Truss is on an economic rampage with no mandate – so why is Starmer resisting electoral reform?

<span>Composite: Getty Images</span>
Composite: Getty Images

Thanks to the febrile state of the Conservative party, Westminster politics seems to be locked into the trajectory of a rapidly deflating balloon. Policies and big ideas zoom into the foreground and just as quickly recede; ministerial careers rise and fall in only a few years. The only constants seem to be a perpetual sense of crisis and the feeling that, no matter how bad it gets, Tory government remains Britain’s default position. Amid recession, mounting poverty and the prospect of a sterling crisis, almost no one ever mentions a glaring system failure: the fact that we are routinely governed by people with only the flimsiest of electoral mandates, if they have one at all.

The relevant numbers are stark. Three years ago, Boris Johnson led the Conservative party to a “landslide” election victory and 80-seat Commons majority with the support of 29% of the electorate. As if he then had power beyond any restraint, he set about trying to lay waste to anything that got in his way. When his misrule became too much even for his own party, he was replaced by Liz Truss, swept into office by 82,000 Tory members, who represent a titanic 0.3% of all voters.

Truss’s vision of slashed taxes, deregulated enterprise zones, an even more unfettered City Of London and favours showered on the rich might be more coherent than her predecessor’s flailing opportunism, but beyond Tory party members, who voted for it? Three years ago, the Conservatives offered the electorate a vision of a newly active state and an unrelenting focus on the UK’s economic inequalities and imbalances: to quote from their manifesto, “millions more invested every week in science, schools, apprenticeships and infrastructure while controlling debt”. Both those pledges are now dead: the idea of government spending reshaping the economy has been sidelined by deregulation and tax cuts, and the Tories are suddenly telling us that skyrocketing public borrowing is nothing to worry about.

The impression of a gigantic handbrake turn is confirmed by the end of the ban on fracking – something the Tory manifesto said would happen only if it were proved to be safe. The whole unhinged package offered by Truss and her government surely chimes with an even smaller minority of the electorate than the one that put Johnson in power, but such is the democratic gravity that Conservatism manages to defy: elections now feel like mere pauses for breath before whichever Tory cabal is currently in charge gets on with doing whatever it wants.

To state the blindingly obvious, the voting system that leads to these outcomes is hopelessly broken. Because the Tories’ support is evenly spread around non-urban England, it took around 38,000 votes to elect a Conservative MP in 2019. For Labour, whose support is increasingly clustered in cities, the figure was 51,000. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, got one seat for every 334,000 votes cast, while the Greens’ solitary MP, Caroline Lucas, sat atop a mountain of 865,000.

Clearly, first-past-the-post is effectively rigged. It is the reason why Tory governments can still lord it over Scotland and Wales, and therefore a key factor in the fraying of the UK (unionists ought to also be alarmed at how much the system assists the SNP, whose votes per MP are about 26,000).

Moreover, thanks to parliamentary whipping, the existing voting system opens the way for absolute power to be captured by small Tory factions, while matters of huge national importance are subjugated to internal battles – which is the basic story of the last six years of political history, starting with David Cameron’s stupid decision to call the Brexit referendum.

First past the post also creates a misplaced image of the public that we too often mistake for reality. Last week the latest British social attitudes survey revealed plenty of striking findings: in 2011, for example, 42% of respondents said that immigration was “bad for the economy”, but that figure has since fallen to 20%. More than half of us now think it’s not important to be born in Britain to be “truly British”, up from 25% in 2013.

Most British people take a liberal position on questions of sexual orientation and gender identity, leaving those who think that such views “have gone too far” in a small minority. If politics often seems to revolve around the idea that a big chunk of the electorate is socially conservative and faintly nativist, the rightward tilt of the voting system has a lot to do with it. Put another way, there is a reason hardly anyone watches GB News.

Related: Keir Starmer to face calls at Labour conference for electoral reform

And so to Labour. Last week brought leaked details of the party’s constitutional review, led by Gordon Brown, which will apparently recommend replacing the House of Lords with an elected senate, new powers for the UK’s devolved governments, and more besides. These things would hardly be unwelcome, but the key elements of this particular story are clear: the absence of anything in Brown’s review about how we elect the Commons, and the leak’s rather suspicious timing.

Polling suggests that 83% of Labour members now support electoral reform. In the buildup to its conference this week, about 140 constituency parties have submitted motions calling for exactly that. Unless backroom fixes get in the way, a resolution proposing a new voting system should be debated on Monday afternoon.

Last year, a call for proportional representation was defeated thanks to the big unions – but Unison and Unite have since shifted their position, and the people in charge of an umbrella group called Labour for a New Democracy sound confident that this year should see their side win. An understanding of the causal link between our endless national crises and the way we elect our MPs seems to have worked its way into the party’s collective soul, and such big Labour figures as the Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, and the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, now support Labour’s reformers.

Unfortunately, Keir Starmer and his allies still see changing our systems of power and politics as an irritating distraction, and are clearly terrified that any conversations about coalitions and partnerships will be a gift to the Tories. So Brown’s report will be frenziedly talked up, while any successful pro-PR motion will be ignored. The Labour leader has already pre-emptively ruled out any mention of voting reform in the party’s next manifesto, a stance coupled with his usual insistence that he will not be “doing any deals going into the election or coming out of the election”.

In other words: our systems of power can be tinkered with but not fundamentally changed. Such is yet another surreal aspect of our politics: the fact that a party that now seems overwhelmingly in favour of closing Britain’s huge democratic gaps is still led by people who still think our broken electoral machinery can be used for progressive ends.

With good reason, the Daily Mail gravely warns that “scrapping first past the post could put the Tories out of power for a generation”, but Labour’s leadership seems to want to play by the usual rules: jealously guarding the party’s customary role as Westminster’s runner-up, and hoping that it will carry on getting its customary turn in power once every 15 or 20 years. There is a price to pay for that stubbornness, and we are seeing it more vividly than ever: unhinged politics and the prospect of yet another unrepresentative Tory clique wreaking havoc.

  • John Harris is a Guardian columnist