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

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.