Alistair Carmichael MP writes…Electoral reform can happen, but it will take concerted action

When I joined the Liberal Party in the 1980s, I was optimistic that the UK would replace its unrepresentative voting system in the not too distant future. Fast forward to 2021 and we remain stuck with First Past the Post and, at first glance, little reason for optimism.

The current set-up has never been ideal for the UK or indeed any modern democratic society. First Past the Post results in governments elected by a minority of voters, with policies supported by a minority of the electorate being imposed on the majority. This leaves far too many people feeling excluded and unrepresented. With a distorted link between voters and MPs, how can the UK call itself a representative democracy>

The answer, as we know, is Proportional Representation (PR). Replacing First Past the Post with a fair alternative will make our democracy truly representative. Pluralism is a key tenet of democracy. As a liberal and a democrat, I recognise the need for a voting system that allows multi-party politics to show itself rather than be hidden by the illusion of First Past the Post. Proportional Representation provides a framework for multi-party politics to flourish and voters to be represented.

We have all heard the tiresome arguments against PR, all the more worn-out considering that the UK is now the only democracy in Europe to use the outdated First Past the Post system for its main elections. The myth that reform would end the constituency link is nonsensical, considering the range of systems that can preserve and even strengthen it by improving voter choice both at the ballot box and in between elections. Those resistant to change also argue that a switch to PR would be a risky, unnecessary experiment. Considering that Proportional Representation is used in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and is well established across Europe, this doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

All major opposition parties apart from Labour support Proportional Representation for UK-wide elections and groups like Make Votes Matter are pushing the debate in the right direction. The establishment of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Electoral Reform is the latest boost in the campaign, ensuring a strong coordinated voice in parliament to champion the need for change.

The anti-reform position of Boris Johnson’s government makes PR look unlikely on the surface: from boundary changes that will hand them extra seats, to voter ID requirements that would import US-style voter suppression, to a massive uplift in election spending limits that will benefit only the Conservative Party. These are changes that entrench the Tories’ existing advantage, but they are also so flagrant that we now have a real chance to cooperate with other parties to fix an obviously broken system. The Liberal Democrats remain as committed as ever to electoral reform and others are joining the cause to add real momentum<

We have achieved electoral reform before. Liberal Democrats helped ensure that the Scottish Parliament and the then-Welsh Assembly were set up with Proportional Representation. Colleagues in the Scottish Parliament then went on to secure the Single Transferable Vote for local government in 2004, transforming local governments for good and showing that coalitions and consensus-building work.

The latest development in the campaign for electoral reform is the Make Vote matter Equal Votes Lobby this Friday 12 March 2021. I urge you to join our campaign for proportional representation. We’re calling on everyone to speak to their MP about the urgent need to change the voting system.

My optimism for reform when I first joined the party was perhaps a little premature. This time, however, it is different. This time my hope for change is backed up by a growing and active movement for reform. Once more we have a Conservative majority government resolutely opposed to reform but the campaign for change is gathering steam. The expanding alliance for fair votes has a real opportunity to achieve electoral reform. The work to achieve that starts now.

* Alistair Carmichael is the MP for Orkney and Shetland and Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesperson.

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  • Little Jackie Paper 11th Mar '21 - 1:03pm

    Mr Carmichael

    I would move to your constituency so I could vote for you.

    You sir are a prince amongst men.

  • Brad Barrows 11th Mar '21 - 1:16pm

    I’m afraid I do not share the author’s optimism. The reality is that the two major political parties in the House of Commons both oppose electoral reform and the largest pro-PR party in the House of Commons – the SNP – will prioritise a second independence referendum over electoral reform for the UK if they ever hold the balance of power. The Liberal Democrats held the balance of power in 2010 and were unable to use it to secure change then – with just a rump of MPs now, they are even less likely to achieve progress on this issue any time soon.

  • So rearranging the deck chairs again… I thought the experience of the last 5 years would have woken some up to the need for real reform of Westminster – remember one of the Brexit soundbites was “taking back control”, it is very clear that Parliament might be ‘Sovereign’ but it is most certainly not in control of the Executive/Monarch, who are still able to run rings round it.

  • James Fowler 11th Mar '21 - 2:20pm

    ‘All major opposition parties apart from Labour support PR’. Translation: ‘Everyone, apart from a large majority, supports PR’. We’re further away from PR than we have been for decades. The slightly ludicrous nationwide referendum on a valuable but minor technical change which should have been whipped through the Commons was rejected 2:1. These issue is not buried forever, but it is a question of timing. There was a year or two after 1997 when this change could have been successfully carried and there’ll probably be another such chance in the next 50 years or so. In the meantime we just have to play by the rules – however stupid and unfair they may appear.

  • Denis Mollison 11th Mar '21 - 2:25pm

    @Brad – Labour are currently more open to PR than they were, if only because it’s sinking in just how far they are from any chance of a majority under FPTP.
    I think it’s currently 186 Constituency Labour Parties that have now come out in favour of PR. The action day tomorrow that Alistair is promoting is a cross-party initiative of Make Votes Matter, but in asking voters to lobby their MPs its main target numerically is going to be the many Labour MPs who are open to persuasion.

  • John Marriott 11th Mar '21 - 2:54pm

    If ever the Tories voted for PR that would probably be the end of civilisation as we know it! Now, as for Labour. Well, while the party still thinks it can win outright a General Election under FPTP, you’ll be whistling in the wind. However, please, please, please, don’t get bogged down on arguing which system of PR is the best. I can already see many people’s eyes glazing over.

    In order to soften people up, you have got to wean them off the idea that General Elections must always be guaranteed to give any one party an absolute majority. In fact, under PR it would be even more difficult. It’s produced only one in the history of the German Federal Republic and one in the Scottish Parliament a few years ago – possibly to be repeated this year.

    I well remember some of the comments in 2010, like “we never voted for this”. To which my stock reply was usually; “No; but no party got a majority so get used to it!” In order to counter accusations of fudge and compromise, perhaps parties in their election manifestos should prepare two lists of policies, firstly the red line ones they would implement if they got a working majority and secondly a list of policies that were negotiable in the event of their trying to put together a coalition of several parties.

  • @Denis
    The problem with the ‘persuading Labour’ argument is that the more likely they are to win a majority under the current system, the less likely they will be to support changing the system, but unless the can win power they can’t change the system. That is why I think the only chance for reform is a hung parliament election outcome where a major party agrees to whip through a change to win power. This happened in 2010 and the chance was wasted.

  • Little Jackie Paper 11th Mar '21 - 4:30pm

    The purpose of an electoral system is to convert votes cast into seats. That is it – no more no less. It is not there to manipulate any outcome. It is not there to protect small parties or to prop up bigger ones. It is not there to bring about ‘moderate’ or indeed any other form of coalition. If the upshot of a STV vote is a CON-UKIP-DUP coalition then the only response is, ‘so be it.’

    There is nothing to prevent coalitions under FPTP. Many hung councils have been hung for years under FPTP. Equally there have been PR elections around the world that have led to single party government.

    PR is not there to improve the quality of MPs. There is nothing at all that says that PR-elected MPs will somehow be more virtuous or hard-working. If the voters under PR or FPTP wish to reelect the same person for decades then that is not any comment on the electoral system. [Admittedly I’m a very big fan of term limits, but no one seems to talk about that.]

    There is nothing about STV that prevents tactical voting, and if voters wish to vote tactically they are free to do that under any system.

    We need STV not because we don’t like the outcomes of FPTP. We need STV to make every vote count. What FPTP has done is leave large parts in the country with no skin in the game. All they have left is a protest pot-shot. That is why we need STV.

    Whilst too many do have a rather rose-tinted view of PR we should have it, but we should be wide-eyed about what it will and will not do relative to FPTP.

  • Andrew Tampion 11th Mar '21 - 4:49pm

    One way forward would be to propose PR for reformed House of Lords. Then if this was a success PR for the House of Commons easier to advocate.

  • @Denis, you are right about so many Parliamentary Labour groups, and it seems to be more are announced each week. There’s a fantastic grass roots campaign within Labour to persuade the leadership to take it seriously. Of course those who won their seats thanks to the existing system are more likely to be resistant, but it’s up to all of us to make it harder for them to ignore that their stance on this does not match their party’s ideology.

    Social media makes it much easier to regularly communicate the unfairness of FPTP, and keep it on the agenda. There’s a great twitter account that does an analysis of each parliamentary vote to work out how the result would change if party votes were in proportion to elector votes.

    It’s fair to say that the SNP’s interest in proportional representation at Westminster is mainly to complain about how archaic Westminster is, but if there were a vote in Westminster, they’d have to vote with their stated policy.

    While I agree John that many people’s eyes glaze over if we launch into a detailed description of voting options, it’s always handy to be able to point to the benefits of STV when someone inevitably claims it would mean losing the constituency link and the ability to vote for a particular candidate. It’s definitely true that some people are artificially wedded to the idea that a party having an overall majority is desirable – even if they only got a minority of the vote. We need to remind people that 100% of the power based on less than 50% of the vote is not democratic, and that having successive government undo the work of the previous gets in the way of genuine progress.

  • @Jackie, a proportional system may not automatically get us better MP, but I would expect a system like STV to do so. When there are no safe seats, then we can reasonably expect MPs to work harder. When they can’t rely on the colour of their rosette to get enough votes, they will have to work harder. More to the point (for me) is that a system like STV encourages positive campaigning which leads to better cooperation once in position. Unlike FPTP which rewards negative campaigning, which inevitably gets in the way of cross-party cooperation or admitting that you share at least some values.

    I’m also not sure HOW you can vote tactically under STV. You just vote for your favourite, followed by your 2nd favourite, followed by your 3rd favourite and so on. So long as you keep on voting, there’s no risk of your vote splitting the voter etc.

    I suppose you might be influenced by the idea of not wanting a party to get an overall majority, so after voting for the candidates you do like best, you might give a higher preference to a candidate from a party who definitely won’t win a majority just to avoid a vote going to a candidate from a party who could use that win to get a majority. But that’s not about the voting system or STV itself, that’s still about who you’d prefer as your MP.

  • I’m afraid that I am pretty pessimistic about the prospects for PR any time soon. Such a change would require a referendum and I’m afraid the great British public just don’t get it. They complain that hundreds of thousands of votes for Greens/UKIP do not translate into seats at Westminster and then when their chance comes they blow it. First job is to try to get people interested in politics.

  • Jenny Barnes 11th Mar '21 - 5:50pm

    “I well remember some of the comments in 2010, like “we never voted for this”. ”

    I voted LD in 2010, delivered many leaflets… It certainly wasn’t what I wanted.

  • Denis Mollison 11th Mar '21 - 6:07pm

    @Brad – Agree – I thought it’s so obvious the only chance is a hung parliament. And on the missed opportunity of 2010, I agree in spades: our negotiating team/strategy were a disaster.

  • Denis Mollison 11th Mar '21 - 6:11pm

    @Chris Cory – it shouldn’t require a referendum. We got STV for local elections in Scotland through a coalition negotiation in a hung parliament, leading to direct legislation not a referendum.

  • Denis Mollison 11th Mar '21 - 6:14pm

    @Andrew Tampion – going via PR for the House of Lords is a dangerous strategy; Australia has had PR for its Senate for over 50 years and there’s no sign of the more important lower house following suit.

  • John Marriott 11th Mar '21 - 6:17pm

    @Jenny Barnes
    I delivered leaflets in 2010 and in every General Election since 1983 until 2015. No, I didn’t get what I wanted in 2010 either; but then at least it was an improvement on what I got before or since.

  • John Marriott 11th Mar '21 - 6:21pm

    @Andrew Tampion
    In a Federal U.K. any Federal Second Chamber should be like the German Bundesrat, whose members would be nominated by the U.K. nations and English regions and not directly elected.

  • Andrew Tampion 11th Mar '21 - 9:13pm

    John Marriott 6.21pm today. Why? Even in the USA Senate members are directly elected by the electors of the State they represent.
    Denis Mollison 6.14pm today. So that’s 50 more years PR at national level than the UK then.

  • John Marriott 11th Mar '21 - 9:37pm

    @Andrew Tampion
    Yes, and two senators per state regardless of population. Call that democratic? The Germans appear to be happy to have the members of their second chamber ‘nominated’ and not directly elected. After all, it’s a revising chamber we are talking about. Do we really want even more elections when a large number of people can’t be bothered to vote now?

  • I personally feel more optimistic about getting another chance at electoral reform than many commenters here for these reasons:

    – Labour can’t win a majority in 2024 (very unlikely anyway) so a hung parliament is a distinct possibility

    – The Lib Dem’s aren’t going to want to prop up the Tories in 2024

    – Labour aren’t going to want to work with the SNP (who with a bit of luck might be weakened)

    – The next election will be framed as a “get the Tories out” election and there will be high levels of tactical voting and a policy overlap between Lab and LD (often the case when there is a Conservative government)

    So the conditions will be there for negotiations about PR. Think AMS is the likely choice. Have the referendum the same day as the rejoin referendum. Now I’m dreaming.

  • Andrew Tampion 12th Mar '21 - 6:52am

    John Marriott. There is nothing in my post of 9.13pm yesterday that advocates having the same number of members per region of the UK. My objection to nominated members of aq second chamber is that it puts too much power in the hands of party bosses, also it leaves Parties that failed to get MP’s elected to the charity of those Parties that did. In any case are you suggesting that a putative Lib Dem majority elected by FPTP probably by a minority of voters should simply impose it’s preferred voting system without any form of popular endorsement?
    How do you know that Germans are happy with their second chamber? I could just as well point out that there is no great outcry for a reformed House of Lords. Does that mean that British people are content with the current arrangements?
    On low electoral turn out I believe that one thing that the relatively high voter turnout for the Brexit referendum suggests is that voters will turn out if they believe that their vote will make a difference.

  • Alex Macfie 12th Mar '21 - 8:59am

    Brad Barrows “The Liberal Democrats held the balance of power in 2010 and were unable to use it to secure change then” I think you can blame the Lib Dem leadership of the time for that. We should have neither settled for a AV referendum, nor assumed that the Tories would not aggressively campaign against reform. A shrewder leadership team would have won us real electoral reform and got one over the senior coalition partner, whichever that was.

  • John Marriott 12th Mar '21 - 9:00am

    @Andrew Tampion
    My point being…..that you hold up the US Senate as an exemplar and I point out what I consider to be its defects. As for the Bundesrat, it has been around in more or less its present form since at least the founding of the Second Reich in 1871.

    In my time in Germany as a student, on holiday and as a teacher I never heard anyone complain about the Bundesrat. It’s there to scrutinise legislation from the Bundestag. Its 58 members are delegated by the state and city parliaments and generally represent the political balance in these institutions. In my U.K. federal system, there would be no point in foisting another election on people, most of whom can’t even be bothered to vote for most of what is on offer now.

    Talking of elections, did you see the Starmer pitch for this year’s local elections? What has NHS workers’ pay got to do with local government? Mind you, both Tories and Labour clearly won’t be fighting these elections on local issues, which gives a window of opportunity for the Lib Dems surely. If you don’t agree that change is needed, I was fortunate enough to have a letter published on the decline of local government in today’s Guardian. It even beat Lord Greaves’ latest effort into third place!

  • Paul Barker 12th Mar '21 - 9:03am

    The chances of a Labour Conference voting for Electoral Reform/Proportional Representation have certainly improved, as a regular skimmer of Labour List (their equivalent of LDV) their debate on PR seems to have got a lot more serious lately.

    That would be a big step forward but Conference dont decide Labour Policy on their own, a lot would depend on what Starmer wants & that is unclear.
    Assuming the date of The General Election isnt brought forward then 2024 could see Labour “Committed” to Proportional Representation & a very different atmosphere to the Election Campaign, there is Hope.

  • And BTW we didn’t have the balance of power in 2010. Labour + Lib Dem + Green + Celtic nationalists didn’t make a working majority in Parliament.

  • Would Labour be more willing to embrace PR if the form was decided by deliberative democracy i.e. a Citizens’ Assembly? PR on its own would be a major step forward. However, a more fundamental reform of our democracy is needed and making PR part of that might be more attractive to Labour.

  • Brad Barrows 12th Mar '21 - 1:04pm

    @ Alex Macfie
    Labour (258) + Lib Dem (57) + SNP (6) + Plaid Cymru (3) + SDLP (3) + Green (1) = 328.
    That would have been enough to form a progressive, anti-Tory alliance with a former coalition between Labour and Lib Dem, with other parties on a Confidence and Supply arrangement. Since Sinn Fein would not take its 5 seats, the maximum the Conservatives plus others could muster (even including the Speaker) was 317. The Liberal Democrats had a choice and decided to do a very poor deal with the Conservatives rather than join a progressive alliance. I recall feeling sick as I watched Clegg and Cameron talking to the media to announce their deal. The payback in 2015 was entirely predictable.

  • Alex Macfie 12th Mar '21 - 1:46pm

    Brad Barrows: That does not look like a stable coalition, and besides Labour didn’t want to play ball. It was almost as if Labour wanted to be in Opposition following the 2010 election.
    So I don’t think the Lib Dems had any choice other than to go into coalition with the Tories given the Parliamentary arithmetic. However, I absolutely do not accept that the 2015 election disaster was at all an inevitable result of Coalition. The mistake was not going into coalition, but how our leadership conducted the Coalition, as a love-in when it should have been conducted as a business arragement. That Clegg ~ Cameron press conference in the Downing Street Rose Garden was a serious error, because it gave entirely the wrong impression about how coalitions are supposed to work. We’d have saved ourselves a lot of the misfortune of the Coalition had our leadership been more shrewd in negotiation and kept more of a distance from our senior Coalition partner. The unmitigated disaster that was 2015 was entirely due to Clegg’s political naivety, and it wouldn’t have been any better if he had taken us into coalition with Labour.

  • John Marriott 12th Mar '21 - 2:17pm

    @Brad Barrows
    They say that every dog has his day, and so do governments. The defeated Labour governments of 1979 and 2010, like the defeated Tory governments of 1964 and 1997 had just run their course. If you read David Laws’ book on the events of 2010 you will see that Labour wasn’t really interested in doing a deal with anyone except itself. It was quite happy to go away and lick its wounds. It left a bit of a mess, as Liam Byrne acknowledged in the note he left behind in the Treasury and, when the boot was on the other foot, back in 1964, when a departing Reginald Maudling from No 11 admitted to an arriving Jim Callaghan that things were “ in a bit of a mess, old cock”, or words to that effect.

    A ‘Rainbow Coalition” never got off the ground in 2010. What did was a genuine attempt (at least from some of the active participants) to make a peace time coalition work. I am always intrigued and slightly saddened that senior figures in the Lib Dems, such as Charles Kennedy and Tim Farron appeared to distance themselves from it right from the start. Most experts gave it months rather than years; but it lasted the full term of its Fixed Term Parliament Act. Kennedy may have had his demons and Farron his religious beliefs; but I can’t help thinking of the mythical disgruntled schoolboy, when he didn’t like the way the game was going, simply taking his bat and ball home. Some politicians are good at that.

  • Barry Lofty 12th Mar '21 - 2:33pm

    John Marriott @ Yet again I have to agree with you on your latest post,12/03/21 2.17pm, and congratulations on your Guardian letter, I am afraid I have to make do with a few pithy lines in the “I” newspaper, no disrespect to them.

  • Alex Macfie 12th Mar '21 - 2:52pm

    Either Charles Kennedy or Tim Farron wopuld have made a much better job of the negotiation and conduct of the Coalition than Clegg did. And there still needed to be someone out there putting forward undiluted Lib Dem policy. Ckegg’s error was to make it look as if everything the Coalition did was undiluted Lib Dem policy.

  • @ Alex Macfie, Brad Barrows

    Labour (258) + Lib Dem (57) equalled 315 which was enough to outvote the Tories who had about 307.

    At the time I didn’t think that was enough but in hindsight maybe it was. Certainly in 2015 when the exit poll flashed up as 316 for the Tories everyone assumed that would be enough for Cameron to govern for a full-term.

    Furthermore even Boris Johnson’s minority government of 2019 with its majority of minus 100 or whatever it was still got some things through.

    If you factor in non-voting speakers, deputy speakers and Sinn Fein don’t take their seats it reduces the majority needed I would say that 315 would have been a working majority in 2010.

  • Also – it’s easy to blame Clegg but there is no evidence that Kennedy or Farron would have done any better. Mistakes were made but ultimately it was the simple act of going into government with the Conservative party after having outflanked Labour from the liberal-left for over a decade that sealed the Lib Dem’s fate.

  • John Marriott 12th Mar '21 - 8:29pm

    @Alex Macfie
    Both Kennedy and Farron, certainly the Kennedy of 2010, would have been beaten alive. I prefer to remember the Kennedy I met in the early 1990s at a regional conference in Leicester, desperate for a fag during a break but still with time to listen, would have been a different proposition. Farron can talk the talk; but can or even could he ever walk the walk?

    I totally refuse to condemn the Coalition Government out of hand and I always will. If I never vote again – and, to be honest, I haven’t cast a positive vote for a while- at least I can now say that once in my voting life I kind of got the government I wanted. It wasn’t the whole loaf; but it was brown enough to make me wear my sandals again with a bit of pride!

    Running anything, especially a country requires those in charge making occasionally tough and unpopular decisions. What many LDV critics continue to want is perfection. In politics there’s really no such thing.

  • Andrew Tampion 13th Mar '21 - 6:55am

    John Marriott
    You have strong views on electoral reform and the House of Lords and are entitled to state your case. However while you point out the possible defects of the USA Senate you do not seem to be willing to address the possible defects of the replacement House of Lords you are proposing. I have raised my concerned that the system you propose gives too much power to party bosses in established parties for two specific reasons. Do you accept that my concerns are legitimate and if so how do you address them?
    On the Clegg/Farron?Kennedy dispute. Do you agree that they couldn’t have done worse than Clegg?

  • Alex Macfie 13th Mar '21 - 9:23am

    John Marriott, Marco: I disagree. Clegg and his leadership team made some elementary errors that must have been obvious to those in the party who had been involved in coalition negotiations in other levels of government. They refused to heed the advice of party leaders in local and regional authorities, or even leaders of sister parties in other countries on how to conduct coalition. We were dealt a difficult hand (partly due to squandering the initial Cleggmania bounce, but that’s a discussion for another time) but that’s no excuse for the poor negotiation and execution.
    As I have made clear many times, I don’t condemn the Coalition. It was indeed the best government the country has had in a long time. However, we as a party completely failed to take the credit for the good bits, and got all the criticism for what went wrong. In 2015 we didn’t even get the votes of people who did like the Coalition — they mainly voted Tory because they couldn’t see the difference between us and the Tories, and therefore saw no particular reason to vote for us. This should no surprise, as the Rose Garden press conference had given the impression that it was a merger, not a coalition.
    I think the underlying problem was that Nick Clegg,, being a professional politician, didn’t have much idea about campaigning politics. This should not be a surprise, as Clegg was parachuted into a seat that had been made safe by his Lib Dem predecessor. (The same is true of his leadership rival Chris Huhne.) Charles and Tim both won their seats from the Tories by ground campaigning. Someone who knew about the campaigning side of politics would have understood better the need to present us as a separate entity in coalition and to take due credit for our achievements.

  • John Marriott 13th Mar '21 - 4:15pm

    @Andrew Tampion
    I think that Alex Macfie has partially answered your question. Kennedy and Farron came through the school of hardship knocks. Clegg emerged from a gilded youth into a safe seat via Brussels and has now gone on to mega bucks in Silicon Valley. In same ways it was the shared experience he had with Cameron (rich fathers, public school, Oxbridge, clever wife, safe seat) that smoothed the journey towards an agreement. It wasn’t their fault where they came from and, let’s be honest, both were viewed at the time by their parties and, more importantly, by malleable sections of the public as ‘a breath of fresh air’ as was Blair (rich father, public school, Oxbridge, clever wife, safe seat) a decade or so earlier. On the minus side, so to speak, all have had to deal with personal trauma. For Cameron it was his elder son’s life and early death, for Clegg also his elder son’s illness and for Blair it was his father’s early stroke and his mother’s early death.

    I’m sorry about that typo in my post to Alex, but Kennedy and Farron would have been ‘EATEN alive’ by those Tory grandees. I went up to Cambridge as a provincial grammar school boy back in 1962 and I saw at first hand how many public school products behaved as if they owned the place. If either Kennedy or Farron had been in charge on the Lib Dem side there would have been at best the kind of ‘agreement’ produced by the Lib Lab pact of the mid 1970s. More likely, they would have walked away rather than compromise sincerely held beliefs and Cameron would have done what Wilson did in February 1974, namely taken charge of a minority government and gone back to the country shortly afterwards, where there was a good chance that he might have scraped a majority.

    As far as my version of federalism is concerned the sine qua non has got to be PR at every level. Parties need ‘bosses’, hopefully elected by the membership, otherwise chaos would rule.

  • Joseph Bourke 13th Mar '21 - 8:31pm

    The establishment of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Electoral Reform is welcome news as is Alistair writing “The Liberal Democrats remain as committed as ever to electoral reform and others are joining the cause to add real momentum”.
    Harold Wilson said “The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing”. If ever there was a moral crusade to get behind it is Proportional Representation.
    The success or failure of party leaders often seems to be determined by a single crucial moral judgement. For Charles Kennedy that judgement came with the Iraq war. For Nick Clegg is was tuition fees – the broken promise more than the policy. For Tim Farron, it was the Brexit referendum – again not opposition to the outcome, but the perception of a refusal to accept the outcome of a referendum. Paddy Ashdown understood the problem when he said “Those who asked for this, and I was the first leader ever to ask for a referendum in 1989/90, have said so because they believe in the act of democracy. I will forgive no one who does not accept the sovereign voice of the British people one it has spoken whether it’s by one percent or 20 percent.”
    Paddy Ashdown was a notable proponent of co-operation between the Liberal Democrats and New Labour, and had regular meetings with Tony Blair to discuss the possibility of a coalition government. This was despite virtually all Labour’s opinion poll showings from late 1992 onwards suggesting that they would gain a majority at the next election. The Labour party is not in that position today. They trail the Conservatives by 13 points and it looks as if it might be a long uphill battle to close that gap.
    The Libdems position in British politics should be that of kingmaker. We are unlikely to garner anytime soon the mass vote shares/seats that the two hegemonic parties can, but we can keep eveyone honest and maintain Liberal democracy at the core of British politics. To do that we have to be prepared to enter a coalition or supply and confidence agreement with whichever party(ies) the electorate selects and as Paddy Ashdown said “accept the sovereign voice of the British people one it has spoken”, at least fora parliamentary term.
    With a conservative government putting out budgets that could just as easily have been a labour budget, the distinctions between Labour positions and the Tories become that much more blurred in the public eye. The Labour party needs PR and it needs LibDems, it just doesn’t know it yet.

  • Andrew Tampion 14th Mar '21 - 6:58am

    John Marriott. Lets try approaching this from a different direction. Since you feel so strongly about each US State having two Senators, how do you feel about each EU member state having only one Commissioner? Surely by your logic France, Germany, Italy, Poland. Spain and perhaps others should have many more based on their population?

  • Alex Macfie 14th Mar '21 - 8:25am

    @Joseph Bourke: Where were you in 2017? Tim Farron’s undoing was the “Is it a sin?” nonsense. Our support in the polls was rising in the 2017 campaign until that became the most talked-about thing for us. And if we hadn’t taken the stance that we did on Brexit in 2017 and 2019 then we’d most likely have been left with no seats at all, as there’d have been no specific reason to vote for us. Labour and the Tories had already got the “accepting the referendum result” vote stitched up, We were therefore the only nationwide party speaking for the post-referendum ‘opposition’, and people who thought we should “get behind the will of the people” were never going to vote for us anyway.

  • Alex Macfie 14th Mar '21 - 9:20am

    @John Marriott: The Liberals had 14 seats in February 1974. Labour + Liberals only had a majority on the Speaker’s casting vote. Also Jeremy Thorpe was from privileged background; if that is so inherently beneficia in coalitions negotiation he would surely have been more successful in securing a coalition agreement.
    The Liberals had 13 seats at the time of the Lib-Lab pact. This compares with 57 held by the Lib Dems after the 2010 GE. The Lib Dems therefore had much more leverage in coalition negotiations in 2010 than the Liberals had at any time in the 1970s. It is also why the Lib Dems were absoltely right to rule out any post-election pacts (coalition or C&S) following the 2017 election. Had we propped up a Tory government that had lost its majority following an unnecessary election, we’d have been wiped out in the subsequent election.

    I disagree with your analysis on what would have happened in Coalition negotiations had say, Charles Kennedy been in charge (although the question is moot, as I think we would have done rather better in the election if he’d still been leader and might have had a genuine choice of coalition partners). The relationship between Clegg and Cameron was too cosy, and that was the problem. He was too starry-eyed to conduct an effective negotiation. If you watched the BBC Alba documentary on Charles Kennedy, you will know he was good at debates and he had no illusions about the privileged folk who thought they owned his university debating society (did you spot a young Michael Gove at a black-tie event?). The fact that Charles was NOT part of that privileged set and had no desire to be meant that he would have been a more robust negotiator in a coalition, and the result would have been a government characterised more by a businesslike partnership between clearly separate parties, rather than the love-in and camaraderie that characterised the Clegg-Cameron relationship, where Clegg didn’t get that Cameron was the sort of fake best friend who was actually shafting him.

  • Alex Macfie 14th Mar '21 - 9:20am

    I recall no particular clamour for a new party leader from the Lib Dem grassroots, much less from the general public, in 2006~7. At the time I was rather irritated at what seemed to be unnecessary and premature leadership elections. The coup against Charles Kennedy was largely instigated by a small clique in the inner party. And apart from that flash in the pan known as Cleggmania, Clegg wasn’t a good electoral performer. Opinion polls and local election results indicate that we were coasting between his accession to the leadership and the 2010 GE. Cleggmania probably saved us from a serious pasting, not on the scale of 2015 but a significant loss of support and seats. It was a one-off good performance in a leadership debate, one that he squandered in the rest of the campaign.

  • John Marriott 14th Mar '21 - 9:24am

    @Andrew Tampion
    The number of senators each state has should reflect the size of its population. Obviously, there would have to be an upper limit on the number of senators more populous states like California had compared with Wyoming, for example. As for the EU the same should apply.

    However as we are part of neither state or collection of states, we have no say in the matter!

  • Laurence Cox 14th Mar '21 - 10:38am

    @John Marriott

    There is no good reason why the US Senate should reflect the population of each State. The US House of Representatives already does that (although imperfectly because of the limit on the size of the House and the requirement that each State must have at least one Representative). The different election rule for Senators goes right back to the original 13 States where the smaller States were concerned that their voice would not be heard in a population-based electoral system, and so different systems for the House and Senate were chosen, together with the requirement that they agreed on legislation. Considering that this was back in the 18th Century, it was pretty advanced for its time.

    If the UK had adopted a similar system at that time, the result of the EU referendum would have been a 2-2 draw (Scotland and Northern Ireland voted for Remain; England and Wales for Leave) and there would have been no majority to change the UK’s constitution. You may wish to ponder on whether such a result would have led to more or less dispute than what has followed Brexit. Federalism is not a silver bullet, particularly when the States (or Countries) are so different in population; even the EU has a voting system for its Parliament that gives more representatives to smaller countries than their population requires.

  • Joseph Bourke 14th Mar '21 - 11:42am

    Alex Macfie,

    In 2017, I was at the rally in London when the press kept coming back to two questions – “Is it a sin?” ad why are LibDems opposing democracy, when Tim Farron was trying to talk about ourBrexit policy. I was also campaigning for a referendum on the deal, but recognised the weakness inherent in not respecting a referendum result.
    However, as I mentioned above the policy of opposing Brexit was there long before the referendum and there was no problem with continuing that afterwards. The problem with the post-referendum policy was not continuing to call for a close relationship with the EU. IT was calling into question the outcome of the referendum thar was seen by too many as anti-democratic (Too close to Trump’s false claims last year of a stolen election). It left the next leader, Vince Cable, with the problem of resiling from his earlier comments that the referendum should be respected and led Jo Swinson to announce that Brexit would be overturned without a referendum in the event that LibDems gained a majority. We are where we are and have to live with the decisions made. But recognising the long lasting perceptions that value judgements engender in the public consciousness, is something any prospective leader should carefully consider.

  • Alex Macfie 14th Mar '21 - 1:00pm

    Joseph Bourke: Any comparison between opposition to Brexit and Trump’s “stolen election” claims is wrong and deeply offensive. Nobody, as far as I know questioned the numerical outcome of the referendum. The conduct of the Leave campaign was questioned, with some suggesting that it should have invalidated the referendum result. One court actually agreed with them, but could not invalidate the result becasue the referendum was only advisory. The irony is that the advisory nature of the referendum was what protected it from scrutiny and enabled the result to be treated as sacrosanct in a way that (binding) election results are not (no-one ever suggests that the act of opposing the elected government is “anti-democratic”).
    But most importantly, no anti-Brexit campaigner ever advocated armed insurrection to force the goverment to reverse its policy of implementing the Brexit referendum result. If anyone was advocating such a thing, it was Brexit supporters — remember the claims in 2019 that there would be “rioting on the streets” if Brexit was “thwarted”? There was even speculation that the (minority) government might try to invoke the Civil Contingencies Act to force its Brexit plans through. Comparing the actions of anti-Brexit campaigners in 2016–2019 to the Trump-supporting insurrectionists is offensive because it legitimises the Capitol Hill riots. Recent attempts by some Tory politicians to make this comparison have mainly been met by ridicule and scorn.

    Betwen the “Is it a sin?” and “Is our Brexit policy anti-democratic?” lines of attack, I think I know which cost us most support. Tim’s allegedly illiberal views on homosexuality did turn many LGBT+ and allied people off us — a group of voters that’s more likely than most to support us. The voters who thought opposing Brexit was “anti-democratic” were mainly the ones that weren’t going to vote for us anyway.

  • Andrew Tampion 15th Mar '21 - 3:10pm

    Alex Macfie.
    You seem very casual about giving up on voters who may be inclined to vote Liberal Democrat but happen to disagree with Lib Dem policy on Brexit. I don’t think it very liberal or indeed wise to be so reckless with potential supporters. Also it could become habit forming with more and more groups of voters being thrown overboard because they disagree on some policy or other. You might end up with only you left.
    Also why do you have an obsession with the advisory nature of the referendum about? After Parliament votered on whether to act on the referendum and invoke Article 50 what does it matter?

  • @ Alex Macfie et al

    Charles Kennedy actually voted against coalition with the Conservatives

    Because he knew that it was likely to lead to disaster however it was handled and was not just a question of presentation.

    So you are right that he would have handled the situation better but only because he would not have gone into that coalition in the first place.

  • Alex Macfie 16th Mar '21 - 8:43am

    Andrew Tampion: I was stating reality, not passing judgement. Post-referendum, with voters polarised into pro and anti-Brexit camps, supporters of Brexit became unlikely to support us even if they had done so in the past. And I don’t think we would have been credible if we had explicitly tried to court Brexit voters by embracing Brexit, either among those voters or among opponents of Brexit. The U-turn would have wiped us off the political map faster than you can say “tuition fees”.
    The premature triggering of Article 50 in an Act of Parliament was evidence of the sanctity with which the Brexit referendum result (probably the most fetishised vote anywhere in the democratic world) had come to be held by the UK political establishment. So of course it matters that the referendum was advisory. With a binding referendum, which would have included the appropriate safeguards such as those suggested upthread, and in which a Leave vote would have led to a Brexit process automatically triggered by Statutory Instrument, the process could have been paused while any investigations into the validity of the result were performed, and halted if the result was invalidated. I only wish the Lib Dems had voted against the flawed referendum in the first place, as our support for it reduces our moral authority to criticise the process. But apart from that, our hands are largely clean of the Brexit process.

  • John Littler 2nd Apr '21 - 10:40am

    The Labour Party have twice failed to implement manifesto promises for electoral reform. In ’97 over AV+ with a agreement with Ashdown and in 2010, when AV (minus) was pledged. Labour then went on to fail to support or campaign for AV; despite it being their own policy; in the referendum of 2011. They also had a policy of an elected Upper House, then Milliband & Co. voted against that too.

    When people ask me why I am generally toward the left but don’t support Labour, it is not difficult to find reasons. The £30bn high tech iD database, the Iraq war, complete disinterest on Green issues while in power and a lack of genuine interest on reform are a few.

    But what has changed now is self interest. Labour is no longer getting a boost from FPTP. Their MP share is equal to their vote share, while their main rival added less than 1% to the vote in 2019 but went from a minority government propped up by a DUP they treated as badly as the LibDems in coalition, to an overall majority of 80 seats. The Tories will now make their unfair inbuilt advantage even greater by another gerrymandering of boundaries.

    A Progressive Alliance would be difficult to assemble effectively, but is the only game in town and has to be attempted before the UK possibly breaks up or we really will be stuck with right governments in England until after another major war. The public support PR voting & Lords Reform and It could garner more than the sum of the parts.

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