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The Electoral Road to Damascus

Pat Byrne

IT WAS A strange irony for me that the achievement of Labourís greatest majority in Westminster and the means by which it was accomplished should be the very circumstances that have finally broken my commitment to the present "winner takes all" electoral system. The nature of the General Election campaign combined with the impact within the Party of the very scale of victory will in my view come to be seen as a watershed for the current electoral system Ė a system that has become not only morally questionable but politically bankrupt.

This may seem a strange statement to make when we have ended the nightmare of 18 years of Tory elected dictatorship with a Labour government supported by an unprecedented majority. But Iím more concerned with the long term effects of Labour winning this huge majority as a "business friendly" party (accompanied by major corporate funding), on its most right wing programme and using the most cynical campaigning methods. It was a victory which if the old electoral system is maintained will establish a new corrupt model for British political parties.

Like the majority of the Labour left, I had traditionally opposed the introduction of proportional representation (PR) because it seemed to threaten a future of permanent continental-style coalition governments made up of various centre-left and centre-right combinations. After all, the pro-PR line within the Labour Party had (with some notable exceptions) been associated with those unprincipled right wing elements who desired a link-up with the Liberals in order to reduce the power of the left and to ensure their own enjoyment of the more regular fruits of office.

However, the new economic and social consensus that has developed in this post full employment/welfare state era is fast achieving the same centrist end in the UK despite and maybe because of the electoral system. Apart from minor variations, we are already seeing that the new Labour administration is carrying forward Conservative ideas on public spending and industrial policy. Indeed, New Labour has been built on the very foundations of Thatcherís economic counter-revolution. Tory privatisation, draconian anti-union laws, reductions in public spending, increased rewards for the wealthy Ė these are all safe under the new government. While the Culture Minister tries to cap the bonuses for the Camelot directors the Chancellor reduces corporation tax and boasts about it!

This is not just a temporary acceptance of political reality. Tony Blairís defence of the rich in the election campaign, his Malmo speech urging the adoption in Europe of labour flexibility (i.e. casualisation and wage cuts), and his "Thatcher" address in Denver make it clear that Labourís new right believe that these "free market" policies are correct in this era of globalisation, albeit accompanied by tighter regulation and help for retraining.

Nor is it a coincidence that the two countries with the strongest commitment to Thatcherite economics, Britain and America, both have "first past the post" electoral systems. These political systems have completely shut out the voice of the victims of the new brutality. A comparison shows that in the US and the UK the difference between rich and poor has doubled in the last 20 years, while inequality in the rest of Europe has hardly changed. For all their limitations, the PR systems of Europe have shown themselves to be more responsive to public opinion and inclusive of discontent. Thus we now have a number of sizeable red and green political formations with significant representation at local, national and European levels. In fact the sharper social and economic issues posed by globalisation are breaking the old centre consensus in many European countries, replacing centre-left coalitions with social democratic/green/communist/left socialist combinations. Europe is polarising under PR while Britain is moving towards the Centre under "first past the post"!

Constitutional reform
Most party members share the publicís unease with the economic and social consensus that has now developed between the main parties. Anyone canvassing in the last election could not fail to hear the phrase "theyíre all the same" regularly repeated, a mantra picked up by media commentators. Yet, party members console themselves that Labour is confidently pursuing the course of constitutional and institutional reform. Surely the introduction of devolution, the ending of hereditary rights in the second chamber, the adoption of European human rights etc justifies having a new Labour government with the decisive majority they need to implement these changes?

The problem with this argument is that all Britain is doing is beginning to adopt political systems and safeguards that were introduced decades ago under European governments elected under PR!

In fact, the "first past the post" system has been an integral part of the British conservative and semi-feudal establishment. It is no accident that since they emerged as a major party in the 1920s Labour have been in power for only 20 out of the last 75 years (and 7 of those as a minority government).

Centrist electoral strategy
The argument that our current electoral system encourages decisive changes of government and thereby gives people a real political choice may have been true in the past but is rapidly running out of steam. Labourís 1997 election campaign graphically revealed a fundamental flaw in the "first past the post" system Ė its tendency to enhance the role of an undecided minority over much larger groups of loyal voters. This defect is particularly enhanced when the system is based as in Britain on geographical constituencies. In the late 1950s the emergence in Britain of the so-called political scientists: academics, pollsters, analysts and so forth focused on this loophole in the electoral system. They cynically proposed a political strategy based on concentrating on the "floating" voters based in the marginal constituencies. The theory was that the best way for parties to win elections was for them to tailor their platforms and concentrate their campaigning resources on those voters with the least loyalty to the party they had previously voted for and based in the most marginal areas. These swing voters were identified as mainly belonging to the centre of British politics, pragmatically shifting their support from one party to another.

In 1959, when the Conservatives won their third election victory in a row, the marginal voter strategy was enthusiastically taken up by Labourís right wing. They saw it as an explanation for Labourís failure and furnished yet further evidence of the need to adopt "moderate" policies which would not alienate the "floaters". They argued that left wing policies on public ownership and defence, along with the partyís close relationship with the unions, were making the party unelectable. However, this new electoral strategy was not really implemented for four decades until the 1997 election campaign and its long preparation. Labourís electoral victory in 1964 cut across the process. It was only the next lengthy period of Conservative rule in the 1980s that revived the theory.

An equally serious obstacle to the new strategy was the existence of checks and balances within the Labour Party. Party workers in the constituencies and the affiliated trade unions traditionally expected that party platforms and resources would be directed towards their membership and their areas. Thus pledges for pension increases, extensions of public ownership, favourable union reforms and so on found their way into Labour manifestos.

The party counter-revolution of 1983-92 and 1994-97 whittled away this historic right of the rank and file to influence Labour policy. This was taken to its final conclusion by the Blair-Mandelson project which ruthlessly applied the new "swing" voter strategy to the 1997 election campaign. Gone was any consideration of the interests of the labour movement. In its place were the views of the 100,000 or so floating voters in the key marginals. The focus groups made up to represent these voters took precedence over the 85 per cent of the electorate who happen to live in safe seats. For the first time Labour was no longer even trying to address the needs of the old, the poor, ethnic minorities, or traditional working class communities. As far as the theory went, these votes could be taken for granted as they were almost all concentrated in safe Labour seats.

This approach was even applied to the use of party resources in the election campaign. Abandoned were the old campaigning practices that began by canvassing on the safest estates to ensure that the core vote turned out and then worked their way on to the marginal areas. The trend begun in the 1992 election campaign was taken to extremes in 1997 with every safe seat twinned with a marginal. Party workers, who naturally tend to be more numerous in safer areas, were urged to leave their own constituencies and spend virtually all their time in their twinned marginal seats. No wonder that the participation in the inner city seats plummeted with, appalling turnouts in the 50-60 per cent category common. In Hackney, officially the poorest area in Britain, turnout actually fell below 50 per cent.

If this happened in a year when Labour was riding high, with the Tories at their lowest ebb, imagine what could happen in the next election with the inevitable disillusion with the Labour government. If we continue with the current electoral system operating as in 1997, turnouts in the cities are likely to fall even further. This is a dangerous trend which is only mirrored in the US where less than 50 per cent of the electorate now vote in presidential elections and the majority feel excluded from the political system.

Mandelson triumphant
While we on the left criticise the morality of the "swing voter" strategy we cannot deny its incredible success in the 1997 election. We can correctly argue that such was the unpopularity of the Tories that there is every likelihood that Labour would have won handsomely under John Smith with a more traditional electoral strategy and on a more generous Labour spending programme. Polls before and since the election have shown that the electorate were prepared to have their taxes raised as long as the extra revenue was targeted to health, education and related public services. However, history is written by the victor and politics is as much about how things are perceived as how they really are. Thus the 1997 Labour election victory now enters party mythology as the triumph of the marginals strategy, a conquest even greater than that of 1945 (left wing claims that Labour won its greatest victory in 1945 on its most left wing programme were often dismissed on the grounds that the immediate post-war election was held in exceptional circumstances).

1997 with its unique majority in the House of Commons will go down as the partyís finest victory, despite the fact that Labourís share of the popular vote at just under 44 per cent was far lower than in its victories in 1945 and 1950, or even its defeat in 1951. This will become the model for future elections. Whenever the left argues for radical commitments the answer from party officials will be that, no matter how desirable such policies, they will alienate the floating voters.

Part and parcel of the 1997 election victory was the success of Mandelsonís use of the most advanced techniques of capitalist marketing: targeting of voters through focus groups, direct mail etc; media manipulation and damage limitation; advertising and soundbites; and so on.

The Conservatives have been so affected by Labourís successful strategy that Hague has announced plans to bring in central control over their local associations, introducing a "One Member One Vote" (OMOV) balloting system for some internal decisions, and the creation of a streamlined election centre modelled on Labourís Millbank Tower.

Clearly, manipulation will occur in any electoral system. Similarly, parties will want to win over floating voters in the centre. Nevertheless, the central advantage of a system of proportional representation is that every vote will count. Therefore the New Labour policy of completely ignoring the vast majority of Labour voters in the safe seats would have to come to an end. Labour would be forced to give much greater value to the interests and votes of Britainís pensioners, urban workers, the unemployed and the ethnic minorities without whom it could no longer win.

Labour unity
One of the main arguments for supporting the old electoral system was that it helped to maintain the unity of the British labour movement. This was undoubtedly correct assessment, and the need for unity formed the core of my own hostility to electoral reform in recent years.

While our traditional unity was founded on the historical unity of the trade unions which dominated the party machine, it was undoubtedly buttressed by the discipline of the "first past the post" system. Any doubts about that were harshly removed by the disastrous experience of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) when it disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 1932. Despite having a body of MPs and a nominal membership of 10,000, the ILP went swiftly into oblivion when it tried to buck the centrifugal forces of our electoral system. Left wing Labour MPs have been mindful of this dťb‚cle ever since.

A similar education for the Partyís right wing was the spectacular failure of the breakaway Social Democratic Partyís (SDP) challenge to Labour in the 1980s. Despite huge support from the mass media and an alliance with the Liberals, the SDP foundered on the harsh realities of the electoral system, winning with huge votes at by-elections only to be obliterated by the Labour/Conservative machines at the 1983 and 1987 General Elections.

More recently, the poor showing of Goldsmithís Referendum Party and Scargillís Socialist Labour Party in the 1997 election has demonstrated once again that under the current electoral system there is no room for more than one effective party on the right or left of British politics.

Of course, there are more different political currents among the electorate than are represented at any one time by the Labour, Liberal and Conservative Parties. Traditionally, people with other views who wanted to see them implemented have been forced to join or vote for one of the three main parties. Thus while electoral systems based on PR result in coalitions between parties, the British and American "first past the post" system creates internal party coalitions. Thus we have a right, centre and left within both Labour and Conservative which vie for influence and control of their respective parties. Indeed, from my own study of party history I have concluded that on a number of occasions the Labour left could have won a decisive majority for its policies and leaders if it had adopted a more united, democratic and far-sighted approach.

I believe that events culminating in the 1997 election show that the situation has now decisively changed. There is clear evidence that the old system of internal party coalitions is coming to an end not just in Labour but also inside the Conservative and Liberal Parties. On a general level since the 1960s, the increasing sophistication and differentiation of capitalism, accompanied by a discontent with the unwillingness of the main parties, especially Labour, to properly represent different interests, has created the basis for a proliferation of single-issue campaigns. This is one of the main reasons for the decline of active Party membership (most of Labourís new recruits are passive) which has been apparent in all parties. Inside the Labour Party there have been a number of special factors which have destroyed the internal coalition and created the uniquely totalitarian regime we now suffer.

Labour Leftís bid for power
The success of the Labour Left at the end of the 1970s threw the British establishment into a panic. Whilst the public position of the mass media was that a Labour Party led by Tony Benn was unelectable, they secretly feared that a determined Labour leadership arguing positively for left wing policies and a radical manifesto could generate an enthusiastic popular movement and take advantage of Thatcherís great unpopularity at the time. Certainly, Benn could not have been worse than the bumbling fudge that Michael Foot represented and would not have fallen into the jingoistic trap that Foot did when Argentina invaded the Falklands. This only served to allow Thatcher to don the mantle of the victorious leader and paved the way for her massive 1983 election success.

The other major obstacle to a Labour victory, the SDP split, could only be dealt with by a confident left wing leader, not by an indecisive, defensive windbag unwilling to answer the SDPís vacuous propaganda for fear of upsetting Labourís remaining right wing. After the 1983 Tory victory, at the very least a Benn leadership would have helped the miners to victory and decisively humbled Thatcherís administration.

Labourís counter-revolution
The narrow failure of the leftís 1979-1981 bid for power gave Britainís political establishment a shock they have still not recovered from. They determined that Labourís old coalition was no longer stable and must be effectively brought to an end. From that time onwards the leadership team, whether under Foot or Kinnock, pursued a strategy of centralising power and marginalising the left. When the 1992 election defeat demonstrated that this strategy had failed, it seemed that the counter-revolution had run out of steam. John Smithís new leadership entailed a change of direction. Although he went along with the introduction of the OMOV reform, even threatening to resign if it was not carried, he made it clear that this change signalled the end of the relentless drive to the right. He replaced the hardliners among the old leaderís staff, adopted a more relaxed attitude towards the left and made specific policy pledges to the unions. Smithís unexpected death provided an opening for the hard right faction of Blair and Mandelson, manipulating the new OMOV system to the limit, to come to power. Since then they have resumed Kinnockís path, taking it almost to its ultimate conclusion.

The reduction in the union vote within the party, the abolition of the partyís socialist clause, the central control of many local candidatures, the introduction of rule by referendum, tightened rules within the parliamentary party Ė all these have given the leadership unprecedented control over the party. Partnership in Power, by ending the right of the rank and file to put motions to Conference and removing the NECís role in policy making, is intended to close off the last avenues for protest.

Unity of the graveyard
In modern society the media industry has grown into a hungry parasite feeding off every party division or political infight. And ever since the outbreak of the left-right struggle within Labour in the 1970s it has become accepted that the electorate favours united parties and will penalise those that are divided. This was further reinforced by the 1997 result when the Toriesí open divisions over Europe were credited as a major factor in their electoral disaster.

This nostrum spells death to much of the old internal debate within the parties. It is the unity of the graveyard. Under such restrictions debate must indicate uncertainty, indecision or worse still real difference of views. Policy changes can only be made when the top favours them. The new rule of public unity at all costs favours secretive debate among party elites arbitrated by party dictators operating in a presidential and "decisive" manner Ė after all when you have just one person who takes all the major decisions there can be no divisions and no negative publicity!

This process has been used to reinforce the drive for unity and discipline imposed from above. Thus Labourís new Parliamentary Party are willing to accept the imposition of the harshest discipline in their history. Similarly, Hague is attempting to apply much tighter controls over Tory MPs and their local parties.

The substitution within the "winner takes all" electoral system of internal party coalitions for the open ones inherent within PR systems were difficult enough. The old criticism of backstage deals being made behind the votersí backs by the parties in a PR system easily forgets the even less transparent deals carried out within the internal party coalitions under our system. Too often policies were decided by the party leaders alone, albeit with an eye to rival party factions. It was argued that at least voters had a choice. But how true was this when most of them lived in safe areas and could not hope to make a difference? Now, with the suppression of any dissent within the Party, the electoral system will become a straitjacket with voters being offered a circus of competing personalities bickering over the form of policies rather than their content.

With all its faults, PR offers voters an open choice and a full debate of all the political alternatives. Following the failure of the Soviet command economic model and its pale alternative in social democracyís undemocratic public sector, it is clear that socialists have a mammoth task on their hands in reshaping a new and worked-out vision of democratic socialism as well as building a mass movement to secure it.

This is now an increasingly urgent task which cannot be kept behind closed party doors. Large sectors, including the young, are suffering increasing hardship and are becoming alienated from the British political process. If we fail to offer hope of a better alternative to the majority they may turn back to the reactionary recipes of the Tory right or even worse. While we all hope that the European issue will continue to prevent Tory regroupment, those who complacently expect Labour to win a second term should remember that there are 100 Labour seats with under a 1000-vote majority. Under this electoral system it would only take a small shift among the ex-Tory swing voters for the Conservatives to return and resume an even more devastating demolition of the welfare state.