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Let’s junk our electoral system Why PR is the radical fix our democracy needs

Credit: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

March 19, 2019   5 mins

This article forms part of a series, Radically rethinking our democracy, in which we asked contributors to propose bold answers to the question: how can we fix our democracy?


“The crisis”, according to Antonio Gramsci, “consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Sure, those lines were penned (in prison as it happens) sometime between 1926 and 1935. But Gramsci’s oft-quoted phrase provides an eerily accurate description of UK party politics in 2019.

For decades after Labour replaced the Liberals as the main opposition to the Tories – early in the twentieth century – this country’s politics largely (although never exclusively) revolved around arguments over the size of the state and how much governments should tax, spend, and redistribute.

Voters were relatively class conscious and often maddeningly tribal – content to choose between one of the two main players whose dominance was, at least in part, underwritten by the first-past-the-post electoral system that the UK, unlike most other advanced liberal democracies, decided to stick with.

That two-party system first began to fray at the edges in the early 1970s, its threads pulled by a combination of rising Scottish (and then Welsh) nationalism, and disillusionment with both Labour and the Tories, which led to the Liberals winning nearly a fifth of the vote in 1974. A much bigger tear then occurred in the mid-eighties, when Labour’s lurch to the Left and the Conservatives’ lurch to the Right gave rise to the SDP and eventually the Lib Dems.

Since then, the two-party system has only crept closer and closer to its eventual demise: the Lib Dems held the balance of power in 2010, forcing David Cameron into a coalition; the SNP became Scotland’s biggest party five years later, after an election in which UKIP won nearly four million votes, albeit only one measly seat.

True, the two main parties appeared to bounce back in 2017, their combined vote share exceeding 80% for the first time in a long time. But anyone who thinks their problems are over is fooling themselves, not least because cultural divides brought to a head, but not caused by, Brexit (over national identity, migration and multiculturalism, law and order, etc.) are now every bit as important as the economic divides that previously reinforced Conservative-Labour predominance. Voters are not only more volatile and less tribal; they also care more nowadays about stuff that undermines both the unity and the traditional appeals and agendas of the big two.

As a result, the Tories, despite Theresa May’s best efforts to tack to the Right, remain vulnerable to a radical populist alternative on one flank (be it UKIP/Tommy Robinson or the Brexit Party) and, precisely because of those self-same efforts, to whatever the TIG morphs into on the other.

But TIG, particularly if it manages to absorb the Lib Dems, also represents a serious potential threat to the Labour Party – all the more so if Deputy Leader Tom Watson’s newly-established party-within-a-party, Future Britain, presages mass defections. And nor, given young people’s concerns about climate change, should we completely forget about the Greens.

The UK, then, is already a multi-party system – not just an embryonic one, but a near-term one: a living, kicking entity that reflects the sheer diversity of a truly 21st century electorate. But it’s a system that currently can’t be born, leading to the “interregnum” we’re currently trapped in and the “morbid symptoms” Gramsci referred to – most obviously a whole bunch of voters, and their parliamentary representatives, who are disoriented, anxious and often angry about the direction that what they used to think of as ‘their’ parties seem to be taking.

What is stopping this fully-fledged multi-party system from coming into being is obvious. Indeed, it’s been staring everyone in the face for years. It’s the first-past-the-post, plurality electoral system that (unless, like the SNP, their support is geographically concentrated) massively disadvantages small parties, not least by persuading people that, however much they might like them, a vote for them is a wasted vote.

What we need to do – no, what we absolutely have to do – is to junk an electoral system that is manifestly unfit for purpose and replace it with a proportional alternative that would allow voters to vote for parties that actually reflect their shifting preferences rather than forcing them to choose which one of the big two seems likely to do the least worst damage.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Changing the electoral system; hardly a radical idea, right?  Haven’t people – often very, very boring people – been banging on about it for ages? Didn’t we have a referendum on it a few years back? And wasn’t it rejected by an overwhelming majority?

Well, yes and no. There was a referendum in 2011 (one which, incidentally, allowed the road-testing of many of the techniques later used by the Leave campaign to secure victory in 2016).  But the electorate was offered an utterly uninspiring, and some would say false, choice between FPTP and the Alternative Vote (AV) – a system whose main advocate, the by then terminally toxic Nick Clegg, had previously (and tellingly) referred to as ‘a miserable little compromise’. No wonder only four out of ten voters could even be arsed to turn out.

Frankly, we should aim much, much higher. Like New Zealand did in the early 1990s, when frustration with the two main parties boiled over into demands to end their in-built, in-bred duopoly, we should follow a two stage process. Stage one: a chance for advocates to educate people about the myriad different systems out there and then to find out, in a referendum, which of those systems they would plump for, assuming there were to be a change. Stage two: a referendum to determine whether they’d prefer to stick with the devil they know or dump it in favour of the winner of that initial public vote.

In New Zealand, the process resulted in the country plumping for MMP – the mixed member proportional system that’s used in Germany and (although, for technical reasons, it’s less proportional there) for elections to the devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales.

Essentially, voters get two votes – one that allows them to decide who their local MP will be and a second that sees them pick parties rather than individual candidates and that, once all the votes are counted, ensures (subject to a threshold designed to exclude really, really small outfits) that parties’ share of seats in parliament reflects their share of the vote in the country.

Were the UK to follow its former dominion’s example it would, as it did there, massively shake up and shake out politics without nixing the ‘constituency link’ we still seem to value. Even if today’s two main parties survived, their parliamentary and governmental hegemony would be challenged by a number of smaller parties, at least some of them based not, as now, simply on narrow nationalism but on big ideas – ideas that, however much some people may hate or even fear them, resonate with millions of people all over the country, but which are currently underrepresented (if they are represented at all) in its legislature.

Brexit didn’t blow up British politics. It was in big trouble already. Since there’s no point trying to put the genie back in the bottle, then I’m going to ask him to grant me at least one wish: PR for the UK. Not entirely novel, I admit. But radical? You bet.


Click here to read our series of answers to the question: how can we fix our democracy?

Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London and Director of the Mile End Institute.


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