The most important thing that must happen at the next election is that a Labour government is returned. The party must strive with every fibre and sinew between now and then to ensure that it is with a working majority. However, the leadership also needs to be pragmatic and prepare for a turn of events where it needs to work with other progressive parties to dislodge the Tories from office. In that scenario, a key plank of any negotiation will be reforming Britain’s antiquated and unrepresentative voting system.
Any of the progressive parties Labour would be negotiating with – whether towards a coalition agreement or a looser arrangement – already have detailed and longstanding positions on electoral reform. Labour cannot afford to go into such negotiations unprepared, especially on an issue of such profound importance for our nation and our democracy. The stakes at the next election are too high, and it is imperative that Labour goes into it with a clear and well thought-through policy on electoral reform.
That policy needs to include a pledge to sweep away the outdated first-past-the-post (FPTP) system and replace it with a system of proportional representation (PR). For too long, the country has been lumbered with an electoral system that often skews in favour of the right. We are now seeing in technicolour the effects of a system that has kept the Tories in power for more than a decade without them ever winning a majority of the vote.
The result is the current squalid spectacle of a tired administration desperately trying to cling to power with a damaging series of regressive policies aimed at placating the hardline fringe of its party. Meanwhile, there is a yawning gap when it comes to what the government is doing and the urgent action needed to tackle the major problems the country faces, such as the climate emergency.
This situation is not inevitable. It is a product of a politics shaped by an electoral system that hugely exaggerates the political and regional imbalances in our nation. The only other country in Europe that uses the same lopsided FPTP system is Belarus, a client state of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Electoral reform presents a generational opportunity to level the electoral playing field and ensure the progressive majority in this country is properly reflected at Westminster. This would allow space for the radical policies this country desperately needs, from a green jobs revolution to fight the climate crisis to fixing the cost-of-living crisis.
It would also lead to more Labour and Labour-led governments rather than leaving the country captive to successive Tory administrations perched in No 10 with a minority of the vote share. In short, it is hard to see why anyone on the progressive left would oppose electoral reform.
Momentum is also building across the Labour movement in favour of PR, as members can see the stark reality of our current politics. At last year’s party conference, more than 80% of Constituency Labour Parties voted in favour of the policy. The unions are also now moving towards it, with Unite ditching support for FPTP at its last conference. It is not tenable for Labour to not have a clear pledge on electoral reform in its next manifesto when it attracts such overwhelming support within the party.
But this is not just about electoral calculus. Electoral reform is urgently needed to refresh and revive our politics. PR would mean that future elections are fought with parties pitching a vision to the whole country rather than focusing on a handful of swing voters in marginal seats. Tactical voting would be banished as an anachronism, as people would be able to step into the voting booth knowing they can cast a ballot with their heart and conscience rather than holding their nose and picking the least worst option. This would give our democracy – trust in which has been badly battered in recent years – a much-needed shot in the arm.
The looming situation at the next election means Labour simply cannot afford to not have a serious commitment on electoral reform in its next manifesto. Yet, Labour having a policy on PR is not only about the realpolitik. It is also simply good politics. It is good politics for Labour. It is good for the progressive left. And it is good for the country at large.