made the promise in the first place. I would like to believe that the current and future Liberal Democrat leaders hold to a higher moral standard but a lingering doubt persists. What would help, in my view, would be if Conference discussed this issue and voted decisively that Liberal Democrat policy would be to refuse to join any coalition or arrangement unless changing to STV for future elections were conceded and delivered.

  • @Christopher Burden
    I like the language of a ‘hung parliament’ so long as we can promote the image

  • @Christopher Burden

    The expression ‘hung’ conveys accurately the disfunction inherent in the current arrangements in the Commons – with the power of the Executive ‘hung’ in the Commons between ‘her Majesty’s (un-representative) Government’ and ‘her Majesty’s (un-representative) Opposition’.

    Let us keep using that expression to convey our disgust.

    Let’s use a more ‘civilised’ expression
    if and when the arrangements are reformed
    so that the power of the Executive was moderated by a Commons
    acting as a proportional proxy for the (supposedly-sovereign) electors.

  • Russell L Simpson 14th Mar '22 - 9:13am

    @Brad
    If the Libdems won a majority in the 2010 elections then Clegg should have apologised for manifesto pledges they didn’t keep. Almost all the criticism the Libdems took for their time in govt seems to stem from a lack of understanding in general what a coalition actually is. We were a junior party and it would have been completely unprecedented for the senior party to adopt the manifesto of the junior party.

  • Brad Barrows 14th Mar '22 - 12:13pm

    @Russell L Simpson
    I’m afraid I can’t let you off with that attempt to justify the unjustifiable. The pledge on student tuition fees was not just one of many ‘wishes’ in the manifesto – it was one that was singled out and promoted as an absolute red line. For people to justify betrayal of absolute pledges by stating ‘oh, well we didn’t get a majority’ is completely unacceptable – it was never stated ‘we pledge never to vote for tuition fees if we have an absolute majority’. So, my concern is that for as long as people justify politicians acting so reprehensively, there is every chance other politicians will repeat the behaviour.

  • Russell,

    I’m afraid your point has been debunked dozens of times over the years by those who were pointing out the fundamental mistakes made by our leaders at the time of coalition and afterwards. To paraphrase your point “Almost all the defence of what the Lib Dems did in their time in govt seems to stem from a lack of understanding of what a pledge is” and a belief that “a lack of understanding in general what a coalition actually is” lies with those who didn’t understand the sophisticated strategy that Nick had “to build and safeguard a fair free an open society” which involved almost totally destroying the one party that stood for those values.

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