“The future is going to be negotiated, not dictated”: Labour figures speak out for PR

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 1st October 2021

“We can’t build a just society on rotten democratic foundations,” the ERS’ Jess Garland told Labour conference on Monday.

The vast majority of local party delegates agreed – with 80% backing a motion for Labour to support a shift to a proportional voting system. (Though unfortunately, the vote fell after unions rejected it).

Westminster’s voting system gives extensive power to governments, with few checks and balances. Across the country – and increasingly within the Labour party – people are realising that this skews not just our politics, but our economy too.

At the Politics for the Many event in Brighton this week, Jess pointed to £3.6bn in Towns Fund cash – meant to help struggling communities – prioritised towards Conservative seats.

With an undeserved majority, the government is able to skew resources, as well as the rules of the game, to its advantage. From voter ID rules, to appointing dozens of unelected peers in the House of Lords, we’re seeing that right now.

For these reasons and more, Westminster’s politics is uniquely vulnerable to ‘corporate capture’, Open Labour’s Keiran O’Neill told the Politics for the Many (P4M) event

But a new book from Politics for the Many – the ERS-backed trade union campaign for political reform – is a blueprint for how we should reform the British state.

Sadly, Labour at a UK-wide level is “nowhere near as ambitious as it needs to be,” Keiran said. He called for the party to deliver on the policy commitment it has had for nearly a century and “abolish the House of Lords.”

“We need to drag our broken structures kicking and screaming into 21st century,” he added.

PR-backing Labour MP Clive Lewis pointed to the absurdity of Britain’s current constitution. “We’re the only country in Europe that has First Past the Post for its main elections – except Belarus. I’m struggling to see why Labour has to debate this issue.”

Lewis told members that he is often asked if the UK party system would change with PR. “There would be a realignment – but we shouldn’t be afraid of people’s votes counting,” he noted.

As things stand, the gains of one government are easily toppled by the next, in a damaging ‘see saw’ of policy making from one single-party government to the next. “By 2015, most of the previous Labour governments’ changes had gone. Where are the Sure Start centres?”

He urged his party to get behind a fairer voting system. The UK’s existence may depend on it: “Brexit has put rocket boosters on the breakup of the UK,” Clive Lewis said.

We’ve already seen PR work well across the country. “There was a Labour-Lib Dem coalition in Scotland, and a Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition in Wales. They worked!” Open Labour’s Keiran O’Neill said.

Backing real democracy is about values, not just outcomes, Jess Garland said. It was a view that resonated in the meeting room: “Everyone should have an equal vote, no matter what their background is,” one delegate said. “We must change our electoral system to one that reflects our values.”

Later, in Monday’s debate on the conference floor, delegate after delegate got up to give heartfelt speeches for real reform at Westminster.

One young member said: “I have friends who are young, who don’t see the value of going to vote. They disengage.

“I have friends in strong Tory seats who are Labour voters, who don’t see the point in voters. We must change that, and reenergise our democracy.”

And then the ‘v word’ again: “These are fundamental values.”

This is going to require pushing for a culture shift in Labour and beyond: “The future is going to be negotiated, not dictated,” according to Clive Lewis. Labour must join other pro-PR parties and embrace a more cooperative form of politics.

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