Starmer’s Sandcastle Majority Says It All: First-Past-The-Post Needs to Die

The two-party system is over.

by Matt Zarb-Cousin

9 July 2024

A group of politicians clap for Keir Starmer as he emerges from 10 Downing Street
Keir Starmer emerges from No 10 to meet Scottish Labour MPs, July 2024. Phil Lewis/Reuters

After winning what Sky’s Sam Coates dubbed a ”loveless landslide”, the biggest risk for Labour now is believing its own hype. Party spokespeople dispatched to TV studios on election night just about managed to curb their triumphalism at the exit polls – a wise choice, since any hint of smugness would have left them hostages to fortune. They’ve been far less cautious with their analysis of the result.

Learning the most politically convenient lessons from victory is a tradition beloved by Blairites. The reason is that it enables them to use “electability” to justify wildly unpopular policies – or in Starmer’s case, no policies whatsoever. So as the seats piled up, a narrative rapidly formed that this was all down to Keir Starmer transforming the party and should be seen as an endorsement of Labour’s (non-)offer. In fact it was an indictment of the Tory party – and perhaps just as strongly, of our electoral system.

As the night progressed, it became apparent that Labour would get a much lower share of the vote than in 2017, and fewer total votes than in 2019, an election still seen by Labour’s right wing as a decisive rejection of Corbynism.

Those close to Keir Starmer have insisted this is a good thing: a demonstration of the “vote efficiency” that Britain’s first past the post electoral system requires. They argue that it was worth forfeiting some of the votes of inner-city progressives (read: Muslims) in safe Labour seats in order to win the support of retired social conservatives in suburban Tory marginals. By this Blairite logic, piling up votes in safe seats is a fool’s errand, while lurching to the right in order to win formerly Tory voters is a worthwhile endeavour. The problem with this analysis is the numbers don’t stack up.

One X/Twitter user figured out that of the 10 seats where Labour lost by the smallest margin in 2019 (an indicator of target seats), only one saw an increase in the number of Labour votes. Of the top 50, only 11 saw an increase in the Labour vote. In the top 50 seats Labour held and was defending, only 13 saw an increase in Labour’s vote. In 2024, Labour lost 200,000 votes from the top 50 seats where they were closest in 2019 and the 50 seats they were defending which had the smallest Labour majorities.

For all the press canonisation of Labour strategists, the data could not be clearer: Tory implosion, coupled with Reform splitting the right, is what won it for Labour. Starmer was simply holding the pass-the-parcel when the music stopped. It wasn’t the plan for Labour’s health secretary to go from holding one of Labour’s safest seats to defending a majority of just 528 from a 24-year-old independent.

Labour voters were motivated by getting the Tories out, with just 5% citing the party’s policies as the main reason for voting for them. But wanting to remove a government you don’t want should not have to come at the cost of being able to vote for the type of government you do want. Introduced in the 19th century, first past the post was designed for a two-party system; we now have several established parties that are winning millions of votes.

The Greens won a record 2m votes, and have just four seats to show for it; under a proportional system, they’d have more than 40. The Greens are now in second place after Labour in 47 seats; Starmer’s refusal to take the party as seriously as he is taking Reform will likely produce significant losses at the next election.

While Blairites, including Tony himself, studiously ignore the threat to Labour from the left and focus wholly on rightwing talking points like immigration, continuing on this trajectory could see even more of Labour’s core vote shift to the Greens. A collapse in Labour support in the polls could even create the political will for much overdue electoral reform. It is more likely that those around Starmer decide he is not rightwing enough and replace him with someone even worse, thus taking advantage of another anti-democratic quirk of our electoral system: being able to thrust prime ministers upon the electorate without any mandate.

Pressure on this Labour administration from the left through support for the Green party will either force Starmer into a more progressive policy agenda, or create space for the Greens and independents to make gains from Labour under first past the post. But changing to a proportional voting system such as the single transferrable vote, which lets voters rank candidates and so transfer them to minimise vote wastage, combined with large (perhaps county-sized) multi-member constituencies, would allow us to vote for the government we want. Parties would then have to do what they do in several other states, including currently in France: build coalitions.

Both the Tories and Labour are already managing unsustainable coalitions within their parties, coalitions which hand far too much power to their respective bureaucracies to effectively choose the prime minister. And while Labour may have secured 63% of the seats, it did so with just 34% of the popular vote. If the party’s strategists really want to achieve “vote efficiency” they will recommend the prime minister abandon our outdated, undemocratic electoral system in favour of one that accurately represents the will of the people.

Matt Zarb-Cousin is a former spokesperson for Jeremy Corbyn and a gambling reform campaigner.

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