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11 May 2023

Why the Tories should back proportional representation

Received wisdom says voting reform could kill off the Conservatives. That’s not how it’s worked in Europe.

By John Oxley

There’s a conventional view that proportional representation would be a way to lock the Tories out of government forever. Since the Second World War, the right have been the great beneficiaries of the distortions of the UK’s first past the post (FPTP) electoral system – never getting above 50 per cent of the vote, but gaining a majority in ten of 21 elections, while Labour won a majority in only eight. With proportional representation (PR), it is argued, a perpetual progressive coalition could always outnumber the right. Yet the power of PR to eliminate the right is not guaranteed.

In the short term, PR could be more beneficial for the Tories than FPTP. The simple elegance of our current system is that it magnifies decisive shifts in electoral intentions. It helps you when you are winning and punishes you when you are losing. Labour has been the recent victim of this, but the Tories suffered the same in the 2000s and could do so again. A Conservative Party polling in the mid-twenties would end up with a quarter of MPs proportionately, yet with FPTP they could have fewer than the SNP.

In the longer term it is foolhardy to predict what a proportionate system would mean. Politics is implicitly shaped by the electoral system, and the dynamics would change dramatically as we moved away from the present dominance of two parties. For the right, this would probably mean fragmentation into a variety of parties, which could work to its advantage.

The continental right generally has the same factions that can be recognised in the current Conservative Party. There is always a spectrum of policies and principles from Christian Democracy, or classical liberalism, to agrarian special-interest and nativist populism. In Europe, each of these often has its own party, while in the current Tories they jockey for position through internecine shenanigans.

[See also: Local election results show the Tories are in trouble]

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Under a proportionate system, the politics of the right would not be determined by the winner-takes-all nature of Tory power battles. Instead, the electorate would be able to choose which factions hold what sway in the bloc. It would also allow each of these to tailor their position, rather than a single Tory party having to balance electoral appeal between the Red and Blue Walls and everything in between.

Moving beyond the Conservative brand could also be helpful for the party. The future of the Tories looks bleak, with fewer and fewer under 50s seeming to support them. This is born both from their policy positions, which are temporary, but a more long-term tarnishing of the Conservative image. In PR, parties of the right could break free of the “never kissed a Tory” type stigma that ties them to the gin-and-Jags older voter and alienates them from other demographics. An economically and socially liberal party could, for example, succeed in the cities where the Conservative brand is struggling.

After a few cycles of PR, our political landscape would be hugely changed. It’s perfectly foreseeable that a centrist block of soft right and left could dominate, pushing out the extremes of each party and alternating leadership as they rise and fall. Or the populist wings of each could unite for a more interventionist government. Across Europe, PR and mixed electoral systems have not resulted in progressive dominance, and there’s no reason they should in the UK.

Party-political advantage is the wrong yardstick to judge voting systems against. The better arguments for electoral reform are about fairness, empowerment and overall better government. Yet the decision cannot easily be removed from the incumbent parties’ self-interest. The left should, however, be wary. The Conservative Party has thrived through electoral changes before, from the Reform Act to universal suffrage. There is no good reason to believe PR would be a stake through its heart.

[See also: The Conservatives are facing a nightmare electoral scenario]

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