The official blog of The Social Democratic Party.

On Party Politics and Proportional Representation

To breathe life back into political discourse, the UK must abandon first-past-the-post and embrace proportional representation

By: Dylan Carter

Britain has sleepwalked into a new era of soulless politics. British politics now resembles a long-running rivalry between two supermarket giants battling to cut prices, win market share, and deliver returns to their investors. A victory for either side ultimately results in little meaningful change in direction, national spirit, or popular will.  A British political system, designed to promise stability and prosperity, has instead ushered in decades of political stagnation. Power is neither created, nor destroyed. Instead, it is shuffled around the backbenches. The same familiar faces and the same old ideas float around the chambers and, unsurprisingly, little changes. Conservative ministers stuff their pockets at the taxpayers’ expense while Labour backbenches wax lyrical about the working man, before quietly shuffling to the House of Lords to accept a life-peerage.

In Britain, a victory at the ballot box is not a victory for conservatism, socialism, or liberalism. Rather, it is the victory for the archetypal political party. Can the 2019 general election be sincerely framed as a victory of conservatism over socialism? If society is any reflection of this election, the answer is evidently no. UK politics has been gutted, spiritually, and above all, ideologically.

Political parties should serve to represent ideology or cultural affiliation, acting in the interests of politically engaged citizens. Under first-past-the-post however, this is an impossibility. Both the Conservative and Labour parties are currently doomed to preside over a soulless husk of a utilitarian electoral machine. This is evidenced by the current state of the ‘big two.’ The Conservative Party’s attempts to erect a large enough party to cater to the majority of society has failed, collapsing its “big tent” ideal. Any mention of conservative ideals is ramped up in the run up to an election, then promptly cast aside after their inevitable victory. The Labour Party has fared no better. Its attempts to shift the goalposts to incorporate a new generation of socially conscious youth has spiritually gutted the platform, leaving in its place a largely contrarian and turbulent mix of warring socialists and social democrats.

The barrier to entry for new parties in the UK is so impossibly high that voters are ultimately doomed to operate on the principle of “closest fit.” Given the choice, libertarians would likely not share a platform with Cameronite Tories, nor would Corbynistas rub shoulders with Blairites. A core founding principle behind liberty is the freedom of association; however, this has been long forgotten within the UK. Popular politics and grassroots activism must be rewarded with representation. Irrespective of political persuasion, it is criminal that Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, who have undoubtedly changed the face of British politics, only received parliamentary representation through limited high-profile defections. Equally unjust is the current level of representation received by the Greens, who have been making great inroads into UK politics for many years without much voice in parliament.

Simply put, it is time for change. To breathe life back into political discourse, the UK must abandon first-past-the-post and embrace proportional representation. The SDP has recognised this structural failure in our UK electoral system. Having given its support to Makes Votes Matter, a bipartisan multi-party pressure group campaigning for electoral reform, the SDP has clearly signalled that it intends to support the reintroduction of politics into our otherwise apolitical parliamentary system. Success for the SDP at polls will be, in part, bolstered by the success of this cause. When electoral reform arrives, and it inevitably will, smaller parties will be emboldened to sweep up many captive voters from both the Conservatives and Labour. The SDP, as a party of the patriotic centre of UK politics, could well be an attractive choice in a new and vibrant market of political self-expression.

To see proportional representation in action, one need only look across the channel. The Netherlands, a fellow constitutional monarchy, has fully embraced PR. The level of political freedom in the Netherlands is admirable and almost incomprehensible in FPTP Britain. The Dutch enjoy a huge degree of representation on a political level. On the right alone, there exists a party for liberal conservatives, right-wing populists, Christian democrats, national conservatives, evangelists, agrarians, e-government activists, regionalists, separatists, libertarians, and more. Most of these parties, at some point, have had a say in the everyday running of government and on the choices that impact Dutch lives.

Admittedly, coalition building can be messy, arduous, and even frustrating. However, it is a far cry from the “coalitions of chaos” Theresa May warned of in the event of a Conservative minority government. The Dutch have illustrated that even in times of complicated alliance building, the workings of the state carry on as usual. The importance difference, however, is that under a proportional system- every vote matters. A vote cast under a proportional system allows voters to vote by conviction, knowing well that backing the winning horse may not necessarily be the best way to see their own policy preferences set in motion.

While proportional representation could cause teething problems in Westminster, it could very well save the Union. If the 2019 general election had been decided proportionally, the vote share for the SNP would have been slashed significantly, from 48 seats down to 20, perhaps signalling a more complicated independence picture. While devolved Scottish elections enjoy a greater degree of proportional representation, 73 of 129 MSPs are still elected through first-past-the-post voting. Statistically, PR would be the great equaliser, slashing the gap between Conservative and Labour, rewarding newcomers, and setting new clear targets for independence movements.

UK electoral reform, however, is unlikely to spell the end for the familiar parties for which many of us have campaigned and supported in the past. If the major parties fought hard enough, they could very well prevent the balkanisation of their parties into ideological factions. The Conservatives could battle to keep their electorate intact, and may even remain the largest party. No matter how Conservative party backers frame it, PR is certainly not about punishing the Conservative Party. Regardless of vote share, the resulting political climate under PR would be a much fairer; allowing new parties to challenge seats and win hearts and minds.

PR isn’t about breaking parties apart; it is about levelling the playing field. We should once again stand steadfast behind our political convictions, vote with our feet, and advocate for a new and fair system. To advance the goals and objectives of a new and fair Britain, I urge SDP voters to visit Make Votes Matter and join their bipartisan campaign for electoral reform.

Have your say...

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


All Comments (5)

  • I believe in AV for the Commons, PR for the Upper House along with equal power and simultaneous.elections STV for local elections ,referendums on major issues. Will happily elaborate.

  • My main concern with PR is that it negates one of the prime strengths of FPTP, namely that it provides strong government. Our constitution is entirely geared around a strong government that can do a lot with its majority. Now, people will say the current approach is unfair. Perhaps, and that is perhaps a bad thing, but in its favour FPTP does deliver strong governments, and moreover, changing to PR would mean that the rest of the constitutional system would have to adjust too. I don’t know how, but I am sure there would be unintended consequences for this reason. Be careful what you wish for.

  • I disagree with almost every sentence of this piece. Proportional representation would not, and does not, secure the representation he desires. Rather, it acts as a way of protecting indefinitely the ‘boss class’ from political pressure from below. When election results merely result in the same people changing the governmental chairs they occupy, there is nothing for them to fear.

    The Netherlands illustrates this dramatically, actually. A few months before the introduction of the Euro, I was visited in Asia by a delegation of Dutch investors. I gave them my 30 minutes account of Asia’s economies, and asked for questions. The one I got was this: ‘When will Britain join the Euro?’ I answered ‘Never, because it would certainly destroy any party which voted it in’. There followed a moment or two of Dutch muttering among themselves. And then one said: ‘Yes, we understand. It’s the First Past the Post System. In the Netherlands we don’t want to join either, but the parties can ignore that because even if we vote them down, they’ll still be in government’.

    Yes, FPTP makes it extremely difficult for a new party to challenge. Yes, the coalitions which comprise the Conservatives and Labour are unstable and in Labour’s case, obviously rotting from within. But the answer for the SDP must be to work harder, think harder, finance harder, and build our way back. Rather that than slide into the bosses chair at the expense of propping up the status quo.

Family, Community, Nation.