Keir Hardie, the founder of the Labour Party, was an early advocate of proportional representation (PR).
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. Unfortunately, like Hardie, Cook and Mowlam both died in their 50s (and both in 2005).
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?
Few would label Mowlam a weakling, but Cook was an even more towering figure in Labour. Read his obituary; imagine if Cook’s talents could have been turned loose on a Tory apologist for FPTP…or a Labour backbencher in a safe seat seeking a larger pension.
Opposed to Iraq war
Neither Cook nor Mowlam is primarily remembered today for being an advocate for electoral reform. Cook served as Blair’s first Foreign Secretary from 1997 until 2001 when he was demoted to Leader of the House of Commons. He was a fierce opponent of the Iraq War and in a passionate March 2003 speech (a speech that earned an MP a standing ovation for the first time in Commons history), he denounced the UK and US invasion of Iraq and resigned from Blair’s government.
Mowlam made her political mark in Ireland. Appointed in 1997 as Northern Ireland Secretary, she was known as a politician who listened. She oversaw the negotiations which lead to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and ended decades of sectarian violence. A fellow cabinet minister described her as “the catalyst that allowed politics to move forward”.
After stepping down as an MP in 2001, Mowlam also joined in protests again Blair’s illegal Middle East war.
Today, their already high reputations have increased further, while Blair’s has sunk. And 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, as of now, more than 200 Constituency Labour Parties have come out in favour of PR.
Thatcher had no right to rule
The notably intelligent and articulate Cook joined the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (LCER) after becoming an MP for Edinburgh Central in 1974. LCER had its origins in the 1970s during the 1974-79 Wilson/Callaghan Labour administration when it was known as “the Labour Study Group for Electoral Reform.”
By 1990 the LCER was now inspired by Cook and Mowlam. Both argued that the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher had no right to rule with only 42% of the popular vote which the Tory Party had secured at the 1987 General Election.
During the 1987-92 Thatcher/Major administration, Labour set up the Plant Commission on Electoral Reform, headed by Professor Raymond Plant.
In a 1989 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  election.”
Move ahead to 1992. The Plant Commission was not due to report until after that year’s General Election, an election which appeared to be heading towards a hung Parliament. Yet at a press conference a week before the 9 April vote — dubbed “Democracy Day” by the constitutional campaign group Charter 88 — the Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, made an important announcement.
He said Labour would like to see other parties, particularly the Liberal Democrats, join Plant’s working group. But some days later in an election special on television, Kinnock appeared to get cold feet. When pressed, he refused to give his own views on proportional representation.
As Labour’s leader, Kinnock 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.
The next year in 1993, the Plant Commission voted by a majority of 10-6 to scrap First Past the Post and by 9-7 to adopt a “Supplementary Vote” system for the House of Commons. The Commission, however, also voted by 11-4 against the Mixed Member Proportional system used in Germany and (since 1996) in New Zealand.
When these findings were presented to the next Labour Leader, John Smith, he announced he would let the people decide in a referendum. (The Supplementary Vote idea was buried until it emerged to elect Mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners.)
No constitutional settlement without PR
Also 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.
Almost 30 years later, this approach remains very relevant. While Keir Starmer and his constitutional advisor Gordon Brown keep saying they favour constitutional reform, they both remain stealthily silent on electoral reform.
In his foreword to this 1993 LCER pamphlet, 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, MP for Redcar, also wrote of the widespread disillusionment with politics that FPTP had brought. She could have been writing in 2021. “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.
Blair promises referendum on electoral reform
In 1994, John Smith died unexpectedly. Tony Blair’s subsequent leadership promise to put the voting system to a referendum ensured that electoral reform remained on the agenda of every Labour Party conference between 1994 and the 1997 General Election. Indeed in 1997 Labour pledged to set up a commission to decide on a new voting system for the House of Commons and to hold a referendum on any proposed change to the electoral system.
The Jenkins Commission on Electoral Reform led by Liberal Democrat peer Lord Jenkins of Hillhead was duly established shortly after Labour’s 1997 election victory. At the 1998 Labour conference Cook, by then Foreign Secretary, was the most senior cabinet minister to back electoral reform for the Commons. He described proportional representation as an idea “whose time [had] come”.
Also at that year’s party conference, Mo Mowlam said “There is now the opportunity for all of us to discuss how politics can connect people more closely to the decisions which affect their lives. Politics should not be about scoring points. Politics should be about getting things done, making politicians listen and making votes count.”
But Blair ditches referendum promise
The Jenkins Commission reported in October 1998, recommending the Alternative Vote Plus (AV+) system. However, the Labour Party again remained divided on electoral reform with many prominent cabinet ministers remaining opposed to any change. Because of this, and with Labour having won a 179 seat majority in 1997, the findings of the commission were never implemented. Nor was the promised referendum ever held during Labour’s time in office. (The only referendum ever held on electoral reform was the badly flawed AV proposal in 2011.) .
Nonetheless the 2001 and 2005 Labour manifestos both contained a promise to learn from the PR systems adopted for the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and London before making a decision on any change to the voting system for the Commons. Mind you, the manifesto promise at each of those elections was a watered-down version of that made at the previous election.
In a speech to an LCER fringe meeting at the 2003 Labour conference, Cook pointed out that FPTP effectively forced Labour to focus primarily on the 1% of swing voters in its key target seats while ignoring its core voters. This meant that there was a danger that those who had the most to gain from a Labour government would also have the most to lose when the Conservatives did eventually return to power. (Cook had also long endorsed the need for a Scottish Parliament, a body itself elected by proportional representation).
Cook believed that Labour needed to “create an electoral system in which the way people vote shapes the parliament that then belongs to them”. He pointed out that in the 1960s, one third of all MPs had received more than 50% of votes cast in their constituencies, yet in 2001 not one MP was elected with the support of a majority of their electorates. This meant FPTP simply could not handle the increasing pluralism of public opinion. FPTP created duopolies.
In his speech to the LCER AGM in July 2005, just one month before his death, Cook said he believed that the General Election in May of that year was a clear sign of the injustices of FPTP. Labour won a reduced but still comfortable majority with just 35% of the popular vote and despite winning fewer votes than the Conservatives in England.
Cook: if the Tories got 35%
“Just assume for one moment that instead of [Labour], how would we feel if the Tory Party had got 35% share of the vote and a majority of 66. We would be rioting and recognise a system that is totally unjust and anomalous.
“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 the party’s new constitution that replaced Clause 4] we committed ourselves to putting power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many, not the few.”
In 2021, who is Keir Starmer going to listen to? The opinions of Blair and Brown who lied to the British people in 1997 that electoral reform was right around the corner?
Or to the voices of Labour visionaries and “straighter shooters” like Cook and Mowlam – and Keir Hardy?
Thank you to Mary Southcott of LCER for digging into her archives and retrieving some old flyers and speeches.
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