Billy Hayes: Why I agree – but disagree – with John McDonnell on electoral reform

During the BBC’s local election coverage, John McDonnell reaffirmed his support for proportional representation“I support PR”, he said several times to Wera Hobhouse, the Liberal Democrat MP for Bath seated next to him.

This was not John’s first word on the subject. In 2016, he launched a blistering attack on our first-past-the-post voting system. “Parliament draws its legitimacy from representing the will of the British people,” he said. “When parliament fails to represent the people so flagrantly, it risks ceasing to be legitimate.”

Firstly, let me say that I warmly welcome that the Shadow Chancellor is addressing the deep democratic deficit that underlies our whole politics. Whether it’s unaccountable Tory majorities elected on a minority of the vote, millions forced to vote tactically, or the strategically necessary fixation on a handful of key marginal seats, first-past-the-post is a voting system for the few, not the many.

Labour has always had prominent advocates of PR; Keir Hardie and Robin Cook among them. But support for PR has usually come from the backbenches. John’s commitment to the principle of proportionality, even as Shadow Chancellor, is something I and many on the left have huge respect for.

So it is in the spirit of friendship and comradely debate that I disagree with the next thing John said: “I support PR. I think we should do it for the House of Lords first of all and see how it works.”

Our first-past-the-post general elections are the crux of the UK’s democratic deficit. And I believe it’s too urgent, too important and, frankly, too inexcusable for us to put off dealing with it any longer. Here’s why.

  1. We already know how PR works.

Proportional representation isn’t some new, untested idea. It’s the modern world’s normal way of doing democracy. 85 per cent of OECD countries already use it in some form.

We already have PR in the UK too; in the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, London Assembly and – in a primitive form – for elections to the European parliament. This wealth of experience has given us everything we need to fix our general elections.

The Welsh Assembly’s expert panel has recently drawn up recommendations for its voting system, drawing on Welsh, British and international experience to propose fairer and more representative elections. For example, they recommend systems that ensure proportionality while enhancing voter power, and insisted on keeping close links between local MPs and their constituencies.

There’s no reason the same couldn’t be done for the House of Commons. We don’t need to use the Lords as an experiment – experiments have been churning out results all over the world for decades.

  1. It’s what the party wants.

Shortly before the last general election, polling found that 76 per cent of Labour voters would support a manifesto commitment to PR for the House of Commons, with just 5 per cent opposed. Make Votes Matter and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform have already provided expert speakers to over 60 CLPs and branches across the country, and from their experience support is as strong among party members as it is among our voters.

Almost invariably at these meetings there is a large majority in favour of PR, unanimously on many occasions. This includes not only CLPs in Tory safe seats like Devizes and North Cornwall, but marginals like Stroud and Wrexham, and Labour heartlands like Cardiff West and Liverpool Riverside. Some 17 CLPs have already passed motions calling for electoral reform in the last couple of years.

On top of this, more than 80 Labour MPs have stated their support for PR for general elections – far more than the number of committed supporters of the current system. And trade unionists have recently added their voices to this call with the publication of a report by Politics For the Many.

John has said in the past that he believes we electoral reformers are in a minority in the Labour Party, but I do not believe we are any longer. And if I am right, we need to act.

  1. We cannot afford to wait.

Speaking at a rally at the 2016 Labour conference, John said that no party would change the voting system on which they are elected without a “significant commitment in advance of that election”.

He’s right. History has shown how easy it is for parties to forget about electoral reform once they get into power. Canada’s Liberal government has even reneged on a cast-iron promise to scrap first-past-the-post now that they’ve found themselves with a parliamentary majority.

We promised a constitutional convention to look at all these issues in our 2017 manifesto. But this didn’t stop us from preempting it by promising an elected second chamber and votes at 16. We need to add to this a decisive commitment to proportional representation for general elections.

If we don’t, reform probably won’t happen during the next Labour government no matter how many terms it lasts. That means sooner or later we’ll find ourselves with another Thatcher or May, determined to undo whatever progress we made and with the disproportionate power to do it.

There’s a school of thought among some on the old Labour Left that the way to create a society for many is to have an Attlee government once every 50 years. They are wrong.

There’s a growing realisation that you cannot build a progressive, equal society on the back of a voting system that hands the country over to an extreme Tory minority for so much of the time. All the world’s most progressive, equal and democratic societies got to where they are using proportional representation. Countries with PR tend to have more left-wing governments, stronger trade unions, better income equality, higher social spending, and faster action on climate change.

But this depends on reforming the centrepiece of our democracy, not by tacking a fairly elected revising chamber onto a House of Commons elected by first-past-the-post. It’s time for Labour to back proportional representation for general elections.

Billy Hayes is an executive member of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and a former general secretary of CWU. He sits on the Conference Arrangements Committee.

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