IS A LABOUR-LED COALITION GOVERNMENT THE PARTY’S BEST PLAYING CARD?

The Labour Party is staring down the barrel of a shotgun, recently losing its safe seat of Hartlepool and only narrowly avoiding the same result in Batley & Spen last week. But this state of affairs is nothing new for a party that has been out of government for three-quarters of its existence.

So what could Labour do to tilt the odds in its favour? Well, one answer undoubtedly lies in electoral reform. It is no secret that Britain’s first-past-the-post regime kicks Labour in the shin before the sprint of every election campaign even begins.


Some psephology

A UK general election is essentially 650 separate elections, one in every constituency. The candidate with the most votes is elected as MP, regardless of securing an overall majority or not. Thus, parties often win seats despite being rejected by an overwhelming majority of voters. For instance, the Conservatives won Kensington outright in 2019, despite 62 per cent voting for other parties.

But although this is not a representative system, there is no reason why Labour (being a large party) should be disadvantaged — right? After all, if they’re unhappy that the Conservatives won 56 per cent of the seats in 2019 with just 44 per cent of the vote, they should stop whining and simply work on increasing their vote share from a measly 32 per cent.

A rigged system

If only it were that easy for Labour.

You see, the party in government can gerrymander: create, eliminate and amend the size of constituencies as they please, typically in a way that facilitates their re-election. And because the Conservatives have been in government for two-thirds of the last century, this has given them plenty of time to entrench constituency boundaries in such a way that benefits them disproportionately.

Indeed, the Conservatives’ vote share average across the last four general elections has been 40 per cent, just 7 per cent more than Labour’s. However, over the same four elections, their average share of parliamentary seats has been 51 per cent, a whole 14 per cent higher than Labour’s. As you can see, first-past-the-post has disproportionately given the Tories double the legislative lead over the Opposition than the electorate voted for. This has meant that the Tories have won enough seats to form a government every time, whereas Labour (on just a slightly lower vote average) always fall epically short of having enough MPs to even form a coalition.

By the way, if Scotland (or Wales) were to ever become independent, England would literally become a one-party state: in 2019, the Conservatives secured 47 per cent of the English vote corresponding to almost two-thirds of seats.

The road to proportional representation (and a Labour government?)

But how could PR be achieved, given the idea was overwhelmingly rejected in a 2011 referendum? And would it even benefit Labour, when they continue to receive fewer votes than the Tories anyway?

Well, here’s where we kill two birds with one stone.

Believe it or not, Labour isn’t even the party that would benefit most from PR. Smaller parties would, since they seldom receive the most votes in a single constituency, eliminating the possibility of them sending many MPs to Parliament. (Take the Liberal Democrats, who received 11.5 per cent of the vote in 2019 and just 0.1 per cent of the seats!)

The idea would be for Labour to agree reciprocally with the other centre-left/left parties (Liberal Democrats, Greens, and the SNP) to stand down candidates or seize campaigning in constituencies where they aren’t the party best placed to beat the Tories — so that the non-Conservative vote wouldn’t split. Together, these parties would then total enough seats to form a majority government for the sole purpose of legislating for proportional representation and calling an immediate election under that system.

There is no doubt progressive parties would secure more than 50 per cent of the votes: (excluding marginally missing out in 2015, the last time Labour+ Lib Dems/ Greens/ SNP didn’t total a popular majority was 1959. What’s more, PR would increase voter turnout as every vote would count, meaning Labour could reach many first-time voters in demographics overwhelmingly likely to support them (e.g., financially insecure young people). Labour, being the largest party in this progressive bloc, could finally be back in government, albeit in a coalition.

And for those who say that Labour would struggle to pass a progressive agenda whilst constantly having to rely on a few moderate party votes, I’d refer you to the sheer quantity of policies the Conservatives were able to implement from their 2010 manifesto whilst leading a coalition with a party they didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye with.

It’s not perfect, but 2029 is a long way off

Yes, this plan is not flawless. But here’s the deal:

As with any decision in life, there are always a million reasons not to do something. But when you have nothing to lose, the wisest thing is to ignore them. And I ask you, truly: what do Labour have to lose?

Boris Johnson has an 80-seat majority and history teaches us that majorities of this size are not defeated in one election cycle. However, crises can often be an exception to this rule, being fertile ground for Opposition gains (the Tories wiped out a Labour majority of 66 in 2010 thanks to the Great Recession). Luckily for the current Opposition, we’ve just been through the worst crisis in 75 years: 152,725 are dead and we’ve had the worst economic hit in the G7. But guess what, Labour are 20 points behind. If there was ever a chance to chip away at the Tories’ political capital, it was during last year. That ship has now sailed.

As things stand, Labour has no chance of forming a government at the next election, and the one after that won’t be until the end of the decade. So why wait? Amongst other things, it may well be too late to take drastic action on the climate emergency by then.

A Labour-led coalition would be by no means perfect, but nevertheless far more progressive than what we have now.

It’s not a silver bullet, but Labour has no other cards left to play.