Labour’s shadow cabinet has recently revealed what it hopes to do if and when it wins the next election. Some long-needed constitutional reforms have been discussed but, astonishingly, these exclude the introduction of a proportional representation (PR) voting system.
Keir Starmer has proposed some devolution of government to the regions and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for the Lords to be replaced by a fully elected chamber.
Many, both in and outside the Labour Party, regard reversing Thatcher’s centralisation of Government power as highly desirable, important and overdue. Similarly, many think the Lords should have been reformed a century ago before our country became an international laughing stock.
There is absolutely no opposition to these policies among progressives.
However, on the far more important issue of electoral reform in general and proportional representation in particular, there is not a word.
This is against the tide
Firstly, this is not an either-or situation. There is no reason why all three policies – PR, Devolved Power and Elected Revising Chamber – could not be enacted together. Indeed, it would make a lot of sense to do so.
Thirdly, the Labour Party membership and the affiliated unions voted overwhelmingly for PR at their 2022 Conference.
Fair elections are of the highest importance because they legitimise government and make its authority acceptable to its citizens. They are the very bedrock of democracy.
On ethical grounds alone, the introduction of electoral reform should not be delayed.
But there are also practical reasons why electoral reform should be seen as being of the utmost urgency. As many would accept, there is a growing crisis in this country that arises from a disaffection with our political system. People feel that politicians are not sufficiently accountable and that voting at elections changes nothing. This is evidenced in two ways:
Firstly, turnout at elections has been in continual decline for many decades. It rose quickly after the extension of the franchise in 1918 and reached a maximum of 84% in 1945. Since then, it has steadily declined.
This is easy to understand. In far too many constituencies, under FPTP, the same party wins election after election and a vote for any other party is seen for what it rightly is – a waste of time and effort. Studies have shown, however, that, when First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) has been replaced by PR, turnout increases and attitudes to the efficacy of voting improve.
Secondly, the rise of secessionist parties has been fuelled by this disaffection and this has split the anti-Tory vote, keeping them in power.
But Starmer is now refusing to put PR in the Manifesto
Starmer and his cabinet seem to have grasped the need to address the widespread disaffection of the UK public with both politics and politicians but, unbelievably, they claim that the way to do this is through devolving power and Lord’s reform rather than through electoral reform.
Many countries are much more devolved and less centralised than the UK but the evidence shows that, without PR, their populations are also disaffected. In the USA, for example, only 55.7 percent of the eligible population voted in the 2016 presidential election in spite of the fact that the USA is a federal – and hence devolved – state.
The idea that reforming a revising chamber might be seen as having more effect than the reform of a legislating chamber is equally disingenuous.
In January 2020, during the Labour leadership campaign, Keir Starmer unambiguously called for electoral reform. But, as leader, he has refused to comply with the clearly expressed wishes of the party to put a commitment to PR in the manifesto. He and his cabinet have treated the membership with contempt by refusing to discuss or even explain this omission.
So what is going on?
Politicians must always choose between serving the interests of their electors, their parties and themselves when clashes occur. Sadly, and this in part explains the dangerous levels of voter apathy in countries using FPTP, politicians too frequently fail to put the electors first.
Starmer is typical. He may have begun in politics as an idealist who wanted to improve the lot of those he represents but the fear is that he has succumbed to the corrosive influence of Westminster party politics. He has performed a U-turn on PR probably because some of his MPs don’t like it. In short, he has been nobbled.
Why do some Labour MPs dislike PR? Two reasons; party interest and self-interest.
Some Labour Party MPs fear that their party might shrink if PR is adopted because our electoral system will no longer be able to stop small and new parties from growing at the expense of the two big parties. In fact, the Labour Party could grow under PR by reforming as a purely social democratic party.
Labour MPs also see the likelihood of having to form coalition governments as a loss of independence and power. Since they would always be the senior party, this is misconceived.
An unspoken objection that some Labour MPs have against PR is the fact that “safe seats” would disappear and MPs in “safe seats” tend to want the current voting system, created in the 1880s, to simply carry on unchanged. None of them wants to face more competition.
After all, life at Westminster is very cosy compared to life outside in the cold. Think of inflation-proofed salaries and allowances, index-linked, defined-benefit pensions and subsidised dining and bars. Added to all that there is the freedom to define one’s own working hours so that yet more can be earned from book writing, speeches and consultancy.
In short, Westminster turns out to be a gravy train for many.
When Starmer wanted the support of members while campaigning for the leadership, he made his apparently pro-PR speech. Now that the support of MPs is more important, his stance has changed. Surely the timing is significant?
The only significant opposition to PR that remains in the Labour Party comes not from members or affiliated unions but from MPs.
So Don’t be Fooled
Starmer and the shadow cabinet’s offer of Devolved Government and Lord’s reform should be seen for what they are.
They are attempts to divert attention from PR.
It will, no doubt, be argued that these measures, alone, will be sufficient to dispel the disaffection crisis but that is obvious poppycock. FPTP will continue to deny millions their right to genuine representation in parliament. It is time to GET PR DONE!
Bob Hercliffe is a member of the GET PR DONE! writing team. He is a retired Further Education science lecturer (aged 71) born in Derby and now living near Gosport.
The artwork is by the regular IN PROPORTION illustrator Glyn Goodwin.
IN PROPORTION is the blog of the cross-party/no-party campaign group GET PR DONE! (https://getprdone.org.uk/) We are campaigning to bring in a much fairer proportional representation voting system. Unless otherwise stated, each blog reflects the personal opinion of its author.
We welcome contributed blogs. Send a brief outline (maximum 75 words) to email@example.com
Join the very active Facebook group of GET PR DONE! (+2,700 members as of January 2023.) https://www.facebook.com/groups/625143391578665/