On Monday 8th February, politicians from all different political parties, alongside activists and members of civil society, gathered in Westminster to set about forming a coalition to achieve proportional representation in the next few years. The discussion about how to achieve electoral reform was lively and interesting. It made me feel really positive about the next steps in the campaign for PR and how to achieve the change we desperately need. It was a privilege to make a speech to delegates in my role as Make Votes Matter spokesperson.
One of the arguments made against proportional representation is that it is 'not important'. I've been told over and over that ordinary people 'don't care about electoral reform'. It is incredibly patronising, but many politicians (way up in their ivory towers) really believe that ordinary people are not interested in our democracy, or the people who represent them. Personally, I think it's nonsense, but it does give credence to the idea that we (as electoral reformers) should be making the link between our voting system and so-called 'bread and butter' issues. Perhaps I am too much of a PR-nerd, trapped in an electoral reform bubble. As Stephen Kinnock MP said in his speech to the conference, 'proportional representation is not an issue for the political anoraks', it has, he said, 'real life outcomes'. These 'real life' implications of our voting system are what we have to make explicit in our campaign for reform.
Our voting system, First Past the Post, creates division and disunity; leaves people unrepresented and politicians unaccountable; and fosters a type of governance which is manipulative, alienating, and spiteful.
As you might expect, one of the best examples of FPTP at it's worst is Scotland. However, Scotland was still feeling the worst effects of our voting system long before the SNP won 95% of its seats with just 50% of the vote. Way back in 1986, faced with an upcoming election, David Willetts, as a Downing Street policy advisor, advised Margaret Thatcher to make deep cuts in 'pampered Scots' public spending. He said:
It was unlikely that the Conservatives would win more seats in Scotland, so instead it would be best to make policy which was purposefully more favourable to those in the North of England, particularly those in marginal constituencies which could've made the difference come the election. For many years, Labour dominated in Scotland, meaning neither of the two parties had any incentive to woo Scottish voters. In 2015, Scots had had enough of this and they chucked out 50 Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative MPs and replaced them with Scottish Nationalists. The SNP stood on a platform of a stronger voice for Scotland in Westminster, however, it may now be that Scotland is simply ignored (once again) by a Conservative government with no electoral prospects and no incentive to please Scottish voters. FPTP has accentuated the divide between Scotland and England, and makes independence in the near future far more likely.
Scotland/England isn't the only geographical divide which is accentuated by FPTP, the North/South divide is already massive in the UK and our voting system could be a part of the problem. Because of Labour or Conservative dominance in certain areas, the same issues arise. Although the vote shares across England that parties received was relatively similar, the difference in MPs could not be more stark. The vast blue sea that spans from Penzance to Dover along the South Coast stands in contrast to the red Labour heartlands in the North. FPTP means that the vast majority of people living in the South are represented by Conservatives and the vast majority in the North are represented by Labour, when in fact both areas have similarly diverse political views.
Not only is this divide bad for national unity and cohesion, it also has serious funding implications. Who can blame politicians (of all colours) for trying to win over the seats that matter? The fact of FPTP is that some voters are worth more in the election. Politicians are smart - they know that come a general election it's swing voters in marginal seats who decide whether they keep their job or not. That's why it came as no surprise when, earlier this month, MPs voted in favour of a £300m fund for councils, of which 83% will go to Conservative authorities. Labour politicians were incensed that Liverpool would not a receive a single penny of the fund. They shouldn't be so shocked, the Conservatives didn't win a single seat in Liverpool at the general election, and they never will. That's not to say there aren't Conservative Liverpudlians, but the Tories know that these aren't the voters who will matter come 2020.
It's not just geographical division that is exacerbated by our voting system, FPTP also threatens social cohesion across the board. MPs are elected under First Past the Post by winning the support of the plurality of voters in their constituency, to do this they must appeal to the majority. In the vast majority of constituencies in the UK, the majority of voters are white, middle class, straight and Christian. There are real issues with representation in the UK because MPs and politicians reach out to the majority, minorities are left out in the cold because they don't make the difference when it comes to the election. Political parties design policies to win over these groups, meaning that First Past the Post fuels inequality.
Far too few (only 29%) MPs are women, and far too few are from BME backgrounds. Sweden, with it's proportional voting system, does not employ quotas for gender and yet 45% of it's MPs are women - far closer to representing the population than in the UK. Black and minority ethnic people tend to live in urban, working class areas and are far more likely to vote Labour. From the perspective of the Conservative Party, winning over black voters is very unlikely to change the outcome of elections. This all has a very real impact on policy decisions and outcomes. Government should be above electioneering and buying off voters, but successive governments of all colours have proved that this a far from the reality. A proportional voting system would mean that every vote count equally, parties would have to win over all voters - rather than the select few who are lucky enough to be in a position to influence the result of the election.
Far from the idea that the issue of our voting system is simply about fairness, democracy or who is in power, the problems of FPTP reach deeply into every aspect of policy making and politics in the UK. Far from being a distant problem that is just the concern of 'democracy junkies' and 'political anoraks', our voting system threatens our country's social, geographical and economic cohesion and helps etch the lines of class, race and gender into our politics. Nobody should be punished for where they live or who they vote for, but that's exactly what First Past the Post does. In 2015, David Cameron himself said that 23 key seats would decide the general election. It is no surprise that a government appears to be run in the interests of a select few when it is a select few who decide the results of a general election. A proportional system is key to an inclusive and deliberative democracy. In a PR system every vote would matter, and parties would be forced to chase every single vote. Politicians could no longer rely on their core support base but would be forced to reach out to all voters in order to be elected.