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18 July 2023

How Labour can be radical for free

Starmer should embrace comprehensive reform of the voting system, the House of Lords and party funding.

By Martin Fletcher

Hands up those who can name Keir Starmer’s five “missions” for government.

OK, let’s try again. Hands up those who can name any truly distinctive policies that Labour is offering ahead of next year’s expected general election.

I thought as much. Hardly any of you. But this is not really the Starmerites’ fault. They know they will be manacled, tied hand and foot, by the desperate state of the British economy.

They cannot promise to spend huge new sums on the environment, the NHS or our collapsing public services because the coffers are empty. As David Gauke, the former Conservative chief secretary to the Treasury, recently argued in the New Statesman: “In practice, the differences in fiscal policy between the two parties’ frontbenches are not great. Both prioritise fiscal credibility over expensive offers to the electorate; both are willing to disappoint elements within their own party wanting greater boldness; but both shy away from the full truth on taxes.”

Given those constraints, the best Labour can do is tinker around the edges on economic and social policy. No wonder its programme for government is failing to excite the electorate. No wonder, despite a 20-point lead in the polls, its leaders are not taking victory for granted.

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So here is what, in my naivety, I would like Labour to offer instead: comprehensive and far-reaching reform of a political system that has been broken by 13 years of Conservative misgovernment; by all the lying, the ethical outrages, the breaching of laws and conventions, the systematic dismantling of checks and balances, the bypassing of parliament, the assaults on independent bodies such as the judiciary, the BBC and the civil service, the rewarding of cronies with jobs and baubles, the criminalisation of protest and the erosion of voting rights – much of this by unelected prime ministers or prime ministers elected with a minority of the popular vote.

[See also: What do the Tories have to show for 13 years in office?]

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Not surprisingly, the majority of the British people have lost faith in the democratic process. They no longer believe that it works for them. They no longer believe the promises of their political leaders or – for all Boris Johnson’s talk of championing the “will of the people” – that they really care about ordinary folk as opposed to powerful vested interests.

This cynicism and disillusionment is dangerous. It provides fertile ground for extremism, for unscrupulous populist leaders and for social unrest. We have already gone a long way down that road, but it is not too late for an incoming Labour government to start restoring the public’s trust.

I readily admit that I’m no expert in this subject, but as a concerned citizen I’d start with electoral reform. I’d do away with a first-past-the-post system that means most people’s votes count for nothing, that endlessly produces governments elected with a minority of the vote but a monopoly on power, and that strongly favours the Conservatives because the progressive vote is permanently divided. 

Yes, proportional representation would lead to coalition governments, but is that such a bad thing? I, for one, would love to see the politics of consensus replace the politics of confrontation. I would like to be able to vote for whom I want rather than voting to keep another party out. I long for a system that would never again permit a well-organised cabal of fanatics inside a ruling party with scarcely 40 per cent support to ram through a constitutional change as momentous as Brexit.

While on the subject, I’m dismayed that Starmer is threatening to expel Neal Lawson, director of the pressure group Compass, from the Labour Party for, essentially, championing cross-party cooperation.

I’d reform the debased honours system so it can never again be used by shameless prime ministers to reward their mates, relatives and financial supporters. The House of Lords Appointments Committee, or some such body, should be given veto powers to ensure only the deserving are ennobled.

I’d reform the bloated House of Lords which, with 800 members, is now the second largest legislative chamber in the world and one of the most ineffective – a reward and resting place for political cronies and time servers.

I’d urgently seek ways to expose and reduce the influence of big money in politics, and to minimise the influence of, for example, dodgy Russians on our political life. I’d introduce tough new ethics rules for ministers and MPs, with a credible independent body to enforce them. I’d give the UK Statistics Authority, or some similar body, much greater power to reprimand, and demand retractions, from prime ministers and ministers who knowingly disseminate false facts.

Given how presidential our politics have become, I’d like to make general elections mandatory if elected prime ministers stand down, thereby removing the power of a few wildly unrepresentative party activists to choose successors like the catastrophic Liz Truss

And I’d look for ways to attract a more diverse and experienced array of people into political life. Today it is dominated by lifelong insiders, political junkies who have spent their entire careers as party hacks before becoming MPs. I routinely ask younger Britons if they would consider going into politics, and they shudder at the very thought.

I could go further. I could suggest that the time has come for Britain to have a written constitution that defines once and for all the rights of the people, the division of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary, and the prerogatives of the devolved authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Johnson has comprehensively destroyed the “good chaps” theory of government where our elected leaders observed a shared understanding of what constitutes proper conduct in public life.

Is this all a fantasy? When I suggest such reforms to political insiders they scoff. They tell me that all voters will care about at the next election is the cost of living and their mortgage interest rates. They are probably right.

But I still suspect that democratic renewal, sold properly and with conviction, could be a vote-winner for Labour. In the absence of anything else, it is fresh and different. It is radical without being extreme. It does not require huge expenditure. It requires a rare commodity in politics – some concession of power. 

Above all, after so many years of egregious Conservative misrule, it is desperately needed.

[See also: What could go wrong for Keir Starmer?]

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