Democracy is major theme at Labour conference

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive

Posted on the 13th October 2023

Following last year’s successful motion on proportional representation, electoral reform and improving our democracy remained some of the biggest topics of discussion at Labour conference this year. The Electoral Reform Society team organised and spoke at, multiple events at conference on how proportional representation can be implemented in Britain, and the benefits it would bring to our politics.

Fringe events at party conferences help us make our case directly to politicians, activists and party members – winning over those who have the power to make the reforms we want to see.

We kicked off the ERS’s work at Labour Party conference at the Labour for a New Democracy fringe event on Saturday night. Our Director of Research, Dr Jess Garland, spoke on a panel with Professor Rob Ford and MSP Paul Sweeney. Drawing on Keir Starmer’s statement that “economic change must go hand-in-hand with political change” the panel considered how the political equality of proportional representation can help address economic inequality, and regional disparities.

Sunday night saw the ERS join up with think tank Demos for a crowded fringe featuring polling guru, and regular ERS contributor, Professor Sir John Curtice, who gave an overview of the current political climate. ERS director of policy and research, Dr Jess Garland, spoke about how moving to proportional representation is necessary given the increasing dysfunctionality of First Past the Post. Guardian Political Editor Pippa Crerar gave her overview of the state of democracy as we head into an election year.

Then on Monday, I spoke at a Fringe held by the Institute for Government on the constitutional consequences of electoral reform, where I explained the impact it has had on New Zealand politics since we moved to a MMP system in 1996, but also how new electoral systems need to be given a couple of electoral cycles to bed in and allow voters and parties to adapt to them. We were joined by Mick Antoniw, Counsel General for Wales and Minister for the Constitution discussed the benefits of PR in Wales and the Welsh government’s plans for reforming elections in Wales.

These highly popular events were standing-room only and gave us a great opportunity to talk about the benefits of PR and democratic reform. There were a large number of democracy events across the Conference showing the progress being made in raising awareness of our issues.

Elsewhere, our friends in Labour for a New Democracy and Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform held a number of events highlighting the case for Labour supporting electoral reform. These included a well-attended rally where Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester, made an impassioned case for reforming the Westminster electoral system as part of a wider ‘rewiring’ of the UK’s political structures so they work better for all regions of the country.

Conference fringes on democracy rounded out with another well-attended event where colleagues from Unlock Democracy, Compass, Make Voters Matter and L4ND made the case to get a fair voting system for the United Kingdom.

There was, unfortunately, a sour note at conference when a protester ran up on stage at the beginning of Keir Starmer’s speech, covered the Labour leader in glitter while calling for a number of demands, including a House of Citizens for the Lords and PR. We strongly condemned these scenes. Proportional representation is about fairness and respect for different opinions and that protest showed none of those values.

The desire for proportional representation is also already strong in the Labour party. Across the Conference the ERS team were busy meeting with politicians, journalists and activists, making the positive case for proportional representation.

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