– personal view by Toby Jarman (Broadland Labour Party Youth Officer)
In a parliamentary democracy the purpose of Government is to put forward a programme of legislative change. Invariably that programme must represent a series of considerable compromises.
Before any election the involved parties craft their manifestos. This they do by drawing together a great plurality of opinions, perspectives, interests, analysis and technical advice.
That manifesto does not, therefore, resemble any person or any group’s ideal. Policy formulation within a party is an act of compromise, and a process which is both democratic and practical.
If elected with a majority, that party may act to implement its programme. In this case, the people have delivered the casting verdict as to whether it can be pursued.
Under PR, a majority can only be achieved if one party attains more than 50% of the vote. This has not happened in the UK since Stanley Baldwin’s Conservatives did so in 1931. In fact, no party has even polled above 44% since 1970.
If no single party can attain a majority, another stage of compromise and negotiation is required, as the parties of the hung parliament jostle for presence within a coalition. Crucially, this time, the public do not deliver the final and casting verdict. This time, the power lies solely with the party leaderships. Which policies are sacrificed, and which principles are set aside, is determined from the top down; a clandestine process, conducted out of the voters’ sight- and out of the voters’ control. Crucially, the resulting legislative programme will not have received the endorsement of any particular member of the public, creating an impression of elitism and disconnection.
Equally, in this process it is primarily the left which blinks first. The left has always stood for and by the downtrodden and desperate, and it is this group who are disproportionately impacted by political insecurity and periods without functioning Government. It is they whose survival depends on Government services being well maintained. Socialists cannot in good conscience allow coalition negotiations to drag for extended periods while their constituents suffer as a result. Our opponents, who speak for the elite and the comfortably-off, have no such concerns.
In times of insecurity and panic a perception may exist that the safest option is to fall back on moderate conservatism.
To see this effect one only has to look at the example of modern Germany, in which the Sozialdemokratische Partei has repeatedly, despite pre-election promises to the contrary, found itself to be the only party responsible enough to make deals with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Alliance. That said, it is hardly discernible, judging by German federal Government policy, that Merkel is upheld only by the cooperation of one of the world’s oldest and most gallant socialist parties.
By engaging in these carve-ups, socialist parties allow the public to see them not as the champions of the many, but as the lieutenants of the parties of privilege. It is not possible to critique effectively a Government and to and at the same time stand for change, if you have participated in that Government. Pleas that you participated on your partner’s terms out of a sense of duty will not and should not wash with the public.
Again, this has been borne out in Germany. Since entering the current ‘Grand Coalition,’ the SPD have taken a pounding at the ballot box. In 1998, the SPD won 41% of the nationwide vote. By 2017, after years as a junior coalition partner, that figure had fallen by half to just 20.5%. A poll taken on 10 January suggested that today they would take a paltry 14%. Meanwhile the far-right, in the form of the fascist, Islamophobic AfD, are riding high in the polls with record figures, as they are able to present themselves as the true voice of the downtrodden, as opposed to a socialist party which appears to have sold out. Worse still, this process is a vicious cycle: the smaller a major party’s share of the vote becomes, the more often it must participate in messy coalitions.
Similar such trends have been observed recently in the Netherlands, Italy and even Scandinavia. Once proud parties of labour and socialism are trapped into choosing between allowing Government not to function or having their electoral credibility trashed by seemingly failing to push for change once they are in Government.
I urge everyone to consider how a Labour Government could ever implement a genuinely socialist programme without a parliamentary majority. The Liberals, the original party of business and the free market, would not sanction it. The Greens may want to help, but when our vote increases, theirs tends to fall. Only a Labour majority would have the will and agency to deliver for working people.
There is so much stacked against our party, in the form of a hostile media, a resurgent far-right and a culture that sneers at cooperation and solidarity. I believe that to support Proportional Representation would be to further impede our position by allowing us to fall into the same trap as so many of our European comrades.