by Peter Willsman
Secretary of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and member of Labour’s NEC.
The public’s disgust at the goings-on at Westminster is being exploited by the supporters of proportional representation (PR). They are trying to suggest that the electoral system is somehow to blame and they put forward PR as a panacea to solve the problems. New Labour is in a panic, and in their desperation to find something to take the heat off, many of its supporters are also opportunistically talking up the attractions of “electoral reform”. All this ignores the convincing reasons why our Party has supported first-past-the-post (FPTP) for all these years. It is because FPTP produces majority Labour governments. People join Labour because they believe majority Labour governments offer the best hope for a progressive future. In stark contrast PR means coalition governments and little or no chance of majority Labour governments.
Of course, none of this bothers the extreme Blairites. They have always supported PR precisely because they believe it would lead to the break up of the Labour Party, the destruction of the union link and the advent of US-style political parties, with state funding of parties, primaries for selecting candidates, and the dominance of moneyed elites.
Socialists apply a ‘form’ and ‘content’ analysis to political institutions. PR is a classic subject for such an analysis. PR is formally quite democratic, but in reality it is the very opposite. In reality party apparatchies decide who is on the PR lists and therefore MPs are totally under central control. Backroom stitch-ups between party leaders decide the arrangements for the coalition governments. FPTP almost always produces governments which the largest number of people voted for. PR produces coalition governments, in other words governments which no one voted for. And under PR often have greatly exaggerated influence within coalitions. If, for the sake of argument, the voting shares obtained by parties at the recent Euro elections were applied to the House of Commons and, if a fully proportional electoral system applied, then UKip would have 107 MPs and the BNP would have 40 MPs.
The Brownite wing of New Labour are aware of the threat that PR poses to Labour and to majority Labour governments and, instead, some of them are putting the case for the alternative vote (AV) to appease the chatterati. Under AV single member constituencies are retained. Each elector is allowed, but not required, to list all candidates in order of preference. Preferences are then redistributed until a candidate emerges who has 50% plus one of the vote.
The following points can be made about AV:
• It is possible for a more weakly preferred candidate to end up winning. AV would quite often produce Lib-Dem victories in constituencies that are either primarily Labour or primarily Tory.
• AV does not take account of the second preferences of all voters, only those of the least successful candidates. This was a point made about AV by Winston Churchill in 1931 – “The decision is to be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates”. In other words, an MPs’ success could be determined by the preferences of UKip or BNP voters. This situation could therefore well lead to the major parties adjusting their policies, for example on immigration, in order to appeal to the prejudices of these voters in the hope of picking up their transferred preferences.
• AV may not produce a more proportional result than FPTP. For example, under AV in Alberta, Canada, one party obtained 90% of the seats on 54% of the vote.
• AV has been described as an “anti-incumbent” system, which accelerates trends. In current circumstances it could well help the Tories.
• Under AV tactical voting becomes part of the electoral architecture. AV encourages tactical voting in a structured and formalised way.
• AV would make coalition governments more likely.
Labour’s long standing policy is clear. It was restated by Annual Conference in 1993. Party policy is to uphold FPTP for the House of Commons.