Can Scotland help England to be One Nation?

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There are those in the Scottish Labour Party who are always happy to blame the 2007 introduction of STV-PR to elect Scottish Councils for the rise of the SNP and thus the electoral decline of Scottish Labour.

It’s a simple theory – everything was someone else’s fault, Labour have no responsibility, and if only the electoral system had stayed the same then all would have been fine.

Unfortunately, for those who propound it, this theory is also a million miles from the truth.

For one thing, so much has changed in the last decade: technology, communications, Twitter, Facebook, the banking collapse, the crisis of the elites, the decline of deference, a Westminster coalition Government, the rise of UKIP in England, and general institutional decline right across the spectrum.

The idea that whatever happens, the Labour Party simply has to stay the same and try to keep everything as it was at the time we were most electorally successful, is frankly the worst kind of conservatism.

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The truth is that all healthy, advanced democracies in Europe use voting systems that deliver seats broadly in proportion to the voters’ wishes.

Regrettably, the UK lies 16th out of the 25 countries considered full democracies in the Economist Intelligence Unit 2012 Democracy Index – and all of those above us have forms of PR for their elections except Canada.

And, of course, it was a Labour-led Administration and a Labour First Minister that actually brought in the 2007 electoral changes – not from narrow party interest, because the changes did initially hurt Labour to begin with.

It is all too easy to be principled when it’s in your own interests, but much more difficult when it might harm them. Sometimes though, when you do the right thing, the right things eventually happen.

And the truth now, in 2014, is that on many measures Labour is in a better position in Scotland’s councils under STV-PR than we were under FPTP:

  • more Leaders than in 2003 (16 now compared to 14 in 2003)
  • a say in governing more councils (19 now compared to 17 in 2003)
  • Labour Councillors and Labour in Administrations in places that we had never had them before, e.g. Aberdeenshire

The Labour Councillors who were so heavily concentrated in certain parts of the country are now spread more thinly but more widely across the whole country, doing away with ‘them and us’ areas and helping to create a real ‘One Nation Labour’.

And while throughout the recent period of Labour Governments at Westminster, Labour haemorrhaged council seats in England – losing 58% of all the councils it had held at the start of the decade – Labour has held, and actually gained, councils in Scotland under STV-PR.

As shown in the Electoral Reform Society’s recent report , ‘Towards One Nation’, if Ed Miliband really wants to modernise British politics and to make the UK a better democracy, then seeking to adopt the Scottish Local Government electoral system for English and Welsh council elections would go a long way to achieving his goals.

By doing the right thing by the country, he may well do the right thing by the Party; and finally give Labour some control in Councils in the South of England.

Now, that really would be ‘One Nation’ – undivided.

Andrew Burns is the Labour leader of Edinburgh Council

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