Electoral Reform in the UK: Alive in '95

A Report from the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform         

Mary Georghiou

        Electoral reformers in the United Kingdom, inside and outside the Labour Party, had to adjust to the death in May 1994 of John Smith, Labour Party leader and hailed as the next Prime Minister.
        Smith had what he called "a missionary zeal about reforming the constitution." He spoke of giving "our people the rights, the freedom and the power to be equal citizens in a modern participating democracy.... I look forward to the enactment of a Bill of Rights; to abolishing the bizarre hereditary basis of the House of Lords; and to giving the people themselves the choice on how they elect their representatives in the House of Commons."
        This "new constitution for a new century" included the commitment to a regional list PR system for the European Parliament. It looked forward to a democratically-elected second chamber using PR regional lists and to a Scottish Parliament elected by a German-style, mixed-member system.
        John Smith's legacy remains. After his death, all three leadership candidates supported the idea of a referendum "to let the people decide." New Labour leader Tony Blair wrote: "I fully support the Party's commitment to a referendum on the issue of the electoral system for the Commons...and existing Party policy for both the European Parliament and an elected chamber. With regards to an electoral system of a future Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Constitutional Convention has agreed that first-past-the-post [plurality] is not appropriate for a future Scottish Parliament. I fully concur with this view."
        The Labour Party in Wales is conducting a consultation about its plans for a Welsh Assembly including the voting system to be used. The Borrie Commission produced "a new Beveridge report" on the Welfare State entitled Social Justice: Strategies for National Renewal. In it there is some discussion about the merits of proportional systems for local government. Labour is preparing separate consultive papers on local and regional government which exclude how they will be elected.
        Before John Smith's death, the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (LCER) played a big role in winning over Smith's Scottish Labour Party to the principle of PR for the House of Commons, despite media forecasts that Labour would go back on its support for the Additional Member System for the Scottish Parliament. Three out of six Labour by-election victories were won by supporters of LCER bringing the tally of MP supporters to 70.
        After the June European election, LCER welcomed to its list of sponsors six new British Labour Members of the European Parliament, including Glenys Kinnock. Neil Kinnock -- former Labour leader and LCER sponsor -- is leaving the House of Commons to become a European Commissioner.
        The most prominent Labour electoral reformer, Robin Cook MP, became Shadow Foreign Secretary this fall after topping the polls for Labour's National Executive, while Raymond Plant, LCER's president, is Labour Home Affairs spokesperson in the House of Lords. The work of his Commission on electoral systems has been passed on to Labour's Policy Commission on Democracy and Citizenship.
        LCER's major success in 1994 was warding off the attacks on Labour's referendum promise. The Annual Conference voted overwhelmingly to reconfirm Labour's position to hold a referendum to allow the people to choose how they elect MPs.
        LCER was constantly reminded by visitors and events around the world that it is part of a worldwide movement for changing the relationship between governments and citizens. We welcomed Ed Still and Doug Amy, active with the Center for Voting and Democracy in the U.S., and leading New Zealand PR supporters. We talked with newly elected ANC MPs from South Africa and Japanese academics and trade unionists.
        1995 is the year when the trade unions need to think through their positions, particularly the two largest unions, the Transport Workers and UNISON, the only unions not to vote for Labour's referendum at Labour's Annual Conference. The referendum is still being attacked by supporters of the status quo.
        Meanwhile, for the first time since 1979, the plurality system has failed to give the Conservative Government the unrepresentative majority it needs to introduce legislation without winning common consent. Politics is more like it would be under PR.

        Mary Georghiou is a leader of the pro-PR Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform in Britain.

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Chapter Seven