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questions about proportional representation

Here are some questions we're often asked about proportional representation.

The current voting system produces strong, stable governments. Isn't that better than the endless unstable coalitions that PR would give us?

It isn't just PR that produces coalition governments: two of the last three elections in the UK have resulted in coalitions. 

Since 2017 we’ve been governed by a “confidence and supply” arrangement between two right-wing parties (the Tories and the DUP) which between them scraped together 43.3 per cent of the vote. Adding in UKIP’s votes brings the total up to 45 per cent.

Under a system where all votes counted, we would most likely be governed by a Labour-led left-of-centre grouping. Wouldn’t that be infinitely preferable?

Across the world, most developed countries use PR, and most enjoy peaceful and stable government. It’s true that many countries are governed by coalitions – but is anything inherently wrong with that?

  • Left-of-centre coalitions and minority-led governments have been elected and have successfully implemented progressive programmes of government: recent examples include leftist coalitions elected in Portugal (2015), Spain (2016) and New Zealand (2017).
  • In the UK, a Labour-led coalition in the Scottish Parliament (1999-2007) delivered a programme at least as progressive as the programme delivered by a Labour government in Westminster (1997-2010) which had a huge majority.

Finally, let’s remember that because FPTP benefits large parties, both the Labour and Conservative parties straddle an enormous section of the left/right political spectrum. Both parties can best be thought of as internal coalitions – often quite strained and unfriendly. Historically, then, many of the single-party governments that have come to power in the UK have arguably been coalitions, in all but name.

Isn't voting reform a distraction from real-life issues? Would a commitment to a more proportional voting system really win us an election?

Some people see voting reform as a distraction from the “real” issues: Brexit, NHS funding, social care, education, the worldwide environmental crisis, low wages, and the lack of opportunities for young people.

But Labour can only tackle these issues if it forms a government. Research shows that FPTP favours right-wing governments; FPTP has been shutting Labour out of power for far too long at all levels of governance.

Under a fair voting system, the UK could have been governed by a Labour-led left-of-centre coalition for much or all of the last decade. We might not be suffering the effects of austerity, with homelessness at record levels and working people relying on food banks.

Many of the biggest problems we face (health and social care, climate change, our relationship with the EU) require long-term consensus-based solutions. The winner-takes-all nature of FPTP forms a huge barrier to finding these solutions.

A broadly proportional voting system would also do a lot to address voter disengagement: “Politics has nothing to do with me; voting doesn’t make a difference; you politicians are all the same”.

Many people who typically don't vote (because it doesn’t change anything) voted in recent referendums where every vote counted; and many could be persuaded to vote for a Labour Party which pledged that the current election would be the last held under FPTP.

We’re seeing a huge thirst for change, not just among political activists but also from ordinary voters who are not members of any party. After the 2015 election, which produced the most disproportionate result in decades, over half a million people signed petitions calling for PR. Most opinion polls since then have found overwhelming support for PR among the public.

We believe that a clear manifesto commitment to introduce a fair voting system would be hugely attractive to voters.

My priority is the socialist transformation of society. How can that happen under PR?

As Labour supporters, it could be tempting to look forward to the day when FPTP gives Labour an overall majority in parliament on 30-40 per cent of votes cast, and allows us to introduce a radical socialist programme. But there are several problems with this.

The first is: the electoral arithmetic of First Past the Post does not favour Labour. FPTP hands the Conservative party a majority much more often than it gives a majority to Labour. This is the case across the world: research shows that countries which use non-proportional voting systems have more conservative governments than countries which use PR.

Second, there are ethical and practical problems in trying to implement a radical socialist programme with the support of fewer than half of all voters. The real mandate for change comes from winning the support of well over half of all voters, most likely under a broad, left-leaning coalition.

Third is the issue of sustainability. Labour has won elections under FPTP, but the progressive achievements of Labour governments have often been unravelled by the Tory governments which follow them. Mrs Thatcher sold off public utilities and council housing; recent Tory governments have reversed Labour’s achievements on child poverty and are dismantling the NHS. Under PR, right-of-centre governments are more consensus-based and find it more difficult to dismantle progressive policies. Research shows that proportional voting systems are associated with greater levels of social expenditure and more egalitarian societies.

Finally, it is entirely possible under PR for a left-wing party to fight an election on a left-wing manifesto! Many of Labour’s policies which have been considered “fringe” or “hard left” until recently, are mainstream ideas in European countries with consensus-based systems.

Aren't PR systems incredibly complicated?

It’s certainly true that First Past the Post is simple – the system was designed when many voters could not read or write, and what could be simpler than marking a single X in a box?

PR systems are a little more demanding – STV requires voters to rank candidates, while AMS requires voters to mark two ballot papers, one for a constituency MP and one at regional level. However, both of these systems are in wide use across the world (as well as in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London), and voters manage them competently. There is no reason why voters at a UK general election should struggle – it’s rather patronising to suggest they might!

In Scotland, voters have had to learn TWO new systems: AMS for the Scottish Assembly, and STV for local elections. Pre-election education was given on STV; there were a few gripes, but Scottish voters now take these systems in their stride. Voters in the Welsh and London Assemblies, and in EU elections, have also managed well with the new voting systems introduced by Labour.

And, of course, there is one sense in which FPTP is incredibly complicated. FPTP forces many people to vote tactically – not for the party they like the most, but for the party they believe is most likely to defeat the party they dislike the most. This involves a good deal of prediction and guesswork. Under most PR systems, the need for tactical voting would be reduced or could disappear altogether.

Haven't we already had a referendum on PR, in 2011?

It’s correct that we had a referendum, but the Alternative Vote (AV) system we were voting on was a "preferential" system like the one used in Australia, not a proportional system where seats are allocated in accordance with votes cast.

Here’s how AV works. Constituency boundaries are set up just as they are under FPTP, and each party can put forward one candidate in each constituency. Rather than marking an “X” for a single candidate, voters rank their choices (“1” for their first choice, “2” for their second choice, and so on). Candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated from the count, and their votes are “recycled” (redistributed) according to second and subsequent preferences. The system is similar to the one we use to elect the Labour Party leader. A general election under AV would see a separate contest run in each constituency.

AV can work well in some situations – it is a good system for electing a president, party leader or members of a committee.

However, it is a poor choice for national elections. It is not proportional, and can produce an even bigger mismatch between votes and seats than we see under FPTP! It’s not hard to see that the big winner under AV would be a centrist party that scored highly on second preferences, most probably the Lib Dems – under AV they could win an enormous number of seats, far larger than their share of first-preference votes.

For national elections, AV is such a flawed voting system that even many people who were committed to voting reform did not fight very hard for it - or even vote for it - in 2011. LCER is now campaigning for a system that really makes votes count, and is much better than AV.

Wouldn't PR break the link between MPs and their constituencies?

First Past the Post provides a link between MPs and their constituencies. It’s what we’re used to in the UK, and many people (particularly MPs, for understandable reasons) value that link.

However, many people don’t feel particularly well “represented” by their MP, or indeed any neighbouring MPs. In 2015, 57% of voters in Cornwall did not vote for the Conservatives, but every single seat in the county was taken by the Conservatives. Labour has never won a parliamentary seat in Surrey, despite gaining millions of votes there - over 1 in 5 votes at the 2017 general election.

Some PR systems don’t have a constituency link, but many do – and any system which replaced FPTP for the UK would have to maintain that link. Two proportional systems which keep the constituency link are:

  • The Additional Member System (AMS), used in elections for the Scottish, Welsh and London assemblies, as well as other countries (eg Germany and New Zealand). All constituencies return an MP, as they do under FPTP, but parties who get more votes than seats at the constituency level are given “top-up” MPs who serve at a regional or sub-regional level.
  • Single Transferable Vote (STV), used in elections for the Northern Ireland assembly, and for parliamentary elections in Ireland. STV is based on larger constituencies with between 3 and 5 MPs. The constituency link is still there, and everyone has a good chance of being represented by an MP who reflects their political views.

Which of the two systems is better? Both have worked well in the UK, and both have their supporters. A membership survey conducted by LCER found that most of our members prefer a top-up based system like AMS; however, our members also expressed a strong view that either AMS or STV would be substantially better than First Past the Post.

Are MPs elected under party lists as accountable as constituency MPs?

Under FPTP, local parties have the option of de-selecting a sitting MP if they feel the MP’s performance is not up to scratch.

Individual voters currently have very little opportunity to hold a sitting MP to account. They can vote against the MP at the next election, but for many people this would mean also having to vote against their preferred party. In a safe seat it is extremely rare for a sitting MP to lose, even when their behaviour has been demonstrably unacceptable.  

Under more proportional systems, accountability would work differently depending on the system used.

STV is an "open-list" system, in which local parties draw up lists of candidates, and voters can choose between candidates as well as between parties, giving them a great deal of choice. Importantly, voters can reject a candidate they believe is unfit for office, without necessarily having to vote against their preferred party.

Under AMS, most MPs would be elected under a system similar to FPTP. The additional MPs could be elected be elected via an open list (see above) or via a "closed list", where the ranking of candidates is decided by regional parties, and voters cannot vote for individual candidates in that list. The Jenkins Commission recommended top-up by open list; AMS elections in Scotland and Wales use closed lists.

The important thing is the way the lists are drawn up. In some countries with closed list systems, such as Germany and Norway, party bosses are prevented by law from intervening in candidate selection, which must be done democratically. This should be a feature of any new AMS system introduced for the UK.

Won't moaning about an “unfair” voting system make us look like sore losers?

Labour has lost three elections in a row, You could argue that we will just look like a party of sore losers if we blame the current voting system for those defeats. We should work on winning elections instead of blaming the voting system!

There are two answers to this. The first is that FPTP really is not fair, to parties or to voters.

  • It can’t be right that your vote makes a difference if you live in a marginal seat, but not in a safe Labour or Tory constituency.
  • It can’t be right that political parties devote much more time and money to campaigning in marginal seats, and formulate their manifestos to appeal to "floating" voters in marginal seats. 
  • It can’t be right that in 2015, nearly 4 million people voted for UKIP and got only one MP – while under 1.5 million voted for the SNP, and got 56 MPs. Even for those of us that dislike UKIP, this cannot be right.
  • It can’t be right that the results of FPTP elections depend on boundary changes which can be influenced in favour of the government of the day. This is being done right now, on the basis of inaccurate counts of voters in urban areas.

The second answer to this question is that when campaigning for PR, it doesn’t all have to be about unfairness. We can bring so many positive messages to the debate.

  • We can talk about the possibility of a more honest, constructive and consensus-based politics.
  • We can talk about voter engagement, about re-building trust, about re-energising political debate.
  • We can talk about a politics where everyone is equal, where every vote counts, where everyone has the power to contribute to change.
  • We can talk about a system where everyone can vote for their preferred party, knowing their vote can make a difference, no matter where they live.

Shouldn't we be persuading people who want a progressive, socialist government to vote for us (Labour), not campaigning for a system that would let them vote for another left-of-centre party?

Of course we would prefer all left-of-centre voters to vote for Labour – and at election time, we work towards persuading as many of them as possible to do so.

But sometimes it’s difficult to persuade Labour sympathisers to vote for us under FPTP.

  • People living in constituencies where the result is a foregone conclusion may not bother voting if they know it won’t make any difference.
  • Many Labour supporters living in marginal seats will vote tactically, mainly to stop a Conservative candidate getting in. A proportional voting system could put a stop to this.

And we have to accept that some left-of-centre voters will prefer a party other than Labour – a party which prioritises regional considerations or environmental issues, or a more radical or a more centrist brand of left-wing politics. Surely we want people to vote for the Labour party enthusiastically, because they agree with our vision, not because they have no other realistic choice.

At the moment, huge numbers of votes for smaller left-of-centre parties are wasted. Why shouldn’t their votes count just as much as anyone else’s?

We’ve always had First Past the Post. Why should we change?

Here are some other things we’ve 'always' had – until we got rid of them.

When our parliamentary system was set up following the Great Reform Act of 1832:

  • Only men were allowed to vote
  • Only people who owned land or property could vote
  • Only those aged 21 or over could vote
  • Some constituencies had more than one MP
  • Some constituencies were “pocket boroughs”, controlled by a single individual or family.
  • Other constituencies were “rotten boroughs”, with no voters living there at all.
  • Rotten and pocket boroughs could be bought and sold

Over the pst 150 years, people have fought, and some have died, to widen the franchise and to achieve fairer representation. As a result of their struggles, everything on the above list has been abolished.

Only ONE feature of Britain’s original voting system remains in place. That is First Past the Post. It’s time to consign FPTP to the dustbin of history, and replace it with a fair modern voting system which reflects our values of equality and democracy.

[Actually, it’s not strictly true that we’ve ‘always’ had FPTP in the UK. We have had three different electoral systems in the past: the Limited Vote System (2nd half of the 19th century); STV (for the five university seats at Westminster until 1950); and a number of two-member constituencies until 1950].

Doesn't PR give disproportionate power to small parties?

FPTP treats political parties very unequally. Under FPTP, the following parties all get a larger share of seats than votes:

  • Large parties in general
  • The Conservative Party in particular
  • Parties which are geographically based, such as the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the DUP and Sinn Fein

Other parties suffer a massive disadvantage under FPTP, getting far fewer seats than they should, given their vote share

  • Small parties, particularly those without a geographical base
  • New parties
  • Left-of-centre parties in general

PR systems are often criticised for a different reason – that they give too much power to small parties. The criticism is not that small parties get more seats than they should, but that they may exercise undue influence by holding the balance of power in a coalition, threatening to walk out if their demands are not met.

  • This can be a problem in some list-based PR systems, such as the Israeli national list system, where tiny religious parties have historically held the balance of power. The systems proposed for the UK would not give this degree of representation to tiny parties.
  • In Germany, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) held the balance of power in coalitions for many years. The FDP was widely thought to have abused its position; it was punished by the electorate for doing so and has only occasionally been part of Germany’s ruling coalition since the 1990s.
  • There are few other examples of small parties exercising disproportionate power in coalition governments under PR.  
  • In general, coalition governments under PR perform a “grown-up” consensus-based politics where smaller parties play a role, but acknowledge their junior position.

Doesn't PR give power to extremists?

First of all, First Past the Post does not guarantee that extremists will be kept out of government. Donald Trump was elected under an electoral college similar to FPTP (and would not have been elected under a system in which all votes counted).

In the UK, the BNP won their first council seat in Burnley in 2009, with only 30 per cent of the vote. FPTP makes it possible for candidates who have extreme views, and who are deeply unpopular with a majority of the electorate, to win seats.

Keeping an extreme party out of parliament does not mean that it will have no influence, or that its ideas will simply disappear. UKIP, despite minimal representation in Parliament, has had a huge influence on the UK’s political landscape, via influencing the Conservative party to hold the Brexit referendum, in the aftermath of the referendum.

The best way of taking on extremists is to defeat them by honest debate and hard work. When BNP councillors were elected in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, the Labour Party worked hard in areas that it had previously neglected as safe seats. Next time round, the BNP was beaten.

Finally, we should note that adopting PR isn’t a failsafe insurance against right-wing governments. Hungary and Poland have both elected right-wing, illiberal governments under PR-type systems. However:

  • In Poland (2015), the Law and Justice party gained 61% of the seats on 38 per cent of the vote. This result arose because of a lack of proportionality in the system.
  • In Hungary in 2018, Orban’s Fidesz party won a large majority on just under half of the vote (its nearest rival won only 19 per cent of the vote). Under a FPTP system, Fidesz could have won almost all the seats in parliament, not just a majority.
  • Opponents of voting reform sometimes point to the Nazis in Germany, who rose to power under a proportional voting system. In fact, the PR system slowed down the Nazis' rise to power. In Germany's 1932 election, the Nazis won 37% of the vote, and were the largest party in most electoral districts. This would have secured them a parliamentary majority under FPTP, but it did not give them power under PR. It was not until the following year, when the Nazis stormed the Reichstag, and suppressed and then banned opposition parties, that they became the party of government in Germany.


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