How to achieve Electoral Reform in the light of Keir Starmer’s obstructionism

On Monday, members at Labour’s Annual Conference voted in favour of a motion to replace First Past the Post with Proportional Representation in general elections. This comes after Unison, Unite, and the GMB, three of Britain’s largest trade unions, came out in support of PR in the months following the 2021 Labour Conference, where the withholding of such resulted in the failure of a similar motion despite nearly eighty per cent of Constituency delegates supporting it.

However, it seems as though Labour’s National Executive Committee will ignore the motion, preventing such a promise from becoming part of their next manifesto. With Keir Starmer saying that ‘it’s not a priority’, he plans to ignore the wishes of the majority of his party’s members, the red wall voters he needs to win back, and indeed the wider British public, and reap the rewards of disproportionate, unstable FPTP and gross Conservative mismanagement to win an unwarranted parliamentary majority.

As the next general election is likely to be upwards of two years away, the Labour leadership could yield to popular demands and adopt PR as official policy if pressure on them is maintained. Nevertheless, moving forward, we Liberal Democrats must consider our strategy for how to abolish FPTP given official opposition to such by one of the major parties against the wishes of its own supporters and its own self-interests.

Whilst FPTP is favoured by the larger parties for supposedly providing strong single party governments, recent history has proven otherwise. Seven out of the ten years of the 2010s saw the election of hung Parliaments, with the Conservatives losing their majority in 2017 despite increasing their vote share to 42.3% up from 36.8% in 2015. It may be possible that FPTP delivers unto Labour a plurality or a razor-thin majority, rather than a working majority. If we manage to poach enough blue wall seats, we would be the most palatable option for Labour as a potential coalition or confidence-and-supply agreement partner.

We should learn from our party’s previous experience with negotiating with a major party in achieving electoral reform. In 2010, we entered into coalition with the Conservatives on condition that a referendum be held over replacing FPTP with Alternative Voting. With still-majoritarian AV being a dissatisfactory substitute to both FPTP and Single Transferable Voting, our party’s preference then and now, the Conservatives and Labour alike depicted it as scary, confusing, and distracting. The defeat of AV wrongly signified for some, most notably David Cameron, the defeat of PR, stymieing momentum for years afterwards.

If we find ourselves in the same position again but with Labour, we must be more determined. If the Conservatives were the only adamantly anti-PR party in Parliament, and all others were broadly in favour of it, we could insist that electoral reform be achieved via a simple Act of Parliament without a referendum. A broadly pro-PR supermajority in Parliament would have sufficient a mandate to do so.

However, if Labour insists that a referendum would be required to replace FPTP, whether to deliver a direct mandate for reform or to quash any and all future campaigns, perhaps we should take inspiration from New Zealand. In 1992, New Zealand held a two-question referendum asking voters whether wanted to replace FPTP, and if so, which system they wanted to replace it with. Out of Mixed Member Proportional, Single Transferable Voting, Supplementary Member, and Alternative Voting, voters had to choose a preference whether or not they wanted to replace FPTP. With New Zealanders voting for reform and MMP, they voted to retain PR in a confirmatory referendum in 2011.

If Labour insisted upon an electoral reform referendum, we in turn must insist upon a two-question model, with only proportional systems including STV, MMP and List included as options under the second question. After all, given the defeat of AV in 2011, naysayers of electoral reform could hardly insist – at least, consistently – that it should be an option again.

Ultimately, I hope that Labour will adopt as official party policy support for PR, unfounded Conservative accusations of an undemocratic leftist stitch-up be damned. For preference, to bring about electoral reform and better politics, we need to lead this country gently by the hand, not drag it kicking and screaming, and garnering support for PR from one of the two major parties who have hitherto benefitted from FPTP is the most effective means of achieving it.

* Samuel James Jackson has been a grassroots member of the Liberal Democrats, affiliated with the Calderdale branch, since 2017, and is currently studying at the University of Leeds for a Master’s degree in History.

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34 Comments

  • David Evans 28th Sep '22 - 2:32pm

    Samuel, While I admire your determination to keep constitutional affairs and PR on the agenda, your suggestion just won’t work. The only people who can change the rules are the winners, and the winners (be they Labour or Conservative) will not change the rules they just won by – It’s their turn now.

    Getting PR is going to be much, much more difficult and long term than that.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 28th Sep '22 - 2:33pm

    A very sensible article Samuel writes .

    My view is Starmer is a good decent man with no real ability to seize the initiative. He is a successful lawyer. He needs to be given a brief. He is like a good supporting actor on tv or in the west end, in a leading role now, who needs a very good script.

    Andy Burnham is more a good leading man who has imagination, but is in a starring role in a regional play! The main attention therefore is on tv and the capital.

    PR is something that requires a level of leadership on deatail, Starmer does not yet have naturally. Maybe we can help him. He has shown gusto on internal party issues and done much to gain ground. But on some thing he is neither supportying or leading player. He seems stuck in rehearsal!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 28th Sep '22 - 2:38pm

    As an aside, I add, he showed these aspects on Covid, and energy.

    But PR is one only smaller parties lead on. Starmer takes his cues from inside his own thinking, which is caution on everything but Corbyn being sidelined. He did well there to rebrand and detoxify. But we need a bit more Gaitskill and Kinnock on these matters, less Wilson and Callaghan. We need him to be up front!

  • Michael Cole 28th Sep '22 - 3:00pm

    I am disgusted, but not surprised, by Starmer’s cynical and self-serving refusal to embrace his own Party’s overwhelming support for electoral reform.

    It is up to us, together with the SNP, PC and Green Party, to actively campaign for change.

    Our leadership, as a priority, must explain to people why electoral reform is not merely a pedantic exercise. The reasons and arguments in favour are well known to the vast majority of LDV readers, so it is not appropriate to list them here. The public perception is that it is ‘bread and butter’ policies that matter. But we are aware that electoral reform is the sine qua non for better government and it is our duty to make the case.

    Time and again, people ask the question “Why can’t they work together instead of arguing all the time ? ” In their minds many of them also question why we have been so badly governed for so long.

    Campaign for electoral reform is not only in our DNA, it is also a vote-winner.

  • Paul Barker 28th Sep '22 - 3:00pm

    The article seems to assume that we don’t already have a policy on Coalition with Labour but we do. PR with no Referendum is already our Precondition for talks with Labour.

    Starmers “not a priority” is typical politicians phrasing – the harder you look at it the fuzzier it gets. Taken literally it might simply mean that Labour wouldn’t legislate for Fair Votes in its first Year in office.
    My guess is that Starmer sees electoral reform as a possible Vote-loser & is still expecting a Hung Parliament. He can avoid the issue now & “blame” The Libdems for having to introduce PR after The Election. One advantage of Coalition is that both Parties can throw their Manifestos in the bin & cite the need for compromise. Starmer could please his membership & The Unions with PR at no political cost.
    Of course that’s me being optimistic, I don’t know what Starmer is thinking & neither does anyone else.

    What I do firmly believe is that shouting at Labour is not helpful – they are on a journey & we should help them along.

  • David Evans 28th Sep '22 - 3:16pm

    Martin, I acknowledge your response has some significant logic to it. However logic does not apply in Labour politics. They have shown for many decades that they will accept the Conservatives winning much more often than Labour do, just to get their place in the sun for a few years every now and then.

    “I’ve waited for years for my turn at the trough now. I’m not going to give it away to any uppity young Lib Dem now I am so close,” is the Labour Big Beast’s mantra.

  • George Thomas 28th Sep '22 - 3:59pm

    Turnout in AV Referendum was just 42.2% – partly explained by ConDems telling us austerity was desperately needed and then Lib Dems (+ Ed Miliband) trying to argue that voting reform was where we should be spending our money.

    Worry about household finances was a priority and I don’t see how different things are so different now that voters would be engaged with not just one alternative but more than one alternative voting systems.

    STV and Additional Member System have advantage of at least some people in the UK already knowing how they work. Even though STV may be better voting system, Additional Member System is used by higher number of people currently so either a) start with trying to alter Senedd Cymru and Holyrood’s use of AMS* or b) concede that AMS is horse worth backing.

    *Senedd currently discussing electoral reform (not in an ideal way) so be quick about it.

    Tories are, or at least were, on the right path for their side of the argument by changing all elections Westminster has control over to FPTP so to reduce the number of people familiar with alternatives. That (and them mishandling worldwide financial crash…again) is what we’re up again.

    Changing voting system is not enough. We’d still have population so prone to misinformation (misinformation so easily bought by wealthy individuals) so challenging how politics is reported on and increasing critical thinking is needed as well.

  • Mr John Bicknell 28th Sep '22 - 4:03pm

    My concern is that, even if Labour was forced into active consideration of PR by the next GE producing a hung parliament, they would use the fact that this change was not in their manifesto in order to insist that it would have to be ratified by a referendum. They would then sit on their hands, allow the Conservatives and their supporters in the media to make the anti-PR case, see the PR option lost in the referendum, then they could go back to the old 2 party duopoly that they wanted all along.

  • Peter Davies 28th Sep '22 - 4:36pm

    In Wales where Labour has some real power, PR is coming at all levels except Westminster. In London where the Mayor is essentially a patsy for all the decisions made by national ministers (and in some cases London Boroughs), we are about to lose the proportional element of the assembly. Sadiq Khan is opposed to this in his usual ineffectual way. We ought to be leading the fight on this one (it’s primarily aimed at knocking us and the Greens off the assembly). If it happens, we should be leading the fight to ensure it results in the Tories getting no representation at London level.

  • Peter Davies 28th Sep '22 - 8:30pm

    I’ve never worked out Labour would prefer AMS to STV. It’s true that more people have experience of it but they don’t seem to be nearly as happy with it as the Scots and Northern Irish with STV. In London where we have Mayoral (preferential) and Assembly (AMS) it was definitely the AMS that people found confusing. Probably more relevant to Labour loyalists is that STV favours those parties that can attract transfers from other parties. Labour could reasonably expect more transfers than the Tories from us, SNP, Greens, and Plaid. That means they would be largest party more often under STV than AMS.

  • If the London Assembly system was more of a proper AMS/Mixed Member PR system as Germany’s Bundestag system is with its allowance of overhangs and therefore with the list PR element of the system really driving the overall proportionality of it then people might well understand it better.

    People get confused otherwise. The system should be more akin to the German system in this way. This would help people understand that the list part of the system is purely there to compensate fully for the huge disproportionality created by the single member FPTP constituency part.

    The two parts of the system should work together completely. Voters need to understand that the two parts of the system have different roles to play with the FPTP constituencies being there to provide a local geographical link to the Assembly and to personalize the system.

    Infact, in Germany, the MMP system is called Personalized Proportional Representation. I think Germany’s system has much to commend it. The only bad points are that their regional state party lists are closed which need not be the case and shouldn’t be though German law categorically forbids party leaderships from interfering in the ordering of the candidates on the lists with party members in the various German states selecting them at special conferences and that the national threashold for representation is, perhaps, a touch too high at 5% and could be lowered to 4%.

  • I believe I am correct in stating that Germany’s system was actually designed by us and that we imposed it on them after the war. At one time it was a unique system but has now been adopted by New Zealand after a commendable and well designed reform process underpinned by two national referendums. Some other countries use it too but they are the main ones. On Wikipedia there is an article about electoral systems and Mixed Member PR as in Germany and New Zealand is rated by electoral experts as the best overall system.

  • It is such a shame we gave Germany a pretty sane, rational and relatively few in flaws electoral system whilst continuing to saddle ourselves with an archaic and unfair system that has frustrated the true democratic will of the British people for quite a few decades now.

    Whilst Germany’s post war economic success can’t be entirely attributed to its use of Mixed Member Proportional Representation I am sure it has been a contributary factor as it has enabled more long term thinking and less lurches in economic policy than we have had.

  • Peter Davies 29th Sep '22 - 8:09am

    No. What confused them was the two ballot papers (along with the separate mayoral one). They do not recognise the “communities” represented by the 14 “local” AMs. Mine is two boroughs (Havering and Redbridge) which sit either side of Barking and Dagenham and are only connected by a strip of farms and woodland on the edges of Epping Forrest. Metropolitan Essex is a real place, bordered by the River Lee, a boundary set by King Alfred and the Danes. That would be a proper STV constituency.

  • Nonconformistradical 29th Sep '22 - 8:22am

    “They do not recognise the “communities” represented by the 14 “local” AMs”
    A crucial point – echoed across the country with every boundary change.

    And a point which could be emphasised in promoting electoral reform involving multi-member seats – form electoral area boundaries based on genuine communities and change the number of elected representatives for an electoral area when a significant change in the number of voters has occurred.

    Hey – we could do away with a quango – boundaries commission.

  • There is a clear need in my opinion for a campaign on changing the electoral system. As a party we have very limited resources so the place to start is with our members. Perhaps we can remind our members of the damage which our present system is doing to our country. We need to start locally. There is no reason why councils should not have the option of a proportional system. We would only get to that stage if we were to build up a campaign.
    We must also recognise that when people say that the parties are all the same, this is what they believe. I have to admit that after the treatment the former leader of the Labour Party got, I can understand what they mean.
    So in the end we will only get electoral reform if we find ways of persuading people that the present system is damaging our country, and then working with others to achieve change.

  • Of the 4 Polls since the Budget , 2 give Labour a lead of 13% & 2 of 17%. The window of opportunity for a Hung Parliament has probably passed & the most likely outcomes of the next Election are a solid Labour Majority or a Landslide, 1997 minus Scotland.

    With Politics dominated by The Budget why would Starmer gift The Tories a chance to talk about Electoral Reform instead ? Starmer,s “not a priority” formula was perfectly calculated to avoid the focus shifting away from the Governments troubles.

    We are entirely dependent on Labour to change the System, the last thing we should be doing is insulting them for making a big step forward – that is not the way to change minds.

  • John Lib Dem 29th Sep '22 - 1:40pm

    @Paul – look at the mess Labour has made of electoral reform in Wales. They’re introducing a system that nobody asked for and which goes against their own expert opinion and that is arguably worse than FPTP.

    This is a very interesting article. Like the other recent article about the Lords, it’s something our party needs to give more thought to in terms of what, why, and how.

    I’m more inclined towards simply introducing PR without a referendum but with a future referendum on whether to retain it though.

  • Rif Winfield 29th Sep '22 - 2:48pm

    I think a simplistic call for “a proportional system” is exceedingly dangerous. John Lib Dem is perfectly correct in pointing out that a party list system (particularly a closed list variety) is worse than FPTP, since it robs the electors of any choice in who would be their representatives and gives all power over to the party machines of Labour and the Tories (Lib Dems and Greens wouldn’t get a word in). I have been campaigning for STV for half a century (I was the founding secretary back in 1974 of LAGER – the Liberal Action Group for Electoral Reform) and am desperately worried that Labour in particular is intending to bring in a party list system whereby its head offices could determine who party hacks can be rewarded by putting them high up on the list; this is what they are now proposing for the Wales Senedd and must be resisted at all costs.

  • The most used electoral system in the world is open party list proportional representation which enables the voters to push people up and down the party lists thereby either increasing their chances of being elected or worsening them. There are good reasons for that. It works very well indeed in Denmark and Sweden both of whom are amongst the world’s most prosperous and well run countries with this applying particularly to Denmark.

    STV is used in just TWO lower house parliaments in the world one being the tiny effectively micro state of Malta and another country with a small population ie the Republic of Ireland. It is worth mentioning that in both instances the system was not freely chosen by the peoples of those countries but was IMPOSED on them by us with STV in the Republic being foisted on them by the departing British as a scheme designed to protect the Protestant minority there. They have had two referendums to decide whether or not to retain it where the only other option was to adopt our grotesquely undemocratic system with one of them only narrowly deciding against our system.

    STV when it has been put to a vote has fared badly. It was an option for New Zealand in their electoral reform referendum where it was massively defeated by 70% to just 17% by the German style Mixed Member Proportional Representation.

  • The Royal Commission on Voting Systems in New Zealand during their electoral reform process recommended the use of Mixed Member PR as is used in Germany rather than STV because MMP was more likely to enable the voters to hold parties to account for their performances in government as there is an explicit party vote and because an electoral system should enable political parties to structure and lead the national debate.

    STV is probably best used in upper house revising chambers where it can promote the election of independents and indeed that is what it is used for most often.

  • All you need to know about Keir Starmer and his alleged respect for genuine democratic principles can be summed up by him not backing the use of PR for general elections whilst our new unelected, hereditary Monarch, King Charles III who comes from the only family in the kingdom that can provide our Head of State the Mountbatten Windsors does and has been in favour of it since the early 1990s.

    That really says it all about Keir Starmer and his grotesque and utterly repellent attitude to genuine democracy. So much for being the leader of a party that constantly says it is the party of the many not the few. I have never voted Labour not even when so many millions were sadly conned by the smarmy warmonger, Tony Blair, in 1997 and I am not about to start now whereas if they did back the introduction of a genuine, modern democracy I would seriously consider it.

  • Peter Hirst 29th Sep '22 - 5:17pm

    Let’s not allow the best be the enemy of the good. Almost anything is better than FPTP. A Citizen’s Assembly would come up with a system that would be voted on by our legislature and then approved by a referendum. We could always change it again by the same process if a concensus develops in favour of a different system.

  • New Zealand had a pretty long and carefully considered, deliberative process to choose a new electoral system headed by a Royal Commission and then followed by national referendums. In many ways, it was a model of how to go about this issue. I doubt whether we would be making a big mistake if we aspired to do the same.

  • Of course, the fact that Labour members have endorsed the use of PR for general elections should be welcomed and their activists should be congratulated and encouraged in this new stance but it is Keir Starmer who decides whether or not it goes in their manifesto and the omens do not look good.

    A degree of well justified caution and yes some cynisism is to be expected. Remember there was a previous manifesto commitment in 1997 that ever so conveniently was dumped overboard once safely in power so let us not be too carried away with this news.

    If long-term sinners are now repenting of their previous sins then that is excellent but let us retain a sense of caution.

  • Labour members but more particularly Labour MPs and Keir Starmer need to be constantly reminded that real electoral reform and the use of Proportional Representation for general elections is a VOTE WINNER not a vote loser in the main not just in the Red Wall seats but all across the country.

    Even a decently sizable minority of current Tory supporters are prepared to consider the idea. They would probably endorse a New Zealand style reform process where the plus and minus points of the various PR systems can be carefully considered.

    When push comes to shove there are relatively few fanatical defenders of stand alone FPTP in this country. Labour MPs and Keir Starmer need to be presented with this polling evidence and that is where groups like Make Votes Matter come into play.

  • John Lib Dem 29th Sep ’22 – 1:40pm…………….I’m more inclined towards simply introducing PR without a referendum but with a future referendum on whether to retain it though………

    ‘Big Brother’ knows best

  • Peter Davies 30th Sep '22 - 10:08am

    The evidence from the New Zeeland and ROI referenda and our own AV referendum is that people vote against change by default. It is hardly surprising that representatives elected under one system generally campaign to retain it.

  • Peter Davies 30th Sep ’22 – 10:08am:
    The evidence from the New Zealand and ROI referenda and our own AV referendum is that people vote against change by default.

    Yes, both psychological experiments and empirical research show this is generally true for all major decisions. It’s called status quo bias. This is why the EU Referendum result was a safe decision.

    ‘Status Quo Bias in Decision Making’:
    https://ideas.repec.org/a/kap/jrisku/v1y1988i1p7-59.html

    Most real decisions, unlike those of economics texts, have a status quo alternative — that is, doing nothing or maintaining one’s current or previous decision. A series of decision-making experiments shows that individuals disproportionately stick with the status quo. Data on the selections of health plans and retirement programs by faculty members reveal that the status quo bias is substantial in important real decisions.

    ‘The Status Quo Bias in Direct Democracy: Empirical Results for Switzerland, 1981 – 1999’:
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/255596026_The_Status_Quo_Bias_in_Direct_Democracy_Empirical_Results_for_Switzerland_1981_-_1999

    …mobilisation is much more effective against than in favour of a proposal. This at least is clear evidence of a status quo bias in the Swiss political system. But it is open for discussion whether this bias should be evaluated positively or negatively.

  • Alex Macfie 1st Oct '22 - 12:35pm

    New Zealand voted for change when it adopted the MMP system by referendum. There may be a status quo bias in some referendum decisions, but it doesn’t apply universally, and it certainly doesn’t mean, as @Jeff suggests, that a referendum result for change is automatically “safe” or question-settling. If the Brexit vote were “safe” there wouldn’t have ever been such a strong pushback against it.
    The two most recent nationwide referendums in the UK, on electoral reform (2011) and Brexit (2016) are both models of how NOT to run a referendum. There was no regulation of the claims made by campaign groups, and consequently both were won by disinformation. This can be contrasted with the process in New Zealand in the referendums for both the original adoption of the MMP voting system and its retention, in which claims were strictly fact-checked. There could be no “we need X not an alternative voting system” nor “We spend £350M on the EU” under the New Zealand process. For the AV referendum, both the claimed cost and the implication that the money could be spent on some other random heartstring-pulling thing would have been banned, and rightly so.

    Lib Dems should argue for PR without a referendum in any post-election negotiations with Labour. The UK is, after all, a representative democracy. However, if there *must* be a referendum, then we should only accept one with a New Zealand type process, not the free-to-lie campaign model that characterised the most recent UK referendums.

  • We should argue for PR without a Referendum in return for Labour support. If they fail to achieve a working majority, Starmer’s previous support for PR and the big support at their Conference might just be enough to shift them.

    A Referendum would turn into another festival of lying and propaganda, as the last two managed and would likely overturn public support for proper PR ( not AV), as there was at the time of the AV Ref.

  • The Lib Dems can put slight pressure on Labour to adopt PR and widen support for the principle within the electorate by changing their next manifesto to a commitment that a Lib Dem majority government or one with Lib Dem involvement will put a definite end to the present use of stand alone FPTP and that there would be an information campaign to explain the various PR systems and their often important differences followed by a national referendum allowing the electorate to choose a new system from the three types of PR.

    A referendum should be used as it was in New Zealand to choose between various PR systems and not to endorse stand alone FPTP over PR.

    It should be made clear to the electorate that if you vote Lib Dem you are saying you want to rid Britain of this grotesquely unrepresentative and undemocratic use of stand alone FPTP and you are endorsing a PR system to replace it without signifying fanatical support for any particular PR system.

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