The lure of PR conceals many myths – instead the left must learn to escape its comfort zone


Labour doorstep vote elections

The answer to all of labour’s woes is proportional representation (PR). Politicians and commentators are scrambling to claim it as the answer to Labour’s rebirth. Leadership: well you can be two parties. Ideology: you will never have to compromise. Winning: well all the progressive parties will do a pile up, and we will never have to appeal to the centre ground again. George Monbiot epitomises the political nirvana many people think PR will bring when he declares, “the parties of the left and centre will never again engage in destructive competition”. Except when they do.

The first fallacy is that PR would get rid of the power of the swing voter. Jeremy Gilbert asserts there are only a small amount of “middle income voters” who are lead by the ‘corporate media”, and that first past the post (FPTP) overstates their significance. These voters won’t be necessary for the progressives to get over the finishing line. Except they will. At the last general election, the non-progressives outnumbered the progressives. The accumulated progressive camp amounted to 14,556,919 (Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, Green, SDLP) where as the non-progressive camp (Conservative, UKIP, DUP, UUP) was 15,514,870, this mirrors a very similar gap in the EU referendum result.

For the progressives to win they would have to reach beyond their traditional voter base. An assumption is made that the voters they need to reach out to are too self interested to buy in to a socialist agenda. The cost is too high. But If these people are so individualistic and gripped by the Murdoch press, why does the NHS poll so high in people’s concerns? Why did Farage and co use the NHS in the referendum campaign? Why did the Conservatives feel that they had to pretend they were ring-fencing NHS funding at the last general election? Despite the attempts of the Murdoch press, the majority of people in this country still believe in supporting the biggest public employer in the world. Despite the Tories’ attack. Despite post-industrialisation and its catastrophic effects, people still come back to Aneurin Bevan’s words: “The collective principle asserts that… no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person are denied medical aid because of lack of means”.

The second misconception is that PR will allow the progressive parties to stick to their principles. Except that’s not the case in practically every country where coalition politics exists. In Germany the SDP have backed all of Merkel’s austerity policies and the Lib Dems in coalition with the Tories, who sold their voters down the river to get into power. When parties come into coalition they have to barter and concede. For example, would Jeremy Corbyn feel comfortable getting into alliance with the Lib Dems who pushed the bedroom tax through or the Lib Dems who put forward a free market view of the world in the Orange Book?

But do we want our parties just to hunker down into ideological bunkers that feel no need to reach outside their comfort zones? It’s not exactly a winning formula and creates an insular and undemocratic approach. Jon Lansman, head of Momentum, summarises all the negatives of this approach: “I think we made mistakes in the eighties. With hindsight, I don’t think we helped ourselves. We allowed ourselves to be marginalised; we were too unforgiving of people who some saw as betraying our principles and didn’t give them a way back. My view has always been that if you don’t take the mainstream of the Labour Party with you, you’re going to lose. There is no point in taking hard-left positions which are not going to appeal to the centre ground.”

The third miscontrual of PR is an argument put forward by Clive Lewis and Jonathan Reynolds that “the divisions we now see in both main parties” insurmountable and that we will end up with “political alliances”. Lewis and Reynolds imply that governments before the 2010s were not based on broad coalitions coming together to govern. But political parties are just that, coalitions that to come together to govern. Again and again we witness this through the history of the Labour Party.

The fourth misinterpretation of PR is that it is supposed to be the answer to engagement. Then why did the recent 2015 General Election have a turnout at 66 per cent, the highest since 1997, whereas the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, which uses PR, only achieved 55.6 per cent.

The final myth is that PR is a more democratic model than FPTP. However depending on what system you use, there are questions as to how democratic PR actually is. There is still mass tactical voting, if you use the single transferable vote (STV), can a candidate who wins on second preference vote be said to have the same mandate as someone who wins in the FPTP system? Moreover, constituencies that have strong majorities towards one party would most likely continue to have strong majorities, and those where people end up voting tactically would still vote tactically, If you were using the alternative vote/STV for example. Of course if you use the list system, then the democratic link between constituents and their MP that makes the UK one of the most democratically accessible countries, will go.

PR is the easy way out for Labour. The party  would become a narrow based sectional group if this occurred, happy with itself, but not serving the vulnerable, the poor and working people who desperately need a Labour government.

Sam Pallis is a Labour member on the executive of his local constituency Labour Party and an active Young Fabian.

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