A historic vote at the 2022 Labour Party Conference called for a commitment to proportional representation (PR) in the Labour manifesto for the next general election. That must be held by the end of January 2025, but Spring 2024 is considered more likely by Labour and most political commentators. Will PR be a Labour manifesto commitment?
The manifesto is likely to be finalised around November this year at the Clause V meeting involving the key forces in the Labour Party and the trade unions.
Once, a conference decision on policy could mean automatic inclusion in the manifesto. But the current rule book requires a two-thirds majority in a card vote for inclusion in the Party Programme, the policy basis for the manifesto.
In 2022 there was no card vote, but the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (LCER) and its staff team Labour for a New Democracy (L4ND) won a huge Conference majority by show of hands and claimed the moral high ground, even though the Labour leader had just said on Sunday morning TV that he would ignore the result and it would not be in the manifesto.
The National Policy Forum
In late September 2023, Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) announced rule changes which mean the membership can mainly influence policy through the National Policy Forum (NPF), and less by submitting motions to Conference, which will have to be contemporary. This will reduce the activities of campaigning groups, and is similar to the position under the Blair government.
LCER’s/L4ND’s focus was on the NPF from January 2022. In previous years, individual Labour Party members were able to make submissions to the NPF and calls for PR have long been by far the most numerous, but in 2022 only Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) could make submissions, and PR supporters had to get texts through their branches and general committees.
To do this, L4ND recommended a model submission including these words: “the next Labour government should introduce a proportional electoral system for the House of Commons.” PR supporters then had to persuade their CLPs, and also get pro-PR NPF representatives onto the commission dealing with democracy. There are currently six NPF commissions and the relevant one is called Safe and Secure Communities.
Amendments to the NPF draft report 2023
44% of submissions across all six commissions were on the single issue of PR, but when the draft report appeared in May, L4ND had to recommend an amendment for CLP secretaries to ask regional NPF representatives to propose.
Once again, Labour PR campaigners battled to push the amendment through their CLPs, and once again the highest number of amendments were on PR. The commitment and tireless work of those in the Labour Party illustrates that they understand the vital need for PR to end the elected dictatorship of single party leaders where a prime minister can change agreed policy with no recourse to Parliament, announce those changes at press conferences and ignore the House of Commons.
Influencing NPF representatives
Unions are also represented on the NPF and, after intensive work by L4ND, three of the four big unions (Unite, Unison, and USDAW) had passed resolutions in favour of electoral reform by the time the final meeting was held. Some smaller unions like The Musicians Union, ASLEF and the FBU have long supported PR. LCER regional groups and L4ND organised Zoom meetings with NPF representatives elected by Labour Party members to press the case for PR, but not all the busy reps were able to attend.
The NPF’s Final Report, agreed over a July weekend in Nottingham, sets out the Party Programme. It was officially published for Labour members on 15 September 2023 but is not available to the general public until after its approval at the Labour Party Annual Conference (8-11 October). Despite the efforts of L4ND and PR supporters in Nottingham, it was impossible to ensure a majority to include PR for general elections, so the campaign did not push for a vote.
However the final report does include the first phrase in the L4ND amendment: “The flaws in the current voting system are contributing to the distrust and alienation we see in politics”. This is the first official acknowledgement in a Labour document that the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system is unsatisfactory.
Strategy for Conference 2023
The NPF report will not face serious opposition at Conference, as there will be a single vote and no reference back allowed. Some motions on PR have been submitted and L4ND’s first challenge is to prevent the issue being prioritised: the glory of 2022 should remain the last word by Conference on PR. There may be a debate on stronger communities just before the leader’s speech, and delegates at L4ND’s pre-Conference briefing were encouraged to raise a hand to speak, linking the issue to PR – with tips from L4ND.
As well as the three Labour4PR events on the Conference fringe, there are many more relating to democracy, devolution and new government where PR supporters can speak. The aim is to raise awareness that an admittedly flawed electoral system can no longer be tolerated and that in proposing a new approach to politics Labour must include making every vote count.
As Led by Donkeys so brilliantly demonstrated in a recent video, Keir Starmer’s natural democratic instinct was expressed in his response to LCER and the Electoral Reform Society in 2020: “We’ve got to address the fact that millions of people vote in safe seats and they feel their vote doesn’t count.”