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Our voting system is rigged – the next Labour government must fix it

Keir Starmer should put democratic reform at the heart of his strategy

Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty

The catalogue of damage the Tories have done in the last 13 years is long and shameful, but one of the worst harms they have inflicted has been to our body politic. 

Fixing that is not only a perfect chance for Labour to show it is serious about change at a time when it is trying to avoid new spending promises – it is a chance to forge a progressive legacy for generations to come.    

Britain has become divided and dysfunctional since 2010. People feel a loss of community at the local level, a loss of unity at the national level – and they feel a deep loss of faith in our politics. 

Only 35% of people express positive trust in government – and an astounding 90% feel they have little or no influence over it. 60% feel our political system is unfit for purpose, and the same number think corruption has reached an all-time high. 70% think the UK is on the path to greater division. 

This dire picture has been made worse by a string of scandals too long to list fully – from the outrages of PPE procurement and lockdown parties to egregious breaches of lobbying rules. But it is not just sleaze: this behaviour also reflects a more sinister and deliberate chipping away at the pillars of democracy and accountability. 

The Conservatives have misled MPs and the public, weakened the Electoral Commission, imposed nakedly cynical voter ID requirements, and stuffed the House of Lords with unqualified cronies. More insidiously, they have casually disregarded critical democratic precedents, norms and conventions on issues from prorogation to the appointment of ethics advisors. 

All this comes on top of systemic shortcomings which go back much further, including an unrepresentative voting system, an over-centralised state, a media environment dominated by the interests of wealthy owners, and the continued weakness of controls on lobbying, think tanks, and party funding. 

Our flawed politics have long insulated the Conservatives from the consequences of their own policies. First Past the Post has been especially instrumental: of the 21 general elections since 1945, broadly left-of-centre parties – Labour, the Lib Dems or their predecessors, and the Greens – collectively won a majority of votes in 17. Yet power went to the Tories in all but nine.

The harm all this does is often under-estimated, but very real. Our dysfunctional politics deeply undermines our ability to make good policy – and especially to confront the most serious challenges we face, from the climate crisis to the cost of living.

More than that, there is a growing threat that the UK will break up as disillusionment feeds nationalist movements across all the Nations. This is literally about the survival of our country. 

That should be incentive enough for Labour to be serious about democratic reform. But there is another compelling reason. Labour has made clear the party cannot make major public spending or tax commitments before the election. That creates an added incentive to find ways to make an impact that don’t involve serious expenditure. 

Democratic reform would show Labour is serious about real change and counter any perception that it lacks ambition. If we can’t make it about money, we can make it about power.

Of course, it needs to be managed with care to counter the inevitable scare-mongering about Labour trying to stitch up the system – using citizens’ assemblies or similar mechanisms for some changes could help do that. 

But done right, this can give Labour a hugely powerful narrative, appealing not just to the party’s core vote but far beyond it. The disillusionment is real, it cuts across the whole country, and Labour can offer a response to it. Far from being some elitist concern, the argument can be made in terms of visceral common sense. What could be a more powerful slogan than “take back control”?

Angela Rayner’s plans for an Ethics and Integrity Commission are an excellent platform on which to build, but Labour must go further if that response is to be credible. Ultimately that demands not one but a range of different interventions, from lobbying reform to media regulation. As Sir Keir Starmer has said, not only do we need a new government, we need a new way of governing.  

Devolving power to the increasingly popular regional mayors (and to local government) is especially important, especially given the anger over the Tory’s cynically insubstantial version of Levelling Up. 

But above all, a new voting system should be the top priority. Party policy already acknowledges that First Past the Post is not fit for purpose, and Labour members and affiliated unions favour change. The leadership should leave the door open to a moderate, democratic process to decide the best replacement, then put it in place.  

At its heart Labour is, or should be, about changing the system – because that is a deeper change, one that can alter the trajectory of the country far beyond a period in office. The Tories get that. They are ruthless and unapologetic about fixing the rules of the game to their advantage – regardless of any harm to the country. 

Labour should be equally ruthless about reforming it for the greater good – to bring our country together, to strengthen our democracy, and to face our greatest challenges. That mission makes sense for winning power – and we cannot build a better Britain without it. 

Stephen Carter is a Council Member and former Vice-Chair of Unlock Democracy and a member of the Labour Party. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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