In Critical Mass Issue 6 I argued that proportional representation was not the democratic advance many of its advocates suggest. My critique, and it is not the first time I’ve made it, was met with some suspicion from some of my readers.
The comments fell into three broad categories. First was the accusation that, if I was not supporting PR, I was clearly advocating first past the post. Second, was the suggestion that I did not understand PR or that I was failing to understand its progressive nature where it has been implemented. And third was a view that, if I did not support PR but accepted the claim that FPTP was flawed, then I was leaving the left nowhere to go.
Pepsi or Coke?
The first accusation is easily dealt with. It is as if you walk into a bar and are offered a Pepsi, and, on saying that you don’t like Pepsi, being told you are supporting Coke instead. In other words, the accusation makes the assumption that democracy can be reduced to a binary choice. First past the post or proportional representation. Which rules out entirely direct democracy. Or, what we might call the lemonade of the democracy choices.
The essence of democracy is not to be found in PR. Democracy is a way of making choices. Political philosopher Philip Pettit describes democracy as a means “whereby a people as a whole asserts its collective will”. It’s not the only way, is not always the fairest way and can certainly have more to do with compromise than principles. It is, of course, often not clear what the ‘collective will’ means, or quite which ‘people’ are to be included in exercising it. Nonetheless, at the heart of the debate about PR is a question which is rarely raised. Who should make decisions that affect you? That is a binary choice. Either you do it yourself or somebody does it for you. The answer that neo-liberal democracy gives you is that, unless you are part of a very narrow social strata, then somebody else makes all the important decisions that affect you.
It is for this reason that Pettit offers a second definition in which “the people should control government democratically because that is the only mode of control under which those reasons can be expected to guide government that are recognized in common deliberation as the valuations relevant to determining public policy”. There is a lot in this definition and it deserves a little unpacking. What Pettit is getting at is a system of indirect democracy in which representatives are tasked with carrying out the ‘popular will’, and in which the ‘threat’ or ‘sanction’ of democratic recall ensures that the deliberations which take place publicly are enacted.
Of course, the smart reader (that’s you) will straight away note that the public debate around important issues is rarely anything other than the opinions of politicians operating within a narrow framework which ensures that the ‘people’s will’ is not all ‘the people’s’ will, but the will of a handful of elites. Such is the way in which democracy has been replaced by autocracy.
From a socialist perspective neither PR nor FPTP satisfies the main criteria of democracy. That is that decision making should be in the hands of the people. Only some form of direct democracy can satisfy that demand, not representative individuals drawn from an increasingly narrow strata of society, nor a system in which parties are given power proportionally. Following the 2019 General Election, Rebecca Montague from the Sutton Trust wrote a report on the backgrounds of MPs, including the new, predominantly Tory, arrivals. She noted: “Before the election, 29% of MPs attended private school – four times higher than the rate in the general population. And, after the election, that figure hasn’t budged, still standing at 29%.”
But, even if this is all true, it still relies on a particular understanding of proportional representation. The problem of posing PR vs FPTP is that, whilst FPTP is relatively easy to describe, there is no single agreed version of PR. There are now a number of organisations promoting proportional representation. The Electoral Reform Society (which should really be called the PR Reform Society since that is the sole reform it promotes) says that there are three forms of PR. Party list systems give you a choice of parties. However, they come at a price. As the ERS concedes, “While closed party-list PR is very proportional, they empower parties rather than voters by giving them control over who is elected.”
The single transferable vote system allows voters to rank representatives in order of preference. The ERS notes: “Voters can also choose between candidates from the same party or different parties. This means voters can elect all MPs based on their individual abilities.” Of course, this assumes most voters have the slightest clue as to the individual abilities of any MP and don’t just repeat the advice given by their favoured party.
The additional member system is a hybrid leaving a proportion of seats decided by first past the post and a second number of seats decided by a party list. I described this system last week, and also noted that its main feature in use has been to allow far right groups (who tend to receive a more sympathetic press than left wing groups) a foothold in our democratic systems. This has been seen in Wales, Germany and Hungary. The ERS note: “While a massive improvement over Westminster’s system, parties still have a lot of control over who gets elected.” The fact that they see a system that only a handful of people will actually understand as an ‘improvement’ perhaps shows just how biased their reporting on these issues is.
That said, all versions of PR transfer representativeness from individuals (albeit individuals who are normally connected to a party) and into the hands of parties.
What this does is remove the link between communities and those whose role is to represent their views. In truth, in national elections, the relationship between communities and their reps is pretty remote anyway. It is not as if local communities get together and choose from amongst their ranks the person they most feel is able to put their collective views.
MPs and councillors are likely to have only a passing relationship with those who they represent. With FPTP systems it is at least possible for an independent candidate to get on the ballot paper. With PR it is almost impossible for an independent candidate to get the proportion of votes which could challenge the party hegemony. In practice, PR takes the power further away from local communities and places it in the hands of an unelected party bureaucracy.
If FPTP has driven radical socialist views on to the margins of political debate, PR drives the nail into the coffin of those who believe socialism can be obtained via the ballot box. Some argue that this is mere speculation. But the empirical evidence from around the globe where PR has been implemented is uncompromising. The winners are invariably pro-capitalist parties. But, comes the retort, that is also the case with FPTP.
If anything should convince socialists of the futility of attempting change through parliament, it is that they cannot name a single country in which socialism has been won through parliamentary action. In countries with various forms of PR, it is parties of the right and centre who are invariably triumphant. Simply stopping the Conservative Party in the U.K. is not a good enough reason to expend a considerable amount of energy campaigning for PR, the result of which will be the continuation of the status quo.
Does this, then, represent a bleak, nihilistic view of politics? If electoral reform is not possible then am I abandoning all hope of progressive social change? On the contrary, the prospects for socialism are no greater or less as a result of campaigns for reformist strategies. To argue that socialism is related to objective conditions is not an abandonment of hope, it is an abandonment of false hope.
If anything should have caused the British left to stop and take stock, it is the Corbyn experiment. There is no doubt that in 2016 and 2017 Jeremy Corbyn lit a flame that was a beacon for millions of people. Many of those people flooded into the Labour Party in the belief that, for the first time in decades, the party had a leader who actually stood for something. It was the 2017 General Election that woke up the establishment to the fact that Corbyn was a genuine threat to their cosy existence.
You don’t need me to remind you that what happened next was a programme of vilification not seen since the miners strike and the demonisation of Arthur Scargill. People are critical of Corbyn for not offering a more robust defence against the false AS claims. But, if the leaked internal report told us one thing, it was that, whatever Corbyn had said or done, the establishment, including the Labour establishment, were not prepared to let Corbyn anywhere near the door of Number Ten.
This wasn’t just a matter of which voting system was being used. It wasn’t even a matter just of press bias. This was those who support neo-liberal capitalism asserting their belief that parliament belongs to them. The odd socialist may be allowed membership but they must be kept safely away from power on the back benches. The only thing that could have stopped the ruling class in its tracks was mass action, especially by the trade union movement – the organised working class. It required hundreds of thousands on the streets demanding change, not knocking on doors of an electorate with little appetite for politics. In 2011 an Institute of Government study concluded: “In the United Kingdom public participation in traditional democratic politics is in decline, trust in politicians is low, and the House of Commons does not look like the diverse society it seeks to represent.”
This is why I find the attitude of those who declare that ‘progressive’ politics involves reforming the electoral system somewhat naive. It was once possible to believe that change could, and would, come through parliament. But, surely that time has long since gone. Jeremy Corbyn did not lose because he was too socialist. He wasn’t. He didn’t lose because he was too timid. Though he might have been. He lost because the forces of the ruling class were objectively more powerful than the forces against them. He lost, in part at least, because that ruling class had to send a lesson to those seeking to undermine their system that they would never be able to do so.
The Labour Party is dead
The Labour Party as a vehicle for change is as dead as the Sinclair C5. Anybody who remains in a party that is institutionally anti-socialist cannot call themselves a socialist. Well, they can call themselves whatever they want, but the truth is any claim that the Labour left had to be fighting for socialism is lost if they continue to prop up a party which is every bit as much an establishment party as the Conservatives and Liberals. But, equally, those rushing to join the array of parties aiming to stand in elections are deluding themselves if they feel that those parties will do any better than the left-wing parties that have stood throughout the past few decades. Most ‘left-wing’ candidates in General Elections get less than 200 votes. Under any electoral system that is not going to win any seats.
The problem is that the effort that has to go into winning those 200 votes is disproportionate for small parties who have to compete with the multi-million pound budgets of the major parties and a media who are not giving a platform to the left unless it is to mock them. The experience of 2019 should have been to realise that the endemic failures of capitalism over Covid and the climate emergency are not going to be solved by electoral politics. That in most of the World capitalism is struggling and this provides opportunities. Not opportunities to win parliamentary power and to manage the system until the ruling class regain their confidence but an opportunity to start taking the energy that we’ve seen in recent protests and begin the task of building a movement that can challenge the very existence of capitalism.
Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.