1st June 2016
Why electoral reform is a fatal trap for Labour
-By Carl Gardner-
Labour’s low-intensity civil war may be short or long; Jeremy Corbyn may be in his job till 2020. Whatever happens, these few years are likely to do enduring damage to the party. I’m increasingly worried though, that Labour could end up permanently self-harmed by a commitment that in opposition is attracting elements of the left and the right: “electoral reform”. Anything that brings different factions together is magnified in its seductiveness today. But there are powerful reasons why Labour must say no to Chukka Umunna and John McDonnell and continue, as it has historically, to set its face against proportional representation and every other diluted version of it, at Westminster,
Firstly and most importantly, PR is wrong for the country. Overall proportionality is only one, and not necessarily the most important, dimension of fairness (as anyone who backs an impure form of PR implicitly accepts). Even the purest PR doesn’t deliver representation to every voter. Crucially, fans of PR ignore the central importance to democracy of voters’ power to sack ministers and choose the general direction of national policy. That power is removed in practice in systems that routinely deliver coalition like in Germany, the Netherlands and Austria, all of whom see long-term cross-party “establishment” governments, encouraging far-right protest. PR is wrong, and would be a regressive step for Britain.
But there are also partisan reasons for Labour to avoid PR. Backing PR would widen the gulf between the party and the swing voters it needs, most of whom have no interest in electoral reform. It’d be wonkish and academic, just when Labour should be reconnecting with real people. It’d be a move away from the electorate towards politics professors. Labour was lucky not to be associated with the elitist “alternative vote” option in the 2011 referendum (you may just remember that Labour’s 2010 manifesto and Ed Miliband both supported AV) and the party ought to have learned that lesson. Only a few islands of ultra-education (Oxford, Cambridge and Glasgow’s West End, as I recall) actually backed Labour’s preference.
Bringing in PR would mean yet another referendum, something that’d not only be irritating and doomed (unlike deluded LibDems, I don’t think voters in 2001 put two fingers up to AV because they were crying out for PR) but debilitating for any Labour government, probably to no purpose. The AV referendum boiled plenty of bad blood up between Tories and LibDems, and a more dramatic vote on PR would probably do that in Labour and stop government in its tracks too just as the EU referendum has. It’s a terrible idea, even if weren’t likely to end up with an anti-PR slap in the face for the Labour-led government that held it.
I suppose it’s possible a PR referendum could – just – go Labour’s way. But that would be an even bigger long-term disaster for the party as well as for the country. If a majority Labour government were mad enough to bring PR in, it’d be the last Labour government of all. Yes, yes, I know—if Labour could win a majority of votes under PR it could govern as a majority. But when has Labour ever won a majority of votes? Even Nicola Sturgeon in her pomp can’t do that in Scotland. Attlee never made 50%; nor did Blair.
In truth, bringing in PR would mean saying goodbye to Labour government and accepting that SNP, Lib Dem or Green agreement to a “Labour-led” administration is all that could ever be hoped for. Labour might well split (smaller parties, not big tents, are favoured by PR) or be faced by a populist party to its left, as are the Dutch labour party and the German SPD. Any or all of this ragbag of parties would have a veto on Labour policies that the voters had preferred. PR, for Labour, is the least principled, most fudged and triangulating position it could ever adopt.
Finally, PR once backed is very hard to pull back from. In spite of Old Labour’s long support for the Westminster system, reverting to that traditional position could easily and lazily be attacked as “conservative” – and an increasingly middle-class, self-flagellating “progressive” Labour would probably be too ashamed to face such attacks down. The post-crash deficit era won’t last for ever, and John McDonnell’s “new economics” will soon be forgotten; Trident will soon be in service. But a commitment to PR may be far more enduring, more debilitating and more toxic than anything Jeremy Corbyn or Momentum can dream up.
There are reasons why Labour legends like Michael Foot saw the Westminster system as the best available machine for delivering party policy. Labour needs to rediscover those reasons, quick, before it ties itself in a noose perfectly proportioned to all our necks.
By Carl Gardner
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