Electoral Reform: Belief is not enough...
By Sarah Lewis
As Liberal Democrats, electoral reform is in our DNA. That's why we welcome the ongoing efforts of our ally organisations such as the Electoral Reform Society, Make Votes Matter, and Unlock Democracy. After all, we know that we cannot bring about the change we want to see by acting alone.
As Lib Dem members our involvement in cross-party campaign efforts is all to the good. I encourage any who are not yet active in these groups to sign up today! But I believe that we also need to campaign for electoral reform as Liberal Democrats. Why?
First, because it is Party policy and it reflects our core values.
When I stood as our candidate in Vauxhall constituency in the 2019 General Election, my Labour opponent spoke regularly of her commitment to proportional representation. My response was invariably along the lines of: "That's great. But it's not Labour Party policy. Yet." Achieving proportional representation is Lib Dem policy and as candidates and campaigners it is our job to communicate that, and to communicate why.
Electoral reform is grounded in our core values. At our Autumn Party Conference we passed a policy motion concluding that we stand for (amongst other things):
- Democracy - through which every individual is empowered to make their voice heard without being dominated by entrenched interests or the power of money;
- Checks and balances - so that those in power cannot abuse their position for personal gain or political advantage; and
- A plurality of views - where no individual or organisation is deterred from speaking truth to power.
Our current Westminster electoral system and the system for local elections in England are fundamentally inconsistent with these values. First past the post disempowers voters and reinforces entrenched interests. It leads to monopoly authorities, like my own borough council in Lambeth, ripe for abuse of power. And first past the post, almost by definition, does nothing to encourage a plurality of views.
To steal the shorthand used by Jon Alexander from the Social Liberal Forum: as Liberal Democrats we believe in people - and we believe in giving people power. That is why electoral reform matters to us.
Let's explain this to the electorate, so that they understand more about who we are and the beliefs that guide us.
Secondly, we should campaign for electoral reform as Lib Dems because it could win us votes.
A few months ago a Best for Britain poll found that a majority of voters (52%) support some form of electoral reform. Perhaps unsurprisingly, two thirds of voters who voted Labour in the 2019 General Election say they support proportional representation. We also saw this reflected in the CLP vote during the Labour Party's Autumn Conference. But perhaps more significantly there is also support for reform among the Conservative's traditional voter base. Indeed, half of the voters who voted Conservative in the 2019 General Election say they support a change in the Westminster voting system.
As we look to challenge seats in the so-called Blue Wall and beyond, this poll (corroborated by other data) suggests that by talking about PR there may be votes to be won from disillusioned Conservatives.
When it comes to campaign messaging, we are already halfway there. "Labour isn't listening!", "The Tories are taking you for granted!", "When was the last time you saw your councillor?", "Tory councils in the pockets of developers"... These are all familiar headlines in Lib Dem campaign literature - headlines which we then tend to follow with "... so VOTE LIB DEM". We'll listen to you! We'll work hard for you! We'll sort your case work, show up to council meetings, pick up the rubbish, hold regular surgeries! etc. etc.".
All of which is, of course, true! And sometimes works - as we saw in the recent Chesham & Amersham by-election. But what about: "... so VOTE LIB DEM! We'll listen to you, work hard for you - AND we'll keep fighting to change the voting system to one which GIVES YOU MORE POWER"! And by the way, in the last local council elections Lambeth Labour won 90 per cent of the council seats with just 50 per cent of the vote. It's no wonder you feel so powerless. (We might even throw in a classic Lib Dem bar chart at this point in the leaflet).
I think we should include electoral reform in our Lib Dem campaigns because it illustrates our core values - and because it can win us votes.
But even if I haven't convinced you that electoral reform is a potential vote-winner, there are still three good reasons to talk about it.
- It's unlikely to lose us votes. I have never met anyone on the doorstep who says "I'm not going to vote for you because of your support for PR."
- We should be on the right side of history. It's fantastic that the Labour Party is increasingly coming in behind electoral reform. Implausible as it may have seemed a few years ago, it is now entirely possible that when we're out on the doors we start hearing something along the lines of "I'm not voting for you. I'm voting for Labour because they support proportional representation". Although we may feel as though we have been hanging on about electoral reform since the dawn of time, most voters still do not know where we stand on the issue. We need to tell them.
- We should prime our existing supporters. If there is to be a possibility of reform, voters need to be primed for it: aware that there is an alternative to our current system, with an understanding of the benefits that will come with that alternative. We need to continue to demystify electoral reform so that, when the time is right, it will be welcomed by Lib Dem voters - that it was part of their contract with us when they gave us their vote.
So why not take the plunge and start campaigning on electoral reform as a Liberal Democrat. You can join Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform and share our content on your local party Facebook and Twitter. Connect electoral reform to local issues in your campaign literature. Include a question on electoral reform in your canvass scripts and surveys. And talk about it - on the doorstep, in your local media, and in your hustings!
After all, we stand for democracy, for checks and balances, and for a plurality of views. We believe in people. We believe in giving people power. So we believe in electoral reform. And a whole load of other great stuff too!
Author Sarah Lewis is a member of the Executive of Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform and Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Vauxhall.