We come, hopefully, to the end of this Conservative government, marked by thirteen years of cruel austerity cuts, greed and cronyism, moral indifference, climate neglect and economic failure. Social care and mental health are imploding, with NHS waiting lists at a record 7.6 million high. One in four children are now living in poverty and nearly 50% of benefit claimants also work. The UK remains under the threat of recession, interned in a stagnant economy, with household energy bills, for example, predicted to rise by 3.5% in early 2024. At the epicentre of this chaos is the hardship being endured by ordinary people. In a so-called modern, OECD country this situation is intolerable.
Let us get real then – when Labour ousts the Conservatives next year we will inherit a bombsite. The task ahead is huge but extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.
The current state of the UK arose within the context of First Past The Post (FPTP) – an un-democratic, un-representative, adversarial Westminster voting system that ignores the majority and lends minority governments absolute power. It also generates widespread wasted votes and voter apathy by forcing parties to neglect safe seats. Since its inception, Labour has largely operated within this ‘winner takes all’ system even though, more often than not, it has kept us out of power and the Conservatives in. Consequently, this system has prevented progressive politics from ever properly taking root.
So, conference, I have some news to announce. To confront the enormous economic, social and climate challenges we face, we must replace FPTP with Proportional Representation (PR). Why? Because we need a functioning, democratic voting system that:
- fairly represents us all;
- buys us the time we desperately need to make positive change;
- fosters a collaborative, constructive cross-party approach to solutions.
This year’s National Policy Forum (NPF) has echoed the overwhelming conclusion of our CLPs that FPTP:
“contributes to the distrust and alienation we see in politics”.
This acknowledgement of FPTP’s destructive effects calls for a new commitment that, as a party, we can no longer avoid. For too long we have tolerated the iniquity of a system that silences the voices of the majority and hands unfettered power to minority parties.
Labour has been slow to acknowledge the fundamentally undemocratic nature of FPTP, preferring to exist in the duopoly of being either in power or the King’s exclusive opposition.
But we must recognise that there is now a powerful majority in favour of PR, both amongst the electorate; and within the Labour community (76% of the membership, and over 2/3rds of affiliated trade unions). The research is also clear that UK voters are predominantly progressive in outlook. The majority want ‘more spent on health, education and social benefits’. They also want urgent climate action, fairer taxation, protection of the environment and worker’s rights, and public ownership of key infrastructure. Even the Red Wall is far more ideologically nuanced than the reactionary monolith it’s portrayed as.
Despite the UK’s progressive majority, FPTP has thwarted our aspirations and values as a nation. Labour has been behind the curve but must recognise that the country is now ready to sweep away the anachronism of FPTP. As Labour leader, I accept that we cannot continue to ignore this clamour for change and must instead become its torchbearer.
It’s been a difficult decision and some in our Executive remain troubled by PR’s implications for Labour’s structural integrity as a unified party. However, we have to recognise that we cannot carry on working within our current undemocratic and destructive electoral system. Even though we have, at times, won elections, priority has to be given to the fundamental rights of UK citizens to be heard and to vote honestly, unfettered by the distortions and constraints of FPTP.
Finding consensus over which PR system works best for Westminster is not insurmountable since we have templates for guidance from the UK’s devolved nations and previous mayoral elections, from Labour’s own internal elections, and from the numerous OECD countries already using PR. It’s time to stop aligning ourselves with Belarus, the only country in Europe that continues to use FPTP, and catch up with modern democracies around the world.
I accept that, in a PR system, Labour must abandon its isolationism and work constructively with other progressive parties. Co-operative dialogue fits the complexity and plurality of the 21st century and so is right for now. PR is also the only way to forge those long-term policies we so badly need but which have historically been stymied by the coercive short-termism built into FPTP. To secure tough missions such as making Britain a clean energy superpower, raising education standards, and rebuilding the NHS, we must work together with other parties that represent the UK’s progressive majority. The adversarial politics of FPTP weakens us all, perpetually undermines our core progressive aims, and invites regressive parties back in. So, we must adopt a system that protects our shared values for the long term.
Conference – the NPF’s acknowledgement of the damage caused by FPTP and the majorities now favour of PR must be acted on. Failing to adopt PR would now be perverse and unacceptable. We must finally put our doubts aside and make those radical changes to our voting system we so urgently need.
I therefore resolve that Labour will commit to introducing PR for general elections in the next manifesto and convene an open, inclusive process to agree the best PR system. I also resolve that, during its first term in office, the next Labour government, whether a majority or minority administration, will change the voting system for general elections to PR.’