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Proportional Reprepesentation? Now. Right now. More than Ever?

September 25, 2016


The general election of 1983 has produced one important result that has passed virtually without comment in the media. It is that, for the first time since 1945, a political party with an openly socialist policy has received the support of over eight and a half million people. This is a remarkable development by any standards and it deserves some analysis …

“The 1983 Labour manifesto commanded the loyalty of millions of voters and a democratic socialist bridgehead in public understanding and support can be made. 

Tony Benn.

Well the above is true.  But it’s also true that this this election was 33 years ago, that Labour not only lost big time in 1983, but also in 1987 and in 1992 and that currently Britain has a government even more regressive and oppressive than Thatcher’s.

In other words, those eight and a half million people did not so much form a “bridgehead” as a sort of wounded blasted pier that sticks out into the ocean and reminds people of a seaside resort nobody visits anymore.

Red Pepper published an instructive challenge to “The Myth of 1983” last year as Corbyn was elected for the first time.  Here it is…

1983: the biggest myth in Labour Party history

But unfortunately, the article undermines Benn’s case even as it exculpates the manifesto, as it claims (with some accuracy) that people don’t read manifestos anyway (and the 1983 document was rather long).  If the manifesto wasn’t widely read enough to “blame” for the 1983 defeat, then you can hardly take pride in eight and a half million people endorsing it.

Corbyn himself blamed the SDP defections and the “divided opposition” for the long Tory hegemony of the eighties and early nineties.  Mathematically, he is of course, quite right.  The effect of three party politics in Britain in the late twentieth century was to ensure that you barely needed to scrape 40% (and sometimes not even that) to achieve a parliamentary majority.   But here is why it is crucial for Corbyn to seriously (if belatedly) consider the logic and the justice of proportional representation.

If Westminster had elected its MPs by proportional representation in the 1980s then the Tories would not have enjoyed all those years of majority government.  Britain would have had several coalition governments, which some misguided purists might think would have represented an unconscionable “dilution” of the Labour programme.  The gap between the compromised packages offered by such imagined coalitions and the purity of successive monetarist regimes is a gap where people died.

But the truth is, large political parties are already coalitions – the Tories no less than Labour.  Read political diaries from the 70s and 80s and you will marvel that these “colleagues” were supposedly in the same organisation.  And all manifestos are diluted in their implementation.  Manifestos are aspirational documents and any adult electorate will make qualified electoral choices based on the available alternatives rather than denouncing a party for not having fulfilled every clause and comma of their manifesto.

The defeat of the AV referendum during the Clegg-Cameron government was a sorry moment in British politics, because the debate became about punishing Clegg rather than the main principles involved.   The time to punish Nick Clegg for his reversal of his party’s tuition fee commitment was at a general election.  The case for electoral reform should been completely independent of a value judgement on any individual politician.

Jeremy Corbyn has not failed any major electoral challenge so far.  But Theresa May is not likely to give him many.  A terse, humourless authoritarian who won’t even let MPs debate Brexit is not going to provide a general election before 2020.  And it’s agreed that opinion polls on their own are a poor basis for hiring and firing leaders.

Embracing PR is not a matter of being “more left wing” or “less left wing”.   Left and Right (derived from the seating preferences of the French Revolutionary National Assembly) are completely relative terms any way.  You can be on the “left” wing of the Tory party if you advocate the slightest deceleration in the rate of kicking poor people in the head.   Most post war “conservative” Scandinavian politicians would be denounced as crazed Lefties were their policies offered to an American electorate.

The Labour Party is Corbyn’s.   But no part of Corbyn’s programme can be implemented without reaching out beyond the Labour Party.  As the leader of the parliamentary opposition, Corbyn has a professional obligation to articulate not merely current Labour Party policy, but the entire opposition to the reigning government (which rules, lest we forget, with a wafer thin parliamentary majority and no kind of electoral majority).  There is enough horrible horrible governance going on right now for a more inclusive opposition strategy to be forged.  Above all, everybody on the Opposition benches has a responsibility to point out the glaring discrepancy between the ludicrously buoyant vision of economic autonomy that was offered by the fraudulent egotists of the Brexit campaign – and the impoverished and disempowering package that will actually be negotiated.


Sometimes it is vital to break with a consensus.  When the consensus is “Austerity” (or rather “Austeriarchy” as I call it), then breaking with consensus is absolutely vital.  For too long, all the main parties in Britain seem to have agreed that the greed and stupidity of the rich has to be paid for by the weak and helpless and that those making the critical economic decisions regarding economic investments must be allowed to do so in secret, except when they fail, in which case they must be bailed out by everybody else.  Breaking the consensus of “Austeriarchy” is profoundly necessary and long overdue.

But after you’ve broken a consensus, you have a responsibility to create a new one.  It is not enough to be “right” (if “right” is cognate with “righteous”).  It is necessary to save lives.   Austeriarchy kills people – drives people to hypothermia, malnutrition and suicide. Lives will not be saved, hope cannot be restored, and poverty will never be addressed until the basic habitus of political discourse has been realigned.   The Liberal Democrats have always contained anti-austeriarchic social democrats before they got orange booked.   The late lamented Charles Kennedy was one.  Even the hated Tories contained welfarists up to and including the 1980s, people who believed that rich people have a duty of care to the poor.

For the core of what Corbyn honestly says he wants in terms of a fairer Britain to actually be implemented, then a real “bridgehead” will have to be forged – a bridgehead that results not necessarily or realistically in a Labour landslide, but in a cross party triumph for the values for which that party claims to stand.

The really radical challenge is not to challenge the mainstream, but to become the mainstream, to the extent that a working majority of elected legislators actually bring the things you believe in to some kind of workable life.




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