Electoral reform: democracy and fairness

This is the text of the speech Alex gave at a public meeting in Liverpool on why Labour should back fairer votes in November 2018.

When he launched Labour’s general election campaign in 2017 Jeremy Corbyn said:

People are alienated from politics and politicians. Our Westminster system is broken and our economy is rigged. Both are run in the interests of the few.

I think he is right.

Unlock Democracy has consistently argued that power in the UK is far too centralised and remote from people who want to be able to shape what goes on in their communities.

As someone who works within the Westminster bubble,

it feels to me that our version of politics is atrophying; that it is stuck in an adversarial rut and unable to innovate or evolve, in a way that I don’t think is true of politics in Scotland and Wales.

Nor is it true of the world around us; there is a growing expectation amongst younger generations who are used to the fast pace of technological change, that innovation and disruption should be welcomed to fix broken systems.

And the impact of our broken voting system on UK politics is clear: the false majorities and hung Parliaments; voters abandoned in safe seats where representation hasn’t changed in generations; and the scourge of tactical voting where millions decide not to vote for who they want, but vote tactically to keep out who they don’t want.

Today I won’t be making the points about how electoral reform would benefit the Labour Party in terms of ending electoral deserts or increasing the number of councillors and MPs or even making a Labour government more likely. These are all valid arguments. Instead I’m going to focus on Labour’s values and on how electoral reform could help to deliver a fairer society.

As on of my political heros Robin Cook said:

We are not just interested in electoral reform for functional reasons, but because we see it as a means to an end. The electoral system to the House of Commons is a crucial part of our democracy. And for the Labour Party democracy cannot be just viewed as a means, it is also a value - a value which expresses how fair, how open, how equal we are in our society.

At the moment we have a democracy that fails to match that value and that’s why it’s a matter of principle that we must insist on it being changed... Our objective, our slogan, should be to achieve an electoral system which puts our democracy in the hands of the many voters, not the few voters who happen to be key in marginal seats.
— Robin Cook, July 2005

Under First Past the Post voters simply are not treated fairly; Neither in terms of how their votes are translated into seats; nor in terms of how political parties engage with them.

Electoral reform isn’t a panacea that will magically cure all political ills on it’s own, but can break open our political culture and help to make radical change possible.

So how could changing our electoral system open up politics and make the process of how we make decisions fairer?

For starters, it opens up the policy options.

For too long the interests and views of small numbers of swing voters in marginal sats have determined what is believed to be politically possible.

Under PR systems it is easier for parties to put forward a more radical policy platform that appeals to voters at large - not just those in swing seats.

It can also encourage greater diversity amongst those elected to represent us, so that they reflect us.

PR systems also have a much better track record of increasing the representation of women and minority groups.

The June 2017 election saw 208 women elected to the House of Commons - the highest number in history.

But nearly 100 years on from all men and some women being enfranchised our Parliament is still woefully, shamefully lacking in diversity.

There is a long way to go until women get a fair share of representation in Parliament - women are still outnumbered 2-1

As of 2017, every single country with more than 40 per cent female MP in its primary legislature uses PR.

It is not the electoral system alone that has delivered this change. But it does make it significantly easier for political parties to act to address gaps in representation.

Of course diversity isn’t just about gender, race and disability where some albeit slow progress is being made.

It’s also about class where we are moving backwards - the number of MPs who were former manual workers decreased from around 16% of all MPs in 1979 to 3% in 2015.

There are of course a wide range of societal reason for this but part of it is also the sense that you have to pick someone who looks and talks like an MP.

This is made more acute when you are only picking on canidate. as with gender and race people selecting candidates tend to be more small c conservative when operating under a majoritarian system.

PR also reflects Labours belief in collectivism.

While FPTP creates false majorities and a winner takes all mentality PR systems emphasise the collective nature of politics.

They encourage the creation of majorities through negotiations, and compromises between political parties that represent different groups in society.

Research by Arend Lijphart and Anthony McGann show us that countries with PR appear to be more egalitarian, more redistributive and have larger welfare states.

The reverse is also true: majoritarian systems spend less on welfare programs than PR systems.

One of the big challenges for UK politics is how we deal with the big challenges such as climate change, the aging population and intergenerational inequality.

These are big problems which require long term solutions and an ability to build a degree of cross party consensus.

This is something that FPTP, with its emphasis on the winner taking all, and short termism, simply doesn’t allow in our political system.

Decisions which need to be made, but which might prove unpopular, are routinely deferred until after the next election - often repeatedly.

We have seen this with both with social care funding and housing policy, where difficult decisions have been kicked into the long grass and have caused lasting damage to our communities.

So while changing the electoral system won’t build more council houses it will remove some of the obstacles that prevent a Labour government from doing that.

Looking to Scotland for inspiration

Proportional representation is exciting because it is not just about institutional change but how we achieve change.

Both Scotland and Northern Ireland have proved that electoral reform in the UK can be done, to great success, transforming the quality of local democracy.

For example, the phenomenon of uncontested seats has been significantly reduced in Scotland after the introduction of Single Transferable Vote system in 2004.

In the first council elections after STV was introduced, in 2007, not a single ward was uncontested. There were 61 uncontested seats in Scotland in 2003, whereas most recently in 2017 there were only three. Compared with 2003, the number of candidates standing has also increased by 76, suggesting that the introduction of STV stimulated competitiveness in local elections.

Scottish community organisations have also found that changes in the electoral system opened up engagement with Councils. Councillors have become more responsive, and an increase in the number of parties represented in local democracy has meant community groups had more opportunities to open a dialogue with the Council. Local authorities have also been open to developing new local forums to hear from voters.

Electoral reform would provide the public with choice, help to end the monopolies some parties have in constituencies, and help to change our political culture - to create a new spirit of collaboration.

Electoral reform isn’t a panacea, but it can start to open up the way we do politics.

PR presents an opportunity to bring fairness to a process that is simply not delivering a Parliament that is representative - either of the policies most people want, or one which is as diverse as the UK is.

Scotland and Northern Ireland show us that it can be done, and the existence of tactical voting, safe seats, and abysmal diversity in Parliament show us that it must be done.

Thumbnail Image credit: Ryan Hodnett