The Socialist Case for Proportional Representation

An Open Labour member puts forward the socialist case for proportional representation.

Electoral systems explained

Proportional representation (PR) is an electoral system in which the distribution of seats corresponds closely with the proportion of the total votes cast for each party (UK Parliament).

First Past the Post (FPTP) is a voting system in which a candidate may be elected by a simple majority rather than an absolute majority (Collins English Dictionary).

Currently Members of Parliament are elected via FPTP at UK national elections. This article makes the case for why the Labour Party should support the use of PR for these elections. It therefore argues that the Labour Party should commit to the democratic principle that seats in parliament should broadly reflect the popular vote – and the Labour Party needs to run a public consultation to decide the precise form of PR we should commit to introducing in our next manifesto.

Would PR Cause the Labour Party to Split?

The ‘broad church’ of Labour is really an uneasy coalition between left social-democratic currents and social-liberal centrists. However, in countries where you have PR you can have left social democratic, even class struggle forces, in separate political parties. This allows different voices to be heard. It may also prevent the constant conflict between the different factions in Labour, who currently do not want to separate because of how difficult it is to stand alone and be elected under FPTP. In turn, this constant conflict prevents the Labour Party from providing one strong and unified voice, which may have a negative impact on the public’s perception and voter intention for Labour.

Having multiple strong Parties on the left under PR, who need to negotiate with each other to form a coalition to beat the Tories, may also help to prevent these factional wars. For example, even radical left groups have been able to build themselves effectively in fairer electoral systems as can be seen in Portugal with the Left Bloc, or in Spain with Podemos. In fact, having a viable option to split into smaller groups may lead to the different factions treating each other more inclusively and kindly, with greater membership engagement, as they know the other fraction can choose the option to split if they do not listen to each other, their members and wider communities. PR may therefore ensure that every part of the left movement truly matters.

It is important to clarify that whilst calling for pluralistic policies that truly represent our voters, it is also important to ensure the Labour Party allows different views to thrive within the Party itself. For only when Labour champions internal membership democracy can we also truly champion the same values and call for PR for the wider electoral system. We must therefore embrace the member-led values held by Open Labour and which underpinned Momentum’s recent policy primary, where every member had the chance to decide, which motions Momentum campaigns for, at the 2022 Labour conference.


“They might have won the election, but they only won a minority of the votes you know, particularly if you add in all those who are not registered or did not vote”

Some people on the left say PR means you will need more than 50% to govern and this will push you into making alliances to your right. On the one hand, it seems contradictory for socialists to argue for fundamental change, a real break in the system, and yet think it is impossible to win an overall majority for this project.

However, whilst it is important to champion socialist values, it is also important to be aware of the political realities on the ground to win an election. For example, in 19 of the last 20 general elections, parties to the left of the Conservatives won the popular vote, yet the Tories have governed for two-thirds of that time under FPTP.

Furthermore, Thatcher won four times, but her highest vote was only 43.9%. Tony Blair peaked at about the same level, but in his last election formed a government with only
35.4%. Johnson presently rules, or rather misrules, after winning 43.6% of the vote. The last time a British government won more than 50% of the vote was in 1931. Britain is practically the only European country which persists with the undemocratic FPTP system.

With both potential Scottish independence, and Labour losing the red wall and previously voting seats in the North, and not having the strong base that it previously had, the risk of not succeeding in introducing PR is also that we could end up with successive Tory Governments and Labour never actually winning an overall majority.

With PR though the landscape may look very different with a situation where having a radical left current with between 5 and 10% can constrain a social democratic government to at least partially defend the interests of working people. This can be done through external support to a government, voting measures in parliament, without taking ministerial positions – as we have seen with the Left Bloc and the Communist Party in Portugal. In any case in a blocked political system like in Britain those left forces inside Labour usually end up in far worse ‘alliances’ under Labour Governments, with little leverage to impose more progressive policies.

Building a socialist alternative capable of breaking with capitalism will involve mass struggles, revolutionary crises and interventions (perhaps for prolonged periods) in parliamentary institutions. Given the political landscape we need to question if this outcome will be realised in the immediate future – within which time an increasing number of people will suffer under the unequal policies of a Tory Government, where public services will be increasingly cut to the bone.

Nevertheless, it is important when arguing in favour of PR that we do not argue for PR because it will ‘moderate’ politics, drowning out the extremes and helping develop consensus politics for the common good. We are not in favour of PR because we want to push for a strategic electoral alliance with the Liberal Democrats. Talk of progressive alliances of this type is a political argument and is independent of where we stand on PR. Instead, we should argue in favour of PR because, in the British situation with our constitutional arrangements in crisis and what many see as a blocked political system, PR is an important demand that all socialists should support.

Fair and Representative Politics

As socialists, we do not want to abolish the gains of the current ‘bourgeois’ democracy –free elections, rights to assembly, free speech etc – but to build and expand them under a socialist democracy.

However, under FPTP ensuring we have the fairest system is not possible. For example, in 2019 it took 864, 000 votes to elect one Green MP and around 330,000 for one Lib Dem MP. It took 12 thousand fewer votes to elect each Tory MP than for a Labour one. If you live in a constituency that has always had a majority for one of the big parties you oppose, then your vote is wasted. It could well drive you to not even participate in the democratic process, or to vote tactically in order to get a party in that you consider a lesser evil. Abstention rates in Britain have generally been higher than in countries with PR, which increases the democratic deficit.

Election campaigns under FPTP are totally distorted since the Parties concentrate all their resources and activists in the so-called marginal seats that change hands more regularly from election to election. Political discussion and activity are much reduced in the ‘safe seats’ that are always either Tory or Labour. It is much easier for complacency and even corruption to flourish where you have one-party fiefdoms. We have seen this in local government and the same can be true at the national level.

Under Margaret Thatcher and now Boris Johnson, the Tories have used crushing parliamentary majorities to make vicious and sustained attacks on public services without ever winning the support of a majority of voters. It is true that we have a right-wing media and a self-serving establishment to reckon with – but it is the FPTP voting system alone that turns minority support for the Tories into their long-term dominance in parliament. It is a rigged system.

It is important to also note that hung parliaments and coalitions are entirely possible under FPTP as we saw with the Cameron/Clegg government after 2010 or the Lab/Lib pact under Callaghan in the 70s. Devolved parliaments have also governed with coalitions. It is likely that if Corbyn had been in hung parliament territory in 2019, he would have come to a pact with the Scottish National Party. However, with PR there is far more chance the coalition will more accurately represent the voting population rather than just be based on pacts between Parties.

Some argue that PR allows the hard right or fascists to win representation, who are not able to win Parliamentary seats under FPTP. However, it is interesting to note that nobody on the left in countries like France, Italy or the Spanish state argues for the hard-right parties to be banned from standing for Parliament. Incidentally, I have not found one country which favours abandoning PR and returning to FPTP. However, the left still supports the full force of the law being used against hate speech or incitement to violence and organises mobilisations in defence of communities physically intimidated or attacked by such reactionary forces. It is just that legal calls to ban them would be understood as an attack on free speech by most people and would easily backfire on the left as ‘all extremes’ are banned. If hard right or fascist MPs are elected it is a political reality reflecting their relative support and it does not hinder a continued mass campaign against their ideas and actions. You cannot wish their support away by legal bans. It is not PR that has provided the political opening for their ideas. Often it is the failure of the left of centre parties to defend the interests of working people and making strong arguments to support their policies.

Participating openly in institutions can make it easier for their racist ideas to be examined and challenged.


There are many socialist policies which the Labour Party needs to campaign for. These include the transformative change to green jobs, defending migrant communities from racist immigration policies, and the dignity for all that a £15 minimum wage would provide. But none of these is more strategically important in securing Labour in power than campaigning for PR. For Labour will never be able to implement these socialist policies until it gets into power.

The evidence also shows that the left achieves more when they fight for socialism under PR systems. It’s sometimes claimed that PR leads to centrism. But around the world it has again and again led to policies more left-wing than any that a British government has implemented since at least the 1970s. If we want properly funded public services, or a democratised economy, or fair trade union laws – and if we want to keep these things once they are won – we need PR.

How can we campaign for PR?

The Labour leadership election, the Party’s National Executive Committee elections and many other votes inside Labour use PR, and some unions do as well. Devolved parliaments set up by a Labour government have PR. It is a contradiction for Labour to continue to support FPTP for parliamentary elections.

More than 200 CLPs (Constituency Labour Parties) i.e. more than 30%, have now called for PR – and polling has found three quarters of Labour members believe we should commit to PR in our next manifesto. To see this through to a change in party policy, we need to build on this momentum ahead of the 2022 Labour conference.

At Labour’s annual conference in 2021, a motion was put forward calling for the party to back PR for Parliamentary elections. Although an overwhelming number of delegates supported the motion, it was not passed due to a lack of support from trade unions.However, this lack of support was partially due to the Party leadership not engaging sufficiently with Trade Unions to persuade them from moving from their current position of supporting FPTP to supporting the more democratic system of PR.

There is a lot of hope to draw from the increasing support for PR highlighted at the last Conference. But as can be seen from the trade unions’ response, much more needs to be done to ensure Labour commits to introducing PR in their manifesto.

This includes signing up for the main campaigns run by the Labour Campaign for a New Democracy or Get PR Done. Motions also need passing by CLPs in big battalions and we should argue for PR voting in all union elections.

PR is the only way forwards. Its moment has come – and if the opportunity is not seized now, it may not come again for many years. This transformation of British democracy cannot come from the top down. It must come as a loud and clear demand from across our Labour membership – an expression of our shared commitment to democratic principles, fairness and the implementation of our socialist values.

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