The Labour conference has overwhelmingly backed a motion calling on the party to embrace a proportional electoral system, sparking celebrations from campaigners even though Keir Starmer seems certain to ignore the move.
The motion, which says a Labour government should ditch the current first-past-the-post system in favour of a form of proportional representation (PR), passed easily via a show of hands in the conference hall in Liverpool, prompting loud cheers.
Saying the current system “has catastrophically failed to represent people’s wishes, needs and votes”, the motion argues that first past the post is damaging and “Labour must commit to fixing it”.
The motion based on one submitted by about 140 local parties, says the form of PR used should retain constituency links. It ends: “Labour must make a commitment to introduce proportional representation for general elections in the next manifesto.”
However, it is not binding on the leadership, and while Starmer has previously expressed some interest in voting reform, his leadership team has made it plain they will not do as the motion says.
Before the vote, a senior Labour source downplayed the prospect of electoral reform even if Starmer wins the next election. “Anyone who thinks this would be a priority for the first term of a Labour government is kidding themselves,” they said.
But the result was hailed by campaign groups. Laura Parker, from the Labour for a New Democracy organisation, said it was “a historic moment”.
She said: “This seismic shift in the Labour party has been driven by thousands of members and trade unionists demanding an end to an electoral system that leaves millions feeling forgotten by Westminster.
“Today’s vote makes clear that the party and our movement knows that for any Labour government to deliver a fair and more equal society we must have a fair voting system too.”
At last year’s conference about 80% of constituency party delegates voted in favour of embracing PR. The motion was defeated after 95% of votes from affiliates, almost entirely unions, opposed the move.
Since then, three of the biggest five unions linked to Labour have changed their stance. Unite and Unison, which between them comprise about half of union votes, both voted to embrace PR at their own policy conferences. The smaller CWU also backs the idea.
Monday’s vote emphasises how popular electoral reform is within the party, making it more likely that the Labour leadership, whether under Starmer or a successor, will have to seriously look at the idea.
One traditional objection from some within the party is that Labour should be aiming purely for majority rule rather than the greater likelihood of coalitions under PR.
However, the political chaos of recent years, and the fast-shifting political loyalties seen in the last few elections has persuaded others that the party should take advantage of an apparent left-leaning majority among the electorate.
Other major parties, including the Liberal Democrats, SNP and Greens also support electoral reform.
The Greens’ deputy leader, Zack Polanski, said: “It’s promising to see Labour members vote overwhelmingly to join with the rest of Europe and embrace modern, fair and proportional elections in the UK. However, it’s disappointing that Keir Starmer appears to remain unmoved by the democratic rights of his own members.”