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26 September 2022

Keir Starmer is wrong to oppose proportional representation

Does Labour prefer long periods without power to sharing power?

By Neal Lawson

Before a vote was cast at the Labour conference, Keir Starmer had told delegates that the issue of electoral reform most of them supported, proportional representation (PR), would not appear in his election manifesto. Despite suggesting that he might support the policy in his party leadership campaign, and his spokesperson saying the leader was relaxed about the conference vote on the matter only this week, Starmer has now tried to shut the door on reform. Why?

It is partly because the leadership don’t want any talk of coalitions that PR implies. The “coalition of chaos” charge is regularly made by tabloid newspapers against the prospect of Labour allying with smaller parties to govern, but it will be so whatever Starmer says. It will stick for as long as Labour has neither a sustained 20 per cent poll lead, nor a plan for a coalition of coherence. The right makes it not because of the threat of chaos – we have that already – but because it knows that a hung parliament after a general election could lead to PR, which would sink the prospects of Tory majority government for good.

Starmer’s new position can therefore only be explained by a deeper rationale. Most of the senior people around him and in the shadow cabinet reject PR on principle. They don’t want to expose Labour’s monopoly of opposition to the kind of competition that PR would open up. To them, long periods of no power are better than consistently sharing power.

Such thinking is deeply flawed. Based on electoral pragmatism alone, Labour needs the tactical votes of Liberal Democrats and Greens in scores of seats to win next time. According to my own research, there were 62 “progressive tragedies” in 2019 – seats in which the progressive vote was bigger than the Tory/Brexit Party vote but split, allowing the right to win. A commitment to PR incentivises mass tactical voting and campaigning. And crucially, electoral competition can’t be suppressed indefinitely. Labour took voters for granted in Scotland and the Red Wall and they found somewhere else to go.

A commitment to PR doesn’t just help Labour win but to govern. If Labour is the single biggest party after the next election but without a majority, it will probably have inherited a financial mess requiring cross-party support to fix. The price of Liberal Democrat backing for a Labour-led recovery would be a commitment to PR. Of course, Labour could then play hardball by daring the Lib Dems and Greens to vote them down in the Commons – but would it really want to be seen triggering more elections and not acting in the country’s interests?

And that’s just the first issue that an incoming minority Labour government would face. Wider economic chaos and the climate crisis especially demand a long-term political settlement akin to the one that followed the Second World War. That was based on the ideas of Liberals, such as John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge, and the administrative skills of Labour politicians developed during the war. We need a progressive alliance that is capable of bold ideas and sustained implementation.

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First past the post allows a toxic mix of powerful elites and the whims of swing voters to dominate Britain’s politics, which keeps necessary and radical solutions off the national political agenda. It makes politics short-termist, adversarial and it centralises power. PR, by contrast, allows not just political innovation through influxes of new ideas and people, but provides the platform for long-term settlements because they are negotiated, and therefore broader and deeper.

The stakes are high. Failure to win or failure to govern doesn’t just jeopardise action on the economy and climate, but invites the collapse of trust in democracy and progressive politics. We have seen from recent elections in Sweden and Italy what happens when progressives are too timid or too divided. Democratic renewal is not a luxury but a first-order issue. Nothing big or meaningful can happen without it.

Keir Starmer has made winning and government much harder. But he’s evolved his views once. He must evolve them again.

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

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