Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith Quizzed on Democratic Reform

Posted on the 7th September 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.

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