June 2020 saw voting reform take place. This reform was not a change to the voting system for Westminster elections, but how one third of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) are chosen by party members. However, this change was notable: Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer advocated for a switch from First Past The Post to the Single Transferable Vote system.
In fieldwork conducted a few days before 2019 general election, the opinion of the party’s members on changing to a system like that advocated by Sir Keir for NEC elections, was made clear. Polling by YouGov revealed that over three quarters (76%) of the membership believed that the party should back making seats match votes.
Why this figure stands out is that it precedes the clamour for voting reform that followed Labour’s stark defeat, which was followed by a spirited but ultimately unsuccessful leadership campaign by Clive Lewis MP that placed proportional representation as one of its topline policies. In contrast, vague commitments from the other candidates to “address” the issue of seats of not matching votes were made.
And yet despite this groundswell of support pre-election, why did Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party not declare itself outright in favour of voting reform in neither its 2017 nor 2019 election manifestos? Speaking on this topic Joe Sousek, co-founder of grassroots voting reform pressure group Make Votes Matter, noted “if Labour membership does want PR, where was the opposition?”
As a leader whose election was hinged upon promise for a new progressive agenda, electoral reform would seem a natural fit within the Corbyn project’s policy platform. Although in 2018 a Corbyn ally said that the leader’s lack of support for PR was because “Jeremy won’t do anything that he doesn’t think Tony [Benn] would have done”, for many reform remained very possible. Mary Southcott, longstanding Labour electoral reform activist, recalled speaking to Corbyn in November 2015 and him saying to her “will a top-up [Additional Member] [S]ystem do?”
Sir Keir made positive noises regarding voting reform in a hustings helmed by the Electoral Reform Society in January 2020, but has given no signs since his election – which occurred near the peak of the Coronavirus pandemic in the UK – on voting reform. The only signal we have is the shift to STV for NEC elections.
To understand the space that the Labour Party under Sir Keir finds itself in regarding electoral reform, it is essential to look at what happened to this pursuit during the tenure of his predecessor.
There has been no previous account of the campaign for electoral reform and its relationship with the period of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. Over three sections, I’ll explore Labour’s relationship with PR. First from the Blair/Brown years to Ed Miliband’s 2015 election defeat, the Corbyn leadership between 2015-20, and finally looking ahead to what the future may hold for voting reform’s prospects under Sir Keir Starmer.
Kicking the can
The Labour Party has toed and froed vis-a-vis its position towards electoral reform for decades. Although it has always had a vocal base within pushing for such reforms, Clement Attlee’s seismic 1945 landslide placed it “[at] the very bottom of the political agenda” for Labour for the next 30 years.  It would only be its ‘Wilderness Years’ between 1979 and 1997 that voting reform emerged as a lightning rod of party policy.
In their 1997 manifesto, the party made their boldest commitment to electoral reform yet:
“We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system”.
Labour’s landslide saw the party appoint the promised commission, with Lord Roy Jenkins releasing a report in October 1998 which called for a voting system that retained the constituency link for 80 to 85% of MPs, with the rest elected via a proportional top-up system. The commission’s belief was that these changes would “significantly reduce the disproportionality and the geographical divisiveness which are inherent in FPTP.”
And yet a repeat landslide in 2001 scarpered any hopes of the party adhering to its 1997 commitment. With no mention of voting reform in its 2001 manifesto, in 2005 Labour merely kicked the can of voting reform in Westminster down the line, stating that the party:
“[R]emains committed to reviewing the experience of the new electoral systems – introduced for the devolved administrations, the European Parliament and the London Assembly. A referendum remains the right way to agree any change for Westminster.”
Speaking a few days before the 2011 Alternative Vote (AV) referendum, then-Labour leader Ed Miliband acknowledged that his party should have gone with its plans for a referendum whilst in power and had decided not to do so due to having “too big a majority”.
In the 2010 general election the party committed itself to a referendum on the AV voting system. When the referendum finally arrived in 2011 albeit via the “miserable little compromise” extracted by Sir Nick Clegg during the 2010 coalition negotiations, the divides in Labour were stark. Over half of its MPs stated that they would vote ‘No’ to the new system, in part contributing to a decisive rejection of AV in the May 2011 referendum. Former Electoral Reform Society researcher Chris Tarry goes as far as to describe the referendum as having left him believing “ it was going to be 25 years before we could have a full throated conversation about this [electoral reform] again.”
Little changed in Labour’s position under Ed Miliband – 2015 saw the introduction of a promise that has been present in all Labour manifesto’s since: a commitment to a constitutional convention, with no specific commitment to electoral reform.
Too much to hope for
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in September 2015 gave electoral reformers across the UK much to hope for. An interview with Novara Media at the end of July 2015 set hearts racing, with Corbyn citing AMS as a solution that he would consider as a way of addressing the inequalities of FPTP. John McDonnell, Corbyn’s Shadow Chancellor, signed a letter to the party leadership calling for voting reform only a few months after Corbyn’s election.
And yet from the get-go it seems going beyond Miliband’s commitment to a constitutional convention was unlikely. The presence of longstanding Campaign For Labour Party Democracy activists such as Pete Willsman and Momentum chair Jon Lansman meant that there was a sizeable presence within the NEC for whom PR remained anathema to their political worldview, embodied in former MP Dennis Skinner’s case for FPTP made at Labour’s 1989 party conference: “To the victor, the spoils”.
And yet the new breeding ground for radical policy that groups like Momentum presented was one that should have provided hope for campaigners. For Laura Parker, Momentum’s national coordinator between November 2017 and November 2019, herself a staunch supporter for PR, the reason behind the group’s lack of vocal support for the cause was more simple: it wasn’t being discussed.
“We were never forced to discuss it because it was never coming up in Parliament and it was never a big topic for the leadership” she said, suggesting that despite her own views in favour of PR (which she says are in-line with the “pluralistic, internationalist, pro-green” of Clive Lewis’s brief 2019-20 leadership campaign) it was never an issue that Momentum found itself discussing.
For the activist group campaigning for reform, there appears to have been a divide in approach. Whilst mainstays of the electoral reform scene the Electoral Reform Society (established in 1884) adopted a position of edging trade unions towards voting reform with their ‘Politics For The Many’ campaign, Make Votes Matter (established in the aftermath of the 2015 general election) took an all-out war approach to pushing Labour towards electoral reform.
Lobbying not just trade unions but also parliamentarians, Labour affiliate groups and constituency parties, Make Vote Matter’s approach was a marked change with previous advocacy strategies. This was in part the result of the noticeable malaise that the AV referendum had engendered within advocates, who found themselves faced with a Government that from 2011 onwards used the AV referendum result as a stick to beat them with. This is embodied in the mantra seen across Government responses to Written Questions on electoral reform subjects: the public ‘rejected’ the idea of changing the voting system in 2011.
Make Votes Matter’s success is clear: by the time of the 2019 election, the anti-AV majority in the Parliamentary Labour Party had transformed into one in which over a third of MPs were outright in favour of proportional representation and major players within the Shadow Cabinet such as John McDonell were staunch advocates.
Yet for Make Votes Matter co-founder and co-chief executive Klina Jordan, the stumbling block still remained the one at the top: Corbyn.
“For a long time we were hopeful that we could actually have a conversation with Corbyn – we tried for years and years and it just wasn’t happening” she said, adding “I’m sure he had other stuff going on but this was at the heart of everything and I think he just didn’t understand.”
Other avenues, such as securing motions at Labour party conference, proved extraordinarily tricky to achieve, Make Votes Matter’s Joe Sousek described the “Byzantine” ways in which the party’s processes made it difficult to get a motion up and running at conference. Add to this the reality that the majority of the Labour Party’s biggest backers, the trade unions, were either against voting reform or took no stance on it, and the battles that still need to be won by electoral reform campaigners to make voting reform party policy are stark. Indeed, during the debate over switching the NEC’s voting methods in 2020, it was union-backed representatives that went as far as threatening legal action over the change.
According to individuals familiar with the party’s ‘Clause V’ meeting in advance of the release of its 2019 manifesto, John McDonnell openly advocated for PR, but found himself up against an array of trade union heavyweights that gave the idea a lukewarm response, resulting in it being cast aside in discussions.
Once again, all Labour plumped for in its manifesto was a Constitutional Convention that:
“[Would] answer crucial questions on how power is distributed in the UK today, how nations and regions can best relate to each other and how a Labour government can best put power in the hands of the people.”
A voting system in which votes received match seats allocated, still seemed a long way away.
Following Labour’s poor showing in the most recent general election, candidates for party leader provided a mixture of views on Westminster voting reform. At a husting organised by the Electoral Reform Society and Open Labour, both Rebecca Long Bailey and Lisa Nandy expressed their support for a proportional voting system as long as it maintained the constituency link. Sir Keir Starmer, the eventual winner, has vowed to consult party members on the subject, with this process in part beginning with the Labour Policy Forum consultation taking place in the summer of 2020.
What is clear is that Labour’s return to power is one that is unlikely to occur by the time of the next general election in 2024, and a challenge to secure even by 2029. With this in mind, party activists in the 2020s will be required to create new methods and approaches for securing outright party support for the cause, drawing on the lessons learned during the Corbyn period which point towards a need to profoundly engage with the structural pillars of the Labour movement such as the trade unions.
One thing that it will be essential is far deeper contemplation of electoral pacts, which whether the Labour activists like it or not will be one of the inevitable consequences of Westminster voting reform. At present, those arguing in and around Labour for the type of ‘progressive alliance’ that has been championed by Compass remain thin on the ground.
With 76% of the party’s members in favour of change, the question that emerges is how the mass membership movement that Labour became with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership can channel its focus into compelling its next leader to support a reform that the party never truly embraced during the Islington North MP’s tenure.
Josh Dell is a writer based in London, who has worked on democracy for organisations including Bite The Ballot and The Politics Project. His work has been published in Left Foot Forward, CityMetric and The Jerusalem Post.
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 [Footnote on 1997 manifesto]
Jenkins Commission, The Report of the Independent Commission on the Voting System (Volume I, 1998), Chapter 9
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