For many years now, our democratic institutions have been failing those they claim to represent. Recently, the UK has been batting off crisis upon crisis, each made worse by a dogmatic Westminster government and the vicious politics of division. With so much change underway, many of us have the feeling that our country is being tugged along at breakneck speed in a direction we didn’t choose – and a direction that few of us voted for.
As the country around us changes, the Labour Party is starting to change its priorities, too. For a long time, democratic reform was sidelined in our party as a purely academic issue – one that couldn’t possibly work in the favour of a former beneficiary of the two-party system. But there’s now a growing consensus across all wings of our party that urgent change is needed in the way our country is governed.
With clamours for another independence vote in Scotland, Gordon Brown issued a grave warning, cautioning that Britain was “breaking down” and could be on a path towards “breaking up”. Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, declared that the UK must be “radically redrawn” if it is to survive. Labour mayors and local authority leaders across England have come together to warn that “the status quo is broken” and that “any solution must look at our democracy as a whole”.
Keir Starmer’s response is a new UK-wide constitutional commission. This ambitious new project puts decentralisation and devolution at the heart of Labour’s mission in a fight to tackle some of the major issues afflicting our country: the legitimate feeling of powerlessness that many feel in our society, the over-concentration of power in Westminster and the threat of a fragmented United Kingdom.
This proposal is driven by a recognition that democracy in the UK is built on incredibly fragile foundations. That the current Westminster government is failing to govern in the interests of the vast majority, and that crises such as Covid, climate change and appalling levels of inequality could be far better dealt with if everyone had a real stake in how the country is run.
We agree with this wholeheartedly, but we also believe the Labour Party must go further. Improving our democracy isn’t a patch-up job, and if reforms are to endure they must start with the most central feature: general elections. Without a fair, proportional voting system where every vote counts, devolution will fail to deliver the promised rewards, and voters will continue to feel as if their voices and concerns are not listened to.
The way we fight elections has sweeping implications for our politics. With proportional representation, elections would be fought on the basis of the country as a whole – not just a handful of swing constituencies. With political parties aiming to speak to the whole nation, we’ll pitch policies that are more reflective of the progressive majority and more aligned with their interests, with room for radical plans for tackling climate change and transforming our unbalanced economy. Vote-swapping and tactical voting strategies would become a thing of the past. No matter where in the country you live, from Dundee to Dagenham, every single vote would count.
This isn’t just our view. Polls show massive support for proportional representation within the party, with three-quarters of Labour members in favour even before the last general election. Thanks in part to the efforts of the Labour for a New Democracy coalition, this enthusiasm is now being channeled into debates across the UK Labour Party and affiliated trade unions. To date, 186 CLPs – or over 28% of all local branches – have passed motions calling for PR. Many more have put the issue on their agendas and it will be discussed at a number of trade union conferences this summer.
We come from different traditions of the Labour Party and represent different areas of the country, but on the issue of electoral reform we are firmly united. Voices across the labour movement are right to call for radical reform to fix a broken status quo. But at the heart of that status quo is a House of Commons that does not reflect the British people, thanks to a voting system in which so many votes seem to make no difference. Proportional representation must be a part of the solution.