Ed Miliband has easily won conference season two years running. His pitch for Labour to be the party of One Nation has helped to frame the party’s approach to the last half of this parliament. Last autumn he added his theme of fixing broken markets, a notion still being talked about many months after his speech.
So if building a One Nation party that reaches out to every community in the UK and busting up distorted markets which don’t work effectively for consumers and where vested interests have loud voices is a priority, where are some of the more unlikely places that such change might be found.
The electoral market offers an opportunity. For too long local democracy has been subject to lopsided results, one-party states, uncontested seats and an exaggerated notion of deep division in the country, unsupported by actual voting patterns.
This week the Electoral Reform Society has launched Towards One Nation: the Labour case for electoral reform. It sets out how moving to proportional representation for local elections would be fairer for the voter and provide more opportunities for parties prepared to campaign in every part of the country.
This report is worth reading. In his foreword, Times columnist Phil Collins argues that the report’s authors Lewis Baston and Will Brett are ‘armed with detail and convincing numbers’ about the need for reform.
The lopsided way in which citizens’ votes are treated under first past the post is particularly distorted at local government level. In 2011 there were 69 local authorities that were Labour-free zones in terms of council seats. That doesn’t mean there are no Labour supporters in any those communities – sometimes there is a sizeable majority who want to back Labour’s policies. For example, there’s a council in Essex where 26 per cent of voters backed the party, yet this resulted in Labour winning precisely zero seats.
Some seek to dismiss discussion on electoral reform as theoretical – but at local government level we have an actual UK example to draw on. For the last two local elections Scotland has used proportional representation to elect councillors. It’s led to the end of one-party states and uncontested seats, and has massively increased the chances of a candidate one votes for actually getting elected. And, despite concerns it would erode Labour’s base, the party now has more council leaders than it did under FPTP.
It’s an important principle to note that electoral systems shouldn’t be changed simply to help one party or another. This argument is actually about the voters having their wishes reflected in a far fairer (and more realistic) way than FPTP can ever deliver. And that has implications, too, for Labour’s strongholds.
The super-majorities that Labour wins in some parts of England overstate the actual level of support the party already has. In a sense they become an unnecessary burden – undermining the legitimacy of a party with significant electoral support. For example, in Manchester Labour wins 62 per cent of the vote – enough for a strong majority but also in theory allowing for a legitimate opposition with the ability to offer effective scrutiny. In reality Manchester Labour’s significant voter support is distorted into it holding 92 per cent of the seats. And with the trend pointing to the remaining seats falling to Labour this May it means one of the biggest cities in England will be a complete and total one-party state. It’s true they have a respected council leader, but is this really the ideal way of running local democracy?
‘Now that’s just the way the world should be’, I’m sure the uber-tribalists will argue. But what is the price of these unnecessary super-majorities? It is minimal (or often no) council representation in parts of the country where such a base is critical to winning the southern Westminster seats needed to form government.
Quite apart from being the antithesis of the One Nation ethos, it also comes with big problems – chiefly, of course, for the voter. Significant minorities are not represented (typically a factor we consider when passing judgement on fledgling democracies internationally) and in the end even the majority of voters are shortchanged as over time the excitement of the super-majority turns to complacency – and in some cases, even worse.
Indeed, the report’s authors have a section entitled ‘The Eight Stages of Loss’. It will appeal to political-watchers of every colour. Baston and Brett argue that ‘the degeneration of a “safe” council takes place in several clearly defined stages’: Taking voters for granted; Autocratic style of government; Bad decisions; Splits in the ruling party; Hidden electoral weaknesses; Electoral collapse; Incompetent local government; and finally, Recrimination and scandal. The authors go on to offer examples and draw the worrying conclusion that such bad behaviour often results in platforms for groups like the British National party, or for upsets at Westminster like the George Galloway by-election in Bradford West.
So PR at local government might offer the best chance of winning at Westminster for the party that can build a local base, run effectively on local issues and create momentum in the community. Changing an electoral system doesn’t guarantee any party anything. But it does offer the opportunity to political activists and strategists who are good at winning the contest of ideas in the political marketplace. And there’s no better place to start those conversations than in every community of the United Kingdom.
Darren Hughes is deputy chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society. He is a former New Zealand Labour member of parliament and minister
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