Whenever Norwich South Labour MP Clive Lewis speaks on the value of proportional representation, he almost always adds this caveat: “But of course PR is NOT a silver bullet for the many problems we face.” In this March 2021 video, they are very first words to come out of Clive’s mouth.
That’s a perfectly proper limitation or qualification for all electoral reformers to remember at the end of the very dirty “Battle of Batley” by-election. It revealed, in spades, the “many problems we face.”
Yesterday’s (1 July) Batley and Spen by-election was won by Labour candidate Kim Leadbeater in a squeaker. Labour’s margin of victory of almost 3500 votes in the 2019 general election was reduced to a mere 323 votes.
The Conservatives’ Ryan Stephenson, labelled “The Invisible Candidate” by veteran campaigner George Galloway, finished a very close second. Galloway placed third. His prime reason for running was to force Keir Starmer to resign as Labour leader; a huge “Starmer Out” sign greeted you a few days ago when entering Batley. ‘I don’t think he could survive a defeat to me,’ Galloway told one journalist.
But Galloway did not get his wish yesterday and Starmer will remain at Labour’s helm. Yet this “red wall” West Yorkshire seat has been Labour since 1997 and Labour majorities have usually been in the 5,000 to 6,000 range. Labour’s vote yesterday dropped by more than 7%, the largest of any party.
So to call it a “fantastic result” – as one senior Labour figure did – is rather OTT and especially when detailed studies suggest Labour will need to win up to 135-145 additional seats if it expects to form a majority government in the next election.
BATLEY AND SPEN WAS A STINKER
Far more interesting than the electoral figures and the “what ifs” arising from this high profile by-election is what this campaign tells us about the current state of British political culture. It is definitely not OTT to conclude that Batley and Spen was a stinker; more on this in a minute.
This vileness, including open racism and homophobia, takes us back to the question of electoral reform and that matter of a “silver bullet.”(As an aside, it is worth noting that Manchester mayor Andy Burnham was featured yesterday on the cover of NewStatesman explaining why he has changed his mind and now endorses proportional representation for Westminster elections.)
To think that implementing a new equitable voting system such as PR would, at a stroke, clean up the political and electoral stench poured into – and stirred up – in Batley and Spen is, as the old saying goes, “dreaming in technicolour.”
PR IS NOT A QUICK FIX
Despite what some sugar-coated PR for PR suggests sometimes, PR is not some type of quick fix for our deeply unfair and outmoded first past the post (FPTP) voting system. Nor is FPTP the only structural problem plaguing the political culture of the UK today.
So yes, GET PR DONE! does believe what we say on the tin: we are cross party/ no party group deeply committed to campaigning for a new voting system, for a system already operating in more than 80 other countries and where seats won in Parliament match – or almost match – votes cast for the various parties. That seems to us a pretty basic democratic requirement.
And while bringing in PR would be a good first start to political reform, how could it single-handedly erase what we have witnessed during the Batley and Spen campaign? (As a technical point of election administration, it is possible to have by-elections in jurisdictions like Germany or New Zealand with well-established PR systems; the huge democratic advantage of PR over our antiquated FPTP system is revealed more clearly, however, in country-wide general elections. In the UK, a party can win a landslide in Parliament on 35% of the overall vote …and even govern, as happened in 1951, when it loses the popular vote.)
HOMOPHOBIA AND RACISM ON DISPLAY
Here are but a few examples of how deep the rot is…and not only in Batley and Spen. For example, both my Sheffield mate and I often detected the racial tension simmering just below the surface during our visit earlier this week.
- Fake Labour leaflets claiming the party is against “whiteness” were being distributed.
- Some Labour activists were pelted with eggs and kicked in the head, alleged former Labour MP and now West Yorkshire mayor Tracey Brabin. Police are investigating.
- Leadbeater herself was subjected to homophobic harassment and Galloway sent out the coded message that he was the “father of six children.” Quite how that is a necessary qualification to be a good MP was never explained.
- Two well-known neo fascists were among the 16 candidates and Tommy Robinson was set to appear at a scheduled racist rally, but was a no show.
- Labour itself jumped it into the racialised fray. Leadbeater’s campaign passed out a leaflet pitting Pakistanis versus Indians, which led to a Labour MP tweeting: “Racism is alive and well within Labour. A hierarchy of racism exists inside the party and some groups are seen as fair game for attacks based on religion/race/heritage.”
- The Green Party’s candidate withdrew after he was discovered to have sent “highly offensive” homophobic tweets as a teenager.
The by-election revealed other negative sides of our current electoral system. Of course, all elections are competitions, but “the winner takes all” mantra of FPTP surely exacerbates nastiness.
Despite widespread media coverage – one national newspaper published almost ten, often lengthy, articles on the battle of Batley – voter turnout was a mere 47%.
During our visit to Batley, we found a lot of people we talked to on Batley’s high street were deeply “turned off” politics. A group of local Muslim women went online to condemn the “shameful behaviour” of a minority of Muslim men involved in what is supposed an exercise in democracy. We do “not feel the need to shout, be aggressive or harass people in the streets or online,” they wrote.
Two-time MP George Galloway – once in London in 2005 and once in nearby Bradford in 2013, both times for the now defunct left of Labour Respect party – was obviously a controversial candidate. And especially for Labour.
On the one hand, some local Labour activists took the attitude that Galloway had no real right to be on the ballot as he was a mere poacher of THEIR voters. A party with nearly 500,000 members shouldn’t go to pieces when a candidate like the admittedly charismatic Galloway enters the race.
On the other hand, a certain percentage of Galloway’s vote came from socialists and left Labour who are very dismayed by the centrist tilt by Labour under Starmer. A huge problem with FPTP voting systems, such as in the UK and the US, is that they create an electoral duopoly. There is seldom a home for such voters.
So what of these Labour left and left-of-Labour voters? As Labour MP Dianne Abbott reminded us a few years ago, “New Labour bigwigs” used to insist that core Labour voters “had nowhere else to go”. In yesterday’s vote, a large percentage of such Labour core/ left voters made up 21% who found “somewhere to go” when they put an X beside Galloway’s name. (Mind you, a lot of socialists do not regard self-promoting Galloway as a model leader of the British left.)
STARMER HAS “NO MAGIC QUALITIES”
The three final thoughts:
- Leadbeater’s majority of 323 is hardly a rock solid base to build upon for the next election. Labour has similar weak spots elsewhere. Experienced Labour figures such as Burnham and Clive Lewis appreciate Labour must endorse proportional representation, both for its own sake and for the sake of far fairer governance than the Tories can provide.
To slightly paraphrase a GET PR DONE! campaigner on learning of Labour’s narrow win: “Perhaps for Labour to support PR, the best option is that Starmer stays, as you would think he’s had enough of a battering to make him realise he has no magic qualities to lead Labour to win outright and the party will need allies.”
- One of the main aims of proportional voting is to promote a less tribal and more collegial/ co-operative style of politics. Finland, for example, is currently governed by a left/green coalition of five parties, all led by women. In the New Zealand election last October, Labour’s Jacinda Adhern won an outright majority… and then voluntarily asked the Greens to join her government.
Yes, PR is not a silver bullet but its generosity of spirit would be a very helpful tonic in Batley and the entire UK. (Indeed, Wales and Scotland already use PR for their own parliaments. Westminster is really so last year. Correction: Westminster is so 1884 as that’s when FPTP single-member constituencies were created in their current form.)
- The last word goes to Robin Cook, a former Labour foreign secretary who quit Blair’s government over the Iraq war. Cook, like Mo Mowlam, was also an electoral reformer. In an 1993 pamphlet for the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, 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.”
Heaven help us if we – and that includes the deserving voters of Batley and Spen – cannot create a fairer electoral system by 2040.
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.
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