Why democratic reform must be at the heart of Labour’s programme for government

After December’s election defeat there is a clear need for all candidates to engage in a clear, honest and thoughtful assessment of Labour’s current electoral and political situation.

The ongoing leadership contest must include a serious discussion of how to remake and renew Britain’s democratic institutions. We’ve so far seen some candidates talk of the need for a democratic revolution – both Clive Lewis and Rebecca Long-Bailey put democratisation at the heart of their leadership platforms. But that democratic reform cannot stop at Labour alone. It must be the centre of a programme for government that shifts the balance of power within the state itself.

The UK remains the only country in Europe to use First Past the Post. Proportional representation is now the norm in Scotland and Wales for devolved and local elections – leaving only England and Westminster trailing behind. A Labour leader serious about redistributing power must make tackling the democratic crisis a priority.

This is a question of which side we’re on – centralisation and an overbearing executive, or redistributing power and pluralism.

December’s warped election saw a government once again handed a majority on a minority of the vote. Millions of votes went to waste, and whilst the majority of people voted for centre, left or progressive parties, it delivered a right-wing Conservative government with a large majority.

No wonder the Conservatives committed to keeping First Past the Post in their manifesto. But this should not come as a surprise. The electoral system hampering the chances for progressive politics is nothing new.

As Jeremy Gilbert pointed out in an article last week calling for Labour to lead an ‘alliance for democratic reform’ it took a non-aggression pact with the Liberals for Labour, then the Labour Representation Committee to make its first breakthroughs in the 1906 general election. The Gladstone-MacDonald Pact saw the Liberal Party stand aside in 31 seats in order to not split the anti-Conservative vote – a move which delivered 29 Labour MPs to parliament.

Electoral pacts are not themselves the answer, they deny voters real choice and mean results are decided through backroom deals and not at the ballot box. But, in 1906, just as in 2019, our winner-takes-all voting system forced parties into making them.

And that voting system has rarely delivered the kind of strong and stable government it claims to provide. The first Labour governments of the 1920s were formed with the support of the Liberal Party. In fact, the 1929 election, where Labour gained the most seats for the first time and formed a government with Liberal support, saw them do so with over 200,000 fewer votes than the Conservatives – a wrong-winner outcome that was reversed in 1951 when Labour were kicked out of office despite achieving the largest number of votes in that, or any general election.

First Past the Post has warped our elections for a century. Proportional representation is not only the fairest way to elect a parliament, it is also vital if progressive politics is ever going to regain ground in this country.

That said, electoral reform alone is not enough. Any programme of democratic renewal must also include the abolition of the House of Lords – and it’s great to see that some of the leadership candidates have already committed to this.

It’s no surprise that public lack trust in our democratic institutions when they see a chamber packed full of political appointees and former MPs – each with a lifetime appointment sitting at the heart of a so-called modern democracy. Added to that the spectacle of defeated MPs like Zac Goldsmith, a man rejected twice by his own constituents, immediately bounced into the upper house like the election meant nothing, and it is no wonder that faith in politics is at an all-time low.

Whilst the Conservatives have committed in their manifesto to looking at reform, no amount of tweaking its size or location can cover for the fact that it fails on almost all democratic principles. Proximity does not equal power and as long as the chamber remains unelected and unaccountable, power will remain in the hands of a privileged few wherever it sits.

That’s why Labour must commit to a PR-elected second chamber, one that represents all the nations and regions of the UK. In doing that we can bring power closer to voters, while putting into practice the fundamental values of cooperation and equality that are central to progressive politics.

On Sunday the candidates will line up for Open Labour’s and the Electoral Reform Society’s Leadership hustings in Nottingham. It’s a chance for them to lay out their visions for where they would take the Labour Party and set out their plans for how they would build a better democracy that works for everyone. There are lots of votes to be garnered by the candidates bold enough to stand on a platform backing a democratic revolution – both Clive Lewis and Jess Phillips recognised this and most members do too.
The ERS have partnered with Open Labour to make sure that the question of revitalising our democracy lies at the heart of any progressive platform for Labour going forward.

We must challenge all the Labour leadership candidates to seize the chance for a new Chartism: a democratic movement for the 21st century and commit to the reforms our democracy so desperately needs.

Shavanah Taj is the Vice President, Wales TUC and works with the Politics for the Many Campaign – the Trade Union campaign for democratic reform.

The Social Review is pleased to be the official media partner of Open Labour’s hustings in Nottingham on January 26th, an event sponsored by the Electoral Reform Society.