Why we’re calling for Labour to join others in backing proportional representation

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 16th July 2020

The Electoral Reform Society has called on Labour to back proportional representation, in a submission to the party’s National Policy Forum.

A consultation on the party’s views on democracy and the constitution ends on Monday, and members have been writing in urging the party to get behind ‘real democracy’ through a fairer voting system.

The ERS works across all parties to call for positive political reform – and in our submission, we noted that  Westminster’s political system is dysfunctional and distrusted by voters across the spectrum. Only 4% feel they have a lot of opportunities to inform and influence decisions made by MPs at Westminster, according to BMG polling last year for the ERS.

Here’s some key points from our submission, which you can read in full here.

“In recent months, the centralised nature of decision-making at Westminster has become evident. So too has the lack of a robust, transparent structure for dealing with relations and differences between the nations and regions of the UK. Decisions have often felt imposed from the top, with little meaningful dialogue with local government and a culture of mutual distrust fostered by top-down decision-making and archaic ideas about governance.

“There is a huge opportunity for a political party that seeks to give power to the many by overhauling Westminster’s broken, centralised structures: moving power away from the centre, not through simply moving departments around but by implementing the kind of democratic transformation Britain needs.

“The need for a wholesale renewal of our democracy is now more urgent than ever. Westminster’s broken voting system and centralising tendencies give almost unrestrained power to the leader of the government, however few citizens voted for them, while the House of Lords continues to perpetuate class-based hierarchy and to represent the interests of the few.

“With millions of voices excluded from the conversation, the interests and concerns of the UK’s nations and areas outside of London have been pushed to the margins. Such an atmosphere of alienation is a recipe for distrust.”

While the ERS does not have a policy position on federalism, we set out some lessons from other countries on how federalism can be done effectively in our 2019 report ‘Westminster Beyond Brexit’.

That includes transforming the unelected House of Lords into a proportionally-elected chamber representing the nations and regions of the UK.

It must also include making sure all votes count equally – by scrapping ‘winner-takes-all’ election results. Westminster’s warped electoral system is indeed one of Labour’s challenges. The fact that not all votes are treated equally means that 71% of the votes at the December general election had no impact on the local result. See our 2019 General Election report: Voters Left Voiceless.

Labour banks up a massive number of votes in areas it doesn’t ‘need’ and its supporters are denied any representation in vast swathes of the country. This set-up is damaging not just for trust, but our economy too – with cash splashed on swing seats while millions of people elsewhere go ignored.

And despite an increasing trend of voters shopping around at elections, most seats don’t change hands (some since the time of Queen Victoria). Most voters get locked down in safe seats, sometimes going decades without having someone they voted for representing them. It is a recipe for unchecked inequality and political isolation.

As we note in our submission: “The time for zero-sum politics has passed. It is striking to note that countries with more cooperative political systems – including New Zealand and Germany – were among those best able to handle the pandemic.

“During the leadership election, Keir Starmer identified the problem of under-representation in politics, and promised to consult Labour members on proportional representation. This is a chance to reconnect democracy with citizens.

“With trust in politics at rock bottom, it is time to be bold. Backing real democracy and proportional representation might also help Starmer attract new voters. Across the spectrum, too many have felt powerless for too long. It’s time for a new constitutional settlement fit for the future.”

Members can submit their ideas until Monday here.

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