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  1. Politics
17 May 2021

If Labour is to have any hope of winning, Keir Starmer must champion electoral reform

To defeat Boris Johnson’s corrupt and shameless government, Labour should form a progressive alliance with the Greens and the Lib Dems.

By Martin Fletcher

Britain is not a one-party state: we have multiple parties and free elections. But it certainly feels like one. For 11 mostly miserable years the country has been governed by Conservatives of one stripe or another, and the chances of Keir Starmer’s Labour preventing them winning a fifth consecutive victory at the next general election look microscopically tiny. 

Boris Johnson’s administration is uniquely divisive, dishonest, destructive and, at times, downright incompetent. It has presided over the deadliest catastrophe since the Second World War. It has amassed a vast national debt. It could well precipitate the break-up of the United Kingdom. Despite all of that, Labour still trails the Tories by 13 percentage points, and Starmer lags fully 17 points behind Johnson on the question of who would be the best prime minister.

The challenge Labour now faces is of Everest proportions. To win a majority at the next election it needs to add 128 more seats to its present tally of 198 – a gain only exceeded in the postwar era by Clement Atlee in 1945 and Tony Blair in 1997. 

It would need to win back its traditional “Red Wall” seats in the north and Midlands, but there is no way Starmer can offer them more money, attention, charisma, faux-patriotism and anti-wokery than our populist Prime Minister is already doing. He can’t possibly out-Boris Boris. 

It would need to win back most of the 40-odd seats it once held in Scotland, but the battle now raging north of the border is between SNP secessionists and Conservative unionists, with Labour scarcely even relevant.

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It would need to rally the anti-Tory vote behind it (the Conservatives have won the last four general elections with just 36.1, 36.9, 42.4 and 43.6 per cent of the vote respectively). But far from coalescing behind Labour, that progressive vote is now deeply divided between Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the resurgent Greens, while the collapse of Ukip and its assorted descendants means right-wing voters have gone home to the Tories. 

Starmer’s problems don’t end there. Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system already penalises Labour: because its support is now so concentrated in metropolitan constituencies, it took 50,835 votes to elect each Labour MP at the last general election, compared to 38,264 for each Conservative MP. 

And things are about to get worse. Parliamentary boundary changes due in 2023 or 2024 are expected to deliver ten more southern seats to the Tories. Government plans to abolish the Fixed-term Parliaments Act will allow Johnson to call an election at the most advantageous moment. And the government’s new, Trump-endorsed and spectacularly mislabelled “Electoral Integrity Bill” could, shamefully, prevent two or three million poorer – and therefore Labour-leaning – citizens from voting by requiring them to produce photo identification. 

So how is Labour preparing for the immense electoral challenge it now faces? It is embarking on another bout of ruinous infighting between its left and right wings. Its leader and deputy leader are at odds. There is talk of a challenge to Starmer’s 14-month-old leadership if Labour loses the Batley and Spen by-election to the Conservatives, and Andy Burnham, Greater Manchester’s mayor, is already on manoeuvres. Frankly, it looks completely hopeless.

Starmer is a decent, honest and intelligent man, but he has yet to produce a compelling new political vision capable of uniting Labour’s disparate constituencies, let alone attracting new ones. So here is a suggestion.

He should acknowledge that political loyalties based on class are finished, that the old two-party system is broken, and that the absolute imperative for any centre-left politician must be the defeat of a corrupt and shameless government which has wrecked this country’s cohesion, economy, global stature and relationship with Europe.

He should acknowledge the inescapable truth that Labour can no longer achieve that goal by itself, and should therefore seek some form of progressive alliance with the Lib Dems and the Greens at the very least, and conceivably with the SNP and Plaid Cymru too.

That alliance could take the form of open primaries in certain seats, so progressive voters could choose which progressive candidate to unite behind in their constituency. Or it could be an agreement that Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens would not stand against each other in Labour’s target seats, in the 80 seats where the Lib Dems came second to the Tories in 2019, and in a handful of the Greens’ most promising constituencies.

Finally, Starmer should solemnly promise to deliver, if the alliance worked and he did become prime minister, what Blair lamentably failed to deliver in the 1990s: proportional representation (PR).

PR would replace a first-past-the-post electoral system that almost invariably hands absolute power to a party that has won scarcely two in five votes, leaving a majority of the population with no representation in government whatsoever. That is a recipe for political alienation of the sort that provides fertile ground for right-wing populists.

PR would dramatically change Britain’s adversarial political culture by making coalition government the norm, and with it the need for rival parties to collaborate and seek consensus. Never again would a prime minister be able to prosper by polarising the electorate. Never again would a small cabal within one party be able to ram through such a momentous and hugely contentious change of national direction as Brexit.

Properly presented, a promise of electoral reform might also prove the vote-winner that Starmer is desperately searching for. It would show courageous leadership. It would suggest that he is putting the interests of the country first. It would be fresh, bold and radical, with an appeal likely to transcend party loyalties. It would be completely different to anything the Conservatives offer, and make them look as if they are defending a rotten system out of narrow partisan self-interest. It could even help stall the drive for Scottish independence by offering the SNP a real say in the government of Britain.

This is an idea whose time has come. Polling by YouGov shows 42 per cent of the public support PR, compared to just 30 per cent for first-past-the-post. At least 214 constituency Labour parties have submitted conference motions calling for electoral reform. The Lib Dems have long supported it. Last weekend Jonathan Bartley, the Greens’ co-leader, invited Starmer to discuss a progressive alliance. 

What’s the alternative? Yet another crushing Labour defeat, and four more impotent years in opposition as Johnson and his cronies run amok.

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