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Politics

What is proportional representation and why have Labour members voted for it?

The UK’s current system of first past the post has been criticised for making elections a two-party race. But what’s the alternative?

Labour party members have backed a move to put proportional representation in the party’s next election manifesto, a move that would dramatically change the UK’s democratic system. 

Cheers erupted around the room as the motion was passed, even though Keir Starmer has said he will ignore the vote and leave proportional representation out of the next election manifesto.

Campaigning branches of the Labour party have been calling for a switch to proportional representation for years, arguing it is both a fairer electoral system and one that would be beneficial when it comes to getting and keeping a Labour government in power. 

Regardless, the party will be forced to fight the next general election under the current first past the post system, which some say is necessary to keep extremist parties out of power.

What is proportional representation?

There are many ways to decide how many people from each political party sit in parliament. Proportional representation is based on the idea that the number of MPs for each party should be proportional to the total number of votes they get across the country. So a party that gets a third of the votes should get a third of the seats.

The Electoral Reform Society, an independent organisation, campaigns for the single transferable vote system, which gives voters the option to rank candidates in order of preference. This means that even if their first choice is eliminated, their choices in regards to the other candidates are still counted. 

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Does the UK use proportional representation?

No, the UK currently uses the first past the post system, often referred to as a winner takes all. In a single constituency, if you get 35 per cent of the votes, but the opposition gets 40 per cent, they get the seat and you get nothing.

The seat goes to the candidate who receives the highest percentage of votes even if they don’t get a majority. This happens regularly, such as when Labour candidate Glenda Jackson won her seat in Hampstead and Kilburn with only 32.8 per cent of the vote in 2010.

Under first past the post, if a party is able to win at least 50 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons (326 out of a total 650) then it gets to form a government and its leader becomes the prime minister. 

The UK has used first past the post since 1950 when the Representation of the People Act was introduced. The act mandated that each MP should represent a roughly equal population, and should be elected by a first past the post system.

Who supports proportional representation? 

Proportional representation is often favoured by smaller political parties as it lowers the barriers to entry and helps parties with fewer votes into power.

First past the post, on the other hand, encourages a two-party system that disproportionately favours the party with higher concentrations of supporters in specific areas.

If a smaller party has a substantial amount of support – say 10 per cent of the population, but they are spread out across the country, they will struggle to get any representation, as first past the post favours a concentration of one party voters in each constituency.

The Green Party has advocated replacing first past the post with proportional representation. The party won just a single seat in parliament in the 2015 election despite winning 3.8 per cent of the vote, which under the proportional representation system, would have given them 25 of the 650 seats in parliament. 

UKIP, too, won just one parliamentary seat in the 2015 election, despite receiving 3.9 million votes in total which would have given them a strong 83 seats in parliament, according to the BBC.  

“It’s promising to see Labour members vote overwhelmingly to join with the rest of Europe and embrace modern, fair and proportional elections in the UK”, said Green party deputy leader Zack Polanski.

“Two-party politics is long dead,” he continued. “We are in an era of multi-party politics, particularly for those who support progressive centre-left policies. It is in the interests of both Labour and the majority of the British public for their party to embrace PR.”

“If Keir Starmer does not listen to his members and back PR, it will leave him ensuring future Tory victories.”

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Why do people prefer first past the post? 

Critics of proportional representation argue that it forces coalitions by making it more difficult for a single party to gain a majority of seats in parliament. Under proportional representation, there would be a far greater mix of political parties represented in parliament, which for some, would be chaotic.

Under the first past the post, MPs serve the constituency they have campaigned in, and constituents are able to vote for the specific individual they want to represent them.

The link between an MP and the people they represent could be weakened under proportional representation, as an MP will not necessarily represent the area they have campaigned in. 

In some forms of proportional representation, once the votes are counted, each party is allocated the number of MPs representative of the votes they have won across the whole country, and then these MPs will be given areas to represent. In others, people are part of larger constituencies with multiple seats in parliament which are given to representatives of different parties according to the number of votes they receive. 

“Advocates of proportional representation, I don’t think they’ve ever adequately explained what they want to replace first past the post with, because there are all sorts of forms of PR,” journalist Ian Dale said on LBC. 

“Most systems of PR dilute the constituency link, which if you believe in parliamentary democracy and and you believe in representation of democracy, I think people want to know who their member of parliament is. They don’t want to live in a massive constituency with eight  or nine different representatives”, he continued. 

Dale argued that if a constituency is represented by three MPs, elected according to proportional representation, they will represent the interests of those who voted for them, as opposed to the views of all of their constituents regardless of party allegiance as is supposed to be the case under the current system. 

There is also the concern that proportional representation could give representation to extremist parties on the far left or far right. 

Despite the vote to ditch first past the post at the Labour party conference, Keir Starmer has said that the move is “not a priority” under his leadership.

He told the Observer: “There are a lot of people in the Labour party who are pro-PR but it’s not a priority and we go into the next election under the same system that we’ve got, first-past-the-post, and I’m not doing any deals going into the election or coming out of the election.” 

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