Last Friday, Labour List published an article by Labour MP John Spellar: The people have spoken. They don’t want electoral reform. In the context of a surging demand for Proportional Representation throughout UK, three Labour party members respond to John:
As a child, Heather Govier cut her teeth collecting numbers at polling stations with her parents, who were keen Labour activists. She has been a member of the Labour Party for over 50 years, is now retired, and chairs the Friends of Selsdon Wood community group. She says:
The basic premise of this article is false. The 2011 referendum was not about PR, it was about AV - a complex system that would not produce proportional results, that many people did not understand and almost no-one had previously called for. When people are asked to vote for something many do not understand and few want, they prefer to retain the status quo.
Even so, it is not true that 68% of the population voted to keep FPTP. Turnout was only 42% - supporting the argument that the majority of the population did not want either of the systems on offer. Just 28.6% of the electorate voted to keep FPTP - not exactly consistent with John Spellar’s claim that “the British people delivered their overwhelming verdict”. Moreover, many people who were greatly in favour of Proportional Representation, voted against AV in that referendum because they believed the system was “unpredictable”, “unfair” and “likely to even increase disproportionality”. All of these are quotes from the 1997 Jenkins Commission on voting systems, set up by the Blair government.
So the truth is that the population has never been given an opportunity to vote on PR and never had a proper case for it set before them. The concept of “fairness’ is something that everyone understands and the recent Brexit referendum showed that when everyone feels that their vote counts turnout is high (72%).
I strongly believe that the party of Corbyn and McDonnell should lead a coalition for PR. This should also involve an electoral pact. I believe that whenever the next election happens, just one PR candidate would stand against each Tory.
I believe that is the way forward to a progressive coalition government that would reduce inequalities and help the people Labour has always stood for.
Danny Rigg is a Labour Party Member who experienced Proportional Representation first hand in the Republic of Ireland, where he lived before recently moving back to the UK. He is the editor of the Socialist Economic. Danny says:
Spellar makes the claim that “in these turbulent times no vote can be taken for granted”, yet that is precisely what the First Past the Post system leads parties to do.
FPTP allows minorities to produce significant majority governments despite clearly not having the backing of most of the population. Even at a constituency level, most MPs did not win 50% or more of the vote in the 2015 general election, and so the preferences and values of the majority of their constituents are left unrepresented.
The most extreme example of this is Belfast South where the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell was elected on less than a quarter of the votes cast. Over 75% of people who voted - on a turnout of 60% - did not vote for him, yet in practice their votes were completely meaningless.
The name “First Past the Post” is actually quite misleading. There is no post to pass - in FPTP whoever wins more votes than any other candidate, whether that's 90% or 9%, is elected.
Another claim made in the article is that Proportional Representation would ‘transfer power away from constituents and local parties to party leaders, kitchen cabinets and bureaucrats, damage the direct link between MPs and a constituency and empower fringe parties at the expense of those fit for government.’
There are two fundamental flaws in this argument. Firstly, it is for the public, not politicians like John Spellar, to decide who is or isn't fit for government. If their votes are disregarded as they are under the current system then their decision on who is or isn't fit to govern is also disregarded.
Secondly, the argument assumes that PR either uses no constituencies or that it uses a closed party list system - the perennial straw-man of First Past the Post enthusiasts. This isn't the case with any of the systems of PR that are commonly advocated, for example the Single Transferable Vote (STV). Not only does STV maintain the constituency link, it strengthens it; representatives must connect with a wider section of the population and there are more local MPs to represent constituencies and the diverse views of their constituents.
Ireland is the perfect example. The results of the 2016 general election proved to be largely proportional both at constituency level and national level. Local parties vote on which candidates they wish to put forward, and the public then decides who they'd like to see elected - ranking candidates they support in order of preference.
In this system the public can vote for a specific Fine Gael candidate rather than for a list put forward by the Party leadership. This year there were a number senior party figures who lost out to their junior running mates. In this system every vote really does matter.
The result of this was a seat distribution far more closely resembling the way people voted than anything we’ve ever seen in the Westminster system. And before you say, “but it took two months to form a government”, bear in mind that there was no political crisis or instability - and compare this to the “stability” FPTP has delivered to British politics of late.
Maybe in Spellar’s mind it is defeatist for Labour to argue for electoral reform, but this shouldn't be about the fortunes of individual parties, it should be about what is best for the public. Is it really right or democratic that a party can win a majority in 2015 with the same share of the vote as Labour lost the 1979 election with? Is it right that less than a quarter of constituents who turn out to vote get to decide who represents their constituency in Westminster?
Joe Sousek is a Facilitator for Make Votes Matter. He is a member of the Labour Party and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform. He says:
John Spellar has positioned himself as Labour’s premier opponent of PR - leading opposition to Jonathan Reynold MP’s Bill last December, and regularly taking to Twitter to rubbish the concept of a Parliament that broadly reflects the people it governs.
So it’s pretty amazing that he rarely discusses the actual arguments for and against PR, and never deals with the criticism levelled against FPTP.
When John stood up in the Commons last year to torpedo the possibility of a full Parliamentary debate of our electoral system, he said:
“I do not want to detain the House for too long, so I will not go into detail about how damaging this proposal would be to effective government...
And he turned out to be correct - he didn’t go into detail. His speech was short, and it’s main focus was the outcome of the AV Referendum. The reason for this seems to me to be clear: even a cursory glance at the evidence decisively undermines the myths that he repeatedly lists, but does not substantiate, about PR.
The “detail” that he omits to mention, includes the fact that countries with proportional systems outperform their winner-takes-all peers on almost every social, economic and political trend that the Labour Party values: voter turnout is higher, satisfaction with democracy is greater, wealth distribution is more equitable, scores on the Human Development Index are better, gender balance in politics is fairer, probability of going to war is lower, environmental protections are stricter, action against climate change is faster.
In my view, these are the predictable results of a democratic system that reflects the concerns of every individual, rather than hands power to the largest minority.
It could be that I’m mistaken about all of this. But if we’re to find out, we need people like John to engage with the substance of the debate: about how we can fix a broken system that delivers governments that most voters oppose; about the merits and weaknesses of the different proportional systems used by 87% of developed countries; and about how we can encourage and focus the huge public demand for a better democracy - rather than simply shrug it off.
No one buys the line that the false dilemma offered in the AV Referendum proved once and for all that the British people want distorted and arbitrary electoral outcomes.
I hope John can move away from the non-issue of the AV Referendum, and come and have a substantive discussion with Make Votes Matter and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform about how we can fix our democracy in a way that benefits us all.