The party’s consultation process for the next manifesto has just closed – as democracy groups call on the Labour Leader to seize the mantle of reform, Josiah Mortimer reports
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Keir Starmer must commit to root-and-branch reform of the UK’s political system, democracy groups have told Labour as the party begins preparing its manifesto for a general election next year.
Without reform to key aspects of Britain’s democracy, Labour’s priorities will be “unachievable” campaigners say. The submission to the party from the Democracy Network – a coalition of hundreds of pro-democracy organisations across the UK – comes amid a host of threats to democratic processes.
Last week, the UK saw its ranking in an annual global index of civic freedoms decline following what Civicus Monitor said was the Government’s “increasingly authoritarian” push to impose restrictions on protesting.
The Democracy Network’s proposals include calls to break-up big media groups, likely including Rupert Murdoch’s News UK – an idea that could be fiercely resisted by the leadership.
In a submission to the party’s National Policy Forum, which feeds into the manifesto process, the campaigners say the slew of sleaze scandals and attacks on political rights must be reversed by a future Labour government.
They argue that new voter ID laws coming into effect this May will create a “serious risk” preventing black and ethnic minority groups from voting.
The Democracy Network is demanding a boost to transparency and accountability in politics, with a comprehensive lobbying register and more powers for the currently-toothless Independent Advisor on Ministerial Interests and the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.
It also wants to see a cap on political donations at £10,000 per year per donor and new measures to block foreign political donations. Currently, it is possible for one of Vladimir Putin’s circle to fund UK parties if it is done through a company that trades in the UK or if they use a ‘proxy’ donor who is on the electoral roll.
More radically, the groups are calling on Starmer to address “concentrations of ownership” among media organisations and invest in independent media. A citizens assembly would also determine the future purpose, remit and structure of the BBC with measures to strengthen its independence.
The National Policy Forum, Labour’s internal body responsible for guiding party policy, invited third-party stakeholders to submit recommendations on how to create a “fairer, greener and more dynamic Britain for all”. The process ended last week.
Momentum for democratic reform has been growing within Labour and, at last year’s party conference, Labour members and affiliated trade unions voted in favour of introducing a proportional representation voting system. It was a significant turnaround from 2021 when 80% of CLP reps voted in favour of electoral reform, but the policy was blocked by trade unions. Unions including Unite and Unison have now come on board.
In a report last year, former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown stressed that, to overcome regional inequality and deliver a green transition, a future Labour government would need to empower local communities and address feelings of disenfranchisement.
Following its publication, Starmer is reported to have told Labour peers that he regarded Lords reform as a key element of “promoting inclusive growth and restoring trust in politics”. But campaigners are concerned that his commitment may slip when faced with the challenges of a first term in office.
One of the leading signatories, Unlock Democracy, has urged the Labour Leader to adopt a raft of concrete reforms:
● Devolving finance-raising and decision-making powers to a local and neighbourhood level
● Empowering voters in every community through the adoption of PR for Westminster and local elections
● Replacing the House of Lords with an elected, “accountable second chamber that reflects the diversity of the UK’s regions and people”
● Capping political donations and strengthening watchdogs like the Electoral Commission
● Eliminating barriers to voting by scrapping photo voter ID and introducing a system of automatic voter registration
Pro-PR group Make Votes Matter also responded to Labour’s consultation, saying: “As long as the UK uses ‘First Past the Post’ for general elections, our people will be disempowered and our communities polarised. In order to empower people and bring our communities closer together, we need Proportional Representation…
“If you live in a safe seat, you don’t expect utopia. But you do expect to be able to walk into a polling station and have a basic sense of hope that your view matters and that your vote could make a difference.
“For millions of us, we don’t have that hope. We know that our vote doesn’t matter, our voices are ignored, and someone else will always choose our government for us.”
In a submission backed by dozens of constituency Labour groups, it added: “There are only two countries in Europe that make their voters use this system for general elections: the UK and Belarus… No more sticking plasters. If you want to empower people and bring communities together, you need to solve the root problem.”
During the Labour leadership election in 2020, Keir Starmer said that “we’ve got to address the fact that millions of people vote in safe seats and they feel their voice doesn’t count” and “that’s got to be addressed by electoral reform”.
“We will never get full participation in our electoral system until we do that at every level,” he added – creating hope from reformers that he might back electoral reform.
Tom Brake, director of Unlock Democracy, called on Starmer “to stand by previous statements and make renewing our democracy a clear manifesto commitment”.
“Central to this mission will be empowering people across the country through greater devolution and a new voting system,” he said. “Both issues command party and popular support.”
After efforts from a coalition of campaigners making up the Labour Campaign for New Democracy, a majority of affiliated trade unions voted for PR at the party’s 2022 conference. While a marked shift from the year before, this still does not guarantee that the issue will make it into Labour’s next manifesto, a process led by the Leader’s Office and the National Executive Committee.
Make Votes Matter founder Klina Jordan told Byline Times Labour’s willingness to talk about democratic reform was welcome – but there’s a “glaring omission: PR for the Commons.”
“This is out of step with the views of the Labour membership, affiliated trade unions and the public at large, who all back a change in the voting system,” she added, calling for Labour to “abide by its 2022 Conference decision and commit to PR for the Commons.”
Several democracy campaign sources Byline Times previously spoke to expressed scepticism that Starmer is committed to major constitutional change.
One prominent figure in the movement said “Starmer won’t commit to anything for fear of frightening the horses” and that the recommendations in the recent report by Gordon Brown on constitutional reform are “being kicked into the long grass”.
The British Election Study recently found that there was the strongest-ever support for scrapping a ‘winner-takes-all’ voting system.
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