Let's Face It: Labour Wouldn't Be in This Mess If We Had PR

29/07/2016 16:13 | Updated 29 July 2016

It may not feel like it, but the current crisis we are in has been a long time in the making. The past few weeks have seen huge news stories become almost prosaic, as we get used to the seeming collapse of much of what we took for granted before.

The party system is in turmoil. And not just after Brexit - although the house of cards now appears to be finally falling down after looking unsteady for some time.

It's always risky to pose hypotheticals, but we have to ask ourselves this: would the Labour Party be in its current situation if we had a proportional system?

Sometimes people argue that PR creates coalitions. Actually, we already have coalitions - the big two parties.

Under First Past the Post, people have typically been forced into large camps, in order to have pool their resources under a majoritarian voting system that punishes smaller parties and gives no representation to second or third placed ones. These camps are unwieldly and artificial. But they exist and have continued to exist, well, because they are forced to.

The past few weeks have shown more than ever that these arbitrary, hitherto-necessary coalitions are at breaking point. The tensions within them cannot be sustained.

In recent decades, politics and the public have fragmented in their choices and views. Voters are shopping around more than ever (with the last election seeing the highest vote for parties outside the traditional 'Big Three' in UK history). Yet they are faced with two main parties that host such a huge spectrum of opinion that is almost impossible to tell what impact their vote will have - it's a gamble.

If you're a centrist voter, you are faced with the choice of voting for a moderate MP who you like but in doing so potentially helping to elect what you see as a hard-left leader into Number 10 - one who may represent an almost opposite world-view? Or equally, you could be a Corbynista forced to vote for a centrist Labour MP who has tried to oust the left-wing leader you want elected. Or for the Tories, a Remain voter who is faced with the prospect of a right-wing 'Leave' MP but a 'compassionate Conservative' PM.

It's been said before, but if someone were starting a new party tomorrow, would Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn get together? Would Ken Clarke and Peter Bone want to shake hands on a new centre/right/right-wing party - one where libertarians pretend to sing from the same hymn sheet as socially conservative protectionists?

We are in the situation that we are in, because it had to happen eventually. The parties are creaking at the seams. The centre cannot hold. Things, inevitably, fall apart.

The simple fact is, under a PR system, none of this would need to happen: the 'coup' plots and the constant tug-of-wars, the unpredictable see-sawing one way or another. A centrist/social democratic party could elect who they wanted, while a new left-wing party could emerge. They could work alongside each other, and be perfectly content with their leaders. The quality of leadership might also go up on both sides, with less of a 'fortress mentality' that comes from trying to hold on to the reigns for as long as possible in the face of a possible unseating from another faction. The Tories would equally be more content - the right potentially splitting into UKIP, the centre joining a new economically and socially liberal party or remaining as is. Leadership contests would no longer be the same skewed, bitter ideological struggles - there would be broad agreement on ideological positioning.

So while the two big parties splinter internally, the wider partisan scene blooms into a thousand flowers - albeit still, outside of the SNP, hampered by First Past the Post. The result is that elections become lotteries, with First Past the Post creating bizarre results, like UKIP and the Greens winning just 1 seat each for over five million votes, while the SNP win 95% of Scottish seats on half the vote.

We have to get clear about this and ask ourselves: is the current party framework really working? Can anyone say it is? And how do we solve it? If we started from scratch, would it look like what it does today? Splits under First Past the Post, as the SDP-Alliance showed in the '80s, simply splinter the vote and lead to collapse or the opposite effect to that intended - letting one's starkest opponents in. So we are in a paradox, a catch-22. This would not need to happen under PR. No splitting of votes, no talk of tactical voting, no falsehoods about 'big tents' when actually almost many in the tent distrusts or even despises each other.

There are no panaceas in politics. But looking at where we are, it's clear that much of the blame lies with a voting system that is forcing our 'grand coalitions' to breaking point. It's time all sides recognised the need for change - that would be a truly 'new' politics.