Mary Southcott reports on the immediate past and the hoped-for future of our voting system
Nearly a century ago, the 1926 Labour Conference dropped its support of proportional representation in favour of ‘alternative vote’. In practice, it has been in support of first-past-the-post since. On the afternoon of 26th September 2022, Labour overwhelmingly supported PR to elect MPs, a long overdue response to a voting system which polarises our politics, encourages a blame game, fails to find solutions to problems which need to be addressed and disenfranchises all but a minority of switch voters in decreasing numbers of marginal target seats.
The tragedy that has resulted from minority support for parties in government, particularly ones with huge majorities created by the current system, is that we have binary, anti-consensus politics which allows Government to exercise power without consent and voters a choice between not necessarily the same two parties in 650 constituencies. This essentially discourages parties from working together, even when they agree.
Will that change now that Labour Conference has made this huge leap into the future, where politics will be done differently, every vote will count and, more often than not, give us governments of the people, by the people, for the people?
In Sunday’s priorities ballot, electoral reform dropped from second, in 2021, to fifth place, partly because Labour to Win and Momentum both recommended their own six resolutions, assuming that electoral reform, having topped the number of resolutions for the second year running, would automatically reach the Conference floor.
Despite the vocal support of Welsh Labour leader Mark Drakeford and Andy Burnham, Manchester’s mayor, and the understanding that Anas Sarwar, Scotland’s Labour leader, is in favour, journalists were briefed that whatever Conference decided nothing would happen, that this was not a priority or, even more nuanced, that “this is not the time”.
The ghosts of John Smith and Robin Cook were there when Smith’s one-time head of policy David Ward, the proposer of composite motion 8, representing Ashford, a ‘blue wall’ seat, told Conference, “Labour’s voice, Labour voters and Labour’s purpose – to defend ordinary people – are being strangled by first-past-the-post.”
This year’s vote was in favour because Unite’s policy conference in October 2021 dropped its support for the status quo and allowed their delegation to interpret this as support for PR. The Unison decision in favour of PR at its 2022 national delegate conference and by its Labour Link was critical. There was no card vote to record the victory, but there is video evidence of the overwhelming show of hands.
Those who have realised that this historic change has happened are asking, “What next?” The majority of the shadow cabinet, the NEC, the Parliamentary Labour Party and Labour peers are not persuaded. So discussion needs to continue in Labour circles, in the unions and, indeed, in Chartist, as one of the coalition partners in Labour for a New Democracy. Do read their new publication ‘Everything but the Commons’.
There seems to be just as much work to be done between now and the general election as was done in the last two years leading to Labour dropping its support for winner-takes-all politics. Recalling Robin Cook’s instruction that the role of Labour in government is to prepare for opposition, we need electoral reform wording in Labour’s manifesto, Labour candidates to put their support to make the next election the last fought under first-past-the-post in their communications with the electorate, and legislation in the first term of a majority or minority Labour government.
The focus now switches to the National Policy Forum, where electoral reform has overwhelmingly topped the submissions in recent years despite not having an obvious home for policy discussion. The safe and secure communities commission brings together home affairs and justice and encompasses the remit of the Cabinet Office.
It is likely that Gordon Brown’s report will introduce new elections for a senate to replace the Lords and regional councils in England. These will need to be elected. We need to promote the wording we hope to see in the manifesto.
Definitely, if we are not to miss this golden opportunity, Labour needs to have something to say about democracy. Would “Labour recognises that our current voting system has lost the support of the electorate and will address this in government” be anything like approaching an acceptable ask? If your answer is no, have your say!