Electoral reform is an ever-present topic of debate within British politics. Although many people will remember the 2011 referendum on Alternative Vote that garnered a catastrophic turnout of just 42.2%, the mood on proportional representation, at least among the left, is shifting. At the most recent Labour party conference in September 2021, Constituency Labour Party (CLP) delegates overwhelmingly backed a motion in favour of proportional representation. However, this failed to become Labour party policy due to opposition by affiliated unions. Despite this, Unite – Britain’s largest trade union – have since backed a motion at its policy conference calling for a new, proportional electoral system. If the unions are starting to oppose first-past-the-post, surely the Labour leadership can see start to see sense?
First-past-the-post has done Labour no favours over the past decade with the Conservatives winning the majority of Parliamentary seats with just 43% of the vote at the 2019 general election. Whilst these disproportionate outcomes – inherent to first-past-the-post – have benefited Labour in the past, they are showing no signs of doing so now. In recent elections, supporters of Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats have tried to coordinate the best possible chances of winning seats from the Conservatives under a so-called progressive alliance. This demonstrates a desire from the Left to defeat the Conservatives at all costs, whilst also recognising the need to cooperate with other parties to achieve progressive outcomes. If Labour truly want to be effective in defeating the Tories, their best chance is proportional representation, my preferred option of which is Single Transferable Vote (STV), a system that usually produces largely proportional election outcomes for Northern Ireland’s Assembly.
Proportional voting systems often lead to coalition governments, which could potentially include Labour together with left-leaning other parties. Although Labour may feel that this potential coalition is beneath them, it is the best possible way to end over a decade of Tory rule because, at the last election, Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens, and the SNP won a combined 50.3% of the vote. Labour looks far from winning a majority under first-past-the-post anytime soon as they continue to trail the Tories in the polls despite the government’s extremely poor handling of the covid pandemic.
Proportional representation, therefore, offers Labour the possibility to enter government as the dominant party within a coalition. If they can use this opportunity to win back trust from voters whilst demonstrating governing competence, they stand a good chance of winning more votes in future elections. This could mean that Labour may only need the cooperation of one other party, such as the Greens – with whom they share many values– in future coalitions, allowing them to dominate the governing agenda.
The fact that Unite union are now backing proportional representation shows a desire amongst working people for Labour to return to government – by any means necessary. Of course, coalitions with parties such as the Greens, Lib Dems, or SNP, are no Labour supporters’ first choice. Yet, this possibility may present the only viable option against a Tory party who are dominating British politics under first-past-the-post.
Keir Starmer and the rest of the Labour leadership must support proportional representation or risk losing vast sections of their support. With 79.51% of CLP delegates, Unite and various other unions now backing proportional representation, many Labour members may start to feel that the leadership is not aligned with their values, and opt to support other parties.
On another note, Labour should support proportional representation out of a desire for more functional politics. British politics has become filled with substance-less soundbites during parliamentary debates and vicious fighting which fails to hold ministers to account. At the same time, the Conservative government get away with consistent U-turns on their policies – most recently exemplified by their decision to reverse their block on MP Owen Paterson’s suspension.
Progressive change is desperately required in Britain. 18% of the population live in relative poverty; homelessness has been rising over the last five years and Britain is only going to face greater challenges posed by the covid pandemic, Brexit, and climate change. If Labour are serious about tackling these challenges with a progressive, people-centred approach, the leadership needs to understand the value of cooperation. More cooperative politics can only be achieved under proportional representation where coalitions create the need for healthy debate and compromises that bring effective and achievable outcomes.
Labour must be realistic and accept that they will not win consistently enough in the coming years under first-past-the-post to generate meaningful, and much-needed change. Therefore, they cannot impact Britain’s response to growing challenges. Change can only come under proportional representation that makes parliament truly representative of the country. By supporting this move, Labour can perhaps make it a reality. This is their only hope if they want to become the governing party in Britain once again, and only from here, can they hope to install a progressive policy agenda.