Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith Quizzed on Democratic Reform

7 Sep 2016

The Labour leadership election is in full swing, with the vote closing on Wednesday 21st September.

At the ERS, we’re running Q&As with the leadership candidates for the Labour Party. On Tuesday we published our Q&A with UKIP, who are also in the midst of a leadership election, and last month we quizzed the Green Party’s leadership candidates on democratic reform too – see the answers here

We’ve asked Labour’s candidates – Owen Smith and Jeremy Corbyn about voting systems, increasing voter registration, sorting out Britain’s broken party funding system, and how to reform the House of Lords.

We flipped a coin to decide who would come first in the ordering (Jeremy was tails, Owen was heads and it was tails).

We’re grateful to both candidates for responding in what we hope is a significant contribution to the debate.

Let us know what you think of their answers in the comments box below!

And, whether you’re a supporter, a member, or neither – please share this Q&A with any friends you have who support Labour. If you are a member though, make sure to vote. We hope this is useful!

(And if you want to support our work for a better democracy, join us today!)

Here we go:

1. Last year's General Election was the most disproportionate election in British history, with the result bearing little relation to how people actually voted. Do you support replacing first past the post with a fairer system? The ERS supports the Single Transferable Vote, used for local elections in Scotland and all non-Westminster elections in Northern Ireland. Which system/s would you prefer for Westminster? And would you back the adoption of the Scottish system of STV for local elections in England and Wales?

Jeremy Corbyn

I believe in the wisdom of ordinary citizens. That’s why I have set out proposals to extend democracy in every part of public life: in national politics, communities, the economy and workplace – and in the Labour Party. Democracy is a fundamental to our politics.

Our electoral system should properly reflect the collective choices of the electorate as well as providing stable government and direct representation - in any change the constituency link must be maintained, as it has been in Wales and Scotland. Reform of the electoral system should be considered as part of a wider constitutional convention to comprehensively weigh the reforms that our constitution needs at national, regional and local level.

My comprehensive pledges to democratise every part of public life are:

Democracy in the country: We will support radical devolution of power to local councils, regions and nations, in consultation with party members and local people; replace the House of Lords with an elected second chamber; end the 'revolving door' corporate grip on politics and the civil service; and create a new role for citizens' assemblies in shaping political accountability for the future.

Democracy in the community: We will give people a real say in their local communities, through democratic participation in budgeting, online democracy and control of local services; full transparency in public decision-making and contracts with private companies; and a citizens' right to challenge the outsourcing and privatisation of local services through referendums.

Democracy in the economy: We will give employees a real say in the organisations they work for, and the boardrooms that control them; introduce new collective and individual rights at work, including sectoral union bargaining rights, and mandatory collective bargaining for companies with 250 or more employees; require the election of employee representatives to executive remuneration committees; act to ensure women’s equality in the workplace; and create a democratically controlled regional investment bank in every region.

Democracy in the party: We will work to make the Labour party a truly democratic and pluralist organization, rooted in our communities and workplaces, in which members and affiliated organisations have real control, including through a sovereign conference; empower its working class, women, black, disabled, young and LGBT members, and ensure the diversity of the population is reflected in every section of our party; strengthen the women’s, BAME and youth conferences with a clear policy-making role; create a charter of rights for party members; and support moves to widen representation on the national executive to reflect the huge increase in party membership.

Owen Smith

At heart I am a constitutional reformer and believe there needs to be a debate about the Westminster voting system.  I know many want to see a proportional system which reflects overall voting patterns and there is unease that a party can form a majority Government with just over a third of the vote. Despite the merits of these arguments, I am not yet convinced that the correct response is to move to a proportional system.  The link between Members of Parliament and their constituencies means that our politics is grounded in local concerns and local senses of identity, and I would be really concerned about giving that up.  The Westminster system is not perfect, but the local link is precious and I believe it is worth preserving.  My experience in Wales is that proportional systems can lead to a disconnection between elected politicians and local communities.

2. Do you support a directly elected House of Lords? The Lords is currently the largest upper chamber among any advanced country, and the only fully-unelected upper chamber in Europe, £21 million was spent on hand-outs to unelected Peers last year, while just 1% of Peers come from manual backgrounds – meaning it is over-sized, expensive and unrepresentative. Would you back the idea of a directly, proportionally and fully-elected upper House that represents all areas of the UK?

Owen Smith

Yes. There is no place for unelected legislators in the 21st century. I back the calls for a constitutional convention to decide how the second chamber is elected, how many members it has and how we can maintain and enhance our upper chambers role as a scrutinising chamber full of expertise and experience. I don’t think we can be content with just waiting though. As Leader I’d introduce a five year ban on former Labour Party staffers, advisers MPs and donors from becoming a member of the House of Lords. I’m calling on the leaders of other parties to match this ban until the Lords are overhauled.

Jeremy Corbyn

I fully support an elected House of Lords, replacing the outdated unelected second chamber. Although there are many talented voices in the House of Lords, it does not reflect the diversity of the country's population and there is no reason that legislators should not be subject to election.

Therefore I am pleased to pledge my support for a directly, proportionally and fully-elected upper house representing every part of the UK. Our upper house is an important check on the power of government and plays a crucial role in revising legislation. A fully elected upper house should continue to play this vital role following reform.

3. How should Britain's system of party funding be reformed? A poll released earlier this year showed that 77% of the public believe big donors have too much influence on political parties, while 72% of the public agree or strongly agree that the system of party funding is 'corrupt and should be changed’ (up from 61% when the same question was asked in 2014), so there is clear public demand for change. Would you support a greater role for clean, public funding of parties, caps on donations and lower spending limits? And what process would you undertake to achieve reform (e.g. constitutional convention, cross-party commission, explicit manifesto pledges etc.).

Jeremy Corbyn

Big donors can be a corrosive influence on politics and the example of the US party funding system clearly shows what Britain needs to avoid. I support firm action to remove big donors from the British party funding system.

The Labour Party has the best record and the cleanest system of party funding of any British party. Most of our funding comes from our members, our elected representatives and from millions of members of our affiliated trade unions and socialist societies, all making small regular donations to support the work of the party. This means that Labour has far less need to rely on large donors that other parties. Ours is the ideal model and I would encourage other parties to adopt a similar model.

I support a fairly low cap on donations and lower spending limits, with the levels ideally to be set by common agreement. All parties should be funded primarily from small donations and subscriptions. A system of public funding of political parties could only have legitimacy if broadly supported by a majority of the public.

The need for public support and legitimacy for a future party funding system means that it should be considered as part of a wider process of constitutional reform and democratisation. I would therefore place party funding as a major item in a constitutional convention, which I am committed to initiate.

Owen Smith

The first thing we need to do is ensure that the laws we have in place are properly enforced, which is clearly a big challenge when it comes to local spending limits. I was disappointed that cross-party talks to reform party funding collapsed in 2013. Unfortunately, the Cameron administration saw talks as an opportunity to financially cripple the Labour party which is exactly the same attitude when they showed when they slashed the value of Short money. Hopefully we now have an opportunity to get back around the table and engage in sincere talks with an upper limit on individual donations on the table.

4. What methods do you support to boost voter registration? With one in seven eligible people not being on the electoral register, Britain needs a registration revolution' – how would you go about achieving this? Would you consider moves towards automatic registration, or a US-style 'motor voter' campaign where citizens are prompted with a simple tick-box to register to vote when interacting with public sector bodies - such as applying for a driving licence, for a tax return or for university? And finally, on electoral boundaries, would you back a shift to redrawing them on the basis of population rather than simply the number of people on the register, as is currently the case?

Owen Smith

The dawn of individual voter registration means we need to think of ways to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote is on the register.

I would be keen to consider US-style ‘motor voter’ campaigns where citizens are prompted with a simple tick-box to register to vote when interacting with public sector bodies - such as applying for a driving licence, filling out a tax return, booking a GP appointment or registering at university.

Jeremy Corbyn

The manner in which the Tory government has introduced individual voter registration has undermined our democracy. Whilst individual voter registration is not wrong in principle, the unfair system that has been introduced has disenfranchised millions of young people, BAME people, private renters and people on lower incomes. These were already the groups with the lowest rates of registration and it is scandalous that government has made it harder for them to exercise their democratic rights.

I support the introduction of methods of easier registration. The specific design needs careful consideration but the methods you suggest – automatic registration and simple tick-box registrations when interacting with public authorities would both significantly boost registration and I would therefore be happy to consider both these methods. Easier registration should go hand in hand with development of methods to make it easier for people to cast their ballots and a major drive to raise participation in elections at all levels.

I am in favour of constituency boundaries being set by population rather than numbers on the register, with the inclusion of careful checks and balances to ensure that perverse results do not occur if these two numbers are significantly out of step in any given constituency. The combination of poor registration rates following the move to individual registration, which artificially depressed the December 2015 register, with boundary changes being based on that register, will mean that many communities will be significantly under-represented. This will particularly undermine representation for communities with large numbers of young people, BAME people, private renters or people on lower incomes.


29 Responses to Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith Quizzed on Democratic Reform

chris hankinson 8 Sep 2016

Someone should tell Owen Smith that you can have constituency MP's and proportional MP's with PR. If you use "the list" concept - you vote for your constituency MP, after votes counted if you get say 20 seat with 28% of the vote you add 8 list Mps to make it fair, proportional and you also have local MP's.

Robin Gardner 8 Sep 2016

I am not a Labour Party member. Fully support Corbyn's points. Smith's seem like vacuous waffle.

Phil Senior 9 Sep 2016

The difference you see is that Corbyn speaks what he truly believes, and it comes across. Smith speaks like a Politician - and we've had enough of 'em!

Ronnie Salter 8 Sep 2016

Whilst both showed some appetite for electoral reform, I must say Corbyn seemed to give fuller (and to me, more satisfactory) answers.

Abi 8 Sep 2016

I am disappointed that neither of the Labour leadership candidates are prepared to support fixing our outdated first past the post system by advocating a system of proportional representation. 

Colin Cross 8 Sep 2016

Jerremy seems to want to make the wider reaching reforms of the electoral system. 
I would initialy go for the existing Lords being put forward for election in the parlimentary constituencies.  Idealy the lords should represent the most experienced individuals in all walks of life, not just politicians. We need REAL expertise from all the professions to evaluate and amend legislation.  It would be the best chance to prevent any bad unforseen aspects of any legislation.
Constituency reform is also key to a fairer more representative democracy.  The voter numbers in each contituency should be made equall, this should be a fundimental principle of our democracy set in law.  The votes cast by voters should have equall effect across all the constituencies.  The number of MP's for each party should represent their proportion of the total popular vote.  Coalition governments would become common. Selection of partners by the largest party following an election should be controlled by law, in that the largest party must select partners based on direction of the democratic mean vote.
It is also time we had an elected head of state.  Kings, Queens Princes and Princesses should be confined and limited to fairytails not a 21st century democracy.

Steve Hale 8 Sep 2016

Owen Smith's comment about the local link between an MP and local issues is naive. My MP (Philip Dunne - Conservative) always follows his party's line regardless. Local issues don't come into it. Furthermore, despite numerous letters/e-mails I have yet to receive one reply which contradicts Tory policy. In Ludlow constituency my vote doesn't matter since the COnservative majority here is so large that - as a constituent with differing views - I can be safely ignored. FPTP does not work for democracy.
I am sure that a system can be found which retains a level of local MPs (those with the largest majority) wjilst aloocatingmore marginal seats based on overall vote share.

Ray Willis 9 Sep 2016

I was disappointed to see Owen Smith almost dismissing the need for reform on the basis of the link between constituencies and their MP. I do not think it is beyond our wit to design a system which still gives credence to this idea but nonetheless takes into account the genuiene voting desires of the peolple. The 'first past the post' disenfranchsises so many people in the Uk that it is just as worrying ,if not more) than the failure of people to register. Maybe a lot don't register as their vote would be meaningless in the area they live.

Chris Britt 9 Sep 2016

How did Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith do at school and university?  Both dmonstrate very poor exam technique here, failing to answer all or part of several (if not most) questions. 

Theo 9 Sep 2016

So Jeremy Corbyn is lukewarm on the issue of electoral reform at general elections, and Owen Smith seems more hostile. It's disappointing the Labour Party are such dinosaurs on this issue. They both want to scrap the Lords which is welcome but when it comes to properly representing the public's vote, little enthusiasm. It's a shame because it might actually help Labour get back in power.

Anthony Hagger 9 Sep 2016

I have looked at what Corbyn and Smith have said and Corbyn seems by his answers that he is more aware of the need for reform and has the willingness to reform the system to make it more democratic please can you keep me informed on how the survey goes

Robin Nuttall 9 Sep 2016

Jeremy has ready answers and a clear set of policies to tackle democratic bias in the UK while Owen seems to think that a debate to talk about the problems is sufficient. No more words please, action is long overdue.

John Wattis 9 Sep 2016

I have to declare an interest as a Corbyn supporter. My assessment is that Corbyn's responses are carefully thought out and very pro-democracy. He seems to have a very good grasp of the issues and to be committed to constitutional reform which favours democracy; including proportional representation as part of that reform. Smith's responses are "off the cuff" and lack depth. They are more concerned with political point scoring than policy.

Colin Shrive 9 Sep 2016

I am fully supportive of a form of PR for electing the House of Commons but unsure about the best method.
The Lords should not be fully elected as that would mean parity with the Commons which must always be supreme.
Any revised Upper House (which must continue to be a scrutiny and revising chamber ) should be very much smaller than the Lords currently is and should be partly directly elected, partly representative of the regions, and with a minority of reprentatives of the universitites, industry and organised labour.
With all the uncertainties brought about by Brexit and the desire of almost half the people of Scotland to be an independant nation within the European Union, a full constitutional appraisal is clearly desirable rather than an ad-hoc approach

Elizabeth Oughton 9 Sep 2016

I am a Labour Party member. JC is rather vague and doesn't really give a straight answer although seems slightly more inclined to reform. OS gives me very little hope that he would work for change. After the referendum electoral reform became the biggest issue for me in the political arena. Seeing their responses makes me want to weep

Andrew Turvey 9 Sep 2016

The danger with a constitutional convention is that it kicks the issue into the long grass so it ends up never happening. Rather than trying to blueprint a "perfect" system, lets just reform our current system - a very successful approach in the past.
STV for the commons. In the Lords, end the remaining hereditary peers, turn life peers into term peers, retire off many of the existing peers and elect a first tranche of elected peers. The final ratio of term appointed vs. elected peers can be settled in due course, but none of these steps is hard to deliver. 

Bob 9 Sep 2016

Go Jezza!
Yor My Man 2 Put Things Right!
PR All The Way!!!

Rob Willmott 10 Sep 2016

Although I do think the House of Lords needs (to use an awful word) downsizing,I'm not sure making it directly elected is the answer.You would then have a problem of which of the Houses of the Palace of Westminster has primacy and legislation would just get clogged up.It definately shouldn't be the gift of the serving PM to appoint either thus weighting the chamber in favour of the governing party.

Michael Slater 10 Sep 2016

I declare an interest as a Corbyn supporter. Jeremy's more complete answers suggest he has thought about electoral reform more thoroughly than Owen.

Richard DeCesare 10 Sep 2016

Owen Smith has obviously never heard of that minor European country called Germany. We should use their system. Larger constituencies all of a roughly equal size, with MP's elected using FPTP, but then they have top-up MP's from party lists to make the chamber Proportionally Representative. Yes, this means they have coalitions, but they do not have weak governments.
At the moment the vast majority of MP's are elected in safe seats. This means that they do not represent the local population, but only the people in the local constituency party who vote for their selection.
We should also do away with the stupid system we have for the speaker being unchallenged by the major parties at elections.
If we had a truly representative House of Commons we would not need any upper house. 

Barry 15 Sep 2016

Yes, having a PR system DOES NOT necessarily mean losing a constituency link entirely. Germany's system is a very good one (irony of ironies, I believe we designed it for them!) which means each local area of Germany is represented by a single MP in the Bundestag, people are elected using only first preferences  and with a 50% top-up the overal composition of the house is proportionate overall. We could use this system for the House of Commons and even improve upon it by having open lists for the 'top-up' members.

Jerry Gould 10 Sep 2016

Jeremy Corbyn seems to understand the problem, I'm not sure I agree with all his answers, but there would be scope for a discussion. Owen Smith seems to be presenting platitudes and focusing on process rather than how things affect peoples lives.

Iris Jefferies 11 Sep 2016

I remain disappointed that Angela Eagle ceded her position to Owen Smith.
Having moved on and considered the contenders, I favoured Owen Smith's more certain parliamentary support as a means to at least, promise a unity of purpose; believing the most important priority to be party cohesion.   
How wrong I seem to be. As a candidate,  Owen has wrong footed several important areas of debate and is unlikely to produce a comfortable majority in the party members vote, whilst Jeremy has remained resolute and steady in his beliefs and on the way forward.
Having always voted Labour, my personal way out will be to join the embattled but never down hearted Greens in pursuit for meaningful electoral representation.

Alan Burrows 11 Sep 2016

The problem for Labour is that when they were last in power they could have reformed our electoral system, now that have no chance because the way their party is travelling and under our current electoral system they are heading in the wrong direction.
In my opinion everybody should vote at an election so you make the system compulsory.
I am fed up of the mantra that by changing the voting system we loose the link between the local voters and their MP. What about the bigger picture the disconnect between the electorate and the ruling party, surely this is more important, and as mentioned by previos commentators the local link could be resolved.
Elected second chamber, candidates will not be allowed to be registered members of political parties (not ideal I accept), less members than the ridiculous levels we have at present.
Retaimn the monarchy, I am not a monarchist but the country will not let it go, but remove a lot of the useless pomp.
Make the Houses of Parliament part museum/archive/building for the office of Brexit.
Build a new Parliament building away from London. This building should be purpose built (circular debating area MPs able to sit where they like, sufficient seating, get rid of the fancy dress). MPs would have purpose built offices and accommodation. Military security at all times. This would hopefully make some current MPs retire who find working in their current conditions a cushy number, and would attract a wider range of candidates.
Then we might get a democracy that can begin to function.

Kevin Watts 12 Sep 2016

Jeremy Corby supports change and Owen Smith supports talking about change.  It doe not amount to the same thing.  Talking rarely leads to action where Parliament is concerned.

Noel Turner 21 Sep 2016

Our representative parliamentary system is a poor thing. It has progressed via terminating a King and substitute.
Some Greek city states had a fora system where all citizens had to attend and vote, it was called democracy, ignoring slaves!
Today we all have phones and/or PC or cyber cafe and our encyclopaedia are soft.
All we need is to prototype an emulation of the Greek city state on a cryptographic app the labour vote is already a large % electronic. A wiki team to do legislation.
Why might this be a good idea - greenhouse gas means more sewage through letter box and London barrage fail this Autumn or next. We need less flying not a 3rd runway. We need off switches and brown outs not Nuc accidents.
In past interglacials the water level has been a lot higher, and the current climate modelling software is primitive.
We are aggressive and sexy gorillas? The existence of a pukka democracy to replace parliamentary system might be seem like a threat like the USSR system in 20th century, which is still on going. But having a dialogue about PR, or killing badgers and bees seems rather passé. We need to think and stop posturing, growing gills more difficult, than thinking.

Susan Burningham 5 Oct 2016

I am very disappointed that they cling on to an out moded system. Is it fear of coalition perhaps - and why should that be something to fear.

David Pierce 13 Oct 2016

I would take issue with Jeremy Corbyn's statement that the Labour party is less dependent on big donors; he talks about members of the trade unions making contributions as if they all did it as individuals. As far as I understand the position,  the unions are still the big donors for the Labour Party and businessmen/landowners for the Conservatives. Only smaller parties such as Lib Dems and Greens are supported by individual donations, which leaves them in a much weaker position. We need a system which provides a level playing field for all parties, probably involving a mix of public finance and individual, capped, small donations from party supporters.  
I do agree with him that  the spectre lurking if we don't take this matter seriously is that of the American system, where huge amounts of money are needed to elect a President and voters often end up with an invidious choice e.g. Trump vs Hillary!   

David Pierce 13 Oct 2016

I'm not sure I agree with Owen Smith that political elections should involve a firm link between local issues and local constituencies. Whilst local issues are important in local elections, they are not all that matters. One of the problems with democracy is that many people vote according to their own narrow personal interests. At national and international level, we need a politics that takes account of everyone's needs fairly. 

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