Supporting change to the electoral system should be a core Labour issue

Billy Bragg
© Alex Danila/Shutterstock.com

I live in West Dorset where the Conservative Party have been in power since 1886 and I come from Barking where the Labour Party have been in power since the 1920s. There is no doubt the people of Barking are getting a better deal in terms of their local MP – but the truth is, we are all being short-changed when it comes to who governs the UK. Parliament, and the cabinet, simply do not represent most of us.

So many people feel disenfranchised and as if they have no agency over their lives. Our biased and broken electoral system isn’t helping. Unless you live in one of a small number of swing constituencies, the chances are your vote isn’t going to make a great difference to any general election outcome. 

How do we, as socialists, help give people more agency over their lives, reinvigorate our democracy and ensure that all votes count? I believe we have a chance now, this year, to start putting things right if Labour commits to electoral reform.

This should be a cornerstone of what Labour is about. If we are going to live in a society in which people feel they have agency, they need to see the politicians they elect are accountable. Ultimate accountability should be through our democratic systems. People should feel when they vote, when they pull that lever, that the earth moves. I believe people want to have that agency.

If we had a more proportional electoral system, we could all see the issues that are important to us represented in Westminster. Instead, our voting system is designed in such a way that millions of people barely count. This does nothing to encourage people to believe they can play a role – and from there, it is a short journey to cynicism and apathy, two of the populist rights’ greatest allies.

I want there to be an honest debate across the labour movement about how our current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system really works. The argument that proportional representation (PR) will ‘mess up the system’ or ‘make everything dangerous’ is exactly what was said to the suffragettes. It is time Labour refused to accept the Tory lie that somehow FPTP protects us from extremism. It didn’t stop UKIP from totally changing our country: it allowed the Conservative Party to morph into it as they were afraid of losing marginal Leave-voting seats.

The idea that we are protected from racists and fascists just doesn’t hold up given the current cabinet. From enacting anti-migrant legislation to refusing to condone racists who boo England’s football team for taking the knee, FPTP has brought us a reactionary government determined to prolong the culture wars they believe keep them in power.

FPTP didn’t protect working people from the ravages of Thatcherism. The inequality that came out of the UK’s governments in the 1980s and 1990s was a breeding ground for racism. From the anti-union laws of Thatcher to the anti-democratic actions of Boris Johnson, we can see how right-wing governments with large majorities have a sense of impunity – and creeping authoritarianism is the price we all pay.

Those happy for things to continue as they are argue that with PR, ‘small, extremist parties get in power’. It is true that PR enables all shades of political opinion to be represented if that is what the voters want. But PR can also enable smaller, progressive parties to form alliances to block extremists. We’ve seen this in Germany, where the AfD has won seats but PR made it possible for other parties to collaborate and say ‘we will not work with them’. In that system, proportionality has been a bulwark against fascism.

The real bulwark against fascism, though, must be us. We do not defeat the politics of hate through electoral systems designed to keep people out. It’s down to us to take on the fascists in debate, expose them and win the argument. We know if ever they do get elected, our communities can come together to deal with them – as we did in Barking and Dagenham. 20 years ago, the BNP won 12 seats in the local council. In 2010, not only were no more elected, they lost all the seats they had. The people of Barking and Dagenham looked into the face of racism and fascism and saw it for what it was. I trust the British people to be able to deal with this. And I want an electoral system that trusts the people more.

There is so much of our broken democracy we need to fix. I want to see radical reform of the House of Lords as well as a written constitution. And at the heart of all of this, I want us to redress the withering away of accountability at the centre of our political system. We must have a system of fair votes for Westminster, the only one of the parliaments in the UK that persists in using the widely discredited FPTP system.

Supporting change to the electoral system should be a core Labour issue. It was the Labour Party that created proportional parliaments in the last two decades. Labour is the party of equality. This is our issue – and Labour should be fighting for it. 

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