Today’s excellent Make Votes Matter demo outside parliament was both well attended and fun. A range of bodies, such as Unlock Democracy and the ERS joined with the Make Votes Matter group to urge us into action to make sure that the politicians don’t forget we still need PR for Westminster as well as for local government in England and Wales. All the major parties were represented – even the Conservatives – but neither the Tories nor Labour have signed up as parties. We, of course, have, as well as the Greens, UKIP, SNP and Plaid Cymru. Paul Tyler is our representative at the cross party discussions.
Make Votes Matter is led by Owen Winter, an extraordinary young campaigner from Cornwall, who speaks with passion and enthusiasm about electoral reform. The event started with election lottery, where people picked out a card with one party on it, and then had a second, most of which didn’t match.
I was invited to speak on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, and I started by reminding people that we as liberals have been pushing for PR for over 150 years. It was John Stuart Mill in 1861 who wrote in his essay Considerations on Representative Government:
In a representative body actually deliberating, the minority must of course be overruled; and in an equal democracy, the majority of the people, through their representatives, will outvote and prevail over the minority and their representatives. But does it follow that the minority should have no representatives at all? … Is it necessary that the minority should not even be heard? … Unless they are, there is not equal government … there is a part whose fair and equal share of influence in the representation is withheld from them, contrary to all just government, but, above all, contrary to the principle of democracy, which professes equality as its very root and foundation.
It is that fundamental understanding of the need for democracy to be just and equal that made Justin Trudeau announce just after the Liberals won power in Canada last November that one of his first acts would be to introduce PR for Canada, even if it would harm the Canadian Liberals’ chances in the future. That’s because, as in the UK, the first past the post system has produced governments supported by a minority of the voters. The last Harper Canadian Conservative Government got 40% of the vote and the Conservatives in the UK last year were on 37%.
In the local elections last Thursday John Leech won a famous victory in Manchester, when he became the only opposition councillor on Manchester Council, breaking some years of 100% Labour council rule. It is the voting system that produces results like this, which in the case of Manchester puts a real stranglehold on local politics for decades, and where large percentages of people feel their votes are worthless. By the way, there may only be one opposition councillor, but John Leech will be an effective opposition holding them to account!
Look at the elections for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh and London Assemblies. Whilst the systems they use aren’t perfect (and typically, within 24 hours of the elections Lib Dems are discussing the different types: AV; D’Hondt or the Sainte Lague etc) but they are significantly better than the first past the post which favours larger parties and penalises the smaller parties to that point of ‘not being heard’.that Mill describes.
George Osborne announced he was going to get rid of the Lib Dems – but I think it is broader than that. The Tories are determined to eliminate (I choose the word carefully) any opposition: the Trades Union Bill, where they have tried to make it almost impossible for Labour to receive funding from unions; proposing cuts to Short money for opposition party (both of which they have had to make substantial changes to after opposition), as well as their proposals to reduce the number of MPs to 600, which will disproportionately affect Labour and smaller parties. Be under no illusion: the Tories’ desire to ‘get rid of their opponents’ is real.
Fairer voting systems also produce more representative parliaments. We also need to make our parliament more diverse. There were representatives today from the 50:50 campaign, and most of the speakers talked about how essential it was to have more women & BAME MPs. You won’t be surprised to know I also mentioned the need for more disabled and LGBT+ MPs too.
So, please if you support the continuing fight for PR, then visit the Make Votes Matter site and My Actions, sign the petition and write to your MP. This is even more important if your MP is Conservative or Labour. And do also sign the 50:50 petition here.
* Baroness Sal Brinton is President of the Liberal Democrats. She is a working Lib Dem peer, and was the candidate for Watford at the 2010 and 2005 General Elections.