Why do we need a Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform?
Why Labour should support PR
Reform of the voting system has been an issue for as long as there have been votes. Even after universal franchise for over-21s had been achieved in 1928, discussions continued about how best those votes should be translated into seats in the House of Commons, and a Bill in 1930 to introduce the Alternative Vote was passed by Labour and the Liberals in the House of Commons but blocked by a wrecking amendment from the Conservatives in the House of Lords.
From 1945 to 1970 the UK was effectively a two-party state. But while First Past The Post (FPTP) can produce perverse results between two parties – as in 1951 when the Conservatives won a majority with less votes than Labour – it becomes much clearer when there are three or more credible political parties. A Liberal surge, and the three-way split of votes, disadvantaged the Conservatives in 1974, and it was paradoxically Conservative Action for Electoral Reform set up in 1975 which prompted the formation of the parallel Labour electoral reform group.
For democracy to be meaningful, everyone’s vote ought to count. Under FPTP some seats award huge majorities to the candidate of one Party at every election, and in those seats the voters are unable to change the result or influence who is in government, whether they have voted for the person who is elected as their MP or not. FPTP puts all the power to change a government in the hands of swing voters in marginal seats. Voters in a General Election are primarily electing a Government, and only a system that gives weight to every vote can properly fulfil their expectations.
The Labour Party has a particular problem with FPTP – more of our voters are concentrated in fewer seats. When Labour is popular, most of its additional votes accumulate in safe Labour seats which we would have won anyway. At the same time, the political incentive for the party is to ignore the needs of its voters in seats where Labour will always be elected, and focus on the small number of additional voters we need to win over in more prosperous areas. The system doesn’t work for the Party, and it doesn’t work for the people whose needs we are meant to represent.
People who want to improve people’s lives have various different ideas of how to go about it. This inevitably leads to a range of competing progressive parties. Whereas a party whose members believe that they ought to be running the country on account of their ancestry or social status or wealth or simply ruthless pursuit of power, will not have the ideological baggage that gets in the way of obtaining that power. FPTP rewards single parties, not shared ideas, so that in the UK the Conservatives have been in power most of the time since the Second World War despite last winning an absolute majority of the vote in 1935.
Wherever in the world elections are more proportional, there also tends to be less disparity between rich and poor and a higher level of investment in public services. Germany provides a very good example – despite Angela Merkel being a centre-right Chancellor in power for a considerable time, the electoral system made it necessary for her to work with other parties, and the resulting policies were significantly more egalitarian than many other supposedly centre-left countries.
The Labour Party’s aims can best be achieved through a reformed electoral system which delivers successive progressive governments. Unfortunately, any established organisation develops an inertia which makes it resistant to change. That is why it is so important for Labour Party members to campaign for the changes they believe in from within the Party – electoral reform will not fall into our laps simply because it is the right thing to do, we need to use the mechanisms of the Party to create a firm Labour commitment to PR.
After the 2019 General Election and an upsurge of popular support for a fairer electoral system, electoral reform organisations came together to found the Labour for a New Democracy campaign, to coordinate our efforts to achieve Labour commitment to PR. At last years’ Labour Conference, we won the overwhelming support of the members. Unfortunately, as a result of Covid, most of the Trade Unions had not had the chance to debate the subject and so were not empowered to support it. Since then, Unite has come out against FPTP and Unison are debating the subject as I write. If we can get our motion debated at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool this year, we are confident that we can win it this time. If you are a Labour Party member or supporter, and want to get involved in our campaign for Proportional Representation, why not sign up at https://labourforelectoralreform.org.uk or www.labourforanewdemocracy.org.uk
About the author
Sandy Martin became Chair of LCER in Spring 2020. He was MP for Ipswich 2017-2019 and Shadow Minister for Waste & Recycling. Prior to that Sandy was a Suffolk County Councillor for 20 years, and leader of the Labour Group. He is a longstanding member of LCER, and has been passionate about electoral reform since his university interview in 1975. He is also a member of the SERA Executive. In the past year he wrote for Chartist and LabourList on electoral reform. He lives with his civil partner in Ipswich.