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One more chance for the ‘Progressive Consensus’?

The election results show the left's re-emergence as an electoral force, but the electoral system still gives 'middle England' disproportionate power. Jeremy Gilbert argues that we must seize this opportunity to argue for proportional representation

May 8, 2005
9 min read

One thing that can be said with certainty about the election result is that New Labour has been punished for treating the left and its natural constituencies – trade-unionists, ethnic minorities, the public sector, liberal professionals, many of the low-paid – with contempt. New Labour’s key strategic gambit has always been the assumption that these groups could be relied on to vote Labour in sufficient numbers to maintain a large majority, no matter how far policy drifted to the right. Although, as we keep being told, the government’s majority is still impressive by historic standards, it is not so by the standards of governments of the past two decades, and its fragility is further highlighted by the very small share of the vote which sustains it. These facts, plus the significant swing to the Liberal Democrats from Labour, all add up to a situation in which disillusion with the government from the left is a clearly significant issue.

This is all that can be said with certainty, and what the outcome will be depends on many factors. Martin Kettle argued in The Guardian shortly before the election that it was foolish to believe that a radically curtailed majority would push the government to the left, instead arguing that the fear of losing more swing voters to the Tories would have the opposite effect. The Conservative leadership are certainly far more despondent at the result than they can admit, as Howard’s rapid resignation illustrates. Having done all they can to target key marginals, having done as much as they are able to redistribute a static share of the vote in favour of more elected MPs, they may well have gone as far as they can without some significant change in the political landscape. Many in the New Labour leadership will argue vociferously against offering them that opportunity by provoking such a change, as a marked shift to the left by the government clearly would.

So the future may not be rosy, or even vaguely pink, but there are some grounds for optimism. In a sense, the left has emerged as an active electoral force for the first time in a long time, crystallised by the anti-war movement to which a huge proportion of the public could be said to belong, and playing a variegated but significant role in the outcome of a national election. It should not be forgotten that this could not have happened without a combination of factors: the massive anti-war demonstration of 2003, which in turn could never have happened on the scale it did without the support of the Daily Mirror (as the Stop the War Coalition largely failed to appreciate), and the presence of a viable electoral alternative to the left of Labour in the form of the Liberal Democrats. If any progress does come from this election result, it will have been because of this whole complex of factors: mass action, support within influential sections of the media, and an electoral presence for progressive ideas. No one of these elements on its own will have been responsible. This is surely a lesson for the future.

One issue that has come on to the public agenda more forcefully than at any recent election is the disproportionate power which the election system gives to a tiny, but relatively homogenous, section of the electorate: the swing voters of that imagined constituency ‘Middle England’. This is a very interesting development for those of us who have always argued in favour of the need to introduce proportional representation for the House of Commons. Traditionally this argument has been pitched in terms of the unfairness of vote share not being reflected in parliament. The argument that First-Past-the-Post allows one small section of the electorate to dominate the country, an argument predicated on the observation that the views of swing voters in marginal seats tend to be pretty homogenous whilst also being notoriously incoherent, has not played a very active role in debates on the issue in the past, but is one which could have a very broad appeal and prove generally persuasive. It is also closer to the argument which has never proved sufficiently attractive to the parliamentary Labour party, but which has always been the most concrete and political argument for PR in this country. That is the view that in the long-term PR is the only way to cement the progressive consensus which Blair et al have always talked about, marginalising both the Tories and the Daily Mail-readers of Middle England forever. Perhaps the threat which the Tories still pose in many Labour marginals will finally concentrate minds on this issue. We can only try to ensure that is does.

It’s worth thinking momentarily about the philosophical case for PR, or rather the case that is usually made against it. The argument that democracy depends on the sacred link between a single MP and his or her electors, and that the public prefers to vote for individuals rather than parties, is nonsense of a particularly revealing kind. It is based on a wholly individualistic conception of politics, or rather an individualistic conception of humanity which is simply anti-political in its implications. The myth that in voting for a politician we are voting for a personality is of a piece with the ideology of celebrity culture, which values trivial information about the private lives of the famous over any consideration of their views, values, or achievements. The fact is that in voting for a politician we can never be voting for anything as complex and multifarious as a person. In truth we are only ever voting for that person insofar as they are likely to act in the very limited sphere of representative politics. As such, the only issue that really matters about them is the political ideology to which they subscribe and the means by which they propose to implement it along with others who share it: in other words, the political party they belong to. We can never have a mature democracy as long as our electoral system fails to take account of this. The ideological individualism of the British liberal tradition is built into our electoral system, and it is no surprise that it historically tends to work in favour of the political projects of liberal capitalism over any others.

History demonstrates that this is the case. PR (along with prohibition of alcohol) was one of the key planks of Keir Hardie’s very first Labour manifesto. By the middle of the twentieth century it had dropped out of the frame, with historically catastrophic consequences. The Attlee government – by common consent the most successful social democratic government of a major Western power during that critical period in world history – lost the 1951 election despite polling more votes than the opposition and more than it had polled in 1945. Not only had that government succeeded in implementing the most dramatic reforms of the British state and British society that any 5-year period has seen, but in the process it had successfully won more support than it had enjoyed to begin with. Only the electoral system, and that appalling deference of the Labour hierarchy to British tradition which prevented any serious objection to the result being voiced, prevented the re-election of that government. Had things gone differently one can only guess as to the likely effect, but it is hardly beyond the bounds of reason to speculate that the UK in the 1950s, instead of being tortured by the death-pangs of the Empire, might well have become the largest and most confident of the emergent social democracies of Northern Europe. One can only imagine the global consequences if it had.

One of those consequences, which might still have come to pass had the 1974-9 Labour government had the foresight to reward the Liberals for their support by introducing PR, would have been that the UK would not have become the bridgehead for neo-liberalism in Europe. Indeed, a major manufacturing economy and a global military power, it could have been the strongest bulwark against it. The entire fate of the world might have been different. Instead, with the liberal social democratic majority split between the liberals, SDP, and Labour, Thatcher was able to demolish the post-war settlement and set the stage for its gradual dismantling across Europe and the world.

Could we really have a chance now, finally to persuade the Labour leadership to trade the prospect of one more term of majority government for a permanent left-of-centre coalition governing the world’s fourth largest economy? Probably not, but we have to try. In the end, it is the fact that the introduction of PR would inevitably mean that there would be fewer Labour MPs than there are now which has always proved the stumbling block to its implementation by a Labour government. However, at a moment when even many Labour MPs are disappointed and disheartened at how little a majority Labour government has been able to achieve and at how wide and deep disappointment with it runs amongst their own supporters, we may have a unique historic opportunity to press this case.

One issue which this new situation brings to the fore is the value of a strong progressive voice within the Labour Party, arguing for the progressive consensus as a more valuable goal than five more years of neo-liberalism casually mitigated by occasional concessions to the social democratic support-base of the government. As someone who quite recently scoffed at the naivety of any attempt to persuade the government to change direction, I have to say now that the project of Compass, the new pressure group aiming to co-ordinate the thinking left within the Labour party seems both timely and much needed. While it is clear that only mass pressure outside parliament and within the media will make any alternative future possible, such pressure will result in little more than further Labour marginals lost to the Tories, as despairing votes are cast for the Liberal Democrats and Greens, unless a strong voice can argue within Labour for an alternative, lending progressive Labour MPs the confidence to act on their convictions. Those of us who would hope for such an outcome, both inside and outside the party, should be prepared to give whatever support we can to such a project.

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