Labour needs PR?

By PR, I do not mean public relations, even though Labour and Mr Miliband would benefit from a better PR machine, since the party and its leader seem unable to find a convincing counter-narrative to the one offered by the current government. What I mean by PR here is proportional representation. The following is a highly unlikely scenario, so treat it lightly.

For Labour, a fundamental change in the system of voting may become necessary, more than the AV system that may or may not be introduced after the referendum in May. The potential reason? The West Lothian question. Even if Labour were to win the next general election, it may do so without a majority of seats in England, especially if the results were to be close.

Not only does the Scottish Parliament have wide-ranging powers to decide on Scottish matters, the Welsh Assembly is also becoming more prominent. Today, 3 March 2011, voters in Wales are deciding whether the Welsh Assembly can pass laws in the 20 subject areas it currently has competence without the UK Parliament’s agreement. The outcome won’t be known until Friday afternoon, but the opinion polls generally indicate that the yes camp will win. Important matters such as education, health, social welfare, and housing are among the 20 subject areas. These are the policy areas that often determine which party the voters support.

As there is no English parliament, the UK Parliament legislates for England. An MP elected from a constituency in Scotland or Wales can vote for matters pertaining to England by the virtue of being elected to the UK Parliament, but not the other way around, since the powers have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. This is the West Lothian question. It is possible that the UK government has a majority in the House of Commons, but not when only the seats in England are counted. If such a situation were to arise, controversial measures affecting England may be passed in the face of the opposition of the majority of MPs whose constituencies are in England.

One way to solve this problem is to set up an English parliament, however, that seems unlikely, as such a step may break up the UK. While defence and diplomacy are important, as well as trade and macro-economic policy making, the UK Parliament will lose much of its significance in matters close to voters’ minds and interests if there were a separate English parliament. Another way to solve this problem, attempted by the last government, is to set up local assemblies with similar powers to deal with the issues that have been devolved to Scotland and Wales. There was little enthusiasm for it. There is also a practical mechanism in which MPs from Scottish and Welsh constituencies abstain from matters pertaining to England. This would work, but spells problems if there are different majorities for the UK Parliament as a whole and when only English seats are counted.

A system based on PR will most likely to mean that there will be no party that will win a majority on its own, and coalitions will become the norm. There are risks, as the recent Dutch and ongoing Belgian examples demonstrate, however, if Labour were to get back into power in the current constitutional arrangement (UK Parliament responsible also for English matters; Scottish Parliament; Welsh Assembly) without a majority in England, then that may be the price it will have to pay. Otherwise, the English voters would question the legitimacy of being ruled by a government which does not enjoy a majority in England. Reforming the voting system to PR would attract the support of the Liberal Democrats and smaller parties, such as the Greens, who will have an increased chance of representation.

Who knows, perhaps Labour can win a majority in England next time. May be Labour will be defeated, so that this issue can be kicked into the long grass. Or there will be a Labour–LibDem coalition (with a majority in England). Perhaps there will be huge changes in the constitutional framework. But it seems that Labour will have problems if it were to win the next election without a majority in England.