At an Islington Liberal Democrats Proportional Representation event in February 2020, Keith Sharp gave a (slightly personalised) account of the liberal fight for equal, proportional voting: the wins, the losses, the lessons and the current opportunities.
Origins and Beliefs
Electoral reform has deep, principled roots for Liberal Democrats.
The Reform Act of 1918 greatly extended the voting franchise (men over 21 were given the vote and women, albeit from age 30, had the vote for the first time). But it also saw the already-existing first-past-the-post (FPTP) narrowly defeat proportional representation (PR) / single transferable vote (STV) as the chosen UK electoral system.
The Liberal Party’s response was swift. Electoral reform (STV) featured in its 1922 election manifesto and has ever since (as the Liberal Democrats since 1988) remained firm, if not always prominent, party policy.
We talk today of the need for party proportionality – percentages of seats at Westminster should match percentages of overall votes the parties receive. And that’s right. Yet, while party proportionality is a vitally important result of a voter centric system, it is not the sole guiding value.
In a liberal society, power and agency reside primarily with the individual; and with the individual in her/his social context (such as family, neighbourhood, locality or community.) The job of the electoral system is to deliver demo-cracy (demos = people), not state-ocracy or even political party-ocracy. Party proportionality is a welcome result of a voting system which reflects the voters’ preferences.
Of course – a point often made – electoral reform alone isn’t a sufficient cure-all for our democratic deficit. Other important proposals include a written constitution, coherent devolution, votes at 16, a defined role for deliberative democracy, proper rules for holding any future referendums, Lords, local government.
But what can be more critical, in a functioning democracy, than the core relationship between electors and their elected representatives – defined by the way in which we elect and hold them accountable and the complexion of the resulting Parliament (or Council or Assembly)?
Stirrings — the ’70s and ’80s
The two elections of 1974 – when (in February) Labour won more seats despite getting less votes than the Conservatives; and a big jump in Liberal votes still left them with only a handful of MPs* – saw the first upsurge interest in electoral reform. (The earnest but in those days long-marginalised Electoral Reform Society (ERS) was so overwhelmed with public and media interest that staff took the phone off the hook to stop the incessant phone calls). And the 1975 European Referendum not only produced a healing near-unity in this country; it exposed the rigidity and voter-denial of FPTP as politicians of different parties and stripes cooperated according to their stance on Europe.
Heady times… all this converted me from a latent to an active PR campaigner. I tracked down and, years before joining a political party, became a member of ERS. Reading the emerging literature on the issue I soon realised that it wasn’t only a matter of seats matching votes. FPTP did not – could not – reflect late twentieth century social change. Without reform, voter disillusion and a sense of powerlessness was setting in. This was leading to a distrust of politics and its institutions; to a decay of respect for democracy itself. It was so obvious; and all it needed (so I thought, with the blind optimism of youth) was to alert people/politicians to the problem and reform would happen. I had a lot to learn about the addiction of power and cynical self-interest masquerading as public concern.
As for those warnings back then about disillusion and distrust? Look around you today. They have all come to pass…
In 1981, the Social Democratic Party (SDP – breaking from Labour over Europe) backed PR. After two elections in alliance with the Liberals where FPTP blatantly dissed the wishes of millions of voters and distorted the result**, the SDP and Liberals merged in 1988 into the Liberal Democrats, under Paddy Ashdown’s leadership.
Achievements — the ’90s and noughties
In the 1992 General Election, Labour suffered its fourth successive defeat. By 1994, Tony Blair became Labour leader. Ashdown abandoned ‘equidistance’, moving the LDs decisively towards Blair’s Labour. In the mid ’90s the two parties collaborated on political reform (known as the (Robin) Cook- (Bob) Maclennan agreement). A Lib-Lab pact was surely on the cards…
Not to be. The 1997 election, where just 43% voted Labour, nevertheless gave Blair a 179 seat majority. Labour did not need the Liberal Democrats. A Cook-Maclennan provision – an Independent Commission on the Voting System – went ahead but was still-born. Yet the Jenkins Commission as it is known (after its Chair, the great liberal Roy Jenkins) remains an ingenious, erudite, rewarding study. Its remit – proportionality, stability, geographic link, and… extended voter choice – still guides reformers.
Failure to get PR for Westminster, however grievous, shouldn’t mask the fact that significant progress was made. Devolution produced a parliament for Scotland and assemblies for Wales and London. The 1998 ‘Good Friday’ agreement created devolved government in northern Ireland. The European Parliament electoral system was reformed.
Every single one of these innovations rejected FPTP in favour of PR – not necessarily the best systems available (Jack Straw’s late decision to use ‘closed regional lists’ for the Euros was particularly regrettable) but the bottom line remained: FPTP was out, PR was in.
Scotland went further. A Lib-Lab Scottish government agreed to introduce PR (single transferable vote) for local Council elections from 2007.
I was lucky enough to be an Electoral Commission observer at the 2007 Scottish elections, spending a day visiting various polling stations and attending the overnight count in Galashiels. Everywhere I found quiet comfort with the voting system change. I remember in an Edinburgh cafe asking local customers if they knew about voting 1,2,3 rather than marking a cross. I didn’t finish – ‘You mean STV? Oh yes we know all about that. We’re fine with it’, said one lady, politely but
So: what worked? There were three main conditions for progress and success:
Negotiation (not referendums) in:
Alliance or coalition (not ‘equidistant’); with a
‘Non-threatening’ Labour (’90s Blair-style not ’10s Corbyn-style)
And the voters? They had not clamoured for voting change, but once they’d got it they liked what they saw and were keen to keep it.
History need not repeat itself, but surely there are clues there as to what works…surely.
Reversal – the tens
A referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) was the political reform concession for the Liberal Democrats on going into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. This was only ever a Labour party commitment (in their 2010 manifesto – no-one else’s) and yet AV became badged as a Liberal Democrat policy. Coalition partner, the Conservatives ruthlessly opposed it; policy-owners Labour were publicly split. AV was heavily defeated in the 2011 referendum.
Embarrassed, humiliated, defensive, the Liberal Democrats then hid away from electoral reform. While the Tories even advocated returning all public elections to FPTP, the LDs kept quiet, with the manifestos of 2015, 2017 and 2019 (see page 83 of the 2019 manifesto…) pushing reform to the margins.
2020 — out of despair comes…?
The December 2019 election was an unmitigated disaster. But out of it, maybe a renewal of hope:
January 2020: a front-bench Commons spokesperson appointed (Wendy Chamberlain MP)
Unite to Remain evolves into Unite to Reform, including electoral reform.
The party proposes a pro-electoral reform motion for its Spring Conference (York, March 13-15).
LDs for Electoral Reform, in York, stages a fringe meeting with Wendy Chamberlain and panellists from Wales LDs, Unite to Reform, ERS and Make Votes Matter. Theme: how to make reform happen this time.
Many voters think we already have a proportional system, so don’t respond to calls for change.
Voters get democracy; and non-democracy (dictatorships) as concepts. But they don’t differentiate between levels or different shades of democracy. If there is a vote, it is democratic. End of story. So, saying ‘it’s not democratic enough’ doesn’t resonate.
While voters may be not crying out for a new electoral system, in December 2019:
61% of voters said they were dissatisfied with the state of UK democracy (University of Cambridge)
Only 25% of seats were regarded as marginal i.e. where any change of party was possible. (BBC website report) ***
Surely these numbers show that PR is hugely relevant to voters in 2020? They should guide us towards our call to action.
Keith Sharp has long campaigned for an equal, proportional voting system. He was an elected Council member at ERS for 20 years until standing down last December. He was an Electoral Commission observer at the 2007 Scottish elections (held under PR systems) and is currently Vice Chair of Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform. Keith is also a member of the Make Votes Matter Alliance-Building Committee which engages with both party and non-party activist groups.
* In February 1974, the Liberals won 14 (2%) seats with 19.3% of the vote; in October an 18.3% vote share produced13 (2%) seats (Butler, p268/269)
** in 1983 the SDP/Liberal Alliance won 23 (3.5%) seats with 25% vote share. With just 27% of the votes, Labour won 209 (32%) seats (Butler p269)
*** In fact, only 79 seats (12%) of seats changed hands (Electoral Reform Society, p34)
For the past three elections (’15, ’17, ’19) the party has relegated electoral and linked political reform to the back pages (literally — see page 83 of the 2019 manifesto).
This has proven a big, strategic mistake. If the idea was that we would be more successful if only we played down boring constitutional stuff, then our wretched performance in these three elections shows that was plain wrong.
At LDER, we are not naive enough to claim electoral reform as a stand-alone election winner. But we do better as a principled party if we stand up and campaign boldly for our core liberal and social beliefs. Otherwise, our manifestos are reduced to well-intentioned, random-looking shopping lists of things we hope will please the voter. Electorate as Consumer is not what we are about. And it doesn’t work.
Any positive signs?
Well there are a few, and LDER is following up on all of them:
Public and even media disgust that the Tories, with their undemocratic Commons majority, are now forcing the UK out of the EU, on 44% of a 67% turnout, far less than voted Remain in 2016.
Whether we like referendums or not, the 2016 referendum did mean that everyone’s vote counted equally toward the result and this has been noted as a positive. This is why we must call for an equal as well of course as proportional voting system when we advocate PR/STV. The word ‘fair’ (or ‘fairer’) hasn’t resonated and is also forever associated with the massively unsuccessful 2011 AV referendum. We need this new messaging to reinforce and communicate our argument.
Acting Leader Ed Davey has upgraded electoral reform to a shadow cabinet position. Newly-elected NE Fife MP Wendy Chamberlain has the Political and Constitutional Reform brief in the Commons. She has already advocated electoral reform in a Commons speech. LDER Chair Denis Mollison is in contact with Wendy, to help reinforce the arguments and give her all possible support. We continue of course to work with Paul Tyler, our indefatigable Lords spokesperson on reform.
Federal Policy Committee has put forward a policy motion, embracing electoral reform, that will be on the agenda of the York Spring Conference. This is a key step forward. LDER has summarily and wrongly had attempts to put motions to Conference rejected in the past – even being informed on one occasion that PR was already party policy! As with Wendy Chamberlain, LDER exec is keeping close to the progress of this motion and will propose content as its shape becomes clear.
Our alliance partners, Make Votes Matter, plan a major ‘Congress’ type public event in the near future. This will involve all parties, but excitingly also non-party movements such as Extinction Rebellion. LDER exec member `Keith Sharp is on the Congress working party and we’ll keep you informed.
On to the York Spring Conference (March 13-15)
LDER has an exhibition stall booked for Conference.
Here are some key questions we want to hear from you about – either at our stall in March or via our Facebook page:
Do you agree electoral reform needs to be higher on our policy priorities than in the last three elections? Or do you think it’s right to play it down in favour of more ‘voter-eye-catching’ policies (what would those be?).
How can we link electoral reform, make it enablingly relevant, to other key changes that need to happen? For example, in Germany, PR has seen Greens in Government. Is that a route to addressing the climate emergency in political terms?
To win, we need the right policy and we need to win the argument. Our key messages in the past haven’t cut through, which is why (positive signs 2 above) our messaging is shaping up around ‘equal’ and ‘proportional’. But we also have to overcome the negative argument that voters don’t care; no-one calls for electoral reform on the doorstep. Maybe not, but we have seen huge voter dissatisfaction with FPTP.
Can we still go it alone? Or to get reform, do we need a ‘Unite to Reform’ cross party collaboration at the next election? (modelled on but an expanded version of the promising if ultimately ill-fated ‘Unite to Remain’ agreement for the 2019 election).
LDER exec members believe it is essential to work with other parties – do you agree?
What else should we discuss? Join us in York in the battle for Equality at the Ballot Box.
Since last time
The meeting at the Royal Statistical Society on the bicentenary of STV (17 December) was well attended. Klina Jordan of Make Votes Matter enlisted audience participation in the arguments for proportional voting. Ian Simpson of the Electoral Reform Society looked at the contrast between local elections in Scotland, which have used STV since 2007), and in England which still uses FPTP. Denis Mollison reviewed the history and rationale of STV since the first small-scale election pioneered by Thomas Wright Hill in 1819; a written version of Denis’s talk is in preparation.
Reform moves in Wales
Legislation to give councils the option of using STV for local elections is currently going through the Welsh Parliament (the Senedd). And a Committee of that Parliament is consulting on electoral systems, following the recommendation of the 2017 McAllister Commission report that the Parliament should use STV rather than AMS. This consultation closes on 19th February; please email email@example.com if you are interested in contributing to our response.
There will be a meeting at the Royal Statistical Society on 17th December, on ‘The quest for fairer voting.’ There will be talks by Klina Jordan of Make Votes Matter, Ian Simpson of the Electoral Reform Society, and our Chair, Denis Mollison.
Attendance is open to all, but you need to register.
The current voting system is not working: it means that too many people do not have their voices heard. Liberal Democrats are the only party that realises that the system is broken and will change it so that it works for the future: Labour and Conservatives will not change the system that has always entrenched their privileged position. We understand that British politics needs to be reformed to make it more representative and empower citizens.
Put an end to wasted votes, by introducing proportional representation through the Single Transferable Vote for electing MPs, and local councillors in England.
Give 16- and 17-year olds the right to vote in elections and referendums.
Extend the right to full participation in civic life, including the ability to stand for office or vote in UK referendums, Local Elections and General Elections, to all EU citizens who have lived in the UK for five years or more.
Introduce a legal requirement for local authorities to inform citizens of the steps they must take to be successfully registered with far greater efforts in particular to register under-represented groups; and ensure that the UK has an automatic system of inclusion in elections.
Enable all UK citizens living abroad to vote for MPs in separate overseas constituencies, and to participate in UK referendums.
Scrap the plans to require voters to bring identification with them to vote.
Reform the House of Lords with a proper democratic mandate.
Enabling Parliament, rather than the Queen-in-Council, to approve when parliament is prorogued and for how long.
Ensure that a new Prime Minister, and their programme for government, must win a confidence vote of MPs.
Take a zero-tolerance approach to harassment and bullying in Westminster and legislate to empower constituents to recall MPs who commit sexual harassment.
Legislate to allow all-BAME and all-LGBT+ shortlists.
Bring into force Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, requiring political parties to publish candidate diversity data.
Breakaway MPs, broken politics, and our emergency motion for PR
LDER has submitted an emergency motion for the York conference. See the last item in this newsletter for the full text.
The formation of ‘The Independent Group’ again shows how the current electoral system fails the voter by straitjacketing this country’s politics into two supposedly united but in truth warring parties.
Our motion reaffirms the need, more urgent and evident than ever, for a proportional system which puts voter choice first, namely the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. PLEASE BACK US in this bid to make electoral reform a party priority once again. It is fundamental to mending the UK’s broken politics.
If you are at the Spring Conference, PLEASE VOTE to get our motion onto the conference agenda as the chosen Emergency Motion. Do this by checking the Saturday Daily Bulletin, which will give instructions on the ballot to choose the motions.
Also at York — an Electoral Reform Society fringe event
Citizens’ Assemblies – How can ordinary people inform politics? Saturday March 16, 1-2pm; Meeting room 6, Novotel Hotel.
A chance to learn more first hand about deliberative democracy — how citizens’ assemblies (or their variants such as juries or a constitutional convention) can help develop a popular consensus on complex issues; and how ‘ordinary’ voters can get genuinely involved in the democratic process beyond a vote every few years. Speakers are drawn from the Society, which has done much pilot work on citizens’ assemblies recently, from our MPs and also from Involve, a charity championing deliberative democracy.
LDER exhibition stall — visitors and volunteers invited
You will find us on Stand 31 in the main Exhibition Area at York, so please drop by.
If you’d like to help staff the stall, we’d love to have you with us! You don’t need any special knowledge – just a passion for fairer and more democratic politics. Joining an exec member for even just an hour or two will be a big help — we’ll provide everything you need.
It’s a great way to help raise the profile of electoral reform within the party and to engage with other members.
Membership Secretary — a vacancy
LDER is on the lookout for a party member to join our exec as membership secretary — our previous mem sec had to stand down for work reasons, though he left our members and supporters databases in good shape. But we do need someone to fill the vacancy. It needs only a few hours a month liaising and updating our spreadsheet — do see us on our stall or write to us.
Emergency Motion: The Independent Group and Proportional Representation
Proposed by 21 members (drafted by LDER, also supported by East Lothian local party)
A. The recent resignations from both Labour and Conservative parties of MPs and their formation of The Independent Group.
B. That this follows on from a process of increasing disagreements, not only on issues but also on fundamental principles, within both the two main parties, which remain held together only because of the democratic and voter constraints of the `First Past The Post’ (FPTP) electoral system.
C. That The Independent Group have yet to endorse Proportional Representation, despite it being essential to their objective to `fix our broken politics’.
i) Vince Cable’s immediate overtures to The Independent Group to work together to change British politics.
ii) The party’s support for cross-party alliance building initiatives, especially by Make Votes Matter, whose draft Good Systems Agreement sets out the features of a democratic voting system. These align with the party’s longstanding principles of proportionality, increasing the choice and voice of the individual voter; ensuring all votes count equally; and enhancing constituency links between MPs and electors.
a) That the FPTP system is not only fundamentally undemocratic, but that it also distorts politics in an extremely unhealthy way, narrowing the range of policies that can be considered. It makes it difficult for new parties to evolve and for existing ones to change, thus preventing the views of many voters from being heard.
b) The pragmatic justifications often given in defence of FPTP, that it provides strong, single party government, decisiveness and stability, have been exposed as utterly bogus. The chaos of Brexit confirms that FPTP is a fundamental cause of our broken politics.
c) That to renew politics it is essential that we replace FPTP with a proportional electoral system, and reaffirms the Party’s preference for the Single Transferable Vote because it allows voters to express their true preferences among a wide range of candidates.
Conference calls for:
1. The Independent Group, together with candidates of all parties who believe that we need a fair and effective electoral system, to commit to making proportional representation a non-negotiable demand in any negotiations around forming a government after the next General Election;
2. with a commitment to set up a Citizens Assembly or Independent Commission with instructions to choose a form of Proportional Representation that meets the criteria of paragraph (ii) (lines19-23), and to hold any subsequent General Election under that chosen system.
If you would like to see a fairer voting system used for council elections in Wales, please respond to the Welsh Government’s consultation on electoral reform before 10th October.
If you want to respond to the whole consultation (there are other interesting issues, including votes for 16 and 17 year olds), you can fill in a form available online here. Note that if you want to support STV, it is probably best to do this under the final Question 46 (“other related issues”).
Alternatively, you may find it simpler to write your own response as an email to RLGProgramme@wales.gsi.gov.uk with subject: “Consultation on Electoral reform in local government in Wales” and stating which parts of the consultation you wish to comment on, e.g. “Section 4. The voting system”
One simple response would be to ask that the Welsh Assembly to follow the example of the Labour/LD coalition in Scotland, which brought in STV for council elections through a simple act of the Scottish Parliament, the Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004. Note also that Northern Ireland has had STV for council elections since 1973 (brought in by a Conservative government at Westminster).
Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform executive committee member Denis Mollison has written an article on this issue for Liberal Democrat Voice which includes more information about the consultation, and what sort of responses might help to secure fairer voting in Wales.
The EU Referendum demonstrated the extent to which the “First-Past-The-Post” (FPTP) system has allowed politicians to become distanced from the people they purport to represent and has contributed to a sense of powerlessness amongst large sections of the UK population.
Three key effects of FPTP were at work:
Distorted election results
Under FPTP, safe seats (where a change in the party holding the seat would only happen in very unusual circumstances) account for the majority of parliamentary constituencies.
An MP in a safe seat does not need to worry about getting re-elected; he or she does not have to listen to their constituents and does not need to explain their position to them (for example why the UK’s membership of the EU is a good thing).
Voters in a safe seat are effectively powerless to make a difference to a General Election result. All they can do is contribute to the national headline percentage of the party they support, or use their vote as a protest. They have no responsibility for the result and, at some level, most realise this – they get into the habit of voting irresponsibly.
Consequently, when it came to the referendum, many “Leave” voters did not believe their vote would actually make a difference. Of those that did realise this was the one opportunity they had to cast a meaningful vote, many saw it as an opportunity to rebel against the establishment – to “take back control” from the politicians.
2. Distorted results:
FPTP leads to grossly disproportionate results, allowing single parties to govern based on considerably less than 50% of the popular vote.
In 2015 the Conservatives gained an overall majority in Parliament on less than 37% of the vote, leading directly to the EU referendum, because it was in their manifesto. (It has been widely reported that Cameron was happy to have this commitment in the manifesto because he believed he would not win a majority, and so would not have to carry it out.)
Meanwhile, FPTP resulted in 8 seats for the Liberal Democrats (instead of the 50 or so warranted by our vote share), diminishing the strongest voice in favour of the EU (or at least the media representation of that voice) at precisely the time it was most needed.
Paradoxically, UKIP only gaining 1 MP did not diminish the representation of their views in the media (there were other forces at work). We are left to speculate whether UKIP gaining parliamentary representation in proportion to their vote in 2005 or 2010 might have forced the pro-EU majority in Parliament to counter their arguments earlier.
3. Distorted politics:
FPTP does not just distort the results. The behaviour of politicians and parties trying to win under such a twisted system distorts every aspect of politics.
In order to win, the Conservatives are a broad coalition party, rather than the two (or more) parties they should be. The result has been to give undue influence to the anti-EU right wing of the party. Similarly, Labour is forced to be a coalition of multiple parties; this undoubtedly contributed to their ineffectiveness in the referendum campaign.
Does it matter which system?
It’s certainly true that some of the problems with FPTP that led to the Leave vote would be solved by almost any system of proportional representation (PR).
But the Single Transferable Vote (STV), which is existing Liberal Democrat policy, has a number of advantages over other forms of PR. Under STV, every constituency has a reasonable chance of some change at each election – safe seats as they exist now would disappear. STV would give voters more choice of candidates and hence more control over the result. And if the party structure becomes disconnected from the changing views of the public, STV provides a safety valve, with voters able to exert a gentle pressure to re-align politics through their voting choices.
FPTP has multiple distorting effects – on the relationship between voters and MPs, on overall election results, and on the entire conduct of politics. This article gives just a few examples of how FPTP distorts every aspect of politics and government in the UK; its effects can be seen in almost every area of public administration and policy.
It is probably the single biggest underlying cause of the vote to leave. An insistence on replacing it with a proportional system must be part of any response to the referendum result.
The Liberal Democrats should continue to promote the Single Transferable Vote as the system of PR that best delivers fair representation and power to people, and thus best solves the defects in FPTP exposed by the referendum result.
Below is the text of a conference motion which LDER have submitted for debate at the Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference this year. We are now waiting to find out whether the motion will be selected for this year’s agenda, and will report back to our members and supporters once this is known.
We would like to thank all of the individual Liberal Democrat members and local parties and who have supported the motion.
The result of the 2015 General Election was even more undemocratic than usual, with the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and UKIP gaining approximately one quarter of the total number of votes cast, but only 10 seats out of 650, while the Scottish Nationalists won 56 seats with about 4% of the votes cast.
Opinion Polls show that this result has led to a sharp and sustained increase in support for Proportional Representation (PR).
iii. The results of local elections in England and Wales continue to be even less democratic than those in Westminster; whilst the system for local elections in Wales is now a devolved matter, in England it remains under the control of Westminster.
The House of Commons and local authorities in England and Wales are the only UK public bodies elected using First-Past-the-Post (FPTP).
Support for insisting on PR for the House of Commons as part of any future coalition deal, from Tim Farron and Norman Lamb during the 2015 leadership election, and from Nick Clegg earlier this year.
That other parties, including the SNP, Plaid, UKIP, Greens and some in Labour, are increasingly vociferous on the need for PR and are regularly engaged in cross-party discussions on this issue.
The Government of any nation should be “Of the people, by the people, for the people”; therefore, the test of an electoral system should be not how fair it is to political parties, but how fair it is to people.
The continued use of FPTP distorts all aspects of government and politics and thereby undermines every other Liberal Democrat objective; its replacement with PR should therefore be the top priority for the Liberal Democrats. Insistence on PR is consequently justified, in light of its unique impact as an enabler for everything else the Liberal Democrats wish to achieve.
Conference further believes that the case for the urgent introduction of PR is now overwhelming following the EU Referendum, which demonstrated the extent to which FPTP has allowed politicians to become distanced from the people they purport to represent.
Conference reaffirms existing policy in favour of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) as the system of PR that best delivers fairness to people.
Conference calls for:
Liberal Democrats to make the campaign for PR a top priority, taking the lead nationally and making the case on the basis of fairness to people.
The Federal Party to ensure that in any future negotiation of a coalition government, the Liberal Democrats will insist on a clear commitment to the earliest possible introduction of PR for the Westminster Parliament and local authorities in England.
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.
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’.
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 here.