There is a consistent majority for liberal (progressive) parties in the UK, but they regularly cannibalise each other in the first-past-the-post voting system (see Wikipedia for details). The last four UK elections were won by the Conservatives yet in three of them the three principal liberal parties (Labour, Lib Dems, Greens) had more votes than the three principal conservative parties (Conservatives, UKIP, Brexit). So it would seem that proportional representation (PR) would lead to a higher probability of Labour-led (coalition) governments.

Yet while there is a campaign group in the party, PR does not seem to be a commonly accepted position. Why is that?

Does Labour prefer to win less elections but then govern without a coalition, or
does Labour hope to eventually absorb the (older) Liberal Democrats and the Greens?

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    PR system is generally detrimental to bigger parties like labour. Also there is no guarantee that lib dem will back labour. They might join the tory camp too as they had like in 2010. Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 1:50
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    @Nadil - Actually, it was Labour who refused to form a coalition with the Lib Dems in 2010, the LDs went to Lab first with the offer and were turned away. theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/may/12/… Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 7:32
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    @GeoffAtkins given the results of the 2010 election, Labour and the LibDems did not command enough support between them to govern, and would have needed support from at least two other parties to reach a majority. This is a more likely reason for the rejection by Labour rather than alignment with LibDems themselves.
    – Jontia
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 8:53
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    They typically push for it when they're not in power, then forget about it when they're in power.
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 20:00
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    A lot of these comments are somewhat inaccurate. It has never been Labour policy to introduce PR for the Commons, so we shouldn't say "they only care for it when they lose". They have lost several times, and PR isn't currently their policy. Neither was it their policy in 1997. I agree, though, a referendum on it was their policy, and didn't ultimately take place. But even so, you can't say nothing changed (PR was introduced for London, Scotland, Wales, and UK elections to the European Parliament).
    – rjpond
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 11:11

8 Answers 8


Because Labour gets more seats with regional representation. Even the famed Tony Blair landslide majorities were never actually a popular majority.

  • In 2005, Labour won 55% of the seats with 35% of the vote.

  • In 2001, Labour won 63% of the seats with 41% of the vote.

  • In 1997, Labour won 63% of the seats with 43% of the vote.

And even when Labour doesn't get the majority, it still benefits. When the Conservative coalition wrestled back the majority in 2010, Labour still won 40% of the seats with 29% of the vote.

Labour Party or otherwise, there's a simple calculus: Majority parties benefit from regional representation. And majority parties control the laws.

As in so many cases in politics, it's fashionable for the losing side to propose changing the rules when they can't change them, but the tune quickly changes when they become the winners and can change things.

Change is possible, but it's unlikely to come from party leadership (and even less likely to be sustained by it when they come back into power).

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    Exactly. They'd dismantle the system that gives them a chance next time. Surely they're loosing right now against the Conservatives, but they're still in the race. With PR however, they loose a big chunk NOW, and then maybe can forge coalitions to get back into government. But it'll be way harder then
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 13:25
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    "it's fashionable for the losing side to propose changing the rules when they can't change them" - perhaps so, but it has never been Labour policy to introduce PR (unless it was back in the 1920s or so), although it was Labour policy in 1997 to hold a referendum on a reformed voting system, and I agree they didn't do so. But after the vast majority of its election defeats Labour hasn't even gone that far. Neither PR nor a referendum is current Labour policy. Of course, some figures in the party have always favoured it.
    – rjpond
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 11:34

There is a strategic reason, and a philosophical reason, but they are related:

With something like the current range of views in the UK, it is very unlikely that Labour could ever win a majority under PR. They would need to form a coalition, and probably a 3-way coalition with the Liberals and the SNP. And while there is some political overlap between the Liberals and Labour, the parties have very different policies. Using proportional representation would have reduced the number of Labour MPs in every Parliament since the 1930s, and neither Atlee, not Blair (who won landslides for Labour) would have had a majority.

So strategically this would make it impossible for a Labour Prime Minister to implement his manifesto, which leads to the philosophical point: that FPTP tends to convert pluralities in the country into majorities in Parliament. Many people dislike the idea that the policies of the government are decided not in an election, but in coalition negotiations between parties. FPTP makes this less likely.

Certainly Labour aspires to be the natural party of Government, so there are both electoral reasons: This would weaken Labour, and some in the party believe it may lead to worse government.

  • I think the discussion of weighted voting is interesting, but perhaps not strictly relevant, so I'll remove it. (FWIW, im a woolly old liberal, and have supported PR for as long as I can remember, though my reasons for supporting it have changed)
    – James K
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 17:42
  • It sounds like an interesting discussion topic.
    – Jontia
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 18:46

Something else to consider:

People vote differently in different voting systems.

Right now, a lot of people vote for either Labour or the Conservatives not because they actually want to vote for them, but because a vote for some smaller party would be "wasted" under FPTP. Under PR that's no longer a consideration and I predict you'd see a massive swing away from the 2 major parties towards all of the smaller ones (along with any number of new single-issue parties that would spring up to take advantage of the new situation).

The 2 major parties therefore have strong incentives not to move away from the current dynamic, regardless of whether they're currently in office.

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    This. See also questions around "Who would have won the US election without the Electoral Colleges?". Under FPTP you often choose the least-worst option from those who actually stand a chance. Under PR, you choose your best option. Under STV you (probably) choose your best option first, then your least-worst option.
    – jymbob
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 9:21
  • Why should it be up to Labour and Conservatives as to what voting system the UK uses? If it's of benefit to the populace, they should be able to demand it. Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 11:13
  • @pickarooney The OP was specifically asking why the parties themselves don't want to change the system.
    – Kaz
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 11:14
  • @jymbob I was just thinking about that, but I figured it was probably too much of a digression .
    – Kaz
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 11:17
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    @pickarooney general voters have no legislative power to change anything. They must work through their elected representatives.
    – Jontia
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 11:50

This may be a ridiculous suggestion, but it's possible that not all politicians are cynical. 😉

The question's premise is that Proportional Representation would be in the Labour Party's selfish interest, and other answers have looked at whether that premise is true. But even if it was true, that might not be sufficient reason to adopt it as policy: after all, banning all other political parties would be in the Party's selfish interest, but is unlikely to be adopted as policy.

So, there is the possibility that there are principled reasons not to adopt Proportional Representation. For instance:

  • A belief in the importance of local constituency representation, which is lost in pure PR systems.
  • A belief that a strong government able to implement its agenda is better than one hampered by coalition with other parties.

To be clear, I'm not saying either of these are unarguable truths, just that a politician could honestly believe them, and thus have a non-cynical reason not to favour Proportional Representation.

  • The local representation thing is definitely a strong argument. As well as having people vote for (or against) individual politicians. In a PR system suddenly it's not the voters deciding which people become politicians, but the parties themselves that decide how to use their allotted # of representatives.
    – Kaz
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 14:46
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    @Kaz While I agree that this is a relative weakness of PR, the current British system also leaves a large amount of the selection to parties, not only in "safe seats", but in declaring official candidates. Johnson's "purge" of the Tory party before the last election is a particularly striking example - those that disagreed with him faced no more chance of election as an independent than if they had been removed from the list on a proportional ballot. To bring us back on topic, the fact that these arguments are so nuanced tends to favour the status quo - "better the devil you know".
    – IMSoP
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 21:14
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    @RonJohn The Cabinet predates the modern primacy of the House of Commons, so it's well-established that members of the House of Lords can be Cabinet Ministers. This presents a convenient loophole to include anyone the Prime Minister wants, by "recommending to the Queen" that they first be made a Peer, then a Privy Counsellor, and finally a Cabinet Minister (possibly "without portfolio", meaning they're not the Minister of anything particular). Like a lot of such powers, it is used somewhat sparingly to maintain the general impression of democracy, but we are in the end still a Monarchy.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 21:53
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    New Zealand's MMP system retains most of the benefits of PR, while still allowing for local representation, thus dealing with your first objection. Commented Jan 28, 2021 at 6:31
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    @JordanMitchellBarrett To repeat a point I made in the answer, it is not "my" objection, it is a possible objection which, rightly or wrongly, politicians might have. Whether it is true, false, or avoidable is something we could debate for hours, but isn't actually relevant on this page, which is about motivation.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Jan 28, 2021 at 9:02

As you've identified in the question, there is a groundswell within the party in favour of proportional representation. In addition to the 100 local labour party branches that have voted to support PR, the Make Votes Matter #PledgeForPR campaign during the 2019 general election recorded the support of MPs across the country, including over 60 current Labour MPs. Most interestingly this includes a lot of SNP MPs who actually have a lot to lose under PR.

During the Labour Leadership Election Keir Starmer supported a constitutional convention on Electoral Reform and the reference to Safe seats is a clear indication that the current FPTP system is not his preferred outcome.

“We do need a constitutional convention. One of the most powerful things coming out of the referendum was the sense that people want decisions to be made closer to them and by them. It was a very, very powerful thing… I think that’s a very powerful message, it’s a socialist message and it’s a Labour message about power coming from bottom up, not top down.

“I also think on electoral reform, we’ve got to address the fact that millions of people vote in safe seats and they feel their vote doesn’t count. That’s got to be addressed. We will never get full participation in our electoral system until we do that at every level.”

As with any change it requires support and understanding from the general public before it could be adopted and the details of voting reform can cause even those in support of change to splinter.

  • Of course, precisely how much the SNP have a lot to lose rather depends on the system. Under 2 or 3 member STV system they could lose as few as 10-15 seats (while increasing the overall safety of a number of MPS) while a national (i.e. UK) list system it would be more like 25. Under a non-proportional system preferential system like AV they'd probably remain stable.
    – origimbo
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 15:57
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    @origimbo 2 or 3 multi-member regions don't seem particularly more representitive than simple FPTP to be honest. Without a decent number of members per region, smaller parties will be squeezed out just as much as they are under the current system. Though the SNP presumably have a lot to gain by potentially being part of a governing coalition even at the expense of fewer overall MPs.
    – Jontia
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 16:06

Another important point is that the assumption that the 3 liberal (progressive) parties together would command a majority is flawed.

The biggest problem with PR is that you tend to get many more parties running for election. For example, in the last election you would have had separate pro-Europe and anti-Europe Labour parties. You would also pick up many niche parties whose whole agenda is limited to small items.

In addition, personal disagreements would tend to split parties that would traditionally be one.

You would then have a situation where the traditional Labour or Conservative parties would hold less than 30% each.

Just look at us here in Israel. We are heading for our 4th election in 2 years and the candidate parties have changed each time with new ones appearing and old ones disappearing.

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    While potentially true over the long term, initially the existing parties are likely to remain as the major powers. It will take time for people to move away from their existing loyalties, the 2019 EU elections being a case in point. Both Lab and Con picked up double digit support despite being considered not on point for the issues of the election.
    – Jontia
    Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 14:53
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    @Jontia you say that, but loyalties can change very quickly. See for instance UKIP's showing in 2015, going from ~1% to ~13% of the national vote in a single election. And that was despite FPTP discouraging voting for smaller parties.
    – Kaz
    Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 15:10

The problem is that whenever one party is in power and another isn't, the party in power is very happy with proportional representation and doesn't want to change it, and the one that isn't in power would have really liked proportional representation but doesn't have the power to change it. If power moves to the other party, suddenly both parties change their attitude. So it's not going to change.

In the UK there also seems to be an almost paranoid fear of coalitions, where in Germany for example people are more worried about one single party being in power. And the one experiment with a coalition went badly wrong. I suppose people everywhere think what they always had and what they got used to is better.

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    Not once during the Conservative opposition from 1997 to 2010 (a long time to be out of power) was there anything but a small minority in the Conservative party in favour of PR.
    – James K
    Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 17:44
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    @JamesK a shallow/cynical examination of the issue would suggest that is because it would have made no difference. There was no other right wing party in the UK dividing support giving the Conservertives a path to power through PR. Until UKIP rose to 13% in 2015.
    – Jontia
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 9:28
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    @JamesK And similarly, Labour spent their opposition period 1979-1992 opposed to PR, and even in 1993-7 were only in favour of a referendum on it, not PR itself. It's true that a minority of Labour are pro-PR and it's a much larger minority than the Tories have in favour of it, but this minority continues to exist when the party is in power. The cynical view of this matter has less merit than some here give it credit for!
    – rjpond
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 14:06

A first past the post voting system mathematically guarantees a two party system. The people in charge of deciding how voting happens are the people in power.

Assuming you're one of the two biggest parties, you have no reason to want to remove the means by which your power is perpetually ensured.

  • I'm not sure if I agree with your premise. Look at Canada. Only 2 parties have ever formed a government, and no stable coalition government has ever happened at the national level. But... Both of those parties have been blown out of the water in elections, and as a result several of the second tier parties have been the "official opposition" at times. At least once, the traditional 3rd party looked like it might win (only to mess up at end of the campaign). Those second tier parties, though, remained mostly intact: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Flydog57
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 0:35
  • That's just a symptom of the regression to a two party eventuality still happening. While the eponymous two parties aren't a guaranteed in, there will be some jostling until they are. At that point, the voting public rightly sees their votes as wasted when voting third party, and the majority will spite vote against the one of the two they like the least, if they vote at all. Note I'm not suggesting the eventuality is a coalition. Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 15:10
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    "guarantees" is the wrong word here, as human voters are not rational actors with perfect information. But FPP does tend towards dominance of two parties over time. Commented Jan 28, 2021 at 6:29

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