by Olivia Hanks
Outside onlookers would be forgiven for thinking that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party had won the general election. From the scale of the jubilation among sections of the left, you wouldn’t imagine we still had a hard-right government, now propped up by the very-very-hard right. For some, the joy is purely that a Labour party which seemed irrevocably divided and defeated has reasserted itself as a credible force. For others, myself included, the reasons for optimism are more nuanced, because our hopes are not for Labour, but for a real, functioning democracy. That’s why we can join Labour supporters in rejoicing that young people came out to vote, that the UK rejected the vicious bile of the tabloid media and the arrogance of a Prime Minister who believed the election was a formality. It’s also why we are sceptical that a tribal Labour party still wedded to first-past-the-post is capable of offering the answers we need.
The unexpected election result and the resulting hung parliament has created a sense of uncertainty and possibility that those who want change need to capitalise on. Cross-party support now for constitutional reform could really succeed, but the window of time will be short: many in Labour, believing they scent a future majority, will happily return to two-party politics. The millions of people who got behind Corbyn this time – the young people who canvassed for the first time, the thousands who turned up to rallies, the Green and Liberal Democrat supporters who lent the party their votes – must force the party to change its ways and actually embrace the ‘new politics’ Corbyn has been espousing.
A (highly unlikely) Labour majority in the next election would not be a new politics. It would merely be another swing of the pendulum which we have seen go back and forth fairly consistently over the last hundred years.
Because, however much it might feel like it after seven years of Tory austerity, a (highly unlikely) Labour majority in the next election would not be a new politics. It would merely be another swing of the pendulum which we have seen go back and forth fairly consistently over the last hundred years. It would perpetuate a system where huge parties are forced to attempt an impression of unity despite a spectrum of views so wide it makes the name tag all but meaningless; and it would ensure that the millions of people whose first choice party is neither Labour nor the Conservatives remain, in England at least, un(der)represented. Make no mistake, our politics is still broken.
Central to the ‘new politics’, then, is electoral reform. The Green Party leadership has erred badly in letting this slip from view in its incessant talk of ‘progressive alliances’, which over the course of the general election campaign played into Labour’s hands and became ‘vote Labour to get the Tories out’. The Green and Lib Dem supporters who backed Labour as a vote for change may yet find that their parties’ diminished vote share is used as an argument against reform. But those who campaigned during the election know that would be an injustice. Yet again, a great many of the votes cast for Labour and for the Tories were reluctant votes ‘against’, not passionate endorsement.
So what should a new voting system actually look like? First, it must be proportional, if the lack of fair representation is to be corrected. The Greens got half a million votes and one seat (in 2015 it was 1.1 million, and still one seat), while the DUP got less than 300,000 and now has 10 MPs – and the government over a barrel. As well as addressing this gross imbalance, a proportional system would end the iniquity of safe seats, where most people know their vote will not be represented in Parliament, and where parties throw all their resources into the handful of marginal seats that determine elections.
The requirement for proportionality rules out the Alternative Vote (AV), the sickly compromise that few people could quite bring themselves to campaign for in the 2011 referendum. The second requirement for many people is to retain a link between MP and constituency, a hallmark of the British system which arguably creates clearer accountability and encourages MPs to listen to local people. There are a number of systems which fulfil these requirements: Make Votes Matter has some helpful videos explaining several of them.
Another vital point to remember in the struggle for a fairer system is that a stronger democracy entails working with those whose views differ from our own. A cross-party alliance for electoral reform that refuses to talk to UKIP – politically difficult though this might be – would risk reinforcing the view in some quarters that the campaign for PR is merely a leftist plot. We need radical democratic reform for everyone, and we should seek as broad a consensus as possible in the struggle to achieve it.
A ‘new politics’ must be one that respects difference, opposition and free debate. The Corbyn surge has defied Theresa May’s attempts to close those things down – but now Labour must be wary of the same trap.
This is why statements like “Most Tories support FPTP – and that isn’t likely to change”, as Caroline Lucas and Jon Bartley wrote in the New Statesman recently, are unhelpful. They are also wrong, if we are talking about Tory voters rather than just MPs – an ICM poll for Make Votes Matter last month found that 54% of Conservative voters back proportional representation, compared to 61% of the general public. We must stop this poisonous assumption that all Tories are intrinsically evil, an army of pantomime villains hellbent on killing disabled people and fracking in our children’s playing fields. That might be a reasonably fair assessment of Theresa May’s government, but not of the many lifelong Conservatives who believe in – for example – strong local government, environmental protection and entrepreneurship; the ‘soft’ Tories who are, to an extent, also disenfranchised by the status quo, and who would benefit from a system where multiple parties could thrive.
A ‘new politics’ must be one that respects difference, opposition and free debate. The Corbyn surge has defied Theresa May’s attempts to close those things down – but now Labour must be wary of the same trap. Overcoming their tribal instincts and accepting multi-party politics; helping to build cross-party consensus around reform; acknowledging that many votes last week were lent, not theirs by right, and that they impose a duty to finally back PR – these are monumental challenges for the Labour party. So, Labour supporters, make sure your leader lives up to the hype. Our democracy depends on it.
Featured image credit: Jasn, Flickr
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