In Britain, there has been a modern trend to make democracy more democratic. The devolved legislatures set up 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 have been run on a supplementary vote system, opening the door to independents and smaller parties. Similarly, political parties have embraced a greater degree of internal democracy, conscious that they need constant rejuvenating – and an essential element in that business is bringing members in and giving them a role by allowing them a vote. Yet the two main parties are displaying worrying signs that they prefer to centralise rather than disperse, and share, power.
The Conservative party wants to replace this supplementary vote system, where it still exists in England, with the same first-past-the-post (FPTP) system as the Commons. This is hardly a surprise: out of the last 20 general elections since 1950 the Conservatives have won power two-thirds of the time, while on almost every occasion there was a majority of votes for anti-Tory parties. The right drove out, via Brexit, a proportional system for the European parliament by abandoning it. A form of PR would unlock different institutions and cultures in British political life.
More than 150 local Labour parties have submitted motions backing PR ahead of the party conference votes next week, providing Sir Keir Starmer with a chance to grasp the nettle of electoral reform. He appears reluctant to back such changes, sensing perhaps little public appetite to reform the voting system. A form of PR would ensure that voter choice is better reflected in parliament. The traditional argument in favour of FPTP, that it tends to produce stable majority governments, was disproved for almost the whole of the last decade when the UK was run by a coalition or minority administration.
Sir Keir also wants to turn the clock back to an electoral college to elect Labour leaders. His plan surprised trade unions, which felt ambushed. Their call to pause the proposals so that the implications could be digested ought to be heeded. There may be a case to change the rules, but Labour’s leader has not made it. He should do so rather than daring his opponents to vote against him at conference. Sir Keir was elected via a system where members, affiliated members and registered supporters all participated on an equal basis. He wants instead to give MPs, unions and party members one-third of the votes each, and to make it harder to deselect parliamentarians.
These changes increase the influence of trade unions and MPs at the expense of party members. MPs already act as gatekeepers, narrowing the field of leadership contenders before the wider membership makes the final choice. This mechanism ought to deal with the problem of a Labour leader being elected without sufficient confidence in parliament.
Labour’s grassroots are also not all leftwing ideologues. True, a “one member, one vote” electoral system saw first a leftwinger, Jeremy Corbyn, elected and then Sir Keir, on a Corbynite platform. But in 2010, under an electoral college system the soft-left Ed Miliband won power while Labour’s membership backed his centrist brother, David. One member, one vote had enfranchised a dreamier Labour sect. But a form of open franchise is a precondition of the party refreshing its base. And that, like PR, would be good for British democracy at large.
• This article was amended on 27 September 2021. A previous version referred in one paragraph to proportional representation when it meant to refer to the supplementary vote system.