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First past the post is sounding its death knell

Under a proportional voting system, voters could support a range of parties knowing their vote would genuinely count. 

With less than a week to go before the General Election, much of the talk has been about the unpredictability of the result: which party will have the most seats, and who will make deals with whom. Yet this is precisely the kind of talk that our First Past the Post voting system was supposed to avoid.

The current system is supposed to produce majority governments: and it’s clearly failing on its own terms. But it’s also failing to reflect how people are actually voting in the 21st century – that is, for more than two parties.

In the situation of a hung parliament, when every MP will count, that will make a huge difference as to who forms a government. When votes aren’t accurately turned into seats, the implications for democracy aren’t good, to say the least.

And people are starting to show their discontent. A new poll by BMG Research has found that 74 per cent of the British public back a more proportional voting system - they want their votes to fairly translate into seats. Support for proportional votes is strong among supporters of all parties, with 79 per cent of Conservative voters, 81 per cent of Labour voters, 83 per cent of Liberal Democrats, and 70 per cent of UKIP voters backing proportionality.

It’s also consistent across all age brackets and social backgrounds, and is mirrored in last week's YouGov LivePoll. There is, it seems, something instinctive and intuitive about the idea that votes should equal seats.  

In some ways, it’s not surprising. Everyone wants their vote to count. But they’re not getting that under our current system.  Almost every poll has Labour and the Conservatives on less than 70 per cent of the popular vote. Yet they’re expected to get around 83 per cent of seats. Meanwhile the Greens and Ukip could get nearly a fifth of the vote but less than 1 per cent of seats. That’s millions of marginalised citizens.

The situation in Scotland is even more astonishing. The SNP could win every single seat – on just over half the popular vote. Thankfully the party is committed to reforming the current voting system. But the result will be dispiriting for democrats, nonetheless. There are going to be a lot of angry and excluded voters in Scotland after the 7th - not least the 17 per cent who back the Conservatives and 20 per cent who are Labour supporters.

Even the Liberal Democrats, despite talk of them beginning to benefit under First Past the Post, will only get about 4 per cent of seats compared to around 8 per cent of the vote.

When it’s put into perspective, none of this sounds like proper democracy to most people. What kind of politics do we want?

The political landscape has fundamentally changed over the past few years. We are now a truly multi-party country, as the leaders’ debates have shown. But how we vote hasn’t caught up. We’re trying to squeeze seven or more parties into an old-fashioned two-party system. Unsurprisingly, it’s not working. And many figures are now waking up to this fact – from Lord Gus O’Donnell, to Owen Jones in the Guardian.

Under a proportional voting system, voters could support a range of parties knowing their vote would genuinely count. They could vote for who they actually believe in, without worrying about ‘letting in’ a hated party or having to put their cross next to a ‘lesser evil’. And the nearly-400 MPs who occupy safe seats would have to listen to a lot more voters, since other parties would finally stand a chance of getting in.

Whatever happens on May 7, there are going to be millions of voters who have been let down by our archaic voting system. Politicians would do well to recognise it – and put real reform on the agenda. 

Katie Ghose is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society

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Corbynism isn’t a social movement and Labour shouldn’t be one

The leader's supporters have confused party with movement and party with public. 

The second Labour leadership contest in 12 months is at its heart a clash of mandates. Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters justify his leadership with repeated reference to "grassroots democracy" and his backing among members, whether in votes, polls or turnout at meetings. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) majority justify their disengagement from the leadership by highlighting their relationship with the electorate: the programme they were elected on, Corbyn's record unpopularity and the extreme unlikelihood of winning a general election under his leadership.

However, the moral legitimacy and strategic orientation underpinning Corbynite claims derives in large part from the notion that they are a "social movement" that reaches beyond parliament. To an extent, this is mirrored by some in the PLP, who differentiate themselves by reference to exclusively or primarily being a parliamentary party.

The problem is that Corbynism is not a social movement and neither wing adequately understands the relationship between parties and movements. The coordinated action of "people all round the country" does not necessarily make something a movement. Existing explanations of social movements (ecological, labour, feminist, LGBT etc) tend to emphasise broad-based and diverse coalitions of activists focused largely on social transformation goals in civil society and only then directed towards state actors/actions. As Matt Bolton notes, "The relation between activist groups and the state is not mediated by any electoral mechanism". Most movements are long-term in character, though others may be more ephemeral such as Occupy.

In contrast, statements from the Corbyn leadership and from Momentum emphasise more limited party and state-directed goals. These primarily focus on building a mass party and holding parliamentary representatives to account. Labour now has a mass membership, but is no more a mass party than when there was a similar expanded membership in the early Blair years.

A mass party brings together members and activists with deep roots in communities and movements that enable it to understand social conditions and changes. That degree of embeddedness may allow the party to build electoral blocs that articulate and aggregate interests and identities in a governing project that can win and then exercise power. That is different from the dominant conceptions of both sides in the clash of mandates debate. Most of the PLP majority come from a tradition where the party is little more than an electoral machine, where members have occasional walk-on parts and where the public is seen mainly through the prism of focus groups and mass media. The result is a hollowed out and professionalised politics without a transformative agenda that reinforces the roader crisis of representation.

In contrast, Corbynism conflates and confuses the functions of party and movements. The former becomes the"‘voice" of the latter – a kind of social movement aggregator and/or megaphone for any group "in struggle". But this fails to understand the complex nature of building a popular coalition, where those interests and identities may diverge and even clash sharply. Furthermore, the vast majority of voters are not active in parties or social movements and their views will be unlikely to be heard on the picket line or party rally. Democratic (as distinct from vanguardist) parties have to engage in trade-offs, identification of priorities and tactical manoeuvers that are a sharp contrast to ‘"support anyone/all demands in struggle". Even genuine insurgent parties such as Podemos and Syriza, with roots in movements, inevitably struggle to manage these tensions when faced with the prospect or practice of governing.

The Corbynite confusion is not new. We saw it at the height of the Bennite wave in the 1980s and particularly in Ken Livingstone’s vision of Labour as a rainbow coalition. Here, a prospective electoral coalition was envisaged from combining the demands of various movements, filtered through their supposed organisational expression in black sections, women's sections and so on. In practice, activist voices tend to substitute for the actual experiences and concerns of the various groups. This kind of vanguardist politics takes a different form today, partly as result of changed social and political conditions, but also because of the changing means of communication and organising.

Rather than a social movement, Corbynism should be understood as a network, with a variety of horizontal and vertical characteristics. The former consists of a large and loose association of supporters who function largely as an army of clickivists who aggressively defend the goals of the project and the authenticity of the leader, while consigning those who dissent to some beyond the pale category (Blairite, Red Tory, traitor etc). Abuse is not an inherent feature of those attacks, but the ideological and personality-driven character of the project tends to encourage it. Indeed, the leader-focused nature of Corbynism "testifies precisely to the lack, the weakness, of the "social movement" of which he is the supposed avatar".

The speed and reach of such forms of networking are facilitated by the growth of social media. Such efforts have been conceptualised and popularised by Paul Mason, who has transferred his belief that the agency of social change in a "postcapitalist" world is the ‘educated networked individual’ to the distinctive nature of Corbyn party/movement hybrid. Something different is clearly happening with such networking, but as has been widely observed, the effectiveness of horizontal organising to effect lasting political change has been exaggerated and the tendency to act as self-referential cultural echo chambers vastly under-estimated.

As for the vertical, this is represented by the core team around the offices of Corbyn and John McDonnell and through the factional organisation of Momentum. Their focus is party building, albeit dressed up in the language of social movement. Circumstances have combined to offer the hard left a unique opportunity to capture a social democratic party machine. There is a genuine though mistaken belief that institutional capture will lead to a broader institutional transformation. This does not mean that Momentum should be characterised as a "mob" or a plaything of Trot entrists. Momentum brings together a large number of committed activists understandably fed up with the narrow and timid nature of Labour in particular and politics in general. Some of their party building can help revitalise Labour at local level, though at the moment there is little evidence of substantive participation in campaigns on the ground.

In a recent Guardian piece, Ellie Mae O’Hagan takes critics of Corbynism to task: "There are not enough delusional Leninists in Britain to make up the entirety of Corbyn’s support – these are only ordinary British voters who want radical solutions to a growing number of crises". The first observation is certainly true, but the second is deeply misguided, though all-too typical. As the MP Richard Burden aptly notes, "We stop thinking about how we connect with 'the people' and start to think of ourselves as 'the people'. And as we do that, we get into the politics of the echo chamber where the voices we hear are those we want to hear".

It is sometimes said that Corbyn and co are not interested in winning elections. I don’t think that is true. The problem is that their double confusion between party and movement and party and public means that they don’t know how to. Instead of winning over the electorate, they will carry on accumulating members, waiting for some illusory tipping point where mass party becomes mass appeal. In the wake of a decisive general election defeat – for that it is what is overwhelmingly likely to happen - they will have the party, but Labour as a national electoral alternative and agent of potential social transformation will be finished for the foreseeable future.  

This piece originally appeared in Renewal.

Paul Thompson is Professor of Employment Studies at the University of Stirling and was a founding editor of Renewal.