Newsletter: Building momentum for reform

Spreading the word: The LDER exec, since the election, has been ensuring electoral reform stays high on the party’s agenda as we recover and move ahead. We secured pro-reform commitments from both leadership candidates*; and a Liberal Democrat Voice post placed reform firmly within the context of liberal principle, calling on our many new (and current!) members to join our group. We are also sprucing up our own promotional materials, including a new pull-up banner, which will hopefully be on display at our Autumn Conference stall.

Coming event: There’s a rally outside Parliament planned for July 25 – The Great Gathering for Voting Reform, being supported by civic reform groups. We’re keen to see a strong Liberal Democrat presence on the day, so if you can make it, please sign up at the Facebook event page here.

Ammunition: The Electoral Reform Society’s Election report (A voting system in crisis) has great analysis, facts and commentary on just how undemocratic May’s result was – e.g. the Tories gained a seat for every 34,000 votes; we had to secure over 300,000 votes per seat! (And of course, even worse for the Greens and UKIP, who needed votes in the millions for every seat won). Go to www.electoral-reform.org.uk for a free copy of the report.

Our AGM; and executive membership: With so much opportunity, we are looking for new Executive members to be elected at our AGM, to be held in September during Bournemouth Autumn Conference. It’s a fundamental cause for our party; and highly relevant given the distorted election result and pressing devolution debates. The Exec meets, via conference call, some six times annually as a core time commitment. Other activities are taken up as needed on a volunteer basis.

Help at our Conference stall – and a free pass! We are looking for enthusiastic members to help on our Bournemouth stall – this includes set up and the highly sociable activity of manning the stall for a few hours during Conference. And, we get three FREE exhibitor passes for helpers. Please contact Crispin Allard or Keith Sharp if you’re keen – please note though that July 24 is the deadline for registering for free exhibitor passes.

Keith Sharp

Chair – LDER Executive.

* Congratulations to Tim on becoming our new leader. We know his belief in electoral reform and look forward to working with him and his to create change.

Tim Farron on electoral reform

In relation to the party leadership election, Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform wrote to both candidates to ask whether we could count on them to make electoral reform a priority if they were elected. Tim Farron wrote back to us with this reply:

It is becoming increasingly clear to the population at large that our current electoral system does not reflect the voting preferences of the people. The system has allowed the SNP to turn Scotland virtually into a one-party state. It has elected a majority Conservative government which polled only 37% of the vote. We Lib Dems should now have 51 MPs. And – perhaps ironically – we find ourselves aligned with Nigel Farage as he highlights the inequities of the voting system.

The only good thing about this situation is that it is becoming clear to a largely disgruntled electorate that all is not well with the status quo where First Past The Post is concerned.

The conversation in the local of one of my staff in the days following the election was that it seemed no-one had got what they wanted. And whilst we – in common with every other political party and commentator – were in shock at the inaccuracy of the predictions, it would in fact seem that those predictions more accurately reflected the predilections of the electorate than did the real result.

So where do we go from here? Well, obviously the Tories aren’t going to whoop with joy and plunge in to change the system which has supported them so outstandingly for so long. So it’s up to us to work to change this.

I suspect that in the months to come the position of the SNP and the majority rule of the Tory party will cause the FPTP system to come under increasing scrutiny in the press. Indeed, Nick took the opportunity of taking a shot across the bows of the Tories in his final speech as leader to the House.

We will be ideally situated, with our long history of campaigning against it, to keep this issue on the agenda. 

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

Newsletter: A Fightback for Freedom and Democracy

Barely two weeks on from the dreadful Election results, four things are clear for our electoral reform movement:

  1. With a majority Tory Government, decisive moves on electoral reform are virtually certain to take place after 2020 at the earliest.
  2. There are now more parties than only us stinging from the results of our anti-democratic system (welcome all – we know how you feel!). A variety of different voices are now calling for change . Also, by its polarising over-exaggeration of support for SNP in Scotland and the Tories in England, first-past-the-post is putting artificial but tangible strain on the union.
  3. From Nick’s resignation speech on, there has been an uprise in support for liberalism – our 11,000 new members for instance. We know that individual and civic freedom lies at the heart of liberalism; and that electoral reform, in increasing the choice and voice of the voter, is core to enhancing that freedom. The principled argument is ours to make.
  4. Continuing devolution and constitutional change mean opportunity for electoral change, After all, despite the ongoing blind support for FPTP, no-one in living memory has been stupid enough to inflict it on any of our new assemblies and parliaments.

So surprisingly perhaps, only one of those four factors is a negative.

LDER is renewing the power of its message within and outside the party in the coming months, leading to the Bournemouth Conference. We will maintain our push for local government and Lords reform; and make the case for replacing the undemocratic FPTP.

Here’s what you can do —

  • JOIN us — if you are not already an LDER member
  • send this mail to your friends within the party; encourage them to join us
  • do you know any of our 11,000 new members? Some of them will have our cause as priority; get them aware and joining up too.
  • Lobby Tim’s and Norman’s campaigns to ensure our new leader knows the importance of electoral reform to our party and its core stance
  • Send us any ideas you have about other steps to take.

Keith Sharp

Chair – Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform

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

Spring Conference 2013

Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform can report a busy and successful Spring Conference.

The highlight was Nick Clegg stopping at the LDER stall and asking “So how do we get electoral reform, then?” And having heard Crispin’s 30-second pitch on electoral reform in local government, he said it was a great idea, and would we like to drop a line to David Laws?

Needless to say, a detailed paper on the principles, tactics and strategy of electoral reform in local government will be winging its way to David Laws and the Manifesto working group.

Our fringe meeting, co-hosted with ALDC and titled “Worst Past the Post: Why local government desperately needs electoral reform”, was standing room only. Those lucky enough to get in saw a fantastic panel of speakers exploring the issue in detail. A full report will follow shortly!

Other electoral reform news

The Liberal Democrat Political and Constitutional Reform Work Group is consulting on what party policy should be. Members who would like to send in their views can find the full consultation paper here. Note the deadline of 8 April.

Local democracy groups have been springing up around the country to campaign for democratic reform. If you’re involved in running a democracy group or are interested in getting one going in your area, there’s a Grassroots Democracy Meet Up in London on Saturday 6 April. See http://action.unlockdemocracy.org.uk/grassrootsmeetup for details.