Proportional representation (PR) is an issue that many Bylines Network readers care deeply about. Many see it as a way of ending the potential of future Conservative governments, while others envision its potential to change politics and policymaking for good.
However, the path to PR is a narrow one. A Labour majority government is looking increasingly likely, and the party’s leader, Keir Starmer, has repeatedly ignored calls to adopt electoral reform from the party grassroots. This was made worse this week with news that a spokesperson for Starmer has stated that the leader of the opposition has a “long-standing view against proportional representation”.
This does not mean, however, that electoral reformers should give up on all hopes. What’s more, banging heads against the wall of national change may well frustrate many activists in the long term. Instead, supporters should turn their attention to a more achievable goal: PR for local councils in England – and there are compelling reasons to consider such a move.
The problem is more pronounced at the local level
While many complain at how unrepresentative Westminster elections are, the problem of first past the post is far worse at the local level. Many councils exist as ‘one party states’, where one party wins a majority of seats at every election on as little as a third of the vote, while others experience ‘wrong winner elections’, where the most popular party fails to win the most seats.
What’s more, two thirds of voters routinely decide to stay at home for local elections in England. Meanwhile, turnout at the Scottish local elections, which use the single transferable vote (STV) system, a form of PR, is 10% higher.
PR could result in a revolution of local government in England, ending ‘one party states’, increasing democratic engagement, encouraging inter-party cooperation, and allowing genuinely competitive elections.
Local reform is easier for Labour
There are many good reasons that Labour has not embraced PR for Westminster. Announcing such a policy would result in a backlash in the right-wing press. Broadsheets could easily accuse the party of trying to ‘change the rules of the game’, and of ignoring the 2011 alternative vote (AV) referendum (even though PR supporters maintain that AV is not a ‘proportional’ voting system).
It would also cause controversy in a party whose MPs are far from unified on the issue, particularly since many would doubtless lose their jobs if Labour abolished first past the post.
There would be fewer of these problems if Labour were to reform voting at a local level. Not only would the announcement receive less attention, but Labour would be acting from a position of strength, giving away majority power in dozens of councils.
Finally, not only would be there less resistance from Labour MPs, but Labour’s shadow levelling up, housing, and communities secretary, Lisa Nandy, has expressed support for the idea, writing in her recent book, All In:
“It is curious to me why there has been a curious debate about introducing proportional representation at Westminster but it is seldom up for discussion at a local and regional level where the problem is seeks to solve is often more accurate.”
A clear route to achieving local electoral reform exists
Changing a national voting system is famously difficult and has rarely happened in the 21st century. But a Labour-led government in Scotland introduced STV to local elections there in 2007, and the Labour-led Welsh government allowed Welsh councils to switch to STV in 2022.
What’s more, there is already a groundswell of support for PR in councils. Some 25 local authorities have already passed motions calling for PR in the last year, in a campaign coordinated by Make Votes Matter and Get PR Done!
Is compromise the way forward?
Many in the electoral reform movement may be unwilling to compromise, but their primary goal of changing the voting system to pick MPs may well be out of reach in the short term. Not only would achieving PR at a local level be more achievable, but it would introduce the idea of different voting systems to millions of English residents, many of whom have only ever used first past the post. It would be the most cost-efficient advert for their message.
Electoral reform for local councils would lay the groundwork for changes at a national level and have a real impact on the whole of England. It would be a worthwhile legacy for the thousands engaged in the movement for greater democracy.