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9 October 2023

Does Labour want electoral reform?

Shadow leader of the Commons, Lucy Powell, has said she is open to "conversations" over changing the voting system.

By Anoosh Chakelian

If Labour wins the next general election, “conversations” about reforming the electoral system could follow, a shadow cabinet member hinted during an event at the Labour Party conference.

“I’m personally for, kind of, looking at electoral reform-type stuff,” Lucy Powell, the shadow leader of the House of Commons, told an audience at a fringe event on Monday morning.

The issue had threatened Labour unity at last year’s conference, when party members voted overwhelmingly for the leadership to back proportional representation. The policy is also now generally supported by the unions, but the leadership has not endorsed it. Powell said electoral reform was “a bit of a distraction” and that “we’ve got to win the election with the rules which we’re operating under, and we should be laser-focused on that for now”, but she suggested that “conversations can come later” – after Labour takes power.

“I do believe quite strongly that one of the counterbalances to political alienation is that direct relationship that we have with our voters through the constituency link,” she added. “Polling is always pretty clear about how people feel about their own actual MP versus MPs and politicians in general.”

This is a delicate subject for an otherwise relatively united party. Conservatives and right-leaning newspapers have already begun accusing Labour of wanting to “stitch up” the voting system or make pacts with the Lib Dems and SNP.

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At present, Labour is walking a fine line – criticising the first past the post system, but not endorsing an alternative. The final policy wording agreed by Labour’s National Policy Forum over the summer was: “The flaws in the current voting system are contributing to the distrust and alienation we see in politics, but there is no consensus for a new system. Any proposed change to our voting system must be carefully thought-through – it cannot be dictated by political leaders or forced upon the country from the top down.”

This potentially gives the party some cover to broach the subject once in power, especially if it needs support from the Lib Dems (the price of which would be movement on electoral reform).

Powell also said that most of the Conservative figures she had spoken to in her constituency, Manchester Central, “think that the election is going to be in January 2025” – the latest it can possibly be held. “Obviously we’ve got to be ready for May next year, but this could go long – we could still be over a year away from the next election,” she said, warning Labour about getting the timings right on key policy announcements. “It is a bit about doing the right things at the right time.”

[See also: Keir Starmer is wrong to oppose proportional representation]

Update 14/10/23

At Ipsos’s “Beyond the Bubble” fringe event at Labour Party conference at 9.30am on 9 October, an audience member during an audience Q&A at the end asked about replacing the First Past the Post voting system to help restore trust. This was Lucy Powell’s answer to the question, transcribed from the New Statesman’s recording of the event:

“I mean, look, I’m personally I’m all for kind of looking at electoral reform type stuff. But I, I, having said that, I do believe quite strongly that one of the counterbalances to political alienation, and particularly disaffection, is that direct relationship that we have with our voters through the constituency link. And you often see, I mean, the polling is, is always pretty clear about how people feel about their own actual MP versus MPs and politicians, in general. But we’ve got to win this next election under the current voting system. So I just think it’s a bit of a distraction, really, we’ve got to win the election under the rules which we’re operating under. And we should be laser-focused on that for now, and other conversations can come later.”

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