With a leadership contest officially under way, Labour’s internal democracy will continue to preoccupy the party. Once this is concluded, it should urgently turn its attention to the state of the country’s democracy and the shape of its constitution following a vote to leave the EU.
When Labour is on the rise, it embraces democratic reform. In the 1997 manifesto, political reform was integral: sandwiched in the manifesto between crime and welfare reform was a promise to ‘clean up politics, decentralise political power throughout the United Kingdom and put the funding of political parties on a proper and accountable basis’. Once in government, Labour legislated rapidly on human rights, freedom of information and substantial devolution among other things.
When Labour is less confident, it falls into a trap – terrified that talking about the constitution will make it appear out of touch and eat up political capital it should be spending on other issues. Political or democratic reform is dealt with issue by issue (boundaries; voter registration) or tactically instead of being seen as fundamental. Labour’s historically broad conception of electoral reform – rooted in the idea of widening the franchise, opening up democratic participation and placing power with people rather than party or parliamentary elites – is put to one side.
Scotland exposed the dangers of first past the post for a dominant party. A safe seat culture allowed Labour to ignore its core supporters. Now the tables have turned and the SNP benefits (56 out of 59 MPs for half the votes), with Labour reduced to one member of parliament despite winning a quarter of the votes. In contrast, a fairer voting system at Holyrood rewards Labour with seats in reasonable accordance with its popular support (24 out of 129 MSPs for around 19 per cent of the votes).
And Labour continues to do well at the local level under the single transferable vote, leading 10 councils and forming power-sharing administrations in a further nine out of 32 in Scotland, including the cities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. This fairer system has wiped out uncontested seats and allowed a more positive style of campaigning as candidates seek out second or third preferences on the doorstep. Labour is alive in Scotland because fairer voting enables people to support the parties they want to and see that support broadly reflected in their institutions. The lesson from Scotland is plain: electoral reform is a necessity, not a luxury.
As government machinery becomes consumed by Brexit negotiations, there are other democratic issues to which Labour should have answers, as the Fabian project recognises. Boundary changes coupled with new registration rules combine to exclude poorer areas from representation. That means poorer areas where populations are more transient get fewer MPs and therefore a weaker voice at Westminster. Devolution of further powers to Scotland, Wales and within England demands an urgent examination of the regional make-up of the House of Lords, and votes at 16 cannot be dismissed in the wake of huge generational tensions laid bare by the EU referendum.
Despite a degrading campaign, the EU referendum has re-ignited an interest in politics, including among disaffected groups. Unlike a general election under first past the post, there was no post-code lottery or tactical choices; your vote was counted wherever you lived and made a real difference. People demonstrated that it matters to them where power lies matters, and when the stakes are high they will engage. This presents a big opportunity for Labour to listen and learn. Plans for a constitutional convention should be reshaped not abandoned, with an obvious need to involve the public in unresolved questions about the relationship between and within the nations of the UK.
Labour also needs to look beyond party boundaries for its work on democratic renewal, as argued in a new book called The Alternative. For instance, the Scottish referendum experience has changed minds on votes at 16, with a cross-party alliance including sympathetic Conservatives (bolstered by their Scottish leader Ruth Davidson’s conversion). Labour should pressure the government to deliver on its promise of parliamentary time to revisit the issue.
Political education in schools must be harder to dismiss given the chronic gaps exposed during the EU referendum. And Labour peers made a significant difference to the government’s proposals on party funding contained in trade union legislation. They should seek to convert the hastily convened committee into a cross-party commission to revive talks on funding of party politics. The party will have no sway over the government’s determination to press ahead with boundary review and reduction in MPs. Instead it should research and adapt party policy to be ready for local population – not voting registers – to be the basis for boundaries in future.
A progressive party cannot afford to prop up a creaking democracy whilst it attempts to forge an economic and social narrative for modern Britain. It makes no sense to have economic policies to tackle vested interests, or to champion distribution of wealth, whilst failing to address the constitutional framework that would enable this to happen. Labour cannot afford to be traditionalist about democracy; it needs to get ahead of the game and once again take up the mantle of democratic renewal.
Image: Thomas Hawk