Our voting system is rigged. Labour must back proportional representation

John McDonnell

On Wednesday evening, I’ll be speaking at The Socialist Case for PR – the launch of a motion calling for radical electoral reform as part of Momentum’s policy primary. The ballots will drop in the week that South Ribble became the 200th Constituency Labour Party to come out in favour of proportional representation.

There’s so much that is inspiring about Momentum’s new, democratic policy primary. Every member will have the chance to decide which motions will be campaigned for at this year’s Labour conference. In a year when democratic decision making in the party has been curtailed on too many occasions, the message Momentum is sending to everybody in our movement is: “This is what democracy looks like.”

From the transformative change of a green jobs revolution, to defending migrant communities from racist immigration policies, to the dignity for all that a £15 minimum wage would provide – the shortlist of motions is a reminder that the Labour Party’s rank and file membership remains radical and serious. But none of these is more strategically important in securing Labour in power, in my view, than the motion calling for PR.

Submitted by Momentum members on behalf of Labour for a New Democracy, the motion would commit the Labour Party to the democratic principle that seats in parliament should broadly reflect the popular vote – and calls for an open and inclusive process to decide the precise form of PR we should commit to introducing in our next manifesto.

Given the many exciting policies on offer, why is it so important to campaign for this one now? Firstly, because it’s increasingly clear that electoral reform is key to enabling all the policies we need to create a decent society. Secondly, because its moment has come – and if the opportunity is not seized now, it may not come again for many years.

Few other democracies have experienced attacks on public services as vicious and sustained as those we have faced at the hands of Tory governments. Yet under Margaret Thatcher and now Boris Johnson, the Tories have used crushing parliamentary majorities to reshape our society without ever winning the support of a majority of voters. It’s true that we have a right-wing media and a self-serving establishment to reckon with – but it is the first-past-the-post voting system alone that turns minority support for the Tories into their long-term dominance in parliament. It is a rigged system. In 19 of the last 20 general elections, most people voted for parties to the left of the Conservatives. Thanks to our archaic voting system, the Tories have been in power for two thirds of that time.

On the other hand, the evidence shows that the left achieves more when they fight for socialism under proportional voting systems. It’s sometimes claimed that PR leads to centrism. But around the world it has again and again led to policies more left-wing than any that a British government has implemented since at least the 1970s. FPTP has instead handed the Conservatives the means to brutally undo what precious progress we make. This is why a proportional voting system must be a key demand of the left. If we want properly funded public services, or a democratised economy, or fair trade union laws – and if we want to keep these things once they are won – we need PR.

And we must fight for it now and build on the phenomenal level of support it already has from over 200 CLPs. My support for PR during my time as Shadow Chancellor is a matter of public record. I didn’t succeed in persuading everybody at the top of the party – but I don’t blame them for that. The truth is, this transformation of the terms of British democracy cannot come from the top down. It must come as a loud and clear demand from across our membership, an expression of our shared commitment to democratic principle.

That level of demand had not yet arrived two years ago. But today it is truly beginning to. More than 30% of all CLPs have now called for PR – and polling has found three quarters of Labour members believe we should commit to PR in our next manifesto. To see this through to a change of party policy, we need to build on this momentum ahead of Labour conference. I hope you can join me and others from the left at the motion launch on Wednesday night. If you’re a member of Momentum, please vote for the motion, Time for Proportional Representation, when the ballot drops tomorrow.

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