The winner is...first past the post
by Brian Durrans
In August 2020, over half the readers polled by the centrist LabourList online magazine were unhappy with Keir Starmer’s first three months as party leader. A less topical question, but clearly on the magazine’s radar, concerned the UK’s electoral system. In the same poll, three-quarters of the responders favoured some form of Proportional Representation (PR) over the existing First Past The Post (FPTP) system. (1) A concerted effort is underway to have PR adopted as Labour policy for parliamentary elections. (2) What is all this about and why should the Left care?
The last time electoral systems were widely debated was in the referendum of May 2011. Voters then preferred FPTP over the ranked-choice Alternative Vote (AV) method by a margin of 2:1. Unsuccessful in 2011, the main, non-party political champion of AV, the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), now prefers PR. Before getting into the politics, here is what the initials mean:
FTFP: Voters choose the candidate or the candidate of the party they most want to win in their constituency. Whoever has most votes is elected MP. If your favourite is unlikely to win, you can vote for a lesser favourite to try to defeat your least favourite (tactical voting). FPTP deserves support because it roughly corresponds to people’s personal experience of a society divided by wealth and privilege, and makes Labour the key battleground for getting leaders and policies appropriate to the needs of working people.
AV: Rejected in 2011, the Alternative Vote system has voters rank any number of listed candidates in order of preference. Only first preference votes are counted initially. Anyone getting more than 50% of these is elected automatically. Failing that, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their second choices allocated to those remaining. If one candidate then has more than 50% of the votes in this round they are elected. If not, the one with the fewest votes is eliminated and their second preferences are reallocated (or third preferences if they were the second choice of someone who voted for the first candidate to be eliminated). This continues until one candidate has 50% or more of the vote in that round of counting, or until there are no more votes to be distributed. Since you can put your numbers where you want, AV also allows tactical voting. Voters’ top choices will tend to be the same as with FPTP, but with AV second and even third-best choices can produce results fewer want but more might tolerate.
PR: Proportional Representation is not a system of voting at all but the idea, favoured by the ERS and other opponents of the existing system, that the share of a party’s MPs out of the total returned to Westminster will be the same as its share of the total votes cast by the electorate. If a party gets a third of the votes, they then get a third of the MPs. The ERS suggests how parties might determine who gets onto the ballot paper, and how voting is done, in order to achieve the ‘proportional’ outcome it prefers, for which neither FPTP nor AV is appropriate. (3)
IS 'FAIRNESS' FAIR?
Those rooting for PR, however, declare their goal is ‘fairness’ but are unsure how to achieve it. Entrenched power and influence outside popular control mean elections are conducted on an unlevel playing-field. But being ‘fair’ to all electors in an unfair system only perpetuates the unfairness. Compare levying a fixed fine for a given offence regardless of the offender’s ability to pay. The actual unfairness is more obvious in this example and more insidious in respect of PR, but in both the principle is the same.
Like AV, PR uses centrism against the Left. Labour’s only chance of overcoming the unlevel playing-field is to campaign nationally and constituency by constituency for a programme that meets people’s needs, accords with their experience and understanding and inspires confidence in its practicability. By whatever means it is achieved, even the prospect of PR would deter such campaigning by reducing its potential effect. Accommodating to the unlevel electoral playing-field, rather than trying to overcome it, keeps the field biased to the right, and the more right the field the more right the centre too. Early in his leadership Corbyn observed that Labour’s leftward move also pulled the centre with it.
Engaging with people directly on the key issues and encouraging them to use their votes independently of media propaganda nearly won Labour the 2017 general election. This is a risk which PR is designed to mitigate, however well-intentioned some of its supporters, who argue that equalising the value of all votes cast is essential for a high turnout, and for extending political engagement against apathy and cynicism (“why vote when my party can never win in my constituency – or why not vote for a second-best party with a better chance of winning?”). This argument, however, is based not just on an electoral view of politics but on an abstract view of elections themselves. The job of politics, and of elections as part of politics, is not to keep the status quo running smoothly, or at all, but to create something better. It is not a matter of doing something once every five years or of opting for second-best when you do it. Both FPTP and PR provide an incentive to campaign between elections on issues that matter to people in any constituency, but only FPTP encourages canvassing in marginals, hitherto key to winning elections overall.
In the run-up to the AV referendum in May 2011, the AV lobby made much of various organisations having adopted this system for their own internal elections, but the comparison was a confidence trick. In a perceptive article for the spring 2011 issue of this journal, a few weeks before the referendum, Calvin Tucker pointed out that such organisations “are largely composed of members who share a common interest and, by joining, adopt the common purpose of the group [… but that] a whole country, such as Britain, is nothing like that.” (4) The 2011 referendum result was also a verdict on Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats who negotiated the referendum as a fee for joining David Cameron’s Conservatives in a Coalition government to inflict austerity on the British people to pay for the 2008-09 financial crisis. Under Ed Miliband, Labour supported AV, albeit with much dissent on both the left and right. Pro-AV, arch-Blairite Peter Mandelson acknowledged that the result reflected opposition to Clegg and austerity but added that the AV lobby failed to do what he called the “groundwork”, implying that it wouldn’t make that mistake again. The rejection of AV in 2011 has not stopped FPTP being misrepresented as a key problem for democracy. Mandelson’s “groundwork” continues.
CLASS POLITICS OR HORSE-TRADING?
Labour today retains most of its ‘Corbyn surge’ members. More members and supporters than ever before have witnessed and drawn lessons from the tactics used by the ruling class and its apologists to prevent a left government, and attempts to shift the party to the right are provoking vigorous opposition. In the meantime the party’s links with the trade union movement remain strong.
The more Labour fades as a national force, or seems to, the more tempting PR might seem to the left as offering a reasonable presence in parliament as someone else’s joint or junior partner. Conversely, the stronger Labour appears to be, as it really was in 2017, the more of a headache FPTP is for the establishment. But for whichever reason the idea of ending FPTP is up for discussion, the more likely it is to happen. There is no innocent weighing of Labour’s options in respect of electoral systems while the noise of grinding axes fills the air.
Over the decades, Labour governments have suffered not from FPTP but from not winning big enough majorities or mobilising their supporters to tackle entrenched privilege. Real democracy, advancing popular demands, means decision-making close to people’s experience. A progressive party out to win an election via FPTP has every incentive to sort out its divisions and policies in advance by drawing on that experience – as Labour attempted in 2017 and less successfully in 2019 – and to remain accountable to members and supporters. Hard-won manifesto commitments are not the property of party mandarins to negotiate away without members’ permission.
The discipline and participation needed in this task is akin to that necessary for the best possible slate for factional contests in a broad-based organisation. By making a greater virtue of post-election horse-trading than of fidelity to manifesto commitments and the work that went into them, PR would both devalue elections and further alienate people from politics when it is critically important to more actively defend and advance their interests. If the voting methods geared to deliver PR turn out to be as complex or opaque as implied by their advocates’ coyness about them, politics could appeal even less when it should be drawing people in as never before.
LABOUR AND PARLIAMENT
The Labour Party’s first two spells of power under Ramsay MacDonald were as minority governments in 1924 and 1929-31. The powerful Liberal Party tolerated some social welfare reforms, especially to mitigate the effects of the 1929 financial crash and the ensuing Great Depression, but not the scale of reform needed in the coal industry. Recent research shows the second Labour government enjoyed an upsurge of working class support after the General Strike, but this was not harnessed to push more radical reforms against Liberal obstruction.
Only with the Attlee landslide in 1945 did Labour get a clear parliamentary majority and the opportunity to enact radical social-democratic measures covering industrial organisation, services, and welfare, in response to popular demand in the wake of the World War 2 alliance that defeated fascism, and for a social wage to keep pace with achievements in the socialist republics.
With a slim majority in 1950 and under hawkish pressure to cut the social wage in favour of military spending, the party lost to the Tories the following year, belatedly returning to government under Harold Wilson in 1964-1970, initially with a 4-seat majority then rising to 96 in 1966. But heavy so-called defence budgets and continuing decline of the British economy left the party little room for winning elections with measures favourable to its core working class supporters. The party’s influential right wing replaced the Liberals of MacDonald’s time to keep Labour governments in step with the establishment.
Losses by Scottish Labour left the 1974-79 Labour government, led first by Wilson then by James Callaghan, exposed to deals with smaller parties, most damagingly in the 1977 Lib-Lab pact with David Steel’s Liberals. After the party’s defeat by the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher in the aftermath of the 1979 ‘Winter of Discontent’, Labour swept into government in 1994 as New Labour with Tony Blair as PM and a majority big enough for major social welfare improvements in key fields like nursery education but squandered on neoliberal excesses such as PFI outsourcing in the NHS and lying to justify its support for the Iraq war.
Despite successfully stabilising sterling in the financial crash of 2008-09, Gordon Brown’s decision to make the public rather than the bankers pay led to Labour’s electoral defeat in 2010. During this phase, as in the latter part of the earlier Wilson government, Labour’s majority may have freed it from obligations to smaller rivals but by then the leadership was more aligned with neoliberalism than with its own support base.
Finally, defeat of the socialist bloc in 1989-90 left capitalist ambition unchecked, with immediate (and still continuing) consequences for the lives of millions, not least those in Britain who had hitherto assumed, albeit with diminishing confidence, that Labour would look out for them. In the wake of that experience and nine years of banking-crisis austerity, an unlikely Labour backbencher was catapulted almost by accident to nearly become PM in 2017.
To summarise: the ability or determination of Labour governments to implement popular policies has been too often thwarted by narrow majorities, forced compromises and ideological bias. Far from a panacea for these problems, ditching FPTP would only entrench them. To realise its potential Labour needs to confront privilege, mobilise its members in struggle and win an outright parliamentary majority. It will not be easy but without FPTP it could take longer than the planet can afford.
UNITY IS STRENGTH
For Labour to pass some form of PR into law it would first need to win an election by the existing FPTP or do sufficiently well to be able to vote it through with the help of predictably eager MPs in smaller parties. Labour’s General Election manifestos in 2017 and 2019 are silent on the UK’s voting system although the Constitutional Commission, which the 2017 manifesto said would recommend ways of “extending democracy”, might have addressed the issue. The challenge to the anti-FPTP lobby in Labour and other parties, including a minority of Tories, is that they depend on Labour members being resigned to binning or filleting popular policies in the Party’s last two manifestos for the next scheduled election in 2024.
Claiming PR would be ‘fairer’ than FPTP prompts comparison with Harold Wilson’s slogan of ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.’ PR ‘fairness’ perpetuates the unlevel field on which elections are contested (gross media bias being only the most obvious) by pretending that allocating a party’s MPs in proportion to the vote it achieves against odds already stacked against it somehow cancels out the bias. Wilson’s slogan perpetuates exploitation by ignoring the inescapable condition of capitalism that employers pocket the difference between the value of their employees’ labour and the wages they are paid. Each claim of fairness disguises its opposite. Remembering that justifies optimism and determination.
Labour has a proud history of connecting local with national and international aspects of struggle for a better future. Despite shortcomings, Labour’s approach to Parliament and therefore parliamentary elections is integral with that, not detached from it. Key elements of the original socialist Clause IV of the party’s constitution have of course been lost, yet the party remains – even in Tony Blair’s amendment - officially committed to “a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few” – in other words, not merely to ‘having a voice’ in parliament. (5) Whatever the differences between the defeated/discredited AV and devious routes to PR, claims that any of them is ‘fairer’ or ‘more modern’ than FPTP make no sense in political reality, except to serve the interests of the 1%. The answer to divide and rule has always been “unity is strength” and that applies as much to deciding an electoral system as to any other aspect of class struggle.
 Calvin Tucker, “A vote for AV is a vote for cuts”, The Socialist Correspondent, no. 11, spring 2011, pp. 11-12.
To realise its potential Labour needs to confront privilege, mobilise its members in struggle and win an outright parliamentary majority. It will not be easy, but without FPTP it could take longer than the planet can afford.