This is the first in a series of papers about Electoral Reform and focuses on the principal issue of voting reform. That is, to change the voting system to one which engages more people in the process and provides a parliamentary voice to opinions that would otherwise go unrepresented. There are many contending systems, all of which would be far more proportional than FPTP (First Past the Post), which is the current and long serving voting mechanism.
By proportionality, I mean the voting power in the House of Commons that each MP is authorised to wield. A PR system is designed to be proportional (as much as could possibly be the case) to the numbers of people that voted for each MP. However, the activity I describe as ‘voting power,’ in most descriptions of PR, is often commonly analogous to, and understood to mean, seats. This is, in fact, not necessarily the case as voting power is the real issue here and it is not necessarily synonymous with seats. In fact, in some PR scenarios they are quite different.
Proportional Representation is a term that is commonly used to describe proportional voting systems that improve the proportionality between ‘voting power’ and electoral support.
I intend to drive the agenda with new and different arguments, a structured strategy and a perspective on the subject to stimulate interest and thinking on what would be the most significant constitutional change since the establishment of parliament – yes, even bigger than Brexit.
The biggest hurdle to overcome in pursuing this change is not the inbuilt and expected opposition from the vested interests of the Labour and Conservative parties but coalescing the actions of existing support within the country, firming the support of those minded to vote for a fairer voting system but, as yet, not positively engaged, and converting those who hold the view that voting reform is either undesirable, or insufficiently important to sway their votes in a general election.
It is a subject that has been discussed over many years and seen one referendum already, a subject that has wide support with organisations such as the Electoral Reform Society, the reform blog, website ‘makevotesmatter’, and political parties (the Liberal Democrats, The Green Party, Plaid Cymru, the SNP and, of course, UKIP). Despite this wide support, progress has been absent in any real sense. There is always the feeling that something is happening, that the pressure is mounting, but nothing ever does and, before too long, any window that appeared would be closed or obscured by a more pressing national or international situation.
Changing how we elect our parliamentary representatives is a most significant and ground-breaking move, although, to the ordinary elector, it doesn’t look like that. It comes across as just another voting system and may look as if is it is only promoted to improve the lot of one political party or another. That has been the history of these efforts to date. One can only look back and despair at the way the Liberal Democrats squandered a heaven-sent opportunity to advance this cause when they had the chance. However, they are not the only ones. In a recent speech (October 2017), Lord Owen, the former Labour Foreign Secretary and founder of the SDP, reflected on a similar opportunity missed when he said that his greatest regret of that time was not achieving PR.
Opportunities have come and gone, though a further one will appear. It is for this future opportunity that I accepted this position and it is toward this that I shall work. This time, though, the lessons of the past will be heeded and the same mistakes will not be made again.
To be successful we need the following:
1. The right arguments
2. The full support of the party
3. The support and co-operation of like-minded organisations and political parties.
4. A mechanism to choose which electoral system suits the UK best
5. A channel through which we can direct the voting intentions of those who are drawn to our cause away from parties that wish to preserve their self-interest and toward parties that support this change.
The present situation is characterised by disparate organisations with different ideas as to how electoral reform is going to be achieved and different ideas as to which ‘off the shelf’ system would be best, with some preferring to leave that hoary old chestnut to the end. Just co-ordinating the effort and goodwill of all these groups can raise the profile in the minds of the public, but it must have an outcome which is controllable. It cannot be left to wishful thinking.
Just like Brexit, we need to progress the spectrum of political power by systematically moving through these stages of influence:
There are only three ways that voting reform can happen. Either the parties seeking government include it in their manifestos prior to an election, a private member’s bill makes it all the way through to law, or a sitting government is so worried about loss of potential support that they promise a referendum on the issue. You may remember that the latter worked spectacularly well for Brexit.
Some organisations see this differently. Klina Jordan, of Make Votes Matter, feels that the first or second of the scenarios I present here are the most likely, whereas I think the referendum option, which has a proven track record, is favourite. Either way, this doesn’t really matter because we need to keep all options open. The reality is, if we gain enough support it will be perceived as voting intention and something will give.
We will create and disseminate better and completely original arguments, drive an evaluation process to determine which voting system is best for the UK, gather together like-minded people, organisations and political parties to spread the benefits of change, and direct voting intentions away from the parties that want to retain the existing unfairness toward parties that support it.
By these means we will make it happen.
The first step is to establish the grouping, which I’ll be discussing further in the next bulletin.