The Guardian’s Take on Labor Voting Plans: Empowering an Electorate | Editorial
In Great Britain, there has been a modern tendency to make democracy more democratic. The decentralized legislatures established in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales use proportional electoral systems to reflect their distinctive politics. In England and Wales, elections for mayors and police and crime commissioners were conducted under a supplementary voting system, opening the door to independents and small parties. Likewise, political parties have embraced a higher degree of internal democracy, realizing that they need constant rejuvenation – and an essential element in this endeavor is to bring in members and give them a role in enabling them to vote. Yet the two main parties are showing worrying signs that they prefer to centralize rather than disperse and share power.
The Conservative Party wants to abolish proportional representation (PR) where it exists in England, replacing it with the same first past the post (FPTP) system as the Commons. This is hardly surprising: in the last 20 parliamentary elections since 1950, the Conservatives have won power two-thirds of the time, while almost every time there was a majority of votes for the anti-Conservative parties. The right has driven out, via Brexit, a proportional system for the European Parliament by abandoning it. Some form of public relations would unlock different institutions and cultures in British political life.
More than 150 local Labor parties have submitted motions backing PR ahead of party conference votes next week, offering Sir Keir Starmer a chance to seize the nettle of electoral reform. He seems reluctant to support such changes, perhaps sensing little public appetite to reform the electoral system. Some form of proportional representation would ensure that voters’ choice is better reflected in parliament. The traditional argument for SMU, that it tends to produce stable majority governments, has been refuted for most of the last decade when the UK was ruled by a coalition or minority administration.
Sir Keir also wants to go back to an electoral college to elect Labor leaders. His plan surprised the unions, who felt they were ambushed. Their call to put proposals on hold so that the implications can be digested must be heard. The rules may need to be changed, but the Labor leader did not. He should do so rather than challenge his opponents to vote against him at the conference. Sir Keir was elected through a system where members, affiliate members and registered supporters all participated on an equal footing. Rather, he wants to give MPs, unions and party members one-third of the votes each, and make it more difficult to deselect parliamentarians.
These changes increase the influence of unions and MPs to the detriment of party members. MPs are already acting as gatekeepers, narrowing the field of leadership contestants before the full membership makes the final choice. This mechanism should solve the problem of an elected Labor leader without sufficient trust in parliament.
Neither are the Labor base all left-wing ideologues. Certainly, a “one member, one vote” electoral system saw first a leftist, Jeremy Corbyn, elected, then Sir Keir, on a Corbynite platform. But in 2010, under an electoral college system, the soft left-wing Ed Miliband won power while members of Labor backed his centrist brother David. One member, one voice had freed a more dreamy Labor sect. But a form of open franchise is a prerequisite for the renewal of the party base. And that, like public relations, would be good for UK democracy as a whole.