Oppose PR? Then let’s hear your positive case for first-past-the-post

Whilst we don’t find John Spellar’s latest broadside against proportional representation (PR) convincing, we welcome his engagement with the debate about electoral reform. Only around 20% of the Parliamentary Labour Party supports first-past-the-post (FPTP), and John is one of the even smaller number who do so publicly. But it is striking that even he has not one positive thing to say about the first-past-the-post system he wants to keep.

83% of Labour members now believe the party should back PR – as do trade unionists, councillors, mayors and MPs from across the party. Over 250 CLPs have passed pro-PR policy – including, we hear, John’s own Warley Constituency Labour Party – and many are prioritising it for conference. Given this unprecedented support for change, the onus is upon those who disagree to make a positive case for the status quo.

Ours remains the only Labour party in the developed world that backs FPTP and the UK remains the only democracy in Europe to use it. The vast majority of modern democracies have proportional systems – including the world’s most equal societies. By making seats match votes, PR gives all voters a real say in how they are represented and governed.

FPTP, by contrast, denies this to millions who don’t happen to live in marginal constituencies. The main problem with safe seats is not that they rarely change hands but that they are neglected by national parties until they’re close to doing so. Just look at Scotland and the ‘Red Wall’ over recent decades. Yet the necessities of FPTP condemns us to make the same mistakes again and again. Today, it would be seen as tactically foolish to give the same priority to a young, working-class voter in Brent as to a comfortable, middle-aged homeowner in Stalybridge – but it is politically and morally disastrous not to do so.

The status quo hugely advantages the Conservatives. John Spellar claims that PR means handing over power to our rivals, yet nothing in modern British history has handed so much power to the Tories as FPTP. Although in 19 of the last 20 general elections most people voted for parties to the left of the Conservatives, they have governed for two-thirds of this time. It is FPTP that has empowered the Tories to make the UK one of the most unequal democracies, with the second worst income equality in Europe, amongst the harshest trade union laws and the worst regional inequality of any rich nation.

Speaking at a Labour for a New Democracy Roadshow event, Stanford Professor Jonathan Rodden explained why FPTP has a right-wing bias in every developed democracy that uses it (video here). As academics Arend Lijphart, David Soskice and Salomon Orellana have written, “it is widely accepted by experts that FPTP has a pronounced conservative bias”, resulting in many more right-wing governments than PR. We have never heard Labour’s FPTP defenders respond to such expert evidence.

This is not good enough. Labour wouldn’t set policy on climate action without reference to the empirical evidence. Nor should we on how the foundations of our democracy are built. If we are to maintain an electoral system widely seen by the public not to be working, that decision can only be reached on the basis of an objective assessment of the current system and its alternatives, and on honest political arguments.

Dismissing calls for Labour to commit to PR in its manifesto on the grounds that we “had a referendum” both misrepresents our campaign (which is not calling for a referendum) and colludes with a Tory lie. The 2011 Alternative Vote referendum was allowed by the Conservatives for tactical reasons. They knew it was an obscure preferential system that nobody wanted, used globally by just one comparable country, and that even if adopted it was no more proportional than FPTP.

Similarly, asserting that backing PR “makes us look like losers” is disingenuous when the last Labour manifesto to offer PR was in 1997. We do not claim that Labour’s then policy on electoral reform was the primary reason for that electoral success, but it proves that support for PR is no hindrance to winning. Nor is talking about PR, as John claims, a distraction from winning a Labour government. Labour is capable of forming policies on multiple issues at the same time.

Labour members understand that under PR, parties like UKIP or the Brexit Party might win some representation if people vote for them, but most can see that this is the least damaging way to challenge and expose extreme politicians. The alternative is using FPTP to silence disillusioned voters – until someone like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson channels their anger to seize total power. Far from keeping right-wing populism out of British politics, FPTP has enabled the Tories to absorb it into majority government. We are now living with the consequences.

Members know – having campaigned in three general elections in just four years – that the much-vaunted stability claimed for FPTP is not real. And we can recognise a straw man when one is presented in debate: to cite Israel as an example (as John does) of PR bringing instability is to ignore the unique and challenging political situation there. It also ignores the evident history of stable government in countless proportional democracies – from New Zealand to Germany – and the fact that the most stable states in the world all use PR.

These are the issues being discussed by CLPs up and down the UK. To date, some 96% of local parties that debate a pro-PR motion have gone on to pass it. We look forward to the whole party having the opportunity to do the same in Brighton in a few weeks’ time.

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