Labour must once again be the party of constitutional reform

Keiran O'Neill
© Twitter/@Keir_Starmer

“I am not prepared to put up with a system, which once every generation, every 30 years, gives us an opportunity to get in with a majority the way the Conservatives do and govern in the same way.”

These are the words of Robin Cook, which I think today are as important as ever. The message is simple: the Labour Party must not keep playing the rigged game that keeps the Tories in power. It must overhaul the British constitution, to drag it kicking and screaming into the modern day – or else.

John Spellar’s recent LabourList article on this set out an approach to this challenge that could not be more different from my own. But we can agree on one thing: Labour needs to win. I just cannot see a situation where that can be achieved without a serious agenda to fix the UK’s broken democracy. This shouldn’t be news to any Labour member, especially an MP. “The Labour Party is the natural party of constitutional reform,” as John Smith once said, and we have to be that party again if we are to have any hope of winning the next general election.

Despite it being fashionable in some circles to say otherwise, power and where it lies – and more importantly, who wields it – matter. Covid has been a catalyst for our constitutional crisis but when we see regional leaders like Andy Burnham standing up to the intransigence and dangerous incompetence of this Tory government, we get a glimpse of the kind of change and leadership we could always have, rather than just once in a generation.

The constitutional commission announced by Keir Starmer is a welcome first step in the right direction. It must recognise the significance of its task and realise how crucial its recommendations will be on the future of our party and these islands: a half-baked gesture is not going to cut it. That means at long last coming to terms with the urgent need to change how we elect MPs to Westminster. First-past-the-post has left too many millions feeling their vote does not count, and locked Labour and progressives out of power for too long. It cannot go on.

People who say that calls for a fairer voting system are solely the domain of apparatchiks and political obsessives cannot escape cold hard facts. 76% of Labour members support proportional representation and almost a quarter of local parties have already passed a motion supporting PR. The Labour for a New Democracy campaign – a coalition across the movement – is winning the argument at a grassroots level, and hopefully we can keep doing this in the lead-up to party conference and finally commit our party to a democratic voting system.

But changing the voting system, whilst vital, can only work as part of a wider package of reforms. The recent report from Sean Griffin and Baroness Pauline Bryan certainly merits serious consideration, as well as the ideas within the upcoming Politics for the Many book that will be launched at Open Labour’s conference in March in partnership with the Electoral Reform Society.

The UK’s future has never been more uncertain. As a Scot, the political reality is painfully clear to me: if Labour does not develop a clear plan on how it will break the broken centre of the British state, the state will simply cease to exist. Scotland will vote to leave the UK, despite the huge economic pain that independence will bring, as outlined in the SNP’s own growth commission report. Who knows what happens then, but it may just be a few little Englanders left saying how great Britain used to be when the lights are turned out.

This really is our last chance to sort this. We need to be bold and we need to get out from our own shadow to confidently make the case for democratic and constitutional reform. Because, to paraphrase Robin Cook again, it’s not we who pay the penalty for sustaining this broken system, but the people we represent. When we win, let us seize the opportunity to change that.

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