The bad news and the good news about electoral reform

"Today, the shift away from the antiquated first past the post (FPTP) voting system is far less pronounced." Alan Story shares the good and bad news on bringing about electoral reform from across the globe on the GETPRDONE! blog.

Voting in America
Alan Story

This article was originally published on the GETPRDONE! blog.

A major study of successful and failed attempts at electoral reform across the globe delivers both bad news and good news to us. 

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. After assessing electoral reform promises and projects in 15 ‘established democracies’ in past decades, ‘most of the time, reform does not occur’, elections expert and politics professor Alan Renwick has concluded. In earlier eras, such as 100 years ago in Europe, the call to bring in proportional representation (PR) voting successfully swept across that continent in what might appear to be a coordinated fashion. It led to the creation of PR systems in country after country (the UK just missed that wave). 

But that was a different time – when the workers’ movement, which was often a big backer of a change to PR voting, was far stronger. Today, the shift away from the antiquated first past the post (FPTP) voting system is far less pronounced, concludes Renwick in The Politics of Electoral Reform: Changing the Rules of Democracy:

 “There is no clear trend – at least in established democracies – toward greater proportionality.” 

Perhaps a none-too-sweet pill to digest. And perhaps not necessarily the best kick-off to a blog.  But let’s not fool ourselves; it does align with what is happening in the UK and elsewhere today. 

Not only does Home Secretary Priti Patel want to roll back even very limited proportional voting for mayors and crime commissioners in England, but she is also importing voter suppression tactics being honed to perfection by the US Republican Party. Mandating voter photo-ID cards tops Patel’s pricey shopping list. 

Meanwhile, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer could hardly be called a raging zealot for electoral reform. Despite a recent opinion poll revealing that 83 per cent of the members of his own party want Labour to endorse PR, Starmer recently told an interviewer that ‘theoretical discussions about electoral reform are way down the list when it comes to how we get over the line with the electoral system we have’.

Elsewhere, the news is hardly inspiring, especially in other majoritarian English-speaking countries still also yoked to the insanity of FPTP voting. (Let’s face it: to be an electoral reformer today is not a game for instant gratification types. But hold on, good news is coming in a few paragraphs.) 

In the United States, arguably the country with one of the most undemocratic electoral regimes in the world, the chances of PR being introduced in ‘the land of the free’ are as remote as the chances of… well, think of something totally unbelievable.

Next door in Canada, a huge break-through seemed about to happen six years ago, this in an electoral and parliamentary system perhaps closer to the UK’s than any other. Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau became the prime minister of a majority government after tweeting, reportedly more than 1,000 times during the 2015 election campaign, that this would be the last Canadian election ever to a first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system.  

It was all a lie. Eighteen months later, PM Trudeau shredded his clear election promise. As a result, the Canadian election results in 2019, again under FPTP, hit a new low for democratic representativeness. The Conservative Party surpassed Trudeau’s Liberals in overall total votes, yet the Liberal Party managed to hold on to power and formed a single-party minority government. (It was a “wrong winner” election like the UK in 1951). Gaining a mere 33.1 per cent of the overall vote, the Liberals set an all-time record low in absolute vote share by a “winning” party. 

In short, the pro-PR and pro-democracy movement is today not surging across the globe with the same momentum as the current movement against climate change or earlier movements supporting women’s liberation or gay rights. 

But — and it is a significant but — electoral reformers can also draw lots of encouraging news from Renwick’s study (and elsewhere). It is not a depressing tale of defeat and despair. It is not only elected politicians who can reform voting systems, he writes: “Ordinary citizens have considerable influence too.” 

Good news from across the globe

Here are some examples and circumstances of 'good news'.    

Yes, Trudeau was a great betrayer of electoral reform in Canada (as was Tony Blair in our own country 20 years ago.) But in Canada in 2015, promising electoral reform proved to be a tremendous vote winner and it helped to propel the Liberal Party from third place in the pre-election polls to number one spot by the time of election day. Look to Canada, Sir Keir, if you want to challenge the view of some Labour party insiders who think that electoral reform is an issue only of interest to geeks and armchair lefties. Mind you, perhaps you hold that view yourself. After all, you’ve appointed an MP who is publicly opposed to PR, Shebana Mahmood, as head of Labour’s national campaign machinery. 

Sometimes electoral reform possibilities arise virtually “out of the blue” and not as the culmination of a campaign of some year’s duration. Renwick cites the example of Japan and changes it made to its election laws; the details can be skipped here. As a result of a growing and widespread political crisis, Japanese political leaders virtually stumbled upon electoral reform as a perceived solution to their predicament. No one can predict what political crises might befall the British state in coming years. Scottish independence – or the increased likelihood of its occurring – might be one such crisis. I am NOT here arguing that Scottish independence might directly lead to the establishment of PR across the UK. That would be nonsensical. I am arguing that we need to develop a wider and shrewder political radar about seemingly remote events which might, in time, lead to an opening for electoral reform here in the UK.    

New Zealand, which replaced FPTP in the 1990s with PR, is another source of many good news stories for contemporary electoral reformers in the UK. Even as support for change grew, the “vast majority of Labour and National [Kiwi Conservative] MPs opposed electoral reform”, one respected academic study reports. For example, Deputy Labour leader Helen Clark – and later Prime Minister for eight years – was a leading figure in a group called ‘Campaign for First Past the Post’ in the early 1990s. It is worth noting that Clark later changed her mind about PR, and was a guest speaker, via Zoom, at the kick-off rally in September 2020 of the UK’s Labour for a New Democracy alliance of which GET PR DONE! is a member. Powerful business leaders were also dead set against reform and New Zealanders were bombarded with the usual predictions of “collapse” and “chaos” if their voting system was changed. Yet in 1992 in the first of two referendums, New Zealanders overwhelmingly voted 84.7 per cent in favour of a new proportional voting system compared to only 15.3 per cent for keeping the existing FPTP system (much like the one we still are burdened with in the UK). In the following year, a second referendum was held to ratify the outcome of the first or to stick to FPTP. New Zealanders chose the former.

The most momentous reform episodes of all

It was a great victory because of the pressure from below. “Electoral reform in New Zealand has a good claim to being the most momentous of all the reform episodes studied here”, Renwick concludes. Many decades of using a single-member plurality system in New Zealand had been “so comprehensively overturned” in favour of a mixed-member proportional system (MMP) which Renwick notes, was “a form of PR never previously used in the Westminster world.”  So why can’t the UK be number two?  

In his survey, Renwick explains that electoral reform can result from both pressure by mass movements (that is, from below as in New Zealand) and/or by “elite imposition.”  Given the intransigence of the Tory government on the subject of electoral reform, we tend to focus almost exclusively on the first lever of power. Yet, we should never forget that it was essentially elite intervention or imposition — in this case, by a Labour government in Westminster — that established PR for the parliaments in both Scotland and Wales two decades ago.  

Incidentally, this fact alone makes a nonsense of claims by Labour party dinosaurs like NEC chair and MP Margaret Beckett that introducing PR is an attack on democracy. If PR is such a retrograde method of electing governments as it claimed, why did Labour ever foist it upon the peoples of Wales and Scotland? 

Across the world, both government corruption and lack of accountability have often acted as effective triggers for electoral reform. Renwick and other commentators give examples from New Zealand, Italy and Japan. A 1993 poll of New Zealanders revealed that only four per cent of them had full trust in their parliament as an institution. In Italy, ‘concern over inadequate accountability was a major factor in public pressure for [electoral] reform’ in the 1990s, writes Renwick. Also in Italy, ‘the lack of alternation in government was seen as hindering accountability and fostering corruption… [and] the dominance of party machines’. Changing the way governments are elected was their preferred solution. 

We hear echoes of all this today in the UK. We cannot predict what incidents or triggers might lead more and more Britons to conclude that, while changing our voting system to PR is not the whole answer to political disenfranchisement, it is not a bad place to start.