A Mythical PR Party? – A guest post by Fen C, @fencoul (Twitter).

Introduction

What happened to the United Kingdom? The answer is “a lot”, and not much of it very good. What can be done to get the SS United Kingdom back on an even keel? Here’s an idea: opposition parties collaborating.

“Hasn’t that already failed?” I hear you ask. “If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again”. Persistence is often the difference between success and failure.

Here’s the problem: UK politics has stagnated. Stagnation favours the status quo, and so the UK is saddled with “The Mother of All Parliaments” (though that phrase was originally meant as an insult about lack of progressiveness). An older, ‘first’ thing isn’t necessarily a better thing (otherwise we’d all still be using single-drum top-loader washing machines with a manually operated mangle). Combine this with the fact that First Past the Post (FPTP) voting is how the UK’s electoral system still operates and the problem becomes clearer: the UK elects governments that do not have majority support (or even plurality support, in the case of hung parliaments and coalitions) within the electorate.

But it’s even worse. FPTP may sort-of work with two parties; but it sure doesn’t produce mass electoral representation when there’s more than two – and that’s what we have now. The original two parties were essentially the Conservative Party and the Not-Conservative Party. However, over time, that Not-Conservative Party has fragmented into multiple Not-Conservative parties.

The opposition to the Conservative Party has fragmented – there are several Not-Conservative parties now, including the Official Opposition plus all of its competitors, ‘the other Opposition parties’. Fine – except that we still have a voting system left over from when there were only two parties.

In effect, we now have the Conservative Party plus a fragmented set of opposition parties, which, in part, explains why the UK ends up with near-constant Conservative Party governments, elected by less-than-majorities of the electorate.

Obviously the Conservative Party will be 100% in favour of this situation being ‘conserved’.

The problem is that it conserves itself, because all of those who would like to replace FPTP with some form of Proportional Representation (PR) system can’t get into power to replace FPTP – because (now they’re fragmented) FPTP won’t let them! FPTP: (1) elects mainly Conservative governments; and (2) protects itself against ever being replaced by PR. Or, to put it another way, our self- protecting FPTP electoral system virtually guarantees that it can’t be replaced, and delivers mainly government by one party – the party that doesn’t want it to be replaced. Is it any wonder that the Conservative Party wants to ‘conserve’ that state of affairs?

Can this cycle ever be broken?

Yes, of course, it can – but it will take some planning and thought. Here’s one idea: all of the opposition parties should give up.

I don’t mean literally pack up and go home, obviously. I mean temporarily give up pushing their own ‘brands’ and issues and, instead, focus on one issue: replacing FPTP with PR.

One way that this could be approached would be for all opposition parties to put “replace FPTP with PR” into their manifestos. That wouldn’t work on its own, as votes would still be distributed according to FPTP, so greater collaboration by opposition parties would be required.

At the other end of the collaboration spectrum is the “Mythical PR Party”.

This would involve all opposition parties putting aside their various differences for (at least) one electoral cycle and forming a pact in the form of a ‘supra- party’ which only need to have two agreed manifesto promises/policies:

1. Replace FPTP with PR.
2. Call another election (which would then be held under the newly-installed PR system).

It might be the shortest parliament ever, but it would break the FPTP grip on UK politics.

Problems? Oh, there are always problems.


The first problem would be getting all of the opposition parties to sign up to the arrangement – you know how they have a tendency to bicker!
The second, and possibly greater, problem would be that some might argue for more than two manifesto items: “Oh, it has to be PR, an election and…

  • ·  …the environmental crisis.
  • ·  …austerity.
  • ·  …poverty.
  • ·  …homelessness.
  • ·  …the NHS.
  • ·  …chlorinated chicken.
  • ·  …whatever.

This misses the point entirely. All of those issues are incredibly important, yes; but none of them will properly be addressed until FPTP is replaced by PR – so replacing FPTP with PR has to come first. And it has to be the first step on its own, without confusion and cross-over/interference from any other issues.

The point here is that the Mythical PR Party’s existence would be intended to be short – it only need exist until…FPTP is replaced by PR. In theory all of this could happen in a matter of week or months.

The third problem, however, is perhaps the biggest: parties would have to agree on what format of PR to adopt in order to be able to be clear on that in the Mythical PR Party’s manifesto.

Types of PR system and their specific pros- and cons- is quite a large subject in itself and too large for appropriate treatment in an article like this, but fortunately, there’s plenty of information already available. A great source for further reading is the Electoral Reform Society’s website, here:

Last Words

Q: But we had a referendum on PR already and it was rejected!

A: One form of PR was offered, maybe not the best, in peoples’ opinion. Also, as we saw in 2016, referendums are probably not the best way to resolve deeply complex issues, and referendums can easily be swayed by negative (un- progressive) forces and vested interests.

If opposition parties are serious about wanting to resolve issues that are important to them (rather than to continue, by default, to accidentally promote the ideas of the Conservative Party, by losing to them) then they really have no credible option but to support PR; and that means doing whatever’s necessary to install a form of PR to replace FPTP.

Until opposition parties get behind this they’ll continue to be out of power, largely in parliaments where their votes can be ignored.

As is often said, it’s better to have a slice of the pie rather than to keep on trying to have all of the pie – but ending up with none of the pie. How many times do opposition parties hope that “finally, our day will come!” – and then find that they’re still irrelevant opposition parties – before realising that something bigger has to change before their important issues will ever be addressed?

The Mythical PR Party may seem like a ridiculous fantasy to many; but when compared with all of the ridiculous fantasies that have actually happened in UK politics recently it actually isn’t so fantastical at all.

Comments

  1. Sean Danaher -

    Totally agree. My preferred form is the single transferrable Vote (STV) as used in Ireland and some Scottish Elections. The Tories, of course, would never form a majority in Westminster under PR so will fight it tooth and nail.

  2. Samuel Johnson -

    The Irish feel about PR the way some Americans do about guns. They would resist any attempt to remove it.

    From an Irish perspective governance in the UK is antedeluvian and badly in need of reform (Ireland is only better, not perfect, but it improves steadily). The list of anachronisms is long, but FPTP prevents progress. Which is why some beneficiaries like it and will fight to keep it. It’s going to take a cataclysm. And, lo and behold, it looks as one might be on the cards.

  3. Ed Phillis -

    We have to hope that time is kind to us. I’ve lived in a few different countries and the UK system is utterly bizarre and totally antiquated. It seems only positively comparable to the US system which lives in almost permanent election mode. The UK is trying to copy it. The tories need routing because they are not going to change the system. They’re good at getting money and they’re demographic could not be stronger – a mix of angry underclass, the monied, the boomers, ‘white van man’, anyone outside of a city fundamentally. They’re demonization of the ‘left’ is highly effective. I can only see that the only hope is that younger people and the middle aged don’t follow the well trodden path of growing more reactionary as they get older. It could be that we are in an unfortunate doldrum where there are significant amounts of people in the 60+ age group who are pushing the debate rightward as never before. We have to hope that ‘internet generations’ are on the whole more progressive. Its not nice to wish an age group to collectively fall of their perches, but I suspect we won’t see change until they do. Besides that Scotland and NI shuffling off might make England have a long needed look at itself. That could be 5-10 years off though. Not much happening any time soon I suspect.

  4. Peter May -

    I think the PR coalition would have to make up its mind on the type of PR.It shouldn’t be difficult to decide on the Irish style STV which works in a society with an otherwise very similar legal system and which still manages to keep the constituency connection.
    Doing otherwise risks people voting a la Brexit and not being sure what they are voting for. I’m sure most would be no happier with the D’Hondt system for example, which seems to me to give the party, rather than the voter, too much power.

  5. juliet -

    I completely agree. FPTP is used where administrations want to project the illusion of democracy whilst maintaining a continuous (or seldom alternating) authoritarian regime.

  6. IR44 -

    I support this. But you can see what will happen: a rejuvenated Labour under a more centrist leader (Starmer presumably) will believe it has a real chance of winning again. So they are likely to offer to debate the issue…once they regain power under FPTP. It’s arguable now whether Labour can win a majority again such are the forces ranged by Conservatives, helpful boundary changes, very helpful media. How do we break that cycle?

  7. Frank Parker -

    The big stumbling block for STV in the UK has always been constituency size, especialy in rural areas. In ireland a population of less than 5 million has a Dail (House of Commons) of 160 members. So the 3, 4 or 5 member constituencies that STV requires are still relatively small. Combining 3 typical UK constituencies into a single one would create consituencies covering vast areas in places like Cumbria and the West Country.
    I’m not saying it can’t be done – I’ve been an advocate of the system all my adult life (nearly 60 years now!). But it’s a problem that has to be addressed.
    Even here in Ireland there is a strong tendency to vote for ‘our man’ (or woman) irrespective of party. After the recent election I heard many complaints that, in the constituency that contains it, Athlone (population ca 25k) “no longer has a representative”. Think about where you live and the 2 or 3 neighbouring constituencies. Some people might feel unrepresented if none of the 3 candidates elected were domiciled in their community. The response, of course, is that they are more likely to find at least one of the 3 MPs they now have will be sympathetic to their own political leanings.

  8. Tony -

    We never had a referendum on PR. The system we did have a referendum on was not PR. It was slightly better than FPTP, but it didn’t qualify as PR.

  9. David Turvey -

    There is a quicker way.
    #GeneralStrike please. In support of #ProportionalRepresentation and another Referendum on EU membership.

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