Advocates of proportional representation need to manage their expectations – just look at New Zealand

Unless the Conservatives pull off the mother of all comebacks between now and next year, it looks increasingly likely that Keir Starmer will be Britain’s next prime minister.  Whether he’ll move into Number Ten with a working majority, however, is a tricky question.

If an election were called tomorrow, then Labour could feel pretty confident of winning well in excess of 350 seats.  Trouble is it won’t be.  Turkeys, especially Tory turkeys don’t vote for Christmas and Sunak, if he follows the example of most of his predecessors, will hang on for as long as he can, hoping something will turn up.

There’s no guarantee, then, that the double-figures lead over the Tories which Labour currently enjoys will last until autumn 2024.  And don’t forget, either, that it’ll take an unprecedented 13-14 point swing to deliver it even the barest of bare majorities.

True, Starmer is now seen as a better bet by more voters than Sunak.  But his star-power doesn’t come close to matching Tony Blair’s in 1997.  Nor has the party’s recent performance in local elections so far matched what New Labour achieved in the run-up to its landslide victory back then.  So a horribly-narrow win, or even a hung parliament, is still a distinct possibility.

In that case, Labour’s ability to govern confidently may end up resting on some sort of deal with one or more of the UK’s smaller parties – whether it be simply for “confidence and supply” à la Theresa May and the DUP in 2017, or else involves a full-blown coalition à la David Cameron and the Lib Dems back in 2010.

And if those smaller parties have got any sense, then the price Starmer may have to pay for whichever arrangement he plumps for is a promise to, at the very least, look into the possibility of introducing a more proportional voting system for elections to Westminster.  

Cue speculation about the consequences of PR for the UK’s party system and in particular how it might lock in a supposed progressive majority and lock the Conservatives out of power – which is clearly the aim of some of those keenest on the idea.

Re-engineering the voting system in order to do down your opponent is, of course, by no means unusual. But it rarely works out quite as well as those who do the tinkering hope it will. Certainly, as others have noted, anyone who thinks PR will put an end to right-wing government in the UK should be careful what they wish for.

Indeed, anyone who, like me, favours a move to a fairer voting system should probably dial down their expectations of how much things would change.

PR would doubtless boost the number of MPs from Britain’s so-called “minor parties” and would very probably usher in a handful of new ones to boot, one or two of whom might last long-term.  But it is less likely than some of its advocates think to blow up parliament as we know it: rather than rendering the UK’s party system unrecognisable, it will reconfigure it.   

To appreciate this, just look at what happened when another Westminster-style democracy – New Zealand – switched to proportional representation in the mid-nineties.

That switch did not, in the end, completely upend the country’s politics.  Yes, there were a few new entrants, and they were of precisely the kind we’d expect to see in the UK – not least from the populist NZ First and the neoliberal ACT on the right and the Greens and a left party (the Alliance) on the left.  But Kiwi politics fairly soon settled into a familiar pattern: essentially bipolar blocs led by Labour and by National (NZ’s Tories) alternating in office, with the prime minister in each and every case being supplied by one or other of them. The election to be held on the 14 October – the tenth under New Zealand’s PR system – shows little sign of breaking that mould.

In short, to imagine PR bringing about no change in the UK would be an exaggeration. But a complete implosion of politics as we know it? Unlikely. Long-established parties have an infrastructure and a degree of brand loyalty that mean many voters will stick with the devils they know.

That said, New Zealand should serve as a warning to the smaller party that’s most likely to pressure Labour on PR in a hung parliament or tiny majority scenario – the Lib Dems. In the end, there turned out to be no place in the new eco-system for a centrist party. Like I said, be careful what you wish for. is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.