Cook & Mowlam: Labour pioneers for electoral fairness

Alan Yearsley on earlier visionaries for democratic reform

Two leading figures in the Labour Party during the Thatcher, Major and Blair years were also strong supporters of PR: Robin Cook and Marjorie (Mo) Mowlam. Had they lived longer, would they have helped to change history? Would the Blair or Brown governments have scrapped the archaic and undemocratic first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system when they had plenty of opportunity – and a mandate – to do so? Imagine if Cook’s talents could have been turned loose on a Tory apologist for FPTP… or a Labour backbencher in a safe seat?

As we witness a new upsurge in grassroots Labour support for PR, it makes sense to recall the political histories of Cook and Mowlam and their views on electoral reform. They both would be pleased to know that more than 200 Constituency Labour Parties have come out in favour of PR. Both argued that the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher had no right to rule with only the 42% of the popular vote they had secured at the 1987 General Election.

In a 1989 Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (LCER) interview, Cook said: It is curious how persistent is the faith that the system of first-past-the-post is an advantage to Labour. Labour is the prime victim of the present system, ending up in third place in more constituencies than any other party at the [1987] election.” 

Move ahead to 1992. When pressed, Neil Kinnock refused to give his own views on proportional representation. As Labour’s leader, he had come across as weak on electoral reform and, it was suggested, that weakness was another reason for the unexpected election victory of John Major and the Conservatives.

In 1993, LCER published a pamphlet entitled What’s wrong with First Past the Post?. It argued that, although Labour was already backing a radical new constitutional settlement, this would be incomplete without an end to FPTP. It explained that, without electoral reform, a future Tory government would simply undo Labour’s constitutional changes. In its foreword Robin Cook wrote: “I am not prepared to put up with a system which once every generation, every 30 years, gives us an opportunity to get in with a majority the way the Conservatives do and govern the same way. It is not we who pay the penalty, but the people we represent. When we win, let us seize the opportunity to change the electoral system so we do not have ever again to return to elective dictatorship of the kind we have experienced.”  

Mo Mowlam also wrote of the widespread disillusionment with politics that FPTP had brought. “What convinced me was listening to voters, a great many of whom are disillusioned with politics and fed up with the political process, the whole political culture of the country they don’t feel a part of. If we are going to change that, we need to change the electoral system.” Mowlam appreciated that creating a new voting system where all votes counted was a necessary, indeed central, part of that change.

Robin Cook also perceptively argued (circa Labour’s 1997 victory): “My nightmare is that we will have been 12 years in office, with the ability to reform the electoral system, and will fail to do so until we [are] back in opposition, in perhaps a decade of Conservative government, regretting that we left in place the electoral system that allowed Conservative governments on a minority vote. 

“We are not interested in electoral reform for functional reasons because we see it as a means to an end. The electoral system is a crucial part of our democracy. And for Labour democracy cannot be just viewed as a means, it is also a value which expresses how fair, how open and how equal we are in our society.”

In 2021, will it be the voices of these Labour visionaries, and Keir Hardie, who Keir Starmer listens to?

This is an abridged version of a longer article on the Get PR Done! website.

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