In 2017, Sir Keir Starmer replied “It’s a no brainer!” when Mary Southcott of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (LCER) asked him if the House of Commons should be elected by proportional representation. During the Labour leadership campaign of 2020, again responding to questions from LCER, Starmer said:
“I also think on electoral reform, we’ve got to address the fact that millions of people vote in safe seats and they feel their vote doesn’t count. That’s got to be addressed. We will never get full participation in our electoral system until we do that at every level.”
After that, Starmer’s election as leader was the signal to Labour Party members who support proportional representation (PR) that another chance to achieve it was emerging. So began the task of converting the rest of Labour Party.
September 2020 saw the launch of Labour for a New Democracy (L4ND) at Labour’s virtual conference, and the appointment of the four paid organisers: Joe Sousek, Caroline Osborne, Laura Parker and Samuel Kind. They immediately began campaigning, reaching out to Labour Party members in Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs), offering to send speakers to their local meetings, running a phone bank, and gradually building on the membership list of LCER to create a database of supporters.
Regular Zoom meetings kept supporters involved and enthused while regional WhatsApp groups were developed to encourage local networking. In LCER South West, Alex Le May came up with the idea of CLP champions, and Robin Layfield created a map for each region to show where these champions were, which CLPs had passed a PR motion, and later, which had submitted a motion to the Labour Party annual conference.
By early 2021, PR activists were trying to get an ‘advisory motion’ passed by their branches and then by the general committee of their CLP. Then it all had to be done again for the PR motion to be chosen as the Conference submission.
This wasn’t always easy – some CLP secretaries made progress as difficult as possible, running right up to the deadline just a few weeks before the start of conference! Problems also arose because some CLPs did not have the facility to arrange Zoom meetings or – if they did – the quorum was challenged. Often, changes in officers meant the Labour Party was communicating with the wrong person.
But by the summer of 2021, over 160 CLPs had passed a PR motion and 137 were accepted by the conference arrangements committee, more than on any other topic. Some 83 were the L4ND model motion and 54 were variations on the theme (as CLPs often like to show independence) with similar resolves.
The L4ND model motion
L4ND proposed the following motion for CLPs to submit to the 2021 Labour Party conference:
The First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system is a barrier to progressive change. It repeatedly returns extreme Tory governments against the wishes of most voters. In 19 of the last 20 general elections, parties to the left of the Conservatives have won the popular vote, yet the Tories have governed for two-thirds of that time.
This has enabled soaring inequality, underfunded public services, attacks on trade unions and callous and incompetent responses to Covid and climate breakdown.
FPTP privileges ‘swing voters’ over neglected voters – including younger, black and minority ethnic communities. It allows the UK to be governed by an out-of-touch elite, throwing our democracy into crisis.
Those societies with the lowest levels of inequality and social exclusion all have proportional voting systems. No other left-wing party in Europe supports the use of FPTP for general elections and polling shows three quarters of Labour members want Labour to back PR.
‘Levelling up’ is about power, not just economic opportunity. We need a Labour government to transform society. But to protect the gains we make in power, to avoid losing future decades to Tory minority rule and to give everyone a real voice in a 21st century democracy, we must change the voting system.
Conference resolves that:
● the next Labour government must change the voting system for general elections to a form of Proportional Representation.
● Labour should convene an open and inclusive process, to decide the specific voting system which it will commit to introducing in the next manifesto.
The first victory
At conference, the L4ND team worked tirelessly to ensure that CLP delegates would vote for PR. Three fringe meetings were organised, and a café was hired to provide refreshments while briefing members who might take part in compositing or speak in the debate. Chartist Magazine is part of the L4ND coalition. They produced a supplement for the conference which dealt with Scotland and Wales and had a major piece on ‘Levelling up democracy’ by Andy Burnham.
The first hurdle was the priorities ballot. Ten topics were to be chosen for debate by CLP delegates plus ten by the trade union delegates. With support from the two most powerful pressure groups, Momentum and Labour To Win, electoral reform came through in second place after social care as a CLP priority. A first victory for the 2020s PR campaign!
The next stage was to produce a composite motion which combined sentences, phrases or words from, and only from, the CLP motions submitted. Labour Party staff usually provide a text for the delegates to consider.
In this case, the ‘office composite’ was very similar to the model motion and there was rapid agreement to accept it. On Monday 27 September, Gosport CLP delegate Caroline Osborne, of Labour for a New Democracy, proposed the composite, opening an inspiring debate with 20 excellent speeches in favour and only two against.
A significant breakthrough
All delegates vote for each composite motion and the CLPs and the unions each have 50% of the vote. LCER was aware that the unions needed perhaps two conferences to vote for PR, as the five largest and most powerful unions were not yet on side. Covid had meant they had not held conferences to update their policy, and L4ND was warned that the composite would not pass.
There was the option to remit – withdraw the motion, refer it to the national executive committee or the national policy forum and come back to next year’s conference. But the team decided to go for a vote. They knew the CLP delegates were fired up and would not accept an apparent climb-down.
When the vote was called, a forest of hands shot up. It looked as if PR had easily won. But delegates represent their members, and union delegates have many more votes than CLPs. The pro-FPTP GMB Union called a card vote and the results were 79.5% of CLPs in favour, 95.0% of unions against, giving a total of 42.2% FOR, 57.8% AGAINST.
The resolution was not carried.
Nonetheless, a significant breakthrough had occurred. Not only had 80% of CLPs supported the composite, they were joined in that support by several trade unions with small affiliated membership.
The challenge was not over.
In part 3 of this series, we hear how L4ND finally scores an historic victory at Labour’s 2022 conference.
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