One year ago today, Keir Starmer announced the launch of a UK-wide constitutional commission, to be headed up by Gordon Brown. It might seem fitting, then, that over the last 12 months the Labour Party has had its biggest and most serious conversation about British democracy for a generation.
But this constitutional debate had nothing to do with the commission, which has yet to publicly materialise. Instead, it was initiated by ordinary members in hundreds of Labour Party branches across Great Britain. Its focus was how we elect the House of Commons, and the profound impact this has on our politics and society. By the end of the year, the Labour membership are not only decisively in favour of proportional representation (PR), but have come to see it as amongst their highest priorities.
This conversation has begun to forge a consensus – expressed in different terms but fundamentally shared by divergent voices across the party – that fair votes are not merely something we want as part of a better future, but a crucial means of bringing that better future about.
#Labour4PR in 2021
Labour’s shift on electoral reform was the result of a year-long campaign, involving regional groups, volunteer speakers, phone-bankers, a political education programme, and a campaigning coalition of Labour and democracy organisations. The results were hugely positive.
325 Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) have now voted in favour of PR. 153 CLPs also voted to send a motion on PR to this year’s Labour conference, which was the largest number of motions in support of a single issue sent to any Labour conference on record.
In Brighton, electoral reform came second in the CLPs’ ‘priorities ballot’ (used to decide which issues should proceed to debate at conference). In the vote, 80% of delegates representing party members voted for PR, mirroring our membership polling from earlier in the year.
The pandemic had prevented UNISON’s and Unite’s internal debates on PR from happening before Labour conference – and without the support of the largest unions, the motion fell. Yet five unions voted in favour, two major players abstained, and just a month later Unite adopted policy against first-past-the-post (FPTP).
This further illustrated the trend we have seen all year, which has revealed support for FPTP to be passive, hollow and largely without conviction. In 97% of CLPs where PR was debated, a motion in favour was passed. At conference, just two delegates spoke against PR, while 20 made speeches in favour.
It’s not just that more and more members are agreeing with the need for change. The case for electoral reform has evolved and strengthened throughout the year. Leading figures of the labour movement are increasingly vocal in stating that first-past-the-post is an underlying cause of many of the UK’s ailments.
Burnham, Graham and Drakeford
Take Andy Burnham. The mayor of Greater Manchester revealed his support for PR in the summer. In an article for Chartist magazine, he explained why, arguing that one of the fundamental causes of England’s shocking regional inequality is our political system. “Successful levelling up,” he says, “requires nothing less than the complete rewiring of Britain.”
Part of the solution he proposes is radical devolution of power to English regions. But he’s quick to warn that devolution “won’t ever work properly” without reform of parliament, including a proportionally elected Commons that is “more likely to reflect the majority progressive opinion in the country and secure the levelling up it desperately needs”.
Or take Sharon Graham. Her election as Unite’s general secretary gave Labour’s biggest affiliate a leader who promised to be singularly focused on fighting for jobs, pay and conditions in the workplaces. “We can’t keep hoping for the election of a Labour government to solve our members’ problems,” she wrote, “Putting all our eggs in the Westminster basket will not deliver.”
For Graham, rejecting FPTP is part of rejecting our existing political system as the solution to workers’ problems. “Our political class has failed working people and our system is broken”, she said when Unite’s policy conference voted to back reform, “It is time to change our democracy.” Graham, like Burnham, sees FPTP as part of a system responsible for crises faced by ordinary working people.
The First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, is similarly committed to upending our rotten system. In his October Aneurin Bevan Memorial Lecture he declared himself “baffled” by anyone who believes FPTP is best for working people when it consistently delivers Conservative governments on a minority of the vote. Labour has governed in Westminster, he noted, for just 13 of the 42 years since the era of radical neoliberalism began in 1979.
“I have every sort of democratic quarrel with such a system,” he says. But Drakeford’s main point about first-past-the-post is an existential one: “I feel certain that its continuation will only feed further the fissures which threaten to prise the United Kingdom apart.” With the four nations of the UK each voting for different political directions in 2019, the “determined and aggressive unilateralism” of the Westminster government makes the union ever more precarious.
Burnham, Graham and Drakeford are from different traditions of the labour movement but each arrives at the same point: not only is FPTP a bad way to run a representative democracy, it also has profound negative effects on British society – whether it is perpetuating regional inequality, failing to defend the interests of working people, or fuelling the breakdown of the union.
Fair votes for a new era
Versions of these arguments are grasped intuitively by members across the spectrum of the labour movement. What makes their force even stronger is the sense that British politics has reached a stark crossroads.
This is partly because the crises we now face – of climate, inequality, and the union – are so severe that they seem beyond solving by our current system. To address them, we need not only a Labour government, but a sustained period of progressive hegemony – the opposite of what FPTP routinely delivers.
It is also because the alternative is a continued slide towards authoritarianism. This government is undermining the very basis of liberal democracy. Their policing bill is revoking our right to protest; their elections bill is further undermining free and fair elections; their nationality and borders bill is removing our right to citizenship; their revocation of the Human Rights Act will take away much of what’s left.
This is why electoral reform is an idea whose time has come. It tells a story of how we can bring about a new, progressive era of British politics – one that can heal the traumas of recent decades, address today’s crises, and wash away creeping authoritarianism in a tide of democratic renewal. It’s a story that appeals to both the left and the right of the labour movement. And it is far more plausible than the idea that FPTP will suddenly solve the multitude of crises it has been so complicit in creating.
Levelling Up Democracy in 2022
2022 may be the last full year before the next general election and it will be a crucial one. We – advocates of electoral reform – are no longer a group of Labour members attempting to persuade the rest of the membership. Now, we are the membership, and our urgent task is to persuade the rest of the labour movement.
This will mean a huge political education programme that engages more and more trade unionists and members. At the centre will be a sequel to 2021’s Labour for a New Democracy Roadshow: an event series called Levelling Up Democracy. At the kick off on February 8th, we’ll be in conversation with Andy Burnham – save the date!
It will also mean contesting trade union policies, winning over even more CLPs and MPs and – whether through Labour conference or some other means – securing a definitive commitment to proportional representation from the Labour Party. If you would like to be involved, sign up to Labour for a New Democracy.