openDemocracyUK: Opinion

The people, not Parliament, should choose a new voting system

British progressives demand proportional representation. But we need to talk about how we want to introduce it.

Stuart White
21 September 2020, 12.26pm
House of Commons
UK government

Imagine the following scenario. It is the bright new morning after a UK general election. The votes are in and there is a workable progressive coalition possible in the Commons, bringing together, say, Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Greens. The coalition is formed and immediately announces that one of its first acts will be to pass a law changing the Commons’ electoral system to Proportional Representation (PR). 

I would love to see this happen. But only with about 48% of my soul. The other 52% dreads this happening. The dread stems not from any doubts about PR, but from the way we get to it. Let me explain my concern, and offer an alternative view about how a progressive government should tackle electoral reform.

Support for PR

There is widespread support on the left and centre of politics in the UK for a change in the electoral system. The Liberal Democrats and the Greens favour proportional representation. Labour has historically been more conflicted, but there is a strong and arguably growing current in the party supportive of PR. A recent joint report of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and Make Votes Matter cites a poll on the eve of the 2019 general election in which 76% of Labour voters supported PR. Cross-party progressive groups, such as Compass, are keen for Labour to commit to PR. PR features prominently in Green MEP Molly Scott Cato’s call for a progressive alliance at the next election.

I fully support PR. But how should a Labour or a ‘Progressive Alliance’ government bring about electoral reform? What sort of political process is appropriate to the change reformers wish to see?

Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19

The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.

This might seem an odd question. If Labour or an alliance of progressive parties forms the next government, then – so one argument goes – the resulting government should just legislate for PR. This seems to be the assumption, for example, in the recent joint report of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and Make Votes Matter. On this kind of view, we need to consider how Labour or a hypothetical Progressive Alliance can win an election. But what’s the further issue? Why do we need to consider in any more depth the ‘process’ of reform? 

The answer is that this approach would violate a hugely important procedural principle that progressives – perhaps especially progressives – ought to protect. As the US political theorist Dennis Thompson argues, politicians – even elected politicians – should not solely determine the rules of the political game

Politicians shouldn’t make the rules under which they get elected

As democrats, we want the basic rules of the political system, including the electoral system, to make for a free and fair competition between political views and parties. This impartiality of the political system is endangered when politicians – even elected politicians – have the power to remake the basic rules by themselves. If politicians have this power, they will be tempted to use it for partisan advantage. Winners at a given election will seek to consolidate their position by changing the rules in ways that benefit themselves. Even if specific uses of this power – such as a shift to PR – make the system fairer, the power threatens fairness over the long-run. This is why we should support the principle that politicians do not have the right to change the electoral system by themselves.

It is important to stress that the fact that a party has been elected promising to introduce PR will not make this issue go away. The elected politicians might get elected in spite of a declared intention, a manifesto commitment, to carry out a reform of the political system. Most people might have voted for them on other issues. And the politicians might not fear punishment at a future election either because the issue is unlikely to be that salient come election time or because the very effect of the reform is to make their hold on office more secure. Perhaps their supporters like the possibly unfair advantage a reform gives ‘their’ politicians relative to others. Though crucially important to democratic accountability overall – this is, after all, why electoral reform matters! – by itself the election mechanism leaves politicians with considerable leeway to change the rules of a political system in a partisan spirit. 

To see how the problem might develop in practice, let’s return to my opening, imaginary scenario. The Conservatives will say that the progressive parties are changing the electoral system for their selfish advantage, opportunistically, to do the Conservatives down. There would be huge hypocrisy in this charge, but also a germ of truth. Many supporters of PR on the Left or Centre do support it in part because it will likely make it harder for the Conservatives to win outright majorities. 

So while the reform turns out to be popular with progressive voters, it fails to command legitimacy amongst other voters. The Tories pledge to restore FPP. The next time they form a government (maybe as part of a coalition) they in turn seek a range of reforms to the political system to scupper their opponents… and so it goes on…

For political reforms, politicians should share power with the people

The issue ultimately goes back to the fact that the UK does not have a codified and entrenched constitution. If it did, and the electoral system was part of the constitution, it would likely not be possible to change the electoral system just through ordinary majority votes in Parliament. As an entrenched, constitutional law, the process for reform would be more demanding. For example, it might require supermajority votes in Parliament (support of, say, 60% of MPs) or popular approval in a referendum. 

The UK state is, of course, based on ‘Parliamentary sovereignty’, and so there is nothing ‘unconstitutional’ at present about a government just legislating a change in the electoral system. 

Yet it is striking how the UK has, in fact, developed a process for changing the political system that in practice frequently takes the final decision out of the hands of elected politicians alone. Since the 1970s, many major changes to the way the UK and its current member nations are governed have been subject to referendums. We have had referendums on membership of the EEC/EU; on the creation of ‘devolved’ national Parliaments and assemblies; and on electoral reform (though not on PR). The referendum serves, amongst other things, as a form of check or constraint on politicians making changes just to suit themselves. 

Following the 2016 Brexit referendum (and also the 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote), many on the Left and centre of politics have become sceptical of referendums. Some recent advocates of PR explicitly deny that PR needs to be ratified in a referendum. However, even if you don’t like referendums, there are other ways of depriving politicians of the power to change the rules of politics by themselves, to suit themselves. For example, this is another context in which the currently fashionable idea of Citizens’ Assemblies could have a role.

Let’s run the imaginary election victory scenario through again. It is the morning after the election. The progressive parties have a majority. But instead of announcing legislation for PR, they announce the establishment of an independent Citizens’ Assembly on the Electoral System. This Assembly will bring together 80 residents of the UK to discuss the question, ‘What voting system should be used for elections to the UK House of Commons?’ The Assembly, supported by a staff that is independent of the government and governing parties, will discuss the full range of electoral systems and make a recommendation for the one that should apply in elections to the Commons. All of the political parties will be free to express their views to the Assembly as it goes through the process of gathering evidence and hearing testimony. But the government commits to put off legislating for PR if the Assembly does not support it. 

Obviously this approach is riskier to supporters of PR than just legislating PR. The Citizens’ Assembly could recommend keeping the current system. But if the Assembly does recommend PR, the progressive government will be in a much stronger position to counter the charge that it is just ‘fixing the rules’ to suit its own partisan interests. It will be able to point to the independent judgment of the Assembly as vindication. It will establish a precedent that if the Conservatives or whomever wish to change the electoral system back, then they will also need to get consent through a Citizens’ Assembly. PR will likely command greater initial legitimacy and will be harder to cancel once in place. The risk, therefore, is one well worth taking. And, after all, are progressives so lacking in confidence in the strength of their arguments for PR that they are scared to put them to the deliberative test of a well-run Citizens’ Assembly? 

This is just one possibility, but it sketches what I mean by focusing on the ‘process’ of electoral reform. The insight applies beyond the case of electoral reform to all major changes to the political system such as ‘devolution’ and reform of the UK Parliament’s second chamber. In thinking about democratic reform, progressives need to think not only about this or that substantive reform that they want but about the very process through which reforms are made and how the right process can give reforms extra legitimacy and sustainability. Indeed, changing how we do ‘reform’ is perhaps the biggest, most important reform of all.

Why should you care about freedom of information?

From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?

Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

Hear from:

Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData