Why Labour Should Wholeheartedly Embrace the Prospect of Electoral Reform

After delegates at Labour Party conference voted to back Proportional Representation, Harry Burden makes the case for the importance of this potential change to our voting system.

Despite the sweeping social and political upheaval that has characterised the past half-century in British history, we are a culture that is wedded to – at least the fantasy of – tradition and stability. The “keep calm and carry on” consensus that has rooted itself deep into our political system has resulted in a habitual lean towards the status quo and the defence of power and wealth. These isles are many things, but they are not revolutionary by nature.

In light of this knowledge, progressives rejoiced in September as delegates at the Labour conference in Liverpool resoundingly supported a motion calling for the party to throw its weight behind electoral reform in their manifesto at the next general election, to change the voting system during its first term in office and to host an open and inclusive process to decide the specific proportional voting system to adopt. Now, all major parties other than the Conservatives agree on the need for some manner of electoral reform and, more than a decade after the shoddy and poorly constructed alternative vote referendum of 2011, the window for change has reopened. 

Those of us who lean left should view this as a reason to be cheerful. First Past the Post has disproportionately benefited the Conservative Party throughout the past century, and recent electoral gerrymandering threatens to multiply this imbalance. Furthermore, democracies around Europe with proportionally representative elections are more likely to, for example, have lower levels of absolute poverty, have more generous welfare states, are less likely to commit to international conflicts, etc. 

Yet the commitment to electoral reform will naturally create some anxieties amongst the Labour hierarchy. With the Conservatives so evidently on the precipice of electoral collapse, some internally may wonder why Labour should voluntarily sacrifice their prospective electoral dominance for the next decade. Additionally, after an extended period of high-profile internal factionalism, welcoming proportional representation will be seen to some as an invitation to split Labour into smaller and more ideologically consistent parties. 

These concerns are to some extent well-founded. However, the government that oversees this electoral restructuring will inevitably need to engage in some act of self-defeat for the benefit of a healthier, more representative, and a more diverse democracy moving forward. Political apathy and disengagement in Britain is a decades-old phenomenon that has grown at a variable rate since the 1950s. If this trend continues, we may reasonably expect a rise in popular rejection of formal political systems, an increase in extremism, and a reduced belief in the capacity of government to rectify the ills of society.

Subsequently, Labour should wholeheartedly commit to a proportionally representative electoral system in the UK as a means of safeguarding our future, for the benefit of both our national democracy and the British left. Whereas party schisms and political turmoil will naturally follow, it is a change that will benefit progressives when the waters have settled. Countries with proportionally representative electoral systems are more likely to return left-wing governments and, in the UK, left-wing or liberal parties often collectively yield a higher share of the raw vote than right-wing parties.

A more representative and responsive political future is possible. What remains to be seen is whether or not Labour can see beyond their short-term sacrifice to secure a better chance at a more peaceful, less unequal and, whatever the party colours of its construction, a left-wing future. 

Harry Burden is a freelance writer with a keen interest in authoritarianism, human rights and progressive futures. A graduate of Politics (Ba, KCL) and Political Communication (Msc, UvA-NL), he has also written about contemporary culture and current affairs. He tweets at @HarryBurden97, and his work can be found at www.peopleplacesandpolitics.com.

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