30th May, 2016
Proportional Representation: A View From Scotland
-By Peter Russell-
When Jeremy Corbyn was elected, he promised a new and honest politics. We cannot achieve this without being honest with ourselves. This means we must admit that we cannot go on the way we have. And there is no point in complaining about those voters being ungrateful so-and-sos for rejecting us.
It is our own fault if we allowed our record – in Scotland as elsewhere – to be defined in terms of Iraq, the world economic crisis and growing inequality.
We can look in vain for any effort whatsoever either by Labour leaders in Holyrood or by Jeremy Corbyn or Ed Miliband, to celebrate our achievements in fighting poverty, the National Minimum Wage, Pension Credit, record investment in public services, the saving of the NHS, devolution to all parts of the UK, completion of the Northern Ireland Peace Process, Sure Start, and all the rest.
So when it came to the referendum in 2014, we were in no position at all to convince them that their best interest lay not in the illusion of an instant SNP Scotland but in the realisation of a future Labour UK. So there is no-one else to blame.
It is also our own fault for allowing our party organisation to wither and decline through our own complacency. By this I do not mean that Labour MPs, MSPs or councillors have been complacent about what they want to achieve for their constituents. We can be sure that the vast majority of them remain as committed to making life for our citizens and our communities as good as it could be as they were when they joined the Labour Party.
Rather it means that for too long we have relied on outmoded ideas about “our people”, “Labour voters”, and have conducted our politics as if there had been no change in the ways in which people live: we continue to see a world of organised labour, client public service users, and council houses tenants. Labour has served those people well, but is now neglecting to serve their children and grandchildren.
We cannot expect to connect with voters as 2020 approaches if we are still living in the political world of the 1990s or even the 1980s or 1970s.
That is all over now. Finished. What we should do is this.
First, we should use the position of Scottish Labour as an object lesson for the rest of the UK, and make our party a strong voice for the reform of the electoral system.
One of the other instances of howling at the moon that we sometimes hear is the cry that Labour has been unlucky; for instance, through the sad and untimely deaths of John Smith and Donald Dewar. Another premature death we suffered was that of Robin Cook, who had convinced many of us that PR was the right thing to do.
In particular we should recall his reply to the “weak government” argument: that if Margaret Thatcher having a large majority on a minority of the vote was “strong government” he knew which he preferred. It is also ironic that in the early days of Holyrood one of our MPs criticised AMS as it had “thrown a lifeline to the Tories.” We are all now extremely grateful that Scottish Labour has had the benefit of that identical lifeline.
PR would cut the number of SNP MPs in half; it would restore a cohort of much missed Scottish MPs; and it would above all reinstate the position of Labour and others as national parties. It would also destroy the illusion that Westminster is an institution which is somehow alien or even hostile to Scots and their interests. In this way PR will be a safeguard for the union to which we are committed as a party.
A possible way of deciding which PR system may be best for the UK would be agreed manifesto commitments by all parties favouring PR to “a proportional system” and a Royal Commission or Speaker’s Conference to decide the exact form. (My own preference would be the compromise suggested by Speaker Lowther over a century ago. This was that more densely populated urban areas should use STV and large sparsely populated rural areas should use the Alternative Vote. This would mean that the voters would use the same simple method of voting by listing candidates in order of preference but that they would be counted differently.)
As Scotland shows, not only is PR the right thing in making sure the votes of all of our fellow citizens count to prevent extremist conservative and nationalist positions holding majorities against the will of the people, but it is now in our direct electoral interest. Anyone who can read the results knows that to form a government under FPTP, Labour must win in Kensington, Uxbridge and Basingstoke. Even the great vote-winner Tony Blair did not do that. So our future must be sharing power with other parties and through them with a wider spread of the people.