1980s >> 1989 >> no-1023-november-1989

Editorial: How Shall We Vote?

All the parties, except the Tories, discussed electoral reform at their autumn Conferences. Labour rejected it, but the minor parties—the Liberals, the SDP and the Greens—came out in favour as the only way of getting more of their members into the House of Commons. They also floated the idea of a pact with Labour to oust Thatcher in return for the introduction of proportional representation. Electoral arithmetic is on the side of the anti-Tory parties since at the last election, as indeed in the two previous ones, Thatcher and the Tories were returned even though four out of every seven voters rejected them. So is there a need for electoral reform?

We might as well give our answer straightaway: No, there isn’t. A majority seeking to replace capitalism by socialism only requires one thing of an electoral system under capitalism—that it should allow a majority opinion to reflect itself as a majority of seats in parliament. We are not interested in whether the system ensures a strong and stable government of capitalism nor in whether it ensures a fair representation of capitalist political parties. As the existing electoral system in Britain does allow a majority viewpoint to be translated into a majority of seats, we see no point in diverting our energies from our task of working towards the emergence of a socialist majority towards working for electoral reform within capitalism.

However, since socialism will be a fully democratic society we do have an interest in what is and what is not a fair electoral system since such a system will be an essential part of the democratic decision-making and administrative structure of socialist society.

From the point of view of democratic theory, an electoral system should ensure that the persons elected really are representative. The case against the first-past-the-post system that applies in Britain is that it does not necessarily do this when there are more than two candidates. This is because it allows a candidate to be elected with less than 50 per cent of the votes (that is to say, against the will of a majority of the voters), as were 45 per cent of MPs, of all parties, at the last general election.

There are various ways of avoiding this. Organising a run-off between the top two candidates in a second ballot (as in France) or, what amounts to the same thing, allowing voters to place the candidates in order of preference (as in Australia) and, if no candidate gets 50 per cent, to eliminate the bottom candidates and redistribute their votes amongst the others until one of them does reach this figure. This system, known as the alternative vote, is widely used in trade unions for the election of their officials and is favoured for parliamentary elections by some in Labour Party and even by some Tories. A variant of it, known as the Single Transferable Vote (STV) is applied in Ireland, both North (except for Westminster MPs) and South. Under it voters again place the candidates in order of preference but in a multi-member rather than a single-member constituency. A candidate is not elected unless, and until, after successive redistributions of the votes of the bottom candidates, they obtain a certain quota of votes. This is the system favoured by the Liberals, the SDP and some in the Labour Party. It is frequently described as a system of proportional representation even by its partisans but in fact it is not. It is essentially a system, like the second ballot and the Australian alternative vote, for ensuring that those elected attain a minimum level of representativity. It is only incidentally that, in a context of competing political parties, it ensures the representation of minority parties enjoying a certain minimum, but not necessarily low, level of support amongst voters.

As all these systems are compatible with democratic theory, no doubt they will continue into socialist society for the various delegate bodies that will form part of its democratic decision-making structure. Proportional representation, properly so-called, is a different matter as it presupposes the existence of competing political parties and was in fact devised precisely for such parties. It requires multi-member constituencies (which can be the whole country, as in Holland and Israel) and party lists rather than individual candidates. A great variety of PR systems exist in the various countries which practise it but these are all based on the principle that the seats should be allocated to the party lists in more or less strict proportion to the number of votes obtained.

The essence of democracy is popular participation not competing parties. In Socialism elections will not be about deciding which particular party is to come to “power” and form the government. Politics in socialism will not be about coercive power and its exercise and so won’t really be politics at all in its present-day sense of the “art and practice of government” or “the conduct of state affairs”. Being a classless society of free and equal men and women, socialism will not have a coercive state machine nor a government to control it. The conduct of public affairs in socialism will be about people participating in the running of their lives in a non-antagonistic context of co-operation to further the common good.

Socialist democracy will be a participatory democracy rather than the choice every four or five years, with or without proportional representation, between rival gangs of professional politicians that passes for democracy today.