Make Votes Matter

Labour Party

Today 100 years ago some women, not all, were given the right to vote and the franchise was extended to all men over the age of 21.

Laws didn’t extend to all women, they had to be over the age of 30 and they needed further qualifying criteria such as owning a property; but a historic period of great change was happening and it affected around eight million women.

The suffragette movement is well documented and exactly 100 years ago today we commemorate the Representation of the People Act. It was another 10 years before the Equal Franchise Act was passed to bring women’s voting age in line with men.

While this period was undoubtedly a huge milestone, those who embarked on the fight for change didn’t appreciate that the very system they had so wanted to be part of was also very unlikely to represent them.

So, the fight has now moved to a new direction; I have joined the campaign with Make Votes Matter, a cross party campaign to introduce Proportional Representation to the House of Commons.

Along with 407 other supporters of the campaign I am fasting for 24 hours (from today) to highlight the need for a fair and representative voting system and also, for me its in memory of those doughty women who so bravely campaigned for their equal right to vote.

Until the Act of Parliament some 70% of the population had no vote, and yet 100 years later (at the last election in 2017) 68% of votes had no meaningful impact! The current First Past the Post system doesn’t even do what it’s supporters say it does which is to produce strong and stable government.

We can all make votes matter by joining the movement or signing the petition here and ensure that those who fought for equality 100 years ago didn’t do so in vain.

It is a mistake to try and derail the referendum on AV

Labour Party

There are those in the Labour Party who seem to be siding with the Tory 1922 Committee in opposing holding the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) on May 5 next year, the same day as local elections and the polls for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.  Quoted in the Guardian, Jack Straw said he would support a referendum on AV because it was in the Labour General Election manifesto, but he told Radio 4’s World at One: “There is an issue about the date. We have got to think about this.”

As far as I’m concerned, the Labour Party promised a referendum on AV in its manifesto and having promised this we must want to make sure that the referendum is won.  I would have thought this is the correct and logical point of view, even though the referendum vote will be put forward by the Tory-Lib-Dem Government.

I have never understood why the Liberal-Democrats in the coalition talks with the Tories agreed that the Conservatives could campaign against the AV referendum.  Until the 2010 General Election electoral reform was the defining policy of the Lib-Dems, a hallowed principle they have now all but thrown away in their rush to government.  The Lib-Dems shamefully gave in and accepted that in the campaign for the vote on the AV referendum they will have to fight the Conservative Party machine which will more than likely be aided and abetted by Ashcroft money.

It is sad to see there are those within Labour who want to take our Party in the same direction. While proportional representation for the House of Commons has never been one of Labour’s core beliefs, in the way it used to be for the Liberal-Democrats, we did put AV in the 2010 manifesto. We should therefore honour this commitment.

Honouring our promise to hold a referendum on AV means doing all we can to win the referendum.  Anything else, such opposing moves to hold the referendum vote at an electorally advantageous time, i.e. at the same time as other polls, is mere talk.  In fact it’s worse than that, it’s saying one thing and doing another – hypocrisy in other words.

Reforming the UK’s archaic voting system for the House of Commons was always going to be just about the most difficult of the Coalition’s pledges to implement.

There are those MPs (generally Conservative but, I am sorry to say, Labour as well) who get very worked up about anything they perceive as upsetting their chances of re-election, and see first past the post (FPTP) as their best bet.  This is hardly surprising since every single Westminster MP was elected under FPTP, though the lack of imagination and willingness to embrace change is disheartening.

Meanwhile the House of Commons is the only lower house of any national parliament in Europe to elect its members by first past the post.  Every other European country uses a system of proportional representation or alternative vote.  They all recognise that a system where every vote cast actually counts is fairer and delivers a result which better reflects the views of the majority of the electorate.

I want Britain to catch up.  There is movement now to start serious modernisation of our political system.  It would be quite unforgivable if Labour MPs prevented us moving forward.

One final word of warning.  Supporting a referendum on AV does not under any circumstances signal agreement to the Tories’ iniquitous proposal to reduce the number of Westminster constituencies.  This is cynical manipulation to get more Conservative MPs.  Introducing AV, on the other hand, is a principled policy to change our voting system to something fairer and would be a long overdue reform. I’m sure we will be able to make this distinction clear in any future discussions and campaigns.  I for one intend to support AV and work for a yes vote in any future referendum while strongly opposing a reduction in the number of constituencies.

On the Road to Fair Votes

Labour Party

Last year at Labour Party Conference, when Gordon Brown promised a referendum on changing the voting system, specifically holding a referendum on the Alternative Vote system (AV), I was absolutely delighted.  Today the Guardian provided this very helpful demonstration of how AV would work.

My twenty- five years of struggling to get even the very idea of fair votes for the House of Commons recognised seemed at last to be getting somewhere.  When you’re involved in what is often seen as a minority, not to say geeky, campaign it’s sometimes hard to keep your sprits up.  But we have, and we’re finally winning through.

Going that crucial step further, Gordon’s announcement in a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) yesterday that the referendum will be held in October 2011, was the next thing electoral reformers wanted to hear.  The Prime Minister has now said he will have a referendum, a pledge he will, I believe, do everything he can to honour.  It is now up to Gordon to find the parliamentary time before the expected Easter dissolution.

I understand that some Conservative co-operation may be required to make such time available.  However, Gordon has to come out on top on this one.  Having made such a public commitment, he really must see it through and get the law setting the date for a referendum passed before the general election in order that his target date for the referendum of October 2011 may be met.

Gordon has made it clear that the referendum would be restricted to whether to stick with first past the post or to move to the alternative vote.  There are, I know, those among electoral reform campaigners who think AV is not proportional enough.  I think we must embrace Gordon Brown’s initiative as the only change we are likely to get in the foreseeable future.  It may not go as far as we would like, but it’s much better than first past the post.

We must also all be aware that our opponents do not like PR.  Since there is little that is fair in Tory social policy, it is hardly surprising they don’t want fair votes.  Quoted in yesterday’s Guardian, William Hague showed his usual lack of imagination: “It’s not the voting system that needs changing, it’s this weak and discredited prime minister. New politics needs a new government.”

Things are very different in the Labour Cabinet.  Ed Balls, the schools secretary, is a supporter of AV, as is Home Secretary Alan Johnson, John Denham, the communities secretary, Peter Hain, Welsh secretary, Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell, and, last but not least, Ben Bradshaw, the culture secretary.

Though the introduction of AV is the most important policy demanding immediate action, Gordon’s speech yesterday did not stop there.  He also announced that he wants a written constitution by 2015, the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta; a right for constituents to recall MPs if found guilty of corruption: a draft bill introducing a mainly elected Lords; and approval for local government reforms, entitled Total Place, that he said could produce £15bn of savings. He also said he supported votes at 16, but gave no commitment to put the proposal in the Labour manifesto.

I believe constitutional reform is important for its own sake.  Britain is the only country in Europe which does not have a proportional electoral system for its upper house.  On the other hand, I remain to be convinced that a package of changes to the way parliament and other representative institutions are elected will achieve very much in restoring people’s trust in politics, except perhaps for the measure to recall corrupt MPs.  Gordon Brown is setting out a vision for a modern democracy.  As the only real modern, progressive Party in Britain, Labour members have, I believe, a profound duty to support our Prime Minister in this crucially important task.

Electoral Reform – A Feminist Issue

Labour Party


I have had a flurry of emails from fellow electoral reformers debating how to respond to Gordon Brown’s proposal to have a referendum on the Alternative Vote system. As Nancy Platts and I said on Wednesday evening  electoral reform is a feminist issue as it will result in better representation for women. Regular attenders of Labour Party events will have seen Cath Arakelian (pictured). Cath is Labour’s candidate in Chingford and Woodford Green, and she regularly wears a sash, suffragette style. This is her take on the current situation:

“Each year before conference I ask myself what would the Pankhursts be fighting for? For the first three days of conference I wore my suffragette sash with Vote for a Change written on them. I am certainly happy to go as far as chaining myself to railings, hiding in a House of Commons broom cupboard, although I don’t think I would throw myself under a horse! Electoral Reform and Proportional Representation are for me feminist issues. Fair voting, fair representation and fair chances for women go together.  

“I’m a woman PPC in a so-called “unwinnable”.  Women candidates are even given advice to stand in unwinnables, or as I call them, “zombie” seats “for the practice” or to build their confidence as novice candidates.  Unlike me perhaps, many women who come to the idea of standing for Parliament are already ready and often hugely experienced. They do not need the practice.

Standing as a woman in an “unwinnable” is a way of fobbing women off with lesser opportunities. Rather than building confidence, the experience of having only minimum campaigning support from the Party, and all local activists including the candidate, having to work off their own patch, can seriously undermine self-esteem and lead to burn out or disillusion.

 I believe a Proportiwaltham_forest_016onal Representation system – where every candidate will count and quality will be essential to the Party,  will enable more women candidates of quality to emerge and be successful.

 I think we should enlist political women of note to head up a campaign and women’s organisations – Fawcett, Labour Women’s Network,  etc. Together we should campaign for the referendum to be on the same day as the General Election. 

And that this should be a referendum asking the question 

 Do you want a system of Proportional Representation which will 

(a) mean you will still know who your MP is, and

 (b) will give each party a share of MPs equal to the share of the total votes cast across the country? Yes or No

 I think this means Alternative Vote Plus. We need to campaign openly for Proportional Representation versus First Past The Post.”