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Labour’s PR Dilemma

Stuart Donald

Labour’s victory in the Rutherglen by-election could not have a been better launch pad for their final party conference before the General Election. It teed them up perfectly to deliver their ultimate set-piece rally, to go on, rout the Tories, sweep to power and bring social justice in the UK back to the standards of our European peers. New Labour 2.0. But new research, covering the last 40 years, shows that this is a false promise. Even if Starmer achieves the majorities and the longevity of his predecessors, he will have next to no chance of achieving this goal. That’s because New Labour did not get close either.

Labour MPs are already well-drilled in trotting out soundbites attributing all and every woe suffered by the UK to the last 13 years of Tory rule. They let you believe that all was ok back in 2010 under the Labour government that had exorcised the 18 year evil of Thatcherism. But the new research shows that, when you compare the UK with its closest European peers, the last 40 yrs have largely been one, unbroken continuum of ever-increasing inequality. New Labour trumpeted the ‘millions’ they lifted out of poverty through increased benefits, but there was little in the way of lasting Labour legacy to counter a return to misery when the Tories unleashed austerity. Instead, the most powerful European ‘social democratic’ government since WWII, came and went without making any medium- or long-term impact on the UK’s main well-being stats, compared to peers; inferior life expectancy for young and old, poorer cancer survival and increasingly higher child mortality rates. This is largely because they were simply too grippy. They’ll tell you they spent more than the Tories but they’ll omit to note that this was less – whether per head or as a % of GDP – for Health and Welfare budgets than any of their comparable peers, each year they were in power. They won’t tell you that these peers were mostly centre or centre-right governments either. Nor will they tell you that in 2006, they oversaw the UK’s supplanting Ireland as the state with the highest rate of child mortality of all peers. And they are even less likely to disclose that in 2007, they allowed the income share of the UK’s wealthiest 1% to increase to 15% of all income earned, their highest share since the 1930s and miles above peer levels. Despite all this, Starmer is already warning us that since they are not blessed with a booming economy like Blair in 1997, there will be no hike in public investment beyond current Tory spending levels.

How can it be that with 3 back-to-back majorities, 13 consecutive years in power and a booming economy, Labour failed to make a game changing impact on the UK’s quality of life relative to peers? There is one major reason; fear of losing power. If they’d raised public spending even to peer average levels, they’d instantly have lost the trust of key voters and become unelectable. Look what happened in 2019 when Labour’s manifesto pledged to increase public spending to around 43% of GDP up from 40% under the Tories; it was reported and consumed as the work of socialist zealotry across the UK. But across the North Sea, Angela Merkel’s centre-right CDU, was leading a coalition that was spending 44% of GDP in Germany (needless to say, Germany massively out-performs the UK on all equality metrics) and even that was below the European peer average (46%).

This all happens because of our First-Past-the-Post electoral system. Its design ensures that getting to and staying in power is all about wooing a vast swathe of voters with one thing in common – those who believe they have something to lose; taxable income or assets, property, land, voters that share a desire that governments simply leave them alone. These are ‘default’ Tory voters but every 4 elections or so, when tired of the home team, they are prepared to vote Labour, provided it can be trusted with the Treasury’s purse strings. It is this adherence to fiscal thrift, across Tory and Labour governments alike, that has slashed income re-distribution and in turn pushed inequality in the UK through the roof since 1980. Meanwhile, the data shows that governments in PR countries are far less miserly, and thus have far lower inequality as well as far higher standards of living. The moderating, compromising character of PR systems, even with long spells of right of centre governments at the helm, seem to ensure that voters behave more altruistically.

So, if all this is known, why is PR not front and centre in Labour’s plans? I mean, as the only progressive party likely to win a majority at a UK level, the pursuit of social justice is their raison d’être is it not? Surprisingly, they have long been the only social democratic party in the world not to support PR. As it happens today, they are certainly closer than they’ve ever been. In 2022, the Labour conference voted to enshrine PR into their constitution, backed for the first time by the major Unions. But their historic reticence is rooted in the parliamentary party. Even today, around ½ of current Labour MPs publicly still pay lip-service to ever more tired sounding pro-FPTP arguments, masking private agendas of careerism and other conflicts of interest; they know that ending winner-takes-all will result in dozens of them losing their ‘safe’ seats, party plurality will eventually break up the two party system denying Labour its privileged position as ‘guaranteed’ opposition and worst of all for many, PR will inevitably result in the break-up of the old Labour church itself. Then there is Starmer; is he prepared to risk a once-in-lifetime shot at single party majority rule for two, maybe three terms, by putting in place PR based on the above? Blair even had a written commitment to PR in his 1997 manifesto but in the euphoria of his landslide victory, that particular promise was conveniently forgotten…

Even if the parliamentary Labour party come to support PR, it will take many years to deliver; endless wrangling over which type of PR, whether we need a referendum, all the work to look at and set up the new constituency boundaries. All this has to co-exist with the unsettled, pro-establishment press that will doubtless be bellowing about getting on with the ‘day job’. And then there is the formidable wealth and power of the UK establishment itself. Make no mistake, it will be quick to clock PR as a massive threat to the status quo and will use all their media and financial muscle to prevent it. It will make their campaigns for the AV and EU referendums look like spats over who gets to run the local church fete.

So, the pressure is on for ‘Labour for a new democracy’, the party’s leading pro-PR lobby. They held an enthusiastic fringe event on the opening night of the 2023 Conference, as they try to will PR to the top of Starmer’s policy agenda; they know it’s a long shot. They were also reminded by Paul Sweeney MSP of another consequence of failure to deliver electoral reform: the break-up of the Union. Sweeney is spot on here since, at some point, as inequality continues to grind, Scotland will realise it has the solution right under its nose; a fully-fledged PR devolved plurality, now with 25-years under its belt. On that day, the constitutional debate may take on a whole new life…

Stuart Donald is a campaigner for Proportional Representation. His website is at https://www.sdonald4pr.com

3 thoughts on “Labour’s PR Dilemma”

  1. John Reardon

    Excellent article and worth referring to on the day that Labour wins two by-elections from the Tories in England. I seriously struggle to see the road to PR being adopted for UK elections unless we have some sort of unique series of events that New Zealand experienced in the 1990s that lead to a breakdown the political system, but even now we can see how durable it is underneath. Thanks for producing this. It demands wider circulation.

  2. If the majority of the population remains willing to support the continuation of the current political and economic set-up, changing to PR will not change anything. Indeed, it is more likely that a radical socialist government could win power on 40% of the vote under FPTP than under a PR system – so changing to PR may not deliver the change we need.

    That said, I support changing to the Single Transferable Vote system for elections – though not, technically, a PR system, it tends to produce quite proportional results in practice. It also comes with the advantage that the system empowers voters rather than empowers Parties (as is the case with most Party List forms of PR).

  3. A large part of the problem is the domination of the press by the far right, especially the Daily Mail. The rich owners and editors, like Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre, use their power to manipulate public opinion.

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