Labour Conference 2018: what happened, what it means, and what next

Joe Sousek co-facilitates Make Votes Matter. He is also a Labour Party member and on the executive of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform.

Joe Sousek

To make Proportional Representation for the House of Commons a reality, it will almost definitely need the support of one of the two biggest parties. Make Votes Matter works closely with Labour members to help persuade the party to commit to PR.

So when - as of September - 45 Constituency Labour Parties had passed motions calling on the party to back PR and to consult its membership about the idea, we were very excited!

Constituency Labour Parties (or “CLPs”) are the fundamental unit of the Labour Party - with one CLP for every Westminster constituency in England and Wales, and one for each Scottish Parliamentary constituency.

These 45 motions were the outcome of joint work between Make Votes Matter, the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and dozens of activists - aimed at getting expert speakers out to local Labour meetings and leading discussions about changing the voting system.

In the last 18 months we’ve visited well over 100 of these meetings. Encouragingly, almost every meeting we’ve been to has seen a majority of members in favour of PR - often virtually unanimously.

The motions came forward from CLPs all over the UK. They include safe Labour seats like Cardiff West, marginals like Stroud, and safe Conservative seats like Devizes. They include Labour held seats where the MP is a strong supporter of PR and those where the MP is committed to First Past the Post. Wherever we go it’s the same story: Labour members believe it’s time the party took a serious look at PR.

With Labour increasingly viewing itself as a member-led movement, we knew these widespread calls for fair votes would put pressure on Labour’s default support for First Past the Post.

National Policy Forum

Most of the CLP motions were sent to the party’s “National Policy Forum” - a part-elected, part-appointed body responsible for developing party policy.

The National Policy Forum (NPF) regularly consults the party membership on a range of policy issues. The motions called on the relevant part of the NPF to consult the membership about their views on electoral reform.

Shortly before the Labour Party conference, the NPF published their 2018 report - bringing together and reflecting on all the motions and submissions made by CLPs and members over the last year.

The good news is the NPF acknowledged that “electoral reform was once again the most frequent submission topic” to the relevant policy commission. More CLPs were moved to formally show their support for PR than on any other issue under the remit of the Cabinet Office, Home Office, or the Ministry of Justice - including all constitutional issues.

Here’s the bad news: the NPF did not acknowledge or respond to the calls for a consultation. Instead, it concluded that this is “the kind of policy” that should be looked at in the “constitutional convention” - a process that won’t start until Labour is next in government. Notably, the report doesn’t even say PR will be considered at that time, just that it’s the sort of thing that might be.

Far from listening to members, this kicks the issue into the long grass. As John McDonnell has said, no party would change the voting system on which they were elected without a “significant commitment in advance of that election”. If it’s allowed to stand, the decision to defer looking at this issue could mean the UK is stuck with First Past the Post for decades.

Contemporary motions

A smaller number of CLPs passed “contemporary motions” calling for a consultation on electoral reform. Unlike ordinary motions to the NPF, this kind of motion goes directly to conference where it may be voted on by delegates.

But to do so, it needs to first get past the “Conference Arrangements Committee” (or “CAC”). Unfortunately, the CAC decided that motions which call for a consultation - rather than a policy change - are about organisational matters and therefore should be decided by the governing committee of the party, rather than by a vote at conference. Frustratingly, the motions were not permitted to proceed to debate.

Policy seminar

I had the opportunity to take up these points during a policy seminar held at the Labour Party conference. Each section of the NPF has one of these sessions, where decision-makers set out their thinking to members, and members in turn are able to ask them questions.

Chris Matheson MP came to set out the NPF’s work on constitutional issues. This surprised me for two reasons. Firstly, he is not a member of the NPF (though he is a deputy to Labour’s constitutional lead, Jon Trickett MP). Secondly, Chris was one of the four Labour MPs who recently teamed up with eight Conservative MPs in an attempt to strip the London Assembly of it’s proportional voting system!

Perhaps less surprisingly, Chris made no mention of voting reform whatsoever in his opening comments - despite it being “the most frequent submission topic” on the policy area he was there to represent.

Several of us raised this from the floor - citing the very large level of members’ demands, the apparent inaction by the NPF, etc. The format of the meeting made it tricky to get a clear answer, but his response was unenthusiastic to say the least.

I approached him once the session had ended and asked, “can you at least say whether the constitutional convention will consider changing the voting system?”. He wasn’t able to do so. Instead he just said, “you make sure it does” - a comment I feel justified in interpreting as “not if I have anything to say about it”.

Reference back

During conference, delegates vote to approve or reject each section of the NPF report. A move delegates can make is to “reference back” a section of the report - which essentially means instructing the NPF to think again on a particular issue.

It wasn’t likely that we would be able to successfully reference back the sections of the report dealing with electoral reform. Remember, half the conference delegates are from trade unions - and most of these currently either oppose electoral reform, or have no official position and will vote against it by default. Many more delegates are from CLPs which haven’t considered the issue.

But reformers at conference were determined to try. If all it achieved was to raise PR from the conference floor for the first time in many years, it would be worth it.

A young, first-time delegate from Hastings & Rye CLP - Liam Crowter - moved the reference back. After some confusion (the chairperson incorrectly said Liam had referred to the wrong part of the report!) it went to a vote.

It’s important to bear in mind that this was a vote on a technical procedure, not a vote on PR. Additionally, most CLPs have not had a discussion on electoral reform in recent months or years. It has not had the media coverage that Brexit, for example,  had before the 2018 conference, and will therefore not have been debated in most CLPs we haven’t visited. In many cases, delegates simply will not have known the views of the members they are there to represent.

In the event, the motion to reference back received strong support among CLP delegates - with perhaps even a majority voting for the reference back. As the vote was taken on a show of hands, it’s impossible to tell for sure. Have a look at the video and see what you think!

However, as expected, the reference back was overwhelmingly rejected by trade unions.

Although the motion fell, it put down an important marker. Though we know the result of the vote understates support for PR across the Labour movement, the level of support it attracted will not have gone unnoticed by the party machine. And it sets the stage for the next phase of the campaign.

What next?

2018 was never going to be the year Labour backed PR - but it was an important conference in the fight for fair votes.

For the first time in years, the issue was raised and debated on the conference floor - and it received more support from CLP delegates than anyone would have thought possible just a year or two ago. Members’ calls for electoral reform may have fallen on deaf ears - but this is only the beginning.

In the coming months, we’re going to extend the discussion within the Labour Party more broadly than ever before. If most Labour members support PR in almost every CLP we visit, we believe that most Labour members support PR period! Finding out for sure is going to be a big undertaking, but we’re up for the challenge. If your branch or CLP has not yet hosted a speaker on PR, please invite one along so we can bring this conversation to your local party.

At the same time, it’s important to face up to the fact that trade unions will ultimately be decisive. We’re working with several of the affiliated unions - some of which support PR, some of which oppose, most of which are undecided - to have these discussions and change minds. If you’re an active member of a trade union, again, invite us to one of your branch meetings to set out the union case for PR.

If the Labour membership can come out in favour of PR, then trade unions’ memberships can too. If that happens, we could be heading into the next general election with every opposition party committed to action on electoral reform. And if that happens, it could change everything.