Labour’s leadership contest will be a chance to seal electoral reform in Britain | Polly Toynbee

Proportional representation is now mainstream party thinking. Candidates need to realise the value of building alliances

Clive Lewis is the only faller at the first hurdle for Labour’s leadership. He was never a plausible leader, but he leaves a valuable challenge to the rest of the contestants. He was the most radical in calling for Labour to open its doors to alliances with other parties and back proportional representation to break out of the straitjacket of a broken political system.

He forced the unthinkable question: what if Labour can’t win alone if Scotland is gone? Coalitions can inspire new life and ideas, reaching out beyond one-party governments ruling by diktat on a minority of voters. Free to tell truths, Lewis dared suggest that, just possibly, Labour may not be the one and only tabernacle of all truth: it is, after all, an uneasy coalition itself. That, for Labour, is radical thought.

As the five remaining candidates line up for gruelling hustings up and down the country, everyone listens for signs, hints and revealing phrases beyond the usual bromides on “social justice”, “radicalism” and “unity”. Anxious to alienate no faction, all call themselves socialist (as did Tony Blair). Each stands on the side of the have-nots against over-mighty haves, striving to redistribute power and pelf between people and regions. Party members must choose how far left you can go and still win, and which one is the most electable.

Lewis has left behind one litmus test: do the contenders support electoral reform to break apart the old order? The words “proportional representation” (PR) drop like lead into debates, except among political aficionados. If, like me, you have ever tried going door to door for signatures on a PR petition, you meet a blank stare. Raise it publicly and political obsessives overflow your inbox with reams of new voting schemes. No wonder the Electoral Reform Society pleads on its website: “Unfortunately the ERS cannot offer appraisals of new electoral systems or constitutional designs.”

Labour has been adamantly opposed. Blair was hesitantly for it: he commissioned Roy Jenkins to devise a plan keeping the single MP per constituency link but adding a proportional top-up list of MPs reflecting total party votes cast. Party dinosaurs – most trade unions, John Prescott, Jack Straw and others – forced Blair to drop it. PR was a fight too far with his party, so he threw away his chance to truly reshape politics and break the century of Tory hegemony. But now enlightenment has broken out among most of the candidates. Keir Starmer “believes there’s a case for electoral reform, because of the millions of votes wasted every election in safe seats”. He adds the proviso, “reform must ensure it protects the constituency link”, and says he is up for discussion. Reviving the Jenkins plan fits his bill.

Jess Phillips, who in the past backed Caroline Lucas’s PR bill, takes the same line. She “would like electoral reform so seats reflect the votes cast” while keeping MPs “rooted in communities”. She adds this wise thought: electoral reform alone is “not a route for Labour out of its current political crisis”. Quite right: Labour would have crashed badly this time under any system.

Lisa Nandy is a longtime advocate of progressive alliances but is only “open-minded” on PR. Most backers of alliances see them as a temporary fix coming together to bring in PR.

Rebecca Long-Bailey is, as ever, opaque. All her campaign says is that she is “in favour of reviewing our electoral system as part of a wider package of constitutional reform that will be fleshed out in the course of the campaign”. Disappointingly, Emily Thornberry, good in many ways, is the arch-anti-reformer. She was against the alternative vote in the 2011 referendum and strongly backs the current system. “We are all equal with first past the post,” she claims. Which is perverse as it is plainly not so.

Thanks to Lewis, electoral reform is now mainstream Labour, and is there to stay if Starmer, Phillips or Nandy wins. This matters not just for fairer elections, or even opening Westminster to new political forces. It matters right now, in opposition, as a flashing beacon that a newly open state of mind is welcoming others, freed from cabals and closed factions, with a more electable aura.

Besides, the Make Votes Matter campaign reports that in the wake of the last election, three-quarters of Labour members back PR. Hardly surprising, after the left-of-centre and remainers won more votes than the Tories and the Brexiters last month. Labour’s vote collapsed; the Tory vote didn’t soar. The Green vote rose by 65%, so close to a million people voted to get just one MP. It took an average of 51,000 people to elect a Labour MP, only 38,000 for each Tory. When asked if they think seats won should match the votes cast, the public backs PR by 56%, claims Make Votes Matter.

All the tactical voting effort was “fundamentally a failure”, says the psephologist Peter Kellner. It won no seats, though it made some close-run. Always a weak attempt to circumvent a bad system, it failed, he says, because too many Liberal Democrat voters found Jeremy Corbyn “anathema”, while Labour voters were deterred from vote-swapping by Jo Swinson’s venomous attacks on their party.

After the shocking lies told in both the alternative vote and the Brexit referendum campaigns, who wouldn’t be wary of ever holding another public vote? Kellner suggests that Labour, if in power, could bring in the reform for one election, promising a referendum to confirm it once people had tried it.

How remote that prospect seems. Even if Brexit and Boris Johnson do badly, Kellner thinks it unlikely that Labour can win outright next time. But if both Labour and Liberal Democrats had creditable leaders, he thinks that Labour might win 60 extra seats, the Liberal Democrats another 20 and, together with others, break the Tory majority. That needs the next Labour leader to follow those Clive Lewis themes on cooperation, pluralism, and progressive alliances.

• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist


Polly Toynbee

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