Want to end debate over a progressive alliance? Labour must back PR

Sandy Martin
© Twitter/@Keir_Starmer

Last month, the Fabian Society published Hearts and Minds: Winning the working class vote, by various Labour MPs and edited by John Healey, a must-read for all serious Labour Party strategists. The results on May 6th are a clear indication of how far we are from achieving that – not only did we do badly, we did very much worse in industrial and ex-industrial areas than in the Home Counties. But it is not clear why John thinks that talk of a ‘progressive alliance’ is a “prospectus of surrender”, or whether he would extend that epithet to electoral reform as well.

Of course, John is right that we need to fight to regain “confidence and support across the breadth of the country”. But it is quite hard to understand how that is going to be possible. Labour policies have always benefited a majority of the electorate, not just in traditional Labour seats but in the whole of the UK. Yet the Conservatives have been in power for most of the last hundred years. The pamphlet itself identifies that when voters are asked about our policies without being told they are Labour policies they like them – they just don’t like us. They can’t identify reasons, they just don’t like us. This applied to Labour under Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband as well as under Jeremy Corbyn.

In these circumstances, we surely need to look at the nature of our democracy. Expecting to achieve an overall majority in Westminster just by working harder or having better policies, or even having a more media-friendly leader, appears to fly in the face of everything we know about the voters. There are reasons why the Conservatives win elections which are not to do with the promises they make, or with their record in keeping them. One reason is the electoral system itself which, as numerous studies have shown, is biased in their favour. One way to make the system more responsive to people’s wishes is by changing to proportional representation, a move which 75% of Labour members support.

Some Labour members also believe that the current electoral maths makes an alliance with other progressive parties desirable or even necessary. But if we were to try to form such a Progressive Alliance with the Green Party and the Lib Dems at the next general election there would be some big hurdles to overcome. Some Constituency Labour Parties would have to agree not to stand Labour candidates. Some members might stand as Independent Labour candidates. If they couldn’t vote Labour, many voters would just not vote at all. And whilst it is true that the Labour candidate stood down in Tatton in 1997 to ensure that the corrupt Tory Neil Hamilton could be removed by Martin Bell, Labour Party rules would make a widespread and organised electoral pact for the next general election very difficult.

The Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (LCER) does not take a position on the benefits or drawbacks of a progressive alliance. As Labour Party members, we campaigned to try to achieve the best possible result for Labour on May 6th. We support the leadership of our party to ensure that a Labour-led government is elected at the next general election. Some of our members undoubtedly would support a Progressive Alliance, but I personally am not convinced that it is a necessary precondition for removing the Tories, and it is not agreed LCER policy. Winning a solid Labour commitment to proportional representation for elections to the House of Commons does not rely on supporting a progressive alliance.

Members of the Labour Party can be, and have been, expelled for promoting tactical voting (although there is inconsistency on this and several very prominent members were notably not expelled at the time of the 2019 European parliament elections). As well as reflecting a voting system that clearly does not work, this is a source of unnecessary tension within the party itself. One of the great benefits of proportional electoral systems is that they make tactical voting completely unnecessary.

Indeed, if we were to achieve a proportional electoral system, we would not have to have this debate in the Labour party again. Every Labour vote throughout the country would be equally valuable. John Healey’s plea for Labour to take towns and rural areas seriously would be turned from a heartfelt wish into a political necessity: every voter would matter.

Yes, proportional representation would make coalition governments more likely, though certainly not inevitable as Jacinda Ardern has shown in New Zealand. But a successful coalition government does not depend on the parties that form it having to pretend not to believe things, or to bury their differences at election time. On the contrary, because every vote counts towards the overall result, it means the parties can focus on attracting people to vote for them on the basis of what they actually believe. And while proportional representation will not guarantee left-of-centre governments all the time, it will enable the progressive instincts of the voters to coalesce around a workable government most of the time, without having to try to corral them all into supporting one political party.

I can understand the disquiet that many Labour members have over the idea of a progressive alliance. We have principles that we want to persuade as many voters of as possible. LCER is absolutely at one with the Fabian authors in wanting to campaign for Labour values and convince the electorate to vote for us. But that is not a reason for opposing proportional representation. We need to make the best possible case for Labour and win the maximum possible number of Labour seats at the next general election. Once we have done that, introducing proportional representation will enable a more honest politics where we can argue for what we believe without repeatedly gifting power to the Tories.

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