Support for proportional representation is not the preserve of any one party. But given the opposition of the Tory party to any change, the view of the Labour Party will be key to any reform.
For the purposes of providing a greater understanding of the debates within Labour, it is worth considering the views of those Labour members who are strongly opposed to the party backing electoral reform at its upcoming conference.
CLPD PLAYED POSITIVE ROLE IN THE PAST
The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) is one such group. It has prepared two motions for this year’s Labour conference in September which oppose any change to the current First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) voting system.
The CLPD was founded in 1973 in response to the Labour leadership’s refusal to adopt conference decisions as party policy. It also acted in the context of members of British political parties having no say over who became their party’s leader.
Labour was the first party to allow ordinary members to choose their leader in parliament, followed by the LibDems and Tories. That this occurred in British politics was down, in no small part, to the work of CLPD.
In recent years, the organisation has supported efforts to introduce open selection for all Labour parliamentary candidates, a measure which would have led to party members having a choice of candidates in all seats, “safe” or not.
But curiously for an organisation dedicated to improving democratic participation in politics, the CLPD is opposed to the party adopting proportional representation as its policy.
In doing so, the CLPD is choosing to ignore all the evidence against the current system: FPTP has an inbuilt bias towards conservative parties.
Let’s examine what CLPD argues more closely.
GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS
The first motion, titled “First Past The Post Delivers Majority Labour Governments”, claims that proportional representation would make it “well-nigh impossible to ever achieve” a parliamentary majority.
New Zealand currently has a Labour government. It won a majority last October under a proportional system. In Finland and Portugal, parties much like Labour lead coalitions of left parties which control their own governments.
Until this May, Labour governed in coalition in Wales. After the May 2021 election, the party now governs alone. Yet the Welsh Assembly also has a system of proportional representation.
In fact, there are “75 countries (across the globe) that have directly elected parliaments use some form of proportional voting system; 22 others use a semi-PR system.” Embarrassingly, Labour is the sole social democratic party in the developed world that still endorses FPTP.
So, the first claim of CLPD, that Labour cannot win under PR, is simply not true. (Mind you, abandoning FPTP does not mean abandoning the aim of getting as big a win as possible!)
But sadly, this claim of impossibility is repeated in another motion on electoral reform, “Now is Not the Time to Change the Voting System”. That is a title which makes it sound as if there is an immediate prospect of parliament implementing PR.
If now is not the time (and it isn’t, there is not a parliamentary majority for change) what about after the next general election?
The motion argues that Labour should focus on coming up with “an appealing platform that aims to solve the problems that are being inflicted on the population by the Tory government.”
And while it is true that electoral reform doesn’t keep many people awake at night with worry, it isn’t a matter of having either an appealing platform or a commitment to electoral reform.
Why not both?
Moreover, it should never be forgotten what a June 2020 review by Labour Together concluded: for Labour to win in the next election would require a greater swing than Labour got in the 1945 and 1997 elections.
LABOUR HAS WON WHEN IT PROMISED PR
Given that electoral reform has been promised by the party in the past, when it last went from opposition to government in 1997, PR could be an important element of a next winning manifesto. PR gives voters more power over the political system and power is what many people are lacking.
Of course, the challenge for Labour is to win under the current system. But why would a Labour government want to keep the current system, given it has a bias towards conservatives?
The fact is that FPTP makes it harder for Labour to participate in government. It is why our sister parties do not advocate returning to it and one reason why referendums in Ireland and New Zealand to return their countries to FPTP voting have both failed.
As members of a party which has been able in the past to elect and re-elect majority governments without reforming the voting system, it can seem to some Labour Party members as though the concern of Liberal Democrats, Greens, and others, with getting PR done is just a matter of narrow self-interest.
Socialists in the Labour party need to consider if attitudes to electoral reform are based on evidence. Does the political strategy for a transformative Labour government require a defence of the electoral system? Aren’t socialists in favour of electoral fairness?
SOCIALISM & PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION
In an article for CLPD, “First Past The Post for Democratic Socialism”, Luton South MP Rachel Hopkins argues that across Europe, Labour’s sister parties have “been marginalised and electoral systems have been a major factor in that process”.
But would their position have become so weakened if they had not signed up to austerity in the wake of the global financial crisis and experienced “Pasokification” – a severe backlash from their voters – as a result?
Hopkins’ argument has no place for a Labour government that wants to implement not only economic but also constitutional changes to advance the interests of the majority.
Would it be better for a Labour government to lose power to a Conservative Party elected by a minority than to change the voting system and potentially share power if another outright majority could not be won? In these circumstances, having to reach agreement with other parties to continue implementing progressive policies is surely preferable to the damage of minority Tory rule?
In their arguments in defence of the existing system, Hopkins and the CLPD do not appear to have considered these questions.
PR REDISTRIBUTES POWER
Our party made a mistake two decades ago. Having been elected in 1997 promising to set up a commission on electoral reform (a promise which was kept) and to hold a referendum on its recommended voting system (which was AV+) Labour abandoned this pledge to voters that, in future, their votes would really count.
It should be seen as a real problem for socialists in the Labour Party that some voters matter more than others; it reduces Labour’s influence in parliament and gives a rational electoral basis for the party concentrating on voters in key marginals. This can make it seem like support is taken for granted in our party’s strongholds.
The last time Labour won a general election was in 2005 and at the time, the SNP were not the governing party in the Scottish parliament and the Greens had no MPs. So, there wasn’t as much competition from other parties that voters could see had gained parliamentary representation elsewhere and so could potentially win in their constituency.
It is going to be necessary, if Labour is to take office after the next general election, that voters minded to back other parties have a strong reason to vote tactically.
A commitment to redistributing the power of voters by implementing electoral reform could provide this, as part of a platform for transformative change.
THERE’S GROWING MOMENTUM FOR PR
Thankfully, the CLPD’s conservative position on electoral reform is not the prevailing opinion of socialists in the Labour Party.
For example, it has been the position of Open Labour for a number of years that there needs to be PR.
And this year, members of Momentum have voted to back PR in the organisation’s first policy primary, recognising that “to protect the gains we make when in power, to avoid losing future decades to Tory minority rule, and to give everyone a real voice in a 21st century democracy, we must change the voting system.”
This is a motion which was initiated by Labour For A New Democracy and it is a call which has so far been taken up by a third of the party’s constituency groups. And there is growing interest in trade unions affiliated to Labour: this year the train drivers’ union ASLEF has joined the campaign for PR.
Yes, the aim should be to elect a transformative Labour government under the existing voting system. And to that end, we should try to democratise the party so that it can then democratise both state and economic institutions when in government.
But there is no reason to suppose that a Labour Party committed to transformative policies could not be re-elected for a second term under a fair voting system.
And it could be that the only way to secure the election of a Labour government is to commit to redistributing wealth and power, including the power of voters, from the few to the many.
Let’s Get PR done!
James Doran lives in the North East of England and is a longstanding member of the Labour Party.
IN PROPORTION is the blog of the cross-party/no-party campaign group GET PR DONE! 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 firstname.lastname@example.org