A socialist case for PR (interview with Benj Eckford)

Submitted by AWL on 10 May, 2021 - 3:56
Labour for a New Democracy

Benj Eckford is the youth officer and North East regional rep on the committee of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, which campaigns for proportional representation. He spoke to us about the growing campaign within Labour for PR.


LCER has existed since the early 1980s, but it was properly relaunched after the 2015 general election. That was one of the most disproportionate elections in British history: the Tories got 36% of the vote, or only 24% of the registered electorate, yet they ended up with 51% of the seats, which in this system means 100% of the power. Just in the next two years that led to so many terrible things, attacks on tax credits, the Trade Union Bill and of course Brexit, which I think was a disaster.

When the Tories could do all that with a minority of the vote, why are we persisting with First Past the Post? That was a wake up moment for me. I got involved at party conference in 2016; I was co-opted onto the national committee as the North East rep. We’ve drawn in quite a few people up here since then.

At the virtual conference in September last year there was the launch of Labour for a New Democracy, involving a range of groups – LCER, Open Labour, Another Europe is Possible... Electoral reform is that campaign’s main thrust, but they also deal with issues like votes at 16, the House of Lords, maybe even branching onto the monarchy. Since then they’ve had a motions campaign, passing their motion in lots of CLPs – including mine, Newcastle North – to send to the National Policy Forum and now there’s a party conference motion too. I’ve worked with their rep in the North East too. We’re trying to make sure we have at least one person promoting the Labour for a New Democracy policy in each of the 29 North East CLPs.

There’s also a wider pro-PR campaign, Make Votes Matter, which involves all kinds of people, Labour, Lib Dems, Greens, Women’s Equality Party, previously UKIP and even some Tories. But many of the key people are Labour members and they see changing Labour policy as central. They’ve often made the argument that PR will help lock the Tories out of power.

What kind of Labour people are involved in LCER?

It goes all across the spectrum, from right to left. The current chair is Sandy Martin, who was previously MP for Ipswich. He’s not a hard right-winger like Wes Streeting or someone, but he’s certainly no Corbynista. He knows that I am, but we’ve worked together really well. There are some points of crossover: we’re both pro-European, and we’re both pluralists, in terms of democracy in society and accepting a range of viewpoints in the Labour Party. In any case, we have a common goal, changing Labour’s position on PR, and we’re very disciplined about that.

Who in the party has opposed this demand?

There are people on all wings of the the party who are not really pluralists, and they tend to oppose PR.

Recently CLPD [the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy] put out stuff on social media making their case against. On the Momentum coordinating group, it’s very divided, you’ve got people strongly on both sides. On the right too, you’ve got people like Luke Akehurst who are strongly pro-PR, and people like John Spellar who are strongly against. It’s one of those issues where it doesn’t clearly break down as left and right – a bit like Brexit.

What about the unions?

We work in the unions too. Some unions have a stated policy in favour of PR; others don’t have a policy at all. We’ve tried to run stalls and fringe events. The person you should speak to is [former CWU general secretary] Billy Hayes, who is on the LCER committee as the trade union liaison officer.

What about Young Labour?

The issue hasn’t been debated in Young Labour. Some of us are working on it, and the next time there’s a policy-making conference we’ll be on it. The tankie-ish element in Young Labour is generally hostile to PR, unsurprisingly given that they are very much not pluralists.

Ok, so: why do you as a socialist support PR?

I’m a democratic socialist; and in a way I'm a democrat first and a socialist second. Democracy comes first for me; and First Past the Post simply isn’t democratic. Socialism can’t be imposed on people. It has to come about through parliamentary democracy, what some might call bourgeois liberal democracy. Moreover, PR rigs the playing field in favour of the Tories.

Is it necessarily the case PR would benefit the left and working-class politics? Look at Israel.

I try to get the question of whether PR would benefit the left out of the equation. PR is the right thing to do on its own merits, from a democratic point of view. In terms of whether it would, it depends on a lot of factors; every country has unique circumstances. In Britain, I do think it would benefit the left. In the 20th century the Tory party ruled Britain longer than the Communist Party ruled Russia.

A lot of people in the party say they’d rather have a Labour majority than a coalition. But in reality those majorities come about only once in a generation.

Does supporting PR necessarily mean supporting coalitions? We'd tend to support PR but oppose coalitions, certainly with the Lib Dems.

I’m not a fan of coalition with either the Lib Dems or the SNP. A minority Labour government would be better, but sometimes coalition might be necessary. In reality Labour would always be the senior partner; look at the what the Tories were able to do with the Lib Dems after 2010. It was really just like having a Tory government. I’m sure Labour would still be able to get a left-wing program through.

I’ve been thinking about New Zealand a lot recently. I think there’s a lot to be learned from their Labour Party; they’ve learned to play a PR system really well. They were in coalition for three years with New Zealand first, played it perfectly, and then they won an enormous vote and almost got a majority, enough to govern by themselves and get most of their program through.

I don’t pretend PR is some kind of silver bullet. Whatever the electoral system, we still have to win the arguments. But I’m not convinced Labour will win under First Past the Post again.

If Labour can’t win under First Past the Post, how are you going to get PR?

Good question. It may well be necessary to have a one-off alliance in key seats just to get the Tories out, pass PR, dissolve Parliament and hold a new election. Equally I think if Labour campaigned seriously and passionately for PR, supporters of other parties would be willing to vote Labour.

Do you or the campaign favour a particularly system of PR?

The campaign doesn’t, no. It says Alternative Vote is preferable to First Past the Post, but also stresses that it isn’t proportional and that we need a proportional system. I myself favour “AV Plus” – which is the system Roy Jenkins’ commission recommended under Blair; Blair promised a referendum but never did it. It maintains the constituency link, which I think is important.

What do you see other key democratic reforms?

Votes at 16. You’re eligible to do all kinds of things at 16, including earn a wage, and there should be no taxation without representation. I was politically aware from the age of 14. Then abolition of the House of Lords. I’m not in favour of replacing it with anything; I believe in a unicameral system, which is more accountable and works in plenty of countries around the world. I want abolition of the honours system generally too. Lastly, abolition of the monarchy. I’ve been a member of Republic since 2015, and I’m the North East regional rep for Labour for a Republic as well.

There’s a whole other side of democracy, which is the very big questions about the right to strike and demonstrate which the Police Bill has raised again. I’m a supporter of the Free Our Unions campaign. But I feel like I understand campaigning about democratic structures better, and it’s more accessible. I’ve been a member of three unions, Unite, GMB and CWU, and I found them all pretty inaccessible. Unions need greater democracy too.

Why is this all coming to the boil now? What do you think will happen in the party, for instance at conference, and how will the leadership respond?

It’s definitely coming to the boil, I think for a few reasons. Over the last five years or so, since 2015, a layer of activists have really put the work in. Also in the way that the 2015 election was a wake up call for us, 2019 was for many other people. For the first time since 1987 the Tories won a landslide, but with only 43% of the vote. It’s even more stark when it’s such a radically right-wing Tory government, you really see the iniquities of First Past the Post.

The founding of Labour for a New Democracy brought a lot of people together, particularly on the left and soft left actually, people like Clive Lewis and Laura Parker and Another Europe is Possible, and that’s had a really good effect, and things snowballed – for instance with the motions in CLPs.

I’m sure a lot of CLPs will submit the motion to conference. PR hasn’t been debated at conference since the early ’90s, I think – that was also after a series of election defeats. Even debating it will be a win. If we don’t win the position this year, we could next year. In terms of how the leadership will respond. This is me speaking personally. I didn’t vote for Keir Starmer, but I thought he’d be much better than he has been, that he’d be fairly middle-of-the-road. He’s been atrocious. He’s aligned with the right against the left, and I think he generally wants to ignore conference. But on the other hand this is not a clear left-right issue, there are a lot of Starmer supporters pushing it, and it may be the leadership are less determined to resist it than with other things.

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