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.