Georgia L Gilholy is a Young Voices UK contributor.
Labour is well placed to emerge as the largest single party at the next general election. Yet given Keir Starmer’s underwhelming approval ratings, not to mention the party’s persistent divisions with its traditional voting base, we could see him securing the top job only via a deal with the Liberal Democrats.
In that situation their great hobby horse, constitutional reform, would surely be high on any agenda for negotiations.
Such reforms would surely find public, if not parliamentary, support amongst the modest but growing chunk of ex-Tories placing their faith in smaller parties.
With the vast majority (64 per cent) of Labour voters, and just over half (51 per cent) of the general public backing electoral reform, a Starmer premiership could easily justify such a radical break with our past.
This would be a grave error. Proportional Representation stands to endanger not just the future of Conservatism, but British democracy as we know it.
Many on the Left do not shy away from admitting selfish motives for such reforms. They regularly complain that Tory victories would not be so common under PR, where coalitions would be the norm.
(It is notable that these would-be reformers rarely cite Barack Obama’s 2008 victory, or Tony Blair 2005 win, as examples of why PR is needed. Nor do we hear of their grave distress that Sir Edward Heath quit Downing Street in February 1974, grand piano in tow, despite his party’s command of the popular vote.)
PR would doom British voters to the fate of systems like Israel’s, that recently saw its fifth general election in under four years after another mismatched coalition collapsed. If we are sick of the chaos of the late Conservative perma-crisis, PR is not likely to offer us any comfort.
The Israeli model also typifies how PR empowers small, and often more extreme parties, with Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent win coming off the back of an electoral pact with the far-right leaders Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, both of whom have a lengthy record of chilling anti-Arab sentiments.
Among our European neighbours, this framework often permits ‘Green’ parties with slim public backing to prop up governments on the basis that radical environmental policies are pursued.
Installing PR could also threaten the very character of voters’ relationships with their elected MP by creating vast new constituencies consisting of regions with little history as a cultural or electoral unit, which are represented by multiple politicians with no single town or community to hold them accountable.
Just as under the European Union’s parliamentary model, constituents would be left confused how and who they are represented by and how, triggering apathy and low turnout.
Of course, no electoral system is perfect, and politicians will often be guilty of failing to fulfil their manifesto commitments, as Number 10’s newest tenants well know.
However there is something uniquely sinister about the permanent coalitions that PR would require. Under it the country is shut out of secretive post-election talks that decide who governs, and what policies will be kept or scrapped. Only when the tell-all memoirs and TV dramas arrive years later might it be possible to glean a sense of whether a party pushed for the policies it promised voters, or if they were keen to strike a deal at any cost.
In New Zealand and Denmark, many parties have recently faced public pressure to admit their iron-clad plans for any post-election alliances, but the PR system ensures that parties will never have to keep to such pledges. PR allows political elites to leave accountability at the door, permitting them to simply blame coalition partners for their failures ahead of the next vote, and vice versa.
While small parties such as Reform, Reclaim, the SDP and UKIP are eager to piggyback on the prospect of PR, this too is a mistake to anyone keen to advance conservatism (small “c”). From what we know of these parties’ current policy platforms – which in some cases is very little – they have little in common give a dissatisfaction with the Conservative Party.
The SDP lean left on the economy while rejecting the pro-EU legacy of its initial iteration. The only policies Reclaim seemed to promote in the lead up to last year’s North Shropshire byelection were slashing fuel duty and stopping the small boats crisis. Reform envisions the Singapore-on-Thames vision of Brexit Britain that few, outside of Tufton St, have much sympathy with.
It is not clear whether or how the Conservative Party can stand to please voters, but this does not suggest that an incompatible band of Thatcherite nostalgics, social democrats and “free speech” warriors would feasibly secure a coherent alternative.
Few would now agree that our parliamentary system is currently delivering the best options for Britain. But upending our adversarial system risks empowering back room deals that undermine any remaining faith in our politics.