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Opinion: Labour cannot promise electoral reform – it’s a Tory trap

Opinion: Labour cannot promise electoral reform – it’s a Tory trap
The UK would be a better place with a fairer voting system, but the opposition must tread carefully or end up looking out of touch

For 68 of the last 100 years Britain has been run by the Conservatives, a party that hasn’t won a majority of votes since 1935.

Our electoral system is the reason for the Tories’ domination. With a fairer way of choosing MPs there is no question that the Conservatives would have been in power a lot less over the last century and would have been forced to work with other parties more. The UK would be a better place for it.

This is the classic centre-left case for electoral reform and it’s compelling. Labour’s tribalists need to recognise that it is far better to share power with other parties than to risk another 100 years of Tory control.

In a perfect world, proportional representation would be easy and pain-free to introduce. But this is not the case. So, I think Labour was right to reject electoral reform as its official policy when it met last week in Brighton. Personal conviction and a party’s policy are not the same thing: sometimes the things we want are harder to get when we chase after them too directly.

The stark reality is that if Labour campaigns for voting reform, it is likely to do worse at the next election than if it does not. And electoral reform will only come if Labour does well.

The Fabian Society has published an analysis of the 150 seats where Labour needs to advance in a general election if it is to win power – whether that is by gaining a majority of MPs or working with others in another hung parliament. These seats make up Britain’s demographic “middle”, overwhelmingly towns not cities, they are neither young nor old, rich nor poor.

What unites them is that they are almost entirely places where Labour will do better by campaigning on practical, bread-and-butter issues than by engaging in distracting debates about constitutional reform.

These are not the places where support for the Greens is spiking. These are undecided voters who might swing in Labour’s direction but will not be drawn to a party talking about voting systems or alliances with other parties. The more Labour’s campaign is these things, the more it will look like it is not tuned into the everyday, practical concerns of marginal seats.

Worse still, if Labour actively campaigns for voting reform the party’s enemies will pounce. The Conservatives and the right-wing media will present it as an admission of defeat, the sign of a party that does not think it can win and is doomed to fail. Boris Johnson will re-run David Cameron’s 2015 playbook and raise the spectre of the SNP pulling the strings if Labour returns to power. They will say that voting Labour will break up Britain.

Labour must not look like a poor loser before the contest event starts. It should go into an election as a party looking confident that it can win rather than complaining about the rules. The furthest Keir Starmer should go is to repeat the trick played by Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown in the 1990s. Then, Labour entered into a loose dialogue with the Liberal Democrats and promised a review of the voting system once in power.

Repeating this is all it would take to signal to supporters of each party that they have “permission” to cast their vote in whatever way is most likely to defeat a Conservative incumbent. In most constituencies, the choice is clear: there are almost no seats left where Labour and the Lib Dems compete.

The informal understanding of the 1990s did not deliver a new voting system because Labour won a super-majority. It could be very different next time if the next parliament is hung or Labour has a wafer-thin majority. A vague manifesto promise to review how we vote could quickly turn into a concrete plan in any post-election talks.

But Labour promising electoral reform now is a distraction and a Tory trap. Supporters of a better voting system need to bide their time and see how the cards play out. Change may come sooner than they think.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society