Joe Sousek, Co-Chief Executive of Make Votes Matter and an executive member of Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, sets out what we know about Labour’s leadership candidates’ views on electoral reform.

The Labour Party may have been defeated in last month’s general election, but the party continues to be a deciding factor in whether the UK wins Proportional Representation in coming years. A feature of our First Past the Post system is that any future alternative to the current government will almost certainly include the Labour Party – and so Labour’s position on electoral reform will be key to whether or not the next government changes the voting system.

YouGov polling for Make Votes Matter found 76% of Labour members believe the party should back PR.

The Labour Leadership election is therefore a big opportunity to change the narrative on electoral reform within the party. To be clear, it is not the only opportunity. Our joint work with Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform – mobilising support at grassroots level – must and will continue regardless of the outcome. But the new Leader’s views on PR will have a major impact on how easily this campaigning will make progress.

Make Votes Matter is writing to all the Leadership hopefuls to ask them a number of questions around the issues of electoral reform. We will publish their responses in full and will let it be known where no response is received. If you have different or additional information on any of the candidates, please get in touch with us at labour4pr@makevotesmatter.org.uk

In the meantime, here’s a summary of what we know so far…

Clive Lewis: ardent supporter

“I believe people expect Parliament to reflect how much support each Party receives at an election. It is simply not right that Parties can receive millions of votes resulting in only one Member of Parliament.. If elected, I will do everything I can to change the voting system to Proportional Representation.”

Among the dozens of Labour MPs who have said they support PR, there are a handful who are constantly working to bring it about. Clive Lewis is one of them.

Clive has spoken at many of our events going back to 2016, signed the foreword to the MVM-LCER report 2017, put his name to MVM’s Good Systems Agreement, and even called for PR during the 2019 General Election campaign. So it’s no surprise that he also made PR a major strand of his pitch when he announced his intention to stand as Leader.

My understanding is that Clive doesn’t merely see electoral reform as a nice-to-have, but views the problems facing British politics through the prism of a fundamentally broken democracy. To many of us this sounds like a very obvious position, but it is rarer within the Parliamentary Labour Party than it is in the party or country at large. It shouldn’t be underestimated how revolutionary it would be for Labour to be led by someone who sees the transformation of society as genuinely and inextricably linked to the transformation of our democracy.

Emily Thornberry: die-hard opposer

“First past the post builds a direct relationship between a community and their MP. Residents come together to decide who most people want as their national representative. No one has more than one vote and it has to be cast responsibly. This simplicity minimises the number of people unable to fully participate because English is their second language or because they find the process confusing. We are all equal with first past the post.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Emily Thornberry is an unreconstructed supporter of First Past the Post. She has shown deep scepticism about electoral reform in writing, but this is mild in comparison to the views she expressed in person to me, colleagues and others over the years. If Thornberry becomes Leader, it would certainly seem to reduce the likelihood of Labour backing PR or of the UK winning fair votes any time soon.

 

 

Keir Starmer: open-minded

“So many people vote and it doesn’t count, and we can’t go on like that  – because progressive politics requires people’s votes to actually count. So I would want to look at this. The only caveat I’ve got is that I also genuinely believe that you need a representative in each area who is there to represent the people in that area and to act on their behalf.”

Keir Starmer met with a group of his MVM-supporting constituents to discuss electoral reform last January. He gave us plenty of time and was keen to listen to our reasons for backing Proportional Representation – but he also volunteered some important observations, such as many people in the UK feeling left behind and that they have no link to those with power. 

He stated up front that he has not come to a firm conclusion, but seemed genuinely open. A caveat was that he would not support a system that broke the constituency link, and we were able to have a good conversation about the systems of PR available that retain this.

Keir’s view was confirmed again last night, at a meeting of Westminster North CLP, where he was asked about PR. He said, “I do think the fact that millions of people vote and it doesn’t really count is not a sign of a healthy democracy at work.” He reiterated the importance of the constituency link and said “there are ways of accommodating this and I think it’s a debate we should have as a party, I’m not fixed on a particular position.”

Jess Phillips: ‘quiet’ supporter

“I voted for PR this week, alas not many did.”

In July 2016, Caroline Lucas MP (Green Party) raised a Ten Minute Rule Bill calling for Proportional Representation (and lowering the voting age to sixteen). These back-bench bills have very little real chance of becoming law, but can be an effective way to draw attention to an issue and testing support.

Jess Phillips was one of the 15 Labour MPs who defied the party whip in order to vote in favour of the motion (Clive Lewis was another). She later signed an Early Day Motion for PR that we at MVM helped to organise.

Jess has subsequently confirmed her support on social media, with the caveat that a new voting system must maintain a strong constituency link between MPs and voters. We are not aware of her taking a more active role in campaigning for electoral reform – for example speaking at fringe events or writing an op-ed – but we understand that all MPs have many competing priorities and a clear statement of support is good going.

Lisa Nandy: perplexingly non-committal

“I haven’t moved. I think there’s pros and cons basically.”

Lisa Nandy is one of Labour’s long-standing advocates of forming a “progressive alliance” with other parties – an issue Make Votes Matter takes no position on – but she has not taken a definite view on electoral reform.

This is unusual. Many in the Labour Party support PR but don’t support alliances. There are also many who support PR and support alliances. But there are very few who support alliances but don’t support PR.

This makes logical sense. The concept of a “progressive alliance” – in which parties stand down for one another in marginal constituencies – is usually understood as a one-time deal; to bring in a fair voting system that abolishes the need for such stitch-ups in the future. Take away the end-game of changing the voting system and its hard to see any incentive for smaller parties to surrender constituencies – decimating their vote share in the process – or any reason for the electorate to put up with perpetual electoral pacts.

Lisa has said a number of times that she’s open-minded about PR. It’s not the worst position to take, but I just can’t understand how being anything less than 100% behind PR can square with her views on cross-party working.

Rebecca Long-Bailey: unknown

“[To be confirmed…]”

We understand Rebecca Long-Bailey may be undecided on PR, but currently have no information about her precise view or reasons.

We do know that numerous constituents have written to her about this issue, but so far have not heard whether or how she responded. If you know what she thinks about PR, please let us know at labour4pr@makevotesmatter.org.uk!