Don Flynn says equal voting will lead to more equal society
The Labour establishment has always been dismissive of talk about reforming the UK’s antiquated system of Parliamentary democracy. For them the rules of the game say that you have to aim to win elections under the long-established first-past-the-post system (FPTP) and any complaints about the unequal weighting this gives to individual voters is nothing more than weakness and whinging.
The Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform has been a feature of the political landscape for decades, but despite winning over the likes of the late Robin Cook and Mo Mowlam, its efforts at promoting a broadly proportional voting system have not succeeded in swaying the views of the ‘big beasts’ of the party and affiliated trade unions.
This might just be changing with the formation of the umbrella campaign Labour for a New Democracy (LfaND), which combines the skills and contacts of many organisations working in Labour who have come together to get a commitment from the party Conference in favour of PR by the end of 2021. It counts on a change in the mood of party members at grassroots level to achieve this, with polling from YouGov showing 76 per cent supporting change and only 12 per cent being decidedly in favour of retaining FPTP.
Among the third of MPs who are now in favour of change, Clive Lewis has been the most outspoken. He puts the majority for PR down to a general election which has given the Conservatives a commanding majority of 80 seats in the Commons with just 43 per cent of the popular vote. Lewis argues that the FPTP system has frozen parties representing centrist and leftist positions out of power despite the fact that they are together more representative of the country’s broad political stance.
The AV dead-end
This is an argument that has been around for a long time, and at the tail end of the last Labour government it appeared that cracks were appearing in the monolithic support for the established system. The 2010 manifesto expressed support for a referendum on the alternative vote and Lords Reform. Whatever it might have promised in the way of change, AV would not have brought about an electoral outcome reflecting the votes cast. In any event the reform, not even supported by many Lib Dem members, crashed out, rejected by 68 per cent of the people who voted in the referendum held in 2011 under the auspices of the coalition government.
The failure of AV was salutary and might have brought an end to any further dalliance with electoral reform were it not for the role that new systems have played in the devolved assemblies. In Wales it has allowed Labour to retain its position as the natural party of government (albeit in coalition with other centrist-leftist groups), and in Scotland to govern in coalition with the Lib Dems, and in the face of the rise of the SNP maintain any sort of presence in the politics of the country at all. Even the one English region with a claim to having a devolved assembly, Greater London, has given its voters the chance to feel what is like to participate in one of the versions of a PR-style ballot.
Participation in elections which weigh the value of each vote equally might have softened visceral resistance to change, but it still leaves the question of what PR is for largely unanswered. Simply allowing the Labour vote to cling on for another generation is not the most persuasive argument, so what else is on offer? The LfaND campaign is making a case for a voting system that makes all votes count equally and in turn will produce a more equal society. Unfortunately, the analysis that might back up this bold claim is not yet present on its public platform. If it was, how might it run?
The virtue of PR is seen as giving each and every vote equal weight in determining the political character of the government of the country. This is not the case as things stand at present. The phenomenon of ‘electoral deserts’ exists which, for Labour, take the form of rural or southern constituencies, where preference for the party can be a wasted vote because FPTP closes off any hope that it will gain representation in Parliament. Under any of the systems of PR – in reality either single transferable vote or a form of additional member system – fewer if any votes would be entirely wasted, with the votes for all parties being aggregated across constituency boundaries and having some influence on the formation of the eventual winning government.
But how does this get us to the point of an ‘equal society’? Systems which have some element of proportionality prevail across most European countries but, on their own, they have done little to stem the tide of growing inequality and the sense among large parts of the electorate that they ‘are not being listened to’.
‘Fair votes’ or empowerment?
It would help, inside and outside Labour, if the PR argument was framed as being less about abstractions like ‘fairness’ and more about strengthening a commitment to the empowerment of currently neglected segments of the population within the democratic system. This is particularly urgent given the way in which politics is being shaped round the idea of chronically ‘left behind’ people who live on the margins created by decades of deindustrialisation and a decaying national infrastructure. It is of critical importance that we think about what democratic reform might mean for these groups, and then build a political campaign that brings them on board.
A start would be for LfaND to declare itself as being an advocate of democracy and enfranchisement rather than a shorthand for it, PR. The vote has been the symbol for change throughout the centuries, from the Chartists via the Suffragettes, but of course it needs to be accompanied by further democratic reform. The current strategy of prioritising voting reform for one year or two allows this umbrella campaign to focus on something it can change – namely, the default position of support for the status quo on the part of the Labour Party and trade unions. But after it succeeds it is of critical importance that the demand is nested in more comprehensive sets of proposals which include the no-brainer demand to finally scrap the House of Lords, and stronger regional and local government, with revenue raising powers and the ability to modify the impact of policies emanating from central government.
The Commons itself needs to continue the modest changes of recent years to ensure that it looks like an assembly of representatives of citizens more fit for the 21st century than the 19th. The devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales have much to teach Westminster, not least votes at 16 for their own elections.
The real challenge for LfaND is to convert this vision of a democracy that empowers all the citizens of the country into something which can, first of all, win over the Labour Party. Its approach at the moment is limited to the familiar one of recommending a model resolution that can roll across the CLPs and eventually be big enough to win at Conference. But perhaps it needs to encourage a diversity of reasons for dumping the voting system which evolved from the 19th century, before the Labour Party and recent multi-party politics existed.
Accommodating its political practice to the dumbing-down realities of a FPTP system, Labour tends to make its highest priorities campaigning in what are understood to be marginal seats, whilst ignoring constituencies facing the brunt of deindustrialisation and poverty. Then we have the tactics which focus everything on switch voters, not – ironically – Labour supporters, who want the assurance that a ‘safe’ government is in the offing that won’t scare them off with talk of radical change.
Trade unions all too often have not made the connection between the outcome of FPTP elections and bread and butter issues in terms of health, education, investment and expenditure. In exchange for having the whole cake once in a generation, they throw away the incremental but revolutionary build-up of better services and more secure jobs.
The LfaND also needs to focus attention on the party’s Commission on Justice and Home Affairs. Democratic reform is covered by its current remit. It has decided to extend its current evidence-gathering into summer 2021 to allow constituency, branches, individuals and trade unions to submit their ideas and arguments for change. Out of this we might get a Commission report which reflects the fact that Labour members have moved on from FPTP.
A revised voting system depends on democracy, and democracy depends on listening and learning and recognising that it is sometimes necessary to move on from the old way of doing things. Our new democracy ought to be a way of governing in partnership with the people we are asking to vote for Labour – rather than asking for a mandate to rule over them for simply another five years.