NEWS AND BLOG
2020 was the year of “jobs for the boys”. The wellbeing of UK citizens was trumped by the desire to put as much public money as possible into the hands of private individuals and companies.
Such wholesale corruption might be expected to put paid to any Party’s chances of being democratically elected, even on the basis of 43.6% of the vote. Alas, past experience and the current polls tell us otherwise. Unless such behaviour is regularly reported and characterised as corruption, the voters will not know about it.
The print media does not have the stranglehold on political opinion it once held, but it still sets the agenda. Ownership of radio and television channels is increasingly in the hands of the same proprietors, in particular the Murdochs. Tory operators have used Cambridge Analytica and others to subvert social media for their own ends. The only organisation with enough presence in the lives of the majority of people to be able to challenge the misinformation is the BBC. That is why the government has put so much effort into subverting the BBC’s ability or willingness to criticise it, and deliberately stifling Ofcom.
It’s not just broadcasting that the Conservatives are undermining. Changes to the registration system took millions off the electoral roll, and that depleted franchise is now being used to redraw constituency boundaries. The Electoral Commission has criticised the hurdles put in the way of registration - in response the government has threatened to abolish it. Tory MPs who have been sanctioned for breaking electoral rules are on the committee that oversees it, a classic case of putting Dracula in charge of the blood-bank. And voters may have to carry photographic ID at the next General Election, also depleting Labour votes.
Labour has got to address constitutional issues – it is a matter of life and death, not just for the Party but for democracy itself. Creating a society where there is mass popular access to politically balanced information, and some way of calling out deliberate lies, will not come about over the course of a single Parliament. Political education, rebalancing wealth and power, and wide-ranging institutional change are all essential, but they are not quick fixes.
One change Labour can make during a single Parliament is to introduce proportional representation for the House of Commons, in time for the subsequent General Election. It would massively improve the chances of a further progressive government after that General Election – the Conservatives have not won more than 50% of the vote since 1935. And it would ensure that constitutional safeguards put in place by Labour were not subsequently demolished by a doctrinaire Tory government elected on a minority of the vote.
Labour must be committed to change before the next election takes place. We need the voters and the other political parties to know that we will make every vote count. We need that commitment enshrined in our Manifesto. 75% of Labour members support PR – we need that recognised in a Conference resolution next autumn.
That’s why Chartist has joined the Labour for a New Democracy campaign, alongside Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, Make Votes Matter, the Electoral Reform Society, Open Labour, Compass, Unlock Democracy, Labour for a European Future, Another Europe is Possible, Politics for the Many and Get PR Done.
At the time of writing 111 CLPs had passed a motion supporting PR and by the time you read this, that number will almost certainly be higher. We are hopeful that a substantial number of those will be submitted as a Conference motion.
In addition, members were encouraged to make submissions to the Justice and Home Affairs Commission of the National Policy Forum this summer. 65% of the submissions to the Commission mentioned PR, and it had the most mentions of any single issue in the whole NPF consultation. Ann Black, Chair of the NPF, has assured us that it will be one of the matters on the agenda for the coming year.
The other major focus this year needs to be on speaking to affiliated Trade Unions. Trade Unions and their members will benefit from a more progressive electoral system just as much as any other workers. Indeed, an electoral system which prevented minority doctrinaire right-wing governments would almost certainly lead to a just and equitable settlement for Trade Unions which gave them the powers to genuinely protect their members interests and enabled them to grow their membership again.
On three occasions – 1918, 1924 and 1997 – we could have changed the way we vote, but failed to do so. We must not make the same mistake again. We need the whole Labour Movement to be committed to PR in principle before the next election, so that we will be ready to start on the creation of a new electoral system as soon as we are in government.
Many Chartist readers have already been at the forefront of our campaign. If you want to get more involved you can register at www.labourforanewdemocracy.org.uk – and of course I would also be delighted if you join www.labourcampaignforelectoralreform.org.uk
Together we can change the system.
Sandy Martin, January 2021
This article first appeared in Chartist magazine, as part of a special issue devoted to democratic reform.
The value of local government has really been proved during this pandemic. From supporting those who are shielding, keeping essential services going, helping businesses survive, making town centres safer to planning for the future rebuild, it is councils up and down the land that are doing the work. It is noticeable around the world that in countries with strong public health and local government input, there seems to have been a much better response and far greater control of Covid than in countries that are highly centralised.
I am the leader of the Labour and Co-operative group in West Oxfordshire, which includes David Cameron’s constituency. We have a very effective Labour group on the Conservative district council, providing significant input as an opposition group. During Covid-19, some differences between the parties have melted away, and it has been individual councillors and group leaders who have been making important contributions to how the council responds. And our officers have been nothing short of magnificent in making things work locally.
This has, however, come at a financial cost. Councils are struggling with extra duties and responsibilities without the resources to compensate. Councils are also sidelined in decisions despite knowing best. Many councillors were not happy, for example, that the unanimous call by Oxfordshire councils for a circuit breaker in October was vetoed by local Tory MPs who had to backtrack only two weeks – of crucial lost time – later.
Local government faces challenges from Westminster not only in terms of finance but also legitimacy. The recent Conservative government’s white paper on local government reorganisation in England is yet another sign of their top-down approach. This has caused many of us to reflect on the role and legitimacy of local government, including the way that we elect people locally. Even if councils were to be properly funded and constituted, it will not be enough until we are properly elected – and reflect the communities we represent. Only this package of reform, constitutional and electoral, will give councils the legitimacy and sovereignty people want us to have.
First-past-the-post (FPTP) is a pretty punishing system in large parts of the country because it excludes that very strong, cogent and effective Labour voice from being heard in local government. Unitary shires and regional mayors could mean permanent blue control of much of England. In London, Scotland and Wales there is a different story. All experience a form of proportional representation (PR) in devolved government.
At the Labour virtual conference Connected this year, for the first time, at a meeting on local government reform organised by the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, delegates heard first-hand from Labour representatives about their experience of PR. All pointed to ways in which it could be refined, but also shared stories about its effectiveness in building consensus around active and progressive governance, and building legitimacy in the eyes of those they represent.
Diversity and inclusion are now known to be core to decision-making in effective organisations. Why, then, do we allow our electoral system to favour one-party hegemony with massive over-representation of one demographic group? In the Local Government Association 2018 census, councillors were 96% white, 63% male, 45% retired. FPTP bakes in pale, male, stale and Conservative representation. Under any form of PR, we can break that mould.
Despite being in its infancy, various forms of PR are starting to make change happen in London, Scotland and Wales. The average age of councillors in Scotland is falling, elected as they are by a single transferable vote (STV) system, almost a decade younger on average than in England. In Wales, 47% of members of the Senedd are women. PR promotes diversity. Half of Labour’s diverse group of London Assembly members are women.
Local government can build greater resilience through democratic legitimacy in the face of overbearing Whitehall and Westminster power grabs if had we some form of proportionality in electing our representatives. Without it, we have the obscene situation of a virtual lock on power by Conservatives across large swathes of England based on a minority of local votes, which serves to reduce participation in local elections, damage the reputation of local democracy and reduce the effectiveness and the conduct of government – both national and local.
At its worst, it serves to silence Labour voices and stifle debate and consent. It lets Westminster ride roughshod over local views, when it is very often local people who know best what is needed in their area, and local councils that can deliver that most effectively. I would like to invite everyone, and importantly councillors, to join the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform. We are creating a local government network within LCER to discuss what works best and to campaign for change.
Duncan Enright, LCER Executive
This article originally published in LabourList, 26 November 2020
This article by Sandy Martin was first published in Chartist Magazine, 21 September 2000
The Labour Party grew out of several strands. The old cliché that our Party is more Methodist than Marxist is not altogether true. But, certainly, many of the founding principles of the Labour Party, and the campaigns that gave them voice and forced them onto the political landscape, have beginnings that pre-date Marx. None more so than the Chartist movement, after which this magazine is of course named.
While the trade union movement was very much focussed on securing for working people the fruits of their labour, the Chartists recognised that to achieve their aims they needed a society which was controlled by the majority, not one where concessions were dribbled out to them by patronising aristocrats in order to keep them sweet. The demand for meaningful democracy was at the heart of the Chartists’ campaigns. It was the combination of the industrial organising strand – the trade unions – and the democratic justice strand, which gave Labour its powerful voice and enabled it to supplant the Liberal Party so rapidly. At the time of Labour’s foundation, universal adult franchise was still being fought for. Despite the inbuilt bias of the system, the left in Britain did not repudiate Parliament, but won the power to change society by wholly constitutional means. And change it they did, between 1945 and 1951, though much of that change is now being whittled away by the Conservatives.
The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. That means something. It is not meaningful to talk about democracy when all the levers of power lie outside the remit of elected bodies. Such bodies act as a front for the exercise of corporate greed and the accumulation of private wealth, as is largely the case now in the USA and UK. Genuine democracy requires enough public control to effect the will of the people rather than just bleating about it. I would argue that in many cases that entails public ownership – after all, what is ownership other than the power to make decisions about something.
But equally, you can’t have socialism without democracy. Without the legitimacy and accountability that come from democratic systems, any so-called socialism rapidly deteriorates into a self-serving oligarchy, as it did in the USSR.
Keir Hardie fully recognised the imperative for Labour to create a meaningful democracy alongside its mission to produce a more equal society. Keir Starmer has asked our Party to look again at the constitutional issues which are hampering our ability to transform society. Various changes are needed – the House of Lords, of course; the power and one-sided bias of the mainstream media; the lack of any constitutional rights for our local government. But without control of the House of Commons, none of these can be either brought about or defended from reversal by the Tories.
Our democracy, and the social contract developed between 1945 and 1950, are being destroyed by Conservative governments elected on less than half the vote – in the current case 43.6%. That is why Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, Open Labour, Compass, Make Votes Matter and others have come together to make the case to our Party for a change to the way the House of Commons is elected. We know we are pushing on an open door – polls in December showed 76% of Labour Party members support Proportional Representation, and 60% of the submissions to the Justice and Home Affairs Commission in last month’s National Policy Forum consultation called on our Party to adopt PR for Westminster elections. We are working towards a motion to the Labour Conference in 2021, which will commit Labour to reform of the voting system for the House of Commons. Please do look at our website, www.labourcampaignforelectoralreform.org.uk, and join us.
As Clive Lewis said, responding to the hundreds of submissions to the National Policy Forum mentioning proportional representation: “PR is not a silver bullet. But it is a stepping stone on the path to building a better, more inclusive, and more accountable political system – one fit for the myriad of 21st Century challenges before us.”
We will need to win power under the current rules, of course. But once we have that power, either alone or as senior partners in the government, reform of the voting system is a necessary condition for delivering the continuity of progressive Labour-led governments which we will need if we are to set our country once more on the democratic socialist path initiated 75 years ago.
Sandy Martin was MP for Ipswich 2017-2019 and Labour’s Shadow Waste Minister.
Sandy Martin, LCER chair
Sandy Martin writes:
I began my political journey in the early 1970s, while still at school. The Cold War was still cold, the Biafran War beamed pictures of starving children to our TV screens for the first time, industrial unrest was stirred up by Heath’s cack-handed attempts to hobble the Trade Unions, and the first books and documentaries like Rachel Carson’s Silent Planet were beginning to raise awareness of our destructiveness towards our own planet.
Ideologically I toyed with communism, although I always felt it had been betrayed by the Russians, and as I learned more I realised that every system which refuses any effective democratic accountability will always tend towards tyranny and repression. At the same time, my fellow schoolboys were almost all either Conservatives or Liberals, although there were a few mavericks such as Seamus Milne who stood as a Maoist candidate in the school's mock election in 1974.
It did not take much insight for me to realise that I shared a vision of a better world with those who supported Liberal, or Green or even fringe-left views, even if we disagreed about how best to achieve that vision. I could not understand how the forces of reaction and class division had been able to cling on to power so effectively, despite General Elections being fought with a universal franchise since 1929. I understood the impatience of the British voters with the “oh no I didn’t, oh yes you did” bi-polar politics both in Westminster and in the workplace. Above all, I was convinced there was a popular majority for a progressive governance for this country and that only a better voting system would be able to achieve that. I read everything I could about electoral reform, and devised my own system, which I described during my entrance interview to Oxford University.
What has happened since then? I believe the malign influence of multinational media moguls has been largely to blame for the sclerosis – and now deliberate destruction – of democracy in both the UK and the USA. Because we share the English language with such a huge proportion of the developed world, and because our country is probably a more integral cog in the system which apportions wealth around the world than any other apart from the USA, it has always been particularly important to the super-rich to prevent democratic socialism taking hold in Britain.
Make no mistake, there is no route to Socialism which is not democratic – without democracy, revolutionary change just throws up another obscene oligarchy. And there can be no genuine Democracy without a degree of Socialism – if all the important decisions are taken in the boardrooms of companies, if the dividend is the only deciding factor in those decisions, and if the elected bodies have no powers to effect real change, then any so-called democracy is a sham.
As a self-declared Democratic Socialist party, the Labour Party needs to embrace a democracy that works. There are still Labour members, and trade union members, who cling to the supposed effectiveness of First Past the Post for reasons which appear mainly to have been fed to them by the Sun and the Mail. As a democratic party we do need to respond to the wishes of our members, but we also have a historic duty to educate our members, and the electorate as a whole – a duty which was not shirked in the 60s and 70s when we were faced with overt racism and sexism in our Party. Thankfully, the majority of our members – 76% at the last poll – do believe that the time to change the voting system for Parliament has come. LCER has taken up that challenge and I am thrilled to be your Chair this year – the year that we persuade our Party to commit to the democratic renewal of our country.
Theo Morgan, 24 Feb 2020
As the dust settles on December’s general election result, we look back at what went wrong and what we do going forward.
The election yet again showed how our voting system benefits the Conservatives, who now have a majority of 80 with a minority of public support: they won 56% of seats in Parliament on 43% of the vote. For the first time since 1959, First Past The Post (FPTP) has given Labour a lower share of seats in Westminster than its overall vote share: 32% of votes cast for the party translated into 31% of MPs. For the 60 years prior to 2019, the opposite was true, as FPTP overrepresented Labour in Parliament, with a disproportionately higher share of MPs than votes. In this context, the party’s reluctance to ditch the status quo can be understood, as it has benefited them, even if it has helped the Conservatives considerably more.
Labour’s “shopping list” manifesto of offers has been criticised by many, but the one thing we most wanted on our wish list wasn’t there. It’s Time For Change was the title of The Labour Party Manifesto 2019, but the section headlined Constitutional Issues on page 81 provided little evidence of this. Anyone interested in wider electoral reform would have welcomed pledges to end the hereditary principle in the House of Lords, and work towards abolishing the Lords altogether. There were promises to strengthen local democracy, and, it continued tantalisingly, “Our democratic revolution will also extend to elections.”
Read on, though, and your enthusiasm will quickly be dampened by the paragraph which follows. Firstly, a Labour government would repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. This will actually go ahead anyway, because it is a pledge shared by the Conservative manifesto. Whether it is a good thing for a Prime Minister to be able to call an election at his or her will has not been considered. The manifesto continued by stating, “we will maintain 650 constituencies”, which reads like an endorsement of the status quo. A Parliament with 650 constituencies would not be proportional, but this promise is really a rebuke to the Conservative plan to cut the number of seats to 600. Since the election, it has been rumoured that the government will not be proceeding with this, so there is more common ground with the Conservatives.
There were some key differences, however: reducing the voting age to 16 would be a welcome change, especially as this will soon be the case for devolved elections in Scotland and Wales. The pledge to give full voting rights for all UK citizens did not receive much attention, but would be a big change, potentially adding millions to the electoral register. EU citizens, who were only able to vote in local elections before Brexit, would have been entitled to vote at general elections under these plans. Of course, many currently eligible adults are not registered to vote, so introducing automatic voter registration would be an improvement on the current system, implemented under the Coalition. The Conservative proposals to introduce voter ID, which have been criticised by the Electoral Reform Society, would have been abandoned under Labour.
There was only a small glimmer of hope for those wanting a fairer voting system:
The renewal of our Parliament will be subject to recommendations made by a UK-wide Constitutional Convention, led by a citizens’ assembly. This Convention will answer crucial questions on how power is distributed in the UK today, how nations and regions can best relate to each other and how a Labour government can best put power in the hands of the people.
The renewal of our Parliament will be subject to recommendations made by a UK-wide Constitutional Convention, led by a citizens’ assembly. This Convention will answer crucial questions on how power is distributed in the UK today, how nations and regions can best relate to each other and how a Labour government can best put power in the hands of the people.
This is not a new pledge, and merely repeats the offer from the 2017 and 2015 manifestos, the latter under Ed Miliband’s leadership. The question of how a Labour government can best put power in the hands of the people has an obvious answer: ensuring everyone’s vote counts under a system of proportional representation.
Unfortunately, under FPTP, some of our key supporters in Parliament lost their marginal seats in December: Richard Burden in Birmingham Northfield; Emma Dent Coad, who lost Kensington by just 150 votes, and spoke at our conference fringe meeting; Helen Goodman in Bishop Auckland; one of our Vice-Chairs, Susan Elan Jones, in Clwyd South; Sandy Martin in Ipswich; and Dr Paul Williams in Stockton South. Sandy has just been elected to our new Executive Committee, so we hope that Parliament’s loss will be our gain. On the positive side, the new intake of Labour MPs includes electoral reformers such as Nadia Whittome (Nottingham East), Sam Tarry (Ilford South) and Fleur Anderson, who was responsible for the only Labour gain – appropriately enough, in Putney, a historic centre for democratic reform. We look forward to working with them.
In the midst of this gloom, some good news emerged after the election, when it emerged that 76% of Labour members support the party introducing PR. We have long suspected that the membership was in favour of PR, so this shows we have a solid foundation on which to make sure the next manifesto commits to real change. Keep a look out for news on how you can get involved. In the meantime, please join us. We welcome all Labour members and supporters, who are so vital to our work. You can also submit a motion from your CLP to Labour’s National Policy Forum. So far, 78 CLPs have passed motions calling on Labour to back PR. It’s very easy, and we will gladly provide a speaker to make the case for you.
Theo Morgan is a member of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform Executive Committee.
The Electoral Reform Society's briefing on the 2019 General Election result.
Posted by ERS on 20 Dec 2019
In an election campaign characterised by uncertainty and volatility, it came as a surprise to many that the result should be such a decisive majority for one party. The Conservative Party made a net gain of 48 seats – an increase of 7.4 percentage points in their seat share compared to the 2017 general election and the largest majority for the Conservatives since 1987.
The final polls had predicted Conservative seats ranging between 311 and 367. That the difference between a hung parliament and a large majority for one party rested within a polling margin of error shows just how erratic the electoral system can be, particularly when there are more than two parties in contention.
This is an electoral system struggling to cope with increased voter volatility and multi-party politics. A system that is no longer fit for the UK.
Download the full report
This article, by Theo Morgan, was originally published in the Morning Star.
IN stark contrast to Labour’s slogan, “for the many not the few,” the voters deciding whether it will win power are in fact the few, and not the many.
Most votes will not make any difference: like NHS treatment times, our elections are a postcode lottery. Up to two-thirds of seats will not change hands, and a similar proportion of the electorate will see their vote wasted.
Campaigning efforts will be heavily focused on “marginal” or “swing seats” Labour’s top target will be Southampton Itchen, where the Conservatives have a majority of just 31 votes. Labour lost the seat in 2015, but had held it since 1992.
At the two elections prior to 1992, hard line right-winger Christopher Chope had won it for the Conservatives. Following his defeat, he re-entered Parliament as MP for Christchurch, which had been represented by the Liberal Democrats since a 1993 by-election. Since then, Labour have replaced the Lib Dems in second place. However, party supporters there have no chance of being represented by a Labour MP: Chope’s 49 per cent lead is the largest Tory majority in the country.
Just over the border from Itchen, Southampton Test is more than likely to re-elect its Labour MP Alan Whitehead, who has a majority of over 11,000. Voters there will consequently receive little attention, but their vote will still matter more than the other seat in that city, Romsey and Southampton North, where the Tory majority is over 18,000. Labour are a distant third behind the Lib Dems in second place.
Here, people who would like to vote Labour may feel that their best hope of defeating a Tory is to tactically vote Lib Dem, who may stand a slightly better chance of winning. Either way, the seat is likely to stay Tory.
Of the three Southampton seats, only voters in the one Labour target seat have any realistic prospect of influencing the outcome of the election. The majority of voters (53.5 per cent) in Southampton Itchen voted for parties other than the winning Conservative candidate in 2017, yet it is the minority of voters there who re-elected them.
The same is true across the country as a whole. The Tories could easily win a comfortable parliamentary majority in the House of Commons on a minority of the votes cast. Despite no mandate from the majority of the country, they will be able to set the agenda for another five years. Conversely, Labour could win a lower proportion of seats than their vote share, leaving them under-represented, and the Tories vastly over-represented.
Labour gets several million votes from its own safe seats, largely concentrated in urban centres like Liverpool, Birmingham and London. Huge Labour majorities are stacked up in the inner cities, but voters in these areas are ignored at elections.
If Labour supporters are neglected, they may feel taken for granted. Previously “safe” Labour seats in the industrial heartlands of Scotland and the Midlands have fallen to the SNP and the Tories after decades of Labour representation.
If people don’t feel their vote matters, they won’t bother voting at all, and the last election saw a decline in voter turnout amongst the working class. Overall, over 14 million electors did not vote in 2017, and the seats with the lowest turnout are mostly Labour-held.
The Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform wants the party to replace the ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system, which benefits the Conservatives, and formally adopt a policy of proportional representation for UK elections.
There are a number of voting systems which would keep a geographical link between constituents and their MP, whilst ensuring votes everywhere count equally. Southampton’s only Labour MP, Alan Whitehead, supports LCER’s aim of introducing PR; so does John McDonnell, Momentum national co-ordinator Laura Parker and trade unionist Sam Tarry, the Labour PPC for Ilford South.
In 1951, after six transformative years in power, Labour lost the general election to the Conservatives, despite winning the most votes overall, and were out of power for a generation.
A fairer system could have changed the course of history: societies with proportional voting systems have lower income inequality, enhanced action on climate change and fairer distribution of public goods, and are less likely to be involved in armed conflict, outcomes which all align with Labour’s values. Its 2019 manifesto pledges to hold a Constitutional Convention: led by a citizens’ assembly, this would answer “how a Labour government can best put power in the hands of the people.”
For any democratic socialist party, the place to start is by rejecting a rigged electoral system, and replacing it with one in which its voters would be fairly represented.
This article by LCER's Theo Morgan was first published by LabourList.
The odds are stacked against Labour at this election. That isn’t just because of Brexit, or a well-funded Conservative campaign. It’s because the rules of the game favour the Tories. Boris Johnson could win a triple-figure majority on just 37% of the vote. It is no surprise his party supports retaining first-past-the-post: it is a voting system that advantages them.
The other 63% represents a clear anti-Tory majority, however. And that means Labour must change the rules of the game. To end the Tory monopoly on power, one of the most radical, long-term changes Labour could include in its manifesto would be electoral reform.
If Labour stands for equality, it should be applied to our democracy. Resources in this election will not be going into Islington North, where Jeremy Corbyn has a majority of 33,000. The heavy campaigning will be in marginals such as Telford and Pudsey, where Tory MPs are defending majorities of just a few hundred. Under FPTP, the majority of votes will be wasted in seats where the outcome is a foregone conclusion. In order to form a government, Labour therefore has to ignore its most loyal voters, who are heavily concentrated in safe seats in cities like Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester and London.
FPTP also creates unequal Labour MPs. Those with safe seats have a level of job security that allows them to become frontbenchers or party leader. Conversely, MPs in marginals are less likely to progress. Losing our most marginal seats at this election will mean losing talented campaigning MPs like Emma Dent Coad, who won Kensington by just 20 votes.
77 CLPs have so far passed motions backing proportional representation, including many submitted to Labour’s national policy forum. National executive committee rep Alice Perry has noted that the NPF receives “a huge number of submissions calling for electoral reform”. In this year’s conference priorities ballot, PR received over 30,000 votes from CLPs. With Brexit and the Green New Deal on the agenda, however, electoral reform would always struggle to get attention. Yet the UK languishing in 14th place on the Democracy Index shows the need for improvement.
A number of prominent Labour MPs have supported the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, which is chaired by Paul Blomfield. The trade unions have been one of the stumbling blocks to the party backing reform, but former CWU general secretary Billy Hayes is a key ally in the movement, and two Labour affiliates – the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) and Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) – have led the way in supporting PR.
Labour describes itself as a “democratic socialist party”. It is clearly no longer embarrassed about the second part of that description, but still hesitant on the first. Why? Winning under FPTP and setting the agenda is perhaps too appealing. But Brexit has shown the necessity of cross-party co-operation. Labour often forms coalitions at local and regional level; if it is the largest party in December, without a majority, it will need support from smaller parties, who are largely committed to PR. We are now in a multi-party era, and if Labour were to start out today, FPTP would kill it off. A new voting system is needed to serve the diverse society Labour wishes to govern.
At this election, tactical voting is being promoted, especially in Tory-Lib Dem marginals such as Richmond Park (where many Labour members live), and Labour supporters will have to decide whether to vote for the Lib Dems to stop the Tories. This false choice artificially suppresses Labour’s vote, and enhances that of the Lib Dems. Labour voters in the Tory shires, meanwhile, have no real voice: Theresa May is gone from Downing Street, but she is secure in Maidenhead. Under a new system, the area could have a Labour MP.
With many Labour candidates in favour of electoral reform, the parliamentary party experiencing a generational shift away from FPTP, and the membership growing more enthusiastic, it is clear that the party has changed. Amongst the general public, polls have also shown consistent support for PR. For Labour to represent every part of our country, it must build a representative democracy.
Theo Morgan, 13 Oct 2019
This meeting took place on the Tuesday afternoon of Conference; the panel consisted of Labour peer Lord Andrew Adonis, Jonathan Freedland (The Guardian), Stephen Bush (New Statesman) - all electoral reformers - Paula Surridge (University of Bristol, whose position on reform is unclear), and John Healey MP (opposed to reform).
Pollster Kieron Pedley from IPSOS Mori presented data from recent opinion polls. At first sight, the picture is not encouraging for Labour: Jeremy Corbyn has the lowest approval ratings of any opposition leader since records began. Can Labour turn it round at the next election?
John Healey noted that the national picture doesn't apply to every constituency - there are always localised effects, which can be important in aggregate terms. An emerging problem for Labour is the increasing number of postal ballots (in 1997, 1 in 50 votes were postal ballots; that figure has now risen to 1 in 5). The earlier deadline for postal ballots effectively means that there are two General Election dates; even if Labour support increases over the campaigning period, as it did in 2007, this may be too late to influence many postal voters.
Paula Surridge observed that Labour had also been performing poorly in the polls in 2017, but that many Labour voters "came home" at the election. This could also happen at the forthcoming election, but for a number of reasons (Brexit, and the Lib Dems being seen as a more viable alternative), it is unlikely to happen to the same extent.
Jonathan Freedland predicted Labour could run the election campaign as a referendum on Boris Johnson. Referring to the recent Peterborough by-election, which Labour won because the right-wing vote was split, he suggested that the party would be hoping for 300 "Peterboroughs" at a General Election. Freedland has been sceptical of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, but suggested that Corbyn could demonstrate statesmanlike qualities by supporting another candidate as a caretaker Prime Minister to avert a no-deal Brexit.
The debate was opened up to the audience for questions: Mary Southcott (LCER) asked whether Labour's prospects could be enhanced if the leadership embraced voting reform. Freedland, a keen electoral reformer, reiterated his own support for PR and for constitutional change more widely, but suggested that in terms of the outcome of the forthcoming election, this issue wouldn't be a game changer: if the Labour leadership started supporting PR, it might be seen as Labour knowing they can’t win under the current system, and wanting to go for a system in which they can.
Stephen Bush injected a note of optimism with a footballing analogy: teams down at half-time play harder in the second half. But Labour's conference policy announcements aren't cohesive, he suggested. The golden thread running through Labour’s 2017 policies was that they work for the 'little guy' - what’s the common thread now? Bush was more upbeat about Labour's chances in the forthcoming election: Corbyn could become PM in a hung parliament, and he said that this is Labour’s election to lose.
I asked the panel whether they thought we'd see tactical voting to the extent we did in 2017, with southern Remainers voting Labour (helping to gain Tory-held targets like Chingford and Woodford Green) and northern Leavers voting Tory (potentially turning Labour strongholds like Bolsover blue)? Freedland felt that tactical voting might not happen on such a scale this time. However, Labour supporters could be more likely to turn out. Surridge echoed the view that turnout could be higher among progressive voters. In 2015 and 2017, social values were a good predictor of turnout, with socially conservative people less likely to vote than progressives. She pointed to the example of Donald Trump: one result of his presidency in the US has been to mobilise voters with liberal values. IPSOS Mori's polling data shows that Boris Johnson is not particularly popular with voters, so perhaps she was suggesting he could be as divisive a figure here as Trump is in the US.
Bush shared his own recollection of the last US election: he knew Hillary Clinton was not popular with white-working class voters, but believed her position could not get any worse with those voters - and was proved wrong. (Of course, Trump won on a FPTP system despite losing the popular vote by a substantial margin.) Turning to Brexit, he noted that although a big middle ground exists in terms of popular opinion, our voting system does not reward compromise on big issues; a soft Brexit should have been Corbyn’s position in 2017, and the result of a general election could make resolving Brexit no easier due to the parliamentary arithmetic.
Adonis suggested that Labour's biggest problem would be Remain voters. While canvassing as a candidate in the EU elections, he had made the depressing observation that Labour Party membership was a reliable predictor that a person would be voting Lib Dem or Green. Labour Remainers seem to be Remainers first and Labour second, while Labour Leavers are Labour first and Leavers second. Adonis argued that we urgently need to be ask ourselves how Britain has got it wrong, and whether democracy functions better in other countries. We are experiencing a crisis of leadership - Boris Johnson is the worst Prime Minister we have ever had (and far worse at handling his own Party than Jeremy Corbyn). Could the German model (a secret ballot among parliamentarians to elect the Chancellor) be an improvement for the UK?
Bush observed that the Tories are a toxic brand, and have been since the 1980s (the last time they won a large majority). In response to a question from the floor, he cautioned against attacking Jo Swinson on austerity, her role in the coalition and her rightwing voting record. Vince Cable had a similar record, and still managed to draw votes from Labour. The problem for Labour is that it is worrying about how to upset the smallest group of voters: you can discuss Brexit with a Labour MP, and they will just reply, “what about small towns?” We shouldn't worry about Labour MPs turning independent - former Labour MP Frank Field will probably only get 4,000 votes as an independent. Winchester is full of wealthy Remainers, but they won't vote in large numbers for Steve Brine (who had the Conservative whip withdrawn for voting against No Deal).
Bush told the story of a Conservative MP thanking Margaret Thatcher in 1979 for his winning by 76 votes. Those 76 votes were thanks to you, he said. "No", she replied, "the 18,000 votes were thanks to me, and the 76 votes were down to you". We speculated as to the identity of this MP. Our best guess is Robert Atkins, who won Preston North by 29 votes at that election. If you know better, please get in touch!
The panellists' views differed on the likely outcome of a second referendum. Adonis expressed the view that Remain would triumph: it would win over younger voters. This led to another audience question about any future referendum on Scottish independence. He believed that if Brexit happens, the Scots would probably vote Yes to independence; if Brexit doesn't happen, the Scots would probably vote No. As I write this, Sturgeon has today insisted that the price of SNP support for Labour in a hung parliament will be another independence vote.
Bush was more cautious about the prospects of Remain: voters don’t want to be asked the same question twice, he said, and he sees no prospect of a better result at the moment.
Surridge echoed that Remain are not bound to win a second referendum: most Leavers have not changed their minds, and it is a mistake to think that after three years, they will want to think again. She concluded by saying, “Be careful what you wish for”.
In summary: Labour's electoral prospects do not appear especially rosy right now. But neither of the main party leaders are very popular, and it is difficult to predict what the effects of Brexit will be on the outcome of the election. In the words of Stephen Bush: "This is Labour's election to lose".
Theo Morgan is a London Regional Representative at the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform.
Post Conference BriefingMary SouthcottParliamentary and Political Officer, LCER
LCER's 2019 Fringe
Working with Make Votes Matter, our fringe meeting attracted 135 people, despite the main Conference overrunning, and Compositing Meetings at the same time involving delegates and shadow ministers. Stephen Kinnock MP chaired the meeting, held in St Nicholas Church – cue lots of jokes about our platform being, like the Labour Party, “a broad church”. Joe Sousek began by launching the Report by Owen Winter: Peterloo 200: the path to proportional representation, which can be read here. We then heard from Faiza Shaheen, the CEO of CLASS (the Centre for Labour and Social Studies) and PPC for Chingford & Woodford Green (standing against Iain Duncan Smith), Emma Dent Coad MP (Kensington), comedian Eddie Izzard (stand up comic, actor, writer, and political activist), Mark Serwotka (General Secretary of the PCS Union), who emphasised participation and engagement, and Laura Parker of Momentum. Sarah Church, PPC for Swindon South (a target seat) spoke from the audience. We had apologies from Julie Ward MEP, who had attended our Delegates Briefing on Saturday morning and previously spoken at regional fringe meetings in Blackpool and Newcastle. Billy Hayes also sent his apologies with work necessitated by his newly reelected role on the Conference Arrangements Committee, dealing with Compositing meetings.
It is all about Democracy
Although not able to make our Fringe, our Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell majored on “Democracy” in his major Conference speech the following morning: He quoted one of his professors, the late Sir Bernard Crick, as saying, “Socialism is the achievement of equality by democracy”. Sir Bernard was a LCER member and sponsor, influencing many students at Birkbeck and Sheffield Universities, and readers of his books, In Defence of Politics, Democracy: A Very Short Introduction and Essays on Citizenship. His students, David Blunkett introduced citizenship education, and now John McDonnell has promoted democracy and voting reform.
The publication of Peterloo 200 in many ways illustrated the progress made this year. Make Votes Matter now has a Labour Mobiliser, Caroline Osborne of Gosport CLP. Caroline organised our joint stall at Conference as she had at the Tolpuddle Festival in July. We had our Speaker’s Cards - Myths & Rebuttals – on our stall, and they are still available from us, as well as LCER pens, badges, and stickers asking to “Make My Vote Count”. Just write and ask for the number of copies you require: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Report back from the Justice and Home Affairs Commission policy session Caroline Osborne reports:
"The seminar was reasonably well attended for an 8:30 am slot, with around 50 people, many more than 2018. Alice Perry chaired the seminar, with Richard Burgon and Diane Abbott (who arrived late) responding to subjects raised.
I was able to ask the question: "Why does Labour support FPTP [First Past The Post] when it enables a right wing bias, increases inequality, and allows a policy shift to the right?" I added that people had voted for parties to the left of the Conservatives in 15 out of 16 of the last general elections yet we have had a Conservative majority government for 63 per cent of that time. Research shows that countries that use PR have greater environmental controls, better trade union bargaining power and greater equality. Richard Burgon responded with a suggestion that FPTP had worked against Labour in the past, but he was worried about giving representation to the far right. Alice Perry responded to another attendees’ suggestion about decriminalisation of certain drugs by suggesting that they receive lots of submissions to the NPF about the subject, and that they also receive a huge number of submissions calling for electoral reform."
A big Thank You…
…goes to all those who spoke on our platform, to those who staffed our stall, all the hundreds of signups we got (welcome to our mailing list if you are receiving this for the first time), those who requested a speaker for their constituency or trade union meeting, those who volunteered to help us by becoming speakers, and those who raised voting reform on our behalf at other fringe meetings.
Other conference events
The Politics for the Many (Trade Unionists for Political Reform) “Transforming Power for a Real Democracy” also attracted an audience (as expected) in favour of changing our voting system. The panel included the Shadow Minister Jon Trickett, who has the constitutional portfolio as Shadow Lord President of the Council. He did not answer the question posed by our East Midlands Executive representative Ken Ritchie’s questions: why is this campaign focusing on House of Lords reform, when the most important issue of the day should surely be House of Commons electoral reform? But at the end in response to whether the voting system will be considered in Labour’s constitutional convention posed by Joe Sousek, Make Votes Matter, he replied “Yes. How can it not be?”. The Electoral Reform Society had their own fringe where Jess Garland spoke. You can read her article based on her speech at the fringe here. At another fringe meeting, Anand Menon spoke of his support for voting reform. When asked for his reasons, he referred us to a speech you can watch online here. Kim Leadbeater, sister of the late Jo Cox, spoke on the Mirror/UNITE fringe platform about having “More In Common”, at a fringe which showed videos of Britain Talks, the Mirror’s campaign for bringing people together. Beyond the Bubble, Ipsos MORI’s fringe event featured Lord Andrew Adonis, Jonathan Freedland (The Guardian) and Stephen Bush (New Statesman), all in favour of voting reform alongside University of Bristol academic, Paula Surridge, who we believe also supports reform. Housing minister John Healey MP (alas still a FPTP supporter) represented Labour on the panel. Read Theo Morgan's report.
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