A historic new consensus: launch of the Good Systems Agreement

On the evening of Tuesday 2nd July Make Votes Matter launched its Good Systems Agreement (GSA) at an event in Parliament hosted by Tommy Sheppard MP. Aaron Scott-Carter, Alliance Executive for Make Votes Matter, explains what it’s all about and why it’s so important.

The GSA is signed by every major opposition party apart from Labour, many other parties and organisations, Labour and Tory MPs, and public figures like George Monbiot, Helen Pankhurst, Rory Bremner, Zoe Williams and Yanis Varoufakis.

The groundbreaking agreement sets out the key principles of good voting systems.

The most obvious principle is proportionality. It is a core principle of democracy that Parliament should reflect the votes cast by the people it governs. Not only that, but decades of research from around the world shows that proportional democracies have better outcomes: greater equality, less corporate control, better long-term planning and political stability, fairer representation of women and minorities, higher voter turnout, better environmental laws and even decreased likelihood of going to war (conversely, First Past the Post is the single strongest predictor that a democracy will go to war!).

Most developed democracies already use a system that aims to deliver at least some degree of proportionality, including over 85% of the OECD. Many elections in the UK are already conducted under proportional systems, including elections to The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh, London, and Northern Ireland Assemblies. It’s time the system we use for Westminster caught up.

Like the rest of the principles in the Good Systems Agreement, this is simply common sense. In July 2018, polling by ICM found 66% believe “seats should match votes” (with only 7% opposed).

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To be a truly representative democracy every vote should count equally. So a key principle of our agreement is that a good system must ensure this. It is not democratic for someone’s vote in Cornwall to have more of an impact that somebody else’s vote in Durham, for example. Good systems ensure the value of individual votes is not distorted by factors such as geography, and minimise the need for tactical voting.

Another key principle is that a good voting system ensures a truly diverse and representative democracy. This means that a good system should encourage parliaments to reflect the societies in which they exist. They must ensure a wide choice of parties, but allow voters to express preferences for named candidates rather than just parties. Any lists used must be democratically determined.

One of the principles which is particularly important to me is voting simplicity. Good voting systems are clear, and easy for voters to understand and use. This is something First Past the Post does amazingly badly. It’s easy enough to cast a vote under our current system - but it’s often fiendishly complicated to work what impact your vote might have, if any, depending on who you vote for. Luckily, good voting systems are already putting power in the hands of voters across the world - what we need is a credible way of looking at them and drawing on what works best elsewhere.

How do we do this? Well, these key principles are only part of what this new agreement achieves. The way the GSA proposes achieving a proportional electoral system is just as important. It sets out that the specific system should be chosen by a deliberative citizen led-process, such as a citizens’ assembly. Achieving real democracy requires a democratic process to get there.

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The Good Systems Agreement launch event began with a welcome from Tommy Sheppard MP, followed inspiring speeches from Jonathon Bartley (Co-leader of the Green Party), Baroness Sal Brinton (President of the Liberal Democrats), Sir Vince Cable MP (Leader of Liberal Democrats), Liz Saville-Roberts MP, (Westminster Leader of Plaid Cymru), Mandu Reid (Leader of the Women’s Equality Party), Derek Thomas MP (Conservative Party), and Stephen Kinnock MP (Labour Party). It was an important evening where people from all kinds of political viewpoint could celebrate reaching this new consensus and discuss where we go from here.

Although Labour have not yet signed the GSA as a party, many MPs across the broad church - as well as the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform - have signed including: Alex Sobel, Bambos Charalambous, Ben Bradshaw, Clive Lewis, Debbie Abrahams, John Grogan, Jonathan Reynolds, Jon Cruddas, Paul Blomfield, Richard Burden, Ruth Cadbury, Stephen Kinnock, and Tulip Siddiq.

Now that we have reached this historic consensus in favour of a change to our outdated voting system we need to move forward and expand the Alliance for Proportional Representation, across the entire breadth of society. We will explore all avenues to bring about the, citizen-led, change needed to overhaul our undemocratic voting system. If you know any public figures or organisations who might like to join the impressive list of signatories, please invite them to do so and we would be delighted to hear from them. You can contact me here.