Electoral Reform After GE2017: Will Labour Go All the Way?

by Josh Dell

1 August 2017


Electoral reform is not a sexy issue. To paraphrase the Guardian’s John Harris, marches on Westminster with placards and chants calling for ‘an additional member system of voting that gives me a constituency vote and a vote on a regional list’ do not roll off the tongue like ‘oh Jeremy Corbyn’.

Labour is closer, but still a long way off being in power. In areas across the UK, constituencies have stayed red or blue for decades – and in some cases centuries (Canterbury’s switch to Labour in June after 99 years under Conservative control was a very rare exception to the rule). Reforming our voting system for Westminster elections has the potential to turn the 2% difference in Labour and Conservative vote-share at the 2017 general election into a world where Labour could have formed the next government. What the cause lacks is a viable and numerous movement behind it: unless the Labour party was to come out fully in favour of it.

In a purely proportional system based on percentage of the vote received by each party, the combination of Labour‘s 40%, the Liberal Democrats’ 7.4%, the Scottish National party’s 3% and the Greens’ 1.6% would have been enough to push Labour far beyond the Tories and press forward with forming a government. Throw Plaid Cymru into the mix, and as has been noted by Paul Maddrell of Loughborough University, you could have a 52.54% majority of parties in the House of Commons that are in favour of electoral reform – were Labour to make it a flagship policy.

And yet those who consistently call for voting reform – from established groups like the Electoral Reform Society to newer parties such as the Lib Dems – have achieved little with regards to altering the way in which we elect politicians to the House of Commons (Nick Clegg’s “miserable little compromise” of the 2011 AV referendum notwithstanding). The question which therefore emerges is this: even if a sexy case for electoral reform can made, is it still something that should be pursued by Labour’s supporters when majority government via first-past-the-post (FPTP) seems so near? For many, the coalition-building realities that proportional representation (PR) presents are deeply unappealing due to the partnerships it could necessitate with parties like the Lib Dems, whose policies – notably with regards to Brexit – are antithetical to many of Labour’s positions.

Jeremy Corbyn could become prime minister at the next election because of FPTP. But he and Labour could also very well continue to struggle in the face of a system that allows political parties on all sides of the spectrum to cling onto power for decades. In counties like Cornwall and Dorset, hundreds of thousands of residents vote Labour, only to see their counties electing a full sweep of Tory MPs. How can we expect voters to have confidence to cast a progressive vote when it is consistently shattered by the sustained presence of a political party? Although Labour saw significant swings in these areas (receiving a far higher share in both Bournemouth constituencies than in 1997), there is no guarantee this momentum will be maintained and translate into seats at the next election. Only electoral reform can give voters in areas like Cornwall and Dorset a resolute democratic voice.

Reforming the voting system is in no way a ‘woke’ issue in the aftermath of June’s general election. With Labour having come so close to victory against all the odds, the idea of supporting a system that would make the chances of it having majority less likely may be, at first glance, unappealing.

In the run up to the election however, the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and Make Votes Matter published The Many, Not The Few, a detailed report making the Labour case for PR. Its foreword by firm Corbyn supporter and shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs Cat Smith MP, states the following:

“It is no exaggeration to say that in the 21st century, proportional representation is a prerequisite of a properly-functioning democracy in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few.”

And Labour support for voting reform is growing. As recently as 2010, nearly half of Labour supporters were in favour of FPTP. Now, 76% of supporters are in favour of PR and only 5% against it, according to the findings detailed in the report quoted above.

In a 2015 interview with Novara, Corbyn himself indicated that he is in favour of some kind of proportional system, as long as it maintains the constituency connection. Intriguingly, the language in which he expressed his support for PR in a 2016 Electoral Reform Society interview – based around the need for a constitutional convention – made its way into Labour’s 2017 manifesto, albeit without any reference to PR. Instead, it states that Labour would establish a convention “that will look at democracy locally, regionally, and nationally.” The party itself, and its leadership, therefore appear to be on the cusp of outright support for voting reform, but need an extra push.

To take this tacit support for reform further, greater support must come from the grassroots to ensure that electoral reform becomes an integral part of Labour’s policy platform. Groups like Make Voters Matter have made considerable headway in turning the issue into a grassroots one, and offer to send their representatives to constituency Labour parties across the country to make the case. But more needs to happen. For too long voting reform has been the mainstay of the nerdy, seen as being complex and ultimately insignificant when placed next to tangible and ever-present issues like housing and the cost of living. But the lack of reform to FPTP means that in last month’s general election, only 70 seats changed hands and hundreds of thousands of voters saw their support for progressive policies go to waste. Although it is true that so many more seats are now Labour-Tory marginals, due to FPTP’s ‘winner takes all’ nature there is also no guarantee for constituents in those seats that their constituency will see Labour representation at the next election.

Labour stands every chance of being the next government. But in not committing to proportional representation, it may avoid righting the democratic injustices so many residents of the UK experience under FPTP, as was so recently done by Justin Trudeau when he broke his pledge to introduce voting reform before the 2019 Canadian election. Closer to home, we can look to the example of Labour’s 1997 manifesto, where the party committed itself to a referendum on the voting system. The Jenkins Commission, set up in the aftermath of Labour’s landslide, called for the use of an additional member system (AMS) along the lines now used in Scottish and Welsh devolved elections, wherein voters cast two votes: one for their local constituency MP, and one for a party list. In effect, the proposed ‘AV+’ voting system would have been a synthesis of alternative vote (AV) and PR. In election after election, Labour backslid on Jenkins’s recommendations; when it came to the 2011 AV referendum, a majority of Labour MPs campaigned for a ‘no’ vote.

But PR has the potential to create more Labour voters, not fewer, through instilling in voters across the country a belief that in voting for a progressive party, they actually stand a chance of seeing a Labour MP elected. Labour voters in seats like South Holland and the Deepings in Lincolnshire, where Conservative John Hayes MP took nearly 70% of votes despite 10,000 constituents voting Labour, need to believe that their vote counts for something when they arrive at the ballot box.

Arguably, the Labour party is by far the greatest vehicle for democratic change in the UK right now. Its supporters need to create a movement for PR based not just on the dull facts and figures about choosing a preferred acronymed voting systems (AV, STV, MMP, etc). Instead it must become cited as one of the most critical pursuits of our time for restoring voters’ belief in the power and capacity of their vote to bring about real change.

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