What the Labour leadership candidates think about democratic reform

The Electoral Reform Society quizzed the Labour leadership candidates on electoral reform...

Josiah Mortimer
9 September 2016
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The Labour leadership election is in full swing, with the vote closing on the 21st September.

Given that it’s a summer of leadership ballots, the Electoral Reform Society have been running Q&As with the candidates for the different parties.

On Tuesday we published our Q&A with UKIP, who are also in the midst of a leadership election, while last month we quizzed the Green Party’s contenders on democratic reform too – see the answers here. They include responses from the winners, Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley.

So it’s the turn of Labour’s candidates – Owen Smith and Jeremy Corbyn – to outline their positions on voting systems, increasing voter registration, sorting out Britain’s broken party funding system, and how to reform the House of Lords.

Smith used the opportunity to outline his position calling for a five-year ban on Labour officials and donors entering the House of Lords after service/donations, while Jeremy Corbyn has, for (we think) the first time, committed to a proportionally elected House of Lords. 

It’s a great shame that neither candidate has committed to electoral reform for the Commons – Smith says he is ‘not yet convinced’ while Corbyn would like it discussed as part of a constitutional convention. But there is some openness on both sides, particularly for the Lords, which is encouraging – particularly given the growing movement for PR within the party (and the wider labour movement), including the backing of figures such as Chuka Umunna MP and Clive Lewis MP.

The fact is – no programme of democratic reform is complete or substantive if it ignores the huge elephant in the room: the need for a fair voting system.

However, both candidates are, encouragingly, thinking about backing a ‘motor voter’ registration system – where you’re encouraged to register to vote every time you interact with government - something we don’t think either candidate has spoken about in the past. They’re also calling for cross-party action of party funding reform.

Either way, we hope this is a useful contribution to the debate. Read the highlights from Smith and Corbyn’s responses in the extracts below, and read the full Q&A answers here.

On electoral reform:

  • Corbyn: ‘Our electoral system should properly reflect the collective choices of the electorate as well as providing stable government and direct representation - in any change the constituency link must be maintained, as it has been in Wales and Scotland. Reform of the electoral system should be considered as part of a wider constitutional convention’
  • Smith: ‘There needs to be a debate about the Westminster voting system…[but] I am not yet convinced that the correct response is to move to a proportional system’

An elected House of Lords:

  • Smith: ‘There is no place for unelected legislators in the 21st century. I back the calls for a constitutional convention to decide how the second chamber is elected…As Leader I’d introduce a five year ban on former Labour Party staffers, advisers, MPs and donors from becoming a member of the House of Lords. I’m calling on the leaders of other parties to match this ban until the Lords are overhauled.’
  • Corbyn: ‘I am pleased to pledge my support for a directly, proportionally and fully-elected upper house’

Party funding reform:

  • Corbyn: ‘I support firm action to remove big donors from the British party funding system…I support a fairly low cap on donations and lower spending limits, with the levels ideally to be set by common agreement…I would therefore place party funding as a major item in a constitutional convention, which I am committed to initiate.’
  • Smith: ‘The first thing we need to do is ensure that the laws we have in place are properly enforced…Hopefully we now have an opportunity to get back around the table and engage in sincere talks with an upper limit on individual donations on the table.’

Voter registration:

  • Smith: ‘I would be keen to consider US-style ‘motor voter’ campaigns where citizens are prompted with a simple tick-box to register to vote’
  • Corbyn: ‘I support the introduction of methods of easier registration…automatic registration and simple tick-box registrations when interacting with public authorities would both significantly boost registration and I would therefore be happy to consider both these methods…I am in favour of constituency boundaries being set by population rather than numbers on the register’

What do you think about their responses? Thoughts in the comments below are welcome. 

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