The usual knock-back by British lefties against proportional representation (PR) is that it generates moderate governments and keeps the left out of power. Better to try “one last heave” and hope that the full socialist programme of a democratic socialist party wins the endorsement of enough voters to gain power. Then it will be “game on” for the left.
This view ignores four inconvenient facts. Under our archaic first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system, we’ve had what could be considered a transformative Labour regime – the Attlee government of 1945 to 1951- only ONCE in British electoral history.
And do we need to be reminded of the second painful fact that, in 1951, Attlee’s Labour Party won the popular vote with a stratospheric 48.8 % of the total vote, but still lost to Winston Churchill’s Tories by 26 seats? The defeat was down to the cruel maths of FPTP. FPTP was no friend of socialism then. Nor is it today.
Some will find the third fact difficult to admit. Yes, Labour under its left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn did much better than right-wingers predicted in the 2017 general election. But on polling day, however, Labour did trail the Tories by 55 seats and was still 64 seats away from winning a majority. FPTP is a “winner-takes-all” system and Labour voters got nothing from backing Corbyn’s radical policies.
Fourthly and finally: it is very unlikely that Keir Starmer will lead Labour to a majority victory in the next election. And even if he did, a Labour government under Starmer would not transform the UK into the socialist motherland. In any Starmer regime, the left would be marginalised to the max and he is currently showing no inclination to bring in PR voting.
In short – and one hates to be the voice of doom in these already gloomy days – it really is hard to foresee a serious left presence in the government of the UK under FPTP for a long time to come, if ever. This is despite the fact that there exist large tracts of popular support for a quite radical programme, such as the 13.5 million voters who endorsed Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto. And the fact that millions are sick to the gills with everything the thoroughly capitalist and repressive Tories represent.
But wait. There is a fifth inconvenient – or perhaps it is better to call it convenient – fact about PR and socialist parties that socialists need to consider. If they can develop a sufficiently wide electoral base (which arguably they already have in the UK) parties that could accurately be called “left of UK Labour” can do quite well under PR and develop a parliamentary presence that reflects that support. It works elsewhere in Europe, why not in the UK?
FINLAND’s LEFT ALLIANCE PROVIDES AN EXAMPLE
Take Finland and its Left Alliance, a party significantly to the left of Finland’s main left of centre party, the Social Democratic Party. Established in 1990, the Left Alliance won 8% of the overall vote in the 2019 Finnish general election. As one would expect from a PR voting system, that meant it now has 8% of the seats in the Finnish parliament.
The Social Democratic Party topped the polls with 17.3% of the overall vote. Perhaps best understood as the “political cousins” of UK Labour, they now lead the five-party coalition, that includes the Left Alliance, that runs Finland. (Not incidentally, all five parties are headed by women and four of the five women, including PM Sanna Marin, were aged less than 35 when elected.)
Here we notice the second major difference with FPTP. In 2017, 40% of UK voters supported Corbyn and Labour. But it meant nothing. Finland’s SDP won less than 20% of the total vote in 2019 and now leads a government of themselves (40 seats), along with the Green League (20 seats), two more centrist parties (totalling 69 seats), and the Left Alliance (16 seats).
This article focuses on the Left Alliance. It attempts to lay out the key role that employing a PR voting system can play in transforming politics for the better and giving the left a legitimate seat at the table if its support base is sufficient. Of course, PR is not the only factor at play, but how a country conducts its elections has a major role in determining the political culture that results.
The right knows this. That’s one reason it supports FPTP. The left needs to “up its game” and appreciate how PR, the alternative, can assist greatly in building co-operative and progressive politics.
Finland is a good case study, explains highly-respected geography professor Danny Dorling at Oxford University:
“If the left in Britain wants to look at what they should do, they really should look at Finland. [That’s] where left wing parties – left of social democratic parties – came together and actually stopped fighting one another.”
(Dorling is co-author of the 2020 book “FINNTOPIA, What We Can Learn from the World’s Happiest Country”; as an aside, this brief video clip with Dorling illustrates another difference between Finland and the UK; the former doesn’t need a footballer like Marcus Rashford to campaign for school lunches for its children.)
How they “stopped fighting one another” is definitely something the British Labour Party, an unrelenting hothouse of expulsions and factions and feuds, could learn something about.
THE POSITIVES OF FINLAND HAVING ITS OWN LEFT PARTY
Because Finland employs PR, it made sense for the Left Alliance to form its own party that is independent of the more centrist Social Democratic Party. This is unlike the sterile model of FPTP which necessarily creates an electoral duopoly on all issues. It means, for a start, adopting a more mature, less binary style of politics and recognition that there are more than two approaches to politics, which in the UK is represented by increasingly right-wing Conservatives and Starmerite Labourism.
As already mentioned, left voters in Finland have two choices of parties to vote for: Social Democratic or Left Alliance (as well as Green).
Established in 1903, the Social Democratic Party is one the pillars of Finnish political life. It played a central role in building Finland’s welfare state and has been a coalition partner in most post-World War II governments.
The Left Alliance, our main focus here, is now led by 33-year-old Li Andersson who is one of Finland’s most popular politicians and who directs a “smaller party” punching significantly above its weight. (Andersson is Minister of Education in the Marin cabinet though, to be clear, Finland’s school system was ranked as the world’s best BEFORE she became minister. Still, not a bad political gig.)
Andersson thinks that the existence of two separate left parties benefits both parties electorally and is opposed to a merger. “There are clear ideological differences… [we] take climate and environmental policies as central starting points to all politics… [and so] I don’t think that politics necessarily works in such a way that one plus one is equal to the combined electoral support of the two existing parties at the current moment.”
The sixteen Left Alliance MPs (in a Parliament of 200 MPs) are both members of the ruling coalition, but also function independently and are able to coax and cajole the more centrist Social Democratic party as needed. Finnish political observers describe relations between the two left parties as “relatively cordial and co-operative…they hardly ever get into ideological fights.”
Moreover, they suggest, political life inside the Finnish Social Democratic Party is much less fractious and confrontational than what occurs inside the UK Labour Party, both as it zigged left in 2015 and now zags right in the Starmer era. Rather than maintain Labour’s fiction of supposed “broad churchism”, the Finnish left has settled in two distinct political parties who relate to one another as organizational equals.
As a distinct party, the Left Alliance publishes its own weekly newspaper (People’s News/ Kansan Uutiset) which leads the intellectual debate among the Finnish left, has its own government-funded and influential think tank, the Left Forum, and is a member of a pan-European left-wing political foundation (Transform-Europe) that networks across Europe and the globe. Here is a Transform interview with Li Andersson.
The Left Alliance also, of course, has its own distinct political programme. Its main themes and values, which emphasise ecosocialism, equality and the fight against xenophobia, have helpfully been translated into English.
We’ve only provided a brief sketch here of the Left Alliance. But if you are a socialist in the UK inside or outside Labour, what’s not to like about a party that plays a key role in the ruling coalition, had only 11,000 members in 2017, and takes as its slogan, “FOR THE MANY, NOT FOR THE FEW”?
Two main questions remain about proportional representation and the left in Finland: 1) How are Finnish parliamentary elections conducted under PR? 2) What about the dangers posed by the far right party, “The Finns”?
HOW PR ELECTIONS WORK IN FINLAND
The 200 members of the Finnish legislature are elected directly by ballot every four years. The proportionality is assured by dividing the country into 13 multi-member constituencies or district; each constituency is represented by between 7 to 36 members, usually from several different parties. (A single member is elected in one electoral district with special features.) The total number of members per district is determined by its relative population.
Let’s look at how this PR system works and then compare it to the UK’s FPTP system. Say a typical Finnish constituency is allotted 12 members; The 12 members might be determined in this way: Party A – elects 4 members; Party B-3; Party C-2, Party D-2, Party E-1. It is definitely NOT a “winner-takes all” system. Every votes counts and there are no guaranteed safe seats. It is this proportionality which explains why the Left Alliance, for example, won 8% of the seats after winning 8% of the overall national vote.
This means that seats are allocated according to the number of votes cast. And every vote counts equally. It is this proportionality which explains why the Left Alliance, for example, won 8% of the seats after winning 8% of the overall national vote.
By contrast, let’s look at the allocation of seats and votes in a “typical” English county, such as Staffordshire. Staffordshire has a total of 12 constituencies or seats. In the latest general election, the Tories won all 12 seats. How did they do that? Because they won all 12 of the individual “winner takes all” contests even though, overall, the Tories won only 61.2% of the Staffordshire total. What about the 28.2% of voters who chose Labour in Staffordshire in December 2109? Who speaks for them? No one. “Who cares?” is the answer from FPTP supporters. Reproduce this “winner takes all”/ wasted votes approach across the whole country and it is easy to appreciate how Tony Blair won a sizeable majority on 35% in 2005 or Boris Johnson on 43% in 2019.
Besides overall fairness, one huge advantage of multi-member constituencies is that voters can actually identify and collaborate with members of parliament who share their views and who are far better advocates for their interests. In the UK, by comparison, there is very little point writing to ask your local MP to lobby on your behalf against a bill if that MP is a government MP and supports that bill.
THE THREAT FROM ‘THE FINNS’ PARTY
Once called “The True Finns”, The Finns is a far right populist party that runs on a very anti-immigrant platform. Based primarily in rural Finland, it has significant electoral power. With 39 seats in the Finnish legislature after the 2019 election, it trails the leading Social Democratic Party by only a single seat. In that election, the Finns won 17.5 % of the overall vote and so its seats total – 39 in a 200 seat legislature – is just about proportional to its overall vote.
The fact that a PR voting system gives a proportional number of seats to right and far right parties in some countries is one that progressive electoral reformers need to face. There are two roads to take in dealing with right wing parties. The supposed “solution” under FPTP is to deny such parties a fair allocation of seats that they should receive on fairness grounds. For example in the 2015 UK general election, UKIP polled an amazing 3.8 million votes or 13% of the total vote. But UKIP won just a single seat. “Job done”, said some at the time. The wacky maths of FPTP had saved the day. Really? A year later, millions of UKIP voters got their revenge by voting “Leave” in the 2016 Brexit referendum and the ideological dividing line between the Conservative Party and UKIP/THE BREXIT PARTY/ REFORM has become fainter every day. In short, purely administrative or mathematical solutions are an illusory way to push back against the far right.
The other solution – both under PR and FPTP- is to directly challenge the political and ideological narratives advanced by far right parties. In Finland, this is done by both the Social Democrats and the Left Alliance, as well as the Greens. All three have pledged that they will not serve in the same coalition government as The Finns. And they regularly remind voters of how catastrophic the 2015-17 government (in which The Finns played a key role) was for most Finnish people.
But there is no denying that the openly racist Finns Party is a serious cancer in Finland’s political culture and its presence has not diminished markedly since it won an electoral break-through in 2011.
AND WHAT ABOUT A BRITISH “LEFT ALLIANCE”?
It is far too soon to decide whether the UK’s growing pro-democracy and pro-PR movement will be successful in the next few years and whether we might join the list of more than 80 countries around the world that elect their governments by PR.
But let’s engage in a second or two of crystal ball gazing. The year is 2028. Britain has just held its first election based on PR. The Labour Party has, not surprisingly, won the most seats (but not a majority) and the Tories have come second.
A British Left Alliance, formed in 2027 and running in its first electoral campaign, has finished fifth and won 6 per cent of the total vote. That seems a realistic target and would mean about 36-42 Left Alliance MPs in Parliament.
One more reason to GET PR DONE!
Thanks to Finnish-born, mostly UK-resident Matti Kohonen for his terrific research assistance. Really collegial.
GET PR DONE! is in the process of arranging a Zoom session in early 2022 with Left Alliance leader Li Andersson. Check our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/GetPRDone) for details when finalised.
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