The Labour Leader is being urged to keep his promises on reforming democracy, Josiah Mortimer reports

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Labour’s decision-makers are being urged to “trust the people” and back a shift in Westminster’s voting system, as the party begins to consider proposals for its next manifesto ready for a potential snap election.  

80% of local constituency (CLP) reps voted in favour of scrapping Westminster’s first-past-the-post electoral system at the 2021 Conference, but it failed to pass as major unions Unite and Unison failed to back reform. 

However, after efforts from a coalition of campaigners making up the Labour Campaign for New Democracy, a majority of affiliated trade unions voted for proportional representation at the party’s 2022 Conference.

While a marked shift from the year before, this still does not guarantee that the issue will make it into Labour’s next manifesto, a process led by the leader’s office and the National Executive Committee. 

Polls have shown increasing support for the introduction of PR for Westminster elections. During his leadership campaign, Keir Starmer told members: “We’ve got to address the fact that millions of people vote in safe seats and they feel their vote doesn’t count.” But Starmer has been reluctant to provide significant backing for scrapping first-past-the-post.

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Several democracy campaign sources Byline Times has spoken to have expressed scepticism that Starmer is committed to major constitutional change.

One prominent figure in the movement said “Starmer won’t commit to anything for fear of frightening the horses” and that the recommendations in a recent report by former Prime Minister’s Gordon Brown on constitutional reform are “being kicked into the long grass”.

Another senior figure said a shift in Labour’s policy would come from a groundswell from voters, not just members: “Until LOTO [the leader’s office] feels the gravitational pull from a critical mass in the public, I’m afraid I can’t see it shifting based on internal party pressure alone.”

While it does not mention PR, the Brown Commission identified that Labour’s ambitions for economic regeneration and addressing regional inequality will depend to a large extent on the “power of local people” to influence the decisions that affect their lives.

But the report’s long delay to publication – launched at the end of last year – led to rumours that Starmer was reluctant to commit to bold reform of Westminster’s political system in a first term.  

As Labour’s manifesto-building process begins, many Labour activists are urging the party to accept the public appetite they believe exists for widespread democratic reforms, with the British Election Study finding the strongest-ever support for scrapping first-past-the-post in its most recent report. 

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Activists Organise

In a message to supporters, the pressure group Labour for a New Democracy called on members to push their constituency parties to pass votes demanding Labour officially backs PR in its manifesto. Labour’s policy consultation process runs from 30 January until 17 March. 

Open Labour – representing many on the pluralist left-wing of the party – told members: “To help make sure electoral reform is included in the party’s policy programme, it’s vital that Labour members [respond]… This is crucial. Following last September’s historic vote at Labour conference – and with Keir Starmer prioritising democratic reform – there is a huge opportunity to get PR in the policy programme.”

The motion Labour branches are being urged to back reads: “This branch/CLP agrees with the overwhelming decision of the 2022 annual conference that the next Labour government should introduce a proportional electoral system for the House of Commons. 

“First-past-the-post forces our politics to focus on a small number swing voters in marginal constituencies while neglecting the majority of seats. As a result, millions of people and communities feel neglected and their needs ignored.”

60% of CLPs now have a policy in favour of PR, with recent polling finding 83% of members back the change. Tens of thousands of voters have also backed a separate Best for Britain action calling for Labour to back PR. Its CEO Naomi Smith said: “The arcane electoral system gives total power to the Conservatives on a minority of the votes. [We’re] telling the Labour leadership that, after 13 years of Tory mismanagement, Britain can’t wait any longer. We need equal votes now.”


Tactical Manoeuvres

It comes as cross-party think tank Compass pushes forward with a new campaign urging people to vote for the progressive candidate with the best chance of winning in their seat at the next election. 

There were 62 so-called ‘progressive tragedies’ at the last election – where the combined left-of-centre vote, including SNP, Lib Dems, Greens, and Labour, ‘beat’ the Conservatives, but where a right-wing candidate still won. 

Progressive alliances are understood to be forming in Surrey, Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester, among other cities, which could see parties including the Greens, Lib Dems and Labour decide not to put up candidates in certain circumstances or only put up  ‘paper’ candidates who do not receive significant campaign resources. 

Surrey is home to arguably the most notable and public alliance, with a shared, cross-party programme backed by Lib Dems, Greens and Labour at the 2021 elections – in defiance of Labour Party HQ. The left-of-centre parties picked their target seats strategically to avoid ‘spoiler’ candidates inadvertently splitting the vote and allowing a Conservative win. 

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Compass’ ‘Win As One’ campaign seeks to “build trusted cross-party relations in target seats to reduce progressive competition”. It will also channel support to candidates who back urgent political reform, beginning with PR, and seeks to “create a movement of campaigners in key seats who will drive votes to progressive candidates who can win and support real change”. The campaign will pour thousands of pounds into marginal Conservative seats to encourage tactical voting.

Laura Parker, Jeremy Corbyn’s former political secretary and a key figure in the PR campaign, has written that Keir Starmer was right to say “the Westminster system is part of the problem” but she has urged him to go further in backing an overhaul of the one-party-takes-all voting system. 

She told LabourList: “A proportional electoral system must be part of Labour’s solutions. Otherwise the reforms of the next Labour government will be another sticking plaster.”

Joe Sousek, national coordinator at Labour for a New Democracy, told Byline Times there was now an “overwhelming demand for proportional representation across the Labour movement”. The group expects a large uptake of local parties calling for Starmer to sign up to electoral reform.  

Director of Unlock Democracy, Tom Brake, said that “as Labour fine-tunes its plans for democratic and constitutional reform, it needs to confront the elephant in the room: proportional representation for the House of Commons” and that Labour “members, trade unions, and the public at large share our support for change”.

“Combined with House of Lords reform and greater devolution, proportional representation would help deliver Labour’s ambition to tackle the UK’s unbalanced and unfair economy and restore trust in politics,” he added.

If you have a political or social story that needs telling, get in touch with Josiah Mortimer confidentially by emailing josiah@bylinetimes.com.

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