Daniel Goldstraw 5th August 2019
Last month, in cities across the UK, activists hit the streets to call for a change in how we vote. They have been demanding an end to the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system and a switch to proportional representation (PR).
This has the potential to be much bigger than a few campaigners talking about a different way of voting. With only Labour and the Conservatives left holding out on openly supporting reform, could this be the next big movement in British politics?
The current system has always received criticism for how it usually results in a winner-takes-all situation. Whichever party has the greatest number of seats automatically goes into power, regardless of how far this actually represents how the nation voted as a whole. Whether or not we should ditch FPTP is not exactly a new debate.
FPTP sounds fine at first glance. It simply means you vote for an MP to represent your area in parliament rather than for a party. The party that wins the most seat forms a government. Theoretically, this gives the public a direct line of scrutiny to their local MP and in-turn, the party they ran for.
The main issues come from safe seats. If one party is firmly entrenched in your particular area, any vote for another party is effectively wasted, even though that other party might still have a strong level of support throughout the country as a whole.
Time and time again, elections have been won and lost on the basis of how parties performed in various “marginal” seats, giving a disproportionate view of party support, rather than having the breakdown of votes across the entire nation translate into the percentage of seats in parliament.
How many of us have voted “tactically” in the past? Knowing full well, the candidate we support doesn’t stand a chance, so we may as well vote for the least offensive of the remaining, viable options.
A referendum on switching to PR made its way into the Labour Party’s manifesto back in 1997, as did pledges to abolish institutions such as the House of Lords. These pledges were quickly dropped once Labour got into government.
The Liberal Democrats have also long campaigned for it but, again, have rarely met with success. As a party that’s always been in third place after the Conservatives and Labour, but with clear sizeable support across the nation, it’s not surprising that the Lib Dems have often been among the current system’s most vocal critics.
Electoral reform was one of Nick Clegg’s key demands when he agreed to join the coalition with the Conservatives back in 2010, but in the end all that came of this was a referendum on “Alternative Voting,” a system which was in fact potentially less proportionate than the current system, with even Clegg describing it as nothing more than “a miserable little compromise.” This was promptly rejected by voters, seen as an unnecessary complication to a process which more or less delivered the goods.
The biggest reasons we’re still stuck with what is essentially a two-party system you get under FPTP is that, for most of recent history, it seems to have worked. It is after all, pretty simple. If you’re generally left of centre, you vote Labour. If you’re more right of centre, then you vote Tory. There, easy.
Whenever PR was argued for in the past it always came up against the same argument. Precisely because it did give more representation to the smaller parties, it was inherently unstable. At it’s best, you get the likelihood of many more coalitions and cross-party agreements in government — something which is generally thought of as a much more chaotic process than ours — despite it being the norm in most European countries. At its worst, you risk giving power to radicals and extremists. Certainly, it is a key reason the Brexit Party fared as well as they did recently.
The only people who have been truly passionate about proportional representation have been the minority parties who would benefit. Everyone else has seemed pretty content to just let things work the way they always have, until now. Enter: Brexit.
More than ever before, we’re seeing a genuine shift in attitudes as the instability of our current system is repeatedly highlighted. Parliament has broken, with numerous deadlocks over Brexit, and the inability to produce strong, representative majorities. Both the 2010 and the 2017 elections resulted in hung parliaments, with governments only being formed after the Conservatives were able to make alliances first with the Lib Dem, and now with the DUP.
The 2015 general election was dubbed “the most disproportionate election in British history” by the Electoral Reform Society, after the Conservatives won a majority of seats despite only 37% of voters backing them. Though he wasn’t able to vote at the time, teenager Owen Winter started a petition calling for reform. By the time of the next election, only two years later, this petition had got almost 30,000 signatures and had led to the creation of Make Votes Matter, a non-profit pressure group that has since been organising cross-party pushes for reform.
Though the 2017 election furthered the demand for change the European elections have triggered a backlash against the current system. With the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats hugely surpassing the main two parties, these elections have been incredibly important for two reasons.
Firstly, it showed how different the results are under proportionally representative systems, giving huge successes to parties who, despite having millions of supporters, only ever get one or two seats in ordinary elections. But it also demonstrated just how thoroughly fed up the country has become with the main two political parties in recent years, as the Tories eat each other over Brexit and bluff their way to a general election, while Labour looks increasingly confused and divided. In such a context, it was inevitable that the system which gives these two parties dominance would come under scrutiny.
Calls to action
At the end of last month, Nicola Sturgeon gave a speech to the Scottish Law Society emphasising the strengths of the more proportionally representative Scottish Parliament. This was in spite of the SNP benefitting from FPTP in recent years, claiming the greatest number of seats in Scotland since 2015. Meanwhile, Jo Swinson, leader of the Lib Dems, has made clear that reform would be at the forefront of any future coalition talks with Labour or the Conservatives, decrying the current system as “broken”. But the most significant indicator of the level of cross-party agreement on the need for reform was the signing of the Good Systems Agreement.
Brokered by Make Votes Matter, the Good Systems Agreement is an agreement on the need for electoral reform. It’s been signed by parties that, in all other respects, could not have less in common: the Lib Dems, the Greens, the Brexit Party, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Every single opposition party in the country, with the exception of Labour, is now fully committed to PR.
democratic reform is just as urgent as — and is needed to fix –issues like the global climate crisis
But more than important what the politicians think, is how much the public supports the reform. Ordinary people have been hitting the streets to demonstrate how they feel completely unrepresented by our current system.
Organised by Make Votes Matter, “Demand Democracy Day” saw people from all over the country take part in a “national day of action” to demand a change to the electoral system. In the week since then, Make Votes Matter have asserted that this was the single largest mobilisation for PR in recent history.
Make Votes Matter campaigners set up street stalls in over 90 locations, from Bath to Sheffield, dressing bins up as ballot boxes in protest. Emma Knaggs, a grassroots leader at Make Votes Matter, says this was done to illustrate how “our current voting system means millions of votes effectively go straight in the dustbin. That’s what campaigners highlighted during Demand Democracy Day by turning litter bins into FPTP ballot boxes; it’s a simple way to draw attention to how rubbish this system is.”
Make Votes Matter also launched an online petition calling for change (which you can still sign, if you’re interested), stating that “democratic reform is just as urgent as — and is needed to fix — issues like the global climate crisis”, calling on politicians “not to ignore the warning signs of our crumbling democracy and the effect it is having on people’s lives”.
Taking lessons from recent youth climate strikes, the Demand Democracy Day focused in particular on getting young people involved.
Is change possible?
The question now is whether or not these kinds of movements have any chance of achieving actual change. Are either of these two main parties at all likely to back electoral reform, when it seems as if it would only benefit other parties?
Considering how the current system has allowed them to get into government despite over half the country voting against them, it’s unlikely that the Conservatives would back such reform. But what about Labour?
Traditionally, the party has always been in favour of FPTP, being the only socialist party in the developed world to be so. This is not something Jeremy Corbyn has given any hints about wanting to change. But the party has supported reform in the past and many Labour MPs have already called for such a change, including Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. Make Votes Matter lists Labour as being “in progress”, with a wing of the Labour Party, the LCER (Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform) having been lobbying for Proportional Representation since 1979.
The future is bright because a lot of MPs nearing retirement will remove opposition
Mary Southcott, the parliamentary and political officer of LCER, seems optimistic that things are changing. She tells The Overtake that, of those Labour candidates who became new MPs in the 2017 election, nearly half were in favour of electoral reform and Labours loss of Scottish seats may have unintended benefits to the cause. “Ironically, we lost a lot of the opposition to reform when Scotland lost all its [Labour] MPs but one. He is in favour. But lots of safe seats which went SNP were FPTP… The future is bright because a lot of MPs nearing retirement will remove opposition.”
Southcott goes on to note that “the values of the Labour Party, equality, democracy even legitimacy do not fit the support for the current voting system.” However, many are increasingly siding with PR as a purely tactical move, following the loss of many of Labour’s old safe seats with the decline of trade unionism and class allegiances since the 1980s.
“We don’t argue that Labour benefits from the current system,” Southcott asserts. “Far from it. We argue that vote mountains in core constituencies go nowhere and there are far too many electoral deserts. We also draw attention to the vested interest the Conservative Party has in the current voting system and their attack in their last manifesto on the elements of proportionality that exist except where they have helped them in Scotland and Wales.”
A bright future?
It seems hopeful that PR may soon be being demanded by all opposition parties. Certainly, the demands for change are not going to be going away any time soon.
The events of recent years have ensured that a subject which once would only have interested a few politics wonks could well become one of the most important debates of our times. It’s hard to look at politics today and not feel that things are badly in need of a shakeup. Proportional representation could do just that.
Daniel Goldstraw 5th August 2019