Labour must not "shrink the offer" in 2014

Those urging the party to avoid radical talk of reforming capitalism and remaking society fail to understand the deep-rooted wish for change.

By rights, 2014 should be a dud year in the political calendar, a phoney war prefacing the resumption of full hostilities in the election year to follow. That’s perhaps how Cameron and Clegg envisaged it as they cut the deal on a fixed term parliament that they hoped would let the economic cycle turn and the prospect of vote-grabbing giveaways hove back into view. Of course, that’s not how it’s played out.

As far as Labour is concerned, 2014 is the year when we push through the onslaught from Crosby and Cameron, to define the government we hope to form and the change we hope to be. We are confident that we will withstand this Lynton-led assault, thanks not least to the strength, determination and bloody-minded resilience of Ed Miliband. Yes, it will be tough.  But it is our very success so far in sloughing off Crosby’s slurs and connecting with the British people on the issues that matter to them – the cost of living crisis, above all else – that points the way forward. Now, some of those commentating on our party advise us to limit the Tories’ scope for attack by narrowing the political front on which we are engaged, to "shrink the offer" as we approach the business end of this parliament. But those calls will be resisted and rejected, because they fail to understand the deep-rooted wish for change, for another way of doing things, that is so widely felt across our country.

The logic of this marketing jargon is simple. Don’t frighten the horses with radical talk of reforming capitalism and remaking society, just lead them gently to water and, on current form, they’re likely to drink from our well. Yet the reason Ed Miliband’s Labour Party is reconnecting and rebuilding is precisely because of the boldness with which Ed has identified the core challenges which face our country and the radical ambition he has shown to address them. That’s what he did when he took on Murdoch and the Mail’s slur against Ralph Miliband, articulating the commonplace conviction that too often our press does not live up to the values of the British people.

That’s what he did when he coined the term 'squeezed middle', finding words that resonate because they are the truth for the vast majority of working men and women in our country. And that what he does when he talks of reforming capitalism, reflecting a widespread and deeply felt discontent with our unbalanced economy and the divided society and shrunken politics it has created. People may not be massing at the barricades in Britain, but they know Ed Miliband speaks for them when he says we can do better than this. And they want us to show them how.

And that, in essence, is the great challenge that 2014 poses for Labour.  It means longsighted ambitions, like a million new homes and a million green jobs. It means debunking old orthodoxies, such as the claim that you can’t buck the market, as we will do when we break up energy companies and freeze the bills. And it means having the faith of true progressives in the innate ability and good hearts of the great majority of British people and so investing in them: in their businesses and their skills, in their families and communities, in every part of our One Nation.

Far from a phoney war, 2014 is a critical period for Labour. It will be a year when, in stark contrast to the smear tactics and stunted ambition of Crosby and Cameron, we will expand our positive message for Britain, through practical policies, like the energy freeze or the Living Wage. It will be a year when we continue to set the agenda for a fairer economy and a more equal society. It will be a year when we help the British people to find hope once again, with a Labour Party that is the people’s party once more.

Ed Miliband at the Labour conference in Brighton earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Owen Smith is shadow welsh secretary and Labour MP for Pontypridd.

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.