Is Labour now ready to give its backing to fair voting?

Colourful graphic showing a small blue (Conservative) share of the vote if proportional representation had been in place in the 2019 general election.
No Boris landslide: how it would have looked after the 2019 election under proportional representation. The Conservative Party, with 43.6% of the votes, would obtain only 284 seats, with Labour, SNP, LibDems and Greens winning a combined majority: 327 seats out of 650. Graphic: Open Democracy

Leading Labour figures, among them Andy Burnham, have raised the question of whether the party should adopt some form of proportional representation (PR) as a key policy pledge ahead of the next general election, scheduled to take place by 2024.

The Conservatives are clearly living on borrowed time, with scandal-ridden Boris Johnson stepping down as Prime Minister in early September, to be replaced either by former chancellor Rishi Sunak, or Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, less than three years after achieving a decisive ‘Get Brexit Done’ parliamentary majority of 80 seats.

A ‘miserable little compromise’

The current first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system usually favours the Tories by splitting the votes cast for their opponents and ‘wasting’ many thousands of votes. In 2011 voters rejected the Alternative Vote (AV) system, which even its proponent Nick Clegg had previously described as a “miserable little compromise” to full PR.

Now opposition parties sense the public mood is changing. Recent by-elections saw tactical voting overturn even large Tory majorities: electors, who for years had accepted ‘one party rule’, had exercised their power. 

A fairer electoral system could be in the offing if Labour joins other opposition parties in backing it.

Where does Labour stand?    

The boldest Labour intervention yet on PR comes from Andy Burnham, a former MP and now mayor of Greater Manchester. At this year’s Glastonbury Festival, Burnham made a cogent case for ‘rewiring’ the UK, underpinned by his five years of experience as a mayor of one of England’s largest cities. 

But in an interview with the Guardian he said such reforms would only happen if Labour was prepared to abandon ingrained habits and cooperate with other progressive parties. He fell short, however, of proposing either a formal or informal alliance to step aside for another party in certain seats: like Lib Dem leader Ed Davey, he is against electoral pacts, instead favouring “open political agreement, particularly on big-picture things to do with the constitution”.

‘Millions of people vote in safe seats and they feel their voice doesn’t count. That’s got to be addressed.’

Keir starmer 2020

Keir Starmer, speaking at a members’ event in London in 2020 before he became leader, made a more measured pitch than Burnham, although still backing some form of proportional voting. He said: “I think on electoral reform, we’ve got to address the fact that millions of people vote in safe seats and they feel their voice doesn’t count. That’s got to be addressed. We will never get full participation in our electoral system until we do that at every level.”

Growing trade union support

Until now, trade unions have on the whole been hostile to a switch to PR, wary of a potential weakening of their influence in a multi-party coalition. However, this is changing. Delegates at UNISON’s national conference in June this year backed a motion calling for the adoption of PR for UK general elections. Last October, UNITE, the UK’s second biggest union after UNISON, likewise voted to reject FPTP for Westminster elections. 

These two giants join a growing number of Labour-affiliated trade unions in support of electoral reform alongside ASLEF, CWU, the Musicians Union, and the TSSA.

In September 2021, a motion on electoral reform was narrowly defeated at Labour Party conference due to lack of support among union representatives. This is despite 80% of local party delegates supporting the change and is reflected in the views of the wider party membership. Fieldwork conducted by YouGov for Make Votes Matter a few days before the 2019 general election result, showed that over three quarters (76%) of the membership believed that Labour should back some sort of PR voting system

In the event Labour gained just 203 seats on a vote share of 32.2% – the FPTP system delivering 365 seats to the Tories on a vote share of 43.6%.

A Labour conference pledge card urging delegates at this year's party conference to back proportional representation. It reads: I support #Labour4PR 
The next Labour Government must scrap first past the post.
Backing PR: pledge card for the 2022 party conference promoted by Labour For A New Democracy

Previous attempts to promote PR for Westminster elections have foundered. When Tony Blair’s New Labour was elected in 1997, an informal agreement with Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown for a referendum on fairer votes was quietly dropped in the face of opposition from both Labour MPs and activists.

Proposals for a type of PR in a commission appointed by Blair, were watered down and later dropped.    

Since then, Labour has lost almost all of its Scottish seats, while the ‘Red Wall’ revolution of 2019 led to many traditional Labour supporters, on the back of belief in Brexit, delivering a string of long-held Northern seats to Boris Johnson.

But now, PR is firmly back on the agenda. Constituency parties are once more gearing up for a fresh attempt to shift Labour policy. Watch out for further positive signals in speeches at the party’s annual conference at Liverpool in September.

Where the Tories look vulnerable

If adopted, proportional representation could see more Labour, Lib Dem or Green MPs elected across Sussex and other parts of South East England, beyond the traditional bastions of Brighton and Hove. 

Conservative seats such as Arundel and South Downs, Chichester, Crawley, Eastbourne, Hastings & Rye, Horsham, Lewes, Mid Sussex, and Worthing look vulnerable, with recent local government elections in those seats showing a marked shift away from the Tories.

In coastal parts of Kent, Labour should be targeting seats they formerly held at the height of New Labour, including Dover & Deal, Gravesham, Medway and Thanet. The Lib Dems may look to Maidstone, Swale and Tunbridge Wells, where they have a strong presence on local councils.    

In Hampshire, the Lib Dems would also be looking to regain seats such as Eastleigh, Romsey, and Winchester, while Labour will be eyeing up Portsmouth North, currently held by former Tory leadership contender Penny Mordaunt, retaining Portsmouth South and Southampton Test, and regaining Southampton Itchen from the Tories. Even the Isle of Wight, once a Lib Dem target, could be wrested away from the Tories.   

Whatever the results of the next election, it is clear that demands for a fairer voting system will only grow, despite fierce rearguard opposition from the party that stands to gain the most from the unfair status quo.

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