Electoral Reform – Where are we?

Sandy Martin is Chair of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform.

In its recently published position paper, Open Labour commits once again to pushing for a proportional system of election to the House of Commons, where every vote counts wherever it is cast, as part of its campaign for a more open, honest and viable democracy. But many Open Labour members may not be aware of the role their organisation has played in helping to bring this about.

In the Spring of 2020, in the aftermath of the appalling results of the 2019 General Election, various leading Labour Party figures, including Alex Sobel, Clive Lewis and Ben Bradshaw, looked at the 80-seat majority the Tories had gained on the basis of 43.6% of the vote, and called on electoral reformers to form a united campaign. Out of those calls, the Labour for a New Democracy (L4ND) coalition was born. Open Labour has taken a prominent and active part in that coalition, alongside Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, Compass, the Electoral Reform Society, Make Votes Matter, Unlock Democracy, Politics for the Many and others. As you might guess from the names of the MPs involved, this is very much a non-
factional campaign. Active campaigners for electoral reform within the Labour Party come from Labour to Win, Momentum, Open Labour and all shades of opinion between.

L4ND was launched at the virtual “Connected” conference in 2020 with rousing speeches by former Labour PM of New Zealand Helen Clark, Jonathan Reynolds MP and many others. L4ND organised a network of volunteers across the UK to schedule debates on electoral reform, to write to the National Policy Forum, to propose motions to their CLPs, to lobby their Conference delegates – and to bring our motion calling on the Labour Party to commit to a proportional system of election to the House of Commons to Conference in autumn 2021.

A YouGov poll commissioned in the summer of 2021 showed that 83% of Labour Party members support PR for General Elections – and we were delighted that 80% of constituency party votes were in favour of our motion last September. Unfortunately, due in part to the pandemic, we did not at that stage have enough trade union support to win. Unite had postponed their policy conference until October 2021. Unison had understandably decided to focus their policy conference entirely on the pandemic, and so had not discussed the issue at all – as a result they quite properly abstained – as did CWU.

Since last September, all three of those unions have discussed the issue of Proportional Representation at their policy conferences. Both Unite and Unison voted overwhelmingly in favour of a new, more democratic, electoral system for our government. They join smaller unions ASLEF, FBU, MU and TSSA – who all voted for the PR motion at Labour conference. CWU committed to setting up a policy forum to review its position on electoral reform – and may yet join the ranks of pro-reform unions. The prospects of winning support for PR at this year’s Labour conference are the best they have been in living memory.

What Open Labour members can do now is to make sure that the Conference delegates from their constituency have heard the arguments, and are aware of the importance of voting for the PR motion in the priorities ballot. Keir may be right when he says that PR is not going to be one of the priorities for the majority of voters at the next general election. But without a fair and effective democracy that delivers progressive governments, we won’t have the power to make the changes we need. Going into government without a commitment to electoral reform would be like going shopping with a comprehensive shopping-list but without your purse.

A commitment from our Party to electoral reform will encourage all those wavering Lib Dem and Green switchers in the marginal constituencies we need to win, to vote for a new better democracy by voting Labour. A commitment to PR will help us win the next election under First Past the Post, and it will make it far more likely that we will win the subsequent general election under a proportional system. We are on the brink of transforming politics in this country – Open Labour has played a vital part in that, and I am certain every Open Labour member will want to do their bit.

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