'We know that anyone serious about Britain getting its future back won’t be able to do so without PR.'
Tom Brake, Director, Unlock Democracy
As the weather threatens to turn glacial (©Daily Express) the party conference season draws to a close.
Unlock Democracy has attended a majority of the party conferences. In the order they were held; the Lib Dem, Conservative, Green and Labour jamborees. We will also be at the SNP conference in Aberdeen. Apologies are due to the other parties Plaid, Alliance and Reform whose conferences Unlock Democracy was unable to attend for logistical or financial reasons.
I wish I could say I am basking in a warm democratic glow after listening intently to speakers’ contributions at our fringe meetings (organised jointly with Compass and/or Make Votes Matter) and a series of democratic or constitutional events held by the Institute for Government and other organisations.
The reform brazier was well stocked and radiating at the Lib Dem and Green conferences, with the Lib Dems adopting a policy that would require photo voter ID to be scrapped and restating their long standing support for Proportional Representation. Meanwhile, at the Green Party Conference, a motion calling for the strict regulation of AI, potentially a major threat to democracy, was passed. A measure to ensure green party candidates are fielded in every constituency was also approved. At both conferences, our fringes were rammed with enthusiastic PR supporters.
The democratic embers survived the Conservative Party conference in Manchester. At the joint Unlock Democracy, MVM and Conservative Action on Electoral Reform fringe, the atmosphere was good, no doubt fuelled by the respectful quantity of alcohol that had to be provided (because each room hire comes with a healthy mandatory minimum spend on refreshments). The discussion focused on types of PR. Conservative Action on Electoral Reform favours STV.
There was even rare recognition, from the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, in his conference speech, that politics isn’t working with his comment “our political system rewards short-term decision-making which is holding our country back”.
But fans of the minority sport PR cheerleading, within the Conservative party, were heavily outnumbered by the followers of the mainstream bloodsport of stoking the populist flames and tropes, with irresponsible and damaging rhetoric about migration, asylum and conspiracy theories. All crunchy grist to the mill for those who describe themselves shockingly as ‘migrant hunters’.
Which brings us to the Labour conference.
At last year’s Labour conference, the Party took the historic decision to vote in favour of PR for general elections. Electoral reform now has the support of the overwhelming majority of the Labour membership, Constituency Labour Parties and affiliated trade unions. Encouragingly, more recently, Labour’s National Policy Forum recognised that “the flaws in the current voting system are contributing to the alienation and distrust we see in politics”.
This year’s conference saw clearer statements of intent on other areas of interest to Unlock Democracy, such as devolution and the proposed Integrity and Ethics Commission which could start to restore trust in politics. Reform of the House of Lords was also mooted, with the near certainty that hereditary peers are for the chop.
Our fringe, with key contributions from the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and Labour for a New Democracy, didn’t disappoint, with a genuine meeting of minds amongst the panellists and the audience.
But any prominent endorsement of PR, from leading shadow cabinet members, was absent, a source of disappointment given Sir Keir Starmer’s statement that “I am utterly convinced about this: The Westminster system is part of the problem”.
This is our challenge.
Over the next 12 months, Unlock Democracy, Compass, MakeVotesMatter, the Electoral Reform Society, Labour for a New Democracy, the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, Lib Dems for Electoral Reform, Conservative Action for Electoral Reform, the Greens and many other organisations big and small, will be signing up millions of supporters who want to fix our broken politics and make Proportional Representation an irresistible first order issue.
Because we know that anyone serious about Britain getting its future back won’t be able to do so without PR.