Friday 3 September 2010

A Labour case for the Lucas amendment

As Sunny Hundal and Guy Aitchison report, Caroline Lucas has an article in the latest New Statesman on her proposed amendment to the government's referendum on electoral reform. Lucas wishes to add some PR options to the ballot and calls on Labour to put aside its 'tribalism' and support the amendment. And she calls in particular on the Miliband brothers to offer their support.

Labour should support Lucas's amendment - or, at least, it should support an amendment in the same spirit, which adds a PR option to the referendum ballot. (I'm not so sure about having a number of different PR options.)

We've been round the houses a few times here at Next Left on the arguments for and against PR. But Lucas's important and, to my mind, welcome intervention justifies a return to the issue. As I have argued in earlier posts, there is a very strong social democratic case for PR. This should inform how Labour party members and politicians respond to Lucas's proposal.

First, of course, there is the issue of fairness. Critics of PR, such as Peter Kellner, are right to argue that electoral fairness - in the sense of a reasonably proportional match between share of votes and share of seats - is only one criterion for an electoral system, and not necessarily the overriding consideration. But we should give it some, substantial weight. It seems to capture one important intuition about democracy: that the composition of the legislature should bear a reasonably close relationship to the will of the people - a will that is in itself likely to be plural and contradictory. And if we do give this consideration substantial weight, then this tells in favour of PR.

Indeed, I would argue that the fairness consideration, rooted in a democratic conception of politics, establishes a strong presumption for PR. If that presumption is to be rebutted, then we will need some strong opposing arguments.

Historically, I think the main line of opposing argument from within Labour has been one about outcomes. PR might be fairer in a sense. But, so the argument goes, it will tend to produce policy outcomes that are in some way worse than under the alternative. In its crudest form, the argument is simply that PR can't deliver a majority Labour government, so putting off forever and a day that glorious parliamentary term when a Labour majority legislates for socialism.

Even if it were true that PR produces worse policy outcomes than the alternative, it would be an open question as to whether this rebuts the fairness-based presumption for PR.

However, as I have pointed out previously at Next Left, there is in fact good evidence that on at least some important dimensions of concern to social democrats, PR produces better outcomes over the long-run than majoritarian systems (FPTP or AV). An important study by the political scientists David Soskice and Torben Iverson shows that, controlling for other factors, countries with PR systems tend in the long-run to have higher levels of social spending and lower economic inequality than those with majoritarian electoral systems. While left parties rarely govern alone in these countries, they participate in government as coalition partners over longer periods than in majoritarian systems. Over time, this translates into more social democratic policy outcomes than in countries with majoritarian electoral systems.

Thus, PR is very much a bread and butter issue. Majoritarian Labourism - in its extreme form, the myth of that socialism-legislating majority Labour government that lies just around the next electoral corner - is apparently counter-productive in its own terms. It asks us to judge electoral systems by their outcomes: Do they promote social democratic policy? But it then plumps for a system (or family of majoritarian systems) that seems to generate worse outcomes in social democratic terms.

Is Labour an end in itself or a vehicle for advancing certain values and social interests?

If, like me, you think it is the latter, then the case - the case in terms of Labour's own core values - for PR seems to be compelling."


The academic study by David Soskice and Torben Iverson is ‘Electoral Institutions and the Politics of Coalitions: Why Some Democracies Redistribute More than Others’, published in the American Political Science Review 100 (2), 2006, pp.165-181.


Sunder Katwala said...

In a bit of Fabian pluralism, and disagreement, I posted this in the Liberal Conspiracy thread, which is more about Lucas' article challenging Labour than your own Labour argument for PR.

"I welcome Lucas’ engagement with Labour party debates, as she rightly notes this affects the broader climate for progressives across parties. And it is legitimate for Lucas to advocate a PR referendum – but as a test of pluralism this is simply a gesture and a rather unconvincing one at that.
Even if Lucas and every Labour MP were to vote for such an approach, it would not have the votes to carry. In fact, that would largely turn out as a political stunt to embarass the LibDems since they could not vote for it without breaching the Coalition Agreement, despite their own support for PR. (Now, that might rather appeal to Labour tribalists who don’t support PR as a clever somewhat wrecking tactic, but it would actually be perhaps less sensible as a pluralist strategy).

As a strategy for the AV referendum, a preferendum with multiple options it would probably make a campaign more difficult and the victory of first-past-the-post more likely. It is a real gift to a status quo, vote No campaign in my view. (It might be that Lucas thinks that would help the long-term cause of PR but most electoral reformers probably don’t agree with that).

So the pluralist challenge for Caroline Lucas is whether she is going to strongly back the Yes campaign, which is seen as positive by most-longstanding pro-PR voices across various campaigns or parties, or continue to argue after the next few weeks over the Bill that there is nothing much at stake, so that through to next May her primary point is that it doesn’t really matter if its not PR.

A Labour leader who said they thought AV was better than FPTP but also preferred AV+ to FPTP and was willing to support campaigns to get either or both would be taking a more pluralist position".


[End of LC comment]

The difference with your pro-PR post may be about short-term and long-term reform agendas. (Putting up a pro-PR amendement is primarily a symbolic political act to keep the issue open; the question for all pro-PR forces will then be what to do about the referendum we are going to have, where most long-standing pro-PR groups campaigners think campaigning for a Yes is important. I understand that the Greens have yet to decide where they would be in that referendum campaign.

Stuart White said...
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