What has this last year in politics taught us? Perhaps that politicians are different even in the same party? Perhaps Keir Starmer was right that we need “A new government and a new way of governing”? Perhaps we can agree that politics has to change? Perhaps young people should leave school confident that their voice will be heard, and they shouldn’t need photo ID to vote?
Here in the South West, perhaps we have recognised that for many of us voting in General Elections does not really count? In local elections it’s a different picture. But maybe you don’t believe in voting in local elections or maybe you don’t know whether your council is holding elections on Thursday 4 May. Maybe you want to vote in person or by postal vote beforehand. Many are confused, but consensus is emerging that the current system has to go.
The main debate in the 19th Century was who could vote, not how they voted. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the successful Gladstone-MacDonald secret Agreement of 1903 resulted in the 1906 Liberal government and the beginnings of the Welfare State. The breaking down of this led to serious discussion in the trade unions and Labour arguing for electoral reform, with two subsequent Speaker’s Conferences. During WW2, Jennie Lee (Open University founder married to NHS founder Nye Bevin), argued for reform during the Bristol Central by-election, as did Reg Underhill, representing his trades council. Their arguments are those being propounded today.
Periodically Proportional Representation (PR) rears its head. It did in the 1970s when the Conservative Lord Hailsham called the Labour government an “elective dictatorship”. With growing Labour interest in reform after 1987, Labour had the Plant Commission looking at voting systems, John Smith announced that “the people should decide” and then the 1997 Cook–Maclennan report showed to the tactical voting audience how much Labour and LibDems had in common on constitutional reform. After the Conservative victory in 2015, following the complete failure of referendums on the Alternative Vote and Scottish Independence, cross party and Labour reformers renewed their efforts to make votes count.
The Brown Commission Report in 2022, just after Labour Conference had voted for PR, suggests a Senate to replace the House of Lords, to represent the nations and regions. We definitely need to learn from Scotland, Wales, Greater London and Northern Ireland. 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement, we all need power sharing, devolution, inclusion, mutual respect and parity of esteem. Local elections by the Single Transferable Vote version of PR as used in Scotland, as an option in Wales, for the Northern Ireland Assembly (when it recovers from the present impasse) and in the Northern Ireland local elections, could be what English local government needs.
During the weekend of 21 July, Labour’s National Policy Forum of over 200 delegates, meets in Nottingham to read Commission reports, make and vote on amendments ahead of Annual Conference in October. This could offer a policy platform for a Labour government to change the voting system in its first term, particularly for the South West of England which currently hardly makes any impact on national politics. Why do we focus on Workington Man or Stevenage Woman, but never Stroud Woman or Somerset Man.
Whatever their personal positions, Labour Leaders in Opposition are in a difficult place. The Tory tabloids accuse them of defeatism, of wanting to change the rules simply to fix politics and to form coalitions with the SNP (as was). They need to win under the current FPTP system in order to change the system. Neil Kinnock only joined the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform when he left office. The late John Smith realised that he would have 49 Scottish MPs to convince if he admitted he wanted reform. The boundary changes this year mean a loss of seats in most Labour leaning regions and nations, and the opposite in Conservative leaning regions (South West, South East and East of England). PR will be a key question for candidates and parties in the next general election and may determine how voters vote in key Conservative/Labour marginals.
We need to adopt new arguments for electoral reform: making votes count and changing political culture. Let’s learn from history, not repeat it. We need to complete the work started at Peterloo, and championed by the Chartists, trade unionists and suffragettes. The right to vote was their objective. Ours now is the right have our vote count. Then we can work for resolving social care, climate change, and artificial intelligence. We don’t need to find niche arguments which divide. We need to remember we have more in common than just our ability to share our ideas on social media or be misled by the mainstream press. PR is what the world needs now!
In his 1971 book ‘A Theory of Justice’, John Rawls said we should design the world through a veil of ignorance, where we didn’t know whether we would be rich or poor, what gender we would be or where we lived. Surely, we need a voting system which gives everyone democratic justice?
On 24 May you have the opportunity to lobby your MP at the Make Votes Matter ‘Sort the System’ Mass Lobby in Westminster from 12 noon to 5 pm.
Ed: West England Bylines is not party political and welcomes articles from across the political spectrum.