It’s interesting how British politics often finds itself reflected in the U.S.: from the emergence of the populist, right-wing politics of Farage and Trump to the virtually simultaneous rise of left-wingers Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders who have both amassed a large and passionate following but are unwanted by their respective parties.
Observing British and American politics, an issue that I think is becoming increasingly important on both sides of the pond and urgently needs far more attention than it is getting is electoral reform.
The problems with the UK’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system were blatantly clear after the 2015 general election. FPTP enabled the Conservatives to form a majority government with just 36.9% of the national vote. A combined total of around 5 million people votes for UKIP and the Green Party yielded just a single MP for each party, while the SNP needed only 25,972 votes per elected MP. Furthermore, an MP in Northern Ireland managed to win his seat with a record low share of the vote of just 24.5%.
There is another big reason why reform is urgently needed now: the Labour Party is tearing itself apart at the seams but cannot afford to split under FPTP. While the various wings of the party are involved in bitter fighting, the party’s standing in the polls is disastrous, and the lack of a united front would hand an easy victory to the Conservatives in a general election.
It seems doubtful that the party will be able to unite with members and the PLP pulling in different directions. Labour rebels are already planning to create a separate party if Corbyn wins the leadership contest, as is expected. However, without electoral reform such a split would be a disaster for all involved. If Labour were worried about the Greens splitting the left vote before the 2015 election, imagine what would happen to a freshly carved up Labour Party. The two newly formed parties would be obliterated in a general election, allowing the Tories to rule indefinitely at a time when the country desperately needs an effective opposition, something even David Cameron acknowledged during his final outing at PMQs.
Under a proportional system, Labour would be able to split and start taking the fight to the Tories. As Josiah Mortimer explains in his article “Let’s Face It: Labour Wouldn’t Be in This Mess If We Had PR” in the Huffington Post, switching to a proportional system would have several benefits for the various factions that currently make up the Labour Party:
“The simple fact is, under a PR system, none of this would need to happen: the ‘coup’ plots and the constant tug-of-wars, the unpredictable see-sawing one way or another. A centrist/social democratic party could elect who they wanted, while a new left-wing party could emerge. They could work alongside each other, and be perfectly content with their leaders. The quality of leadership might also go up on both sides, with less of a ‘fortress mentality’ that comes from trying to hold on to the reigns for as long as possible in the face of a possible unseating from another faction… Leadership contests would no longer be the same skewed, bitter ideological struggles – there would be broad agreement on ideological positioning.”
Some Labour MPs, such as Clive Lewis and Jonathon Reynolds, have argued in favour of PR. However, it seems unlikely that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will join them in supporting full PR. When asked about PR in an interview with Owen Jones, he gave the following answer:
“The caveat for everything to do with electoral reform, as far as I’m concerned, is maintaining the constituency link. Where you go away from constituency link of a member of parliament to a constituency then I think you end up with a more remote form of politics. Beyond that, top up lists, Additional Member System or, perhaps better, a democratically elected upper chamber, which would be proportionally represented, are ways forward on this.”
The Additional Member System (AMS) that Corbyn mentions has been suggested as way to have a more proportional system, while retaining the constituency link. It is already used for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and London Assembly and is also used for general elections in Ireland in combination with a Single Transferable Vote system.
How AMS solves the constituency link issue is explained on the website makevotesmatter.org.uk:
“Many MPs who are opposed to PR claim that it would inevitably damage the link between them and their constituents, whose interests they represent. In reality, there are a number of systems of PR that keep or even improve this link. The Additional Member System (AMS) maintains the present principle of one-MP-to-one-constituency, while using top-up lists to ensure that the share of seats a party wins matches the share of the vote the people give them.”
One problem I can see with implementing this system though is that it would require either a large increase in the number of MPs – something that I cannot imagine the British public wanting – or a redrawing of constituency boundaries to make them much bigger, thus halving the number of local MPs. In any case, ways to make the electoral system more proportional ought to be discussed further in the UK.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., the attempt to carry Bernie Sanders to victory in the Democratic primaries has failed, and progressives are looking around for alternatives, with many considering Green Party candidate Jill Stein.
However, if they vote with their conscience and refuse to fall in line behind the “lesser of two evils”, they risk forever being held responsible for handing the White House to the Republicans, much like Ralph Nader is routinely blamed for costing Al Gore the presidency in 2000. The threat of splitting the vote has effectively left Americans having to choose between the two most unpopular and least trusted presidential candidates in history.
There is clearly an appetite for alternative voices, with interest growing in the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, but under the current system these parties will struggle to even achieve the 15% required to take part in the debates, let alone produce a winning candidate.
The only candidate who seems to be addressing these issues at all is Jill Stein. In a recent interview with the Intercept she said the following:
“[T]he two-party system is the worst-case scenario. In my view, the worst horror of all is a political system that tells us we have to choose between two lethal options, and that’s what we have to fight and we shouldn’t be manipulated into thinking it’s one or the other of these villains out there, one or the other evil.
There’s a readily available solution right now: ranked-choice voting, which would take the fear out of voting and would ensure that people can vote for their values as their first choice, and their pragmatic choice, whatever that is, as their number two. That would actually enable us to move forward in a good way and bring our values back to democracy.”
If we really care about democracy we should looking at alternative solutions like PR and ranked-choice voting to enable a wider range of opinions, rather than narrowing down the debate. Moreover, a more proportional system would finally enable the dysfunctional parties that force together unhappy bedfellows like Sanders and Clinton and Corbyn and Blair to break apart and put everybody out their misery. We need to end our “lesser-of-two-evil”-thinking and finally start making our representatives actually representative of what we want. Changing the way we vote for our politicians is the only way we can make this happen.Follow @PaulKnight85
I totally agree with you. I feel as if this is an issue that is being completely overlooked and by doing so we are putting the union at risk as the people do not see electoral reform as a valid option for the future of British parliament. I feel like at the moment we are tiptoeing around a whole host of issues that we are going to need to fully address in the near future.
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Yes, thankfully there are plenty of people campaigning about this but it’s hard to see how we’ll manage to change the system while the people in charge are the ones who have benefited from it.