After the 2022 Labour Party conference voted that the party should adopt proportional representation as policy, a petition has been launched to pressure Sir Keir Starmer into making this a manifesto commitment amid fears the Labour leader will ignore the vote.
Labour conferences votes for electoral reform
In an historic vote, delegates at the Labour Party conference held in Liverpool in September 2022 voted overwhelmingly that the party should make electoral reform a policy commitment. This follows a narrow defeat for similar proposals at the 2021 Labour conference as trade union delegates did not then support the proposal. However the fear is that Starmer will refuse to make the policy a manifesto commitment, despite having previously expressed support for making votes in safe seats count.
Proportional representation (PR) advocates argue that the current First Past The Post (FPTP) system unfairly penalises minority parties whose votes might be thinly spread across many constituencies. They maintain that the resulting set of MPs elected to the House of Commons doesn’t accurately reflect the spread of public opinion across the country, with governments achieving landslide majorities despite gaining only a minority of the total votes cast.
Party manifestos and the Salisbury convention
The petition, which can be signed by following this link, calls for Starmer to add electoral reform to the next Labour Party general election manifesto. This is important, because if a policy is specified in the winning party’s manifesto, then the convention is that the House of Lords will not oppose it.
This so-called ‘Salisbury convention’ originates from the 1945 Labour government which had been elected with a 145-seat Commons majority, though the Conservatives still retained a majority in the House of Lords. It would mean that if a policy of electoral reform were included in Labour’s manifesto and Labour won a general election on this manifesto, there would be no requirement for a referendum on the matter.
Why Starmer might oppose electoral reform
Whilst Labour conference motions are not binding on the leadership, ignoring the strongly expressed will of conference delegates would significantly add to accusations, particularly from the left of the party, that Starmer is undemocratic.
It is of course impossible to know the true reason for Starmer’s apparent reluctance to commit Labour to PR in its manifesto and so we have to speculate. It is possible that he opposes electoral reform outright, as some senior Labour figures do. But this would be something of a volte face for him considering his previous remarks in favour of the idea.
It’s also possible that Starmer might want to wait until closer to the publication of the manifesto. Polling suggests that socially conservative voters in the so-called ‘red wall’ overwhelmingly dislike FPTP, but Starmer might not want to risk the wrath of the powerful right-wing press by openly supporting PR. Likewise, it could gift a political talking point to Liz Truss’s Conservative Party, which strongly opposed the 2011 proposal to introduce an ‘alternative vote’ system for general elections.
This might be understandable in the context of the sheer number of stories that the Daily Mail ran accusing Starmer of breaking Covid lockdown laws, for example, a charge of which he was ultimately exonerated albeit at a cost of over £100,000 to the public purse for the necessary investigation.
A distraction from other policy commitments?
Including PR in Labour’s manifesto would almost certainly lead to a debate that would become an unhelpful distraction. When it comes to the run-up to the next general election, Starmer would no doubt prefer to focus his messaging on the domestic policy agenda announced at the 2022 Labour conference.
The accusations of ‘lies’ and ‘gutter politics’ directed at the No campaign during the 2011 electoral reform referendum may add credence to this train of thought. So too might memories of David Cameron’s infamous “coalition of chaos” jibe, given that PR almost by very definition results in coalition governments and multiple parties sharing power.
It could be that the manifesto will not include specific language committing the party to electoral reform but will instead use ambiguous wording which could allow for ‘wiggle room’ on the topic.
Should Labour learn to share power?
Yet another reason is that, since current projections show Labour winning a substantial majority at the next general election, Starmer may be of the opinion that Labour will be able to gain power and win without needing the support of other parties.
Advocates of PR would note that this is short-termism: the New Labour project championed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown once swept to power but their popularity waned over the years and Labour lost the 2010 general election and then the following three general elections in 2015, 2017 (which Labour was not close to winning despite the claims of some) and 2019, leading to 12 years (and counting) of Conservative governments with Labour completely excluded from power.
Since 1945 Labour has been in power and formed the government for a total of 24 years compared to 42 years for Conservative governments including the 2010–2015 Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition. Labour supporters of PR note that Conservative administrations have gone on to undo the work of the Labour government that they depose. Labour would therefore be best served by having a strong chance to share power on a near-permanent basis than to have the occasional chance of gaining outright power.
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