Labour has gone directly from opposition to governing with a strong majority for only the second time in our party’s history. It’s an outstanding achievement – one that almost ten million people voted for – and we now have the opportunity, and obligation, to deliver the change the country so desperately needs.

At the same time, the election results have shattered any illusion that the House of Commons fairly represents Britain’s voters. Last year, Labour recognised that First Past the Post is driving “distrust and alienation”. This has now been turbocharged by the most disproportionate election in British history.

Labour now holds almost two-thirds of the seats in parliament in return for one in three votes cast. Meanwhile, one in five people – six million voters – voted for either the Greens or Reform.

Yet these parties now share a combined nine MPs, little over 1%. It took 23,600 votes to elect each Labour MP but 460,000 for each Green and 822,000 for each Reform MP. The vast majority of those who voted got neither the person they voted for as their local MP, nor the party they backed in government.

The public aren’t stupid – they understand this is an unfair system that shuts millions of us out of our politics. This sense of disillusionment is why trust in politics is at an all time low.

It’s why, after the anomaly of the Brexit years, turnout has resumed its steady century-long decline. It’s why polls find record and majority support for changing to Proportional Representation (PR). This is a voting system in crisis. Everyone can see it’s broken. It needs to change.

And yet, so many assume Labour will not change a system that’s given it a large majority. This has to be challenged. Here are just three of the many reasons why Labour can and should use the power it now has to reform the voting system.

Restoring trust in politics

It’s welcome that, as Prime Minister, Keir Starmer remains emphatic that national renewal depends on restoring trust in politics, by governing “country first, party second”. But if Labour now comes to the defence of this flagrantly unfair system, it would prove to the public that these were all just words; that politicians are all the same after all – only out for themselves.

When people say, “they’ll never change the system they got elected by”, it’s precisely because they cannot begin to imagine a political party putting the interests of the country above its own.

This is the test Keir Starmer has set for himself and his government: to rise above short term party self-interest. With the voting system so clearly disenfranchising most British voters, on this occasion to the short term benefit of the Labour Party, this is the litmus test of whether the new government is serious about restoring trust in politics.

First Past the Post is a gamble with Britain’s future

Starmer and his team wisely warned against complacency right up to polling day, and there is no room for it now. Labour has gone from what’s often called its worst defeat in history to a landslide majority with barely an increase in its share of the vote. Keep First Past the Post and we could just as easily see the reverse in 2029 – going from victory back to defeat without any fall in our vote share.

It’s well-established that First Past the Post has a right-wing bias in the long-run everywhere it’s used.

In the UK, this has meant Conservative governments for two-thirds of the time, despite most people consistently voting for parties to the left of the Tories.

Our voting system is producing more capricious results than ever – awarding absolute power on a third of the vote. It’s our good fortune that for now that Labour are the beneficiaries of this unfairness – but it won’t be forever.

With the right of British politics ever more polarised and extreme, we can be sure that they will once again destroy the progress Labour makes in government if First Past the Post is allowed to hand them another majority.

First Past the Post is a gift to Farage

Nigel Farage is no democrat. He thrives on division and resentment. Our voting system allows him to mobilise and stir up grievance amongst people who justifiably feel ignored by politics.

Under First Past the Post, he has become arguably the most influential British politician alive. He’s got everything he’s wanted so far: leaving the EU, dragging the Conservatives far to the right, and now being elected to parliament.

His modus operandi is well known and brutally effective. He builds an electoral threat and uses it to drive the Tories rightwards.

When an election comes, he can choose to stand candidates and inflict a potentially devastating split on the Tory vote (2015 and 2024), or stand down his candidates and help crown a suitably right-wing Prime Minister (2019).

Farage won’t stop now. Despite winning few seats, the combined vote of Reform and the Tories is 38% to Labour’s 34%. Farage will continue to push a humiliated and traumatised Conservative Party to the extreme right – or may even try to take it over himself. If either strategy succeeds, he can choose to unite the right once again, with a majority of seats on a minority of the vote well within reach.

Labour must act

In its first days the new government will rightly focus on the most urgent priorities facing the country. But within its first hundred days, Labour should announce its intention to review our voting system.

This would prove it is serious about restoring trust in politics. It would pave the way to a future in which British politics is shaped by the voters, rather than by an arbitrary and volatile system.

And it would foreclose the possibility of an extreme government being elected on just a third of the vote.

Joe Sousek (National coordinator, Labour for a New Democracy)

Sandy Martin (Chair, LCER)

This article first appeared in LabourList on 9 July 2024

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