As the spectre of a general election rears its ugly head, talk of Proportional Representation (PR) only increases. Many believe now that First Past the Post must go, whether due to its effects on smaller parties, its Conservative bias, or the existence of unaccountable safe seats.
However, PR isn’t just about counting votes. Research over the years has tied more proportional voting systems to a range of policy outcomes, from lower income inequality to more effective action on the climate emergency.
Less research has been done so far on the impact of voting systems on the housing sector. However, there are a few compelling reasons that making every vote matter could at least help a policy system wracked by decades of inaction.
Whose votes matter?
First Past the Post creates an unequal democracy, where voters in marginal constituencies have more power than those in safe seats. ‘Pork barrel politics’ often result, where officials use the power of the state to advantage voters in these marginal areas.
Anecdotal evidence exists of this happening in housing, of councillors lobbying to build more in safe wards, and to avoid construction in more marginal areas. The policy outcomes of ‘NIMBYism’ are long-documented, but its politics are only viable in a system which gives certain areas more electoral weight than others.
Perhaps the most notable case of electoral manipulation through housing strategy was Westminster’s ‘Homes for Votes’ scandal, where the Conservative council renovated homes in target wards to increase their value and drive away those seen as potential Labour voters, and relocated homeless voters to safe wards.
What’s more, as urban constituencies become Labour strongholds and electoral battlegrounds move to suburbs and towns, those who are at the sharpest end of the housing crisis, particularly the young, have little electoral outlet. All ten of the safest constituencies in the country in 2019 had median ages substantially below the then national average of 40.3, going as low as 27.9 in Birmingham Ladywood. These constituencies also include significantly more private renters, while homeowners disproportionately live in marginal seats.
As we see policymakers shying away from building in electorally salient suburbs, and instead further densifying city centres, we can see that our democratic institutions have an impact on our policy outcomes. In such a geographically centred sector as housing, this is only too clear.
What’s more, systems with single-member districts like First Past the Post encourage parties to select candidates closer to the district’s median voter, rather than to select a balanced slate of candidates who reflect the electorate large. This overwhelmingly leads to representatives who are older, whiter, and more likely to be male than the population at large.
Given that home ownership is higher among the White British demographic group and among older people, this creates a governing class more similar to those who already own homes than those seeking to get onto the property ladder.
Proportional Representation improves the age, gender, and ethnic diversities of the legislatures elected under them. Devolved assemblies elected under PR in London, Wales, and Scotland, for instance, all have a consistently higher proportions of female members and members from ethnic minority backgrounds than the MPs from the same areas elected under First Past the Post.
Moreover, First Past the Post favours right-wing governments over more progressive counterparts. In the UK, Labour has received 40% of the vote to the Conservatives’ 41% since the second world war. But it has been the Tories who have been in power for two thirds of the time.
Looking internationally, research by Holger Döring and Philip Manow showed that countries with majoritarian systems have right-wing governments 63 per cent of the time, while those with PR do so 44 per cent of the time.
Given that left wing governments are often more ambitious in housebuilding, we can see that not only does our electoral system make our politicians more likely to represent homeowners than renters, but it actively encourages Conservative majority governments which suppress housebuilding.
A different kind of politics
The kind of politics which Proportional Representation encourages is also one which the housing sector desperately needs.
For too long, the housing debate has been polarising and riddled with short termism. Pro-housing Ministers like Michael Gove and Robert Jenrick were often attacked as in the pockets of developers, while anyone with objections to new developments risks being caricatured as a NIMBY. Meanwhile, plans to reform the planning system are constantly moderated or ditched altogether, as the concerns of the next election trump long-term considerations.
This is not helped by First Past the Post. Majoritarian systems often lead to dramatic changes from one government to another, and with these changes come considerable policy changes. Governments know that they may only be in office for five years, and so short-term success often triumphs over long-term planning.
Meanwhile, parties are actively encouraged to emphasise their differences rather than their similarities. Under a plurality system, it is often more important for parties to maximise their base vote, rather than reach across to floating voters.
In comparison, Proportional Representation leads to less polarising campaigning, as parties are not just focused on winning votes in the election, but about presenting themselves as credible governing partners. Systems of shifting coalitions also enable long-term policymaking based on consensus from across the political spectrum, rather than the transient dominance of small chunk of it for five years at a time.
After years of unhelpful binaries and policy stagnation, the housing sector is in desperate need of long-term stability and progression. Ending First Past the Post’s grip on politics, with its imbalanced electorate, hegemonic political class, and polarisation and short termism, could well be a start. Want to end the housing crisis? Making every vote matter could well help.