A new voting system: Will Labour ever accept sharing power to win?

Here's what happened at Compass's Labour Conference fringe rally on the the possibility of Labour backing electoral reform

Keir Starmer

Director of Compass, Neal Lawson, said it is “unbelievable” that the motion for the Labour Party to back Proportional Representation (PR) fell at this year’s Labour Party Conference in Brighton.

An overwhelming 83 percent of Labour Party members back PR, but Mr Lawson added that “the centre and heart of the leadership of the Labour Party didn’t want it to go through”.

Speaking at Compass’s Labour Conference fringe rally on Tuesday 28 September, ‘Progressive Alliance: Will Labour accept sharing power to win?’, Mr Lawson said that PR is a “fundamentally different approach to politics”.

“No-one is left behind, no voices unheard. It’s a fundamentally different approach to politics. A future that we negotiate together, not one that we just impose,” he said, opening the event.

Mr Lawson was on the panel alongside Labour MP Clive Lewis, Green MP Caroline Lucas, Best for Britain CEO Naomi Smith and Labour for a New Democracy campaigner, Laura Parker.

An overwhelming majority of Labour Party members – and the progressive alliance (a cross-party political alliance between parties against ring-wing parties) – are calling on electoral system reform.

Under the current First Past the Post (FPTP) system, Labour need to gain 124 seats to win the next General Election by a majority of just one, according to Compass’s latest report, We Divide, They Conquer.

That’s means a uniform swing of 10.5 percent – which is higher than the landslide victories of both 1997 and 1945.

And yet, delegates at this year’s Labour Party Conference voted against a motion that would have committed Labour to changing the UK’s system of voting in general elections to PR.

The vote first went to a show of hands at the conference, but it was too close to tell and it went to a card vote. 79.51 percent of Constituency Labour Party delegates backed the motion but 95.03 percent of affiliates voted against.

Sir Keir Starmer promised in his leadership campaign to consult members on electoral reform and to include it in constitutional convention.

“We’ve got to address the fact that millions of people vote in safe seats and they feel their voice doesn’t count,” he said.

Mr Lawson continued: “If the Labour Party leadership don’t want to reach out to other parties, don’t want fair votes, don’t want to create the conditions in which we can work together … then we have to start thinking about ways in which we do it. 

“How do we translate that 83% it into a broader movement in the country?’

MP for Norwich South Clive Lewis spoke about the positives of the campaign for PR, describing it as “unlocking a whole new political world”.

He said: “For many people, particularly on my part of the left, PR has always been a soulless, technical issue which we have no interest in. But I’m seeing a change there, in part because they’ve now seen just how difficult change is going to be.

“…for many of them, having watched what happened this week, I think they’re now in a place, a position where they understand that PR is a key that unlocks a whole new political world – and in many ways would give them political freedoms of expression which they haven’t seen before.

“We are seeing a change on the left, a change in our party.”

Mr Lewis continued: “By knocking out PR, Keir Starmer has knocked out a fantastic opportunity for our party to reach out to other parties to have a proper conversation about how we as progressives confront the climate crisis.”

Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas cited the Compass report’s findings, sharing how tough it will be for Labour to win.

She then went on to share what happened in New Zealand to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

“She wasn’t forced by the electoral maths into power sharing with the Greens, but by a genuine belief that political can be better when it’s less tribal and more plural,” Ms Lucas said.

“We should ask her to have a word with Keir Starmer.

“Because what we can sadly definitively say tonight is that the Labour leadership is not willing to share power, even if that means not winning.”

Best of Britain CEO Naomi Smith opened up about her personal experience of PR being a “precursor to peace”, having grown up in Northern Ireland.

She said: “I may not sound like it, but I grew up in Northern Ireland, where FPTP was a tool of repression. PR was a precursor to peace.’ Smith pointed out that it was Labour that brought in PR in Northern Ireland.

Smith cited Best for Britain polling which shows how “a whopping 64% of people think that parties who have lots in common should work together.

“That number rises to an incredible 70 percent among Labour voters.”

Ms Smith added: “If I have one message for Labour at this conference it is that this is not 1997.”

Asked whether Labour could adopt PR as party policy in 2022, Labour for a New Democracy campaigner Laura Parker said: “We’re confident that with enough effort from the Labour leader, who spent a lot of effort this week antagonising his membership, if he spent it supporting his membership, it could happen.”

Lucy Skoulding is a freelance reporter at Left Foot Forward and human rights masters student. Follow her on Twitter. 

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