Westminster’s political system pits progressives against each other. Labour’s next leader must back an electoral overhaul

The Greens stand ready to work as part of a truly progressive alliance. Image credit: LabourList

The starting gun has been fired, and six candidates will now try to convince fellow MPs, unions and party members that they are best placed to effectively oppose the Johnson government and lead the Labour Party to electoral victory.

But before any of them get anywhere near the seat of power they will need not only to persuade the public but end tribal politics, embrace cooperative working and back a fair and proportional electoral system. 

Our iniquitous first-past-the-post electoral system has delivered yet another election result where most votes were wasted and mass tactical voting concealed most people’s true preference. Although those who voted for non-Tory parties formed the majority, they were the losers.

Comparing vote share and seats won brings home the scale of the injustice inherent in our electoral system. The Tory vote grew by just 1.2% compared to their 2017 result but they gained 48 extra seats.

Meanwhile, the Green vote increased by 65% –  the largest increase of any party – but no extra seats were won. This means close to a million votes elected just one Green MP, while on average only 38,000 votes were needed to elect each Tory MP. Also worthy of note is the fact the SNP won 48 seats with just 1% more of the national vote than the Greens.

All democratic systems create advantages and disadvantages, but in few other countries does the electoral system ensure that most voters are not represented.

This is nothing new. Conservative and Labour politicians have been exploiting our majoritarian electoral system for decades. But in 2019 this system began to backfire on Labour, where the party required 51,000 votes per MP elected.

This, and the fact that this was the fourth loss for Labour, must be a rude wakeup call. Labour have become gradually weaker since Tony Blair’s triumphant election victory in 1997.

So how did Labour manage to buck the electoral system that time?

There was considerable policy discussion between Blair and Paddy Ashdown, who was leader of the Liberal Democrats at the time. Strategic cooperation enabled the Lib Dems to take seats that could never be won by Labour – especially in the South West, while Lib Dem voters were encouraged to vote tactically for Labour elsewhere.

The key prize was constitutional reform, but Labour’s manifesto promise, to switch to a fair voting system, was delegated to the Jenkins Commission that was then ignored. Meanwhile, Labour folklorists painted this election as a triumphant lone victory.

As the third party, the Liberal Democrats have had to go through extraordinary contortions to gain a sniff of power. The story here is again a response to the electoral system, with the party surging in support under Clegg in 2010 but destined not to achieve the share of seats their electoral support merited. So they were forced to deal with the Tories from a position of weakness and caved on both tuition fees and a shift to PR, settling instead for a referendum on a non-proportional system that was then lost.

In 2017, Greens worked hard to achieve electoral cooperation, standing aside in some seats and dialling down our campaigns where Labour were vulnerable. Although this helped to undermine the Tory majority it was a kamikaze strategy for the party: we lost half our votes and faced mockery from Labour activists.

Unite to Remain – an electoral agreement in 2019 between the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru – was similarly shunned by Labour, who continued campaigning in seats like Cheltenham where a Liberal Democrat victory would otherwise have been achievable. 

For those of us who were trying so desperately to persuade Labour to cooperate in this most vital general election, it was deeply disappointing that they preferred to buy into the delusion that somehow they could win and win alone if they just believed hard enough. Narratives matter in politics; but hard facts matter more. And the hardest fact is that it is a very long time since Labour won an election without support from other parties.

No electoral system is perfect, but the UK is unusual in accepting a system designed to create an unrepresentative outcome. In our so-called democracy it is not any party; any group of voters or special interest that dominates, but first past the post itself.

The UK has suffered distorted electoral outcomes for too long. We desperately need all six Labour leadership candidates to embrace a system that genuinely facilitates democratic choices. And cooperating with other progressive parties to ensure this happens will be vital if Labour is ever to have a chance of taking back control from the Tories.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England.

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32 Responses to “Westminster’s political system pits progressives against each other. Labour’s next leader must back an electoral overhaul”

  1. Joe

    We had a referendum on electoral reform. The people decided to keep FPTP.

    Do Labour MPs intend to force this through against the people’s wishes if they get power?

  2. Labour's Filthy Hospitals

    “Although those who voted for non-Tory parties formed the majority, they were the losers.”

    Christ the left is thick.

    68% voted for non-Labour parties, 89% voted for non-LD parties, 97% voted for non-ecofascist parties and 98% voted for non-BXP parties.

    Only 56% voted for non-Tory parties. I’d call that a solid Tory victory.

    And anyway, who is so stupid as to think that changing the voting system won’t also change the votes? Hundreds of thousand of Tories don’t currently vote in safe Labour and safe Tory seats. What happens to vote shares when they do? When the Tories get 55% you’ll start bleating for a different system again.

    And what is fairer about a system where the voter has no idea what policies the government will enact because the government will be a coalition based on horse trading?

    This is all about losers wanting to gerrymander the vote so they can steal elections.

  3. Ronald Olden

    The Greens are always trying to parasite off the back of Labour. It they want an ‘alliance’ with Labour join the party.

    The Labour Party isn’t interested in an ‘alliance’ with fascists. The Lib Dems did it with Plaid Cymru and the Greens in Wales in the recent election. And it was an unmitigated disaster.

    Being associated with the Greens would contaminate Labour’s brand.

  4. steve

    Ronold Olden: “Being associated with the Greens would contaminate Labour’s brand.”

    The LP has been soiling its owns nest for four years.

    Instead of presenting an alternative to the Tories, the PLP has been focused on overturning the result of the Leave referendum and on destroying the democratically elected Labour Party leader.

    Democracy, it seems, is not good enough for todays entitled Labour MPs. And you thought the electorate would be to stupid to notice.

    You had your chance with Corbyn and you blew it. It’s game over for Labour.

  5. john zims

    After the shambles of a hung parliament 2017 – 19 who in hell wants this on a permanent basis, just the perpetual losers like the Lib Dems & Greens.

    Anyway we had a referendum and changing the voting system was rejected by a massive majority.
    Raise the issue again in 20 years.

  6. Eric Walker

    Well Well! First I knew that I had joined a fascist ( Green) party. Haven’t noticed many jackboots around in rural Suffolk. No seriously, it is obvious that non of the previous replyers are Labour members. For myself I would be agreeably surprised if any of the present contenders for the crown would support electoral co-operation. I can understand hesitation about co-operation with the LibDems who supported wholeheartedly austerity measures ( Jo Swinson) and privatised the Royal Mail ( Vince Cable). but I would really like to hear from some member of Brighton Labour Party on why they decided to stand a candidate against Caroline Lucas and so remove her from Parliament. Is there any Brighton member reading this who feels like saying something?

  7. Labour's Filthy Hospitals

    Eric, you don’t get it. Labour hates the rest of the left worse than it hates the actual right. If you define yourself by your hatreds this is what happens.

    Labour stand against Green candidates because they hate them. They truly hate them, like they hate Jews, Conservative-supporting Muslims, farmers, high earners, home owners, drivers, savers, private enterprise, private property, private schools, private pensions, taxpayers, etc etc.

  8. Michael McManus

    Whatever progressive means, the Greens are not it.
    They want to force us to change everything about our lives : what we eat and wear, what we heat our homes with, how we travel and where to – not work that’s for sure when manufacturing ceases. Some say they are the rebirth of puritanism but I think they are older version of those ghastly bossy boots kids who made school a pain.
    If technologists got the same money that alarmists faux-academics got, there’d be solutions in no time and plenty of work to do too.
    They are also hypocrites taking planes and skiing breaks. (Apt that actors are among them, hypocrite being the ancient Greek word for actor, someone who doesn’t mean what they say).
    If you want to know what a green future looks like, look at the Australian fires: green policies have stopped clearance of combustible dead wood, fined farmers who used controlled burning to protect their crops and land, and put bollards and locked gates on pathways that prevented firefighting machines from getting access. Wilderness policy is destructive of the very thing it seeks to preserve.
    Looking for allies betokens weakness. renewal and rethink is called for, not easy, dodgy friends.

  9. Steven

    Joe says we had a referendum on electoral reform. He is technically entirely correct to state that fact. He also says the people decided to keep FPTP. Again, that is right. However, the referendum ‘offered’ a ridiculous ‘choice’ between retaining First Past The Post and changing to a NON PROPORTIONAL PREFERENTIAL voting system called the Alternative Vote. Thus, this referendum was a complete farce which contemptuously ignored the reason so many people don’t approve of the FPTP system ie the fact there is not a sufficiently close match between the number of votes a party has and its total seats in the House of Commons.

    It was NO reason ringing endorsement of FPTP in that the MAJORITY of people recognised it for the farce and avoidance of the real issue that it was and DID NOT vote in the referendum.

    I voted in the referendum but deliberately spoilt the ballot paper by scrawling PR wanted now and some rather rude words. I was not going to endorse EITHER of the very flawed systems on offer. The ‘choice’ between them was like that one presented to some Death Row inmates in the USA ie do you wish to die by a lethal injection or have your life ended by the electric chair?

    It is high time this country became a REAL democracy where seats in parliament have a close correlation with votes.

  10. Steven

    Labour’s Filthy hospitals, I am no Labour supporter but you are completely wrong to say the Labour Party hates Jews. They are NOT ‘anti-semitic’ at all. Some Labour Party figures have said less than 100% complimentary things about the state of Israel and how it behaves sometimes with regard to Palestinians. I’m afraid you have allowed yourself to be taken-in by the vicious smear campaign by Jew Zionist pro-Israel fanatics like the Board of Deputies and the wholly misnamed ‘ Campaign Against Anti-Semitism.

  11. steve


    The Labour Party, with its PLP packed with Blairites, will never cooperate with the Greens.

    The supports nuclear power. The LP supports the renewal of Trident. The LP supports the military-industrial complex. The LP supports NATO. There was a written commitment to all of these policies in the 2019 manifesto. This is incompatible with the GP position.

    Only when the LP introduces Open Selections (MPs compelled to submit to reselection at every parliamentary election) will the LP begin to reflect those it hopes to represent.

    And there’s not much chance of that. As happened already over reelections and the referendum result, the Blairites will fight tooth and nail against democracy.

  12. Steven

    The referendum in 2011 offered the electorate NO POSSIBLE option to approve of a move to Proportional Representation and thus the FPTP option got a very easy ride with no real competition provided to the existing blatantly rigged and profoundly undemocratic system by having as the ONLY other option the very flawed Alternative Vote system which is probably the only other electoral system in the world that FPTP can win against.

    So, we had a rigged referendum designed from the word go to protect the existence of an inherently rigged and unfair electoral system. Well, that rather sums-up politics in this country, does it not?

    Is it really any wonder why so many people are so cynical about politics in Britain?

  13. Steven

    Forgive me if I am wrong about this but the fact is Joe seems to be a Tory who, contrary to that party’s normal stance, is an advocate of a plebiscitory direct democracy rather than a parliamentary one. Normal service has been resumed after the Brexit referendum and thus if the Labour Party were to put in a pledge in a future election manifesto to change FPTP to a PR system without holding a referendum won an election on that basis they would be within their rights to do that.

    If the electorate opposed that manifesto commitment then they need not vote Labour. Labour would have a mandate to introduce a PR system after winning a general election with that commitment in their manifesto.

    Don’t approve of PR? That is fine but if that is the case then only vote for the Tories who have an abiding contempt for PR and won’t let the people of this country choose a PR system even by the means of a referendum let alone by their having a manifesto commitment to legislate for a PR system to be introduced.

  14. Tom Watson ex MP

    So funnily enough the Greens want one electoral system, the Lib Dems wanted another, and Labour wants another one, again except when winning, at which point it does nothing. All these systems are the one true fair system.

    So very Labour.

    By the way all, just to be clear, when we say “Zionist” we all mean “yid”, right?

  15. Steven

    At any rate, a time period of nearly a decade has elapsed since that farcical referendum and as the First Past The Post system continues to misrepresent how people actually vote by failing to provide a sufficiently close match between the numbers of seats a party has in the House of Commons and its vote share in the country then this question should be revisited. Electoral mandates in referendums are not pickled in aspic for all time.

  16. Steven

    Tom Watson ex MP, you are wrong to equate anti-Zionism with anti-semitism not least for the fact that you don’t have to be ethnically Jewish to be a Zionist and some Jews are anti-Zionist ie many of the Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews living in Stamford Hill in Hackney.

  17. Steven

    Sadly, the media didn’t report the fact the Union of Orthodox Congregations in Britain condemned Rabbi Mirvis of the Board of Deputies for his intemperate and untrue remarks during that farcical election campaign. I wonder why they didn’t?

  18. Elizabeth Chell

    For those of us living in a blue part of the country, electorally speaking, FPTP makes no sense. There are many parts of the country where people similarly are disenfranchised and where some sort of transferable voting system would make electoral sense. FPTP is totally undemocratic & the sooner both Tories & Labour admit to it & agree changes the better. One good thing about the European Parliamentary system is that there is far more cross party cross country debate and decision-making. We should get into the 21st century & reform our political system.

  19. Steven

    There is no need for any transferable voting system (ranked ballots are more appropriate for electing a President as many countries use or Mayors of cities etc) but there is for the voters to have votes which have roughly the same value to them no matter where in the country they are cast or for whatever party. A fundamental and INHERENT inequality in the value of people’s votes festers like a bad odour at the VERY HEART of this archaic electoral system and that MUST END or we will see an even further rise in dangerous political disillusionment and our politics will be continue to be dysfunctional beyond belief. Put simply, Britain can’t have normal politics whilst we continue with this unfair system.

    My preference would be to adopt a system like Germany’s Mixed-Member Proportional Representation system but with one important improvement ie instead of having ‘closed’ regional lists have flexible ‘open’ ones where voters can either endorse their favourite party’s list of candidates as a whole OR vote for an individual candidate within that favourite party list thus being able to move a candidate up the list and override that party’s pre-election order.

    That should answer the main objection to party lists. This was meant to have happened to reform the Scottish Parliament’s electoral system but sadly hasn’t so far.

  20. Michael McManus

    STEVEN. You need to inform yourself. You know nothing about Israel or the middle east. Israel is due trillions in compensation or the right of return to its ancestral lands in north Africa and the ME, lost to Muslim genocide over the centuries. Israel is the only place in the ME or the ummah for that matter where Muslims are safe from each other and the implementation of sharia hatred and repression.
    You’re obviously not a reading man so look at the DVD In between, a film about life in Israel for Palestinians. Maysaloun Hamoud got death threats from Muslims and a fatwa for her work of course – the Islamic attitude to truth, evidence and reason shared by the anti-Semitic left.
    If I’m wrong, and you can manage a whole book, Martin Gilbert’s In the House of Ismael, or Uprooted by Lyn Julius might help you.
    There’s only two possible reasons for being anti-zionist or criticising Israel, a democratic, pluralist beacon in a sea of sectarian hate, the only place in the ME where Muslims have a free vote and can be part of the government, and those are Jew-hate or pig-ignorance. Take your piuck. The voters worked out what was motivating some labour members as you’d know if you bothered to talk to them.

  21. Tom Sacold

    There will never be a strong socialist Government under PR.

    PR has been used by the global capitalist establishment to keep real socialists out of power across Europe since WW2.

  22. Tom Watson ex MP

    So if being a Zionist is a matter of opinion, how can there be “Zionists” who “don’t understand English irony even though they’ve lived here all their lives”?

    They are just yids, right? Labour hates yids.

  23. Ross

    @Michael McManus, re your claim that “green policies” have somehow caused the Australian bushfires, well, basically, no. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/nov/12/is-there-really-a-green-conspiracy-to-stop-bushfire-hazard-reduction

  24. Michael McManus

    Ross. Come on, a report in the Guardian? They must make their staff stand at their desks otherwise they couldn’t hear each other speak.
    I was reporting what the farmers and workers and ordinary folks in the bush are saying. I know, I know. Listening to the people who actually live there and know what’s going on is a revolutionary idea. I mean, they don’t even know what they are supposed to think, paying no attention to faux experts and other BS men. Slippery slope. Pretty soon we’ll be taking notice of the working class – even the whitish bits – and then where will we be eh? In office. Might even get votes.

  25. Corwen Broch

    Man this page seriously needs to moderate comments. Lots of right wing trolls here, some of them look like professional paid trolls. Left Foot Forward, you are giving these people a platform. Please moderate comments!

  26. Ross

    Green politics generally favours ever greater devolution, to put power into the hands of the very people you presume to speak for. But, by all means, feel free to ignore that and continue to pretend that Greens are somehow authoritarian.

  27. Corwen Broch

    To expand on my previous comment, there should be ONE opinion on every subject and anyone who expresses a different opinion is a heretic who should be censored and not allowed to speak.

    Heretics should be traced, arrested and sent to a psychiatric hospital in the gulag for re-education before being killed in a fraternal way.

  28. Steven

    Michael McManus it is you and not me that is the idiot. There are some Jews that are against the state of Israel’s existence so are they ‘anti-semites’? Do they hate themselves? Educate YOURSELF. Go onto YouTube and you will find anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jews in Stamford Hill in Hackney saying the Israeli state should be peacefully dismantled and returned to being the state of Palestine as it was before where Jews and Palestinians lived I. Harmony before. There is a VICE documentary there entitled ‘Rebel Rabbis’ so look it up before insulting me further when I haven’t done that to you!

    Yes, there IS some genuine ‘anti-semitism’ in the Labour Party some of it done by Muslims but most of what is called ‘anti-semitism’ is actually criticism of Israel. The Conservative Party also contains a fair number of genuine anti-semites rather than just people that are critical of Israel but the Tory press don’t want to know about that, do they?

    Israel is a democracy. Infact, it is much more of of one than Tory/Labour Britain is thanks to PR which you, being a good Tory, no doubt is passionately against introducing here.

    However, it is true to say the Israeli government isn’t much in favour of democracy when it comes to the Palestinian population. They ARE being repressed, sometimes quite brutally, by that government.

  29. Steven

    Corset Broch, no I think this site should be commended for allowing genuinely free comments and to not be moderated. I will put my cards on the table and say I am not a Labour Party supporter and I must say I find this site to be a pleasant surprise when it comes to free speech as too many lefties in Britain don’t really value that principle. I believe by
    allowing free speech this site can help the Labour Party to become more popular. It is always of value to a political party to have an idea of where its opponents are coming from politically-speaking.

    I do agree with you that some ‘Right-wing’ commentators here do appear to be trolls. I hope you agree that I am not one though I haven’t posted here much to be honest. I am just somebody who has been interested in politics since I was a schoolboy.

    I suspect that Conservative Home doesn’t value free speech as much as this site does. It should be praised for that.

  30. Steven

    Tom Sacold, if that is the case then the Tories should be all in favour of PR but they are passionately opposed (although their anti-PR principles in this regard don’t extend to the Scottish Parliament! Hmm, I wonder why they don’t and why they continue to take their PR-elected seats up in that chamber!)

    It is surely better to be able to implement some of what you want to do rather than sit on the sidelines in ideological purity and implement NOTHING.

  31. Steven

    Michael McManus, please go to YouTube and watch that interesting documentary and also locate a small clip on it where a former Israeli government minister says that Zionists in gentile countries like ours and the USA often use the term ‘anti-semitism’ to smear critics of Israel.

  32. Steven

    Élisabeth Chell, I also think that if the question of using a Proportional Representation voting system were put to the public in a referendum, the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system may be one that Tories and other ‘Right-wing’ people may be reluctant to back because of that ranked ballot mechanism it uses and that could be the difference between the country adopting PR and rejecting it. It is also a system
    that the Tory press could lie about more successfully than Germany/New Zealand’s Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system.

    New Zealand had a referendum on PR about thirty years ago and out of the four choices on offer STV lost out to MMP by about 50% of the vote!

    It does have some good points though and as it is a candidate-centred version of PR it may be an ideal system for a reformed House of Lords.

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