I write in a personal capacity having attended every Labour Annual Conference since 1983. I stood as a Labour Parliamentary Candidate in what had always been a Conservative seat when I supported first past the post in 1987, witnessing Labour members voting tactically against the Tories and being thanked by the Tory MP for saving his seat. I put up the vote in the inner city where the Liberal Alliance had a single message, “Labour can’t win here”. I wrote about it in the New Statesman.
My experience changed my mind. What I cannot understand over thirty years later is why Labour hasn’t changed its policy. it made me angry in 1992 when eleven seats determined the result. We lost four elections. And it makes me angrier when in 2019 we have multiparty politics; where the Brexit (UKIP) Party can stand against Labour but not against the Tories to unite the Right; and Centre and Left voters were divided by the voting system. Try a Venn Diagram.
I am somewhat consoled by Machiavelli’s warning that when you argue for change, watch out, because the people who benefit from the status quo will fight all the way, whereas the people who would benefit from the change will not even make the connection. Voting reformers have moved from being ignored, to being called mad, then bad, then it seems everyone agreed with us. So Labour, and the trade unions, have a choice and it needs to decide at its 2021 annual conference to ditch first past the post.
The vote is a symbol of our democracy. It was won by people who laid down their lives, by Chartists, by Suffragettes, in Selma, Alabama and Apartheid White South Africa. The current system has rendered our vote worthless in many constituencies outside marginals. First past the post should have been left behind in the 20th century before we entered the 21st. This was the expectation of Labour as we moved from one to the other.
First past the post predates the Labour Party. It has been the way we vote from Keir Hardie to Keir Starmer. Labour has now lost our fourth general election as we did in 1992. People, during our time in Opposition, are born, attend primary school, leave school, seek jobs or degrees, get ill, commit crimes, affect the environment. If we believe that Labour governments make a difference, why don’t we want them to happen more often. It is surely time we took a reality check.
This is not about mathematics but making votes count and people matter. It is Labour’s historic role to bring about a consensus decision to change the way we count our votes. Tom Stoppard’s character once said: “it’s not the voting that’s democracy it’s the counting”. Labour’s retreat from rural areas and inability to see our role in coastal constituencies needs now to be reversed. The next Boundary Changes. with a flawed logic of equal numbers of registered voters, with “missing millions”, will dilute potential Labour seats with people we have not canvassed and do not know. We need to reverse Labour’s retreat which is responsible for our Red Walls falling.
The Economist wrote in June 2020 we have the wrong government for Coronavirus. We have the wrong government for most of the things our society needs, pandemic or no: smaller class sizes, decent support for disabled people, homeless people, older people, unemployed people, those on minimal wages, key workers, those whose lives have been touched by coronavirus. The current government has an unassailable majority by accident and that accident is the voting system which transforms a minority into a majority.
We have dumbed down elections so we do not discuss the real issues for many people’s lives because we need to win over the switch voter in marginal constituencies who is not affected. We have shifted activists from their seats which either we thought were unwinnable or couldn’t be lost and they have in consequence lost their connections with their local community or opportunities to be effective at local council level.
If support for the current voting system was working for the country, the voters, our party or democracy, we might have an excuse for waiting for the next opportunity to exercise unfettered power. But Labour does not win the right to exercise power for others until it has their consent and that means not only winning their votes but their minds and hearts.
Our values are not about winners taking all but about equality, legitimacy and democracy. We need to ditch a system which means we win votes and not arguments to one where we do both.
Our targeting strategy has often been misplaced. We send people from where they live and work to places where they do not know the nuances of local language. We talk about persuasive conversations but we only leave behind people as soon as we know whether they are “ours” or not. No one owns people certainly no longer parties. We allow vote mountains to build up where we do not need them and electoral deserts where people live 100 miles from their nearest Labour MP.
We often hate the Liberal Democrats, Green Party or Plaid, even the Scottish Nationalist, where we are competing for the same voters. We have more in common than our differences and yet we say things like “at least we know where the Tories stand”. So we would rather give power to the largest majority then work with other parties where they agree with us, and argue with them where we do not. Many people have lost patience with politicians who score points and take decisions which they have not consulted on. We should never forget that Margaret Thatcher’s Tories never won the support of more than a third of the electorate
Voters often want to know how politicians will work together to solve problems and to get things done. This is how the select committees work except they are often ignored. Voters are prepared often to resort to tactical voting under our current system. This is not an exact science. And it introduces dishonesty into the heart of our politics. People try to beat the system by voting for a party they do not support to defeat the party they do not want. So effectively when general elections are over, we are not sure what that was.
Politics needs to change. The culture is oppositional, adversarial and anti consensus. It more often is about blaming the other side rather than problem solving. We need when we agree to work together to find solutions, on issues as wide apart as the climate emergency, social care and we could have found a way through the Brexit negotiations. Never again should we let the people decide without a codified constitution with rules.
People say that our politics is broken because we haven't developed the idea that people should be involved in decisions that affect their lives. This means politicians listening not just to the people who voted for them but others who did not, especially minorities who have no political voice once elections are over. We need a politics where people count all the time and not just once every five years.
We need to educate young people through citizenship education and give the vote to 16 and 17 year olds. Young people often think long term, having a vested interest in their futures and have suggestions about doing things differently. Minority issues are important but take too long to get an airing where much of the political spectrum is silenced by the need of parties to seem united. Minorities can be about deciding our future. Majorities too often relate to past assumptions.
The winning party in Westminster is never more than the largest majority in a system which only works, if at all, with two parties. First past the post polarises our country, it exaggerates difference, it allows elective dictatorship and the winners take all.
It does not reflect Labour values of equality, legitimacy or democracy. It disempowers where we should be encouraging people and communities to work together. We need to decentralise and devolve power and decision making. We need to hear and win the arguments before making decisions based on exaggerated majorities. We need to exercise accountability where some politicians are running away from it.
We have been discussing voting reform in the Labour Party for at least the last half century. Surely the time now is to act. When Labour forms or leads the next government, the decisions about our democracy should be handed to a UK Constitutional Convention charged with writing a written constitution, sorting out devolution and subsidiarity, and Labour should argue immediately for change to a voting system to elect MPs which broadly reflects, as the current one fails, the votes cast, retains the MP-constituency link and empowers the electorate wherever they live.
After coronavirus, we need to cement a paradigm shift to recognise how politics is going to work differently. We need honest and open politics with a voting system not based on guesswork encouraging one party states. We need to trust the voters so they in their turn trust us.
If you sent a submission to the Justice and Home Affairs Commission, thank you. Please let us see a copy. It might be possible to put them on our website or use them in our leaflets.
You will have heard that the Labour NEC will use Single Transferable Vote to elect its Constituency Division. This means that no one faction can monopolise decisions. Those who oppose it at the moment will see it benefits them in the future. It is the only way to get Labour to work together and teach us that we have more in common than that which divides us.