A general election is the most important event in our democracy, so it’s ironic that debate about the terms on which our democracy works often feels muted during election campaigns. Our unwritten constitution, the electoral system, an unelected upper chamber… these are never the issues that the media focuses on, and they rarely feature in parties’ key messages. But these constitutional questions play a critical role in deciding what kind of society we end up with. They are the rules of the game and, as with all games, rigging the rules tends to mean rigged outcomes.
Nine years of Conservative government has pushed our society to breaking point. From the point of view of so many of us, the state has simply been allowed to fail. It’s failed the homeless, among whom 726 died on the streets of England and Wales last year alone. It’s failed the 135,000 children who will be spending Christmas in temporary accommodation. It’s failed young people who see us hurtling relentlessly towards climate catastrophe. It’s failed the record numbers who now rely on foodbanks to feed their families. It’s failed all of us – rich or poor – by allowing all the problems known to modern society to rise on a tide of rampant inequality.
Our democracy is supposed to empower and protect all of us. The fact that so many people in such desperate need feel so powerless tells us that it’s not doing its job. A Labour government will sweep away the burning injustices of the last three governments. We’ll give the NHS the funding it truly needs and establish a National Care Service. We’ll make employers pay a real living wage and end foodbank Britain. We’ll respond to the climate emergency with a green industrial revolution. We’ll scrap the punitive system of Universal Credit and build the council homes that are desperately needed.
But even as we right these wrongs, we cannot ignore the powerlessness millions of people have felt in recent years and, if we’re honest, during many decades past. Nor can we forget that it’s our outdated democratic institutions that have led our society to its current state. This is why a Labour government will radically reform our democracy to make it fit for the 21st century.
The House of Lords, for example, is the only unelected revising chamber in Europe. Yet it is the second biggest legislative body in the world, beaten in size only by China’s national congress. Instead, we’ll establish an elected Senate of the Nations and Regions. We will bring power closer to the people everywhere; re-establishing regional government offices and decentralising decision-making. We will extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds and introduce automatic voter registration, so everyone who is entitled to vote can do so.
Most importantly, we will establish a UK-wide Constitutional Convention, led by a citizens’ assembly, to address the crucial questions about how power is – and should be – distributed in society. Internationally, citizens’ assemblies – large, representative groups of people selected in a similar way to a jury – have dealt with the most difficult of questions. By cross-examining experts, deliberating and reaching popular recommendations, they have solved controversial deadlocks, from constitutional changes to reproductive rights. Such a process would put power in the hands of the people when it comes to the shape of our democracy, and decide how to make the powerlessness felt by much of the public a thing of the past.
I’ve made no secret of my own views on our first-past-the-post voting system. The stark reality is that most voters explicitly rejected both the Conservatives and the DUP in 2017, just as most voters rejected every single Conservative ‘majority’ government since 1931. And we know from 2015 that this electoral system allows the Tories to win a majority on as little as 37% of the votes. The majority of us have suffered as these governments forced extreme policy after extreme policy on an unwilling country. Yet millions of people in safe seats feel their votes have little value and that government isn’t responsive to the needs of their communities.
My view is that we should move to a system of proportional representation (PR), meaning the share of seats a party wins matches their share of the vote – and therefore that all votes count equally. When you look across Europe and the wider world, this is exactly the model used by the most equal and compassionate societies. PR isn’t a panacea, but it makes callous ‘majority’ government on a minority of the vote impossible – and it gives people far more power over who will speak for them in parliament.
I support groups like Make Votes Matter, the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and Compass as they continue to mobilise more support than ever for this change within the Labour Party. I also recognise PR is something other parties and organisations such the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy have long called for. But make no mistake. If you want electoral reform, Labour is the only party that can deliver it. This is an immutable consequence of the system that you and I want to see replaced: this election can only be won by Labour or the Conservatives.
To all those who want to see radical democratic reform, I invite you to seize this offer of a Constitutional Convention that is truly led by the people. Have faith, as I do, that empowered and informed citizens will recommend something very different to our antiquated and creaking democratic institutions. This is our one and only path to the political system we need to build and defend a more equal society. It’s time for real change – and that must mean real change to our democracy.