We need to talk about electoral reform

6 Dec 2019 08:36 | LCER

This article, by Theo Morgan, was originally published in the Morning Star.

IN stark contrast to Labour’s slogan, “for the many not the few,” the voters deciding whether it will win power are in fact the few, and not the many.

Most votes will not make any difference: like NHS treatment times, our elections are a postcode lottery. Up to two-thirds of seats will not change hands, and a similar proportion of the electorate will see their vote wasted.

Campaigning efforts will be heavily focused on “marginal” or “swing seats” Labour’s top target will be Southampton Itchen, where the Conservatives have a majority of just 31 votes. Labour lost the seat in 2015, but had held it since 1992.

At the two elections prior to 1992, hard line right-winger Christopher Chope had won it for the Conservatives. Following his defeat, he re-entered Parliament as MP for Christchurch, which had been represented by the Liberal Democrats since a 1993 by-election. Since then, Labour have replaced the Lib Dems in second place. However, party supporters there have no chance of being represented by a Labour MP: Chope’s 49 per cent lead is the largest Tory majority in the country.

Just over the border from Itchen, Southampton Test is more than likely to re-elect its Labour MP Alan Whitehead, who has a majority of over 11,000. Voters there will consequently receive little attention, but their vote will still matter more than the other seat in that city, Romsey and Southampton North, where the Tory majority is over 18,000. Labour are a distant third behind the Lib Dems in second place.

Here, people who would like to vote Labour may feel that their best hope of defeating a Tory is to tactically vote Lib Dem, who may stand a slightly better chance of winning. Either way, the seat is likely to stay Tory.

Of the three Southampton seats, only voters in the one Labour target seat have any realistic prospect of influencing the outcome of the election. The majority of voters (53.5 per cent) in Southampton Itchen voted for parties other than the winning Conservative candidate in 2017, yet it is the minority of voters there who re-elected them.

The same is true across the country as a whole. The Tories could easily win a comfortable parliamentary majority in the House of Commons on a minority of the votes cast. Despite no mandate from the majority of the country, they will be able to set the agenda for another five years. Conversely, Labour could win a lower proportion of seats than their vote share, leaving them under-represented, and the Tories vastly over-represented.

Labour gets several million votes from its own safe seats, largely concentrated in urban centres like Liverpool, Birmingham and London. Huge Labour majorities are stacked up in the inner cities, but voters in these areas are ignored at elections.

If Labour supporters are neglected, they may feel taken for granted. Previously “safe” Labour seats in the industrial heartlands of Scotland and the Midlands have fallen to the SNP and the Tories after decades of Labour representation.

If people don’t feel their vote matters, they won’t bother voting at all, and the last election saw a decline in voter turnout amongst the working class. Overall, over 14 million electors did not vote in 2017, and the seats with the lowest turnout are mostly Labour-held.

The Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform wants the party to replace the ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system, which benefits the Conservatives, and formally adopt a policy of proportional representation for UK elections.

There are a number of voting systems which would keep a geographical link between constituents and their MP, whilst ensuring votes everywhere count equally. Southampton’s only Labour MP, Alan Whitehead, supports LCER’s aim of introducing PR; so does John McDonnell, Momentum national co-ordinator Laura Parker and trade unionist Sam Tarry, the Labour PPC for Ilford South.

In 1951, after six transformative years in power, Labour lost the general election to the Conservatives, despite winning the most votes overall, and were out of power for a generation.

A fairer system could have changed the course of history: societies with proportional voting systems have lower income inequality, enhanced action on climate change and fairer distribution of public goods, and are less likely to be involved in armed conflict, outcomes which all align with Labour’s values. Its 2019 manifesto pledges to hold a Constitutional Convention: led by a citizens’ assembly, this would answer “how a Labour government can best put power in the hands of the people.”

For any democratic socialist party, the place to start is by rejecting a rigged electoral system, and replacing it with one in which its voters would be fairly represented.


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