The most frequent critique of first past the post (FPTP) is that by favouring the creation of stable majorities it generates unfair and unrepresentative results. FPTP distills the complexity of the electorate into much simpler outcomes. The nature of the system makes it easier for parties to ignore emerging trends that lack an institutional expression. But they do so at their own peril. Changes to the party system under FPTP take place as Hemingway once described bankruptcy: “gradually and then suddenly”.
This post is inspired by Henning Meyer’s article in the immediate aftermath of the latest UK election, where he posed the question of whether proportional representation (PR) could save the “United” Kingdom. I broadly agree with his conclusions, and I think it could be a useful exercise to think about what would have happened this time around had the UK already had a proportional system.
Firstly, PR is not necessarily an antidote to centrifugal nationalist tendencies. While PR would have moderated the Labour wipeout in Scotland, it would have also strongly rewarded UKIP in England. The original UKIP breakthrough was made possible through European elections contested on a proportional and not a FPTP basis. (What room would there be for Farage, Le Pen, etc. in a European Parliament elected according to FPTP?)
No matter what the electoral system, Europe’s social democratic parties are struggling to articulate responses to the issues of identity and belonging, of sovereignty and democracy, which have gained a special relevance in the context of the current European Union. As Francesc Amat has pointed out, both nationalist and right-wing (but not left-wing parties) have an interest in playing up the national dimension as their economic preferences stray from those of the broader electorate. Nationalist cleavages do not tend to benefit the left; especially not when it comes to building a genuine pan-European politics.
Secondly, the result of the 2015 UK election under PR would not have been the creation of a progressive majority. Rather, in continental terms, two likely outcomes would have emerged: a Conservative-UKIP coalition (depending on the existence or not of a cordon sanitaire) or a Conservative-Labour grand coalition. This latter outcome is unthinkable under FPTP, but unremarkable in countries such as Austria, Belgium, Germany, Finland and the Netherlands. The plural left – taken as a whole – in the UK as in most of Europe is quite weak.
The election already featured a de facto grand coalition around an austerity consensus that does not deliver economic growth, does not deliver social protection, helps undermine solidarity and helps create a climate for the expression of national grievance. “In the black” Labour was also “raise the white flag” Labour.
But the risk for social democracy might not be Pasokification but rather, the PvdA scenario that Rene Cuperus expertly describes, where parties are vulnerable to Europe’s new social cleavages. The simplistic strategy of targeting the median voter runs the risk of losing support on other flanks; and in the long-run it is not a winning strategy.
The incentive structure of first past the post helps mask that what is going on in the UK is probably not that different from the rest of Europe: it is difficult to articulate political majorities in plural, fragmented societies. The parties of European social democracy have to decide whether to accept a continued role of structural subordination to the centre-right, or if they want to focus on articulating new progressive majorities.
Here exists a difference between playing the system and building a social majority. It is obviously important to respond to institutional incentives, but it should not be forgotten that the number of votes is important, not just their correct distribution. Each voter is someone who has been persuaded to place their trust in a political option; this is not trivial. Large parliamentary majorities are much stronger if they are accompanied by overwhelming backing; popular mobilization and transformational change go together. (Remember that Attlee got more votes in 1951 than Blair in 1997). You want as many people as possible on board.
If you are winning because of indifference or division amongst your opposition, you might get to govern but it will be more difficult for you to change the status quo and enact sweeping change. Indifference is not the ally of progressive politics. The possible obstacles will not just be parliamentary, but also broad swathes of the powers that be in business, media, the bureaucracy, etc.
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A march to the centre is not the answer; politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. It should be obvious that social democracy cannot go it alone if it wants to achieve progressive majorities. Different progressive strands need to be brought together, and this implies a more high-energy politics, so that people actually can get excited and come out and vote. It’s the difference between compromising on the lowest common denominator versus raising the stakes.
This is where the battle of ideas and the value-driven politics that Henning describes comes in, in order to deal with the centrifugal tendencies dividing the traditional social democratic electorate on economic, cultural, and national grounds. This means new policies to provide the glue to bind insiders and outsiders, winners and losers. And it implies universalism over micro-targetting, a drive to build institutions that generate shared loyalties, and ability to accommodate plural identities instead of sharpening existing divisions.