Beyond PR: Why Voting Reform Won’t Save the Left

As a lukewarm supporter of proportional representation, BEN SALTONSTALL is unimpressed by the left’s current enthusiasm for voting reform. PR matters as one part of a broader push for economic, social and democratic change, not because it will save the left.

There has been debate on the left about proportional representation for more than 40 years. Nothing much has come of it. In February 1983, a Marxism Today article by Peter Hain concluded: “[PR] substantially … breaks the link of accountability between the MP … and the local community… It reduces the ability of the voters to determine the composition of the government [because of] its tendency to coalitionism.”

Just beneath this article, there is an advert for the ILP’s Labour in Crisis by Eric Preston, claiming it will take “the left to task [and] lift the lid off the right”. We really haven’t come far in the intervening 40 years. With neither main party supporting reform, it is quite possible the situation will be the same in another 40 years.

Notwithstanding these problems, there seems to be a new upsurge of left-wing interest in PR, or as the ILP itself has put it: “A socialist case for PR has been gathering support across the left … and a majority of Labour members and constituency parties now support a move to PR for [UK] parliamentary elections.”

Perhaps the current upsurge of interest is a response to the marginalisation of the left by Keir Starmer’s highly centralised Labour Party and its increasingly narrow agenda for government. It may also be because devolved governments in the United Kingdom seem to have thrived on modified forms of PR, which haven’t broken the accountability link between representatives and their local communities.

So what are the left’s current arguments for PR?

These were summarised for the ILP in a 2022 article by Jacqueline Taylor, called ‘Why Socialists Should Support PR’.

The first argument is that it is an “important demand that all socialist should support”. Nearly a majority of the British public support PR – 45%, according to a recent YouGov poll, although support for first past the post has climbed to 30%. Yet I don’t see any evidence of voters demanding that the system be changed. The key issues for most people are the cost of living, the NHS, the economy, climate change and the environment, and housing.

The writer claims that improving democracy “under FPTP … is not possible”. She claims that turnouts are much lower under first past the post. True, in 2019, the turnout in the UK general election was a mediocre 67.3%. But in 2022, the turnout at the Italian general election under PR was 63.95%. Germany under PR did much better in 2021 with a turnout (according to Wikipedia) of 76.6%, but there is no definitive way of linking Germany’s electoral system to turnout without considering other factors, such as federalism and greater regional autonomy.

Socio-economic factors may be important too. The German people are, on average, substantially better off than we are in the UK because Germany operates a very different model of capitalism. This is a powerful argument for regionalism (economic as well as political) and the social market, as much as for PR. It underlines that supporting PR without linking it to major economic and social reforms may be a hiding to nothing.

Far right threat

Another reason given to support PR is that it will help prevent right-wing policies: “The Tories have used crushing parliamentary majorities to make vicious and sustained attacks on public services.” Again, true. But does PR prevent the right from taking over? Sadly, this is simply not the case: under PR, Italy has just elected a far right government, which may be called ‘adjacent fascist’, ‘post fascist’ or just plain ‘fascist’.

Indeed, PR seems to be a seedbed for new parties – particularly those on the far right – to grow big and thrive. Poland is another example – the far right Law and Justice party has achieved political dominance through a PR system. The same is true in Viktor Orban’s ‘illiberal democracy’ in Hungary.

By introducing PR in the UK, we are far more likely to find Nigel Farage in government than at present. Reform UK is currently polling as well as the Greens, and that’s without Farage. Of course, if people want Farage then it may only be proper that he gets a shot at governing. That’s democracy; that’s PR. But let’s not pretend it’s a sure-fire way of defending public services or human rights. The evidence from the current political scene points strongly in the opposite direction.

This is yet another reason why a left-wing campaign for PR should focus on economic and social reforms that go well beyond PR – with PR subsidiary to those broader changes.

Another argument made by Taylor is that “a radical left current of between 5% and 10% of the vote could provide an active constraint on a social democratic government”. The article goes on to imagine how left parties under PR could thrive in the UK as they do in Spain and Portugal. However, both those countries have long histories of left-wing multi-party activity – and were for many decades fascist dictatorships. Their political cultures and economies are quite different from our own (and from each other, according to Rory Stewart).

And there is another model under PR that serves as a cautionary tale for the left. The UK could be more like Germany where the left-wing Die Linke party is deliberately kept out of power by the SPD (the German version of the Labour party), which prefers to do deals with the Christian Democrats and free market liberals. The Rosa Luxembourg Foundation’s Working Group on the Future of Die Linke says its support is fading and “its future existence as a nationwide political force [is] on the line”. Meanwhile, the neo- or post-fascist ‘Alternative for Germany’ is growing.

Progressive majority?

So it is highly uncertain that PR would automatically deliver any significant electoral benefits to the left. There are clearly other factors and contingencies to consider in understanding how PR may shape the political landscape.

More subtle voices see PR as part of broader constitutional change, but their arguments are still based on questionable assumptions. Neil Lawson of Compass argues that PR would allow a progressive majority to assert itself and end a century of Tory dominance.

This is a version of the argument first put forward by Roy Jenkins, Tony Blair’s guru. In his highly readable biography of Stanley Baldwin, Jenkins sets out his view that the inter-war Tories under Baldwin promoted the Labour Party to ensure that the radical centrist Lloyd George would be marginalised. Because of its link to socialist politics, the Labour Party was much less of a political threat to the Conservatives than Lloyd George’s popular liberalism.

Lawson makes much of Jenkins’s idea of a progressive majority – so obviously true in the 1980s after the SDP split, less so nowadays. That the Liberal Democrats were in a coalition with the Tories from 2010-15, and were joint architects of austerity, seems entirely forgotten. That the Liberal Democrats facilitated a government so harsh it led to condemnation by the United Nations for grave and systematic abuses against disabled people … again, forgotten.

Subsequent political developments make it even more questionable whether support for the Liberal Democrats is essentially anti-Tory. Pro-EU liberal Tories, people such as Nick Soames, Rory Stewart and Dominic Grieve, have either left or been expelled by an increasingly far right party that would have horrified Baldwin, and even dismays Michael Heseltine. Many liberal Tory voters appear to be switching support to the Liberal Democrats, not because they’re moving left but because the Liberal Democrats more closely reflect their views.

Furthermore, the argument that PR would keep the Tories out is no more principled than the argument that it would be helpful to socialists. The evidence from other jurisdictions that use PR does not provide clear support for either of these contentions.

True, PR in Germany has favoured centrism, which in turn has allowed for some long-term economic planning. However, that underlines the point that PR is an important factor helping social market capitalism to function, but is not the only, nor even the primary factor behind post-war Germany’s relatively successful socio-economic model.

For the UK to do something similar, we would have to adopt wide-ranging reforms that go well beyond PR. Will Brown, in his excellent article ‘Labour & the Constitution’ sets out some of the constitutional options.

Wrong questions

I suspect the left’s focus on PR is the result of asking the wrong questions. Rather than ask: ‘What is wrong with how we are governed and how should we change it?’; the question seems to be, ‘How can we avoid being prisoners of Labour Party politics?’; or even ‘What electoral system would most benefit the left?’

Neither is an attractive starting point likely to set the public alight with a passion for constitutional reform, and it underlines the fact that there is no urgent popular interest in reforming the voting system during a cost of living crisis. For the left to become focussed on PR now really is barking up the wrong tree. In any event, Labour has already ruled it out, so it’s not currently a political ‘go-er’, except perhaps in the pages of the Guardian.

A better starting point would be to ask what is wrong with democracy? Why isn’t it delivering for people? And what can we do about it?

These are questions that several prominent authors have grappled with recently:

  1. Geoff Mulgan, professor of Collective Intelligence and Social Innovation at UCL and a founding member of Demos, says there is a crisis in belief in progress. The Germans (notwithstanding their PR system and superior economic model) even have a term for it: das verschwinden der zukunft – ‘the disappearance of the future’.
    Quoting the Brazilian thinker, Roberto Ungar, Mulgan claims “we suffer from a dictatorship of no alternatives” (some of us would call that neo-liberalism). The failure of the Soviet Union and the socialist project has left us without “big role models” of a better future. There is, in other words, a crisis of “social imagination”. Mulgan then describes what an active social imagination consists of and how to develop it.
    Another World is Possible: How to reignite social and political imagination, by Geoff Mulgan (2022)
  2. Marcial Bragadini Boo – another associate of Demos and chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission – argues that democracy hasn’t tackled either “the accountability gap” (our lack of control over the economy, climate change, banking, crime or corporate tax paying) nor “the expectation gap” (the difference between our expectations of what government should deliver and what it can actually deliver or chooses to deliver).
    To meet these challenges we must update the “rules of democracy”. Boo proposes changes to everything from the international order to the rules governing ministers and MPs, strengthening local government, more transparency about public services and how much they cost, and obligations on citizens to pay their taxes, support their communities, and so on. In other words, a completely new social contract.
    The Rules of Democracy, by Marcial Bragadini Boo (2022)
  3. Paola Subacchi, an economics professor at the University of Bologna, has written a complex and wide ranging book on the international financial system and its weaknesses, chosen as one of the Financial Times’s books of the year. She argues for reform, but sees the political space for achieving it as limited.
    Despite being a liberal economist, she concludes “the need to maintain market confidence has ridden roughshod over the wants and needs of the electorate… The steps that are considered necessary for maintaining the international [economic] order are going against liberal democracy.”
    She proposes “a new Bretton Woods. This would revolve around … significant regulation to fetter capital movements … and an international tax framework to remove loopholes … [plus] an international ‘green deal’ … and smart migration policies.”
    The Cost of Free Money; how unfettered capital threatens our economic future, by Paola Subacchi (2020)
  4. John Denham’s Labour Campaign for England also offers insights into why England is now subject to an unstable right-wing populism. This is surely Great Britain’s most pressing and destabilising political problem. It has led to Brexit and the country’s increasingly frenzied anti-woke moral panic in the wake of Brexit’s failure.
    Fintan O’Toole’s entertaining analysis of Brexit, pinning it on England’s “self-pity” and rising nationalism, suggests that devolution led to England leaving the EU because it couldn’t leave Britain. Brexit, he says, was “England’s Sinn Fein”.
    The Labour Campaign for England proposes changes to our constitution that would allow England to develop a more mature civic nationalism, as in Wales and Scotland, and the Republic of Ireland.
    Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, by Fintan O’Toole (2018)

Beyond PR, there are rich discussions going on about our political and economic institutions, and how changes to these can make democracy relevant again. The left should be engaging with the full range of these ideas in a more holistic way.

Labour peer Pauline Bryan has begun a vital debate about the future of the UK by proposing a federal solution. As Bryan puts it: “It would be entirely logical for the UK to continue the unfinished business of devolution and become a federal state.” This may resolve some of the UK’s current existential dilemmas. Sure, PR may be part of that but it is not the silver bullet.

By supporting radical federalism, the ILP could save the left from going down the rabbit hole of PR. It could “take the left to task” once again and propose a much more effective solution to the problems facing democracy, as it did in the 1980s when it pioneered left support for One Member, One Vote, and in the 1990s by proposing a political solution to the Troubles, which helped forge a path to the Good Friday Agreement.

It is time for the ILP to be as bold as it was then and consider promoting a federal UK.

Coupled with that, we need to think how to remodel our financial institutions so they can tackle regional disparities and focus on undoing years of Tory damage, and the resulting cultural crisis in England, which threatens democracy across the UK. We should also be arguing for fundamental changes to the world’s international financial institutions.

Let’s hope in 40 years’ time the tune will have changed at last.


See also: ‘Why Socialists Should Support PR’ by Jacqueline Taylor

and: ‘Labour & the Constitution’ by Will Brown.

1 Comment

  1. Ian Barnett
    16 October 2023

    I don’t dispute that FPTP generates some injustices and anomalies, but there are two things I like about it.

    One, everyone understands it. You have to get more votes than anyone else. That’s it. Alternative vote, STV, closed list, open list, two-tier list, localised list … you need a PhD in something or other to understand that lot. And when it’s so complex and opaque the potential for misrepresentation and fraud increases.

    Two, PR diminishes the power of the vote in that, in practice, the electorate no longer has the power to dismiss the whole government and install a new one. We will be governed by permanent coalitions, inevitably pursuing consensus politics, with the coalition mix stirred every general election – a few more of this, a few less of that, but no power to remove the whole. The composition of the government will not be determined by the electorate, but by deals brokered by the politicians in vape-filled rooms, very possibly with the party with the least electoral support having the final say in the colour of the coalition and thus disproportionate power. Is permanent coalition the western version of a one-party state?

    The LibDems favour it because they would do better under it. The Tories oppose it because they would do worse. Labour don’t know, because they don’t know. Nothing to do with fairness.

    I’m open to being persuaded, but I haven’t been yet.

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