Most voters backed parties to the left of the Tories - so why are the losers in power?

First past the post distorts our whole political system. It's time for Labour to join smaller parties in calling for change. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The UK has a progressive majority - it’s our broken voting system that hands power to the right

Last week’s general election was full of surprises, but in one important way it reaffirmed a well-established fact of British politics: there is a clear progressive majority in the UK.

More than 52 per cent of voters backed parties to the left of the Conservatives - whether Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru or the Greens.

These people - 14 million of them - rejected Tory austerity and divisiveness. They all voted for a more equal, compassionate society; in short, they voted for hope.

But while there is a clear progressive majority among the people, it’s the opposite in parliament: there’s a regressive majority. The Tories and Democratic Unionist Party command a majority of MPs in the House of Commons - despite the fact that their combined vote share was just 43 per cent.

Why does a regressive minority get to run roughshod over the progressive majority? There’s one simple reason: our primitive and dysfunctional voting system, first past the post.

Eight in ten developed democracies use some form of proportional representation - systems that aim to make sure all votes matter equally and seats match votes. The UK does not, and as a result we are blighted with parliaments that don’t reflect the people, usually to the benefit of the Conservative party.

None of this is new. The Great British Progressive Majority has been an enduring fact of our modern history. Of the last 15 general elections, most people voted for parties to the left of the Conservatives in 14 of them. This was true even during the darkest days of the Thatcher era. Only once since 1964 has there ever been a small “c” conservative majority of voters: in 2015. Yet the Tories have been in power for most of this time.

Not that this is the only way FPTP distorts our politics. As Make Votes Matter - the cross-party campaign for PR for the House of Commons - points out, over 68 per cent of votes in this general election were wasted, meaning they didn’t affect the make up of parliament in any way. Nor were votes equal. It took 18 times as many votes to elect a Green MP as it did to elect one from the SNP.

This broken system distorts our whole political system. If it weren’t for local pacts and tactical voting on an unprecedented scale - spearheaded by Compass and the Progressive Alliance - Parliament would be far more skewed to the right. Progressive votes would have been spread thinly across more parties and candidates, handing many marginal seats over to the Tories by default. One in five people intended to vote tactically in this election according to the Electoral Reform Society.

PR would empower people by making parliament fairly reflect their votes. We can be certain, for example, that the Thatcher era as we know it simply could not have happened if we’d had PR. A large majority of people voted for parties to the left of the Tories throughout the entirety of her reign.

There’s also strong evidence that the coalition governments of proportional systems tend to perform better than winner-takes-all regimes like those used in the UK and US.

Researchers have found that proportional systems lead to significantly better levels of income equality. Of the 35 OECD democracies, the top 15 in terms of income equality all use PR. These countries are more likely to have welfare states and invest on average 5 per cent more in social expenditure. They are what the academic Arend Lijphart calls “kinder, gentler democracies”.

PR also enables better gender and black and ethnic minority representation in politics; every country with more than 40 per cent women in its parliament uses PR. They have higher turnouts and stronger political engagement. The countries assessed annually by the Economist as being the world’s best performing democracies all use PR.

Of course, progressives have to fight for the things they believe in whatever their voting system.

There are many things that only the Green party stands for - a transitioned, localised economy that understands resources are finite and doesn't bow the knee to illusory growth. Redirecting dangerous, wasteful, and unnecessary expenditure like renewing Trident nuclear weapons and subsidising new nuclear power, and investing instead in resilience and sustainability through a Green industrial strategy. Education and health care that allows the next generation to truly flourish, by doing away with the damaging culture of markets, testing and leagues tables, and providing instead people-centred public services fit to meet the needs of the 21st century. Bold ideas such as a universal basic income and a four day week, to prepare us for the future bearing down on us.

But the evidence is that they are far more likely to succeed when they do so in a fair, proportional voting system. 

Most Tories support FPTP - and that isn’t likely to change. The real question now is for the Labour party. Do they continue to support a voting system that does so much harm to their own voters, or do they commit to a modern, proportional democracy in which all votes truly matter?

It should be an easy question to answer and I’m delighted that so many Labour MPs - from John McDonnell to Jess Phillips - are calling for PR. For those who are not yet convinced, I encourage you to read the report jointly published by the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and Make Votes Matter last month, which makes a compelling case for Labour to embrace PR.

We may have another general election before too long. If Labour goes into that election in agreement with the other progressive parties on the single issue of a fair, proportional voting system, there is no doubt in my mind that our political future will be brighter than our past.

On the other hand, if Labour stands by FPTP, we should expect the future to mirror the past: a conservative minority ruling a progressive majority most of the time.

A major demonstration and summit will take place outside Parliament on Saturday 24 June to call for Proportional Representation: #SaveOurDemocracy.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion and the co-leader of the Green Party of England and Wales. 

Jon Bartley is the co-leader of the Green Party.