Let’s finish what we started last autumn, and ensure the Labour Party backs PR

John McDonnell

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a stark reminder of how precious democracy is. We should never take for granted access to basic human rights, the role of an independent media and the right to fair elections. The erosion of democratic values can happen anywhere – and we in the UK are already sliding towards illiberalism. Boris Johnson’s approach to governing, his attitude towards the rule of law and deliberate undermining of parliamentary scrutiny are dangerous. In recent months, the government has tried to force through reactionary legislation of a kind more commonly associated with authoritarian regimes than with a functioning democracy.

From seeking to criminalise peaceful demonstration and targeting the Traveller, Gypsy and Roma community to suppressing the right to vote, undermining the elections watchdog, making the act of fleeing persecution a crime and claiming the power to render people stateless, this government’s policies come straight from the autocrats’ playbook. None of these measures would have been out of place in Donald Trump’s America – or Viktor Orban’s Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil or Vladimir Putin’s Russia. They should be of concern to everyone who believes in a free and fair democracy.

They have all been enabled by our rotten electoral system, which allows a party to govern almost without challenge if it has a large majority of seats – even if it got them with only a minority of the popular vote. We must resist this tide of authoritarianism bill by bill, clause by clause in parliament, in the streets and at the ballot box. But in the long run the only real antidote is a massive expansion of democracy in Britain. Little that was designed more than a century ago is still fit for purpose today and our constitution is no exception. The list of reforms we need is long, but reforming the voting system for Westminster must be at their heart. We must, as socialists, fight to have a system that reflects the wishes of the people.

This year, Momentum is once again holding a democratic policy primary to decide which issues to champion at the annual Labour Party conference. As with last year, there are many important policies vying for support – from public ownership to a humane asylum policy. But, more than ever, I believe none is more strategically crucial than Labour committing to introduce proportional representation (PR) for general elections.

The progress made at last year’s conference on this issue was historic. With Momentum’s backing, there were more motions submitted on PR than there have been on any other single issue, to any annual conference on record. Almost 80% of Constituency Labour Party delegates voted for a clear commitment to the next Labour government introducing a proportional voting system.

The motion did not pass then. Given delays largely caused by the pandemic, some of the larger trade unions had not had the opportunity to hear motions on electoral reform at their own conferences prior to the vote in Brighton. Without policy in favour, affiliate delegates were not able to offer their support. But, since then, debate has moved on within large parts of the trade union movement – including Unite, which came out firmly against the first-past-the-post system at its policy conference last autumn, a move welcomed by Sharon Graham. Other unions will discuss electoral reform in the coming weeks and months.

It is clear that across the labour movement, the tide is turning. And so we must keep up the momentum on this issue. 83% of Labour members want the party to back PR. This autumn, we need to build on last year’s result and ensure the debate is taken back to the conference floor and that, with the support of more trade unions, we win a mandate to include electoral reform in the next manifesto.

Our political system is visibly failing to deliver the basic necessities to which people have a right. No majority voted for a spiralling cost-of-living crisis, for the next generation to be poorer than the last, for the privatisation of our remaining public assets or for a fatalistic slide towards climate catastrophe. Yet that is what our system is delivering. We cannot miss the opportunity, as we go into the next general election, to make democratic renewal a core part of Labour’s programme. First, we have to finish what we started in Brighton last year. If you are a member of Momentum, please prioritise PR in the policy primary.

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