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Labour must learn from its old mistakes and commit to fairer elections

OPINION: We’re living with a Tory disaster that Labour could have averted by reforming how the UK elects its government

David Ward
1 March 2023, 5.40pm

John Smith and Robin Cook in 1992


Mathieu Polak/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

The Labour leader’s warning was stark, his modernising message clear. He spoke of “a worrying loss of confidence in Parliament” and “mounting sense of disenchantment and cynicism about our political system”.

The leader of the British opposition said it was “no answer to say: ‘Leave it to Whitehall’” and called for a new deal between the people and the state that would put “the citizen centre stage”. He proposed a package of reforms to revitalise our “anachronistic and inadequate” democratic process.

Some were waiting for a commitment to electoral reform, to proposals for proportional representation to slacken the grip on power of the big Westminster political machines. But in this they were disappointed.

Although uncannily similar to Keir Starmer’s New Year speech about “Westminster’s sticking plaster politics”, this lecture was in fact made by another Labour leader, John Smith, 30 years ago. Speaking on 1 March 1993, Smith set out the most comprehensive agenda of constitutional and democratic reform ever made by any Labour leader.

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Why, then, did he not promise a new system for electing national governments? Why did Tony Blair later abandon a manifesto promise for a referendum on voting reform? And what lessons should Starmer take from that decision, and the Tory disaster that has followed it?

Smith warned that the UK had become an ‘elective dictatorship’

The occasion of Smith’s 1993 lecture, ‘For a Citizens’ Democracy’, was a meeting of Charter 88, a group that campaigned for constitutional reform in the UK. According to the group’s founder, Anthony Barnett – who was also one of openDemocracy’s founders – “It transformed Labour from a constitutionally conservative party into a radical, reformist one”. The speech was also hugely consequential: it set out the framework of democratic reform that the Labour government elected in 1997 went on to implement.

At the Charter 88 event Smith warned that the UK had become an “elective dictatorship” and argued that “we must replace the out-of-date idea of an all-powerful nation state with a new and dynamic framework of government”.

He proposed new democratic structures for Scotland, Wales and the regions of England. He argued for revitalisation of local government by devolving power “to the level most appropriate to deal with people’s needs”.

He also advocated strengthening individual rights by incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into British law.

Smith was scathing about Whitehall’s obsession with secrecy and pledged to introduce a Freedom of Information Act and similar laws against corporate cover-ups so that “the cobwebs of unnecessary secrecy around the British boardroom are blown away”. He demanded more open governance with a ‘green budget’, statutory independence for the government statistical service, and an independent audit of official economic forecasts.

Smith’s tragic death in 1994 robbed the country of a great potential prime minister. But the legacy of his Charter 88 speech can be seen in the creation of the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly, in the establishment of a London mayoralty accountable to an elected assembly, in the Human Rights Act, in the Freedom of Information Act and the Office of Budget Responsibility.

Under ‘first past the post’ votes for minority parties and most individuals’ votes in safe seats are wasted

Thirty years on it is encouraging to see Starmer pledge to reform our over-centralised democratic system. Starmer’s call for power to be spread “beyond Westminster” echoes Smith’s words in 1993.

Similarly the release of Gordon Brown’s constitutional review last December is another powerful contribution to Labour’s track record of constitutional reform. Like Brown, Smith favoured replacement of the House of Lords with an elected second chamber.

But also like Brown, Smith deliberately avoided the subject of electoral reform.

Smith’s reticence was understandable because when he made his Charter 88 speech the Labour Party was awaiting the final report of a commission on electoral systems chaired by Lord Plant, an academic expert in politics and philosophy.

One month after Smith’s lecture, the Plant commission recommended scrapping first-past-the-post (FPTP) elections in the UK, proposing various other voting systems for the European Parliament, the proposed Scottish assembly, the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

Smith accepted the recommendations for Europe and Scotland, and, regarding elections to the House of Commons, pledged to hold a referendum.

As Smith’s head of policy at the time – and a strong supporter of proportional representation (PR) – I was in the slightly uncomfortable position of working for a leader who was very cautious about the issue.

Smith was not emphatically opposed to electoral reform. He respected the principle that all votes should count equally, no matter where they are cast – whereas under FPTP votes for minority parties and most individuals’ votes in safe seats are wasted. His concerns were mostly pragmatic: he shared with me the obvious difficulty of persuading his fellow 50 Scottish Labour MPs of the merits of a change that would probably cost some of them their seats.

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Today Labour has just one MP in Scotland and the Scottish National Party is enjoying the clear advantage of ‘winner takes all’ in FPTP Westminster elections. I often wonder whether Smith would still be inhibited about PR given this hard political reality and the present overwhelming support for electoral reform among Labour’s members.

Smith’s untimely death meant that his successor Tony Blair was to take on the PR issue. Labour’s 1997 Labour general election manifesto maintained Smith’s promise of a referendum on the issue. In government, Blair established the Independent Commission on the Voting System, chaired by the veteran politician Lord Jenkins.

The Jenkins commission reported in 1998 and, like the Plant commission before it, rejected FPTP. Jenkins proposed a version of the ‘alternative vote’ system but with an additional ‘top-up’ list, similar to the mixed-member PR systems used in Germany and New Zealand. However, Blair was unpersuaded and failed to hold the promised referendum.

In my view Labour’s failure to fully embrace PR was a massive missed opportunity. It confirmed a warning that a former Labour foreign secretary, Robin Cook, made in 2005, just one month before he died: “My nightmare is that we will have been 12 years in office, with the ability to reform the electoral system, and will fail to do so until we are back in opposition, in perhaps a decade of Conservative government, regretting that we left in place the electoral system that allowed Conservative governments on a minority vote.”

Reflecting on the enormous damage inflicted by the past 12 years of Tory misrule, Cook’s prophetic fears are painfully poignant.

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That is why last year I was pleased and privileged to move the successful motion on PR that was adopted at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool last September. In my speech I argued that the Tories have been able to get away with austerity, rising inequality, and collapsing healthcare because our current electoral system lets them.

Their trickle-down economics are underpinned by trickle-down democracy, a system which hands all the power to a small number of voters in marginal swing seats, leaving millions of us effectively unrepresented in Westminster. With unprecedented support from constituency parties and trades unions the motion – calling for a manifesto commitment to PR – was passed by an overwhelming majority.

Disappointingly the Labour leadership has largely ignored this historic vote for electoral reform. And yet Starmer’s New Year critique of the UK’s democratic governance comes tantalisingly close to making the case for electoral reform.

Starmer sees clearly that “the Westminster system is part of the problem” and that the UK “needs a completely new way of governing”.

He also complains that we have “an economy that hoards potential and a politics that hoards power” and notes that this “leaves us with more regional inequality than anywhere in Europe”. But he did not draw the conclusion that, as last year’s Labour conference recognised, the electoral mechanism that sustains this hoarding process is our ‘winner takes all’ voting system.

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Building on his ‘Westminster sticking-plaster politics’ critique Starmer has now set out five ‘national missions’: to restore growth, promote clean energy, revitalise the NHS, make streets safe and improve educational opportunity. It is refreshing and realistic to present these challenges as projects for more than one Parliament. A ten-year timescale will surely be needed to recover from the ruins of 12 years of Tory failure and the disastrous impact of Brexit.

But it is unrealistic to think that even a decade of achievement will be secure under FPTP. Without electoral reform the UK will be vulnerable to a repetition of Cook’s nightmare of Labour’s missed opportunity: the return of the Tories to power on a minority of votes cast. Which is why Starmer’s Labour Party should be bold in putting country before party and fairness at the heart of our democracy by making the principled case for electoral reform.

Labour needs a manifesto commitment to scrap FPTP and introduce PR. The way to do this is through the National Policy Forum (NPF), which is now consulting Labour CLPs and branches ahead of its main meeting in July.

This year will also be the 30th anniversary of the NPF, which was established under Smith’s leadership and first met in May 1993. Smith wanted the NPF to be a more inclusive and participatory process of policy debate.

Given the clear majority support for PR at last year’s Party conference, it really is beholden on the NPF to respect that decision and back a commitment to electoral reform in the party programme. As we mark the 30th anniversary of Smith’s historic Charter 88 speech that is the path to a citizen’s democracy that Labour must take now.

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