Geoffrey M. Hodgson
“Bliss was that dawn to be alive.” With Labour’s landslide victory under Tony Blair, the general election of 1st May 1997 ended eighteen years of Tory rule.
The new government set out to implement a series of major reforms, including establishing devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales, setting a statutory minimum wage, and injecting much-needed money into the education system and the NHS.
After winning two further elections with large majorities – in 2001 and 2005 – Labour’s period of office came to an end on 5th May 2010, when the Conservatives became the biggest party in Parliament. The Liberal Democrats made the mistake of entering into a coalition with the Tories, and paid the price when they lost most of their MPs in 2015.
So began a period of Tory rule that now seems that it could last for decades. But the Tories rule with the support of less than 50 per cent of the voters. If Blair had implemented electoral reform, then what might have happened instead?
Ending “division among the radicals”
Until the day of polling in May 1997, when the scale of his majority became clear, Tony Blair had considered a coalition with the Liberal Democrats after the election, He had negotiated with Paddy Ashdown (the leader of the Liberal Democrats) with that possibility in mind. But once Blair’s overwhelming victory was apparent, a coalition with the Liberal Democrats seemed unnecessary.
But Blair still wanted to cooperate with the Liberal Democrats on several issues, including on electoral reform. He insisted that the two parties were natural allies, and they should not have gone their separate ways a hundred years earlier. In his first speech to a Labour conference after his landslide election victory, Blair declared:
“my heroes aren’t just Ernie Bevin, Nye Bevan and Attlee. They are also Keynes, Beveridge, Lloyd George. Division among radicals almost one hundred years ago resulted in a 20th century dominated by Conservatives. I want the 21st century to be the century of the radicals.”
By “division among the radicals” Blair referred to the 1900 decision to set up a party in parliament independent of the Liberals. Blair wished to reverse that mistake and install an enduring radical majority.
Labour’s 1997 promise of electoral reform
Blair wanted Labour and the Liberal Democrats to work together for progressive change, and, if possible, to exclude permanently the Tories from government, at least until they were forced to modernise and to abandon their reactionary, inward-looking nationalism.
“We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system.”
After the election, Blair continued his secret talks with Ashdown on co-operation between their two parties, including on the issue of electoral reform.
But what voting system should be chosen?
One problem was that the two parties found it difficult to agree on what “a proportional alternative” might mean. But a possible compromise emerged with a top-up system called “AV+”.
In addition, under AV+, each voter would get a second vote to elect a regional-level representative from a list of candidates for each party. An additional group of MPs would be elected via this route. This “top up” would ensure greater proportionality in Parliament.
Some people dislike AV+ because it creates two types of MP, with not all of them being responsible for a manageable constituency. In addition, AV+ does not satisfy purists who want a more proportional system.
Division of Labour
But the biggest problem with Blair’s strategy for long-term reform was Labour itself.
While leading figures in his Cabinet such as Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam, Clare Short and Peter Mandelson supported electoral reform, Blair faced the implacable opposition of Chancellor Gordon Brown, Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State John Prescott, Home Secretary Jack Straw, numerous trade union leaders and an energetic campaign against proportional representation from Labour’s ranks.
Reasons for this opposition to electoral reform within Labour were numerous. But perhaps the most enduring argument was that Labour saw itself as a party committed to radical change in favour of working people, which was bound to meet fierce opposition from rich vested interests and the reactionary press.
I can speak with a little authority here, because this was once my own major objection to proportional representation (PR). As loyal and active Labour party members, Peter Hain and I published a booklet in 1982 entitled Proportional Misrepresentation?
We argued that PR would favour parties of the centre, against parties like Labour who represented working people and were committed to radical change. The advantage of the existing system was that Labour could gain power and show piecemeal and in practice how socialist measures could work.
Although we were against PR, Peter and I argued for a change to the alternative vote (AV), without a top-up element. A few years’ later, Peter suggested that we develop our pamphlet into a book.
Thatcher in power
But this was after six years of Margaret Thatcher in power. Her Tory Party had won an overall majorities in 1979 and 1983, in both cases with less than 44 per cent of the vote. After 1983 I came to the view that Labour could not win the next election and the Tories could be power for about 15 years.1
Just as the existing electoral system might be used by a left party for radical reform, it was being used by a newly-radicalised Tory party to divide the country, to undermine the welfare state and to attack the rights of working people.
I had developed serious doubts about our 1982 arguments. So I declined Peter’s kind offer and he published the book in 1986 under his own name, fully acknowledging our previous joint arguments.
Others developed concerns similar to mine, especially as the years passed and the Tories remained in power with minority support. All this gave the impetus for Blair and others to push for PR in Labour’s 1997 manifesto.
But elements of Labour’s class-based tribalism remained strong, as did commitment to an ever-vague promise of something called “socialism” that only a majority Labour government could deliver. Hence Labour internally remained deeply divided on this issue, as it does to this day.
The Jenkins Commission
In December 1997, in line with the manifesto commitment, Blair set up a parliamentary commission under Lord Roy Jenkins, the former Labour minister and then Liberal Democrat peer. The Jenkins Commission would recommend which particular proportional system should be put before voters in a referendum.
The Jenkins Commission reported in September 1998 and suggested the alternative vote top-up (AV+) system. Blair immediately faced intense opposition, from within his own Cabinet, from a large number of Labour MPs, from a large section of the Labour Party in the country, and from several trade unions.
In 1997 Labour came to power with 43 per cent of the vote but won 63 per cent of the parliamentary seats. Any significant move toward greater proportionality would have deprived one hundred or more Labour MPs of their seats. Over one hundred turkeys would have to have voted for Christmas. The political barriers to this reform seemed unsurmountable. The recommendations of the Jenkins Commission were kicked into the long grass.
Several other attempts were taken to revive the project of electoral reform under the 1997-2010 Labour Government. Labour promised a review of the voting system in its 2001 manifesto. In 2003, talks were held between Labour and the Liberal Democrats on electoral reform.
But by 2010, under the new premiership of Gordon Brown, Labour retreated from its earlier promise of moving toward proportionality. Instead, Brown promised a referendum on the alternative vote (AV) without any top-up element. The Jenkins Commission had previously taken the view that such a minor change would not merit a referendum.
In fact, a referendum on AV was held in 2011, under the coalition government. The proposal was defeated by a large majority. This demonstrated the problem of convincing the public of the merit if a more complex system, which cannot be explained easily in one or two sentences. I raise this issue later below.
An alternative future
First we consider what might have happened if the more-proportional system of AV+ had been introduced sometime between 1997 and 2010.
In the 2010 election Tories got 36 per cent of the vote, Labour got 29 per cent and the Liberal Democrats 23 per cent. Under the existing voting system they got 306 seats, 258 seats, and 57 seats respectively. Under a more proportional system they would have got something like 255 seats, 204 seats and 162 seats respectively
Under the existing electoral system, a 2010 coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats would have had 315 seats, which is well short of an overall majority in a parliament of 650 seats. It would have been a minority coalition government, or other parties would have had to been involved. This was a significant obstacle, which played a part in scuppering any 2010 deal between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
But if a more proportional system had been in place in 2010, then a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats would have had something like 366 seats, which would have been a clear overall majority. The Tories could have been kept out of power.
Furthermore, Labour would have been obliged to cooperate with a centrist party, giving weight and prestige to its more moderate wing. Sure enough, there would have been protest on the left, led by a Jeremy Corbyn or a John McDonnell, but they would have probably been kept away from Labour’s levers of power.
As the years followed, all sorts of alternative scenarios might have then unfolded. But a referendum on Brexit would have been unlikely, or it would have taken place under conditions more favourable to the Remain campaign.
In short, if the electoral system had been changed in this way before 2010, then we would not be in this mess that we are now. We could still be on the road to a progressive future, rather than fighting a desperate battle against intolerant bigots and nationalists, who would drive the UK economy off a cliff to satisfy an anti-immigration sentiment fed by years of economic failure.
Winning the battle for electoral reform
Electoral reform is highly unlikely under a Tory government and hence the first objective must be to remove the Conservatives from power. This will require a progressive alliance of Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens, which at present does not seem feasible. Also the Tories might remain in power for some time.
But a tiny consolation of this dismal entrapment is the time it gives us to debate the best system, which would offer something closer to proportionality, and would have a chance of convincing the electorate.
Some kind of top-up system based on 400-500 single-member constituencies, topped up with a further 100-200 MPs elected from party lists, seems the best way forward. It is a possible compromise that the parties involved can accept, and it is understandable by the public.
But I have now come to the view that the use of AV to elect the MPs for the single-member constituencies is both intrinsically flawed and difficult to explain to the electorate. A better and easier-to-explain alternative exists.
There were several reasons why the AV referendum was lost in 2011, including the fact that many prominent figures in the Labour Party openly opposed it. Another was the complexity of AV itself. As Tom Clark wrote in the Guardian:
“Leaflets from the electoral commission, which were designed to explain what the reform would mean to every household with meticulous neutrality, ended up making AV look horrendously complex. The blurb summed up first-past-the-post in just three sentences, while describing AV with an excessively complex example election, which required three diagrams and text that spilled over four pages.”
A further problem is that AV itself, even if it can be explained to the public, has serious intrinsic flaws.
Why AV is flawed
The alternative vote (AV) is widely criticised by experts on voting systems. We are concerned with systems designed to elect one person, from a list of candidates, to a single position or seat.
Consider an example of a mayoral election with three candidates Ms Left, Ms Centre and Ms Right. Both Ms Left and Ms Right are pretty extreme, and the electorate is polarised. An AV systems is employed and the candidates get the following first-preference votes: Left 33 per cent, Centre 31 per cent and Right 36 per cent. Under the AV system Ms Centre would be eliminated and her second preferences would be allocated to Left or Right. One of the more extreme candidates would win, in a run-off between Left and Right.
Nicolas de Condorcet
But imagine a local newspaper had run an extensive poll which showed that if there had been a run-off between Centre and Right, then Centre would have won. And if there had been a run-off between Centre and Left, then Centre again would have won. In other words, a majority in all cases preferred Ms Centre to any of the extremes.
Technically this is known as a Condorcet winner – a person who would win all two-candidate elections against each of the other candidates in turn.2 A serious problem with AV is that it can often eliminate a Condorcet winner. More generally, a major problem with AV is that it can often militate against strong and popular compromise candidates.
Why Approval Voting is better than AV
If there were (say) four candidates for a parliamentary seat, then the electors may vote (with crosses rather than numbers) for zero, one, two, three or four of the candidates. The votes for each candidate are added up, and the candidate with the highest number of votes is elected. Simple.
Of course, an elector voting for none or four of the candidates in this case would have no effect on the result, except he or she would be helping to give an overall indication of the overall level of approval (or lack of it) for each candidate.
As well as its technical superiority, a huge advantage of approval voting is that it is much easier to explain and to understand.
My proposal is for an approval voting system for single-member constituencies, plus a party-list top-up in regional units, to move closer to proportionality. I propose Approval+.
Rising above the technical details, a lot is at stake here. If a more proportional system had been introduced in 1997-2010 then we could have avoided the disastrous prospect of decades of Tory rule, elected each time on 40 per cent or less of the vote.
When asked, the UK public support a more proportional system. A 2015 poll showed that 57 per cent of the public agreed with the principle that “the number of seats a party gets should broadly reflect its proportion of the total votes cast” – compared to only 9 per cent who disagreed.
We need to think about the best and most persuasive system of electoral reform, and set about the task of building a progressive alliance to implement it.
17 April 2017
Minor edits – 18 April, 1, 13, 14 May, 6 June, 14 July, 12 August, 3 September 2017
1. I turned out to be too optimistic: the Tories were in power for 18 years. Using a statistical analysis, I developed my sceptical 1980s view of Labour’s chances while I was on the ruling council of the Labour Coordinating Committee. My assessment was unpopular among budding, ambitious Labour politicians.
2. Nicolas de Condorcet (1743-1794) was a French revolutionary, mathematician, advocate of female suffrage and friend of Thomas Paine.
3. This is a very useful but long video. To cut straight to Approval Voting, the first 36 minutes may be skipped.
Hain, Peter and Hodgson, Geoff (1982) Proportional Misrepresentation? (London and Nottingham: Tribune and Institute for Workers Control).
Hain, Peter (1986) Proportional Misrepresentation: The Case against PR in Britain (Guildford: Wildwood House).