Newsletter: Electoral Reform in a Liberal Society

New language for a longstanding liberal principle?

The gloves are off so far as the new political landscape is concerned – and the need for liberalism and our party are greater and more starkly urgent than ever.

One thing is clear: Liberal Democrats new and old see political reform as crucial. It ranks second among the values prioritised in the current Your Liberal Britain project.

The challenge: how should we express the benefits of voting reform to our members, to individual voters and to society as a whole? We know it is fundamental; but overall reform still eludes us. What can we learn; how should we adapt to the new political reality; how should we express the need to truly enfranchise, equally, all voters? We’ll be discussing this in York, so please bring your thoughts and suggestions to our stall!

Spring Conference, York: March 17-19

We will have our LDER stall in the Spring Conference exhibition, with the latest publications and prospects for electoral reform. More parties today back change and there is greater debate than ever within Labour about the case for a more fair and representative voting system.

If anyone can help staff our stand for a short period over the weekend, then please reply to this newsletter and let us know. All help appreciated.

Help shape our policies.

Two further policy working groups have been announced and are currently inviting applications from party members to join.

The two working groups are:
• Power for People and Communities
• Immigration and Identity.

The Power for People and Communities group will be looking at the power people wield in their local communities (including local government), the Liberal Democrat response to city deals and metro mayors, localism, community assets and initiatives, and workplace democracy. Investigating the potential for electoral reform to improve local decision-making and democratic accountability will be an essential part of this remit.

The remit of the Immigration and Identity working group has not yet been published.

The party regularly sets up policy working groups to investigate a policy area in some depth over the course of 12 to 18 months. The aim of each group is to produce a policy paper, supported by a motion to conference, based on consultations with members and expert evidence.

If you’re a party member, do you think you could make a contribution to either of these working groups?

For more on how to apply, go to: http://www.libdems.org.uk/policy-working-groups

Best wishes,

Crispin Allard
Chair

Introducing Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform

By Keith Sharp, the Chair of Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform

Giving the individual voter greater choice and voice – devolving democratic power to the individual and away from institutions – is integral to making the UK a truly liberal and democratic country.

That’s why it is important that new – and existing – party members join Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform (LDER) and help us campaign to make this essential change a reality.

Take a look at our historic Parliament, supposedly the model for others to follow. Of its two houses, the Lords is totally appointed and expressly undemocratic.

The Commons is elected in a way which distorts the democratic will of the people and freezes millions out of any say in the result. For many people in ‘safe’ seats, voting is an exercise in futility.

In the meantime, local government in England and Wales has been neutered through lack of local autonomy. It features a grossly undemocratic electoral system, which creates virtual one-party authorities, despite substantial votes for other parties.

And in European Parliament elections, we are reduced to voting for a faceless party. The actual MEPs ‘elected’ are left up to the internal machinery of the political parties.

The Liberal Democrats advocate changing our electoral system to one, which addresses these ills; which allows the voter to exercise ultimate control, in the ballot box, over parties and state institutions.

Of course this would mean proportional representation – parties would win seats in the Commons according to the proportion of votes cast for them across the country. But, desirable and badly needed though that it is, the democratic prize is far greater.

That’s why our party supports in principle the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. Already in use in Ireland and in Scottish local government; and used by many democratic organisations across the UK, STV uniquely delivers not just party proportionality, but also choice between different candidates of the same party. The voters’ wishes outweigh the chosen party list of candidates.

This is not a choice between electoral systems; it is a political choice about democratic outcomes.

Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform (LDER) campaign, inside and outside our party for:

  • a voter empowering proportional system (STV) for elections to the House of Commons. Given the current Conservative Government, the first step should be a Constitutional Convention or People’s Assembly to consider the democratic justice the current electoral system and what alternatives might be.
  • A democratically-elected House of Lords
  • Change England and Wales local electoral systems to the one in use in Scotland.
  • Increase voter choice for European elections, by ditching the fixed party list system.

A key to liberalism is breaking down concentrations of power that frustrate and stifle individual and community freedom.

Is electoral reform the all-purpose answer, on its own, to all these ills? No it isn’t. Will we achieve a liberal, people-empowered democracy without it? No, we won’t. It is a necessary condition for social and democratic progress.

Click here to join us to today

Local government reform: a progress report from Spring Conference

At Spring Conference in March, Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform focused on making the case for reform to local government elections in England and Wales. We were pleased to hear members from across the party raising the same issue at consultative sessions on both Political & Constitutional Reform and the next General Election manifesto, and to welcome a large and enthusiastic audience to our Saturday evening fringe: ‘Worst Past the Post: why local government desperately needs electoral reform’. You can see some pictures of the event, and of our conference stall here.

The fringe event, jointly sponsored by Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform and ALDC, was ably chaired by Cllr Claire Hudson. Darren Hughes and Willie Sullivan from the Electoral Reform Society began the evening with a short film on the Scottish experience of STV. Chronicling the day of the 2012 local elections, this showed how STV had prompted major parties to extend their campaigning, while offering minor parties a real chance of fair representation. Voters reported that they found the system easy to use, and liked being able to vote for smaller parties without feeling that they were wasting their votes.

After the film, Darren and Willie reported that Prof. John Curtice’s research into the effects of STV on Scottish local elections had shown that the average number of candidates per ward has doubled, while uncontested wards have been eliminated entirely. They also pointed out that because STV had allowed the Conservatives to secure seats in areas of Scotland where they were previously shut out, this could encourage them to accept it in Wales, where similar conditions apply.

But even Liberal Democrats can sometimes benefit disproportionately from First Past the Post, as the next speaker and leader of Eastleigh Borough Council, Keith House, knows. Keith explained that the Lib Dems typically secure around 50% of the total vote across Eastleigh borough, but 90% of the council seats. This provided a firm foundation for the recent national by-election, but Keith was under no illusions about the disadvantages of single-party dominance at local level: for example, the absence of an effective opposition, or too little incentive to campaign.

At Hampshire County Council level, Keith explained that FPTP elections consistently allocate all of the rural wards to Tory councillors, while Eastleigh and Winchester are the preserve of the Lib Dems. STV would reflect voter preferences more accurately, giving both parties some representation in both contexts and allowing Labour to win seats as well. Keith’s view was that the need for all parties to cooperate in this situation would foster a much more progressive council overall.

We heard next from Baroness Jenny Randerson, former Welsh Assembly Member and current Welsh Officer Minister. Results for local elections in Wales are even more disproportionate than England thanks to the use of First Past the Post in ‘all-up’ block elections every four years. This system can allow one party to take all of the seats in a multi-member ward at once with less than 50% of the vote, and in Wales it meant that Labour increased their share of seats by 70% in a single election in 2012.

But, as Baroness Randerson explained, all-up elections do mean that voters in Wales are used to long ballot papers. In fact, some people already respond to these papers by trying to signal their preferences between the candidates: so STV would not be too radical a change from their perspective. The challenges in Wales were that powers over local government elections still rest with the UK Parliament, for whom the issue is not a priority, while any Labour Assembly Members who express support for change quickly come under pressure from their party to withdraw it.

Finally, Peter Facey from Unlock Democracy addressed practical strategies for achieving reform. He said that in both England and Wales, the most likely context for progress would be coalition negotiations: though for Wales, power over local government elections would need to be devolved first. In England, it needed to be a red-line issue for the Liberal Democrats. But for this to really work, it is not enough to just put it in our next manifesto. We need to articulate the case for reform clearly, and start work on persuading the other parties in advance.

Peter also set out what he felt would be the most persuasive argument in a coalition negotiation: that any party going into government inevitably loses councillors, as voters punish them locally for national issues. STV mitigates those losses, making them less extreme than under FPTP. He further argued that the power to choose electoral systems should be localised, not imposed from the top down. This, after all, lives up to the Liberal Democrat principle of freedom from conformity. It would also mean that we could campaign on it locally, presenting STV as a solution to the particular problems of an individual area.

After the panellists had set out the examples, the arguments and the strategy, the many very passionate and articulate questions which followed demonstrated how strongly Liberal Democrats feel about local government reform. If you would like to help Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform to take this issue forward, and to strengthen the party’s voice on electoral reform more generally, you can join us by emailing info@lder.org.uk to request a membership form.

This article was originally published on Liberal Democrat Voice