Electoral reform for a House of Lords replacement is the long-term prize that a future Labour government should seize as soon as it enters office. Proportional representation ensures that we have an equal say in how we our governed and, what is crucially missed, also leads to less poverty and more growth.
Countries with more proportional voting systems are more equal (and have less poverty) as shown in Figure 1 below. The electoral system is an important reason these nations are more equal: correlation here is, in part, causation. We know this because when looking within countries, we find that areas that adopted Proportional Representation (PR) were more likely to redistribute more afterwards. Proportional Representation leads to more equality and less poverty.
Source: OECD Stat
Proportional Representation leads to lower inequality and poverty for two reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, people know that they have a say under Proportional Representation and so vote in greater numbers. Given that those on low incomes are usually less likely to vote, PR draws proportionally more low-income voters into the electorate (pun intended). More low-income citizens voting leads to an increase in their electoral importance and the incentive for governments to redistribute more to them.
Secondly, voters in proportional systems know their preferences will be accurately expressed within the final seat allocation and so choose their first-best option, which is less likely under first-past-the-post. First-past-the-post leads to two party competition within seats and regions (there are few three-way marginals). Voters have two choices under first-past-the-post and, as middle-class voters become risk averse, they elect centre-right governments because they often choose the party that they think will tax them less. Centre-left parties need exceptional leadership to overcome middle-class risk aversion. By contrast, (middle-class) voters are unafraid to express their true preferences at the ballot box under PR because they know those votes will directly translate into support for their preferred policies.
Proportional representation also helps to increase economic growth as governments have an incentive to direct government investment to broad social groups (because all votes count equally) rather than, as is the case under First-Past-The-Post, spend money on groups that are geographically pivotal (because votes in marginal seats are worth more).
We see this in both the UK (and USA) where the votes of young people are systematically undercounted under First-Past-The-Post because graduates must move to major cities to get good jobs. The votes of us young people then pile up uselessly in safe urban seats. By contrast, the votes of pensioners are more effectively worth more as they are more evenly distributed across the country as can be seen in Figure 2 below. There are around 15 seats where 18-30 year olds make up more than 40% of the population but almost none where the same is true for pensioners.
Source: UK Census 2011 data
Great and prosperous nations look to the future. But our first-past-the-post electoral system means that the votes of the future are systematically undercounted. When the votes of the young are worth less, investment in our future prosperity falls, and we all pay the price in the form of lower growth.
Gordon Brown’s constitutional commission left open the electoral system that should be used to choose a replacement for the House of Lords. Our position should be clear – that body should be elected using proportional representation. Delegates at conference passed a motion in favour of electoral reform, trade unions are in favour, and so am I. We have an historic opportunity at the next election to implement Proportional Representation, ensure that all votes are counted equally, permanently reduce inequality, and increase our common prosperity. Let us seize it.
To read Jeevun’s previous blog, an analysis into the importance of stories to Labour’s electoral success, see How Labour Can Win the Economic Argument.