Labour’s leadership candidates backed a range of constitutional reforms at Sunday’s joint Open Labour/Electoral Reform Society hustings, as they were challenged on how to fix Britain’s broken political system.
When asked about their views on switching to proportional representation for the Commons – a change supported by two-thirds of Labour members according to recent polling by YouGov – the candidates expressed openness to change but fell short of backing full PR for Westminster elections.
Thornberry called for a more pluralistic party, supporting the ERS-backed Single Transferable Vote for internal elections. But she fell short of backing a proportional system for Westminster elections.
“I think that constituency link is very important…I would be worried about changing to an electoral system that breaks that bond between constituents and their member of parliament,” she told the 400 or so members present. (Thankfully, forms of PR including STV retain the constituency link).
Long-Bailey reissued the call made in Labour’s 2019 Manifesto for a constitutional convention to look at the issue of voting reform noting. Citing analysis by the ERS, she said: “It took 50,000 votes at the last election to elect a Labour MP, whilst it only took 38,000 votes to elect a Tory MP. So I think it’s right we look at proportional systems of voting.”
“One important point I’d make in that review is that it’s important that whatever system we look at is rooted in communities. At a time when many communities have lost faith in our party, particularly the so-called ‘red wall’ it’s important to have representatives that are rooted within their communities…I think that’s vitally important but can be accommodated in a new proportional system,” she added.
Lisa Nandy agreed with others on the importance of maintaining the constituency link in any proportional system. She made the case for a more pluralist country where progressive parties cooperate towards common goals. Nandy used the hustings to advocate local trials of proportional representation.
“Politicians often say they support proportional representation until they get into government and the system is working for them. I would say we should trial PR, and we should do it in areas that it doesn’t automatically benefit us” – including Labour-dominated areas like Greater Manchester.
Wider political reform
The candidates all called for greater democratic and economic devolution to give power back to communities.
Long-Bailey talked about the importance of devolving powers to regions and nations and delivering a democratic second chamber – elected by proportional representation to make sure the voices of all parts of the country are represented in Parliament.
“I think we need to see a democratic revolution, both in our economy but also politics. We talk a lot about devolution, but we’ve not given our regions and nations the power they deserve…”
“We also need to do away with the House of Lords, the only unelected senate in the whole of Europe. That needs to be replaced with an elected Senate, outside of London in my view…That should be elected with a proportional voting system, so communities really feel they have representation.”
Lisa Nandy called for Labour to put power back into the hands of ordinary people and shift the way both the party and the political system more broadly works.
“We need to fix our broken democratic system. No longer can we have a small number of men, sitting behind desks in Whitehall, commissioning think-tank reports telling them what to do.”
Emily Thornberry criticised the current forms of devolution on local authorities, arguing: “People want to be able to make decisions and feel in control of their own lives.”
“The democratic processes we have now is devolution of responsibility for cuts which are the central government’s fault. I think it goes back to the point I was making earlier that people understand resent the power of Whitehall and London and the South East,” she said.
Keir Starmer, who was unable to make the Open Labour/Electoral Reform Society hustings, released his own plans for constitutional reform on Monday, which will be developed throughout the week. The Guardian reported that he was calling for a ‘federal’ constitutional model for the UK to repair ‘shattered trust in politics’.
Deputy leadership candidates
The Electoral Reform Society and Open Labour hustings in Nottingham on Sunday (26th) also all the deputy leadership candidates challenged on political reform – including democratising the party. The deputy leader role is traditionally seen as an internal-facing role, including overseeing the party’s campaigning and organisational structures.
Many internal Labour selections already use a preferential or proportional voting system (such as AV or the Single Transferable Vote – STV). However, the party’s National Executive Committee is elected using a winner-takes-all system. Open Labour are calling for a fairer, preferential system for all internal elections.
On switching to STV for internal Labour elections, all the deputy leadership candidates backed the Open Labour/ERS call for reform, with Richard Burgon saying the decision should be put to members.
Murray was very supportive of introducing STV citing his experience as a local councillor in Scotland when the system was introduced for local government noting, “I was part of the group that brought in STV for local govt in Scotland, and it’s a very good way forward. We should have the same electoral system for all internal labour elections – if that’s STV, let’s do that as quickly as possible. We need a much more proportional system for internal elections.”
Butler said a clear ‘Yes’ to introducing STV for all internal Labour elections.
Burgon said he was “very open-minded about the idea of STV, and will go beyond that: party members should be given choice of how our party elections run. If members decide [to back STV], then we should do so.”
Dr Rosena Allin Khan
Khan said she ‘fully supports’ the STV system: “I’m so proud we’re a broad church and that needs to be reflected everywhere.” (Allin Khan also called the unelected House of Lords an ‘abomination’).
Rayner backed the principle of STV, adding: “We have to blow open our democracy. People feel they have no control over their lives…We can’t have one part of the party dominating [and] have to find ways of unifying the party.”
The ERS are calling for parties to report their candidate diversity data, showing what proportion of their prospective candidates are women, BME and from other protected characteristics – to ensure all part of society are represented.
Section 106 of the Equality Act commits all parties to publishing this data – much as large businesses must report their gender pay gaps – but the legislation has not been enacted.
All the deputy leadership candidates were supportive about reporting this data and enacting Section 106.