Tuesday, 11 May 2010

PR: time for Labour's critics to look at the evidence

So Gordon Brown does the decent thing, making possible a Lib Dem - Labour coalition. And then, just when it looks like such a coalition might be on the cards, offering a historic opportunity for electoral reform, what do we see? The sudden apperance on the airwaves and in the newspapers of Labour figures - John Reid, David Blunkett, and Tom Harris - rubbishing the very idea.

What drives their opposition?

Obviously there are worries about the parliamentary 'arithmetic' of a Lib Dem - Labour coalition. But this has always seemed to me to be a weak argument once we accept that the point of any Lib Dem - Labour coalition would not be to run for a full five year term but to put in place a short-term government - say two years - which would have two basic aims: to manage the budget deficit more equitably than a Tory or Tory-Lib Dem government and to enact change in the electoral system that would completely change the political game. A Lib Dem-Labour coalition could probably do this with (enough) support of its sister parties in Northern Ireland, the Nationalists and the Greens.

But the arithmetic certainly does become a problem if Labour's own ranks are not willing to support a reforming coalition government. And, despite the evident enthusiasm of some in Labour for the game-changing electoral reform - stretching from Compass through Alan Johnson to Peter Mandelson - others, like Tom Harris, can't abide the idea.

Let's be clear about one thing. Those in Labour who oppose PR have no credible moral or intellectual case - at least in terms of the two key considerations that have historically framed the debate over PR.

PR obviously beats FPTP and AV in terms of intrinsic fairness. Against this, Labour's opponents of PR have argued historically that FPTP is nevertheless better in terms of outcomes over the long-run. It can deliver you Labour governments with solid majorities that can then set about radically reforming the country. This is what one might call the Hattersley Dream (though it is one that Roy Hattersley no longer shares in).

The argument once had some intuitive plausibility. But, as I have discussed in a number of earlier posts at Next Left, the actual evidence refutes it. The evidence is that PR systems deliver better outcomes in the long-run in terms of equality and social spending than majoritarian systems. Parties of the left rarely hold power by themselves in such systems - the Hattersely Dream - but nor do we see quite so many episodes of unqualified rule by parties of the right. Parties of the left spend on average much more time in government - albeit in coalition - under PR. And this shifts the centre of policy gravity to the left.

If Labour's anti-PR tendency stand in the way of a Lib Dem-Labour coalition, millions of vulnerable people will face cuts to benefits and services which they would have escaped under this coalition. And to what end?

To block a reform of the electoral system which is most likely to be to the long-term advantage of precisely this same group of vulnerable individuals....

Stuart White teaches Politics at Oxford University. He blogs here in a personal capacity and is not a spokesperson for the Fabian Society.


Sunder Katwala said...


I am on your side about tribalism. But there are lots of different arguments about the progressive coalition: some simply think 'Labour lost'. Others don't think voters (in England) would look kindly on reliance on SNP.

Where I strongly disagree with "Let's be clear about one thing. Those in Labour who oppose PR have no credible moral or intellectual case".

I just think that writes off the debate we should have. And there are legitimate different positions. Surely, it is perfectly intellectually credible to support a majoritarian electoral system: it just weights different things about democracy differently. It is fine to persuade on the grounds that PR systems have better outcomes for egalitarians, but "you can't be Labour unless you are for PR" goes very far indeed.

Broadly, I prefer PR to majoritarian systems, though I can see why people find the opposite argument persuasive too. I do think the case that FPTP as a working majoritarian system is very weak: those who back this should now be arguing for a directly elected PM or government, presumably using the London Mayoral system. There is a legitimate case against and for this.

Personally, I would like to see these issues go through a citizens' convention, as you have argued. But are you saying PR is the only possible legitimate result? I can imagine a combination of checks and balances, containing a range of different levels of power.

Otherwise, how do you explain a PR referendum which ends up 51-49 either way around. You don't want to say that everybody who doesn't vote for PR is wrong about their view for democracy? Or even that nobody who is broadly 'left' or social democratic can be on that side of the argument, do you?.

Stuart White said...


there are two main arguments for and against different electoral systems, both of which have featured in the traditional debate within Labour.

One is about intrinsic fairness. The other is about consequences/outcomes. The traditional debate was essentially one of fairness vs. outcomes.

I think there is now no credible intellectual case against PR because: (a) PR is obviously better in terms of fairness and (b) we now have evidence that it is also better in terms of consequences/outcomes - at least those which social democrats care most about.

So on both the criteria of the traditional debate - intrinsic fairness and policy outcomes - PR wins.

When I pressed Tom Harris on this at his blog site last year his response, in essence, was to say: 'Things like inequality don't depend on voting systems but on the policies one adopts.' In other words, he simply failed to take on board the point that the kind of voting system affects the kind of policies we get in a systematic way. That's the intellectual level of the opposition to PR in our party. Its risible.

In terms of getting from here to PR, I would be entirely happy to go through a citizens' convention process. If the convention didn't recommend PR I'd have to live with that. So if Labour offered the Lib Dems a convention followed by a referendum on the convebtion's proposal I'd be happy with that - I wouldn't then see Labour as responsible for failing to effect a coalition.

Stuart White said...

Sunder: In the interests of intellectual strictness I have qualified the comment about the lack of intellectual and moral case against PR to refer specifically to the two lines of argument featured in the post.

Ewan said...

But doesn't PR not ignore day-to-day representation? Isn't it a good thing that everyone in my constituency knows my MP's name, that he know's every street and (nearly) every community organisation?

My fear about PR is that it centralises power in (largely London based) party bosses, literally taking the power to select out representative out of the hands of tens-of-thousands of ordinary voters.

Can PR be about representing people's day-to-day concerns, rather than just their quad-annual votes?

Also, you suggest that PR would lead to better outcomes in terms of what social democrats care about. Given Next Left's own analysis of - for instance - tackling Poverty and inequality (and bearing in mind the LibDems current offer is regressive), what advantages would their have been to a lib/lab Government over the last decade, as compared to a solely Labour one?

Ewan said...

Apologies for the double negative there, I should learn to proof read. (Also 'our representative out').

Stuart White said...

Ewan: PR doesn't necessarily do what you fear in terms of 'day to day representation'. There is a constituency link in both STV and AMS systems.

In terms of the last 13 or so years, I honestly have no idea what the effect would have been on poverty or inequality or social spending had Labour shared power with the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems certainly haven't always been to the right of Labour in this area - and even now on specific taxes and policies, they are to the left of Labour (e.g., their proposal for a 'mansion tax').

But ultimately, if you want to be methodical about it, you have to look at the policy record across a large number of countries over a long stretch of time, comparing outcomes under PR and majoritarian systems. When you do that, you see that PR tends to produce higher social spending and lower inequality.

Admittedly, the UK could be an outlier of some kind - it doesn't necessarily follow, I have to admit, that because PR on average has this effect, it will necessarily have it in the UK in future. But I'd want a pretty clear explanation of why a relationship that holds elsewhere will break down in the case of the UK. To my knowledge, Tom Harris and David Blunkett have not yet ventured any such explanation.

ToryLordSnooty said...

What I find rather rum is the way all these Labour bods pop up now on the radio and TV and in the press & say they were in favour of electoral reform & PR all along! Somewhat laughable but also sad at the same time.

They may be misguided, but at least those stalwarts now vocally opposing reform have a modicum of honesty which deserves some respect.

I certainly wouldn't trust MPs to vote through a referendum bill on a free secret vote as, unfortunately, they tend to put their careers and wellbeing first before any other considerations.