We have disagreed fundamentally with one another for many years on Labour’s future direction, from who should be leader of the party to its stance on nuclear disarmament. But we agree on one crucial issue: the need for Labour to support a change to a fairer, more democratic, more proportional voting system where the share of seats parties get in parliament more closely reflects their share of the vote.
Neither of us think electoral reform is a silver bullet that will suddenly propel Labour into government. Before we can change the voting system, we must still beat the Tories in a general election under the existing first-past-the-post (FPTP) system and we have different views about what Labour needs to do to make that happen. Nor do we think that proportional representation (PR) is a panacea that will see Labour achieve all of its goals.
But if we are serious about being democratic socialists, we must apply our values of promoting equality and democracy to constitutional matters just as much as we would to economic and social policy. All voters should have an equal value, wherever they live in the UK.
FPTP condemns millions to living in ‘electoral deserts’ where one party dominates all the representation in the Commons. This simply does not reflect the diversity of the votes cast, whether that currently benefits the SNP in Scotland, the Tories in the south of England or Labour in inner London. We need a system that sends a mix of MPs to Westminster from each region who represent the political balance there.
Our outdated FPTP system privileges the voting power of a small number of swing voters in an even smaller number of marginal seats, whilst giving very little political power to the majority of voters in so-called safe seats. This distorts everything about British politics – from which voters are offered vox pops on national TV to where politicians and activists travel to knock doors and how public spending is distributed. It should be of no surprise to anyone that the areas most likely to be selected for the government’s ‘towns fund’ were marginal Conservative seats. Our electoral system is an encouragement to such distortions and corruption.
FPTP also bakes in a right-wing bias as Labour votes pile up in urban areas to no electoral effect. If we are serious about governing, it is time that Labour accepted that and escaped the FPTP chimera of sweeping Labour majorities.
We know that the reality of British electoral history is just five decent sized Labour majorities in 121 years of our party’s existence, set against periods of decades at a time of uninterrupted Tory Prime Ministers. Overwhelming academic evidence shows that such right-wing dominance is far less common in proportional systems.
With PR system in the UK, the extra votes Labour won in seats like Liverpool Walton, Birmingham Ladywood or Hackney North, as well as the votes we got in Tory areas in the rural South West, would all have helped elect more Labour MPs. A proportional system for electing Scotland’s Westminster MPs would do much to reduce the dominance of the SNP and put Labour back in the game. Labour would get a fair number of seats for its share of the vote, instead of just one MP for nearly 18% of the vote – compared to the 81% of seats the SNP has obtained on a minority of the votes. This disproportionate representation is enabled by the FPTP system that also gifts the Tories over-representation in England.
Under PR, Labour would begin to look like and be identified as the party it actually is – one with support in every region and nation, rather than a voice increasingly seen to be primarily of the inner cities and university towns because of the distortions of the electoral system.
Labour members have understood this. 83% support PR. The alliance for this long overdue reform stretches right across the party, cutting across many other issues and ideological divisions. An unprecedented 48% of CLPs have passed pro-PR policy and at least 143 have sent motions asking Labour to back PR to this year’s party conference. We hope in Brighton there will be a serious debate about electoral reform for the first time in many years. We want Labour to commit to introducing PR in its next manifesto.
This is Labour’s chance to realign its stance on voting systems to one consistent with our guiding values of equality and democracy. Our chance to begin to fix our broken democracy – without which the transformation and modernisation of the country will not be possible. We must seize it.