Constitutional reform will be incomplete without proportional representation

Britain’s constitution isn’t working. Faith in our political system has collapsed to an all time low. We have one of the most unequal societies in the Western world – and our system of government appears to be driving the UK apart. Keir Starmer launched a constitutional commission in 2020, chaired by Gordon Brown, to explore how democratic reform could renew British democracy, address economic inequality and strengthen and defend the union. Its findings are expected in early autumn.

Both Starmer and Brown have hinted at a fresh wave of devolution and introducing an elected senate. But, as Labour for a New Democracy sets out in its new report, these measures will not achieve the commission’s aims if the next Labour government does not also replace Westminster’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system with a form of proportional representation (PR).

Everything but the Commons looks at the real-world impact of full federalism – the most extensive form of devolution – when combined with different kinds of electoral systems: on the one hand, federal countries with winner-takes-all electoral systems such as FPTP, and on the other those where federalism is combined with proportional systems.

If devolution alone could indeed mitigate Britain’s crisis of democracy, one would expect highly devolved countries with winner-takes-all systems (such as Canada, Australia and the US) to have healthier democracies. Yet as comparative analysis demonstrates, all such countries have experienced a similar long-term collapse in public satisfaction with their democracy as the UK. While there are examples of federal countries in which satisfaction with democracy is both high and rising, every one of them instead combines devolution with PR general elections.

Starmer sees “devolution as a means to an end… to deliver social justice” but countries with maximal devolution that retain winner-takes-all voting systems are not socially just societies. Instead, like the UK, they are poor performers in terms of economic equality, poverty rates and workers’ rights. By contrast, those countries with full federal systems which consistently have more equitable economic outcomes (Austria, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland) all use proportional systems.

This is borne out by the experience of devolution introduced by the last Labour government. For all its many benefits, it has not resulted in renewed faith in UK democracy. In fact, whilst both Scotland and Wales now have higher satisfaction with their internal democracy than they do with Westminster, they have become even more dissatisfied with UK democracy than places with no devolution.

This is no surprise given voters can see how much more of a voice they have in devolved elections than at Westminster. 93% of Scottish voters are directly represented by at least one member of the Scottish parliament they voted for, compared to just 46% who have an MP they voted for. In Wales, over 80% have at least one Senedd member they voted for while 46% voted for their Westminster MP.

At the same time, the UK continues to have the worst regional inequality of any rich nation with some of its most deprived areas in Wales and Northern Ireland – both of which have had devolved governments since the turn of the century. Devolution has not mitigated the UK’s equality problem. Unless the centre is reformed, nor will further devolution.

Public support for doing away with unelected peers presents an easy win for Labour, but lack of public confidence is as much a problem for the Commons as it is for the Lords. Beyond the UK, comparable countries with FPTP have experienced plummeting faith in democracy and high economic inequality whether or not they have an elected upper house. If the Brown Commission were to propose further devolution or an elected senate while retaining FPTP general elections, then we need to be clear: nowhere in the world has this proscription solved the problems the commission has been tasked with.

Finally – and perhaps of greatest concern to Brown himself – the report argues that the very survival of the UK presents an existential case for electoral reform. Different parties won the 2019 general election in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, yet each nation is beholden to an overbearing Tory government holding a majority despite receiving a minority of the vote in England, a third of the vote in Wales and a quarter of the vote in Scotland.

This is how FPTP continues, in the words of Mark Drakeford, to “feed further the fissures which threaten to prise the UK apart”. Perhaps most worryingly of all, it seems to be the independent exercise of political power by Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politicians itself – in other words, successful devolution in action – that provokes conflict with Conservative governments at Westminster. These tensions between genuinely representative bodies and unrepresentative future Tory governments will be escalated rather than resolved if devolution is strengthened but FPTP retained.

Starmer’s speech about the need for constitutional reform, now some 20 months ago, posed important questions about UK democracy. Whenever Brown’s Commission gives its answers, they will be incomplete if they do not include PR for general elections.

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