Theme: Government & Parliament | Content Type: Blog

How Should a Progressive Parliament Advance Proportional Representation?

Stuart White


Jakob Owens

| 10 mins read

Many on the left and centre of UK politics believe that a future progressive Parliament should make the introduction of Proportional Representation (PR) a priority. I agree. But how should this progressive Parliament advance the cause of PR? This is the question I address in a recent article, ‘How should a progressive Parliament advance Proportional Representation?’, in The Political Quarterly.

This might seem an odd question. Isn’t it obvious what a progressive Parliament should do? It should, quite simply, use the sovereign power of the UK Parliament to pass a law that introduces Proportional Representation. Let’s call this the purely Parliamentary road to PR.

But is it so simple? In the past UK progressive governments have sometimes held confirmatory referendums before enacting proposed major reforms to the political system. Confirmatory referendums preceded the setting up of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The last time the UK Parliament considered electoral reform, under the Coalition, there was also a referendum (on the Alternative Vote, not a form of PR). However, many supporters of PR today oppose holding a confirmatory referendum. In a recent article in The Guardian, for example, Polly Toynbee emphatically rejects this idea: a progressive Parliament should ‘just do it’, eschewing a referendum because, she says, referendums are ‘toxic politics’.

I support a confirmatory referendum on PR. But even if you don’t think a confirmatory referendum is the right way to go, perhaps because of the obvious risk, it is crucial to take the measure of the reasons against treating the introduction of PR as ordinary legislation. Nor is the choice necessarily the binary one of the purely Parliamentary road or holding a referendum. Unless progressives address these issues carefully there is a danger that they could box themselves into a corner with some very damaging effects on the wider project of democratic renewal.

Let’s look at the topic first in terms of democratic ethics. We can then move onto the political implications.

Ethically speaking, the basic problem with the pure Parliamentary road to PR is that it treats constitutional politics as no different to ordinary politics. It apparently assumes that there is no need to use a distinct political process to make major constitutional changes to that used for other laws and policies. As a claim about democratic ethics, however, this is wrong.

There are two ways in which it is wrong. The first applies only if you also support moving to a ‘written’ constitution. By a ‘written’ constitution we mean a set of basic rights and rules for our political system that is both codified and entrenched. A right or rule is ‘entrenched’ when it cannot be changed by a simple majority vote in the Parliament; changing this rule or right requires a special, more demanding political process. This might be, for example, a national referendum (as in the Republic of Ireland); or perhaps a vote in two Parliaments on either side of a general election (as in Iceland).

Many supporters of PR do also support a ‘written’ constitution. But we can now see how there is a logical tension between advocating both a ‘written’ constitution and a purely Parliamentary road to PR. The former, logically, implies that constitutional politics is different in kind to ordinary legislation, requiring a distinct process to simple majority vote in a single Parliament. The latter, on the other hand, says that a major constitutional change should be treated in the same way as other legislation – a simple majority vote in a single Parliament is adequate.

I’ll return to the political implications of this below. But the tension I have pinpointed is not a mere philosophical nicety. An important part of the historical context is that, in recent decades (since the 1970s) the UK has, tentatively and unevenly, adopted a practice of treating constitutional change differently to ordinary legislation. Examples include the changes, mentioned above, that were subject to confirmatory referendums. So to take the purely Parliamentary road to PR now, against the backdrop of this recent history, looks like it is deliberately repudiating a convention around constitutional change that a supporter of a ‘written’ constitution has a reason to support.

The second way in which it is ethically wrong to treat constitutional change as ordinary politics concerns conflicts of interest. Regardless of what you think about the merits of a ‘written’ constitution, it is poor practice to give elected politicians the sole power to decide what the rules of the electoral system are. Why? Because we can be confident that in time they will use this power to shift the rules in ways that give unfair advantage to their party or parties. In time, this will undermine the legitimacy of the democratic system. If we treat a change to PR as something for Parliament alone to decide, however, then we are giving the sole power to determine electoral rules to elected politicians. We institutionalise this basic conflict of interest.

Given the obvious unfairness of our current First Past the Post electoral system, and the fairness of moving to PR, this point might seem irrelevant. But we have to think about the principle we are affirming and what its long-term implications are. This particular use of the power to choose electoral rules might promote electoral fairness. But we can be sure that in the future parties will use this power in ways that are far from impartial.

An alternative approach is to put question of electoral system design to an independent Citizens’ Assembly and for elected politicians to commit to respecting its recommendations. In moving to PR, this approach offers a possible alternative both to a purely Parliamentary road and to a confirmatory referendum, pointing to how the options we have are not confined to this binary. (To be a genuinely independent exercise, however, the Citizens’ Assembly needs to have the option at this stage of not recommending PR.)

There is one powerful defence of the purely Parliamentary road to PR. This is that post-Brexit Conservatism represents a unique threat to UK democracy and that taking the quickest, surest road to PR – the purely Parliamentary road - is justifiable to address this threat. It is ethically and constitutionally messy, but reasonable in the circumstances given the bigger danger.

I get this argument. However, progressives should also acknowledge the political dangers. What will happen once this topic enters wider political debate? Conservative opponents will loudly proclaim the unfairness of treating PR as ordinary legislation. They will demand a referendum. They will be hypocritical in making this demand, but that won’t stop them. Once this fight begins in earnest, how will progressive supporters of PR respond?

The risk is that we will try to make an absolute virtue of necessity. In defending the purely Parliamentary road, it will be hugely tempting to argue that constitutional politics is no different to ordinary politics, that referendums as such are a bad idea. We can already see this argument at work in Polly Toynbee’s article linked above. But let’s go back to the ideal of a ‘written’ constitution. Politically, it is very hard to see how we could ever establish an entrenched constitution without a referendum to authorise the relevant constitutional document. What else, other than the direct authorisation of ‘We the people’, could possibly have the rightful authority to bind Parliament to a higher law? To adopt Toynbee’s position that referendums as such are bad, ‘toxic’, is to slam the door on moving to a ‘written’ constitution.

The political danger is that in seeking to defend the purely Parliamentary road to PR, progressives invest in ideas that then box us in. Progressives risk becoming strangely reinvested in the philosophy of Parliamentary sovereignty and, in this respect, risk becoming the new constitutional conservatives.

This is why it is important for progressives to engage constructively with the points I have raised here and my article for The Political Quarterly, and to consider the full range of ways that a future progressive Parliament might advance PR.

  • Stuart White

    Stuart White

    Stuart White is a Fellow in Politics at Jesus College, Oxford, and a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations, Oxford University.

    Articles by Stuart White