openDemocracyUK: Analysis

How Keir Starmer can save the UK from elective dictatorship

The Labour leader should learn from his predecessors and the triumph of fairness in New Zealand politics to push for proportional representation

David Ward
18 September 2021, 12.01am
Keir Starmer is set to unveil a new vision
Kevin Hayes/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

At this year’s Labour Party conference from September 25-29, Keir Starmer plans to paint “in primary colours” the kind of country he wants Britain to become. Well, here is a suggestion for his palette: how about a bold stroke that would illuminate Labour’s commitment to pluralism, while revitalising democracy and trust in government? This policy doesn’t require huge public spending and the Tories will never want to steal it (guaranteed).

It is proportional representation (PR), the reform that Margaret Thatcher most feared. Asked in 1995 whether the Conservative Party might benefit from a period in opposition, she replied: “That’s crazy ... they might change the voting system.” 

In May, Labour won 11 of 13 mayoral elections, all under PR. Now the Tories want to change these elections to First Past the Post (FPTP). That’s because, like Thatcher, today’s Conservative leaders understand that our so-called majoritarian voting system works in their favour. They know that FPTP has given them power for decades, despite only winning a minority of the popular vote.

Following the 2019 elections, the Tories held a majority (56.2%) of seats with only 43.6% of the votes. They gained 48 more MPs with only an extra 1.2% vote share. That is ‘winner takes all’ FPTP in action: a system biased in favour of the Right, which promotes voter inequality, gives disproportionate power to swing voters in marginal seats, and encourages the belief that voting never changes anything.

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During the Labour leadership election in early 2020, Starmer recognised the importance of the issue, stating: “We’ve got to address the fact that millions of people vote in safe seats and they feel their voice doesn’t count … We will never get full participation in our electoral system until we do that at every level.” But what will Starmer do now?

Will he make an unequivocal endorsement of PR or will he be tempted to kick the issue into the long grass? Many previous Labour leaders have opted for the latter. Which is why, over the last 30 years, the UK’s engagement with PR has been a case of one step forward, two steps back.

Since 1997, every new representative body in the UK has been elected using an electoral system other than FPTP. We have had two decades of experience with PR systems in devolved assemblies, mayoralties, and in local government. But sadly, Labour’s ambivalent approach has meant that it has squandered the opportunity to scrap it for the election that matters the most: the House of Commons.

Labour’s founder backed proportional representation

Labour’s founder and first leader, Keir Hardie, supported PR. In 1913, the Labour Party conference agreed that “no system of election can be satisfactory, which does not give opportunity to all parties to obtain representation in proportion to their voting strength”.

By the 1920s, however, under the leadership of Ramsay MacDonald, support for PR began to wane, and interest in it was only revived decades later as part of the review that Neil Kinnock initiated after Labour’s defeat in the 1987 general election. The review, chaired by Professor Raymond Plant, eventually recommended scrapping FPTP in favour of proportional voting systems. Kinnock’s successor, John Smith, for whom I served as head of policy, accepted Plant’s recommendations for the European Parliament, as well as in the future Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, and pledged to hold a referendum for elections to the House of Commons.

Smith, who sadly died after serving as Labour leader for just two years, was committed to a radical agenda of constitutional reform. He was driven by the desire to remake Britain into a modern European state, determined to devolve power in Scotland and Wales, and to “blow away the cobwebs of unnecessary secrecy” through a Freedom of Information Act. In 1993, he warned that Britain had become an elective dictatorship – but was characteristically cautious about electoral reform.

I had numerous conversations with Smith on PR and the Plant recommendations. His response to my long-standing pro-PR stance was to sympathise with the principles underpinning the case for electoral reform. His reticence was mainly practical. He simply couldn’t imagine how most of the 50 Labour MPs from Scotland would support ending FPTP, which worked so clearly in their favour.

Given the post-2015 collapse of Labour’s dominance in Scotland, I often wonder what Smith would think about PR now. Certainly, it is very hard to see any path back for Labour north of the border, where FPTP heavily favours the SNP. In the 2019 General Election, the SNP gained 48 out of 59 seats despite attaining less than half the vote. Labour was left with only one MP, although it obtained nearly 20% of the Scottish vote.

For all the talk of modernisation, New Labour was distinctly unmodern on voting reform – a missed opportunity that left the path open for over a decade of Tory rule

Smith’s commitment to a referendum on PR was included in Labour’s 1997 election manifesto but was never fulfilled. Tony Blair’s government introduced PR for the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, as well as the European Parliament elections after 2009. To deal with the House of Commons, an independent commission on the voting system was established, chaired by Roy Jenkins. It reported in 1998 and, like Plant’s review, proposed scrapping FPTP. It recommended a version of the Alternative Vote (AV), with an additional ‘top-up’ list similar to the mixed-member PR systems used in Germany and New Zealand.

Blair was never persuaded of the merits of PR. Rather than hold the promised referendum, he agreed to set up a review of its use in the devolved assemblies. This concluded in 2008 but made no suggestions for further action, effectively killing off his government’s engagement with PR. Gordon Brown, also a PR sceptic, then made a last-minute offer just before the 2010 election to hold a referendum on AV.

Ironically, Brown’s gambit was subsequently included in the coalition government agreement negotiated by Tory leader, David Cameron, and Liberal Democrats leader, Nick Clegg. The Liberal Democrats, despite believing that AV was a poor substitute for more properly proportional systems, agreed to a referendum, which was held in 2011. Unsurprisingly, given the lack of enthusiasm for that particular system, the AV proposal was rejected by 67.9% to 32.1%.

How different might things have been if Blair’s government had used its post-1997 majority to enthusiastically promote PR? Labour could have fully modernised our electoral systems, not just in the devolved assemblies, but also for local authorities and the House of Commons.

For all the talk of modernisation, New Labour was distinctly unmodern on voting reform – a huge, missed opportunity that left the path open for over a decade of Tory rule, more rightwing than the voters it represents. This is exactly the outcome feared by the Labour’s former foreign secretary Robin Cook, a strong proponent of PR, who warned in 2005 in a speech to the annual meeting of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, just one month before he died: “My nightmare is that we will have been 12 years in office, with the ability to reform the electoral system, and will fail to do so until we [are] back in opposition, in perhaps a decade of Conservative government, regretting that we left in place the electoral system that allowed Conservative governments on a minority vote.”

I hope Starmer will reflect carefully on Labour’s half-hearted history of engagement with PR. He should examine from first principles the case for further electoral reform and study the evidence of the conservative bias of FPTP. And when looking at other countries’ experience with PR, he should especially take the time to compare the UK’s experience with New Zealand, where the adoption of a PR system for parliamentary elections has resulted in unprecedented success for the country’s Labour Party.

Reform benefited New Zealand

New Zealand has been using PR since 1996. This reform followed a tumultuous period of debate, prompted by blatantly unrepresentative FPTP general elections in 1978 and 1981. Both results gave power to the centre-right National Party, despite it having won fewer votes than Labour. These elections were also notably unfair to the smaller Social Credit Party (which earned only one seat in 1978 with 16% of the vote and only two seats in 1981 despite winning a 20% share).

This prompted New Zealand’s next Labour government, led by David Lange, to set up an independent Royal Commission to review the country’s electoral systems. It reported in 1986 and, to the surprise of both Labour and the Nationals, recommended replacing FPTP with a form of Additional Member System called the Mixed Member Proportional System (MMP). The commission proposed increasing the size of parliament to 120 MPs, elected from single-member constituencies and selected from party lists. Voters would have two choices on the ballot paper: first a party vote and then an electorate vote, which is a vote for an individual MP in an electorate, or electoral district (chosen by FPTP). List seats would ‘top up’ the electorate seats to ensure greater proportionality.

Despite Labour’s opposition to the commission’s proposals, the party promised to hold an indicative referendum. But just as the Blair government would do years later, it failed to honour this pledge. Sensing a political opportunity, the Nationals then backed the referendum, succeeded in returning to office, and duly held the poll in 1992, which overwhelmingly backed MMP. A binding referendum was then held in 1993 and the first MMP-based general election took place in 1996. A further indicative referendum was held in 2011, which showed that support for MMP had increased in the 15 years since it was introduced.

The impact of MMP in New Zealand has been extremely positive. The diversity and representativeness of parliament has improved. There are more women and Maori MPs, and this has been attributed in part to the presence of list MPs. For example, the current prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, first served as a list MP in 2008 before becoming an electorate MP in 2017.

As expected under a PR system, there has also been an increase in the number of parties and coalition governments. However, in this changed political environment, both the Nationals and Labour have retained their major role in governance. Indeed, Labour has repeatedly held office, first by coalition agreement with smaller parties (New Zealand First and the Greens) and then in its own right after a landslide in the 2020 election.

Changing New Zealand’s political system created “a lot more dialogue and consultation … It does not lend itself to an old-style, heavy-handed leader who just pronounces... It requires a lot more transparency”

There is a stark contrast between the political paths taken by Labour in New Zealand and their peers in the UK over the same time period. Since 1996, New Zealand’s Labour has held office for 13 years and counting (under the prime minister Helen Clark from 1999 to 2008 and Ardern since 2017). Since the 2020 election, Ardern has led the first MMP majority government.

Since 1997, UK Labour has also governed for 13 years, beginning with a landslide and then retaining office twice with reduced support, followed by defeat in 2010 and every election since. Is there any member of the UK Labour Party who wouldn’t wish to scrap FPTP if it could give them the repeated success that NZ Labour enjoys now? Surely it’s far better to gain power through coalitions and then achieve a landslide, rather than start with a landslide, only to gradually lose support and eventually the ability to win elections at all.

The New Zealand experience holds important lessons for Labour under Starmer. The country’s colonial inheritance was a constitution and political culture very similar to the UK’s. That it adopted PR in a Westminster-style democracy is a remarkable achievement. And the success of MMP provides further definitive proof that electoral reform can deliver positive democratic and progressive outcomes.

Opponents of PR rarely mention New Zealand’s MMP system because it shreds most of their favourite arguments. New Zealand has not suffered from any unstable governments; extremist parties have not prospered; it retains a constituency link; major parties have retained a dominant role; and landslide wins have proved possible.

Most telling of all, however, is that NZ Labour’s previous opposition to PR has been overturned by its practical experience of the MMP system. As Clark explained: “It turned out [to be] an interesting political system with a lot more dialogue and consultation. And I underline, the public rather liked that. It does not lend itself to an old-style, heavy-handed leader who just pronounces. It does change the political culture to one that requires a lot more dialogue, a lot more give and take, a lot more transparency and a lot more consultation between the parties and with the public.

“It meant you still have your major parties, but the smaller parties could get into parliament. The people who voted for those smaller parties used to have their views excluded, now they’re not … We often hear that under coalition governments things won't get done because there are too many voices at the table. We got a lot done, we were seen as a major reforming government.”

A balm for voter disengagement

Rather than learn lessons from New Zealand, the minority of Labour supporters who are opposed to PR instead offer a series of complaints. Their first is that to discuss the issue at all is an avoidable distraction and an admission that the next election – which will inevitably be under FPTP – is unwinnable. But endorsing PR now is not about the voting method of the 2024 election. It should be a statement of principle on the future modernisation of our democratic system.

It is a policy that speaks to a different style of Labour government; one that is pluralist, open, and willing to engage in dialogue with all people and parties committed to a progressive agenda for our country. It would reassure the public against a latent fear that Labour is a party that would try to impose policies that most voters oppose.

Crucially, it would also acknowledge the influence of social movements – such as environmentalism and LBGTQ rights – that have grown beyond the boundaries of the traditional ‘labour movement’. Above all, it would signal a decisive break with ‘Labourism’; the tribal politics of “my party right or wrong” or the belief that power has to be captured for class interest rather than socially curated for the many rather than the few.

A second complaint is that PR is not a doorstep issue, and so irrelevant to the pressing needs of Labour voters. But evidence shows that people are ever more disengaged with politics. The complaint that “voting doesn’t change anything” is a frequent doorstep comment; vindicated all too often by the millions of wasted votes under FPTP. As part of a package of democratic reform that includes lowering the voting age to 16, an end to Tory tactics of voter suppression, and electoral reform for both local and general elections, PR has popular appeal. It would give all voters equal power at the ballot box. To borrow a much-misused slogan, it would give the electorate the opportunity to take back control.

The third objection is that PR would undermine the need to develop policies that, if sufficiently popular, would enable victory under FPTP. Of course, it always helps to have popular leaders and policies. NZ Labour’s achievements show that having strong appeal to the majority of voters is just as necessary for electoral success under PR. But scrapping FPTP would end the narrowing of political discourse to the concerns of swing voters in marginal seats. It would broaden the base of policy discussion to appeal to all voters, and could revitalise political participation across the entire UK – especially in ‘safe seats’ under FPTP, where there is hardly any incentive for grassroots campaigns.

Since Labour has rejected First Past the Post for its internal elections, surely now is the time to apply the same commitment to fair voting to the House of Commons

Starmer should dismiss all these complaints and align himself with his wider party that is now ever more determined to scrap FPTP. This year so far, 143 constituency parties have tabled the pro-PR motion promoted by the Labour Campaign for a New Democracy (L4ND), while a poll of members suggests that 83% would support changing our electoral system. The L4ND is promoting a PR motion at this year’s conference, which is generating significant levels of support.

Labour’s engagement with PR must continue to evolve. The party uses preferential voting to choose its leader and candidates. Last year, Labour adopted Single Transferable Vote (STV) for elections to the NEC. Since the party has rejected FPTP for its internal elections, surely now is the time to apply the same commitment to fair voting to the House of Commons. And the use of PR in local government is also continuing to grow, with Wales now set to enable the use of STV after next year, in time for elections in 2027, replacing its existing additional member system.

Even though adopting PR would narrow Labour’s differences with the Greens and Liberals, it would surely be an error for Labour to propose electoral reform simply as a tactical manoeuvre ahead of possible post-election coalition bargaining. That would repeat the mistake made in 2010 when Gordon Brown’s last-ditch AV offer still failed to prevent a Tory-Lib Dem coalition. Instead, Labour must make a commitment to PR based on principle: that as a party of fairness, equality and democracy, we believe all votes should be equal and all voters equally powerful.

This viewpoint was impressively argued by Robin Cook in 2005: “We are not just interested in electoral reform for functional reasons, but because we see it as a means to an end. The electoral system to the House of Commons is a crucial part of our democracy. And for the Labour Party, democracy cannot be just viewed as a means, it is also a value – a value that expresses how fair, how open, how equal we are in our society.

“At the moment we have a democracy that fails to match that value and that’s why it’s a matter of principle that we must insist on it being changed ... Our objective, our slogan, should be to achieve an electoral system that puts our democracy in the hands of the many voters, not the few voters who happen to be key in marginal seats.”

In the mid-1980s, I had the privilege of working closely with Cook when he was Labour’s campaign coordinator and I was campaigns officer for the Parliamentary Labour Party. Later, when I was working for Smith, Cook was pleased that a PR supporter was well placed in the leader’s office. He was always respectful of Smith’s cautious approach. We both believed that the move towards PR would be slow but unstoppable. Cook told me he was optimistic that the use of PR in Scotland, Wales, and the elections to the European Parliament, would make FPTP in the House of Commons appear outdated.

Cook’s analysis proved to be partially correct. Our electoral systems have been transformed by two decades of PR. Sadly, Cook’s nightmare – Labour’s failure to adopt PR for Parliament when it had the chance – has also prevailed, resulting in a Boris Johnson government that is more brazenly behaving like an elected dictatorship than ever before. To rescue our democracy from decline, Starmer must do more than paint in primary colours. He has to make the right choice.

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