This year’s Labour conference is likely to see even greater demands for an electoral reform policy than last year when there was an overwhelming vote in favour of proportional representation from the constituency delegates. Some of the biggest unions who take part in these votes have since switched from opposition to support. But the real brakes on electoral reform will only be released with constitutional reform, regional devolution and federation – regardless of what the conference, delegates, unions or the leadership wants.
This struggle will leave Keir Starmer, whose leadership team have the last word on Labour policy, exposed at the top as he becomes one of the last obstacles to making proportional representation a centre-piece for the next general election manifesto.
There are two main strands of opposition. One that fears the effects of PR; chiefly, that it will mean there is never again a Labour majority government, but also that it will mean chaotic coalitions made up of dozens of much smaller parties. The second objection is more utilitarian; that going into the next election with an electoral reform policy will not sufficiently attract the voters and leaves the party open to Tory attacks about a Labour that is so weak, they need to change the system to win or, worse in the eyes of the floating voter, to ensure that there is never a Tory government again.
Thus this policy proposal and opposition reflects the issue of Brexit itself, in the sense that plenty understand that Labour can not have a rejoin-the-EU policy at the next election if it wants to win, but is also “proof” for some that Starmer and his leadership team are basically centre-right and against reform of any kind. Conservatives with a middle-sized “C”.
Reports indicate that, however, the Brexit issue is overwhelmingly more significant – especially in those Red Wall seats that shifted to the Tories in 2019 – and consequently for Starmer himself, who is “relaxed” about member support for PR. Electoral reform is just not a massive issue there, as it is wherever there is large Lib Dem or Green support. But this fight is still shaping up to be a significant part of the narrative that will paint the next government blue or red – and declining to run with a policy for PR will be something for progressive voters to complain about while remaining a topic for Tory attack campaigns no matter how much Starmer denies. Just like Brexit and Scottish independence really.
It is turning into another frustration for the federalists in UK. For while the debates, arguments and campaigns focus on an issue that won’t be part of Labour’s next general election manifesto, they are all neglecting the more primary issue that governs whether electoral reform can happen; the fact that we only have one government that does 100% of the politics for all of England.
The problem is that, if it’s true that the Starmer leadership is concentrating on policies that will attract the voters who switched to Tory in 2019, the “radical” proposition of a federal UK is hardly going to make it into the manifesto. And the neglect from centre progressives to place this fundamental reform in the middle of their debates about PR is hardly helping with that “radical” tag, even as it is hardly encouraging Starmer to think about improving the current Labour position on regional devolution.
Missed opportunities all round.