Labour must embrace Proportional Representation

Britain no longer has a natural party of government. Yesterdays Ashcroft poll giving Labour and the Tories a combined vote share of 59% is an all time record low for the two main parties. In 1951 they secured 98% of the vote between them. Its been downhill ever since. Why and what does it mean for Labour and the future of our politics?

Two earthquakes have transformed the political landscape since the era in which only two tribes went to war – globalization and individualization. Combined they have played havoc with the ability of national politics, and Labour in particular, to deliver what the people want. And given its is Labour that wants and needs to change things the most – it hurts us more.


Power has gone up to the level of global corporations and down to individuals through their ability to buy their way to ‘a good life’. Today we live in a world of politics without power and power without politics. In the age of Facebook, and the end of the age of the factory, in which every day we form multiple identities, the idea that one party deserves our total commitment is almost quaint. Our political class has no control of the economy or of us.

The reaction of the orthodox political class, as their power has slipped away, has been to grip the old levers even tighter. And their grip, up until now, was sealed by our first past the post-electoral system. This meant that what power remained in the system could be attained by targeting all your efforts on a few swing voters in a few swing seats while ignoring the rest. Because the rest had nowhere else to go.

But so dismal and disconnected has our politics become that anything is now better than voting for the status quo for millions of people. Staying at home is better than what’s on offer. Voting Green, UKIP or SNP is better than what’s offer. Inventing your own party like Save the NHS or Yorkshire First is better than what’s on offer. And the more the system splinters the less workable the old two party duopoly becomes. And so the spiral of decline continues and will do so until we change not just the politicians but the system itself.

So one of the big changes we need is to proportional voting. The objection to it is that it denies the possibility of Labour being the single strong party of government and would give power to small centrist parties. Well hello – that’s exactly what we have got and will go on getting. Only now we have multi-party politics in a two party straight jacket. It means we pretend before the election that one party will win and then in private after we vote – a deal is struck for five years that none of us had any say in. Which alienates people still further. As things stand we could have another coalition no one voted for or a minority government with 30% of the vote on a 60% turnout. That’s government based on 20% of the people. Where is the legitimacy or authenticity in that?

The pendulum has stopped swinging from one big majority to another. The days of the party’s singular right to power have gone. And anyway over the last three decades first past the past has forced Labour to pander only to the needs of a few swing voters – so its policies were weak at best.

Proportional voting would allow the debate about the necessary compromises of todays multi-party politics to be aired and decided before the election – by the people. PR would recognize that some people want to vote Green or vote to the left of Labour and they should have the right to representation. Trying to deny this just builds up pressure that will explode somewhere and that somewhere is ugly – witness Exhibit A – UKIP. The days of old catch all parties has gone – and they are not coming back. The botched AV referendum tells us nothing. It was the wrong system, proposed by the wrong party at the wrong time.

PR is not a panacea for our failing politics – but it’s a necessary step on the road to a democracy that works for progressives. The cultural and emotion challenge to Labour I know is huge. It means seeing people in other parties not as perpetual enemies but as potential allies. It means seeing socialism as something that is more negotiated from the bottom up and not imposed form the top down. Labour either accepts the world is changing and modernizes itself – or faces a slow decline of growing irrelevance. It’s one of a few binary choices left in an increasingly complex and diverse world.

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