Discussions about PR in the Labour Party usually arise at low points of political confidence and are aimed at trying to shift the electoral system as a way to build in structural damage limitation in a period of apparent Conservative dominance.
This article looks at what the balance of Parliamentary forces would have been with the following presumptions.
- If PR had just been adopted for that election – as the impact of a new voting system on patterns of voting behaviour can be predicted, but not with any certainty – and, for that matter, the impact of these patterns on the configuration of political parties would tend towards fragmentation – with smaller, more marginalised currents seeking to try their luck with the public rather than soldier on in with all the frustrations of a broader coalition.
- If the PR system adopted were a faithful and exact reflection of votes cast. Such a system does not exist and most actually existing PR variations have a threshold, below which a Party will fail to take any seats. 10% in Turkey. 5% in Germany and Australia. In Israel – a real study in extreme party fragmentation – the electoral threshold has been raised from 1% before 1992 to 3.5% since 2014, in a not very successful attempt to prevent tiny parties having unrepresentative leverage, collapsing unstable coalitions with confrontational grandstanding designed to keep the enthusiasm of their sliver of the vote intact. Using any of these Thresholds would be problematic in the UK particularly in relation to the North of Ireland, but to some extent even to Scotland and Wales; where there are regional parties that do not stand anywhere else; so the prospect of any of them reaching UK wide thresholds would be slim. The impending prospect of the break up of the UK – accelerated by a Brexit led by forces unable to comprehend the country as anything more than Greater Little England – would remove this problem in the process of creating many more.
The speculation on probable outcomes is entirely mine, and you can take it or leave it.
A Labour landslide under First Past the Post and a totemic event for the Labour right. But, when you look at the voting figures, not so much.
Labour clearly the largest Party, but not able to govern on its own. Probable outcome. a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition. Blair and Ashdown were very close, and without the thumping majority allowed by FPTP the introduction of PR was very much on the cards had Labour had to rely more on Lib Dem support. A coalition of the “Conservative family”, bringing in the Referendum Party/UKIP and Ulster Unionists (both UUP and DUP) only adds up to 35.7%. The SNP are noticeably marginal at this point. Policies of the government? Probably not too different from the policies we had. With the Lib Dems as part of it, probably more pressure to join the Euro, but the Atlanticist interventionism and “third way” economics, independence for the Bank of England, PPI and minimal but valuable positive reforms like the minimum wage would almost certainly have been the same.
It should also be noted that turnout in 1997 was 71.3%, down 6.4% from 1992; indicating a drop in Conservative vote that nevertheless continued to brood in the shires and small towns.
Another Labour landslide under FPTP, but with turnout down even more than in 1997 at 59.4%. Quite a sharp fall of 11.9%. Possibly indicating that, while the Conservatives were still unable to reignite their support, Labour wasn’t building enthusiasm so much as maintaining compliance.
This is essentially a rerun of 1997 with added apathy. Labour again the largest single Party, but unable to rule on its own. Conservatives making a little ground but nowhere near being able to form a coalition, unless they could flip the Liberal Democrats; not very likely at this point – given diverging positions on the EU and the attempts by the LDs to position themselves as a “progressive” Party. Likely policies, very similar to what we had under New Labour; but the divergent response of Charles Kennedy to the war on terror and invasion of Iraq could have led either to a breakdown in the government’s enthusiastic compliance with the US offensive or, more likely, a coup within the Liberal Democrats to replace Kennedy with a leader more acceptable to the US Embassy; which plays the same Vice-Regal role here as such embassies do in all US allied capitals.
The SNP are still a marginal force at this point.
The tectonic plates had shifted under New Labour by this point. While still returning a workable majority through FPTP, the impact particularly of the Iraq war severely dented its support, which leached away partly to non voting, partly to the Liberal Democrats – who had opposed the war – and gave the Greens enough voters to get over the 1% mark.
Likely outcome? Uncertain. Labour still with a larger vote share than the Tories, but not by much. More because of a sharp drop in the Labour vote than the small and incremental increase in Conservative support. Both capable of forming a coalition but neither in a strong position to do so. With the Lib Dems positioning themselves to Labour’s left on the war and civil liberties, a coalition with an increasingly Eurosceptic and dog whistling Conservative Party under Michael Howard – “are you thinking what we’re thinking?” – would be very unlikely; but with the sharp divergence on Iraq an ongoing coalition with Blair would also have been problematic.
The BNP scraped up a potentially ominous 0.7% support which, added to UKIPs 2.2% put the far right Nationalists on just under 3%.
Meanwhile, a notable shift had taken place in the North of Ireland since 1997, with the DUP now the largest Party among Unionists and Sinn Fein among Nationalists. The SNP was still plateaued.
Another slight uptick (3.7%) in turn out to 65.1%. The 2008 crash was the coup de grace for New Labour. Towards the end of the Blair-Brown period, legislation like schools academisation had to be passed with Conservative support in the face of rebellions from the left of the Party. Despite Brown’s role in stabilising the global financial system and his initial attempts to pose the 2010 election as a battle between Tory austerity and Labour investment, the dominance of right wing “sound money” economics – expressed rather neatly by Alastair Darling’s comment that. if re-elected. Labour’s cuts would be “deeper and tougher” than Margaret Thatcher’s in the eighties far from cutting a “statesmanlike” figure as he hoped simply demobilised a significant slice of potential support; and set up a dominant austerity consensus for the decade we have just endured.
The result gave the Conservatives their first lead since 1992 and a momentum towards forming a government. While the Lib Dems retained a significant part of their “progressive” reputation, the eclipse of Charles Kennedy and his replacement by Nick Clegg sealed a victory for the “Orange Book” wing of economic neo-liberals; who now dominated the Party and who would always be more at home with the Conservatives than Labour on policy (as well as sociologically, given their common predominantly public school backgrounds). The result therefore is likely to have been parallel to what actually happened, with Cameron and Clegg forming a coalition. A grand coalition “in the National Interest” of all three main Parties, committed to austerity and “hard choices” at the expense of the worst off is a theoretical possibility, but not really needed to form a government in the absence of a significant opposition. Better to have a pro austerity government and a pro austerity “opposition” so the message that “there is no alternative” could really be rammed home.
The BNP vote of just under 2% – their high water mark – combined with UKIPs 3.1% put the Nationalist/racist right just over 5% of the vote.
The Greens and SNP continued to plateau.
In the North of Ireland, Nationalist votes outnumbered Unionist votes and Sinn Fein were the largest Party for the first time.
Another 1.3% incremental increase in turn out. Now up to 66.4%.
This election might have been the first one to actually be called under PR, but wasn’t. Part of the deal between Clegg and Cameron was to hold a referendum on introducing it. Thoroughly out-manoeuvred by the Conservatives – stitched up a treat by them, on this as well as so many other issues – the Lib Dem proposals for an Alternative Vote system to replace FPTP were defeated in 2011 by 67:32% on a dismal 42% turnout; showing that the electorate “wasn’t bothered”.
Nevertheless, this is the election in which really significant and dramatic shifts took place that ushered in the ensuing period of instability and heightened political crisis; in which the slaughter of sacred cows became almost routine and history seemed to accelerate away from its habitual British somnambulism.
The Conservatives held their vote, but there was a dramatic increase in the vote to their right; with UKIP taking 12%. The 2010 BNP vote largely collapsed into this.
Labour increased its vote overall, just, but collapsed in Scotland in a way that shattered any complacency and sense of security as a UK wide potential Party of government ever again. The SNP – on the back of an independence referendum defeat in which Labour had formed a bloc with the Conservatives with no distinctive voice – sucked the bulk of Labour’s voters away on the promise of a social democratic Scotland with no Trident missiles defying an entrenched Tory Westminster.
The Green Party, standing to Labour’s left, quadrupled its vote to 4%.
The Liberal Democrats totally collapsed, retaining barely one in three of their 2010 voters. As the custodians of the slightly more progressive wing of the austerity coalition, they were always going to be punished harder than the Conservatives, but the scale of it was dramatic. It was as though the electorate was picking a fight with the Mitchells (from Eastenders) shied away from taking on Phil and contented themselves with kicking the shit out of Billy.
Possible government outcomes? There are a number. A Tory, UKIP, Unionist bloc enshrining a sharp nationalist turn would have been 50.4%. A brutal internal struggle in the Conservative Party – of the sort that took place in 2019 – would have been required to consolidate this. A continuing Conservative Lib Dem coalition might have been possible, but on just under 45% support without a majority and throwing unbearable strains on both parties; over Europe for both and over whether a further stint as the Tory’s bag carriers would finish them off for good for the Lib Dems. Even the most optimistic projection for Labour, putting them together with the Greens and SNP and SDLP would stack up to less than 40%, so a wounded minority formation. Overall, a variation on what we had is again most the likely. The Conservatives continuing with austerity and trying to finesse their internal schism over Europe by going for a referendum, to either absorb or put paid to UKIP, setting the scene for 2017.
This was the first of two elections that were held in the backwash of the EU referendum of 2016 which, in narrowly voting to break with the EU, turbo charged the political instability that had resulted from the 2008 crash. Turn out was up again by 2.3% to 68.7%.
The Conservative strategy in 2017 was to try to regroup the Eurosceptic vote behind them and utterly crush Labour – on the presumption that an overtly left wing programme was “unelectable”. The Labour right had the same presumption. The first part of this worked up to a point. The UKIP vote collapsed, but not all of it went to the Tories. The Conservative vote went up over 6%, but the combined Tory/UKIP vote was down to just over 45% from 49.4% in 2015.
More interesting was what happened to the Labour vote. The immediate aftermath of the 2015 election saw an explosion of rage from the mass forces in the trade unions that had been campaigning against austerity from 2010, with significant co-ordinated public sector strikes on issues like pensions, expressed in demonstrations tens of thousands strong within weeks of the election. This spilled over into the Labour Party as the right wing drew the lesson from defeat that they had to be more like the Tories expressed in a succession of excruciating mea culpeas from supposed “leading” figures like Tristram Hunt that, yes indeed, the crash of 2008 was the result of “Labour spending too much” in trying to get UK public services up to European standards (and nothing to do with the banks overextending credit); a self flagellation greeted by the sort of death groan from media audiences that signifies complete contempt. There was an ensuing membership revolt against the PLP supporting Conservative Benefit Cuts in fear of being seen as soft on welfare; with people in CLPs usually seen as being on the right raging at the betrayal. The sheer exhaustion of the right wing programme, the trauma of the sudden evaporation of Labour Scotland, and the uninspired quality of the mainstream leadership candidates set the stage for Jeremy Corbyn being elected leader. He amassed three out of every five votes cast amidst a huge surge of new members and supporters. Those who had been driven away by austerity lite, the legacy of Iraq, the sheer illiberalism of “hard man” Home Secretaries like Blunkett and Reid, or the soul crushing sleaziness of “taxis for hire” Steven Byers, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt, flocked back; gathering in huge revivalist rallies to express their determination to make a change, break some moulds, and drain some swamps.
The calculation on the right of the Party had been that having Corbyn in the race “to broaden the debate” would see the left smashed and definitively out of contention from there on; so several right wingers agreed to nominate him to get him on the ballot so that this could come to pass. On the left too, there was a certain caution, with the target of knocking Liz Kendall into fourth place considered a respectable result. Which just shows how wrong you can be, and how fast things can change.
This election of an internationalist, anti-racist, anti nuclear, pro- trade union leader who was comfortable with extra parliamentary mobilisation led to the most extreme attacks ever on a Labour leader, including from the right of the Party, who tried to force him out in 2016 and whose officials in the Party machine actively sabotaged the General Election campaign in 2017. Despite all this, Labour’s left policies struck a nerve with an electorate tired of austerity and none to keen on interventionist wars; and the vast young urban militia that had regenerated the Party after 2015 flung itself into the streets and through the treacherous gullies of social media, clawing back support from the Greens, SNP and even from some UKIP supporters; amassing a share of the vote that was breathing down the Tory’s necks by polling day – having started twenty points behind.
The Lib Dems were still down and out, their vote share even down slightly on the debacle of 2015, too small to be king makers, even if anyone else had been inclined to give them the time of day.
Under PR this would have been an even more uncertain outcome than it was under FPTP. The logic of the Conservative position would have compelled them to form a pro Brexit bloc, accelerating the developments that led to Theresa May’s defenestration and the dominance of the patriotic cartoon tendency under Boris Johnson into the period immediately after the election; but even with UKIP and the Ulster Unionists on board, that would not have given them a majority; requiring them to go after the small pro Brexit wing of Labour, in which they would probably have had some success with the right wing fringe – people like Gisela Stuart and Kate Hoey.
For Labour, a bloc with the SNP, Greens, Plaid and the SDLP would have amounted to 45.4%, still a minority unable to form a stable government, even assuming a deal could have been done and the Lib Dems 7.4% been prepared to tolerate it; hanging over its head like a permanent right wing sword of Damocles.
So, again, what we’d have got with PR would most likely have been a variant on what we ended up with anyway, albeit on a more rapid timescale.
Bleak mid winter. Turn out, on a miserable, rainy deep and dark December day on which our canvas sheets turned to mush on our clipboards, was down 1.5% at 67.3%.
This election is presented as a Tory triumph. In fact, Boris Johnson increased the Conservative share of the vote by a miserable 1.2%; on a decreased turn out representing hardly any additional voters at all. The Brexit Party/UKIP vote nudged up by barely 0.3%, making the hard Brexit vote barely 45.9%. Not a majority.
The decisive feature of this election was that every ruling class political faction and institution united to stop a Labour government under Corbyn; above and beyond their position on Brexit. This was completely explicit from the Lib Dems, who ruled out any prospect of a coalition with Corbyn, but kept the door open for an arrangement with the Conservatives – against whom they were supposed to be at daggers drawn because of their loudly declared allegiance to remaining in the EU. This was politically suicidal on their part because Labour offered the prospect of a soft Brexit or remaining in the via a second referendum. This allowed Labour to hold the partial revival of Lib Dem support generated by the huge pro remain movement that was in a state of continuous mass mobilisation between 2016 and 2019 to 11.5%.
Labour tried to fight 2017 again but more so, with even huger mass canvassing sessions but with a looser and less calibrated set of policies; and a presumption that an offensive into Tory marginals that could have paid off in 2017 would work out in 2019. So, the militia marched determinedly off into the killing fields of bleak suburbs. In an election defined by Brexit, a section of the 37% of Labour voters who had voted Leave would always be vulnerable to the Conservatives, and the 63% that voted Remain to the Lib Dems and SNP. At the same time, the full spectrum character assassination of Corbyn- intensified after the near miss of 2017 and described by Mike Pompeo as “running the gauntlet” – had had its effect; the SNP went back up to 3.9%, the Greens to 2.8%, primarily at the expense of Labour. And there was an increase of former Labour voters just not voting.
With a PR Parliament, a Labour led coalition bolting in the Lib Dems, SNP, Greens and smaller Parties like Plaid and the SDLP on the basis of opposing a hard Brexit might have been a mathematical possibility, had the virulent hostility to Labour from the Lib Dems in particular not been so marked. A coalition of Conservatives, Brexit and Ulster Unionists would still have been just about enough to “get Brexit done”, though the Parliamentary arithmetic would have been far tighter.
While actual voting under PR systems would have differed from voting under FPTP, it is hard to argue that any system of PR would have led to an increase in the Labour vote.
The question for Labour now is what adopting PR would mean for the kind of policies it would fight for in between elections. There is a view widely held that the point of Labour is to get elected so it can do things with the powers of the state, at national or local level. This misses the point that getting into office is contingent on mobilising people, and the extent to which the levers of state will actually work if deployed against the existing pattern of wealth and power is itself contingent on the extend to which there is a mass mobilisation behind any proposal for change.
At present the policy of the “new leadership” – in seeking to exorcise the Corbyn period as an aberration and return to normalcy – is to make itself “electable” by reassuring the powers that be that any use of the levers of state will not go beyond any boundary set by them.
In current circumstances therefore, the danger for anyone campaigning for Labour to adopt PR is that this will copper bottom this approach by seeking a “progressive alliance” as a potential government- with the Lib Dems at its core and the Greens as window dressing. The eagerness with which the “new leadership” seeks to reintegrate the former MPs who split to form Change UK – and their preference for donations from “high net worth individuals” over trade unions indicates how comfortable they would be with this prospect; and what the core of its politics would be.
This issue is therefore a diversion from fighting for Labour to campaign on the side of the resistance to the attacks of the Conservative government and break from a style of opposition that has been far too “constructive” for its own good.