The political route to proportional representation

It’s easy to make the case for ditching our first-past-the-post voting system. But with both main parties opposed, could it ever happen?

May 26, 2023
There was a referendum over switching to AV in 2011. Image: Thomas Richards / Alamy Stock Photo
There was a referendum over switching to AV in 2011. Image: Thomas Richards / Alamy Stock Photo

Tony King, one of the finest and also nicest political scientists of the modern era, liked to ask his students questions designed to test their thinking. If, as students often do, one of them proposed a policy outside the political mainstream, Tony would invite them to consider not just the merits of the idea but its chances of implementation. “Neither of the main parties backs your idea,” he would say. “Suppose that in five years’ time the government has done what you want. What has happened to bring this about?”

 Currently, a debate is going on within the Labour Party about the way Britain elects its MPs. Many activists—a big majority, going by the latest party conference vote on the issue—want us to abandon first-past-the-post (FPTP) and switch to proportional representation (PR). Sadly, Tony is no longer around to ask his question, so let’s do it in his memory: suppose Britain does end up having changed its voting system. What has happened?

 Supporters of reform would probably say something like this: “Keir Starmer would come to see that FPTP gives the Tories a built-in advantage, for they enjoy a near monopoly of the right-of-centre vote, while progressive votes are split among a number of parties. In 2019, 42 Tory MPs were elected, even though the progressive vote (Labour plus Lib Dem plus Green) in their seats outnumbered the right-of-centre vote (Conservative plus Brexit Party). Without those MPs, Boris Johnson would have failed to win an overall majority, let alone a landslide.

“Starmer would recognise that FPTP has given Britain Tory-led governments for 67 of the last hundred years, and Labour governments for just 33 of them. Here is a reform that gives Britain a fairer voting system and also one that hurts the Conservatives. It’s a no-brainer. Starmer would be mad not to do it, and he’s not mad.”

This is a composite version of the argument that I have heard from a variety of Labour advocates of PR. Almost always, I hear the moral and political argument for reform (with which I agree), but not a convincing answer to Tony’s question: how it could come about, rather than why it should.

Here are three boulders that currently block the path to reform; each would need to be moved or circumvented.

First, it would need a specific electoral mandate. We had a referendum 12 years ago over switching to the Alternative Vote (AV)—a system where voters would mark their ballot papers 1,2,3 etc to indicate their preferences, and the least popular candidates would be eliminated until a winner emerged with an overall majority. The public voted by two-to-one to keep FPTP. Having had a decisive referendum not so long ago, it would now be politically risky to change the system permanently without either a fresh referendum, or an election won with a clear manifesto commitment to reform. I’m not sure just now that Starmer would fancy either option.

Second, any properly proportional system (of the kinds used, say, in Ireland or Scotland) would mean a significant reduction in the number of Labour MPs—and only a minority being sure they would keep their seats. For example, if Labour wins 45 per cent of the vote, then it is likely to have somewhere in the region of 350 MPs. But under a purely proportional system, it should have only 293. In practice, the figure is likely to drift up to a little over 300; but there would still be fewer Labour MPs, and Labour would risk swapping a majority government for a minority government. Should Starmer go ahead? Possibly. Will he want to? I doubt it. He is unlikely to ask Labour MPs to vote to do themselves out of a job. 

Third, even that example is too kind to Labour’s prospects. Part of Labour’s argument in marginal seats right now is that progressives must vote Labour in order to defeat the Tories. Under any PR system, that argument loses its force. Voters could back the Lib Dems or the Greens without fearing that their vote would be wasted. One might also imagine a “true socialist” party springing up, faithful to the traditions of Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour Party could find millions of voters choosing a different party, and its parliamentary ranks becoming seriously depleted within five to 10 years.

None of these three arguments undermine the moral case for PR, but they do help to explain Starmer’s reluctance to embrace reform.

Does that mean all is lost for PR-advocates? Not quite. Here’s my answer to Tony King’s question—suppose Britain does change its voting system, what will have made it happen?

It’s May 2026. A minority Labour government has survived for 18 months. Starmer feels that the time is ripe for a fresh general election, in order to secure a clear overall majority that it needs to implement its full programme. However, Labour slips back in the election, while the Lib Dems advance. Another spell of minority government no longer looks viable; but together Labour and the Lib Dems would enjoy an overall majority.

Ed Davey says PR is the price of a coalition. Starmer says no. They haggle. Eventually they do a deal. Starmer agrees (a) to legislate to hold the following election under AV (thus keeping single-member constituencies and helping the Lib Dems to win more seats from the Tories), and (b) a manifesto commitment by both parties to call a referendum early in the following parliament, when voters would be given three options: return to FPTP (the Tory choice), keep AV (Labour’s preference), or full PR (The Lib Dems’ objective). (How, you ask, would the winner of a three-way referendum be decided? Ideally, the Condorcet method could be used. Well, one can dream…) 

There are variants on this scenario. I’m not wagering any money on a Condorcet count. The point is that if change is to happen, principle and party self-interest are certain to collide. The process won’t be pretty. It might go badly wrong. And it will look and sound more like a pub brawl at closing time than a church choir on Sunday morning.