In 1838, the Chartists called for the removal of the ‘property qualification’ which barred the landless from standing to become MPs. One might have expected that at a time of extreme poverty, when working people lived in appalling housing and worked long hours in unsafe factories, the labour movement might have prioritised securing decent wages and social reform. The Chartists, however, understood the importance of constitutional matters: that if a political system is rigged in favour of the elites, it can’t be used to win the transformational change working class people so desperately need.
The same is true today – although in 2021 the manipulation is more subtle. The labour movement is not excluded outright from the political system, but nor does it compete on a level playing field. Not only does the right enjoy a favourable hearing in the media, it also reaps the benefits of an electoral system which consistently over-represents its support, to the detriment of the left.
Most on the left recognise this, and want to see our current system – first-past-the-post (FPTP) – replaced with one in which each political party’s MPs correspond to the number of votes it wins – proportional representation (PR). There is a basic democratic principle here: that everyone’s vote should be worth the same. But it’s also a tactical move for the left: leftwing voters are more likely to live in safe seats where their votes currently have little value. It’s no surprise that three quarters of Labour members believe the party should back PR, and thanks to the work of the Labour for a New Democracy coalition, 187 constituency Labour parties have passed motions in support of the policy.
But a few on the left are still unconvinced. Labour MP Rachel Hopkins, for instance, has outlined some of the most common reservations when it comes to PR. The bulk of her argument boils down to two points: that under FPTP, voters have “real power” to choose governments (not just MPs), and that PR would dilute Labour’s socialist programme. Neither, however, is true.
In reality, under the current system, most voters have no power to choose their MP – never mind the government. I myself have voted in four general elections. In every one, it was a foregone conclusion who would become my MP. Thousands of voters could have switched parties or abstained entirely, and the result would have been the same. In fact, about half of all constituencies are safe seats in which people’s votes barely matter.
Under FPTP, some voters are more equal than others. Swing voters in marginal constituencies are the only people with genuine power to choose the government. These voters do not represent the wider population. They are older, whiter, and much more likely to be home-owners than the rest of us. In short, they are more conservative. Unsurprisingly, this skews the political system to their interests: every party scrambles to win their votes.
The Conservatives benefit directly: in 2019, it took just 38,264 votes to elect a Tory MP compared to over 50,835 for a Labour one. Why? In the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s, the Tories tethered the interests of swing voters to those of their core base: land-owners and financial capital. Thanks to right-to-buy, millions of swing voters are bought off with inflated property prices, while the rest of us languish in a broken housing system. The privatisation of pensions gave these older voters a stake in finance capitalism too – their incomes, like those of the bankers, are determined by the financial markets, not the state of the real economy. Under FPTP, the Tories can transfer enormous wealth to the super-rich, but because this also benefits the home-owning pensioners in middle England, they have nothing to fear from the electorate.
This electoral bias affects Labour too – and the truth is that it is FPTP, not PR, which consistently dilutes Labour’s socialist programme. Hopkins is right that under PR, if no party wins 50% of the vote then the government will need support from more than one party. This could mean some compromise. But Hopkins ignores the much greater compromises leftwing parties must make to win under FPTP. Tony Blair is the only Labour leader to have won a general election in the neoliberal era. He did so by pledging not to disrupt the interests of Rupert Murdoch or the city, and by ruthlessly targeting swing voters at the expense of Labour’s core vote. Diane Abbott MP was on the party’s National Executive Committee in the 1990s, and recounts that any mention of core Labour voters was dismissed by New Labour bigwigs who said these voters had “nowhere else to go”. No doubt Hopkins would agree that Blair’s government, whilst better than a Tory government, isn’t the model for the “genuinely socialist programme” she argues the country needs.
Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, we got a taste of what happens when Labour refuses to make such compromises. In this period, the party’s programme was the least-diluted in generations. Despite being only moderately social democratic in European terms, it was ridiculed and lambasted both within and outside of the party. Corbyn himself was vilified. Labour came nowhere near to winning a parliamentary majority in either 2017 or 2019, but even if it had, that wouldn’t have been the end of Corbyn’s problems. He couldn’t have relied on the parliamentary Labour party to implement a radical programme, and the attacks from the establishment would have only intensified.
The appeal of first-past-the-post is that it offers a tantalising short-cut to transformative change: the chance to implement a radical programme on a minority of the vote. But this short-cut is an illusion, the pursuit of which has left us vulnerable to never-ending Conservative rule. When Labour promises a socialist programme, the party is undermined and sabotaged – and a radical Labour government would face even worse attacks. The left’s only defence is highly-mobilised public support for such a programme, which means devoting time and energy to expanding and strengthening its base, not abandoning it to chase swing voters. There is no shortcut: if we want transformative change, we have to win a majority for it. There’s no hope of this in a system tailored to the Tories.
James McAsh is a primary school teacher, Labour councillor and National Education Union activist.