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.