The SNP secured 50 per cent of the vote but took 95 per cent of Scotland's seats. Photo: Getty Images
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The time is right for Labour to embrace electoral reform

The electoral system has always been unfair and undemocratic - but now it could shut Labour out for generations. The time is right to embrace reform. 

The election of 2015 was, it has to be said, one of the strangest results in recent electoral history – even by our bizarre voting system’s standards.

Labour increased their vote share – from 29 per cent to 30.4 per cent - while the Conservatives’ support went up by less than 1 per cent from 36.1 per cent to 36.9 per cent. Yet their votes were organised more effectively and resulted in a majority of twelve. 

Under winner takes all systems like ours, the number of votes a party needs to elect an MP varies widely. In 2015, the range was from 23,000 votes for a Democratic Unionist MP to over 3.8 million for UKIP. Conservatives got one MP for around 34,000 votes, while for Labour the magic number was around 40,000. Votes for parties other than the Conservatives, Labour or Liberal Democrats reached a record high - nearly a quarter of the votes cast (up from 11.9 per cent in 2010). This was multi-party politics being squeezed into a two-party voting system, as our new report makes clear.

Numbers matter. Five million UKIP and Green votes gave them one seat each, whilst the SNP got 95 per cent of Scottish seats on 50 per cent of the vote.  The relationship between votes and seats is now almost non-existent. We are used to governments on relatively small vote shares and unfairness for the third party - traditionally the Liberal Democrats. But the extent of disproportionality combined with the weirdly distorting effects the system now has on our electoral map has ignited interest among doubters and forged a more genuinely cross-party initiative than ever before – including many in Labour.

Why Labour should back reform

Multi-party politics conducted under first past the post is now capable of producing such random results, as Professor John Curtice demonstrated before May 7, that Labour will be forced to confront the anomalies – and unpredictability - thrown up by a two-party system being used by a multi-party electorate.

But the better impetus for Labour to consider first past the post and the alternatives is their place within wider debates about devolution and democracy.

First, there are the divisive effects of first past the post on debates about where power lies between the nations and regions of the UK. The system exaggerates divisions within and between the nations of the UK, instead of faithfully reflecting the democratic diversity of modern voters - wherever they live.  Yesterday’s Guardian editorial reaches a stark conclusion: ‘without a more proportional voting system it may be all the harder to get the wider reform of parliament and its relationship with the constituent nations of the Britain needed to save the union.’  

The second - and related – reason comes down to local politics. Devolution from Westminster to English regions and neighbourhoods is a policy area with genuine cross-party potential. The Government’s Cities Devolution Bill will give substantial new powers to major cities. The Opposition will have a vital role bringing democratic considerations to the devolution table, recognizing that with more powers should come greater scrutiny and accountability. A more proportional voting system that challenges one-party domination locally and ensures every area has an effective Opposition is worth considering as part of a reform package.

Third, Labour needs to address the obstacles first past the post creates for parties to thrive in every community. Parties have to focus resources on the most competitive areas, leaving safer seats to fend for themselves. Without the drive to win, in some though not all areas Labour withers away.  

Whilst exact numbers are hard to come by, it is obvious that the party’s strength in London dwarfs operations elsewhere. Some local parties beat the system but as joining a party becomes less usual - especially for younger generations, the challenges grow. Scotland offers a thought-experiment in the alternatives. Labour now has one MP in Scotland, a challenging basis for rebuilding the party.  Under the Single Transferable Vote (the system used for Scottish local elections since 2007) we predict that the party would now have 14 MPs - nearly half the estimated 34 for the SNP. Labour suffered such a big defeat in Scotland in part because of our broken voting system.

Labour can reject the alternatives to first past the post if it genuinely feels that for principle and party salvation the electoral status quo should be maintained. But as the party dissects the election results, decides on a new leader and deputy and embarks on soul-searching about Labour’s purpose in the 21st century, it can’t afford to ignore the wider impact that first past the post has for our democratic landscape, our constitution and the future of the UK. This election has put electoral reform back in the spotlight. Labour should seize the chance to scrutinise the system – on its own terms.  

Katie Ghose is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.