Achieving electoral reform – the common good comes before personal ambition

Anyone who has stood as a paper candidate knows that this is a selfless task that normally has nothing to do with personal ambition. This is the basis on which I stood in three General Elections. I was regarded as a good candidate for hopeless northern seats – and endorsed as such by Richard Wainwright MP! In October 1974, when the Liberals stood in every seat for the first time, the Region told me that there was nobody else for Rother Valley. As the first candidate since 1918, I saved my deposit after we managed to address folded leaflets (by hand) to the 93,000 electors. I suppose that was the fulfilment of a very modest ambition.

I do see myself as achieving a few things in my time but that is different from fulfilling personal ambition. I still hold the percentage vote share record for Barnsley Central, where I stood in 1983, but, as Yorkshire and the Humber Region know full well, that’s nowt to boast about. My final outing in Eccles in 1992 was utterly unmemorable!

I became Lord Mayor of Bradford in 2016 but that was not something I had dreamed of becoming, as it was for for some other councillors. My group reckoned I had more time and flexibility than anyone else, so they all took one step backwards and left me to be nominated.

Now there is nothing wrong with personal ambition (although shared ambition is better). I welcome people who put their all into becoming the MP for this or that constituency rather than simply wanting to be an MP. We need people who want to be in government as a contribution towards changing the country for the better – all hail Lynne Featherstone!

However there is always a balance to be struck between personal ambitions and a commitment to the common good – which brings me to the curious case of Keir Starmer and Neal Lawson. At the weekend, Lawson, the head of Compass and a long-time supporter of PR, claimed that, having been an active member of the Labour Party for 44 years, he was facing disciplinary proceedings and possibly expulsion, because in 2021 he tweeted support for a Green candidate in a local election.

Now Neal Lawson may be a bit too centrist for some of us, but he deserves huge respect for his commitment over the years to a more pluralist, open and generous politics. The challenge from the Labour leadership has caused outrage across the Labour Party. For me it raises questions about what the current Labour leadership is aiming for.

Apparently behind this episode is the belief that any hint of tolerating coalition or commitment to reforming the voting system would be a gift to the Tories and help Labour lose the next election. It leads me to think that Starmer and his colleagues are so determined to win one election that they cannot see beyond it. For under the present corrupt electoral system, giving the Tories time to recover makes a second victory unlikely, unless you play a neo-Blairite game to win again under the present system – difficult to see that producing the long-term radical reconstruction the country needs.

So what’s the motivation? Labour have always seen the system as providing “their turn” even if the Conservatives remain the default winners more years than not. Labour would get to occupy Downing Street, shadow ministers would get their hands on the levers of power and seats in ministerial limos. However, in the end, the common good is more important than satisfying personal or collective ambitions, and certainly more important than individual status, as Attlee demonstrated.

There are Labour people who console themselves by thinking that Keir will go for changing the voting system once in power. Well, we’ve all been there before.

Ideally electoral reform should be the result of a constitutional convention, like that which established the Scottish Parliament. But time is not on our side and the Conservative party will never give up its trump card. The next government must go for it, openly and honestly. That doesn’t mean a Coalition. If Labour become the largest party without an overall majority it doesn’t take long to work out what the crucial elements of an “agreement” might be. And if it has an overall majority, the long-term future of the country cannot be a matter of crossing fingers for a second term. They will have to reform the voting system then anyway.

* Geoff Reid is a retired Methodist minister and represented Eccleshill on Bradford City Council for twelve years

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22 Comments

  • Kay Kirkham 4th Jul '23 - 11:03am

    Any one who supports PR should join Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform – a bargain at £10 a year although more would be welcome ! ( declares an interest as treasurer of said organisation) lder.org/en/

    See you at our fringe and exhibition stand in Bournemouth

  • Ideally I am all for PR but Introduce it and we will be finished, it will just give power to the Greens and Reform.
    The Canadian Liberals soon dropped the idea once they got power, why, it would have led to more seat and votes for the New Democrats.
    Time to be sensible and pragmatic as a party and see where our bread is buttered.

  • Paul Barker 4th Jul '23 - 3:59pm

    Being a member of a mainstream Party commits you to only 2 things : paying Dues & not openly supporting other Candidates against one of your Own Party – its not much to ask.

    Neal Lawson hasn’t been expelled, simply asked to explain himself – a simple apology plus an explanation that he didn’t mean what he said would probably get him off the hook. Humility goes a long way.

    On Electoral Reform – The Labour Leadership would be daft to accept it now unless its forced on them by their Members. As things stand they can expect a massive Majority whenever The Tories face the Voters & a Working Majority (at least) at the Election after that – why give that up for the harder work of Minority Government or Coalition with Us ?
    Probably we will get Reform when we make a full Recovery & can force a “Hung” Parliament – perhaps at the end of this Decade or more likely in the next.

  • Mel Borthwaite 4th Jul '23 - 5:35pm

    Thanks for the interesting article. I suppose my only comment would be to ask whether you would be comfortable with a member of the Liberal Democrats tweeting support for the candidate of a rival political party who were standing against a Liberal Democrat candidate, or would you expect them to face some disciplinary consequence?

  • George Thomas 4th Jul '23 - 6:10pm

    Mhairi Black has described looking to step down from being an MP due to toxic working environment in Westminster which, if you agree with her politics or not, seems to have some evidence to support the claim.

    Having a political system where constituencies care more about who can count the vote the quickest than the result because result is known before it starts, having seats where young people write in the Daily Mail that they’d prefer to go on holiday than vote because their vote won’t matter…clearly there are issues with the voting system.

    However, even if we do bin the two party system, how many parties in Westminster are looking to devolve HS2 money to Wales retrospectively? Jane Dodds has spoken about how current plan is grossly unfair but has Ed Davey? I don’t think the voting system changing is the final stop in discussion of how to improve things.

  • Steve Trevethan 4th Jul '23 - 6:13pm

    To promote an electoral reform, does a party have to do directly to making it a policy?

    Might it be both informative and, possibly, motivating, to produce a well researched discussion paper?

  • Peter Wrigley 4th Jul '23 - 6:47pm

    My personal preference is PR by STV in multi-member constituencies, no ifs, no buts. However, that might be akin to baying at the moon. It could also provoke a flurry of proposals on the form of PR. It is interesting that, in his otherwise very laudable book”How Westminster Works,” Ian Dunt, suggests, yes, PR, but by the Closed Party List (ouch!) or the Open Party List. No prizes for which the authoritarian Labour Party would go. A more likely way forward, as Geoff hints, could be to demand a constitutional convention (or a series of them) with an undertaking to put the final proposals to that parliament on a free vote.

  • James Fowler 4th Jul '23 - 7:29pm

    I liked the 2011 proposal. Keep the constituencies but allow people to rank their preferences. A small change that probably would have led to bigger ones. It should never have been put to a referendum, and could have been waved through parliament after ’97. Heigh ho.

  • Peter Davies 4th Jul '23 - 9:43pm

    The Idea that people can only identify with their constituencies in single member seats is nonsense. People identify with Cornwall (which would be an STV constituency). They don’t identify with ‘Tiverton and Minehead’.

  • Mick Taylor 4th Jul '23 - 9:53pm

    Constituency link is a red herring. Multi member seats are still constituencies and the MPs elected would still represent a seat. The important difference is that voters would, in most cases, have an MP of their political persuasion, to consult and seek help from.
    Does anyone think Irish TDs, elected by STV in multimember seats are not representatives of their constituency in the Dail?
    The present system on one MP, one seat, leaves a large percentage of voters feeling unrepresented and helpless to change the situation given the number of safe seats.
    Geoff is quite right. We have to push for PR [STV for me], because fair representation is right and the present FPTP is wrong.
    @Theakes. I couldn’t disagree with you more. Under almost any system of PR, we would have many more MPs than we have now. And yes, there might be more Green MPs and even the odd Reform MP, but under PR that would be inevitable and right. If that is really a problem, then a 5% threshold before you get any seats as in Germany would prevent some extreme parties from gaining seats.

  • Peter Davies 5th Jul '23 - 7:09am

    The 5% limit in list systems doesn’t seem stop extreme parties from getting representation. The worry is that an extreme faction’s only available tactic is to hijack a mainstream party which can then get a majority with about a third of the vote. The trots have regularly tried to do this in the Labour party and the English nationalists appear to have succeeded in the Tories.

    Extreme parties tend to destroy themselves when they have representation. Look at anywhere where the BNP got council seats. They soon realised that all their colleagues were horrible people. They put this down to coincidence.

  • Peter Watson 5th Jul '23 - 8:19am

    @theakes “I am all for PR but Introduce it and we will be finished,”
    @Mick Taylor “I couldn’t disagree with you more. Under almost any system of PR, we would have many more MPs”
    I don’t know the basis for theake’s belief, but I tend to agree with him.
    With the current party system, PR would give Lib Dems far more seats, even with the much diminished vote share of recent general elections. However, I think that PR could lead to splits within the Labour and Conservative parties, resulting in centre-left and centre-right parties, each bolstered by support from a more extreme version of themselves. In such an arrangement, the centre looks too crowded for a Lib Dem party that disappointingly defines itself (or allows its leadership to define it) simply and vaguely as none of the above.

  • Nonconformistradical 5th Jul '23 - 8:59am

    @Mick Taylor
    “The important difference is that voters would, in most cases, have an MP of their political persuasion, to consult and seek help from.”
    Indeed – but also there should be no (or at least fewer) safe seats. under a PR multi-member constituency system.

  • Gordon Lishman 5th Jul '23 - 10:21am

    I am saddened although unsurprised that no-one has picked up on Geoff’s reference to “the common good”, particularly in relation to one’s attitude to and work within the Party.

    I also note that, as ever, commentators seem to go through life unencumbered by doubt.

  • Peter Watson 5th Jul '23 - 2:16pm

    @Martin “I disagree with Peter Watson, there will always be a niche for Modern Liberalism.”
    I don’t disagree with you! 🙂
    But for me, the questions are how large might that niche be, and would the current incarnation of the Lib Dems be well-placed to occupy it. I fear the party would lose too many greens, economic liberals and social democrats to its (possibly better-defined/understood) neighbours near the political centre.

  • PR voting would not finish the LibDems. There is a natural slot in the political spectrum for Liberalism that cannot be subsumed effectively within Social Democratic or Conservative Parties even if they hold elements of liberal views. In countries with PR voting there are far more parties in serious contention and the big tent two would probably split at least once, although neither would subsume the LibDems.

    Liberals running countries with PR that come to mind: Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Or with FPTP: Canada and arguably USA.

  • Sometimes reading articles here makes me wonder if some people actually realise that politics and political systems don’t just stop at the English border?

    In Scotland, Labour were persuaded twice about the merits of proportional systems; once for the Scottish Parliament, and once for councils. On the first one, they may well have been driven more by the aim to stop the SNP, but on the second they certainly did follow the ‘common good’ as, when it was introduced in 2007, they pretty much lost control of every council they held and had to go into coalitions.

    To answer @theakes point, the evidence doesn’t back your view up. The Tories had virtually no representation in Scotland by 1997, as while their vote was around 16% it was spread across the country; what kept them alive was the Scottish Parliament’s voting system from 1999. Similarly, the SNP benefitted in 2007 from that, as did we in the council elections; it also kept us alive after the disaster of the 2011 Scottish elections.

  • Chris Moore 6th Jul '23 - 7:50am

    I agree with Martin and other posters who point to a distinct liberal ideology as critical for our survival under PR.

    Martin mentions our intellectual godfather: JS Mill.

    The party’s current ideology owes more to the New Liberalism of the early 20th century, with figures like TH Green and L Hobhouse stressing the importance of state intervention to give individuals the wherewithal to benefit from liberty.

  • James Fowler 6th Jul '23 - 9:46pm

    Peter Watson – very much agree with your last comment.

  • I’ve been trying not to dodge Mel Borthwaite’s early question. I suppose my attitude is coloured by my refusal to tweet anything. I made an exception during my year as Lord Mayor when I was persuaded that I was expected to tweet something, at least once a day, as part of the deal. So I waited until each day’s work was done, paused for reflection, then carefully crafted two or three sentences. The Council’s Media Office were not over-thrilled
    by that – just as they were a bit iffy about me writing almost all my own speeches! So I am the last person to judge the significance of other people’s tweets as potential grounds for disciplinary action. I am perfectly comfortable about the rules that forbid Liberal Democrat members standing against official Liberal Democrat candidates, even in situations when they have been endorsed by less than satisfactory selection processes. My gut instincts would probably be against members going public in support of candidates from other parties but my understanding is that in the Lawson case this was part of some sort of local co-operation agreement amongst supporters of different parties. Never having been part of such a process, I hesitate to comment on those involved. Putting that lack of experience alongside my weak doctrine of Twitter, I don’t feel able to go much further in answering Mel’s question!

  • Peter Hirst 10th Jul '23 - 2:34pm

    Surely you can satisfy your ego by achieving the common good. By playing a small part in a large campaign like electoral reform I could feel satisfied when it wins by knowing I played some part in its success. At least it is undoubtedly a progressive policy unlike those that some politicians tie their mast to.

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