Saturday, May 08, 2010

Ralph Miliband on the British electoral system

An under-read component of Miliband's oeuvre is his 1982 book Capitalist Democracy in Britain. It is a fusion of his previous account of the state under capitalism, and his critique of parliamentary socialism. As an argument about the nature of the British state and its antipathetic relationship to popular democracy, it should be essential reading for all those agitating for proportional representation and out protesting against their sense of disenfranchisement by the parliamentary system today. This is what Milband says on the uses of first-past-the-post:

"It may be noted here that the Labour Party's electoral advances were achieved under a system which greatly distorts the relationship between votes cast and seats won at elections. All representation is to some extent misrepresentation. But there are degrees; and the British 'first past the post' system almost guarantees distortion of the popular vote in terms of party representation in the House of Commons, and on occasion in terms of who forms a government.

"In all, general elections since 1945 except that of February 1974, one party has obtained an overall majority of seats, though by only the barest of margins in the elections of 1951, 1964 and October 1974. But in no election since 1945 has one party obtained 50 percent of the votes cast. Yet, government by one party - Conservative or Labour - has been the rule in that period, with the 'winner' claiming a 'mandate' from the 'electorate' for its policies, and with the habitual assertion that 'the British people' had expressed a clear wish for this or that. In the light of what actually happened, this was abuse of language on a grand scale - part of the 'democratic' mythology which forms the most important part of the political culture.

"Furthermore, as the Hansard Society Commission on Electoral Reform also noted in 1976, 'in three out of the last thirteen elections (1929, 1951 and February 1974), the party which returned the largest number of MPs actually had a smaller share of the vote than the runner-up party in the House, so that in a sense the "winner" was in fact the "loser"'. In the general election of 1951, Labour achieved the highest percentage of the national vote ever, but it 'lost' the election to the Conservatives in terms of seats won, even though they had 200,000 fewer votes. The result was solemnly taken to mean that 'the British people' had decisively repudiated 'socialism', and the Conservatives duly formed a government and remained in office, with further electoral victories in 1955 and 1959, for the following thirteen years.

"As for individual MPs, it is onyl a minority of them who receive a majority of the votes actually cast in their constituencies. In many constituencies, the percentage of votes cast for the successful candidate is substantially less than half the number of votes cast. It is only notionally, by convention, and so to speak, as a matter of convenience and courtesy that a Member of Parliament thus elected on a minority vote may be said to 'represent' his or her constituency.

"This electoral system has endured depsite various promptings for its reform because the two main parties have erived substantial advantages from it. In the case of the Labour Party, there was the hope, from the First World War onwards, that the system would in due course bring a majority Labour government to office; and the minority Labour governments of 1924 and 1929-31 greatly strengthened the attraction and plausibility of such a prospect. For the party's leaders the system had the further advantage of greatly strengthening their hand in relation to their left activists: without 'unity' (mainly on the terms of the leaders), the prospect of office must recede. Nor were Labour activists themselves unmindful of the fact that the system, for all its undemocratic features, indeed because of them, might produce a Labour government; and they naturally beieved that a Labour government, whatever might be said against its performance in socialist terms, was better than any alternative.

"From the point of view of the Conservative Party, the 'first-past-the-post' system was attractive because it held out the prospect of undiluted majority Conservative rule; and this was indeed the case from 1922 to 1940, with the minor and innocuous interruptions of Labour's enure of office in 1924 and 1929-31. They also saw the advantage of a system which strengthened 'moderation' in the Labour Party - and which indeed helped them with their own 'extremists'. Even the transformation of the Labour Party into a 'party of government' from 1945 onwards, with the possibility of Labour governments with inflated majorities, did not outweight the advantages of a system which served Conservatives well for a very long time.

"However, the essential condition for its continued acceptability was that Labour, as the alternative party, should remain an essentially 'moderate' party, whose activists should remain under the firm control of its 'moderate' leaders..." (Ralph Miliband, Capitalist Democracy in Britain, Oxford University Press, 1982, pp. 36-38)


The first-past-the-post system is only one, relatively small component of the state's containment of democratic pressure. And to focus too narrowly on electoral systems would be to buy into one of the main ideas legitimising the state's democratic credentials, which is that in embracing the elective principle it has consistently offered peaceable and legal means of social transformation. It might be an unwelcome thought for most of those protesting today, but this widespread belief is based on a myth. Nothing, not the franchise itself nor the most cherished institutions conceded through parliament (such as the NHS, for example), has been conceded exclusively on account of moral pressure, and the winning of hearts and minds. And the state in its neoliberal phase is becoming even more impervious to popular pressure, with or without first-past-the-post. Still, a genuinely proportional system of representation would raise certain opportunities for the Left and is not to be sniffed at.