Labour Must Embrace Electoral Reform | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Labour Must Embrace Electoral Reform

Comment Writer Zaid Salam argues that in order to achieve success in future elections, the Labour party must back reform of the first-past-the-post system

Like most aspects of constitutional reform, electoral reform is largely considered a fringe issue in British politics. But for decades progressives have been set back by their failure to pursue it, as collectively they have received majorities in the vote shares of almost every modern general election. Even at the nadir of progressive electoral politics in 1983, Labour and the SDP combined still won over 50% of the vote, denied power by a plurality voting system which delivered Thatcher a landslide parliamentary majority.

This June, Birmingham Edgbaston could be one of the many Labour-Conservative marginal constituencies that sends a Tory to Westminster on the back of a split progressive electorate. Similarly, unless progressives replicate their Richmond Park unity across the country, the Tories are set to retain dozens of Conservative-Lib Dem marginals won on minorities of the vote.

For years, British elections were characterised by a two-party cartel, united in defending a voting system rigged against smaller parties. The Conservatives could be expected to disregard electoral fair play, but it was equally craven and opportunistic of New Labour to reject voting reform when it became the dominant party. With hindsight it was also myopic, as it is increasingly clear that first-past-the-post, particularly with looming boundary changes, is no longer as generous to Labour and progressive politics as it may have been in the past.

It was equally craven and opportunistic of New Labour to reject voting reform when it became the dominant party

With sustained support for other parties, Labour today can no longer expect to attract the entire progressive electorate, no matter who leads the party. If the left remains in control of Labour, it will continue to bleed voters to the Liberal Democrats or even the Conservatives. Conversely, if centrists reclaim the leadership, leftists may flock to the Greens, or not vote entirely. It is increasingly difficult to envisage progressives uniting behind the single broad church party that first-past-the-post necessitates.

By contrast, with UKIP in terminal decline, the right is now firmly united behind a Conservative party that has adopted much of UKIP’s policy agenda. Indeed, UKIP is actually standing aside to help hard-right Brexit Tories in a large number of seats. If progressives want to ensure the inevitable division between themselves doesn’t empower this regressive alliance driving austerity at home and a reckless Brexit deal abroad, they need to adopt a voting system that allows progressive to share power. Under proportional representation, factions of British progressivism could contest elections as separate and ideologically coherent parties without fear of splitting the vote.

It is increasingly difficult to envisage progressives uniting behind the single broad church party that first-past-the-post necessitates

Of course, reformists need to win power under the current electoral system in order to change it, and encouragingly there is a growing recognition in Labour that a progressive alliance for electoral reform would serve both democracy and progressive interests, with electoral pacts already forming on individual constituency bases to this end. The Labour party can no longer simply hold progressive voters hostage, and so its partisans face a choice. Either Labour continues to fight and lose elections as a tribal brand, rejecting cooperation with even the most like-minded smaller parties; or it can work with its natural left-of-centre allies to both defeat the Conservatives and to implement our shared progressive policy goals.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer, and do not represent the views of Redbrick, the Guild of Students or the University of Birmingham. 



Published

27th May 2017 at 7:23 am



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