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‘The Case for PR Rests on Arguments Around Socio-Economic and Political Justice’

Changing the voting system would be a driver of achieving greater equality of income and wealth, argues a Labour peer

Houses of Parliament. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Justice is indivisible – economic, social, political, cultural and environmental justice are all intertwined. ‘Winner Takes All’, a new report by Compass, explores the links between socio-economic and political justice in particular, including some of the practical barriers to both forms of justice created by our ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP) voting system. 

FPTP is a system that ensures some voters matter more than others and that the voices of those who lose out economically and socially are less likely to be heard in elections and other aspects of formal politics. 

The UK is one of the most unequal countries in the global north – the richest 1% of households possess more wealth than the bottom 80% of the population. The chasm that has opened up between the super-rich and those living in poverty corrodes the bonds of common citizenship and makes it less likely that the reality of poverty will be understood by those with power.  

An often overlooked contributor to this inequality is our voting system, which upholds the status quo and shuts out the possibility of radical change.

Nine of the 10 most equal countries in the world use some form of proportional representation and studies reviewing electoral systems indicate that PR has a positive impact on economic redistribution, which is a key mechanism in achieving greater equality of income and wealth.

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FPTP warps electoral politics, targeted on those in a diminishing number of marginal seats. It thereby has a massively distorting effect on which policies and ideas are discussed, presented, prioritised and implemented – and crucially, which are not. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that it appears to have an adverse impact on voter turnout. 

Our voting system also serves to shut progressives out of power. At the last election, the Tories got 38,000 votes per MP, while Labour got 53,000, Liberal Democrats 250,000 and the Green Party 865,000. Because progressive votes are less efficiently spread across the country than Conservative votes, it is harder for progressives to win power and inject new thinking into our politics. Instead, a narrow band of the electorate is precision-targeted with a narrow band of messages.

FPTP also encourages a short-termism and an adversarial form of politics that militates against long-term and deep investment in economic and social justice. Such sustained investment must necessarily be built on a degree of durable political consensus that probably outlives any one governmental term.

Thus, for instance, having given their support to Labour’s Child Poverty Act, passed in 2010, the Tories proceeded to dismantle it and the child poverty strategy it enacted, after a few years in power.

Another example of the inter-relationship between socio-economic and political justice is the failure of our current system to do more than pay lip-service to the value of engaging experts by experience in the design of policies that affect people with experience of poverty (compare and contrast with the establishment of experience panels to help inform social security policy in Scotland). 

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In contrast, new research by the Policy Institute, King’s College, London found that the richest 1% are seen as holding more power than national governments and that there is considerable fear that the super-rich would have unfair influence on government if global inequality were to rise further.

A shift to PR would not of itself lead to a more equal society but it would remove one significant blockage to it by enabling every voice – including those of the most marginalised – to count and by reducing the influence of those who profit from current socio-economic injustices.

PR would open up the system to a wider range of ideas and people and ensure that the fight for a fairer society is carried out on a more level playing field. While change does not become inevitable if we replace FPTP with PR, it does become more possible. 

The case for PR rests on arguments around socio-economic as well as political justice. It offers a potential key to transformative long-term change. Yet it would appear that the Labour leadership is implacably opposed to it – despite conference having voted for it overwhelmingly last year. 

There has been a sea change in thinking among both constituency parties and trade unions. Let us hope that the leadership will think again in the interests of justice. 

Baroness Ruth Lister is vice chair of the board of Compass – a centre-left campaigning group and a Labour peer in the House of Lords

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