Robin Cook: Labour voters should support PR to put power in the hands of the many not the few

If a Tory government had been elected on a 35% share of the poll we would be in uproar
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I want to address why voters for the Labour Party should be supporting electoral reform. At first, that seems a big fence to jump. It is tricky to advocate an argument that suggests there are too many Labour MPs. It is axiomatic in my party that you cannot have too many. But I begin by asking my colleagues to invert the current position and ask themselves how they would feel if they had woken up after polling day and found that they had a Tory government with a comfortable majority in the House of Commons elected on a 35 per cent share of the poll?

In those circumstances, would we be troubled by articles in The Independent by Jack Straw espousing the case for the present electoral system because it had the great benefit of giving a clear result and a strong government in the House of Commons? I think not. We would have been furious, livid. We would be in uproar, demanding a change to the electoral system that produced such a travesty of an outcome.

The second argument I would deploy with my colleagues is about turnout. It is hardly surprising that we have a problem with turnout in Britain. Most voters in Britain did not vote for the Member of Parliament who represents them. At the same time, most MPs do not even represent a majority of those who bothered to vote in their constituency. Is it any surprise that in that kind of situation we have a major problem of trust in the political process?

There are some in my party who lament the lack of ambition of the Government on progressive politics, and I have a lot of sympathy for that perspective. But the lack of ambition for progressive politics is itself a function of our electoral system. I thought the most jaw-dropping point of Jack Straw's argument, in his article in The Independent, was the one that at least this way you get a Labour government that can carry out its programme. Yes. But every detail of that programme is carefully honed to appeal to the 2 or 3 per cent of the electorate that are in the centre ground in the first place.

The present electoral system obliges us to court the swing voters who stand in the centre ground, and to ignore everybody else. Tony Blair has done this so magnificently, with such brilliant success, that we have now arrived at the situation in which the great majority of Labour voters, when asked by pollsters, place the Labour Party well to the right of their own views. This is a distinctive New Labour achievement. In my first three decades of canvassing, I never had a problem convincing the electors that I was not actually standing to the right of them.

Why can Labour voters not have a Labour Party that represents their views? Why can we not, therefore, have a system that allows all those views to be counted – to have a campaign where every vote has to be fought for, because every vote is worthwhile, whether it is a core traditional vote or whether it is one of those standing in the centre ground.

There is, of course, one other obvious argument that has to be addressed if I want to carry the majority of Labour MPs with me. That is, how do we achieve an outcome in which they do not suffer from job insecurity? I have thought about this for a number of years, particularly during the period when I was Leader of the House of Commons, and I think I have the solution. I think we should offer a package of democratic reforms in which electoral reform is introduced alongside a democratically-elected second chamber in place of the House of Lords. Then there would be plenty of jobs for those who were displaced as Labour MPs from the House of Commons – and a 100 per cent gain in democracy in both Houses of Parliament.

But I would offer one word of warning to those who think that the present system necessarily guarantees that we will continue to get a large number of MPs. I am rather perplexed that the arithmetic of a parliamentary majority has so effectively masked from my own Labour colleagues just what a close-run thing the general election was.

If you want to put this in perspective, focus on seats with a majority of under 2,000. Take the 34 most marginal seats, which provided us with our 66 majority in the House of Commons. All of them have a majority of less than 2,000. If you add up the cumulative majority in all of those 34 seats, they come to less than 30,000 votes. In other words, if in those 34 seats 15,000 electors had changed their mind and voted for the second party, they would have entirely wiped out Labour's majority in the House of Commons. I am bewildered when some people argue that the great strength of the first-past-the-post system is that it does produce a majority in Parliament. The horrible truth is that in May we very nearly ended up with no majority in the House of Commons.

It is long overdue that we modernise this central democratic problem in the House of Commons by bringing it into line, not just with the rest of Europe but with what we have done for the rest of Britain. Over the last eight years, this government quite rightly has covered the United Kingdom with new elected bodies in Scotland, Wales, London and Northern Ireland. And in every case where we have proposed a new elected body, we have proposed that it be done not under first-past-the-post but under a system of proportional representation. If it is right for the devolved bodies, it has to be right for Westminster as well.

Now I come to the critical battle for the immediate future: the review of the voting system that is under way in the Department for Constitutional Affairs. It seems to me that a very simple and straightforward demand would be to insist that review is opened up, is made more transparent, takes evidence, meets in public, and publishes its report in public – so that the people who are involved in choosing the House of Commons are the people who themselves are involved in this review of the way in which it is elected.

Democracy is not just a means to an end. Democracy is a value in itself. And if we treasure that value, we need to provide a more democratic system for the centrepiece of our own political structure. My party under Tony Blair changed its constitution by dropping Clause Four and replacing it with a modern version of our aspirations. That modern version commits us to putting power and wealth in the hands of the many, not the few. I cannot think of a better slogan for us than to demand an electoral system that puts power in the hands of the many voters and not the few.

This article is adapted from a speech given at an Independent debate on electoral reform