Alliance Building Conference 2017

Guest blog by Alistair Benford

In October we held our second Alliance Building Conference (ABC), where activists and allies made plans in the wake of this year’s general election. Fifty attendees gathered in the Jubilee room in Parliament - including MPs, peers, local and national group leaders, and allied organisations.

After a welcome from MVM facilitator Klina Jordan, her co-facilitator Joe Sousek told the conference about the campaign's priorities for achieving PR in the House of Commons.

We must bring together all the parties, organisations and public figures who want fair votes, to work together in the PR Alliance. That’s what the ABC is all about - and the decisions we make should inform and support the work of the movement for fair votes. Senior figures in all the parties need to start the process of reaching a shared position on the acceptable properties of voting systems and the mechanism for introducing Proportional Representation.

We need one of the two largest parties to fully commit to genuine electoral reform. The good news is there is widespread support for PR across Labour party members. There are now around about 80 Labour MPs who support PR, and a much smaller number who firmly oppose it (most of whom occupy very safe seats). Over the next year, we need to enable Labour members who want fair votes to make this case within the party - working with organisations like the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, Compass and the Electoral Reform Society.

And we need the grassroots movement to strengthen and grow - making loud enough demands to put fair votes on the radar of every politician, journalist and voter. Local groups have established all over the country and their work has allowed us all to learn best practice. The task now is to greatly expand the movement, with people everywhere taking action.

Representatives from the political parties present summed up their party’s positions and plans on PR:

Labour Party

  • Paul Blomfeld MP: Support from the Labour party is a necessary condition for Proportional Representation: Labour is at tipping point when it comes to PR, and the situation has never been better. Trade unions still play a large role in the Labour party, and their support may be more important than we realise. Labour’s recent shift to radical policies should be underpinned by radical constitutional reform.

  • Jonathan Reynolds MP: The domination of the SNP in Scotland has helped Labour to realise the unfairness of FPTP, and set in motion the surge in support we are finding in Labour today.

  • Mary Honeyball MEP: With the exception of France, every other EU nation uses PR. As a result, their legislative chambers, as well as EU Parliament itself, are far less tribal than the House of Commons. Cooperation over adversity is a positive change PR can bring to Westminster.

Liberal Democrats

  • Lord Paul Tyler: It’s too often overlooked that when it comes to fair votes, it is people, not parties, who are the ones being cheated by FPTP. The additional member system is already in use in the UK, and has been received positively – we should use it as a shining example of the benefits of PR.

  • Baroness Sal Brinton: When small parties (including the Liberal Democrats) talk about PR, they are often written off as self-interested. Support from all political parties is essential in order to weaken this criticism.

  • Gwynoro Jones, former MP: Under normal politics, power dominates, and is inclined to preserve the status quo (that is, FPTP). However with the constitutional upheaval around Brexit, we may be presented with an opportunity to reinvent British politics.

Scottish National Party

  • Tommy Sheppard MP: In 2015 the SNP received 95% of Scottish seats with only 50% of the popular vote, but even as beneficiaries of FPTP they are committed to eradicating FPTP. There are doubts that this Parliament will even last a full five years, and so we should always remain vigilant for an opportunity to apply pressure and make the case for PR.

Green Party

  • Amelia Womack, Deputy Leader: In the spirit of the cross-party sentiment, we must be careful not to make the case for electoral reform into an anti-Tory message. The original motivation for this year’s Progressive Alliances was to redress some of FPTP’s disproportionality. But as the campaign went on this message was buried, and people began to see the alliance’s purpose as being “keeping the Tories out”.

  • Natalie Bennett, former Leader: The slogan “take back control” dominated last year’s EU referendum. The irony is that, if anything, the result only focussed power into Westminster, which so long as FPTP is still used in general elections, does not bring “control” any closer to the electorate. By making PR a Brexit issue, we can bridge the gap between Leavers and Remainers, and harness the strength of both sides.

Plaid Cymru

  • Ben Lake MP: Plaid is fully committed to adopting PR at all levels. We must also focus on the need for PR in local elections, and the possibility of using local elections as another stepping stone towards PR in Westminster.

Women's Equality Party

  • Hannah Peaker, Chief of Staff: FPTP discriminates against women and ethnic minority candidates: in single-member constituencies, parties are more likely to field male candidates on the assumption that they are “safe”. With multi-member constituencies, parties are more likely to field candidates from a range of backgrounds and demographics. PR is a manifesto commitment for the Women’s Equality Party. The reception to the recent boundary review signifies the inclination amongst MPs not to “vote oneself out of a job”. We should also consider the possibility of using next year’s centenary of votes for women as a platform for raising awareness about voting reform, and the benefits it can bring for women.

UK Independence Party

  • Henry Bolton, Leader: After the unfairness of 2015’s general election result, Proportional Representation remains a priority for UKIP. The party remains committed to supporting cross-party campaigning on this issue and, agreeing with Natalie Bennett, Leavers and Remainers should be united in wanting a Parliament that fairly reflects the voters.

Local Government Association

  • Marianne Overton, Leader of the Independent Group and Vice Chairman of the LGA: The recent boundary review is misguided and fails to address the underlying flaws in our electoral system. It is not enough to simply balance the population in each constituency and assume that will represent the constituents’ interests: it is far more urgent that we ensure MPs are politically representative of their constituents

Once contributions had been made from all parties present, we turned our focus towards planning future activity.

  • We discussed preparation for the parliamentary debate scheduled as a result of our petition, which took place on 30th October. See highlights and videos here.

  • We would also like to see the All Party Parliamentary Group for Proportional Representation re-established. In particular, we must ensure its focus is on taking action to bring about reform, rather than simply reviewing the options. This suggestion was well received by parliamentarians in attendance.

  • We agreed to organise a coordinated lobby events for PR in 2018, to coincide with the centenary year of increased suffrage, with the member organisations of the Alliance doing what they can to support activists and get their supporters to these meetings.

  • Parliamentarians agreed to keep PR on the agenda by asking questions and organising other parliamentary and media interventions.

  • We agreed to hold a later session to begin cross-party discussions to align party positions on PR, and how we could work together to bring it in.

  • The alliance agreed to meet quarterly to continue this work. This currently schedules the next two conferences for 17th January and 17th April.

Before the conference was adjourned, the Alliance agreed the following joint statement:

"When most votes are wasted, when millions are forced to vote tactically, and when seats in Parliament don’t reflect the way the people voted, it’s clear that democracy in the UK is fundamentally broken. Enough is enough.

The vast majority of developed nations already use a form of Proportional Representation, including the most equal, democratic and forward thinking countries in the world. PR is nothing to fear. All it means is that Parliament reflects the people.

We welcome the Parliamentary debate on PR taking place later this month. This debate is only happening because of the work of diverse parties, organisations and individuals to demand fair votes. We will do everything we can to make fair votes a reality and we call upon all people, from all parties and none, to do the same."

The ABC was immediately followed by a planning meeting for representatives of MVM’s existing local campaign groups. The discussion was broad and far-reaching, and provided local group leaders with the opportunity to exchange and share ideas with one another. The discussions have been fed into our new lobbying campaign plan - which will be a key part of the campaign in 2018.

We are rapidly building a united, cross-party movement for PR with an agreed plan about how we achieve our shared goal. By the time the next election comes we need to have grown this movement many times over, to have a vocal and visible demand for PR from the public with people taking action all over the country. We need to have all the opposition parties and as many Tories as possible committed to PR to make sure there is a majority of pro-PR MPs in Parliament, to pass legislation to make seats finally match votes.