Clive Lewis MP: From 2022 Labour Party Conference

This is a transcription of a speech Clive Lewis MP gave on the 26th September 2022 at the Win As One event at Labour Party Conference. You can watch a video on our YouTube channel. 

I must admit, I wrote some basic notes half expecting it (motion for PR,) to be turned down at the vote. Obviously, if you’ve been in the Labour Party for as long as I have, you develop a negative view of how things are going to turn out, which is no surprise given we lose three times as much as the Tories when it comes to general elections because of the voting system. 

But nonetheless I’m over the moon about what’s happened. But I want to touch on the fact that I don’t think it’s going to be plain sailing from here on in and I think what I have written is probably more appropriate than if we hadn’t won. Because I think if we have clarity of what’s likely to happen and why the leadership are likely to drag their feet on this are likely to make it difficult, I think it will instruct us on how we go forward.

So, I’m going to make a statement. I don’t think everyone is going to like it, especially a lot of delegates. Considering what’s just happened as some people will say ‘what’s he talking about? we just voted for PR (proportional representation.)’ 

The Labour Party isn’t a democratic institution. 

Let’s just let that settle in for a second. But at least not in the way that many of us in this room would understand the term democratic, i.e., transparent, accountable to the membership with collective interactive decision-making processes. 

Rather, it’s an opaque, hierarchical, top-down structure with competing interest groups with their increased power and influence, to which a membership, the lifeblood of the organisation is increasingly a little more than spectating foot soldiers. Although today, they have made a major difference and impact on party policy. I think that’s to be applauded. 

Now some of you might think I’m being a little harsh, a bit provocative, a bit sectarian. because the right of the party is now in control of the party. Although I did argue this under Corbyn, so at least I’ve been consistent. Perhaps I’m just genuinely a sad, bitter person that wouldn’t give a thirsty dog water on a hot summer’s day. But none of that’s true. The reason the Labour Party struggles to be a democratic institution, in my opinion, is because of what’s called the discipline of first past the post. The very same discipline that forces voters to choose between one of the two main parties that govern also prevents our own party from being a genuinely democratic institution. 

In some ways, it makes complete sense. I can empathise with the chosen strategy of Keir, and those around him, it has a horrible piteous logic. We know that FPTP ensures a narrow set of voters in marginal swing seats, influenced by the full might of our plutocratic media, will end up discussing a series of very narrow election issues and they’re usually to the advantage of the political right. Not only does the bulk of the electorate not get to have its policy priorities heard or enacted, but it forces our own party to suppress anything outside of that narrow remit and forces concentrating on the same limited set of issues. 

By this logic, it fails to enforce the narrow policy debate in turn. Basically, what the party says is if you’re serious about winning, you must discuss only narrow sets of issues. You must move to the sway of the mainstream media, where those swing voters want us to be. It’s a tyranny, in effect, and it limits the ability for us as Democrats, as socialists, social democrats or democratic socialists to be able to have that rich and varied policy discussion and talk about the things are really affecting this country. 

A couple observations to make about this, firstly, if we acknowledge these conditions, under FPTP there will never be a good time to discuss and address issues like PR or things that so many progressives want to talk about. This leads us to buying into the mantra that no one cares about voting systems. I heard this message today as I was being interviewed on Owen Jones’s programme. He said “I was talking to members of the Shadow Cabinet. They said this doesn’t come up on the doorstep. No one’s interested in voting systems.”

Let me tell you why that is wrong. 

We’ve talked about nothing but power for the last 10 years, the voting system is at the base of who has power, who wields it, and how it’s wielded. The 2008 economic crash was about those who had the power to deregulate the financial institutions and banks. Those who had the power then got to decide who was going to pay back the bailing out of that crash. In the end, the 1% used the political power, in part through the voting system, to decide it was austerity, the public and public services that would pay for it.

In Scotland, they’ve been talking about nothing else but power since 2014, about where it’s based, is it based in Glasgow? or whether it’s based in London? Of course, the vote of EU referendum in 2016 was all about taking back control and power as well.

Look at the levelling up debate. This is about where resources are spent, how they’re spent and who decides. That’s about power as well. Power, power, power.

Let’s put FPTP aside and look at the facts. Boris Johnson won an 80-seat majority with just 29% of the popular vote. Liz Truss, who’s torn up his flaky mandate, with just the biggest transfer of wealth in a single budget this country has probably ever seen, has done so with a mandate of 0.3% of the voting population. My God, that’s a voting statistical error. She is now in power and wielding that power. Let’s put FPTP aside again, and the fact that it’s delivered, as Andy Burnham mentioned
(at Labour conference,) three times as many Tory governments in the past century, as it has Labour ones.

We’ve just had a hereditary billionaire made our head of state, where those who peacefully protested were arrested for no other reason than peaceful protest. That wasn’t consensual, that was coercive. There was no consensus there, I didn’t consent to it, and I know there were millions of people that didn’t consent to it. We have an unelected second chamber with 92 hereditary peers, the only other country outside of Iran that has a clergy with the power to vote over political matters. The vast majority of people in that place (house of lords,) now are there because of the money that they have contributed to either the Tory party and the Labour Party.

The right to peaceful process has been undermined. The fundamental right to strike has been diminished. 6 million citizens now could be deported at the whim of the Home Secretary at any time that they wish under the law, clause 9 of the recent bill that went through Parliament. ID cards that were introduced to suppress the votes of the poor and ethnic minorities. Our media is owned by billionaires and even our very limited public broadcasters now have in effect, political commissars as referenced by Emily Maitlis who made that point in Edinburgh.

 “Forget all about that, put your fingers in your ears, rock backwards and forwards. Go forget about it, because now isn’t the time to worry about voting systems. I know you just voted for it at conference, but really on the doorstep it’s not a priority. No one’s interested damn it” is what you’re going to hear from some parts of the Labour party despite PR passing today.

Well, it’s a priority for us here tonight (at conference,) It’s a priority for the labour movement, proven by the vote at conference. It is a priority for this country of whom more than 50% now think that a PR voting system is well and long overdue. There is a real fight ahead, but the tide has turned on our side.

Our message should be clear: you don’t fight authoritarianism with indifference and a shrug of the shoulders. You don’t fight the smashing of our human rights, our rights as workers, our right to choose who runs our country and our economy by telling us it’s not a political priority. You fight creeping fascism and authoritarianism by embracing democracy, by championing it and by making it your own issue.

By taking this forward collectively, we can imagine that there is a different and better way that we can run this country. The 99% of people of this country can have a real say over their future and the future of their community. That’s what PR is about. So, when people tell you that this isn’t an issue, no one’s interested, you tell them that because it’s a massive issue, and it’s about power and who wields it. 

I’m going to conclude by saying that we live in an age of crisis, growing inequality, both nationally and internationally, the climate crisis, energy crisis and ecological crisis. The reality is this is the new normal. What we can see is that those people who’ve led us down this dark, dystopian potential path, are also the same people that are trying to hold on to the power and the wealth that they have.

That’s what this budget (Tory Autumn budget,) was about. You can see this budget in two ways. It was a scorched earth policy and a win-win for the government, because if a gamble pays off, they get another term in parliament. If it fails, they smash the economy for the incoming Labour government, as they also cease 60 billion pounds to their friends in that are in the 1% and that money is power.

So ultimately, we have a choice to make in this age of crisis. With the climate crisis upon us both here and abroad, we as a political party, as a progressive movement, acknowledge that everything else that I’ve mentioned, from the climate crisis, through to inequality is a symptom, not the issue. The symptom is the demise of democracy, of democratic institutions both nationally and internationally. When we understand that we understand that if you want to fight the climate crisis and if we want to tackle inequality, then it is power and democracy that we have to champion and reintroduce into the body politic of this country and everything we fight for. 


This is a transcription of a speech Clive Lewis MP gave on the 26th September 2022 at the Win As One event at Labour Party Conference. You can watch a video of the speech on our YouTube channel. 

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