Sarah Hudspith is Communications, Campaigns and Engagement Leader at Make Votes Matter. Here, she shares her experience of the People’s Lobby for PR.
On Tuesday 11th December more than 150 activists from around 65 constituencies came to Westminster to lobby parliamentarians for a change in the way MPs are elected to the House of Commons.
The People's Lobby for Proportional Representation, organised by Make Votes Matter, saw people from all over the UK arriving en masse to persuade their MPs to support Proportional Representation (PR). A huge thanks to everyone who came along or supported us in advance and on the day. We couldn’t have done it without you!
Although the physical journey started on the morning of 11th December as I boarded a train from Bristol, the event itself has taken many months of planning by the team.
From conference calls and briefings with volunteers, partner organisations and MPs, to hours spent on the telephone calling all of our wonderful lobbyists to mobilise everyone ahead of the day; the team really did pull out all the stops to make the lobby a success. This was in the middle of the chaos that has engulfed British politics.
Just a week or so before the event, we learned that the meaningful vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal was to be held on the same day! But this didn’t deter us from our mission and, if anything, provided the backdrop for a unique opportunity to be in the thick of it at Westminster at such a crucial time for British politics.
On the day, the MVM team arrived at St James the Less Church in Pimlico to set up. We were soon joined by a steady trickle of people all eager to learn more about the task ahead. The trickle soon turned into a full procession and a queue started to form both inside and outside the church. By the time we kicked off, the room was standing room only! I and the other team members were humbled that so many enthusiastic electoral reformers had packed out the church, ready to take action.
Once gathered, lobbyists listened to some rousing speeches by Baroness Jenny Jones and Lord Paul Tyler. A briefing on how to lobby your MP took place before people buddied up with others from the same constituency. And once in our groups, we marched from Pimlico to Westminster taking in some of the sights of London as we approached the the Houses of Parliament.
The march to Westminster
What struck me as I walked and talked with people who had travelled from all over the UK to be with us, was the buzz and slight trepidation felt about going to Westminster. It’s a place our MPs are of course familiar with, but for many of our group it was the first time they had set foot inside this historic landmark. Others, myself included, had not visited since an obligatory school trip. We are so used to seeing MPs being grilled by the media in the central lobby that once inside, the building took on a rather more familiar feel.
As our group made its way past the joyous sound of carols being played by a brass band in Westminster hall, we headed for the committee rooms where a number of MPs had agreed to meet us. I was joined by a fellow constituent from Bristol East to speak to local MP, Kerry McCarthy. I’d met Kerry before about PR, and she reaffirmed her position that she believes in PR in principle but cannot commit to prioritising it.
She did, however, suggest that we send a speaker to the Bristol East Constituency Labour Party. With a bit of luck, we’ll fix up a date and Bristol East will join the 53 local Labour parties that have already called for the party to back fair votes. It just goes to show that big lobbying events like this really do get the attention of MPs!
Dozens of lobbyists spoke with MPs from all parties: from Meg Hillier to Caroline Lucas, Darren Jones to Desmond Swayne and Alistair Burt. Those who weren’t able to meet with their MPs used the “green card” system - a way to call your MP down to the central lobby, or at least to let them know you were there!
Some of those who came to the lobby - and others who couldn’t - will now be meeting their MPs in their constituencies. We’ll be inviting other local supporters to join these meetings with their MPs in the new year - so we will look forward to hearing how they go.
Make Votes Matter Democracy Awards
After everyone had finished lobbying their MPs or leaving green cards, those that were lucky enough to snap up a ticket headed to the Attlee Suite for the Make Votes Matter Democracy Awards event.
Hosted by Tommy Sheppard MP and presented by comedian and impressionist Rory Bremner, Rory delighted the crowd with impressions ranging from Donald Trump to William Hague, to name just a few.
And then it was down to business, and the winners for 2018 were announced:
Group Campaigning Award: recognising a volunteer-run campaign group that has worked either nationally or locally to introduce PR.
Winner: Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform.
Heald Centenary Award: for the individual activists who have made the greatest contribution to make every vote count equally during the Representation of the People Act centenary year.
Winners: Natalie Bennett (former Leader, Green Party); Polly Toynbee (commentator).
Keir Hardie Award: recognising the special role Labour activists have to play if we are to make the campaign for real democracy a success, these awards are for the Labour politicians who have done the most to campaign for a proportional voting system in the UK.
Winners: Jonathan Reynolds MP, Stephen Kinnock MP.
Parliamentary Champion Award: for the cross-party politicians who have done the most to campaign for a proportional voting system in the UK.
Winners: Baroness Sal Brinton (Liberal Democrat), Caroline Lucas MP (Green Party).
Following a really enjoyable reception, a large group of lobbyists, activists and MVM Alliance members including Peter Tatchell then headed to Parliament Square for a photo opportunity to mark the end of a truly inspiring day.
We were a crowd of people from all sides of the Brexit debate and right across the political spectrum. With a banner made by activists during the day, we made the point that while we, parliament and the country may be divided over this big issue, what would bring us all together is a parliament that truly reflects the British people. And for that, we need Proportional Representation!
To have done all of this in the same week that marked one hundred years since the first general election in which women voted was a real highlight for me. It’s an experience I will never forget.
A big thank you for the photography to René Bach and Joseph Casey, and for the videography to Cade Hannan.