Labour conference urges Sir Keir Starmer to adopt proportional representation

Labour conference delegates - Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
Labour conference delegates - Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Labour’s annual conference has voted to support electoral reform, with members calling on Sir Keir Starmer to adopt proportional representation (PR) as official policy.

On Monday, delegates in Liverpool backed the policy, arguing that abolishing first past the post (FPTP) would mean the party would have influence in future governments.

But Sir Keir, the Labour leader, has already ruled out supporting electoral reform in the party’s next manifesto and is set to ignore the vote.

Monday’s motion was backed by several major unions including Unite, Unison and the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU), although the GMB union opposes the move. It was also supported by Momentum, the Left-wing campaign group that backed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party.

Speaking to the Observer ahead of the conference, Sir Keir said electoral reform was “not a priority” for him and said he was “not doing any deals going into the election or coming out of the election”.

PR is an umbrella term for various electoral systems that attempt to closely mirror the number of seats in a legislature with the proportion of votes for different parties. In contrast, FPTP generally produces governments with majorities, but where the vote share and seat share do not align.

Monday’s motion called for Labour to pledge PR reform in its manifesto, change the electoral system in Sir Keir’s first term in office if he wins the election and then hold an “open and inclusive process to decide the specific proportional voting system it will introduce”.

PR is also supported by Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, and Left-wing Labour MPs including John McDonnell and Clive Lewis.

Mr Burnham said it was “time for like-minded people to reach out across party divides and agree a wide-ranging programme of political reform”, even if it meant Labour was not in overall control of future governments.

Sir Keir is not required to change party policy on the basis of a conference vote, but risks angering segments of the Labour grassroots if he is seen to ignore them.

A Momentum spokesman said: “Just days after Starmer ruled out PR, Labour conference united to send him an unambiguous message: that the leader alone does not dictate the policy of the party, and that a Labour government must be a democratising government, which is committed to transforming our unfair electoral system.

“The democratic revolution can’t end at PR. We need to break up our centralised Westminster system entirely: by abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with an elected senate, and devolving more decision-making power to regions and communities.”

Electoral reform is likely to be the price of the support of a coalition deal with one of the smaller parties if Labour does not win a majority but is the largest party after the next general election.

In 2010, the Liberal Democrats demanded a nationwide referendum on the Alternative Vote, a transferable vote electoral system, to enter a formal coalition with the Conservatives, but the party lost the referendum by 67 per cent to 32 when the ballot was held in 2011.

Labour refuses to discuss the prospect of any coalition deal and is not expected to change its policy on PR before the next election.