Voting reform is vital for a more diverse Parliament

When Sal Brinton and I did the Hungry for Democracy fast last week, we did it to raise awareness of why we need a different voting system for Westminster so that we can get the Parliament we ask for.

Also in our minds was the fact that proportional voting systems give much more potential for a more diverse Parliament. An article on the Electoral Reform Society’s blog this week shows how our First Past the Post system is a barrier to gender equality. Basically, the safest seats are mostly held by men.

When each constituency has just one seat, only one MP can be elected to represent that area. This in itself quells diversity and competition.

Secondly, the majority of seats rarely change hands between different parties. So once an MP is elected to represent a ‘safe seat’ there is little chance of them losing a subsequent election.

Combined with the fact that incumbent MPs are very rarely deselected, it means ‘safe seat’ MPs have unrivalled job security. And, as the new research shows, the longer an MP has held their seat, the more likely they are to be men.

This represents a constant drag on women’s representation – unless there are real structural changes.

proportional voting system with multi-member seats would end seat blocking by adding much-needed competition: constituencies would be represented by multiple MPs, meaning no one could secure a monopoly on local representation

Sal talks about how, at current rates of progress, her baby granddaughters, two this Summer, will be in their ninth decade before gender equality is achieved.

It’s not a magic bullet for this. In Scotland, we are far from equal, though progress has been made since STV was introduced for Council elections. I went through lists of candidates to work out the gender balance of those standing last year and found the process profoundly depressing. In Dundee there were some wards where there were no female candidates at all. That Council remains one of the least diverse in the country. However, removing the safe seats means that you have a quicker route to improving diversity.

It is hardly surprising that our democracy is in the terrible state that it is in when it doesn’t deliver the Parliament people ask for and that Parliament doesn’t reflect the diversity of the population.

People say we shouldn’t talk about reforming the voting system because it bores people. We need to get better at telling them how much better and fairer our society could be with a fairer voting system.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • It is indeed the case that our democracy is in a terrible way and is in need of electoral reform. Electoral reform is however not sufficient on its own to repair our democracy and must therefore form part of a wider reform package. All of this is of course entirely academic as such reform will never occur under the labour tory domination of our political system unless voters are prepared to adopt an alternative approach such as that described here:

  • If there is one positive out of Brexit it’s that many voted to take power back from what they thought was an unrepresentative system, one of the negatives being that it was taken back and handed to (as pointed out here) old men in safe seats. The country may be sick of referendums and division caused but there are many ready for a better system.

    While this article highlights how unrepresentative it is from a gender divide perspective we should recognise that there are further issues. May was slaughtered for avoiding debates, Brown was slaughtered for ‘poor’ performance but this would suggest only confident public speakers are good leaders – introverts need not apply. It’s not just gender (and race, religion and sexuality, wealth, country of birth….) and those elected are making decisions which are unrepresentative of need, for example the investment in English and welsh rail only improving structure in England. No, it’s not the time to stop talking about voting reform.

  • John Marriott 17th Feb '18 - 11:17am

    Some of us have been banging on about ‘fair votes’ for longer than some of us care to admit. I seem to recall that even Winston Churchill was flirting with it before WW2 (mind you, I could be wrong). ‘Kevin’ may be right that it’s not quite the holy grail; but it’s not far off.

    HOWEVER the only time we have actually had a chance to change the voting system for our general elections (albeit with a system that wasn’t really proportional at all but was a step in the right direction) WE BLEW IT! Will we ever get another chance? Who knows?

    As Caron says, PR is hardly a very sexy topic. I can imagine eyes glazing over if some of the learned LDV contributors were let loose on the subject to Joe Public. You need to get away from the academic and keep it simple.

    As a former County Councillor I often got invited into the two Comptehensives in my ‘patch’, especially at the time of a General Elections, which until recently tended to coincide with County Council Elections, usually, but not exclusively, to talk to Sixth Formers. When the subject turned to how we vote, as a former teacher at one of the schools myself I once tried the following ‘visual aid’.

    I asked for ten volunteers to come to the front of the class, stand in a line and this is what I said (more or less):
    “These ten friends are going out for a meal. Three of them want to go to MacDonalds, two of them want to go to Pizza Hut, two fancy a Chinese, one favours an Indian, one Nando’s and one a Fish and Chips restaurant. So, where did they go?”
    Some students suggested MacDonalds; but, when I pointed out that the other seven would not be happy; but would probably go along with it, many of them seemed to understand what I was getting at.

    “Now”, I said, “that’s a bit like how we vote in this country. Currently it’s the largest minority who get what they want. If those ten friends had each been asked to give a second or third choice, we might have come up with a result with which the majority would have been happier.”

    Now I know the method isn’t foolproof, in fact, some of you will undoubtedly be able to pick it to pieces; but the current way the advocates of PR go about their business isn’t getting us very far, is it? Any alternative suggestions?

  • It is also worth noting that most forms of PR that are regularly discussed are arguably overly complex, and their complexity actually reduces their democratic effectiveness. The system of PR discussed here is far simpler and more democratic:

  • John Marriott 17th Feb '18 - 12:18pm

    By the way, John Cleese produced a classic PPB for the SDP on the subject of PR back in the 1980s. I think you can still get it on YouTube. It ended with him saying something like “People say it’s too complicated. Well, if you can’t count up to five, you might have a problems.” I could also anger the PC brigade by saying that if the Irish can handle STV why can’t we?!

  • I think I can remember that John Cleese item although it’s a bit blurry in my minds eye. I hope I didn’t inadvertently imply that we are not clever enough to understand PR. I only meant that any added complexity is always best removed (good engineering practice), and particularly when it leads to a less democratic outcome and offers detractors an easy target.

  • Richard Underhill 17th Feb '18 - 6:15pm

    Kevin 17th Feb ’18 – 9:16am: Please, please do not use the word “never” in politics.
    Please consider the difficulties in abolishing the trans-Atlantic slave trade and what actually happened.
    Recently we have been remembering the discrimination against men involved in conscription in war balanced by the role of large numbers of women in munitions factories who worked in dangerous and unhealthy conditions on equal pay.
    Proportional representation by party list was crucial in South Africa to the agreement to also have a universal franchise. It is not our party’s policy in the UK because the Single Transferable Vote is better, as we saw with the election of Senator Mary Robinson as President in Ireland, leading to tea with the Queen and a successful visit by the Queen to the Republic. One option now for Northern Ireland would be the election of MPs to Westminster using the same system they use for every other level of election namely STV.

  • People say we shouldn’t talk about reforming the voting system because it bores people.

    The important question is not whether it bores voters, but whether it benefits them. I doubt many voters will approve a major change to the constitution of the United Kingdom in order to improve the career prospects of women politicians.

    I would say that the major advantage of ranked voting systems, like STV, to voters, is that it allows them to convey a better idea of their preferences to politicians. And you can hardly expect a politician to pay attention to a preference unless he knows about it.

    (By the same argument, cardinal voting systems convey more information than ranked voting systems, so my ideal would be a cardinal-voting variant of STV, if there is one.)

    Other arguments might be devised, but the concentration should always be on benefits to voters, not benefits to a subset of parties or politicians.

  • it is sad to see so many Lib Dems still banging on about PR and voting systems, when as we all know none of the major parties have any intention to give their power away, so it simply won’t happen until we can do it for ourselves.

    We were canny enough to get it in Scotland, but when the chance came in 2010 we totally blew it by going for gold and losing it all in a referendum on a poor version. As far as the public are concerned, we had a referendum on it in 2011 and lost it 32% to 68%. We could have got PR for local government, but we chose to bet the house and lost. In addition to wanting a second referendum on Brexit but not on Scottish Independence, I think wanting a to return to another issue that would benefit us (allegedly) would simply confirm to most people, that Lib Dems are just a bunch of bad losers and definitely not the sort of people they want running the country.

    Of course I am sure that there are some of us who believe that, given the opportunity, they would have no difficulty in persuading the British people of the rightness of the cause, purely by the power of their logic.

    But in all honesty we have to concentrate on what is achievable and helping get a moderate number of gains in May should come way ahead of that in every Lib Dems priorities.

  • John Marriott 18th Feb '18 - 9:51am

    @Ian Sanderson
    You are right in that “the complication is all in the count”. As John Cleese said in his 1987(?) PPB; “If you can’t count up to five….”
    @David Evans
    The problem with the 2011 AV Referendum was the abysmal performance of the ‘Yes to AV’ campaign. And, guess who were running the massively cynical ‘No to AV’ campaign, which repeatedly featured the photo of Clegg about to enter No 10 and used good old fashioned leaflets, while the Yes people favoured more modern methods like email shots etc.? None other than Messrs Elliott and Cummings, who repeated their performance some five years later!

  • @ad, it’s interesting that you think that improving gender balance is only of value to the extra women who get elected, and not something desirable to ‘many voters’. I can’t speak for everyone, but as a voter, not candidate, I know I’d like parliament to be more representative of the wider public, which includes gender balance. Inevitably, there will be some who see the suggestion of improving gender equality as a campaign that only benefits female candidates, but in practice, this is a way of bringing the topic to the attention of those who claim to favour gender equality. This angle is a way to focus the mind on the incompatibility of FPTP with the ‘fairness’ that other political parties claim to support.

    Living in Scotland I now have experience of FPTP for Westminster, the Additional Member System (AMS), used for the Scottish Parliament, and Single Transferable Vote (STV) for local elections. I find STV to be the simplest, and not just because I can count to five. I know that I can vote honestly and don’t need to second guess what anyone else is doing in order to get value from my ballot, as is required for both FPTP and AMS. With FPTP and AMS, the vote is influenced by the expectation of the outcome, but there is none of that with STV. I only need to worry about who I think would make the best councillors and number them in order.

    The only problem with STV as used in the Scottish local elections is that they list the candidates in alphabetical order, which goes against good practice for STV.

  • To return to Caron’s central point, which was that PR would make elected bodies more diverse, the logic seems fairly compelling and gives us another good reason for raising the issue of PR, Without simply sounding like bad losers . Can I add (trailing my coat, I know ) that it is a preferable and more organic way of addressing the problem of the under representation of certain demographic groups than the rather more crude, illiberal methods we have chosen in the recent past !

  • Meanwhile the Tories are going in reverse:

    Both Paul Goodman and Peter Thompson raise some interesting, but I believe erroneous points. I do not see votes for 16-18 year olds and the protection that young people enjoy under the law for being young as a mutually exclusive “either/ or” issue. I prefer to see them as a logical “and”. The only effective way you learn to handle responsibility is to handle responsibility. If life experience is the effective criteria – “reductio ad absurdum” – only pensioners should have the vote.

  • David Evans 19th Feb '18 - 5:09pm

    Very true John. It pays to understand that the easiest way to trash your enemies is to undermine them while pretending to be on their side. The problem was that in coalition our team pretended that a piece of paper could cover all eventualities and to revisit it after it was shown to fail was a sign of weakness.

    We all know where that got us.

  • John Marriott 19th Feb '18 - 7:03pm

    @David Evans
    I think you and I have ‘previous’. I’m not sure whether you agree with my verdict on the AV Referendum campaign or not. I hope you are not accusing me of trying to undermine the Yes to AV campaign at the time or today. I was then quite active in the local media in supporting a change, even though, deep down, I thought that AV, whilst being a pretty tame option, was, at least a first step in the right direction.

    What annoyed me was the delivery of at least three leaflets from the No to AV people, with the infamous Clegg at No 10 photo on each, spewing out the same half truths which became the modus operandi that Messrs Elliott and Cummings used again in the 2015 Leave Campaign. Oh how I longed for a ‘piece of paper’ from the Yes to AV people instead of endless media events and emails! But one never came.

  • John Marriott 19th Feb '18 - 9:04pm

    @David Evans
    I could add that, if your reference was to Cameron, I completely agree. Mind you, Clegg and co fell for it hook, line and sinker. However, the former got his comeuppance in the 2015 General Election when, to appease his Eurosceptics, he agreed to insert the EU Referendum pledge into the Tory Manifesto on the assumption that it could be conveniently dropped when, as expected, the Coalition Government returned to power, for which, of course, his Lib Dem partners, would be blamed.
    It’s not the only time in recent years that campaigns that thought they would lose were proved wrong. What about Trump and the Brexit Campaign? No wonder neither appear now to know what they are doing.

  • As you state, Lindsay our present form of governance hinders a more accurate reflection of the voters it is meant to represent. Another argument is that we need a more flexible representational system so it more quickly reflects changes. It is bad enough to have to wait four years and then have little chance to change things is intolerable. Some recall measures and a preferential voting system such as STV will bring in the responsiveness to public opinion that is sorely needed.

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