Dear Keir, the need for political reform in Britain has never been more urgent

I urge you, as Labour leader, to help build a progressive alliance which reaches beyond two-party politics and makes the case for a radically different system

Stephen Dorrell
Sunday 03 January 2021 13:15
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Keir Starmer calls for action from PM on Covid and Brexit

Dear Keir Starmer,  

I was a member of John Major’s cabinet, and a Conservative MP for 36 years. I am now a committed Liberal Democrat because, like you, I want to build a better future for Britain than is offered by today’s Tories. I write to you not as leader of the Labour Party, but as the holder of the public office of leader of the opposition.  

I left the Conservative Party (I believe it is more accurate to say that it left me) because I reject absolutely the determination of the party leadership since 2016 to impose a hard line version of Brexit that was repeatedly and explicitly disavowed by the Leave campaign during the referendum and for which there is no democratic mandate.  

But I have been engaged in politics for long enough to know that the argument has changed. The Johnson-Gove version is the new reality, for which they alone are responsible, but from which we must all now work.  

The key argument is now not about the future state of our relationship with the EU – that will be a background continuum for many years as successive British governments work to reverse the damage done to British economic, social and political interests by the spasm of the last few years.  

The more immediate issue is the ability of a small clique to impose its will on the rest of us and claim democratic authority for doing so. The need for political reform is the reason why, when I left the Conservative Party, I became a Liberal Democrat.  

Generations of Liberals Democrats have argued that the system is “not fair to small parties”. Unsurprisingly the voters have not been interested – the interests of small parties are not top of their list of concerns.  

My argument is different. It is not that our political system is unfair to politicians; it is that it is unfair to voters.  

In short it does not express the balance of their political views. It magnifies the voices of the factions in control of the two major parties and suppresses all others. It is a system that could have been designed to make large sections of the electorate feel disenfranchised.

Whatever its purpose, that has indisputably been the result. A widespread sense of disenfranchisement was palpable in 2019; it abated somewhat in 2020 but will return with a vengeance when the combined consequences of Brexit and Covid manifest themselves and people begin again to ask who speaks for them.  

I understand that many in the Labour Party will resist the case for reform; they will advance the conventional arguments in favour of our two-party system and urge you to allow the pendulum to swing.  

I know the arguments; I have used them many times. They are the political equivalent of comfort food.

They encourage the political class to recite the familiar arguments of long-established political traditions, rather than address real world problems. They are introspective, backward looking and self-regarding.

I urge you instead to build a “progressive alliance” of parties which reaches beyond the nostrums of two-party politics and makes the case for a radically different system that confronts the problems experienced by voters and ensures that the full range of their political views is accurately reflected in the House of Commons.  

I have always described myself as a Liberal Conservative. I felt at home in the party of Ted Heath, John Major and Ken Clarke, but I am repelled by the nationalist exceptionalism that is now the regular diet at Downing Street press conferences. I believe there are millions of traditional Conservatives who feel the same – and who feel unrepresented in today’s Parliament.

But ours is not the only viewpoint which is unheard in our political institutions. I don’t agree with the Momentum wing of your party, but they represent a point of view that should be heard in proportion to their support among the voters. I welcomed your election as leader, but I do not think it follows that Momentum has no right to be heard – or that the only way for you to build a governing majority should be to require their sullen silence.  

There is also a specific challenge in 2021 for which two-party politics is a wholly inadequate response. Your capacity to reach beyond the traditional support of the Labour Party and demonstrate a commitment to build a different political dialogue in the United Kingdom as a whole will be critical to rebuilding support for the union in Scotland.

Scotland is the biggest loser from Brexit. The Johnson-Gove faction has imposed its programme through its control of the English Conservative Party; it is hard to see an argument for the union which will command support in Scotland which does not recognise the sense of injustice this has created.  

Your challenge as leader of the opposition is therefore twofold; you need to show all UK voters that politics can work for them and you need, in particular, to show voters in Scotland that their voice will be better heard in future than has been the case in the past.  

I have written of the challenges which face you in the New Year; let me conclude with a challenge for my own newly adopted party. If you demonstrate a commitment to fundamental change, we must work with you as committed champions of the Progressive Alliance.

It is partly a matter of arithmetic. To win alone Labour needs to achieve a swing of historically improbable proportions – against both the Conservatives and the SNP. To carry through its programme, the Progressive Alliance needs Liberal Democrats to win the seats where we are the challengers. A vote for the Liberal Democrats in those constituencies should be a vote to support you as prime minister leading a government to rank alongside the two transformative governments of the 20th century elected in 1906 and 1945.  

Our case must focus on the substance of policy, but it must also show how we will build a new politics, which recognises that our system has disenfranchised many millions of people who do not recognise their country in the ramblings of their leaders.  

It is a fundamental concern to all those who want to see you rise above your legitimate concerns as leader of the Labour Party and take on the mantle of national leadership as leader of the opposition.  

Yours in hope,

Stephen Dorrell

Liberal Democrat politician and former secretary of state for health

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