Why proportional representation is a humanist issue

Democracy has played a crucial role in atheist, humanist, and secularist philosophy. To achieve their political and social goals, the atheist, and wider AHS+ movement must support proportional representation.

My own values rooted in atheism, humanism, and secularism, lead me to support proportional representation. That’s enough justification to write about it on an AHS+ blog, but doesn’t necessarily make it a humanist issue.

As we mark the International Day of Democracy, and the UK enters party conference season with demands for proportional representation reaching new highs, I’ve been reading more on the history of humanist and secularist support for democratic reform. I’ve come to believe that there is a strong case for the humanist and wider AHS+ movement in the UK to support proportional representation.

I’ll elide over the more basic general arguments in favour of various systems of proportional representation. For the record STV (single transferable vote), is considered by many reformers to be the best over a number of measures, and is the preferred system of the Electoral Reform Society.

The role of democracy

Many religious traditions have embraced or reconciled with democracy. But the central role of democracy in secular humanist philosophy is different. Democracy is a fundamentally humanist idea, that problems can be solved and the common good derived through a purely human endeavour. The spread of democracy and the rolling back of monarchic and ecclesiastical control of governments has been a fundamentally secularist project.

By contrast theocratic and similar systems are antithetical to humanist (and other AHS+) values, not only because they tend to oppress such values, but more fundamentally because they seek to place sacred ideas or institutions beyond the power of the people to question.

The eighteenth-century enlightenment intellectuals who laid the foundations of modern humanism, wrote extensively about extending democracy and representation. The nineteenth-century freethought movement which gave rise to secularism, was fundamentally concerned with and inseparable from democratic reform. It was a more working-class movement, concerned with a rigged electoral system which denied most a meaningful vote. Every Humanist Manifesto has been created through, and stressed the importance of, a democratic process.

Democracy is not a binary state. On a range of measures, the UK is more democratic than many nations. However, trust and satisfaction in our democratic system is in decline because our voting system (first past the post, or FPTP) is increasingly not fit for purpose, failing to represent or respond to the preferences of voters. A broken democracy leading to entrenched power cannot be consistent with humanist or secularist values.

Enlightened self-interest

As critics point out, PR tends to be more popular among those whose preferences are most disadvantaged by FPTP. However, if a personal stake in addressing an injustice invalidated one’s arguments, only the most privileged in society would be able to challenge any injustice.

In the 2019 general election, Green (866,435 votes per MP elected), Liberal Democrat (336,038 per MP) and Labour (50,837 per MP) voters were most disadvantaged by FPTP, while Conservative (38,264 per MP) and SNP (25,883 per MP) voters were most advantaged. The Brexit Party are an anomaly as although disadvantaged by FPTP, their actual electoral strategy was based on gaming the system to advantage the Conservative Party. Urban areas with high numbers of younger university graduates were also systemically disadvantaged by FPTP.

The idea that support for PR is a simple anti-Conservative position is overly simplistic, and not the best principled argument. But if we are looking simply at self-interest, then atheist and other AHS+ voters have a disproportionate interest in supporting PR if either:

  1. They disproportionately support parties particularly disadvantaged by FPTP (Green, Liberal Democrat, most other small parties, and to a lesser extent Labour).
  2. They disproportionately live in geographic constituencies whose preferences are particularly disadvantaged by FPTP.

Over a decade of professional and personal activism in AHS+ organisations gives me plenty of anecdotal evidence to support these propositions and convinces me that further research would be fruitful. However, empirical research on the political affiliation of nonreligious voters in the UK, probably the best proxy to use for AHS+ people, is extremely limited. In part because the degree of political polarisation by religion is relatively rare. Much of what is available uses the 2011 census, which dramatically undercounts the nonreligious and overcounts Christians.

It should be possible to use the constituency-level data on religion, to provide some evidence for or against the second proposition. UK polling organisations almost never use (non)religious data as a factor in their general political polling or MPR models of different constituencies. (Enquiries to their press teams.) The age demographic of different constituencies could be compared to the British Social Attitudes Survey to provide weaker evidence on the distribution of non-religious voters (who trend to be much younger) in constituencies advantaged or disadvantaged by FPTP.

Good research on the first proposition is frustratingly rare. Figures from the Counting Religion in Britain blog for June 2017 looked at the 2015 and 2017, general election, though had to use recalled votes for the former. β€œReligious Nones” were significantly more likely to vote for parties disadvantaged under FPTP.


It’s extremely dangerous, shortsighted and divisive to base proposed constitutional settlements on narrow policy outcomes. However, if PR would increase the voting power of humanist and the wider AHS+ community (or put another way reduce their electoral disadvantage) this would tend to suggest that their preferred policy outcomes are likely to be more successful.

If we look at the campaigning aims of the major atheist, humanist and secularist groups, it is hard to imagine these being anything but easier to achieve under PR. Despite progress in many areas, we have an establishment that is overly deferential to conservative religious interests. PR could help break open the establishment. Because a wider range of interests would be represented and politics made more consensual, there would be greater potential to get secularist reforms on the agenda.

Arguments against PR

Opponents of proportional representation argue that it is more likely to lead to non-majority governments and representation of minority or fringe parties. These are consequences of democracy, and the risk of extremist or fringe parties gaining power is potentially a greater problem under FPTP.

Humanist and other AHS+ voters may be concerned that a theocratic fringe group including various Christian Nationalist parties, may gain seats under PR. But under FPTP, fringe political groups are encouraged to adopt the high risk, high reward strategy of attempting to take over an existing major party. For example, in 2015 UKIP won 12.6% of the vote but only 0.2% of seats. Had their voters been fairly represented in Parliament, the Brexit takeover of the Conservative Party may never have happened. It’s unlikely that a theocratic fringe (perhaps Islamist sympathisers in Labour, or Christian Nationalists in the Conservatives) could ever stage such a takeover, but under FPTP it can’t be ruled out.

FPTP advantages concentrated politically homogeneous groups and encourages politicians to target perceived key voting blocks rather than appealing to their whole range of voters. This may advantage conservative religious interests at the expense of more secular voters, as parties seek to court specific religious groups through self-appointed β€˜community leaders’.

What should be done?

There may be reasons why the largest established groups in the AHS+ space could not actively support a campaign for proportional representation, ranging from concerns over mission creep to political neutrality requirements imposed by their constitutions or charitable status. We need to raise awareness among the atheist and wider AHS+ community, of the importance of proportional representation, and its relevance to the issues we care about.

Major players in this space could help through research and polling their members. If they had broad postal data on their supporters or their voting intentions, these could be mapped to indicate whether or not their supporters are disproportionately disadvantaged by FPTP.

Both the National Secular Society and Humanists UK have launched history projects in recent years. Yet I could find only one reference to proportional representation. They could do more to talk about their history of support for democratic reform. With many local humanist, skeptic and other similar groups returning to in person talks, now would be a great time to look into a guest speaker on PR.

There could even be a push to have a motion on proportional representation put before the next World Humanist Congress. Perhaps someone should set up an AHS+ PR campaign group, though if that seems an acronym overload, then something like β€˜Humanists for PR’ could work. If you want to get involved in a group supporting proportional representation, then most political parties have a dedicated chapter. There are also cross party and non-partisan groups including Get PR Done, the Electoral Reform Society, and Make Votes Matter. If your support of proportional representation is particularly influenced by your humanist or secularist values, then say so.

Photo information: Close Up Photo of Vote stickers on People’s Fist, Mikhail Nilov

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