Labour and Proportional Representation

For the first time someone pitching to lead the Labour Party is demanding that it embrace proportional voting. Clive Lewis has not yet set out his stall in full. But in the Guardian article that announced his candidacy he proposed democratic change for both his party and the country. Will the other, more favored candidates now clarify their policy on this cardinal issue? 

Proportional representation means that a Labour leader can never govern again like Attlee, Wilson or Blair. Instead, it means accepting both the “loss” of Scotland (something many Scots experience as a gain) and need to create a radical-progressive alliance in England. 

Often the case is put negatively in terms of the need to accept electoral reality. This won’t convince old-fashioned Labour politicians, the party’s apparatchiks or would be trade union barons. Their attachment to First-Past-The-Post is animated by passion for the prize itself, singular control of the British state with its centralised power and authority.

For decades I’ve witnessed this tragic desire for what will always be a poisoned chalice for the Left. So it may be helpful to set out the history as experienced by an independent campaigner if only to avoid history repeating itself.

I first encountered the importance of PR in 1988 when the then editor of the New Statesman, Stuart Weir, asked me to coordinate the nascent Charter 88, an appeal he’d launched, with the tacit support of Peter Preston at the Guardian, that called for a full range of constitutional reforms to be combined in a written constitution. My personal priorities were for human rights and a democratic constitution. But PR was one of the Charter’s 12 demands and I immediately found myself working with the LCER, the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform run by the high energy Mary Southcott and guided by the wisdom of Jeff Rooker MP. 

Persuading the Labour Party was Charter 88’s main aim and 1989 took me to my first party conference, in Brighton. I met Gordon Brown in a crowded bar. He was holding a pint in each hand maneuvering slowly through the crush. I introduced myself. “Huh”, he reacted grumpily, “I’m against PR”; showing that for him, as for many in the Party, it was the most salient, if not the defining issue. Later, Brown recognized the power of the larger argument and worked with us to push the case for a new constitutional settlement, a phrase he coined. But he never relinquished his attachment to one-party rule. 

It was at a fringe meeting that was little more than a mobilization against electoral reform that I observed the force in its full glory. Hundreds of stalwarts packed into a hall to hear Dennis Skinner. The contempt for ‘middle class reform’ was palpable. Skinner treated the crowd to a fine display of his proletarian oratory culminating in his class-war justification for a winner-takes-all electoral system:  “To the victor, the spoils!” 

The crowd cheered but I was appalled. This was 1989. Thatcher was at the zenith of her absolutism despite her ever-reducing minority popular vote, down from nearly 44% in 1979 to just above 42% two years before. What Skinner acclaimed she enjoyed. The Tories remained in power for a further eight years. (In 1992 John Major gained a still unsurpassed 14 million votes for the Tories and governed for five years, but Labour and the Lib Dems together had 17.5 million votes.) Last month Skinner finally ate the fruits of his rhetoric, his constituency of Bolsover became part of Johnson’s spoils.

Back in 1989, Labour’s leader Neil Kinnock realized that Skinner’s politics were a historic cul-de-sac. Thanks as much to the efforts of Rooker and the LCER as Charter 88, he commissioned Lord Plant to consider the merits of electoral reform and report back – after the coming election. It may have seemed shrewd, but postponing the inevitable controversy exposed Kinnock’s weakness. First Plant then Kinnock himself were persuaded of the need for PR. But when the election came in 1992 Kinnock felt he could not pre-empt his own process. Challenged in a TV interview he gave a fatally honest answer. He said he knew what he thought about the voting system but wouldn’t say! It fed into the crumbling of his credibility with voters in the final days of the campaign and John Major’s surprise victory. 

After he stepped down as party leader, Kinnock signed Charter 88 encouraged by the chair of our council, Helena Kennedy. Later, he told me that when Blair became leader he did everything he could to persuade him to back PR, telling him that it would cement an alliance of Labour and the Lib Dems that would lock the Tories out of power. Blair had no answer except that he was not minded to agree. 

Between Kinnock’s 1992 defeat and Blair’s supremacy, John Smith led the party; his role cut short in 1994 by a heart attack. Scottish, pro-European, right-wing but modern and self-confident, Smith swung the Labour Party behind human rights and sweeping constitutional reform in his 1993 Charter 88 lecture. He opposed PR, however, without which the Lib Dems would never ally with Labour – and at that point there seemed to be no prospect of defeating the Tories without them. 

It was a desperate conundrum. But Jeff Rooker told me that in New Zealand they had just had a referendum on electoral reform, something I thought incredible. So I ordered a batch of the ballot papers from the antipodes. A beautifully produced, lucid and clear sheet arrived, that set out the choices voters needed to make. With this vivid proof of the credibility of a referendum we launched a successful, multi-pronged lobby to persuade Smith; it even included bringing Peter Mandelson into the Charter 88 office. And the idea went on to become part of Blair’s 1997 Labour manifesto: 

“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”. 

The formulation was neat, there was no commitment to PR itself.

Lib Dem bigwig Roy Jenkins was appointed to head the Commission. He reported back to the Blair government in 1998 outlining a unique system of PR fit for the UK. 

To understand what Jenkins’ proposed we need to put this brief history on pause to describe the different voting systems. AMS (additional member system) is the ‘German’ system in which you have two votes, one for your constituency MP and the other for the party you favour in parliament. After all constituency MPs are elected the parties are topped up according to people’s second votes to create a proportional chamber. There are therefore two kinds of MPs, those with constituencies and those without them. The main alternative system is STV or single transferable vote, which is used in Ireland and Australia, where you have multi-member constituencies. With STV you rank the candidates you want to see elected in order of preference: the more MPs per constituency, the more proportional the outcome. But you no longer have one MP being the representative for all her or his constituents and the constituencies themselves are very large. A third system, called the Alternative Vote or AV, retains single member constituencies but you also rank candidates in your order of preference and a process of elimination and redistribution of preferences ensures the winner gains an absolute majority. This delivers a fairer outcome than FPTP in any one constituency but AV can produce even more disproportional outcomes overall.

No system is perfect. All need essential bells and whistles such as thresholds to prevent splinter parties gaining undue leverage (as in Israel). Advocates of one system over another often become fanatical. After reading my first book on how PR worked I decided the German system of AMS was the most straightforward. I liked the idea of having two votes and knowing how each was counted. When I told the author he was appalled as the whole point was to persuade readers of the superiority of STV!

Jenkins delivered a long, eloquent analysis of the problems and possible solutions to the UK’s disastrous post-war electoral trajectory. He recommended a combination of AV for the existing constituencies plus a carefully shaped system of AMS top-up to ensure reasonable proportionality. Robert Alexander, a Conservative peer and barrister penned a minority report in which he backed people having the AMS top up but called for FPTP to be retained as there was no need to introduce AV as well. 

Whatever you think of the Jenkins’ proposal of AV plus AMS it was proportional and in the heady days of 1999 it would most likely have been approved in a referendum, backed by popular Labour figures like Mo Mowlem and Robin Cook and the then Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy. The result would have been transformative, as Kinnock foresaw. In the 2001 general election Labour got only 40% of the vote. PR would have deprived Blair of his large parliamentary majority. But the Lib Dems under Kennedy got 18% and with PR they would have governed together comfortably. However, Blair would not have been able to bludgeon the cabinet into support for the Iraq war and the UK would have joined France and Germany in refusing to participate in Washington’s folly. The Jenkin’s proposal was the closest Britain came to turning into a modern European country. 

Blair nixed it. Two years after the commission reported Jenkins concluded that Blair would “never” concede to PR, now that he enjoyed the monopoly of power. The commitment to a referendum was kicked into oblivion. The 2001 manifesto pledged only to: 

“review the experience of the new systems (in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and the Jenkins report to assess whether changes might be made to the electoral system for the House of Commons. A referendum remains the right way to agree any change for Westminster”. 

Four years later, in the 2005 manifesto, even this was watered down: 

“Labour is 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”.

Labour ‘won’ that election with a record low of 35% of the votes. 

When Brown finally took over in June 2007 he opened his premiership with a pledge to introduce democratic constitutional change. His commitment to reform was – and is – both genuine and deeply considered. It was his rethinking that shaped John Smith’s. But he undermined himself by his determination to be in control of any forces that might be unleashed. He especially disliked referendums. The outcome, when Labour headed to the polls in 2010, was a manifesto commitment to AV on its own, which was all too likely to strengthen one-party rule: 

“To ensure that every MP is supported by the majority of their constituents voting at each election, we will hold a referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote for elections to the House of Commons”. 

Thus ended the modernizers’ dalliance with the key to Britain’s actual political modernization. 

You might have thought that as an admirer of Germany’s post-war development, Ed Miliband would have encouraged electoral reform. Instead, concerned to avoid division within Labour, he anesthetized the issue and never reached out to those campaigning for democratic renewal. His 2015 manifesto declared that his party’s aim was “Reforming government to give more power to people”. But it made no mention of the electoral system. 

Which brings us to Jeremy Corbyn. Early on in the course of his first leadership campaign he was interviewed by Aaron Bastani of Novara media who rightly questioned him on the need for PR. Corbyn was diplomatic. He was not closed to it, he implied, but not persuaded and it would have to be a constituency based system because he knew the value of being a constituency MP. Although John McDonnell came round to PR Corbyn did not. Like his predecessors he used stealth to embrace FPTP. He never said that he preferred it, but he consciously protected the continuation of the status quo.

This is not the complete picture of the Corbyn years so far as PR is concerned. Political reform was placed in the hands of Jon Trickett, who was initially made shadow minister for a constitutional convention. He asked Compass to convene a gathering of political reformers from campaigns, think tanks and pressure groups along with democratic media, which he addressed. Corbyn had empowered him, Trickett told us, to open the way to a new political order governed from below and we should all help to ensure he was armed with the necessary ideas.

Cynicism never delivers change. I went to see him in the Commons with a proposal to make proportional representation the key first step to open the way to wholesale change. He objected that public school boys would still be able to wend their way to their advantage under PR. That mere electoral reform on its own did not guarantee the far-reaching outcome of ending elite rule that he and I wished for, that only a program that was really systemic would be good enough. In short, I was put in my place. I had intellectual respectability that was not to be scorned, but my suggestion was politically feeble. 

Trickett’s arguments were a case of what Texans call ‘All hat and no cattle’. The result in last month’s long manifesto was a low-key commitment never singled out by the leadership in the course of the campaign: 

“The renewal of our Parliament will be subject to recommendations made by a UK-wide Constitutional Convention, led by a citizens’ assembly”. 

It makes Blair’s manifestos a beacon of clarity. 

If we look at the women and men seeking the party’s leadership today, we can see that they are all saying Labour must not go back to the past. In which case when it comes to PR in what way are they not a Skinner or a Kinnock, a Smith or a Blair or a Brown, or a Miliband or a Corbyn? How will they ensure that they are not going to join the roll-call of timidity, procrastination, and keeping the old UK electoral system on the road, that has accompanied Labour’s long decline? All should be asked ‘Who Benefits?’ Cui bono? from FPTP. Who are the victors to whom the spoils will belong? Could it be Murdoch and the Daily Mail

Experience tells me this. The candidates will do all they can to avoid answering the question for themselves. They will suck in their cheeks, suggest further discussions, put it out to commissions and conventions. For underneath they hope against hope that they can take over the British state on a minority popular vote. 

This is why Lewis’s clarity is welcome. Finally, a potential leader has broken free of the spell. Although one report suggests three-quarters of Labour members support PR he will be much disliked for making it part of his calling card. He will be condemned for weakness although it shows he is serious about winning from the Left in the 21st century. At any rate, he has told us what he wants on this defining issue. Now let the others speak out. Should we or should we not have a fair and equal voting system?   

Anthony Barnett is the co-founder and was the first Editor of openDemocracy and writes regularly for it. He is a veteran of the democratic struggle in the UK and co-ordinated Charter 88 from 1988-95. 

3 thoughts on “Labour and Proportional Representation

  1. Polly Toynbee in The Guardian (14/1/2020) states that Lisa Nandy is only ‘open minded’ on PR. That usually would mean that she doesn’t support it but, like many other Labour politicians, is uncomfortable in saying so.

    If hustings are held around the country, as part of the leadership contest, a question on PR should be a standard question at each of them. How they all stand on democracy is important to know.

  2. If any would be candidate doesn’t support PR then I don’t thinkCompass should support them How can it be democratic that this Tory party gets less than 45% of the vote yet have a huge majority in Parliament. Most of us voted for Remain or 2nd Ref parties yet we face the possibility of a Hard Brexit. Together with FPTP , unelected monarchy, unelected House of Lords we are not a democracy!

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