Will Labour support fair votes at last?

The Labour Party conference later this month will, for the first time for some years, debate electoral reform. Is this a turning point in our democracy?

Labour party conference
Labour Party Conference – Photo: The Ecologist

At the end of September the Labour Party will gather in Brighton for its first face to face conference in two years. Eighteen months after they elected Keir Starmer as leader, he will have his first chance to address the membership in person. His supporters are hoping that this will be a turning point in the party’s fortunes after its crushing defeat in the 2019 “Brexit” election.

At Conference, delegates from constituencies, trades unions and affiliated organisations will hear speeches and debate issues. Every constituency can propose one motion for debate, and the most popular normally get debated.

Fair voting: the largest ever support for a topic

This year the conference will have the largest ever number of motions on a single subject — proportional representation (PR). So it is likely to be debated. In the last year, over half of all constituency parties have passed motions in favour of electoral reform, and 144 have submitted motions calling for conference to adopt it in principle as party policy (leaving the decision on what form of PR to a special commission).

Why Labour should want proportional voting

The case for proportional representation is clear. Our current “first past the post” electoral system for the Westminster Parliament is undemocratic. Representing very different wings of the Party, Laura Parker and Luke Akehurst have signed a joint article which points out that:

Our outdated FPTP system privileges the voting power of a small number of swing voters in an even smaller number of marginal seats, whilst giving very little political power to the majority of voters in so-called safe seats. This distorts everything about British politics — from which voters are offered vox pops on national TV to where politicians and activists travel to knock doors and how public spending is distributed. It should be of no surprise to anyone that the areas most likely to be selected for the government’s ‘towns fund’ were marginal Conservative seats. Our electoral system is an encouragement to such distortions and corruption.

Under first past the post, parties regularly win comfortable majorities in Parliament with less than 40% of the votes. Once elected, they can largely do what they like, despite not having the backing of a majority. This is unfair, and 54 percent of people think the system is sometimes broken or badly broken.

Furthermore, first past the post systematically favours the political right. Because conservative voters are spread more evenly across the country, they are more often the largest party in any single constituency. Progressive voters are concentrated in large numbers in cities, creating huge majorities in a few seats.  As a result, in 2019 it took only 38,000 votes to elect the average Conservative MP. The figures for the other parties were 51,000 for Labour, 366,000 for the Liberal Democrats, and 866,000 for the Greens. 

Why now?

Although the Conservatives won less than 44 percent of the votes in 2019, they won 56 percent of the seats. To win an outright majority under first past the post, the Labour Party now needs a bigger swing than has been achieved by any party since 1945. As a result, few commentators expect a Labour majority government after the next election.

However, in almost every election since 1945, a majority of voters have voted for parties to the left of the Conservatives. So a progressive alliance of those parties (Labour, Liberal, Green and SNP) would have a clear majority. The result would be some form of coalition led by Labour. The price for such an alliance would inevitably be an agreement to introduce proportional representation.

Ironically, for the smaller parties, their best hope of having real influence lies in a short term alliance to create a Labour led government committed to introduce PR.

Voting at Labour Party Conference
Voting at Labour Party Conference: photo Hope Not Hate

Is change likely?

The Party leader, Keir Starmer, is sympathetic to change. He has said:

millions of people vote in safe seats and feel that their vote doesn’t count. We will never get full participation in our electoral system until we address that

The issue also has support from both wings of the party (who do not always agree). The Parker and Akehurst joint article points out that :

FPTP also bakes in a right-wing bias as Labour votes pile up in urban areas to no electoral effect. If we are serious about governing, it is time that Labour accepted that and escaped the FPTP chimera of sweeping Labour majorities.

In East Anglia, two thirds of Constituency Parties have passed motions in favour of Proportional Representation. Eleven have supported motions in favour for debate at Conference (including at least two in every county). This is hardly surprising, given the persistent mismatch between what people in the region vote for, and what they get in elections.

Campaigners are encouraged by recent national polling which shows that 83 percent of Labour members, from all age groups and regions, and 62 percent of Labour voters, support reform. There is also clear support in the general population, with 58 percent in favour in the most recent poll.

However, there is still a challenge among the trade unions, who have a substantial vote at Conference. Six unions, mainly small ones, are in favour, and two formally opposed, while six more currently have no policy. Their decision may be crucial.

The PR we have is under threat

We have had proportional representation for some elections in the UK for 20 years. We use it in Scotland and Wales, and for Mayors and Police Commissioners in England. It is also widely used in trade unions and voluntary organisations, and for some internal Labour Party elections. There is no evidence that voters find it difficult or that it produces unrepresentative results.

Under proportional systems where voters are invited to put candidates in priority order, voters for Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens tend to put each other’s parties in the first three preferences. So as the lowest scoring candidates are eliminated, one of the three, usually Labour, comes out on top. As a result, 19 of the current 25 Mayors are Labour, with two Liberal Democrats and two Conservatives.

The Conservatives have recognised PR as a threat to their monopoly of rule. On 15 September they announced that they propose to amend their Elections Bill, which has already received its Second Reading in the Commons, to require Mayoral and Crime Commissioner elections to be held on a first past the post basis in future.

Will we see change?

There is good reason to think that the Labour Party will leave the Conference next week with a policy commitment to electoral reform. It would then be aligned with the Liberal Democrats, Greens and SNP in opposition to the Conservatives, whose power will be seriously undermined if we get change.

Next week may be a turning point for the Labour Party. More importantly, it could be a turning point for our democracy.

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