Keir Starmer must embrace the demand for proportional representation

Sandy Martin

Labour is set to debate proportional representation (PR) at its annual conference after 153 Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) voted to make it the subject of their one permitted motion. When it comes to positive support for any single issue, this level of demand is unprecedented in the Labour Party’s recent memory, perhaps in its entire history.

This represents more CLP motions than any subject attracted in 2019 and – unlike the 151 motions about Brexit in 2018 – every one of them shares an identical objective: to secure a commitment in the next Labour manifesto to introducing PR for UK general elections.

Beyond the conference hall, Keir Starmer knows that a further 170 CLPs the length and breadth of Britain have also voted to support a proportional voting system. That’s 323 CLPs in total who are actively in favour – officially 50% of all local parties but, in reality, well over a majority of active CLPs.

These aren’t just the low hanging fruit. Of those CLPs which voted on a PR motion, 97% voted in favour. Virtually every Labour meeting which discusses the issue comes out in support. From CLPs where there’s never been a Labour MP to the safest of Labour seats; from St Ives to Caithness, Sutherland and Ross; from Tooting to Huddersfield; from every region and nation of Great Britain. There are no no-go areas for Labour and PR.

For those of us who have campaigned on this issue, this is further confirmation of what we have long known. In July, polling found that 83% of members believe the party should support PR, with just 10% opposed.

We believe that the first-past-the-post system, which rewards minority public votes with sweeping parliamentary majorities, is indefensible. We understand that our rotten electoral system impacts on the way Labour develops policy and the policies it can deliver in government. We know there can be no climate, economic or social justice without a fair and just democratic system. This is why half of all the CLPs that submitted any policy motion to this year’s conference decided to prioritise PR above all other issues.

Above all, Labour’s membership is fundamentally committed to basic fairness and equality. We want the share of seats a party wins in parliament to reflect the share of the vote they receive – and most of the public agrees. A huge poll of 10,000 people, released today, found that 52% of the public support PR, with just 17% opposed. Supporters outnumber opponents by about three to one in every region and nation. Large majorities of other parties’ voters support PR, including 63% of Labour and even Conservative voters are two to one in favour.

Yet the battle to ensure PR is a Labour manifesto commitment is far from over. All who have been in Labour for any length of time know you can win the arguments – as our campaign clearly has – and still lose the vote. The Labour Party’s democratic structures have always left significant powers of discretion to those at the top. This was true from the earliest days of the party. It was true throughout the post-war period, throughout the last Labour government and throughout the Corbyn years. And it remains true today.

From procedural and political fixes – like watering down the text of a motion, or seeking to substitute or render meaningless motion debates with ‘statements from the national executive committee’ – to calling on leadership-friendly factions or unions to vote proposals down, the deck is stacked firmly in the leadership’s favour.

Attempts by any leadership to force through changes where the ground has not been prepared can still fail. But in general, the odds on leadership success are considerably greater than those of the membership who, absent the profile, platform and powers of patronage, must rely simply on their powers of persuasion and organisation.

We have persuaded and organised. The view of the Labour membership appears more nearly unanimous on PR than it is on almost any other issue. We know that with support spanning all factions and traditions, delegates are heading to Brighton confident that the case for PR has been resoundingly made. They rightly see no reason to compromise on our aims.

In the background, the mistake of the last Labour government still looms large, when an equivocal promise to move towards PR was abandoned once in power. Subsequent election manifestos offered nothing but electoral reform fudge. The issue has spent so long in the long grass it has gathered moss. Having gone to the effort of retrieving it, campaigners are clear that there is no value in allowing it to be kicked back in.

Yet we also know electoral reform has received insufficient attention from a party leadership for whom “completely rethinking where power lies in our country” is a priority. This despite the leader being favourable to electoral reform in the past, stating just last year: “We’ve got to address the fact that millions of people vote in safe seats and they feel their voice doesn’t count. That’s got to be addressed by electoral reform. We will never get full participation in our electoral system until we do that at every level.”

Now the membership has provided the clearest possible mandate for Starmer to act upon these sentiments, will he seize it? Will he bring to a debate which has been underway for months, and which thousands and upon thousands of party members actively want, the same drive or determination that this week saw a far less popular proposal propelled to the top of the party’s agenda in a matter of days?

Whatever happens at conference, it will reveal something fundamental about the Labour Party. If the members’ most emphatic call for a single policy in recent history does not pass because the leadership has not engaged, many will conclude that Labour’s internal democracy is in no better shape than our national electoral system.

If the motion passes, it should give all Labour members some hope that they still have agency, even if not sovereignty, in their own party. If we organise and coalesce around a clear priority, we are still able to win it as a policy commitment. We will all be strengthened as a result – and far better placed for the next stage in our quest to get a fair hearing for all of the electorate.

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