Democracy moves stalled at Conference

Mary Southcott reviews progress and tasks facing new democracy movement as Unite rejects the current system

The Labour National Policy Forum has no Commission or fringe event covering democracy. This is despite the Conservatives’ Elections Bill, which threatens to remove democratic rights from millions of people with no voter ID and change the current supplementary vote system back to first-past-the-post for mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections. Cat Smith, shadow minister for young people and voter engagement, is leading Labour’s opposition, although Nick Thomas-Symonds is Priti Patel’s opposite number. Democratic reform/elections is the responsibility of the Shadow Cabinet Office team, led by Angela Rayner, but in policy consultation terms it is subsumed under the Justice and Home Affairs brief.

Neither did ‘democracy’ feature in the leader’s speech – although both Keir Starmer and the mayors did mention Gordon Brown and the Constitutional Commission. We still await details about its remit or how to submit evidence or argument. We are no wiser about who will deal with the democracy offer in our next manifesto.

The over 150 resolutions submitted on electoral reform was an amazing victory in which Chartist played a role as part of the Labour for a New Democracy coalition. It was not surprising that it came second in the priorities ballot for the resolutions to be discussed at Conference, and both Momentum and Labour to Win advised their constituency contacts to vote for the composite.

Chartist played another role: in commissioning articles on democracy for the magazine and website. At Conference we distributed 2,000 copies of our supplement which contained Andy Burnham’s view about ‘big picture politics’ and levelling up. It went like hotcakes from the stand jointly in the names of Labour for a New Democracy and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform.

Compositing (getting 150 sets of wording down to one) was a surprisingly short and consensus-seeking affair, overseen by Cat Smith and Conference Arrangements Committee member Billy Hayes, both supporters of electoral reform. Arriving on the Conference floor on Monday afternoon, the debate on electoral reform was tabled alongside a presentation from Wales Senedd leader, Mark Drakeford; the metro mayors, Dan Jarvis and the pro-PR Andy Burnham and Tracy Brabin; and Anas Sarwar, the new leader of the Scottish Labour Party. In the end, 22 delegates spoke to the resolution: 20 in favour and two against. Several GMB members spoke but not all followed their 2021 Conference position against. Although the show of hands clearly showed Conference support from the CLP delegates, a card vote was called, which showed 79.51 per cent of the CLP section in favour against 95.03 per cent of affiliates. Card Vote no. 44 was not carried.

So where does Labour and democracy go now? First outing was the Unite Policy Conference, which voted against first-past-the-post and for examination of how other systems work, outside Westminster and in other countries. There is scope for Labour members in unions and at Labour’s regional and national conferences to work together to replicate the discussion in Brighton with time for trade unionists to have their conferences.

Where does that leave the other affiliated unions? We need to work with all the remaining eleven Labour unions. Unite is now engaging in the debate, as their policy conference demonstrated. GMB has policy against but increasing support at their 2021 conference. Community and NUM seem against. Unison, whose policy awaits their Labour Link conference, and USDAW could both change their abstention into a pro. Ditto in CWU, the communications workers’ union, who have had open positions in the past but abstained. The rail unions, the musicians and the firefighters all voted in favour but need to confirm their policy next year. The bakers, who were solidly pro, have disaffiliated.

The debate was not just on the Conference floor. There were three L4ND fringes: The World Transformed hosted ‘The Big PR Debate’, while the Fabians and the Electoral Reform Society asked ‘Second Best: Does Labour need to work with other parties to win power?’ Clive Lewis (unsurprisingly) spoke to the Yes, while Sir John Curtice warned pacts do not work. We need to redefine a progressive alliance – not necessarily by withdrawing candidates, as in 2017 – but by ensuring voters have the information they need to vote, as in Chesham and Amersham and Batley and Spen. In another event, Compass asked ‘Will Labour accept sharing power to win?’

We need to revisit legacy Labour policy: a constitutional convention; votes at 16; an upper house representing the nations and English regions; codifying our unwritten constitution; deciding how we choose the voting system and how we both encourage the union to stay together and adopt subsidiarity, even federalism. We need to ensure that Labour MPs who have stayed out of the debate listen and join in.

There remains a lot of work ahead of us before we can enter a general election to win and reverse the anti-democratic attacks on what should be our democracy.

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