Andy Burnham says Labour must ‘seize moment’ and back proportional representation

Labour should back proportional representation for Westminster elections to allow more cooperation between political parties on a programme of urgently needed social reform, says Andy Burnham.

Toby Helm 

Writing for the Observer in the aftermath of two byelection defeats for the Tories, brought about in part by tactical voting by Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters, the mayor of Greater Manchester says PR should be at the heart of an entirely new approach to politics and policymaking.

Burnham insists he is not talking about any form of “electoral pact” involving Labour and other parties, and that his intervention is not part of a leadership bid against Keir Starmer. “This is nothing of the sort,” he says. “I am doing this because I want Keir to seize the moment.”

But off the back of the byelections, he argues there is now an opportunity for the Tories’ opponents to work together more. Doing so, they could create a political system in which power is spread more evenly and fairly, rather than being concentrated in what he describes as a “small Whitehall elite” as a result of a first-past-the-post election system, which traditionally has favoured the Tories.

Changing the voting system, a move likely to boost small parties and increase the chances of coalitions, would foster a spirit of consensus and agreement on other radical and necessary elements of political modernisation, such as replacing the House of Lords with an elected second chamber and more devolution.

“What I am proposing is cooperating now on a programme for political reform. At a grassroots level, Labour is moving towards support for PR,” he says.

“If the party as a whole were to embrace it, it paves the way for agreement with other parties on wider reforms: an elected senate of the nations and regions to replace the Lords and maximum devolution of power out of Westminster.”

These new structures, with the number of MPs from different parties better reflecting the votes cast, would then pave the way for cooperation and consensus on key challenges facing the country, the Manchester mayor suggests.

Instead, today’s Conservative government was an example of paralysis and dysfunction, in which the governing party was seeking division with its opponents in a desperate effort to stay in power, rather than focusing on the urgent national issues affecting the British people.

“Just when we needed a grown-up government, we got one which is not governing but is campaigning for its own survival by inflaming divides and starting fights,” Burnham writes.

A spirit of cooperation was needed on issues such as housing, social care, and public services, with the same urgency as after the second world war.

Burnham adds: “My starter for 10 would be: good housing as a human right in UK law and a major council housebuilding programme to make it real; a higher basic minimum income for all and the end to insecure employment; social care on NHS terms and a substantial increase in mental health spending: and the re-nationalisation of rail and re-regulation of bus services.

“Whatever the precise policy programme, the enormity of the change needed can’t be denied and will require consensus and political foundations to sustain it for a generation or more.”

Labour policy is not to support PR for Westminster elections although several motions on the issue will be put to the party’s conference in September. The country’s largest union Unison recently backed PR for Westminster elections at its annual conference in a move welcomed by electoral reform campaigners as a “huge boost”.