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Campaigners for electoral reform called on Labour to “catch up” with public support for proportional representation, after Keir Starmer launched proposals for constitutional change which did not address concerns about the first-past-the-post system.
The package of measures drawn up by former prime minister Gordon Brown envisages the replacement of the House of Lords with a democratically elected second chamber, and the devolution of powers from Westminster and Whitehall to local communities.
Sir Keir said that the changes were “capable of being implemented within the first five years of a Labour government", but said a consultation would be conducted before any decision on whether they will feature in the manifesto for the 2024 election.
But the Electoral Reform Society said that the failure to offer proportional representation for Westminster elections was “a glaring hole” in Mr Brown’s package.
And Labour MP Clive Lewis – a former member of the shadow cabinet – said: “A welcome acknowledgement in the Brown report is that millions feel ‘neglected, ignored, and invisible’. In short, disempowered.
“The basis of any democracy is the ability to be heard. That starts with an electoral system where votes count equally – PR.”
Labour’s annual conference in September voted for the party to back proportional representation in Westminster elections, but Sir Keir ruled out its inclusion in the manifesto, saying: “It’s not a priority for me.”
A senior spokesperson for the Labour leader said that PR was not in the scope of the two-year commission on the future of the UK led by Mr Brown as “Keir believes it’s a complete distraction from the real challenges of our politics and our economy”.
Key features of the Brown package included:
- The replacement of the “indefensible” House of Lords with a new democratic assembly of nations and regions.
- The creation of 288 “new economic clusters” to foster job creation in local areas, the majority of them outside London.
- New powers for local communities over skills, transport, planning and culture and extra powers for devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
- The transfer of 50,000 civil service jobs out of London.
- A “powerful” new anti-corruption commissioner and a ban on most second jobs for MPs.
Speaking at the launch of his report in Leeds, Mr Brown said his proposals offered “the biggest transfer of power out of Westminster and Whitehall… that our country has seen”.
Sir Keir made clear that the constitutional changes under consideration were in part a response to the discontent which drove the 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union.
Although he was a supporter of Remain, Starmer said he sympathised with the sentiments of those who voted to leave the EU.
“They wanted more control over their lives, more control over their country,” he said.
“They wanted to create opportunities for the next generation – build communities they felt proud of, have public services they could rely on.”
Pro-European MPs said they accepted Sir Keir’s analysis that improving the Brexit deal must be the party’s priority, not reversing EU withdrawal.
Stella Creasy, the chair of the Labour Movement for Europe, told The Independent: “The brutal reality is that our reputation in Europe has been trashed over the last few years and there is no appetite from their side to talk about that. We are focused now on what we can do to rebuild that relationship.
With British companies giving up on trade with the EU because of the red tape introduced by Boris Johnson’s deal, she said the priority was to reduce the damage done by Brexit, adding: “More uncertainty won’t help anybody.”
In order to build a future the country deserves, Britain needs change involving “higher standards in public life, a wider spread of power and opportunity and better economic growth”, Sir Keir said.
“No more navel-gazing or facing inward. Higher, wider, better – that is how Britain must set its sights,”
Labour peer Peter Mandelson warned that reform of the House of Lords would not be “quick or painless or simple”.
Without cross-party consensus, Sir Keir risks being “swept up into a sort of quagmire of disagreement [which would] soak up acres of time and energy, which, frankly, a Labour government would be better devoting to other priorities and other needs in the country”, the former cabinet minister told BBC2’s Newsnight.
The Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform said Mr Brown’s proposals were “a welcome recognition that our politics isn’t working and democracy must be at the heart of Labour’s plans”.
But they added: “Reform will only restore trust in politics if everyone knows their vote counts. That means proportional representation for general elections.”
Pointing to a recent survey which found 54 per cent support for PR and fewer than one in eight opposing it, the group said: “Polling shows most of the public want electoral reform – even more than want reform of the Lords.
“People up and down the country have had enough of governments which don’t represent them and clearly don’t work for them. It’s time Westminster caught up.”
Labour’s former head of policy David Ward, who tabled the successful motion on PR at conference, told the LabourList website: “PR for general elections is essential in order to deliver a more democratic, equal and united UK.”
And left-wing think tank Compass said: “In two key ways, Brown’s proposals fall short – failing to involve citizens in designing a new democracy from the start, and overlooking one of the most important structural changes this country needs to respond to the challenges of 21st century government: proportional representation.
“These two commitments would mean both greater legitimacy and longevity for Brown’s proposals.”