Why backing proportional representation will help Labour win

Labour made some good progress in last week’s local elections. We beat the Tories back to third in Scotland, strengthened our position in Wales and London and had strong results in target councils such as Dudley, Ipswich and Southampton. But we need to do much better if we are to stand a chance of winning a majority at the next general election. The party should now focus on preparing for that election.

Completing the policy review and working towards a full manifesto must be priorities. Debates at Labour’s annual conference in Liverpool this September should be central to this. Last year, an unprecedented 153 Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) sent motions to Conference calling for proportional representation (PR) for the House of Commons. 80% of CLP delegates voted for PR. As some larger trade unions did not have policy, however, the motion fell without the sufficient affiliate votes. But that looks set to change this year with Unite coming out firmly against the first-past-the-post system (FPTP) since the last conference, the CWU criticising FPTP as an “undemocratic election process” and other unions poised to debate the issue.

Labour for a New Democracy (L4ND) has now launched its 2022 conference motion. All who want to see the next Labour government introduce PR can help by passing this motion at their CLPs and committing their delegates to voting for PR in the ‘priorities ballot’ so it will be debated on the conference floor. We can build on last year’s progress and our party can commit to finishing what the devolution settlement of the last Labour government started: the democratic renewal of Britain.

Preparing for the general election means ensuring Labour has the right people as well as policies. This includes on the national policy forum (NPF) and the national executive committee (NEC), elections for which will take place over the summer, and its prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs). Selections for PPCs have started. The first hustings, for Gedling and for Wakefield, take place this weekend with a whole early tranche of selections due to conclude next month. The rest will follow by spring 2023. These elections and selections are critical opportunities for Labour members to ensure representatives reflect our views. We have a chance to create an NPF, NEC and future Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) in tune with the 83% of Labour members who want PR.

L4ND and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform won’t be backing any individual candidates. We are inviting all candidates – and all Labour members and affiliates – to take the #Labour4PR pledge so that members know who’s on their side when it comes to electoral reform. As PR is supported by candidates from all tendencies across the party, members will be able to identify and vote for pro-PR candidates – no matter which tradition they hail from.

Selecting more pro-PR parliamentary candidates is particularly important. At some point in the coming years the PLP will have to legislate for electoral reform. But it’s also increasingly clear that having candidates and party policy in favour of PR now will help get Labour into government.

Labour’s current electoral strategy is focussed on former Labour voters who recently switched to the Tories. But it wasn’t just Labour making gains last week. The Green Party and Lib Dems had an impact too, often at Labour’s expense, including in places where they took enough of the Labour vote to let the Tories win. As John Curtice said of the Greens during BBC election coverage: these are “not players that can be ignored in future Westminster elections. They may not necessarily be capable of winning, but insofar as they can take votes from the other parties, then it is a force the other parties need to take cognizance of.” The same can be said of the Lib Dems.

Gedling, where members will vote this weekend to determine their PPC, shows how backing PR could help. In 2019, Labour lost the seat to the Tories for the first time since 1992 by a margin of just 679 votes. At the same time, the Greens and Lib Dems won a combined 3,376 votes. If just a fraction of these had voted Labour we would have held the seat. This same logic played out in numerous parliamentary seats in 2019 and in even more council seats in the locals.

Pledging to introduce PR could be one of the best ways to help prevent future losses like Gedling. It’s something Labour can offer voters who might otherwise be tempted by smaller parties – and something that should give those parties pause before running vigorous campaigns in seats Labour can win but they cannot.

The evidence shows that PR has widespread support across the whole electorate, so supporting PR will not alienate the Labour-Conservative switchers who are the focal point of Labour’s national strategy. None of this needs pacts or alliances: by committing to introducing PR, Labour can provide a powerful incentive for Lib Dems and Greens to choose to give Labour a clear run at the Tories in Labour-winnable marginal seats, as it did in 1997.

Labour members know we need PR to create the kind of democracy and society we want for the UK. More and more trade unionists want electoral reform. And PR is the one thing Greens and Lib Dems want that only Labour can deliver. Whatever the outcome of the next general election, committing now to a proportional voting system will help us get more seats for Labour. If you want to make that a reality, table the conference motion, take the #Labour4PR pledge – and ask your candidates to do the same.

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