The following is based on Katie Ghose’s speech at the launch of the Fabian Society’s new report on democratic reform (‘Politics by People’) at Labour Party conference on the 25th September.
Firstly, thank you to the Fabian Society and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust who do so much to sustain vital reform projects for the invitation. Now is a time for fresh and ambitious thinking, so it’s great to see this initiative from the Fabians that looks with breadth and depth at the need for political reform.
I love the words in the Democracy Charter’s preamble: ‘the vital ingredient for a healthy democracy is the participation of citizens who feel powerful’ – that their voices are heard; their votes are valued and they see a parliament that looks and feels like Britain today.
One of the charter’s calls is for proportional representation. This isn’t a new issue for Labour – they led the way in implementing fairer voting in Scotland, Wales, and on the London Assembly, as well as having the courage to bring in PR for local councils in Scotland.
But I want to talk not about why Labour should back electoral reform now, but rather to flip that on its head. Why wouldn’t Labour back PR?
Of course, the ‘selfish’ arguments against FPTP are clear for Labour. From the Scottish wipeout – where the SNP can win 95% of seats on half the vote – to the fact that Labour gained votes at the last election but lost seats, and the huge geographical imbalances caused by first past the post which locks Labour out from representation in most of the South of England,
FPTP is artificially dividing Britain at a point when there are already tensions upon the Union. But more importantly, it is marginalising the voters Labour is meant to stand up for.
Because it’s not just the fact that 2015 was the most disproportionate election in British history, with seats totally failing to match votes. It’s the impact this has on people’s engagement and faith in politics – from the angry and alienated who turn to other parties, to those who simply do not bother voting because they don’t feel their vote would count.
After the referendum, one of our many new members said: ‘’The referendum was the first time in my lifetime that my vote mattered,’ It’s a sad fact that many people felt the same. There were no safe seats or electoral deserts. Everyone’s vote counted.
But the reality is this: the Labour movement has always been at the forefront of enfranchisement, of spreading democracy beyond an elite few. From the Chartists pushing for working class votes in the mid-1800s, to enfranchising women, and to the lowering of the voting age under Harold Wilson: this is a Labour agenda.
Making every vote count is part of the best of the Labour tradition in opening up participation to all. Where investment and attention is given to areas on the basis of need – rather than swing seats getting the lions-share while heartlands are left to wither. Where people feel they can always vote for what they believe in.
But voting reform isn’t a standalone change. This has to be part of the most ambitious, most inspiring democratic reform agenda this country has seen. A cause that all parts of the party can unite around. Fair votes, a democratically elected Lords that represents the whole country, votes at 16, and cleaning up Britain’s broken party funding system.
We have to restore faith in politics. And Labour can reap the rewards in standing as the party to do that. Because why wouldn’t a Labour Party want to extend equality to the ballot box? What type of politics does Labour want? One that is closed and wedded to the 20th century, or open, pluralistic, and diverse?
We are at a crucial constitutional juncture in Britain’s history. Labour can miss the opportunity, or seize the initiative to change our politics for the better.
Momentum – in its general sense – is growing for reform across the movement. The TUC has opened up discussions about our voting system, with a new report on options for change. More unions are getting on board to recognise PR is a workers’ issue. And figures from across the party are making the case for wide-scale democratic reform – with PR at the core. Indeed, on Monday, Jonny Reynolds MP and John McDonnell MP will be taking part in an ERS debate about how to make the case for reform.
From the very start, a fairer franchise – opening up participation – has been at the core of Labour’s journey. Now it’s time to remake that for the 21st century. As part of a grand vision of reform, we have the potential to revitalise British politics – and for political reform to be part of Labour’s renewal.
Some of us are convinced that voting reform is vital; for others the focus is our unelected House of Lords’; for some, until we have institutions that reflect true diversity of our society, no other reforms will stick.
The Fabian charter knits these together – and I hope every single one makes it into the manifesto. But wherever we are on individual reforms, let’s seize the moment to co-operate and collaborate for a better democracy.