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Out of Proportion?

by Tom Blackburn
April 15, 2021

Both sides of debates within Labour over proportional representation avoid asking the important but difficult questions about the contradictions in the Labour alliance. 3554 words / 14 min read

Momentum recently revealed the results of its first-ever policy primary. Members chose from 33 motions, with eight selected to go forward for consideration for this year’s Labour conference (assuming it goes ahead in some form). It is difficult to predict whether any of them will actually make it to a vote at that conference, and in what form they will make it if they do. There are, as Labour Party right-wingers seem to appreciate much better than the left, many different ways to skin a cat.

In any case, since becoming Labour leader, Keir Starmer has made a point of demonstrating his indifference to what ordinary party members think. Should Momentum’s motions get passed at Labour conference more or less as-is, then, there’s no guarantee that they’d make it into the next Labour manifesto. And even if they did, we’d be relying on a party leadership that is desperate to slough off any appearance of radical zeal, and a Parliamentary Labour Party largely hostile even to fairly modest social reform, to make the case for them.

That’s not to say it isn’t worth putting policy motions to Labour Party conferences – we just have to be clear about the effects they might have. Jeremy Corbyn was really the exception in this regard; previous Labour leaders have been quite content to ride roughshod over conference decisions when it suited them. Starmer represents a resumption of normal service. Policy motions may, however, serve a useful purpose as provocations, forcing the party leadership to clarify how much of the Corbyn-era programme it is prepared to retain.

At first glance, the motions passed in the Momentum ballot represent a consolidation of Labour’s 2017-19 policy positions – council housing, the climate emergency, the four-day week and a fully nationalised NHS and social care are all present – rather than a major step beyond them, though there are some advances buried in the detail. The housing motion, for instance, proposes giving councils to requisition homes for use as council housing, while the ‘green jobs revolution’ motion demands the abolition of all anti-trade union laws.

The motion that seems to have caused the most commotion and controversy on social media is the one that placed second in the ballot, on proportional representation. This motion calls on Labour to commit itself to changing the voting system from first past the post to a new proportional system, its exact form to be determined via “an open and inclusive process to decide the specific which it will commit to introducing in the next manifesto”. Amid despair at the collapse of Labour’s popular base, PR has broad support within the party.

It remains unlikely that Keir Starmer will be among those to embrace it; at least not willingly. This is partly because the adoption of proportional representation would have existential ramifications for a party already in crisis, potentially presaging a wholesale political realignment with unpredictable consequences. What’s open to question is how far the people proposing the motion, and most of those supporting it, appreciate what PR might mean for the future of Labour’s increasingly rickety ‘broad church’.

There is a tendency, the product of despair at repeated electoral defeats, to assume that proportional representation is the shortcut we need to get the Tories out, and a Labour government of some sort in. Its opponents, meanwhile, maintain that it would prevent a socialist-led government from implementing its manifesto. Both sides mostly avoid difficult questions about the contradictions within the existing Labour alliance, and that the central problem facing us now isn’t electoral arrangements but rebuilding popular capacities.

The Case For

Prior to the results of the Momentum ballot, the pro-PR motion had already been passed by hundreds of constituency Labour parties. The motion is being proposed by Labour for a New Democracy, an umbrella group incorporating various soft-left organisations – Compass, Chartist, Open Labour – as well as the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, a Labour-affiliated socialist society. It is also supported, as you might expect, by non-partisan electoral reform campaigns, including Unlock Democracy and the Electoral Reform Society.

The most high-profile advocate of PR on the Labour left is former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who has been consistent on this question for a number of years. In an article written for LabourList last month, McDonnell again put forward the case for a proportional electoral system, arguing that, as well as being fairer on principle by more accurately reflecting the popular vote, it is “increasingly clear that electoral reform is key to enabling all the policies we need to create a decent society”.

McDonnell argues that proportional representation is “strategically important in securing Labour in power”, pointing out that at 19 out of the last 20 general elections – which takes us all the way back to 1950 – a majority of voters have opted for parties left of the Tories. At 12 of those elections, a Tory-led government of some description has been the outcome. He dismisses the argument that PR makes centrists permanent kingmakers, arguing instead that first past the post allows Tory governments to reverse earlier gains with ease.

Looking at past voting patterns under FPTP and assuming they would be similar under PR, predicting future election results on that basis, is a dubious exercise. It is impossible to predict exactly how people would vote under a proportional system. Complacent earlier assumptions that there was a ‘progressive majority’ waiting to be unlocked by PR no longer hold; the Lib Dems’ record in coalition with the Tories scarcely needs revisiting here, but they were also dead against putting Corbyn into 10 Downing Street. Nor was it just about Corbyn: any other left-wing Labour leader could expect much the same reaction from that quarter.

Moreover, rather than being a mere mechanism for dislodging the Tories and replacing them with a Labour-led government, it’s rather more likely that its introduction would facilitate a wholesale realignment and a shakeout of the existing party system. The events of the last few years have demonstrated that Labour’s ‘broad church’ is held together by electoral necessity rather than shared common ground, of which there is less and less. Instead, the main factor that forces them together, in spite of everything else, is electoral necessity.

Rather than being a mere mechanism for dislodging the Tories and replacing them with a Labour-led government, it’s rather more likely that the introduction of PR would facilitate a wholesale realignment & shakeout of the existing party system.

PR would potentially make an out-and-out left-wing party electorally viable, enabling a final parting of the ways between Labour left and right. (It’s worth noting that a minority on the Labour right has long supported electoral reform for this reason, as well as enabling it to free itself of the trade union link.) Previous right-wing splits from Labour, particularly the Social Democratic Party and Change UK, singularly failed to ‘break the mould’ of parliamentary politics, though they did strengthen the hand of the Labour right that stayed in the party.

But when confronted with the possibility of government, both Labour left and right have effectively sought to hold one another hostage, each using the other as ballast in pursuit of a parliamentary majority. Yet the Labour right will not tolerate the left even as a junior partner if this means granting it any real influence, and it is certainly unwilling to stomach any more radical left reformism of the kind advanced by Corbyn. This creaky alliance would not endure for long under PR – a point the latter’s advocates have generally fought shy of addressing.

The Case Against

There is a contrary view on the Labour left, one that’s historically been its majority view. This is the argument put forward by Luton South MP Rachel Hopkins, a member of the Socialist Campaign Group, writing in a campaign briefing published by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy in February. In it, Hopkins argues against a proportional system, primarily on the grounds that first past the post remains “vital to securing the election of a majority Labour government on a socialist programme”.

For Hopkins, proportional representation takes power out of the hands of voters and gives it instead to political insiders, given its tendency to result in coalition governments and the inevitable horse-trading that goes with this, while also ending the constituency link. It would also, she adds, force a socialist-led government to jettison progressive policies; she cites an instance from the Callaghan government which, under Liberal pressure and reliant on their votes, scrapped a plan to let council direct works bodies undertake private building work.

The Wilson-Callaghan governments of the 1970s did indeed drop numerous left-wing policies, but not just because of the Liberals. Labour had been elected twice in 1974 – as a minority government in February, with a tiny majority in October – on perhaps the party’s most left-wing programme up to that point, as the Labour left gained in strength and influence. But upon being returned to office, Wilson and then Callaghan watered down key aspects of that manifesto and abandoned others – a salutary lesson for the left at the time.1

Although Hopkins warns of the dangers of coalition government forcing left-wing leaders to abandon key policies, the nature of the Parliamentary Labour Party, stacked to the right as it is, would almost certainly leave a socialist-led administration unable to implement large parts of its programme. The Labour Party already is a coalition – an incoherent and self-loathing one, where the anti-socialist wing has the upper hand because it’s so firmly embedded in the parliamentary party, the party machine and Labour council groups.

The Labour Party already is a coalition – an incoherent and self-loathing one, where the anti-socialist wing has the upper hand because it’s so firmly embedded in the parliamentary party, the party machine and Labour council groups.

Crucially, the Parliamentary Labour Party would unravel long before the left even got close to a socialist majority within it. Open selection is one of the few ways in which grassroots party members (and indeed local constituents) might have some control over elected representatives between elections, forcing sitting MPs to seek a fresh endorsement from their constituency party before running again as a Labour candidate. Some other parties already require this, but most Labour MPs will not accept this level of accountability.

It is therefore likely that winning open selection would have caused scores of MPs to quit the PLP, which is one reason why Jeremy Corbyn backed away from it as party leader. The Labour left, as it often has at crunch moments, blinked: it did not want to be seen to split the party, thus sealing its own fate, yet there is always a part of the Labour right that is prepared to break away when the left oversteps the mark. Starmer’s leadership has since swiftly reestablished the authority of elected representatives over rank-and-file members.

Hopkins’ argument is, it must be said, fairly light on democratic principle. The socialist goal of radically extending and deepening democracy is contradicted by clinging to the existing electoral system – which gives excessive power to a relatively small minority of swing voters in marginal seats at the expense of many more elsewhere, particularly in the inner cities – in the hope of implementing a socialist manifesto on the back of a minority of the popular vote. This seems incongruent with any commitment to mass participatory democracy.

This position is also quietly pessimistic. It effectively concedes the view that there is no realistic prospect of socialism winning majority support, and that our only chance of implementing a left-wing programme would be if the quirks of the electoral system granted us parliamentary representation disproportionate to our share of the vote. But to take power on a socialist programme and then implement it would require active mass support to see it anywhere close to completion. Much more than a parliamentary majority would be needed.

Patching Up the Party?

There is so much bad blood in the Labour Party after the last few years that it’s hard to see how the old ‘broad church’ might be patched up again. The Labour right’s scorched-earth campaign against Corbyn crossed important, if hitherto vague boundaries, and in doing so did lasting damage. A year on from the Labour Leaks report, the party has yet to come to terms with the full implications, but the knowledge that senior party staff worked against a left-wing leadership may have eroded any remaining sense of Labour tribalism irreversibly.

Even with Corbyn gone from the Labour leadership and still excluded from the PLP, this campaign continues. Whether Starmer realises it or not, many of his allies are more concerned with pre-emptively preventing any Corbynism 2.0 from emerging than they are with making him prime minister. For all the Labour Party’s myriad faults and its often appalling treatment of its own activists, in the absence of alternatives, there will always be socialists who gravitate towards it whenever an opening appears.

The Labour right will attempt to prevent this. James Schneider has hinted that they may either raise the threshold for parliamentary nominations in future leadership contests, or to reintroduce the old electoral college. It is not guaranteed that there will be a socialist on the ballot at the next leadership election. Some members of the Socialist Campaign Group are likely to support deputy leader Angela Rayner, but she will be unpalatable to much of the rank-and-file left – not so much a compromise candidate as a compromised candidate.

Demoralised Labour members wanted to believe that Starmer would be a unifier, but even if he had been completely sincere about it, the balance of forces in the current PLP would have prevented it. Starmer has shown no real desire to build a broad left-of-centre coalition. The remaining Campaign Group frontbenchers were swiftly driven out, while Corbyn’s suspension and Starmer’s refusal to restore the Labour whip reignited Labour’s simmering civil war. If rumours are to be believed, the soft left may be next to get sent to Siberia.

To most voters, the internal divisions within the Labour Party are opaque, and just look like the narcissism of small differences. But they are fundamental: the contending factions simply disagree on the way society and the economy should be run, and in whose interests. It was perhaps easier to paper over the cracks in the post-war years, and even under New Labour, when part of the proceeds of a booming capitalism could be skimmed off and channeled into social programmes. Even the left could content itself with some welfarist gains, however distant socialism still remained. But, to borrow a phrase, that option no longer exists.

However, when confronted with the prospect of government, both Labour left and Labour right have sought to hold one another hostage. In pursuit of a parliamentary majority, each has sought to use the other as ballast; the right because it needs socialist campaigning energy and enthusiasm, and the left because it needs to hold the PLP together. For the left, this strategy is illusory: a predominantly right-wing PLP cannot be relied upon to back a left-wing programme, and any attempt to change its political composition risks tearing it apart.

The Labour right, for its part, has shown that it will not accept the left even as a junior partner, with a shared programme of social reform, if this requires it to give the left any real influence. The immediate concern of Labour’s right wing is cementing its control over the party, shielding its elected representatives and bureaucrats from grassroots accountability. But after a decade of crisis and stagnation and crisis again, right-wing Labourism is increasingly unable to meet the needs of its popular base, which is crumbling as a result.

Pitfalls and Potential

Anyone who’s been active on the socialist left in Britain at any point over the last 30 years or so will have seen multiple left-wing parties come and go. The Communist Party of Great Britain was never a mass party, though it wielded considerable influence in the trade unions. Others have been much less successful: the Socialist Labour Party, Respect, TUSC, Left Unity and various others have either been reliant on charismatic individual leaders – usually with egos to match – to get anywhere, or have been completely confined to the fringes.

It’s no surprise, then, that the advocates of proportional representation have mostly been coy about thinking their position through to its logical conclusion: a Labour Party split on left-right lines. But PR may create a genuine opening for a party to the left of Labour, provided it could take the left-led trade unions with it. After all, the Corbynite policy agenda was mostly popular, even if voters were (correctly) sceptical about its prospects of being implemented in government. It is doubtful that Starmer’s Labour will retain too much of that programme.

Furthermore, a full political realignment – which would also have effects on the political right and centre – may potentially be a healthy thing, or at least healthier than the status quo. It would allow Labour’s contending wings, which evidently despise one another, to take their leave of each other. Socialists would still be operating in a deeply hostile political and media environment, where their beliefs and values have been aggressively delegitimised, but they would be spared the continual drain of jockeying for factional position with the Labour right.

Arthur Scargill, a longtime supporter of proportional representation, has suggested that its real value – rather than as a route to an anti-Tory coalition with Liberals and others – may lie precisely in its clarifying effects, breaking up the mystifying political alliances which first past the post requires. In Scargill’s view, PR should not be seen “as a device for compromise and coalition but as the exact opposite: a means of polarising political views around alternative programmes and class approaches, of clarifying the fundamental contradictions within capitalism and exposing the class nature of this society”.

Of course, any new socialist party would instantly be the target of venomous attacks from the entire political establishment and ruling-class media, which would be desperate to ensure that it did not become a permanent fixture on the political landscape, from where it may be able to have some influence on the major debates. There would be a frantic attempt to erect a cordon sanitaire around it, as with Die Linke in Germany. However, despite all this, such bipartisan establishment unity could be politically illuminating in some useful ways.

A new socialist party would be free to experiment with new ways of organising. The Labour Party, with the partial exception of Corbynism, has been hidebound by an unimaginative electoralism; it has not done the basic educational and cultural work you might expect even of a moderate social-democratic party.

This hypothetical new party may be able to serve as a genuine ‘party of the movements’, providing a tribune for grassroots campaigns and initiatives. Alternatively, it may simply become a honeypot for the same old band of sectarians and self-promoters, as so many other efforts to set up socialist parties have done in the past (including the fairly recent past), squandering energy and goodwill in equal measure. No doubt there are people on both sides of the PR debate who know the dangers of this from personal experience.

A hypothetical new party may be able to serve as a genuine ‘party of the movements’. Alternatively, it may simply become a honeypot for the same old band of self-promoters, as so many other efforts to set up socialist parties have done in the past.

There is, in any event, no route to proportional representation without a Labour-led government of some description, and on current opinion polling, this looks unlikely. The only ‘reforms’ coming from the Tories will rig the existing system even more in their favour. The most likely scenario for obtaining PR would be as the price of a coalition agreement between Labour, Lib Dems, Scottish and Welsh nationalists, and Greens. But this government would likely be a ramshackle contraption, and it would be hard pressed to survive for long when subjected to the immense pressures that go with government office.

Amid deep demoralisation, proportional representation can give the illusion of a quick fix, when it’s anything but. Firstly, it appears only a distant prospect at present. Secondly, for socialists, and anyone committed to social transformation, changing the electoral system will not advance that cause much, if at all, on its own. There are more fundamental problems, and the essential task is to develop working-class counterpower and political self-confidence. Much of this work will have to be done outside of Labour, and against – if not explicitly hostile to – its current leadership. There are no shortcuts.


  1. Even before getting back into government, Harold Wilson had personally vetoed a proposal to take Britain’s top 25 monopolies into public ownership, ensuring that it did not appear in Labour’s 1974 manifesto. This was the catalyst for the foundation of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy in 1973, and led the Labour left to turn its attention in subsequent years to changing the party’s constitution so that the parliamentary party was more effectively accountable to constituency parties. See Patrick Seyd. 1987. The Rise and Fall of the Labour Left. London: Macmillan. pp. 82-3. 


Author:

Tom Blackburn (@malaiseforever)

Beyond Westminster co-editor