Labour manifesto: Encouraging first steps – but we need to address rock bottom trust in politics

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive

Posted on the 13th June 2024

This week we had startling and deeply concerning news about the state of our democracy. A study from the National Centre for Social Research concluded that: ‘All in all, it appears that people’s trust in governments and politicians, and confidence in their systems of government is as low now as it has ever been over the last fifty years, if not lower.’ 

In short, our democracy is in poor health. The research outlined in stark terms the size of the task when it comes to arresting the decline and rebuilding trust in our politics. 

We’re reviewing all the offers from the major parties with this in mind. Labour’s manifesto, released today, is an encouraging first step. But considering the mountain the next government will need to climb to rebuild that trust, is it enough?

Extending the voter to 16 and 17 year olds

The Electoral Reform Society has long campaigned to end the political inequality that has opened up in our country where Scottish and Welsh 16 and 17-year-olds can vote in their national parliamentary and council elections, but their counterparts in England are totally excluded from the franchise. So we strongly welcome Labour’s commitment to extending the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds in all UK elections.

Giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote will also strengthen and renew our democracy by enfranchising younger people at a habit-forming age when it can be accompanied by civic education to help them cast that all-important first vote.

Reforming the House of Lords

We agree with the statement in the manifesto that reform of the Lords is ‘long-overdue and essential’ and welcome that Labour is pledging to take the first steps to tackle some of the worst excesses of the upper chamber, such as its ballooning size and the fact we still have 92 all-male hereditary peers who wield influence over legislation due to birth-right.

However, we do have concerns about the potentially arbitrary impact of an age cap at 80 for peers, as some are still very active and making valuable contributions over that age. Also, for peers starting their career in their late 20s and early 30s, as we now have, that is still effectively a guaranteed 50 years of unelected legislating, which is an absurd situation for a modern democracy.

While we welcome that Labour is proposing to take initial steps on Lords reform, the proposals in the manifesto alone fall short of addressing the fundamental problem with the second chamber: the unchecked and undemocratic way new members are added, with prime ministers able to stuff unlimited numbers of new peers into the Lords on a whim. The last three prime ministers alone have created more than 120 new peers between them.

We agree with Keir Starmer’s pledge that the current House of Lords should ultimately be replaced by an elected house. This would place the power to decide who sits in the upper chamber of Parliament shaping our laws in the hands of the British people, rather in the hands of whoever is sitting in Downing Street.

Voter ID and improving voter participation

The voter ID laws were always a solution in search of a problem, and we have now seen the disproportionate and damaging effect they have had, as thousands of people have already been prevented from casting their ballot due to a lack of accepted ID.

We welcome Labour’s pledge to address the confusing inconsistencies in what ID can be used at polling stations, however, we would urge that this unnecessary policy is scrapped altogether so no voter is denied their fundamental democratic right to cast a vote.

The Electoral Reform Society also strongly supports the manifesto commitment to ‘improve voter registration’. The best way to do this is to implement Automatic Voter Registration, which is due to be introduced in Wales, across the whole of the UK.

Reforming Westminster and the voting system

The Labour Party has already identified the problem – its National Policy Forum agreed that Westminster’s First Past the Post voting system is driving the ‘distrust and alienation we see in politics’, and in 2022 the Labour Party backed moving to a fairer proportional voting system for UK elections at its conference. 

It now has a responsibility to bring in the solution and act by ensuring we move to a fairer, proportional voting system that ensures every part of the country matters at elections, not just the handful of ‘swing seats’ that change hands between the parties. 

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