More democracy, less division: Labour have a new chance to back political equality

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 14th May 2020

During the Labour leadership election, Keir Starmer made a clear statement in favour of electoral reform: “We’ve got to address the fact that millions of people…feel their voice doesn’t count. That’s got to be addressed. We will never get full participation in our electoral system until we do that at every level,” Keir Starmer said during a speech.  

On Tuesday, Labour’s NEC has a chance to ensure everyone’s voice is heard, as they decide on backing a fair voting system for the party’s National Executive Committee elections.

The Labour NEC will discuss a motion to move away from ‘bloc voting’ (First Past the Post) to the Single Transferable Vote – the gold standard in proportional representation.

STV allows voters to rank candidates based on their preferences. If candidates reach the minimum ‘threshold’ of support, they’re elected. If a candidate has more support than they need, those voters’ second preferences are taken into account to fill the other spaces. If all the seats available are then filled, job done!

If not, the lowest ranking candidate drops out, and those voters’ other preferences are counted instead (and so on, until all the seats are filled). For voters, it’s as easy as 1,2,3.

Here’s why it would be a great move for Labour members and the NEC:

1. Labour already uses STV for candidate selections, and its equivalent for the party Leader and Deputy Leader. It works!

‘Winner-takes-all’ voting is becoming the rarity in politics. The Welsh and Scottish Parliaments, London Assembly, all elections in Northern Ireland, local elections in Scotland, PCC elections and Mayoral ones all use forms of proportional or preferential voting. In the 21st century, voters rightly want real choice – not just an X in the box.

The NEC can vote to equalise Labour’s NEC election with its other internal elections, by moving to STV. (The current rule book doesn’t even demand that FPTP is used – making this a simple shift in the guidance).

2. The current set-up encourages ‘tactical voting’ – people voting for who they think is most likely to win out of a ‘bloc’, rather than who they actually support. Letting people rank their preferences means people can always vote for who they support – rather than feeling obliged to ‘hold their nose’ and vote tactically all the time.

3. It’s got backing across the whole party. During the leadership election, all Labour’s deputy leadership candidates backed the OpenLabour/ERS call for Labour to use proportional representation for its NEC elections.

And 75% of Labour members back proportional representation for Westminster – it makes sense to put that principle into practice inside the party, too!

4. The ‘bloc voting’ system used now encourages….bloc voting! Because having more candidates (i.e. choice!) under this system ‘splits’ the vote, it incentivises factions to organise ‘slates’ of approved candidates, which members are encouraged to vote for en masse.

That one bloc can then win 100% of seats with a fraction of the vote, as long as their vote is ‘unified’ or concentrated enough. In turn, this leads to a bizarre ‘see-saw’ effect – the NEC swinging from total control by one faction, to total control by another – often leaving over half the party completely unrepresented.

As Open Labour have pointed out: “In the last full NEC election, the Momentum ‘slate’ won all nine seats with less than 50% of the vote, leaving the rest of the party with no representation. Independent candidates such as Ann Black and Eddie Izzard didn’t stand a chance.

“Yet in the recent NEC by-elections, over 45% of members voted for candidates from the various Labour left slates but, due to split votes, the left won zero seats…[Another] 20% of votes went for independent candidates not aligned with any slate, rendering those 20% of votes completely wasted.”

5. It will encourage a more inclusive culture: during the leadership election, Keir Starmer called for cultural change to build a more unified and more tolerant party. The new leader set out eight key reforms to create a “new, more inclusive, more democratic culture of dignity and respect”. It helps having processes that reflect that – rather than a system that pushes people to vote only on factional lines.

6. Making every vote count: The current system means that many members have gone years without seeing a single person they support elected. That can only breed disillusionment and disengagement.

7. It would put the values of political equality into practice. Under winner-takes-all voting, some votes count much more than others – those which are ‘just enough’ to get someone over the line. All the rest go to waste, ignored by the industrial ballot-burying machine of First Past the Post.

Instead, members can have an equal voice, with an end to tactical voting and fair representation. Labour shouldn’t model its elections on Westminster’s broken system, but on the progressive values it wants to see enacted.

Open Labour have started an open letter calling for proportional representation for National Executive Committee elections, ahead of the decision by the NEC on Tuesday. Want to see Labour become more democratic, and put its principles into practice? If you’re a member, you can sign it here.

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