30 years on why PR is the next step for John Smith’s Citizen’s Democracy

The Labours Leader’s warning was stark and his modernising message clear. He spoke of “a worrying loss of confidence in Parliament” and “mounting sense of disenchantment and cynicism about our political system”.  The Leader of the Opposition said it was “no answer to say leave it to Whitehall” and called for a new deal between the people and the state that would put “the citizen centre stage”. He proposed a package of reforms to revitalise our “anachronistic and inadequate” democratic process. 

Although uncannily similar to Keir Starmer’s New Year speech about “Westminster’s sticking plaster politics” these words were John Smith’s thirty years ago. Speaking to Charter 88 on 1st March 1993 Smith set out the most comprehensive agenda of constitutional and democratic reform ever made by any Labour Leader. According to Charter 88’s founder, Anthony Barnett, “It transformed Labour from a constitutionally conservative party into a radical, reformist one”. The Charter 88 speech was also hugely consequential as it set out the framework of democratic reform that would be implemented by the Labour Government elected in 1997.

In his speech Smith warned that Britain had become an elective dictatorship and argued that “we must replace the out-of-date idea of an all-powerful nation state with a new and dynamic framework of government”. He proposed new democratic structures for Scotland and Wales, for the regions of England, and revitalisation of local government in which power could be “decentralised to the level most appropriate to deal with people’s needs”. He also advocated strengthening individual rights through the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. Smith was scathing about Whitehall’s obsession with secrecy and pledged to introduce a Freedom of Information Act and similar laws against corporate cover ups so that “the cobwebs of unnecessary secrecy around the British Boardroom are blown away”. He demanded a more open process of governance with a ‘green budget’, statutory independence for the government statistical service, and an independent audit of official economic forecasts. 

Smith’s tragic death in May 1994 robbed the country of a great Prime Minister. But the legacy of his Charter 88 speech can be seen in the creation of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, in the establishment of the London Mayoralty accountable to an elected assembly, in the Human Rights Act, in the Freedom of Information Act, and the Office of Budget Responsibility. All bear the hallmark of Smith’s radical agenda for the modernisation of British democracy and governance. 

Thirty years on it is encouraging to see Keir Starmer pledge to reform our over centralised democratic system. Starmer’s call for power in Britain to be spread “beyond Westminster” echoes Smith’s words in 1993. Similarly the release of Gordon Brown’s constitutional review is another powerful contribution to Labour’s track record of constitutional reform that Smith’s Charter 88 speech initiated in 1993.  Like Brown, Smith favoured replacement of the House of Lords with an elected second chamber. But also like Brown, Smith deliberately avoided the subject of electoral reform. 

Smith’s reticence was understandable then because the Labour Party was awaiting the final report of a Working Party on Electoral Systems, chaired by Professor Raymond Plant. This had been formed in 1989 by the then Labour Leader Neil Kinnock initially to consider voting methods for the devolved assemblies, the European Parliament and an elected House of Lords. But its remit was extended to include elections to the House of Commons by a vote at Labour Conference in 1990; an early sign that the party membership’s support for PR was growing. One month after Smith’s Charter 88 lecture, the Plant Review report was published. It recommended scrapping first past the post (FPTP), proposing various other forms of voting system for the European Parliament, the Scottish Assembly, and the House of Lords and the House of Commons. In response John Smith accepted the recommendations for Europe and Scotland. For elections to the House of Commons Smith pledged to hold a referendum and this commitment was included in the 1997 General Election manifesto.  

As John Smith’s Head of Policy at the time I was in the slightly uncomfortable position of being a strong supporter of PR working for a leader who was very cautious about the issue. Smith was not emphatically opposed to electoral reform and respected the argument from principle that all votes should count equally, no matter where they are cast. His concerns were mostly pragmatic. He shared with me the obvious difficulty of persuading his fellow 50 Scottish Labour MPs of the merits of a change that would likely cost some of them their seats. With Labour in Scotland now having just one MP and the Scottish Nationalists enjoying the clear advantage of ‘winner takes all’ in FPTP Westminster elections, I often wonder whether Smith’s inhibition about PR would be sustained given this hard political reality and today’s overwhelming support for electoral reform among Labour’s membership.  

Smith’s untimely death meant that the PR issue would be dealt with by his successor Tony Blair. His government established the Independent Commission on the Voting System, chaired by Lord Jenkins. It reported in 1998 and like the Plant Commission also rejected FPTP. Jenkins proposed a version of the Alternative Vote but with an additional ‘top-up’ list similar to the mixed member PR systems used in Germany and New Zealand. However, Tony Blair was unpersuaded of the switch and his Government failed to hold the promised referendum. 

In my view Labour’s failure to fully embrace PR was a massive missed opportunity. It confirmed the late Robin Cook’s warning made in 2005, just one month before he died: “My nightmare is that we will have been 12 years in office, with the ability to reform the electoral system, and will fail to do so until we are back in opposition, in perhaps a decade of Conservative government, regretting that we left in place the electoral system that allowed Conservative governments on a minority vote.” Reflecting on the enormous damage inflicted by yet another 12 years of Tory misrule, Cook’s prophetic fears are painfully poignant. 

That is why last year I was pleased and privileged to move the successful motion on PR that was adopted at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool. In my speech I argued that the Tories have been able to get away with austerity, rising inequality, and collapsing healthcare because our current electoral system lets them. Their trickle-down economics are underpinned by trickle down democracy – a system which hands all the power to a small number of voters in marginal swing seats leaving millions of us effectively unrepresented in Westminster. With unprecedented support from constituency parties and trades unions the motion – calling for a manifesto commitment to PR – was passed by an overwhelming majority. 

Disappointingly this historic vote for electoral reform has been largely ignored by the Labour leadership since. And yet Keir Starmer’s New Year critique of the UK’s democratic governance comes tantalisingly close to making the case for electoral reform. Starmer sees clearly that “the Westminster system is part of the problem” and that Britain “needs a completely new way of governing”. He also complains that we have “an economy that hoards potential and a politics that hoards power” and notes that this “leaves us with more regional inequality than anywhere in Europe”. But as last year’s Labour Conference recognised, the electoral mechanism that sustains this hoarding process is our ‘winner takes all’ voting system. And another striking comparison with Europe alongside regional inequality is that the UK is the only country with a parliamentary system that uses FPTP. For some this is a coincidence but I think it’s connected to our unfair voting system.

Building on his ‘Westminster sticking plaster politics’ critique Keir Starmer has now set out five missions for a better Britain – to restore growth, promote clean energy, revitalise the NHS, make streets safe and improve educational opportunity. It is refreshing and realistic to present these mission-driven challenges as a project for more than one parliament. A ten year timescale will surely be needed to recover from the ruins of 12 years of Tory failure and the disastrous impact of Brexit. But it is unrealistic to think their achievement will be truly secure under FPTP. Without electoral reform the UK will be vulnerable to another repetition of Robin Cook’s nightmare of Labour’s missed opportunity and the return of the Tories to power on a minority of votes cast.  Which is why Starmer’s Labour Party should be bold in putting country before party and fairness at the heart of our democracy by making the principled case for electoral reform.  

Labour needs a manifesto commitment to scrap FPTP and introduce PR. The way to do this is through the National Policy Forum (NPF) which is now consulting Labour CLPs and branches ahead of its main meeting in July. This year will also be the 30th anniversary of the NPF which was established under John Smith’s leadership and first met in May 1993. Smith wanted the NPF to be a more inclusive and participatory process of policy debate. Given the clear majority support for PR at last year’s Party Conference, it really is beholden on the NPF to respect that decision and back a commitment to electoral reform in the party programme. As we mark the 30th anniversary of Smith’s historic Charter 88 speech that is the path to a citizen’s democracy that Labour must take now.

David Ward was John Smith’s Head of Policy, is a member of Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform/Labour for a New Democracy, and is the Branch Secretary of Tenterden Labour Party.