Joe Sousek, Co-Chief Executive of Make Votes Matter and executive member of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, explains why now is the time to bring Proportional Representation to the Labour Party conference.

For the first time, Make Votes Matter is coordinating a major push to get the Labour Party to debate and carry a motion on electoral reform at this year’s Labour conference.

This initiative – which will shortly be launched by the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform – will see the broadest possible coalition of Labour and democracy organisations working to change Labour policy. Together, we’ll be calling on all Labour members who want fair votes to recognise the opportunity that now exists and table a conference motion at their local party.

Like most political opportunities, this one is the result of a huge amount of hard work combined with a bit of sheer luck.

And like all opportunities, it’s by no means certain we’ll succeed. But we have a chance – and there may not be a better one for years to come. Here’s why…

The membership

In early 2017, MVM teamed up with the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform to begin a project offering speakers to local Labour meetings. We had no idea what a huge undertaking this would become. Since then, we’ve averaged more than five meetings per month for three consecutive years, with activists frequently travelling many hours to attend.

For a lot of this time, even to many supporters of PR, winning Labour over to a fair voting system has seemed like an impossible mountain to climb. But we were getting a very different response at branches across the UK. Support wasn’t just widespread; it was overwhelming, often unanimous. And everywhere we went, we were building a network of members that would be ready to act when the time was right.

84 Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) have now adopted policy in favour of PR, with countless more all but ready to. If even a fraction of these now send motions to Labour conference, it should be enough to get the issue debated on the conference floor.

Last December, we commissioned polling to confirm our long-standing belief that most Labour members support PR. We were right: 76% of members were in favour, with just 12% opposed. 

The unions

Affiliated trade unions have huge influence in the party and make up half the delegates at the Labour Party conference. Most of these delegates belong to the three biggest unions: Unite, Unison and GMB.

Towards the end of last year – when all the world was focused intensely on the general election – we were phoning up trade union members and encouraging them to send motions through their branches to their 2020 conferences.

By the deadlines for submission we had multiple motions on electoral reform heading to all three of the big unions’ summer conferences. This means the possibility of policy changes – and a potential route to winning at the Labour Party conference in September.

In many cases, these motions are backed by whole regions of their unions, such as the South West region of Unison. In the case of GMB, the motions follow one that was debated last year and triggered a review by the union’s highest body.

We have no real way of knowing how they’ll be received. But as it becomes increasingly clear that unions have nothing to gain – and everything to lose – from First Past the Post governments, there’s reason enough for hope.

The Leadership

Electoral reform has had more discussion in the current Labour Leadership contest than ever before. We have Clive Lewis and his campaign team to thank for much of this, whose brief Leadership bid succeeded in making PR part of the whole Leaders debate. All three of the remaining candidates have given warm words to the subject – and some important concessions have been made.

Both Rebecca Long Bailey and Keir Starmer have said that electoral reform must be considered in the Constitutional Convention – Labour’s long-promised catch-all review of the terms of British democracy.

This is actually a significant improvement on the 2017 and 2019 manifestos. Although both promised the Constitutional Convention, both documents also carefully avoided promising that a review of the voting system would be included. This was despite impassioned pleas by Labour electoral reformers for the party to make this modest commitment. That the two front-runners have now adopted this position is a small but significant step forward.

Furthermore, both Starmer and Long Bailey have agreed to consult the party membership on Proportional Representation – a direct concession to a request that features in most of the 84 CLP motions that have been passed in the last couple of years.

In this context, we can expect to head towards September with the most open-minded Leader there has been in decades when it comes to PR.

Conference 2020

All of this sets the scene for this year’s Labour conference. Following dedicated campaigning, political developments, and not to mention rule changes that allow more time for debate at conference, many of the barriers that once stood between Labour and fair votes have begun to wobble.

Our task now is to build the broadest possible movement of party members, trade unionists, public figures and Labour and democracy organisations – with the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and its network of irrepressible activists at its heart – to grasp this opportunity and forge it into reality.

In the coming weeks, this coalition will launch a joint campaign to bring as many CLP motions to conference as possible. We’ll have a model motion for members to use or adapt as they wish – and we’ll need every Labour member who wants equal votes to table it with their local party.

There’s no guarantee of success, but there may never be a better opportunity. Let’s seize it.

If you’re a Labour member and want the party to back electoral reform, you can sign-up early to take part in this campaign. At the moment we’re looking for individuals who can commit to tabling a motion at their CLP. Click here for more info.