“I submit that proportional representation is a fundamental socialist concept. I argue, furthermore, that no socialist seriously committed to democratic, accountable representation can advocate any other electoral system.”
So argued Arthur Scargill, president of the National Union of Mineworkers, at a debate in 1986 hosted by the Socialist Society on the question of proportional representation.
Far from being a technocratic or obscure issue, proportional representation (PR) and broader electoral reforms are important parts of the struggle for working-class power and democracy. Working-class and socialist organizers and leaders like Scargill have long recognized this fact. Proportional representation was included in the very first demand for democratization in the German Social Democratic Party’s Erfurt Program and was also part of the U.S. Socialist Party’s 1912 platform. PR was also recently endorsed by the U.K. Labour Party at its 2022 Party Conference.
Some don’t see the connection between the fight for PR and the democratic socialist project, however. In an article in Current Affairs, Benjamin Studebaker objected in strong terms to our argument in Jacobin for why socialists should support the Fair Representation Act, a bill in Congress that would institute a PR system in the U.S. The headline was severe and to the point: “Proportional Representation Is a Terrible Idea That The Left Should Not Embrace.”
Studebaker deserves points for directness. But his argument is flawed. Proportional representation is a fundamental part of building a truly democratic, representative government, a project that we as democratic socialists ought to be as committed to as we are to redistribution. This ought to be a sufficient reason to support the demand. But it so happens, contra Studebaker, that proportional representation is also good for democratic socialists specifically. All the more reason to support it.
Democracy and PR Go Hand in Hand
Curiously, Studebaker does not even entertain the argument that we find most important for why leftists should support PR systems: namely, democracy. As democratic socialists, we should take the “democracy” part of our name seriously. PR systems advance the cause of building a true democracy in which all people’s views would be represented and considered.
Let’s take a look at why first-past-the-post systems (FPTP) do not produce democratic results.
The FPTP is the system common in Anglophone countries including the U.S. Under these winner-take-all arrangements, there is no guarantee that a party’s strength in a legislature will match its vote share. Parties can have many more, or many fewer, seats in a legislature than they receive, proportionally speaking, in votes. This is because parties are competing to win a single seat in a given district.
In a PR system, which a plurality of countries around the world have adopted, a party that gets 50 percent of the votes would get about 50 percent of the seats in a legislature.
Not so in a winner-take-all, FPTP system. Say there are ten seats representing ten districts in the country of Winnertakeallia. There are three parties, and Party A gets 40 percent of the vote in each of the ten districts, beating out Parties B and C, which each get 30 percent of the vote. Under winner-take-all rules, Party A would get 100 percent of the seats in the legislature even though it only got 40 percent of the vote in Winnertakeallia overall. Sixty percent of the country, then, would not be represented at all.
Such unfair outcomes are hardly unusual in FPTP systems. In 2019 in the U.K., the Tories won 44 percent of votes but 56 percent of the seats in the House of Commons. The Liberal Democrats won 11 percent of votes but only 2 percent of the seats.
The profoundly unjust mismatch between votes won and power held should be obvious. It radically undermines FPTP systems’ claims to democratically represent the wills and interests of the people.
A second equally problematic consequence of FPTP systems pertains to another aspect of democracy: our ability to form political parties that offer alternatives to the capitalist class’s right-wing (Republican) and center-right (Democratic) agents. Under FPTP, minorities are strongly disincentivized from forming their own parties and representing their interests independently of the two major parties. There’s a strong tendency in FPTP systems to restrict the number of parties that one can choose from. That’s why getting rid of the U.S.’s FPTP system is so important if we’re to represent the will of 62 percent of Americans who think that there ought to be more than two parties with national representation. As socialists, our goal ought to be to build a mass working-class party that offers a direct challenge to the capitalist class.
The Right Thrives Under FPTP
Studebaker claims that PR boosts the success of right-wing parties. Look at the Nazis in Weimar Germany, Studebaker reasons. Weimar Germany had a system of proportional representation, and the Nazis won a plurality there.
Studebaker is right that no electoral system on its own can prevent, in all cases, the rise of the far right. However, he neglects to mention that under FPTP, the Nazis might have come to power sooner. Research suggests that they would have won more seats in 1930 and 1932 under a FPTP system than they did under Germany’s PR system. There are many contending explanations for why the Nazis rose to power, but electoral rules are not a major part of the story.
But Studebaker’s argument is particularly amiss given the widely observed association today between FPTP systems and far-right strength. The most obvious example is in the United States. The far right under Donald Trump was able to capture one of the two major parties. In any other country with multiple parties, that movement would be confined to a dangerous but clear minority party. Contra Studebaker, who overstates the strength of the far right in countries with PR, the right is in a much better position in FPTP systems like the U.S., the U.K., and Canada. In these countries, the far right has partially or completely taken over what was once the main party of the center-right and has a much clearer route to state power than it does in multi-party systems. In these latter systems, the far right has to form coalitions with relatively more moderate parties to get into government.
Furthermore, when Studebaker writes that social divisions under PR are particularly dangerous and “PR’s tendency to obstruct change and produce prolonged stalemates increases the chance of dangerous constitutional crises,” it is hard not to come to the conclusion that he has the argument backwards. After all, it is the U.S., with its FPTP system, that has experienced profound social divisions, bitter polarization, paralysis in government, the far right’s meteoric rise to leadership of the Republican Party, and possible constitutional crisis.
Not all the blame for this situation can be attributed to FPTP, but certainly part of the explanation lies there. A key part of the story is the strong bias toward conservative rural and exurban parts of a country that is embedded in FPTP, single-member district systems. This is an argument that political scientist Jonathan Rodden lays out in Why Cities Lose. Left-leaning urban voters are packed into urban districts, while right-leaning rural voters are more evenly distributed across the country. Basically no matter how you draw district lines (unless you engage in extreme gerrymandering), Rodden convincingly shows, a FPTP system produces a notable bias toward the rural and exurban right. And it’s precisely in these parts of the country that the American right has festered and taken power.
The right thrives under FPTP systems. It should come as no surprise that only two years into his first term as Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán and his right-wing party Fidesz enacted major electoral reforms to reduce the number of seats allocated using proportional methods and to increase the number of seats elected by a winner-take-all system. These changes were designed to strengthen Fidesz’s hold on power, and they worked. In 2014, under the new FPTP rules modeled on the American system, Fidesz was able to win 88 percent of the single-member districts with just 45 percent of the vote in these districts.
The conclusion is inescapable: If we want to beat back the right, we should think seriously about the role that electoral reform might play in doing so.
Why PR is Good for the Left
But what of democratic socialists? Studebaker thinks that we are better off under FPTP. In particular, Studebaker warns that PR systems have a tendency to produce multi-party systems and coalition governments which weaken the hand of the left if and when it comes to power. The left is forced in multiparty systems to rely on support from centrists, who successfully block most of what the left wants to do.
The situation is much better in FPTP systems, Studebaker contends. Clement Attlee and Labour in the U.K. were able to build the National Health Service because they didn’t have to rely on a coalition partner (never mind the fact that Attlee and Labour lost the 1951 election despite winning the most votes, a quirk unique to FPTP systems). Gough Whitlam in Australia abolished university tuition fees and built a national health insurance program. He owed his election to a FPTP system. (Australia does not have a pure FPTP, but as Studebaker correctly argues, it’s close to one). Studebaker even makes the argument, using data on income inequality for a small sample size of six countries, that countries with FPTP systems were more egalitarian than those with PR. Studebaker writes: “Some FPTP countries posted top 1 percent income shares that are competitive with those of the Soviet Union.”
We would have to revise decades worth of research into welfare states as well as political commonsense if Studebaker is right that the Anglophone countries with FPTP systems rank on par with or even ahead of Nordic social democracies and continental European countries (which have PR) in terms of their ability to build social programs and economic equality. However, his argument doesn’t hold up.
The reforms made under FPTP systems mentioned by Studebaker are indeed important. The National Health Service is an incredible achievement, as are the successes of Gough Whitlam and the Australian Labor Party. But it is simply wrong to argue that left-wing parties in FPTP countries have racked up a better record winning social democratic reforms.
Some of the best research comparing the relative achievements of advanced capitalist countries has been done by Evelyne Huber and John D. Stephens. In their 2001 book Development and Crisis of the Welfare State, they compare Nordic social democracies (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland) to continental European Christian democracies (Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, and Switzerland) and Anglophone “liberal market economies” (Canada, Ireland, U.K., U.S.) circa 1980. Of the Anglophone countries, Australia and New Zealand make up a fourth group owing to their unique welfare state systems. Huber and Stephens show that down the line, Nordic social democracies do significantly better on basically every measure of egalitarian success. Continental Christian democracies, where social democrats were weaker, come in second place in most (though not all) respects, and the Anglophone countries trail at the bottom. (See the table for a full comparison.)
Scholars have long recognized the significant differences between the welfare state achievements of advanced capitalist countries. As Huber and Stephens argue persuasively in Development and Crisis of the Welfare State, these differences can be attributed to the work of social democratic (and Christian Democratic) parties. And as recent research suggests, there is a direct link between how PR systems boost the left and the success of social democratic reforms.
Studebaker is therefore also wrong to argue that coalition politics in PR countries are a major obstacle to winning significant reforms. Studebaker writes, “When left-wing parties are included in coalitions, they rarely get what they want out of them.” Now, Studebaker is right to draw a connection between PR and the probability of forming coalition governments. But he errs in assuming that this is by itself a problem for leftists. In fact, social democratic parties in the Nordic countries were able to build relatively egalitarian and humane societies—and far more egalitarian and humane societies, as Huber and Stephens show, than anything built in FPTP countries—through coalitions with agrarian parties in the middle half of the 20th century.
In summary, it is PR, not FPTP, that supports the kind of future that Studebaker and we both desire. How else might PR aid left politics?
Under a PR system, in which the left can set itself up as its own party, it is much easier to do the long and hard work of patiently building up a social majority for its politics. That means that when the left does get into power, it has a popular mandate for carrying out its changes. Under FPTP in the United States, on the other hand, the left is usually forced into an uneasy political coalition with the corporate Democratic Party, effectively prohibiting the left from building a full and independent alternative to the capitalist class.
Fighting for Democratic Reforms
The fight for democracy has long been an essential part of what it means to be a democratic socialist. Early struggles for universal suffrage all over the world were led by left-wing parties. Even PR was a demand championed by and won in other countries by the left.
Today, minority rule is a fact of political life in the U.S. We face a serious democratic crisis in which the vast majority of Americans distrust the government and the right routinely wins elections despite losing the popular vote. It’s socialists’ job to step up and fight not only to defend the democratic rights that have been won in the last two centuries, but to go on the offensive and fight for real democracy. Our project of organizing and empowering millions of working-class people depends on it. Our hopes for avoiding the authoritarian mistakes of some in the 20th century left likewise rest on it.
The fight for democracy is our fight. It’s neither technocratic nor elitist. And in that fight, the struggle for a new electoral system—one that does not give the right an unfair advantage and does not keep the left trapped inside of a party with centrists—is key.
That’s why democratic socialists need to forcefully champion the cause of proportional representation.