Putney Debates 2018 speech Electoral reform: democracy and fairness

Alex gave this speech during The Putney Debates 2018.

The Palace of Westminster is famously in need of renovation at the moment, and I can’t help but feel that the dilapidated building with leaking pipes and mice running around is an appropriate symbol for the state of our broken politics.

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 painting PR as a panacea that will cure all the ills of democracy, or will magically lead to an increase in turnout – because it won’t.

But I do think the introduction of PR is one reform which does have the power to open up our political system. So today I want to talk about PR and what that means for democracy and fairness.

At last year’s Putney Debates David Runciman made the case for PR and said that campaigners were mistaken to link electoral systems to ideas of fairness, not least because it is an argument always put forward by the losing side. He has a point.

While many people support the idea of fairness it means different things to different people. For some, the idea of redistribution is fairness in action - that those who have more pay more towards public services. However it is perfectly possible for someone on a very high income to believe that making them pay a high rate of tax is unfair.

I also think it is far too easy in a consumerist society for politics to be all about whether or not I as an individual have the got the outcome that I want, and if not, I should simply walk away.

So while I’m going to talk about the need to change our electoral system in terms of fairness, I see this as being about fairness in the process of politics - are there meaningful opportunities to participate and get my views heard, or are there structural obstacles to me being able to make a difference?

Under First Past the Post voters simply are not treated fairly; either in terms of how their votes are translated into seats; nor in terms of how political parties engage with them.

Two out of the last three General Elections delivered hung Parliaments, and clearly something has got to give.

So how does our electoral system let down voters?

Research by the Electoral Reform Society shows that in June 2017’s General Election up to twenty percent of voters cast their ballot in support of the candidate they thought had the greatest chance of winning - against the candidate they disliked – rather than for the candidate they liked the best.

This puts voters in the unfair position of having to try and predict results and calculate whether they can vote for who they actually support or to try and vote out a candidate they dislike. While vote swapping websites like Swap My Vote continue to spring up during General Elections, showing a clear appetite amongst voters to make their vote count.

This is all the result of an electoral system which restricts voters’ choices. A fair voting system would allow people to vote for who they believe in.

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

For starters, it can push political parties to have a more representative 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.

Under PR systems, the creation of majorities frequently requires negotiations and compromises between different political parties, resulting in better representation of different societal groups.

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 by their male counterparts in Parliament, with 32% of seats. 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.

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

Thee 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 contrary is also true: majoritarian systems spend less on welfare programs than PR systems.

Research by Funk and Gathmann followed the evolution of fiscal policy in Swiss cantons. They concluded that PR led to an increase in education expenditure by 12% and welfare expenditures by 30%.

This is, they argue, the result of a shift from targeted subsidies for a narrow population in the old FPTP system, to a system of expenditure on broad services under PR.

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