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26 September 2022

A fight for electoral reform threatens Labour unity

Members have forced a vote at the party’s conference on proportional representation, which the leadership opposes.

By Anoosh Chakelian

The Labour Party leadership is facing a serious conflict with its members over electoral reform. An overwhelming majority of party members are in favour of changing the British voting system from first past the post to proportional representation, but Keir Starmer is refusing to adopt the policy.

Proportional representation (PR) also has support from Labour figures across the spectrum, from Stephen Kinnock to John McDonnell, Andy Burnham to Anas Sarwar. Advocates make the point that, under first past the post, the Conservatives only need a five percentage-point lead to win a Commons majority thanks to where their voters are based, whereas Labour needs at least 12 points. If the two parties received an equal share of the vote at the next general election, the Tories would win 23 more seats than Labour.

Yet the Labour leader’s office has been reluctant to back PR. It would make the party vulnerable to Tory attack lines about electoral pacts, stitch-ups and a “coalition of chaos”. Plus, for MPs who have won their seats and held them under the existing system, there is little incentive to change. As the party’s conference opened in Liverpool, Starmer told the Observer that electoral reform is “not a priority for me”.

Still, 129 motions advocating for changing the voting system were submitted to the conference, and the issue is expected to go to the conference floor for a vote late this afternoon (26 September). While the vote is non-binding, there is a “Beatlemania” level of feeling among the membership about it, in the words of one campaign insider, which makes it a headache for the leadership.

After hours of discussions from 8pm until nearly 11pm late last night, reminiscent of the tense negotiations over the wording of Labour’s Brexit stance at past party conferences, the wording of the motion calls unequivocally for the party to back PR. The motion, seen by the New Statesman, says: “Labour must make a commitment to introduce Proportional Representation for general elections in the next manifesto. During its first term in office the next Labour government must change the voting system for general elections to a form of PR.”

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

According to one source close to proceedings, there was a “half-arsed” attempt to put forward an alternative motion, and another says the leadership tried to “force a split” among the PR backers. Yet the leader’s office has been briefing that it’s “intensely relaxed” about the motion passing (a stance, as one PR activist joked, that sounds like someone saying they don’t care about an ex, only to keep refreshing their Instagram page). There is also a belief among some in the party that Starmer hasn’t fully closed the door on the idea.

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A growing number of Labour-affiliated trade unions support the cause for electoral reform, and will be pivotal in the vote. Unison passed a motion earlier this year backing PR, and Unite voted to reject first past the post last year. Aslef, the Communication Workers Union, Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association and Musicians Union also back electoral reform. After a lot of union wrangling over the Labour leadership’s stance on strikes, however, it isn’t a priority for Starmer’s team to try to lean on the unions on this issue.

“The water was tested during composite [the process to word a motion] but no one there can be left in any doubt as to the strength of feeling there is among delegates and the wider party on this issue,” says a source close to the campaign for PR.

Neither of the main parties has ever dropped their support for first past the post, so a vote at Labour conference to do so would be a significant development – even if the leadership tries its best to ignore it for now. “The last few days have shown again there is now unprecedented support for PR in the party from the grassroots up,” says the campaign source. “But we know we are working to overturn a century of consensus. It would be an unprecedented moment for Labour to back electoral reform in this way.”

[See also: Who’s who in Keir Starmer’s Labour Party?]