These days, to be in favour of the first-past-the-post electoral system is not a fashionable position. Part of Labour’s soul searching in the post-2019 election defeat has inevitably led to a debate over whether to support proportional representation. But launching Labour into an arcane debate over changing the form of our democracy would end up being nothing more than a distraction from the real business of politics: building an electoral coalition among voters which can achieve popular support.
Politics can be a brutal business, with no shortcuts to power. There is a tendency to believe that PR offers a possibility to accumulate voters, as if voting blocks from other parties could fit together like Lego bricks. This ignores the fact that tactical voting is already taking place among voters. It also glosses over the tricky question of whether parties would enter into an agreement with Labour, or instead with our opponents! In 2010, we saw the Lib Dems enter a coalition with the Tories, and in the London Assembly this year we have seen an ‘regressive alliance’ of Greens, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives develop directly against Labour interests.
We have all seen the damage that coalition governments have done to this country. In 2010, the Lib Dems betrayed young people by tripling university tuition fees and becoming the Conservatives’ bedfellows to austerity. Even more recently in 2017, we saw Theresa May find £1bn from the ‘magic money tree’ to secure DUP support.
Coalition governments simply do not deliver for Britain. Coalitions would constrain our ability to be radical in government. Labour governments have been, and will again be, elected with stonking majorities under FPTP. We created the NHS, Sure Start, the minimum wage – all achieved under FPTP. But, even in 1997, Labour’s 43.2% vote share would not have been enough to form a majority government under PR. Instead, it is likely that a policy like the minimum wage would have been watered down, as the Lib Dems wanted a regionally varied, lower value of the minimum wage.
There is also the question of which system is more democratic. Under FPTP, you know what you are getting. FPTP encourages electoral platforms to be put to the public and directly voted on, usually resulting in majority governments. Each party must appeal to a broad swathe of the electorate and adopt manifestos that cover a wide range of issues. The manifesto you voted for is the one you get. Contrast that to PR: typically no party has a majority, and the real democracy of building an electoral coalition is done after the election, behind closed doors between party insiders. Contrary to popular opinion, I believe FPTP is more democratic than PR.
Delving into a debate over changing the voting system not only detracts from the real work of politics, building an electoral coalition, but also turns voters off when we should be talking about and developing policies that make a meaningful difference to the lives of people in this country. It is only natural for party members to look back at the four election defeats and feel pessimistic about Labour’s future electoral prospects, but on the uphill road to government there are no shortcuts. The route to power has and always will be building a coalition of voters to rebuild the progressive alliance – better known, as the Labour Party.