Friday 28 May 2010

Will Labour campaign for electoral reform?

The Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform is holding a Strategy Meeting with John Denham MP. The event is open to Labour party members and supporters, and takes place on Monday, June 7, 2010 6pm - 8pm in Committee Room 7, House of Commons.

* What approach should Labour take to the Coalition governments's plans for an AV referendum (something Labour promised in its own manifesto): Go out and campaign for a Yes vote? Or hold out for something more?

* How do we make reform of our voting system an issue in the leadership contest/ in the NEC elections/ at conference?

* What is our response to the plans for reducing the number of MPs and redrawing boundaries to "equalize" constituencies? Or to introduce the 55% threshold for dissolution of parliament?

Join John Denham and LCER to discuss all this and more....

More from the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform


Martin Kettle in the Guardian reflects on one of the major decisions about political strategy which the Labour opposition will face:

The AV referendum will be a moment of historic choice for Labour. Its future will hang on the decision it makes. On the one hand, Labour can support a move towards greater electoral fairness, as it did in its 2010 manifesto on which all its MPs have been elected. If it does this, it will campaign for a yes vote, even though the effect of a yes victory may be that Labour must change into an alliance-making party if it is to govern again .... On past form, lacking the steel to face up to hard issues and to think strategically, Labour will jump on board the no campaign in the hope of humiliating the Liberal Democrats and disabling the coalition. But a Labour party with strategic sense and principle would do the opposite. It would embrace liberal reform and the yes campaign, and would recognise that a historic choice requires a historic compromise.


So far the leadership contenders have all been talking about the importance of making Labour a campaigning party and part of a broader political movement.

That is very important yet, as a broad aspiration, it is something which almost nobody in the party would disagree about.

Few of the contenders have been eager to say much yet about a major (and imminent) political choice on which there are different vicws within the party, and one which could prove very important in connecting with at least one broader progressive campaigning constituency.


Stuart White said...

And what kind of electoral reform will Labour cmapiagn on? AV? AV plus?

T.N.T. said...

I don't often agree with Martin Kettle but he is dead right here. Labour should campaign in favour of AV - and try to mend fences with the progressive wing of the Lib Dems in the process. Good will here could come in very handy if the next election produces another hung parliament but with Labour as the largest party.

Labour should also introduce an amendment to the electoral reform referendum bill to change it from a referendum on AV to a referendum on STV. And then they should dare the Lib Dems to vote down their own manifesto policy. If the Lib Dems voted against an amendment for full PR, they'd look ridiculous.

Daan said...

Well said giro, if the Labour Party wholeheartedly supported the referendum and introduced an amendment to add the option for AV+ or STV, they would gain greatly from a strategic perspective:

1) It would put them firmly into the spotlight as the progressive party.

2) It would undermine the coalition's claim to be represent "new politics".

3) It would put out a serious message to disillusioned Lib Dems that the Labour party could be their new home.

Not to mention the fact that it would put a much fairer voting system on the table, rather than a marginally fairer one. It would really get the debate on voting reform going, much more so than the current Morton's Fork being presented to the public. It would add weight to the idea that Labour should become a movement.

There's also the fact that under a more proportional voting system, Labour would probably be in power right now in a progressive alliance.

Harry Barnes said...

Labour is on the back foot over the issue of electoral and political reform. This is because in its period of 13 years in Government it only produced a number of limited and sometimes confusing reforms in these areas.

1. On the reform of the Upper Chamber it did little more than transform a mixed hereditary and appointed Peerage into what is now a mainly appointed one.

In order to cap the Coalition's current proposals, Labour now needs to call for the complete abolition of the Peerage, with strict limits being placed on the legislative powers of the Second Chamber. If significant moves could also be made in advancing the powers which back-bench MPs exercise over the Executive, there would then be a case for the abolition of the Second Chamber altogether.

2. It introduced a variety of different voting systems for different tiers of Government, with no convincing explanation as to why this hotchpotch produced a principled system.

Labour could call for all elections, from the European Union to Parish Councils to be operated under the Alternative Vote.

3. Despite introducing a more flexible electoral registration system, Labour failed to stem the collapse in the numbers of voters who are missing from registers. Some 3 million were missing from registers at the recent General Election, which is around twice the number that were missing in 1997. Yet we are moving to a system of individual voter registration. This system has been introduced into Northern Ireland and the electoral registration rate has fallen there from 95% to 86%.

The main groups of people missing from electoral registers are be found amongst the poor, the young, the rootless, ethnic minorities and those avoiding debt collectors. We need a proactive electoral registration system to overcome the problem of these missing millions. As the categories mentioned above are unevenly distributed throughout the nation, this seriously distorts the drawing of constituency electoral boundaries. Correcting the massive shortcomings in electoral registration, needs to precede any major redrawing of constituency boundaries. The sale of electoral registers to commercial interests should also be banned as it acts as a deterrent on registering to vote amongst many disadvantaged people.

4.Despite a slight recovery at the last General Election, there was a worrying overall fall in electoral turnout during Labour's watch.

Efforts by Labour to make politics relevant to tackling the economic, environmental and social needs of the those who are disenchanted, will add significantly to all forms of electoral turnout.

Additionally, it is important that Labour should campaign against the Coalition's proposals to reduce the number of MPs in the Commons - it is the Peerage and possibly the Second Chamber which should go instead. Cutting the numbers of MPs will itself further tip the balance of power in the Commons away from back-bench MPs towards the Front-Benches. For as long as the numbers of MPs who are on the "pay-roll" remain unchanged, it is back-bench seats which will in practice be culled.

Stuart White said...

Strongly agree with giroscoper and Daan: Labour should seek to put a PR option on the referendum paper.

Cantab83 said...

Yes, of course Labour should campaign for electoral reform. Not only that, but this issue should be one of the major policy questions that need to be put to all the candidates in the upcoming Labour leadership debate (as I have already pointed out on this site) as requested by Sunder (see What are the difficult questions the leadership candidates need to answer?).

However, I consider the claim made by many on the left that Labour's 2010 manifesto represents a mandate or commitment from Labour MPs for such reform to be rather optimistic. That manifesto had the fingerprints of Gordon Brown all over it. He had 13 years to reform the Lords, and numerous electoral mandates to support him if he so chose. So why ask for yet another mandate that also required an additional hurdle to be overcome, in the form of a referendum, before it could be implemented?

And why campaign for a referendum on AV, when virtually no-one supports AV? Who is going to support AV when most Conservatives want to retain FPTP and most progressives want STV or AV+? Are these referenda necessary, or are they policies that are actually designed to fail? After all Gordon Brown also supported a "Tobin Tax" provided it had international support. But as almost everyone knew that it was never going to get international support, the question then becomes, did Gordon Brown ever really support it, or did he just want to sound as though he supported it? The same argument could, perhaps, be applied to Gordon's sudden conversion to the cause of electoral reform.

I do also have to disagree strongly and fundamentally with Harry Barnes regarding his proposal to either emasculate or abolish the House of Lords, even if it is composed of elected members. A single chamber parliament elected under AV would be even more tyrannical than the current model. We need checks and balances in our parliamentary system. Multiple chambers elected by different electoral systems at different times in the electoral cycle would provide such safeguards, as I have outlined before. No single electoral method is so perfect or fully democratic that it can be used without the need for complementary or correctional countermeasures to be incorporated as well.

However, Harry's point about falling numbers on the electoral register is well made. The right-wing media is constantly trying to depict the current system as favouring Labour because the electoral arithmetic implies that the Tories need about 4% more votes to gain a parliamentary majority than does Labour. However, this neglects two factors. Firstly, the lower rate of voter registration in Labour safe seats, as Harry has pointed out, and secondly the differential turnout between Labour and Conservative seats.

At the 2010 election average turnout in seats won by the Tories was 68% (in some seats it was over 80%). In seats won by Labour the average turnout was only 61%. The Tories may have polled two million more votes than Labour, but at least half of that difference can be attributed to differential turnouts, and most of the rest to missing voters. Yet the Tories won sixty seats more than Labour. So you could argue that the current system is actually biased against Labour, and therefore PR will actually disadvantage Labour even more unless rates of voter registration are improved and compulsory voting introduced.

Sunder Katwala said...

Thanks for interesting and detailed comments. This is an issue that needs a lot more attention and discussion.

I also agree that Harry's registration point about the missing 3 million is very important. I have heard a number of people talking about that. I was asked about it at Brighton Fabians last night: there is a lot of enthusiasm for campaigning on this issue, and indeed for getting voters registered as part of a campaign.

I have no doubt what I think the answer to 'should Labour campaign for electoral reform' is, as regular readers will know. I am less clear what the "Will Labour campaign" answer will be, at least on 'how' and 'how strongly'. I suspect Kettle exaggerates to dramatise his argument in saying Labour will probably oppose. The opposite is more likely. But the question is open, and we will not be 100% united whatever we do.

Daan said...

Hear, hear, Sunder.

For a long time I've been under the impression that support for full electoral reform tends to diminish the higher up you get in the party. Perhaps if talk of Labour becoming more like a movement comes to fruition, we may see the popular grassroots call for electoral reform translated into policy.

I agree that I'd like to see electoral reform as one of the issues debated in the leadership contest. I think I may send those running a letter to that effect.

Dan Ashton said...

I disagree Daan, I think there is widespread hostility to electoral reform amongst much of the Labour Party membership. Being face to face with the Lib Dems' campaigning and local government record does not make for a friendly disposition to their party, and we all know that - as with, say, elections in London or Scotland - will force us to seek out Lib Dem support if we're to win elections.

AV may be easier to win support for, because it is likely elections under AV will continue to result in single-party government. People won't continue to vote in the same way they do now, once it is enacted. Even if a more multiparty culture were to be established, it is likely AV would essentially exist as a grand anti-Tory alliance, with Labour voters who refuse to vote Lib Dem tactically at the moment likely putting them back into contention in rural English seats.

Labour advocates of AV should focus on the difference between needing to attract the Lib Dems as a party under outright PR, and the votes of Lib Dems under AV. For instance, Ken Livingstone shows how you can have a distinctly progressive, Labour candidate who can also attract support from Lib Dems, Greens and left-leaning independents,

Harry Barnes said...

Cantab83 : I did qualify my point about the abolition of the Lords, claiming that it would also require significant moves in advancing the powers which back-bench MPs operate over the Executive. Checks and balances can operate in a single chamber system via the democratisation of the avenues for shaping and scutinising both proposed legislation and executive activity. But it does entail MPs being freed from the shackles of Executive and Front Bench powers. We need to look for ways and means of advancing a defacto separation of powers.

There also seems to me to be a case for capping the proposal for fixed term parliaments of 5 years, by going for 3 or 4 year parliaments. This would, of course, be even more urgent under a single chamber system.

If we are to have two elected chambers, then we should at least use the opportunity not just to remove Peers from the legislature but also to get rid of all Peers titles. It is time to start rejecting the notion of a snobocracy.