Fairer contests, better outcomes: Labour stands to gain from electoral reform

<span>Photograph: Caitlin Ochs/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Caitlin Ochs/Reuters

Electoral reform is on the agenda again. As delegates gather this weekend for Labour’s annual conference, calls to change the voting system in general elections have topped the bill among grassroots local Labour parties for the second year running, while traditionally sceptical trade unions such as Unison and Unite now also support a change to Westminster voting rules.

The winds of change are also blowing beyond the conference fringes. British Social Attitudes data collected last year and published this week show the first public majority for electoral reform in the 40-year history of the survey. Just over half of voters now support change to the voting system, up over 20 points since the AV referendum was held a decade ago. Support for change among Labour voters has more than doubled in a decade from 27% to 61%.

With calls to change the rules growing louder from members, unions and voters alike, there will be strong pressure for Labour’s leadership to embrace the cause of reform. The case for doing so is strong: shifting to a more proportional electoral system will make British democracy fairer, healthier and more responsive to progressive voters’ priorities.

Related: Keir Starmer: ‘The hope of a Labour victory has turned into a belief’

First past the post implies a fair race with a fixed victory line. But the winning post isn’t fixed, and the race isn’t fair. Analysis by Sir John Curtice suggests the system is currently more biased towards the Conservatives than at any time since the 1950s, when the Conservatives won two elections despite losing the popular vote. If Labour and Tory vote shares were equal at the next election, the Conservatives would return 23 more MPs than Labour. The Tories need a lead of 5 points to secure a Commons majority; for Labour, the lead needs to be at least 12 points. The Conservatives could lose the popular vote in 2024 by a large margin yet return for a fifth term in government with a majority.

The Conservatives could lose the popular vote in 2024 by a large margin yet return for a fifth term in government with a majority

This bias is not due to gerrymandering or political machination. It arises mainly from differences in how the parties’ voters are spread across the country, differences which have been building for many years and are unlikely to be reversed in the near future. Labour-leaning groups tend to cluster together in seats which therefore deliver massive Labour majorities, while Tory voters are more evenly distributed across marginal seats. This increases the influence of Conservative-leaning groups while marginalising Labour-leaning groups who congregate in safe seats. Unfair rules give voters unequal voices.

Changing the rules can redress the balance, giving voters a more equal say and producing governments more consistently responsive to their concerns. Voters notice and respond to these effects. Citizens living in countries with more proportional electoral systems are more politically engaged and turn out more in elections, which they see as fairer contests where their views are better represented. Voters in these countries are more satisfied with election outcomes and with democracy in general. Proportional systems, in short deliver healthier democracies with happier voters. Electoral reform would be a powerful tonic for a British political system bruised and battered by a decade of division, distrust and disengagement.

Proportional systems don’t just deliver a fairer process. They deliver better outcomes too. Countries with more proportional voting systems return more leftwing governments, delivering more leftwing policy outcomes, more often, on more issues. Voters who want to see more action on climate change, greater redistribution to the poor, more investment in public services, stronger trade union rights or a more robust welfare state stand to gain from a switch away from an electoral system which stymies all of these things and towards one of the systems which facilitates them.

Countries don’t change their electoral rules often. New Zealand, which ditched first past the post in 1996, provides a rare chance to observe the effects of change in action. The Kiwis switched to a mixed member proportional system, which retains the link between MPs and constituencies, while providing “top up” seats to ensure all parties get fair representation. The change worked. Governments became more representative and more responsive. Smaller parties, particularly the Greens, now have a bigger voice, and have participated more in government. Kiwi voters became happier with democracy and its outcomes, and more trusting in politicians. They backed their new voting system by a landslide margin in a 2011 referendum.

But perhaps the biggest winners from reform has been New Zealand’s Labour party. Having governed only a quarter of the time in the 50 years prior to reform, Labour has led New Zealand governments more than half of the time since the switch. The most recent election in 2020 delivered a landslide victory for Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government. New Zealand Labour has flourished in a democracy reinvigorated by electoral reform. The Kiwi lesson for Keir Starmer is clear: a change in the rules is a change that delivers.