Proportional Representation and the future of the Labour Party

19 Aug 2015

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The left and right of British politics have in recent years been taking it in turns to threaten implosion, with defections, mutinies and bitter election disappointments leading them to the brink. Before the 2015 general election, which presented commentators with one of the biggest shocks in recent political memory, all of the talk was about a potential split on the right, one that seemed increasingly likely through the rise of the UK Independence Party and the defections of both Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell from the Tories.

 

However, it is now the left, reeling from a disastrous defeat in May, that now faces the prospect of a catastrophic split between two factions that, by and large, have kept their peace (in public at least) since the poisonous arguments of the 1980s. Whilst a victory for the Labour Party was far from guaranteed in the run-up to the general election, the brutal manner of the party’s failure has reopened old wounds.

 

As a result of the characteristics of British politics and the manner of the party's conception, Labour has always been an all-encompassing coalition of the left; drawing in those from the radical ‘hard left' end of the spectrum and forcing cooperation with more liberal allies. Viewing the party in this way – that is, not a cohesive, single-minded group, but a blend of multifarious attitudes – the split currently threatening the party does not appear all that surprising. In a perfect political world, it is hard to argue that the two ideological groups would voluntarily choose to remain in the same party. Leadership candidates Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper both said as much when, in a hustings event organised by LBC, they announced that they would not serve in a shadow cabinet led by Jeremy Corbyn.

 

However, this growing split between the left and right of the Labour Party is not merely a source of acrimony between leadership candidates, it is also an electoral impediment. Indeed, one of the features of Labour over the past few years has been its ability to alienate voters across the socialist spectrum. Traditional, predominately white, working-class former supporters have departed in droves to pledge (at least temporary) allegiance to UKIP, whilst those further on the far-left of the party have defected to both the Green Party and, in Scotland, the Scottish National Party.

 

But it was not merely the departure of those on the traditional left that caused Labour immense electoral embarrassment. The liberal centrists of the Blair era also fled the Labour cause. In early 2013, Labour released a list of 106 ‘target seats’ that were perceived to be vital for victory. All but 20 were Conservative seats held since at least 2010. Out of the 106, Labour managed to win back just ten.

 

Problematically, it could be argued that both the left and right of the Labour Party are correct. The party needs to appeal to social conservatives, economic leftists, and liberal centrists simultaneously if it is to gather the votes necessary to win in 2020. However, this utopian marriage between various social groups appears nigh-on impossible, to say the least. The appointment of either Kendall or Cooper – the two leadership candidates with arguably the greatest chance of winning back ex-Blairite swing voters – will continue to alienate the left of the party. In comparison, Corbyn’s increasingly possible victory in the leadership election will almost certainly lead to a mutiny from supporters, and even MPs, positioned to the right of Ed Miliband. In the wake of Labour’s most humiliating defeat since 1992, a party split is not just a possibility, but an increasing inevitability.

 

Although, a rupture within a major party is impeded, inherently, by our dominant First Past The Post voting system. One of the only reasons that Labour is still united – and I use that term very loosely – is because of the voting system to which the United Kingdom still desperately hangs. Smaller, fringe parties, and even third-place parties (as the Liberal Democrats are painfully aware), are unable to gain any sort of parliamentary footing outside their regional strongholds, leaving those such as UKIP, who received a whopping 3.9 million votes in 2015, with relatively few seats in the House of Commons. These parties would thrive under a system of proportional representation. Indeed, the Electoral Reform Society recently showcased a model based on the D’Hondt voting system, which their calculations claim would have returned 38 UKIP seats in 2015; a fairer representation of the party’s nationwide vote share.

 

A switch to proportional representation could finally provide the impetus for more honest political alignments. Eurosceptic Conservatives who often find themselves at odds with David Cameron and George Osborne would be tempted to join UKIP and fight for their beliefs. Those on the left of Labour could, and most likely would, do the same; leaving behind a party that, for many, has long abandoned its roots. Some would be free to form a new socialist party, whilst others would no doubt find a place in the already-established Green Party which, like UKIP, would see its share of seats in the House of Commons rise exponentially.

 

No political party, no matter how sustained and illustrious its achievements, has a right to exist. Indeed, protracted infighting amongst the two main parties is arguably one of the core reasons for the proliferation of political apathy in modern Britain. More clarity and ideological certainty could be the antidote to this virus. Until politicians finally take the plunge and make politics fairer, more open and, ultimately, more representative, of the wishes of the general public, the loveless relationship between politics and the electorate will endure. 

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