It is obvious to pluralists and to members of small political parties that first past the post (FPTP) is undemocratic. But in parties whose history includes landslide victories, support for electoral reform has been slower to develop.
The need for electoral reform
Although Labour’s first leader, Keir Hardie, entered parliament in 1892 with a policy for proportional representation, it is a Conservative, Lord Hailsham, who is famous for describing British government as an elective dictatorship. Conservative Action for Electoral Reform (CAER) was founded in 1974 after an election when the Conservatives won more votes than Labour but fewer seats, and lost. Labour suffered the same quirk of FPTP in 1951, but the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (LCER) was not launched in its present form until 1983, after the Social Democratic Party, a breakaway from Labour over its negative policy on Europe, battered the Labour vote in a seat-sharing agreement with the then Liberal Party.
Unfortunately, CAER’s membership has remained low, while LCER’s grew rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s in membership and activities. Chaired by Jeff Rooker MP, it employed a parliamentary and political officer, Mary Southcott, who with secretary Ron Medlow galvanised Labour members to get debates at conferences, and recruited MPs as sponsors. A major report on electoral systems, the Plant Report, was published 1992 which called for FPTP to be scrapped, but stopped short of recommending proportional representation (PR), preferring a form of alternative vote (AV), the supplementary vote (SV) system.
During the 1992 election campaign, Neil Kinnock, who supported PR privately, was accused of wanting change because Labour could not win under the existing electoral system. John Smith was advised by Peter Mandelson to ‘let the people decide’ and in September 1993 a resolution was passed at the annual Labour Party Conference in Brighton to ensure proportional representation in the planned devolved authorities and the European Parliament, as well as a commitment to hold a referendum on electoral reform for the House of Commons.
A manifesto commitment
The 1997 Labour Party manifesto contained this section:
An effective House of Commons
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 1997 policy handbook for parliamentary candidates expanded this:
Labour believes that a new, more open style of politics should accompany a new government. We want to be a different sort of government – one which listens to the people and their opinions.
- We will hold a referendum on the system for elections to the House of Commons within the first term of a new parliament. The referendum should be a single question offering a straight choice between first past the post and one specific proportional alternative.
- A Commission on voting systems for the Westminster Parliament will be appointed early in the next parliament to recommend the appropriate proportional alternative to first past the post system to be offered in the referendum. It would be asked to report within 12 months of its establishment.
- Elections in Britain to the European Parliament should be on a regional list proportional system.
Real possibilities, missed chances
1997 was the first time there was a real possibility of Labour introducing PR for the House of Commons. But Labour’s landslide majority of 179 reset the agenda. Labour did clock up 120 pro-PR MPs and held referendums to confirm the PR-elected Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Greater London Assemblies by the Additional Member System (AMS) – the one the UK invented for Germany after WW2 – and to agree the Northern Ireland Assembly as part of the Good Friday Agreement, Stormont, elected by Single Transferable Vote (STV) like the Dáil Éireann).
The Blair government also set up the cross-party Jenkins’ Commission with a view to the referendum. The referendum on Jenkins’ recommendation, AV+, an AMS system combining a PR regional list with an alternative vote in the constituency section, reappeared in a watered down form in the 2001 and 2005, but never took place. Gordon Brown offered a referendum on AV and Lords Reform in 2010, and the Liberal Democrats, who had pushed for AV in Jenkins, succeeded in coalition in securing the ill-fated 2011 AV referendum by the Conservative-led coalition.
The turning of the tide
The plan for regional assemblies, which would have seen PR throughout England, was abandoned after defeat in the 2004 North East England devolution referendum, when the ‘no’ campaign was run by one Dominic Cummings, who reprised the role for the 2011 referendum on the alternative vote, and of course in 2016. Cummings first came back from Russia to a job with Business for Sterling campaigning to prevent the UK joining the Euro, another referendum that never took place. Except in Scotland, enthusiasm for referendums has now waned, given that manipulation via social media has proved so intrusive and damaging.
During the Blair years, active work for PR was carried on largely by a cross-party group, Make Votes Count, founded in 1994 and supported by LCER in the Labour Party. Sadly the key Labour advocates of electoral reform were lost in August 2005 with the deaths of MPs Robin Cook and Mo Mowlam. Cook was prophetic when he wrote, in The Point of Departure:
“More and more I believe that the biggest single problem for us is that mega-majorities have become the norm. I always warned that the problem with the first-past-the-post system was precisely what was claimed as its greatest asset, namely that it produced strong government. The danger now is that the strong majorities in Parliament which it produces are proving a profound threat to Parliament as an institution.”
The pattern of large majorities for one political party over most of the previous three decades broke down in 2010, when the Liberal Democrats were lured into their fatal coalition to put the Conservatives into power again. Although the 2011 AV referendum sucked campaigning energy and finance from the PR movement, an outright Tory victory in 2015 rekindled Labour support for proportional representation in a more serious way, as members recognised that any progress made in office for the benefit of the people is liable to be destroyed by the return of a Conservative Party moving inexorably to the right.
The disadvantages of a system that can produce a large majority of MPs without a majority of the popular vote have become particularly clear since 2019, and the undemocratic nature of the British electoral system is finally being recognized widely in the Labour Party.
A campaign rekindled
In 2015 a 17-year-old student called Owen Winter was so angry to discover his vote would not count, that his Facebook post on the subject sowed the seed for a new electoral reform cross party group Make Votes Matter. Support came from the smaller parties which have always called for PR and individuals from all parties and none. Together MVM and a reinvigorated LCER held a remarkable relaunch at Labour’s Liverpool conference in 2016.
When the chair of LCER, Sandy Martin, launched Labour for a New Democracy on 22 September 2020, a YouGov poll had just found that 76% of Labour members were in favour of PR. A great deal of behind-the-scenes work had gone into bringing together a coalition of PR supporters with Make Votes Matter, Clive Lewis MP, Compass, and LCER, to discuss how to get electoral reform debated at Labour Party Conference. The L4ND coalition expanded to include Chartist, the Electoral Reform Society, Open Labour, Politics for the Many, Unlock Democracy and two groups with experience of getting debates in recent conferences, Another Europe is Possible and Labour for a European Future. GetPRDone! was also a member for a while.
Labour for a New Democracy employed the original Make Votes Matter Labour team, Joe Sousek and Caroline Osborne, via the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and, with additional grants, experienced campaigner Laura Parker joined by Samuel Kind, with the goal of getting as many Constituency Labour Parties as possible to submit a PR motion to the 2021 Conference.
The progress of the Labour for a New democracy team so far will be explored in Part 2 of this series.