The Labour Split – Time for British Proportional Representation

A British Proportional Representation ballot paper.
British Proportional Representation – as easy as 1, 2, 3

Today’s big political news is that seven MPs have resigned the Labour whip and party membership, and are standing together as “The Independent Group”. It’s too early to say what this might mean in the long term. However there’s been lots of talk about “splitting the vote” and whether standing for re-election will help or harm the causes they’re fighting for.

These arguments come down to the flawed way we elect MPs. We use a system known as “First Past The Post” or, more correctly, plurality voting – whoever gets the most votes (a plurality) wins. There is no post.

The Liberal Democrats believe that we should use British Proportional Representation, also known as the Single Transferable Vote (STV). It has three properties which make it fairer and more transparent:

  1. Firstly, it is preferential. This means that rather than voting for one candidate, you list the candidates in order of preference. This means that you can safely vote for the candidate you actually want to win, rather than the “least worst” option of the likely candidates. This was the key property of the Alternative Vote system proposed as a compromise by the Coalition in 2011.
  2. Secondly, it is proportional. This means that the result of the election actually reflects the votes cast. It is very odd to realise that this is not the case currently!
  3. Thirdly, it is open. This means that you vote for a candidate not a party, and the parties can’t choose who “wins” their seats. This means that you can prefer one candidate over another within the same party – perhaps a pro-EU candidate from your party of choice, over a pro-Brexit one. It also means that politicians rejected at the ballot box can’t end up representing the people who rejected them through “top up” lists.

One of the key effects of these properties is that there will be far fewer “safe seats”. MPs and political parties will have to work harder across the country for their constituents.

The obvious attack is that the Lib Dems only support this system because it would benefit us electorally. And overall it probably would – historically, we do worse in terms of election results than the votes cast would suggest. But there’s nothing in these three properties which are inherently biased towards one party over another. It’s just fairer and gives more of a say to voters.

Given the state of politics these days, there’s an urgent need for a movement calling for British Proportional Representation. I believe that this movement needs to be distinct from any political party to avoid accusations of self-interest. Unfortunately, we don’t have one.

There’s the Electoral Reform Society who mostly lobby Parliament. MPs who’ve been elected under the current system generally quite like the current system and don’t want to reform it and make their jobs harder. There’s also Make Votes Matter, who are organising along party-political lines, and calling for a generic “Proportional Representation”. This allows them to build a wide base of support, but that base will collapse when any specific reform is proposed.

So at the moment I’m a bit stuck. I’d love there to be a grass-roots organisation spreading the message about British Proportional Representation, getting voters to decide it’s important and lobbying MPs, candidates and parties to support it. But this organisation doesn’t exist and I don’t have the time or money to start it. The need for this reform is critical, but there’s nobody driving it.