On Tuesday 28th September, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion Caroline Lucas spoke alongside Labour MP Clive Lewis, Labour for a New Democracy campaigner Laura Parker and Best for Britain CEO Naomi Smith at Compass’ rally for a Progressive Alliance at the Labour Conference fringe. Here is her speech in full.
Thank you to Compass for this opportunity to speak at this fringe event.
I’m used to challenging the premises of questions, and on the question we’ve been asked to address tonight – Will Labour accept sharing power to win? – it’s not so much challenging the premise as acknowledging that it’s not a question that anyone outside Labour can really answer.
I can tell you why I think Labour should accept power-sharing – I can set out the arguments for a new progressive politics where those who want a good society can and must work together.
I can cite a book of essays which I co-authored with your very own Lisa Nandy and the Lib Dem Chris Bowers, in which the three of us wrote this in our introduction:
‘We are not proposing cooperation among the progressives because we have to, but because we want to. Quite simply, we believe that political pluralism delivers better answers and better government; and that a progressive alliance, speaking to different constituencies about a shared agenda of social, environmental and democratic reform, united in a commitment to create a fairer, more sustainable Britain, to rebuild our democracy and safeguard our public sector, would have an attractive force and political reach that no one party alone could have today.’
And I can even cite the groundbreaking example of Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, who put this belief into action last year.
She wasn’t forced by the electoral maths into power-sharing with the Greens, but by a genuine belief that politics can be better when it’s less tribal, more plural – and so she invited them into her Government.
We should ask her to have a word with Keir Starmer. Because what we can sadly say definitively tonight is that the Labour leadership is not willing to share power. Even if that means not winning.
During his leadership election campaign, Starmer actually said ‘we’ve got to address the fact that millions of people vote in safe seats, and they feel their votes don’t count. We will never get full participation in the electoral system until we do that at every level.’
Yet when presented with a golden opportunity to do something about it, he flunked it.
I want to congratulate Laura and Labour for a New Democracy, Make Votes Matter and everyone who campaigned so hard to mobilise such unprecedented support – an extraordinary achievement.
Yet when confronted by the fact that 83% of Labour members want PR, when over 300 CLPs passed pro-PR resolutions, when the pro-PR motion was one of the most well-supported motions at conference… Starmer chose to bottle it.
So the case I want to make tonight is threefold:
- That Labour’s route back to power just got a whole lot harder;
- That what’s at stake was never just about how we count votes, but how we build a better society;
- And that the Climate and Nature Emergencies – these existential threats to our very survival – make democratic renewal more essential and more urgent than ever.
1. The electoral maths
At the last General Election, the Tories held a majority of seats – 56% – with only 43% of the votes. More shockingly, they gained 48 more MPs with only an extra 1.2% vote share, delivering a majority of 80 seats, the largest for the Conservatives since 1987.
As the ERS grimly notes: “This is what the system is designed to do – manufacture a majority for one party at the expense of voters’ choices.”
A system, let’s be clear, which promotes voter inequality, gives disproportionate power to swing voters in marginal seats, and encourages the belief that there’s simply no point in voting.
No wonder when over 22 million votes (fully 70%) didn’t contribute to electing an MP at the last election. In seven constituencies, over 90% of the votes went to waste in this way.
There’s strong evidence that first past the post has Conservative bias inbuilt. ERS analysis has Boris Johnson denied his 2019 majority under PR – winning 77 fewer seats.
And whilst Labour on 32% would not have secured a majority either, they would have been regrouping in a Parliament mostly to the left of the Tories, rather than one mostly to the right of voters.
Looking ahead to the next General Election, Labour needs to gain 124 seats to win with a majority of just one. That’s equivalent to a uniform swing of 10.5%, larger than the Labour landslides of 1997 and 1945.
And it assumes Labour can make a big comeback in Scotland.
Discount the Scottish seats, and Labour needs constituency swings as high as 15% to win a majority of one.
As I say, Labour’s route back to power just got a whole lot harder.
And if there’s a regressive alliance again, recent polling done by Best for Britain suggests first past the post could see Labour’s seat total at around 251 seats.
Countering that, the same polling shows Labour could win up to 351 seats if the party were to co-operate with the Liberal Democrats and Greens at the next election.
2. Plural politics is better politics and why we need PR
But this isn’t just about backing a system that will deliver the electoral outcome we might want.
It’s about our fundamental beliefs.
Democracy not just as a means to an end, but as an expression of our values.
As former Labour Foreign Secretary Robin Cook put it: PR is one way in which we can express our commitment to fairness, openness and equality in our society.
Yet the Palace of Westminster – Gothic, rat-infested, and crumbling into the Thames – has become a powerful symbol of political decay, and of the broken electoral system that sends MPs there.
PR changes the political landscape.
It’s a vital stepping-stone in the struggle to forge a new, exciting, plural, diverse and radical politics.
To reflect that nobody and no single political party has a monopoly on wisdom.
And that would see our political system catch up with the change already happening on the ground.
From Lewes to Sheffield, voters and their elected representatives are gaming the system as best they can, against the odds, for positive, progressive ends – showing us what winning needs to look like.
3. The Climate and Nature imperative
But this isn’t just about a majority at the next general election or ‘reclaiming’ Red Wall seats.
I have had enough of such short-sightedness.
This is bigger than Keir Starmer.
Bigger than the trade unions or the Labour Party.
Anyone who hasn’t grasped the scale of what we face, hasn’t been paying attention: this is about winning the chance of a livable future.
The climate and nature emergencies are so urgent that, frankly, we don’t have a choice about working together.
Nobody at all wins unless we can change course – urgently and dramatically.
Unless we can learn to put aside our differences.
Unless we can co-operate on a scale unprecedented in human history. Right now.
Responding to climate breakdown at the speed and scale that the science demands requires the involvement of 8 billion people and that can only be guaranteed by real democracy
Climate breakdown is creating a world in which it is literally true that we are all in it together.
We cannot succeed in tackling it unless we all pull together – starting with here in the UK.
Climate policy cannot succeed without the rule of law, social cohesion and democracy – and climate policy failure will destroy all three.
So perhaps we need to turn the lens around and recognise that the biggest question isn’t what politics and government can do to rescue people from climate change.
It’s: can the climate emergency rescue politics and government from people’s loss of confidence?
I think – I hope – the answer is yes.
Because we have a potentially unifying vision that can inspire more votes than the Tories are prepared to buy.
One that’s already supported by communities up and down the country, and one equal to the crises we face.
GND and CEE BIlls
Transforming our country with a Green New Deal will involve every single one of us. I’m proud to be co-sponsoring a radical Bill for a GND alongside Clive – we’ll be re-tabling it next month.
It will mean pushing power out from the centre and back to our communities, forging a new kind of democracy where choices are made by the people, for the people.
And it goes way beyond levelling up, through the redistribution of both wealth and power.
Alongside a Green New Deal, we have the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill too.
A blueprint to ensure the UK does its fair share to limit global heating to 1.5° – taking responsibility for our entire greenhouse gas footprint, alongside protecting nature and restoring abundant biodiverse habitats.
And establishing a citizens’ assembly to advise ministers and Parliament on a strategy to achieve those goals. Creating the foundations for a future in which humankind and the planet can survive and, crucially, thrive as well.
One in which we all share power for the common good.
4. Call to action
Anyone who refuses to do that is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
And if I am honest, it makes me angry.
It should make you angry too. But as Aristotle said:
Anybody can become angry, that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.
So we have to use our anger well. Be smart, brave and determined.
Tell those trade unions who opposed PR how we feel about their betrayal – and if they don’t listen, take our power elsewhere.
Because it is a loan that we can take back if they are not prepared to use it for the democratic, green, fair, co-operative future we demand.
And let’s lead by example. Clive and I do it in Parliament, co-operating with one another and with MPs like the Lib Dem Layla Moran and the SNP’s Tommy Shepherd.
All of us need to go back to our communities and refuse to continue doing politics in our tribes.
To instead seek out those with whom we have more in common than divides us. To work with them when we can, and robustly call them out when they get it wrong. And most pressingly, do that in relation to the climate emergency.
That’s leadership. And it’s how we build a progressive democratic movement from the ground up – modelling what the future will look like.
Putting it in place, brick by brick, so that when the current edifice comes tumbling down, we are more than ready, with something new and more resilient.
The way we do democracy now is too narrow, too slow, too timid, too centralised to engage with the opportunities and threats on the rapidly approaching horizon.
So our actions must actively embrace a more diverse, flexible and generous model. From rebel alliances to deliberative processes like citizens assemblies, from primaries to radical devolution to the regions of England.
Giving a voice to a genuine cross section of the community, putting the onus on finding solutions that work for everyone.
Moving on from a politics that divides us, whether over Brexit or culture wars. And towards one that brings us together.
And we can’t give up.
Because make no mistake, the Tories are planning the next regressive alliance with a vicious assault on our democracy.
Making it harder for people to vote, through voter ID plans in the Elections Bill.
And crushing the only elections which aren’t run under first-past-the-post system – because when votes are fair, they tend to lose.
In May the Tories lost 11 out of 13 mayoral elections, all held under a supplementary vote system.
But even if the Tories weren’t doing all this.
Even if the electoral maths stacked up.
Even if Labour could get more MPs under first past the post –
That isn’t winning big enough.
To really win is to win people’s hearts and minds.
It’s winning a country that works for the 21st century – and for every single one of its citizens.
It is not policy change we need but fundamental system change – one that is up to tackling the climate and nature crises, up to addressing grotesque levels of inequality and exclusion.
One that will allow us to write a new story of national pride and renewal.
And nobody can do that alone.
 Liverpool Riverside (92.2% of votes were ignored), Knowsley (91.9%), Bootle (90.8%), Liverpool West Derby (90.6%), Manchester Gorton (90.5%), Liverpool Wavertree (90.3%), and Liverpool Walton (90.1%).
 Holger Doring and Philip Manow, ‘Is Proportional Representation More Favourable to the Left? Electoral Rules and Their Impact on Elections, Parliaments and the Formation of Cabinets’, British Journal of Political Science, 47(1), 149–164, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/british-journal-of-political-science/article/is-proportional-representation-more-favourable-to-the-left-electoral-rules-and-their-impact-on-elections-parliaments-and-the-formation-of-cabinets/AC94A781D6E641169FC0CE183B3CC938
 ‘Mega-poll: Labour could secure landslide in 2024 by working with other progressive parties’, Left Foot Forward, 20 January 2021, https://leftfootforward.org/2021/01/mega-poll-labour-could-secure-landslide-in-2024-by-working-with-other-progressive-parties/