In the last 30 years, every political party that has entered government following a general election has done so on 44% of the vote or less.
In the 2019 general election, over 71 per cent of votes were wasted, in other words they were votes for candidates who did not eventually win a seat in parliament. This is the reality of first-past-the-post: it is winner take all, loser take none. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for arguing that our current voting system is unsuitable to this century’s multiverse political climate, but the requirement to disregard of a huge chunk of what the electorate voted for, thereby shoring up the democratic deficit, must be one of the most compelling.
There is an inkling that recent attitudes towards an alternative have shifted.
At the Labour Party’s most recent conference, for the first time ever, its membership voted to include a commitment to introducing proportional representation in its next manifesto. Sir Keir Starmer has, as of yet, been quietly dismissive about the possibility of that happening (though he has yet to commit to a voting system for his proposed upper house of the Nations and Regions). But then, this aversion is nothing new in the Labour Party — over two generations ago, Hugh Dalton expressed his unequivocal dislike for ‘such fandangles as proportional representation’.
Dalton’s view is not altogether without credence. First-Past-The-Post has promised electoral stability for the past century and more. Throwing that in for a system that is purely ornamental and lacks the proper teeth would be madness. The system would need to be sound, with the adequate checks and balances, ensuring greater political plurality and enhanced democratic mandates without leading to legislative gridlock. PR would represent a critical gamble on this front — and politicians dislike rolling the dice.
An ideal middle ground for Labour, then, would be to legislate for proportional representation at local election level, alongside identifying a handful of councils to pilot the scheme. Such a move would also represent devolution of decision-making, something that is high up on Labour’s agenda.
It is not as bizarre an idea as it might at first sound. An Act in Wales already allows for exacty this, and it offers an additional control lever in that the power to opt for First-Past-the-Post or Single Transferable Vote is in the hands of local councils. A similar motion has also been passed by some councils in England, notably Sheffield Council. For those in need of an exemplar, the results of shifting to STV in Scottish local elections were extremely positive.
To follow this road would offer a ‘pilot’ scheme for PR in England. In an ideal world, such a move would be twinned with a stronger culture of ‘town hall meetings’ and greater encouragement for civic participation at local and community level. Ossified local politics is often ignored in favour of ‘national’ issues. A step towards helping councils to break this stasis would be to allow them determination over which voting system they want to use.
This is not to say that every council would leap at the idea. In South Wales, where the Labour Party has been the largest party for over 100 years, the opportunity to run local elections under Single Transferrable Vote (STV) has not been taken up even in Cardiff (although the legislation is barely out of its cradle). But Labour remains one of the two established parties; the core belief among the rank and file must be in the current voting system under which it believes it is about to succeed. Perhaps an emboldened Starmer government, some years into power, might consider reforming the voting system at general election level, when the time is right.
But, for now, a commitment to PR at local level could satisfy both the membership and swing voters who are looking for some genuine commitment to reform ahead of next year’s general election.
Lloyd George’s allegation that PR would ‘bring faddists of all kinds into parliament’ is a classic argument from naysayers. In his native Wales, upcoming reforms in the Senedd plan to expand the number of seats in parliament and move towards Single Transferable Vote; which would make it a truly proportional elected body. Yet these reforms are not the design of ‘faddists’; they have been spearheaded by none other than the Labour Party, in cooperation with Plaid Cymru — proof, some would argue, that under Proportional Representation bigger parties can break bread with smaller ones, and work together to get the job done.
Welsh Labour has led the way on this — UK Labour should follow. More than anything, legislating for PR at local level would allow the party to demonstrate it is listening to its membership, whilst cutting a deal between moderate reformism, and radical change. In a stroke, a swathe of voters would be re-enfranchised. After that, the real democratic experiment could begin.