Photo: Alisdare Hickson (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Reform of the voting system at general elections would, in turn, revitalise local government, says Karen Constantine

Time, surely, to consign the antiquated first-past-the-post system to the past. We need to unlock activism, upgrade local democracy and ignite our passion for winning elections. In the face of seemingly unassailable Tory domination, the like of which we haven’t experienced before, voters and activists alike need to know that their votes actually count. Labour and trade unionists would benefit from an urgently needed watershed shift to a form of proportional representation. It is pivotal to dismantling Tory hegemony. 

If we are going to unlock democracy we need to be focused, positive and decisive to rise to the challenge of winning elections based on PR. Many would-be voters fail to engage with the ballot box, believing their vote won’t make any difference. Others – volatile, naive, floating – veer red to green, and in places yellow, in an earnest effort to depose the Conservatives – often with the painful result that splitting the vote not only undermines Labour’s chances of success but also rewards the Conservatives. 

The collapse of the Scottish and Red Wall vote, which Labour hopes to reverse, still leaves the urgent requirement to win coastal communities, and to build our efficacy, participation and activist base in local government. This isn’t just about winning and declining vote share. Losing results in fewer councillors, fewer representatives for trade unions to engage with, and diminished opportunities to win parliamentary seats. Local government gains pave the way to parliamentary wins. Losing means less local government experience and knowledge inside the party. Continual defeat exacerbates the feeling of the inevitability of losing, which in turn makes campaigning more daunting. 

The unions need to show leadership and to debate what a proportional representation voting system really offers their membership. They are shut out of influence when Labour is not in office. They have reassurance that an incoming Labour government is committed to rights at work from day one, ending exploitative contracts and introducing a £10 minimum wage, and has a clear mandate to support workplace organising and building union recognition – evidence of the power of collectivism and the important trade union Labour link. 

In an ideal general election, Labour activists would be able to hit the campaign trail invigorated by the prospect of knowing every vote counts, enthusiastically campaigning to inform residents that, even in Tory-dominated areas like Kent, this time, their red vote would make a difference. Voters want their ‘X’ to be a mandate to implement the policies that matter most to them.

It’s not ‘if’, it’s ‘when’ Conference will adopt proportional voting as a vital precursor to electoral success. As a councillor myself, putting in the hard yards convincing voters to get out and vote, I’d say it’s getting harder. If politics is the live, beating heart of democracy that impacts every person at every hour of the day, proportional representation is life support. 

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