Electoral reform is back on the agenda. As delegates gather this weekend for the annual Labor conference, calls to change the general election voting system topped the list among local Labor parties for the second year in a row, while trade unions traditionally skeptics such as Unison and Unite now also support a change in Westminster Voting Rules.
The winds of change are also blowing beyond the margins of the conference. UK data on social attitudes collected last year and released this week shows the first public majority for electoral reform in the survey’s 40-year history. Just over half of voters now support changing the electoral system, up more than 20 points since the AV referendum was held a decade ago. Support for change among Labor voters has more than doubled in a decade, from 27% to 61%.
With calls to change the rules growing louder from members, unions and voters, there will be strong pressure for the Labor leadership to embrace the cause of reform. The arguments for this are strong: moving to a more proportional electoral system will make British democracy fairer, healthier and more responsive to the priorities of progressive voters.
First-past-the-post voting involves a fair race with a fixed victory line. But the winning post is not fixed and the race is not fair. Sir John Curtice’s analysis suggests that the system is now more skewed in favor of the Conservatives than at any time since the 1950s, when the The Conservatives have won two elections despite losing the popular vote. If Labor and Conservative voting shares were equal in the next election, the Tories would return 23 more MPs than Labour. The Conservatives need a 5 point lead to secure a majority in the House of Commons; for Labour, the lead must be at least 12 points. The Conservatives could lose the popular vote in 2024 by a wide margin, but return for a fifth term in government with a majority.
This bias is not due to gerrymandering or political machination. It stems primarily from differences in the distribution of party voters across the country, differences that have been deepening for many years and are unlikely to reverse in the near future. Labour-leaning groups tend to cluster in seats that therefore offer massive Labor majorities, while Conservative voters are more evenly split among fringe seats. This increases the influence of conservative-leaning groups while marginalizing labor-leaning groups that congregate in safe seats. Unfair rules give voters unequal votes.
Changing the rules can redress the balance, give voters a more equal voice and produce governments that are more consistently responsive to their concerns. Voters notice and react to these effects. Citizens living in countries with more proportional electoral systems are more politically engaged and participate more in elections, which they see as fairer competitions where their opinions are better represented. Voters in these countries are more satisfied with election results and democracy in general. Proportional systems, in short, provide healthier democracies with happier voters. Electoral reform would be a powerful tonic for a British political system battered and scarred by a decade of division, mistrust and disengagement.
Proportional systems do more than provide a fairer process. They also offer better results. Countries with more proportional voting systems overturn more leftist governments, producing more leftist political results, more often, on more issues. Voters who want to see more action on climate change, greater redistribution to the poor, more investment in public services, stronger union rights or a more robust welfare state have everything to gain by walking away from an electoral system that thwarts all of these things to one that facilitates them.
Countries do not often change their election rules. New Zealand, which abandoned the single-member post in 1996, offers a rare opportunity to see the effects of change in action. The Kiwis have moved to a mixed member proportional system, which maintains the link between MPs and constituencies, while providing “top-up” seats to ensure fair representation for all parties. The change worked. Governments have become more representative and responsive. Smaller parties, especially the Greens, now have a bigger voice and are more involved in government. Kiwi voters have become more satisfied with democracy and its results, and more confident in politicians. They backed their new voting system by an overwhelming margin in a 2011 referendum.
But perhaps the biggest winners from reform have been the New Zealand Labor Party. Having governed only a quarter of the time in the 50 years before the reform, the Labor Party has led New Zealand governments more than half the time since the change. The most recent elections of 2020 offered a landslide victory to the Labor government of Jacinda Ardern. The New Zealand Labor Party thrived in a democracy reinvigorated by electoral reform. The Kiwi lesson for Keir Starmer is clear: a change in the rules is a change that pays off.