PR Plant Takes Root in Britain

Mary Georghiou

Early Momentum for Reform

        A year is a long time in politics. At 1993's start, it looked like this would be the historic year when the British Labour Party firmly rejected the first-past-the-post (FPP) method of electing parliament in favor of a more proportional system. In January, Bill Morris, the UK's first black union leader and general secretary of the mighty Transport Workers union, announced his support for reforming FPP. Labour's former leader Neil Kinnock revealed his support for PR and joined the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (LCER).
        Most importantly, a majority of the Plant Commission (the Labour Party's working group on electoral systems that had been studying the issue since December 1990) showed its support for eliminating FPP. Its chair Raymond Plant -- a convert to proportional representation (PR) and the international winner of The Center For Voting and Democracy's 1993 Champion of Democracy award -- supported Germany's mixed member PR system, as did a majority of LCER members in a questionnaire.

Labour Commission Rejects First-Past-the-Post
        By the time the Plant Commission voted on its recommendations in March, however, an untimely death of a Labour leader who had been a convert to PR and the perceived interests of party unity helped lead the Plant commission to back away from supporting PR for the House of Commons. Instead, it supported the supplementary vote, a winner-take-all system in single-member districts which would give voters the ability to cast a second preference, yet not eliminate unfair results and the problems of tactical voting.
        Still, FPP had been rejected, and the commission went so far as to recommend party list PR for an elected second chamber and for elections to the European Parliament. The commission thus rejected FPP for all tiers of government under consideration.
        The Report is a pluralist document, representing both sides of the argument for the Commons and well worth studying. It was presented to Labour's National Executive in May, when Labour's leader John Smith made a statement accepting the logic of PR for European parliament elections and for the second chamber. Smith drew the line at PR for the House of Commons, but instead proposed a referendum on the issue to let the people decide.
        The Plant report then was sent out to all of Labour's constituency parties and affiliated organizations. They were asked to fill in a questionnaire, to choose: first, between the status quo and electoral reform; second, between a winner-take-all system and a proportional system; and third among several different systems, with the listed alternatives being mixed member PR, FPP, supplementary vote and Australian-style majority preference voting [Instant Runoff Voting].
        The survey's results showed that 60% of Labour's constituencies rejected FPP in the first question. There was no consensus about how to reform the House of Commons, but a majority of constituencies backed party list PR for the European parliament and the second chamber. These results echoed other 1993 research that showed 58% of all Labour Party members -- including 65% of new members -- supported PR.

Mixed Result at Annual Conference
        In September, Labour's National Executive headed off two attempts to bury PR. First, it voted not to restrict a voting system for the House of Commons to single-member constituencies. Second, it supported PR for the European and Scottish parliaments and a referendum for the Commons. These positions were confirmed at the Annual Conference, while in addition there was a vote in support of a national referendum.
        The Annual Conference did vote for FPP, however, largely due to the weight of union block votes. If we unpack the union vote, nearly 60% of the constituency section voted again the status quo. In any case, this is the first time since 1926 that Labour Conference has adopted any position in favor of PR. The referendum offer leaves everything to be played for. Labour has done more thinking about voting systems than any UK party in history, and it doesn't have to stop here. The consensus is moving away from FPP.

Looking Ahead
        Women are a particularly strong potential source of support for PR in the UK, where a total of only 164 women MPs have been elected in the 75 years since women won the vote. Although Labour has promised to increase its nominations of women candidates and there is a new initiative like the U.S.'s EMILY's List to fund women candidates, it will require a change in the voting system to reduce the macho, confrontational, winner-take-all political culture.
        The time has come for pluralism. Disillusion, polarization, apathy and disconnectedness are everywhere. A democratic crusade from Labour -- "a new constitution for a new century" -- may turn out to be the best principle and tactic for Labour at the next election. This election could happen as early as 1995, but must take place by 1998. With all the UK minority parties in favor of PR and the Labour consensus moving toward it, the UK could be on its way to joining New Zealand in rejecting the winner-take-all, Westminster model of voting. Watch this space!

        Mary Georghiou is the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform's Parliamentary and Political Officer. The 1993 Plant Report is available for six pounds from the Labour Party, 150 Walworth Road, London SE17 1JT, Great Britain. A 1993 booklet called Labour's Road to Electoral Reform and other literature are available for five pounds from LCER, PO Box 11 (CVD), Guildford, Surrey, GU1 3QN, Great Britain.

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