Co-operation for a better electoral system- and a better country. Part 1

Events of the last 12 months (think unlawful prorogation of Parliament, Covid-19 mismanagement, stalled Brexit talks, exams fiasco, threats to abolish the Electoral Commission and breaking International Law) demonstrate beyond all reasonable doubt that the Johnson-Cummings administration is surely the most inept, incompetent and fundamentally dishonest in living memory. But should we be surprised? I would say no, as this government is only in place as a result of the First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system which is itself fundamentally dishonest.

  • How can it be right that one party gains 43.6% of the vote, but wins 56% of the seats in Parliament -and 100% of the power?
  • How can it be right that it takes 830,000 votes to elect just one Green MP? But 1.24 million votes (just 400,000 more than the Greens) give the SNP 48 MPs? Is an SNP vote really worth 32 times a Green vote?
  • How can it be right that just a few thousand votes in a small number of marginal constituencies are often the only ones that really matter?
  • Why have we LibDems only got 11 MPs when we should have 70 in a truly democratic, proportional system?

These democratic discrepancies are completely intolerable. We must act to make this a rallying point around which we work with all other progressive parties. Make Votes Matter is the key grassroots cross-party movement in the effort to get Proportional Representation (PR) for Westminster. They have already drawn together an alliance of organisations, trade unions, individuals, MPs and political parties. Almost all parties that is, except of course the Tories, for whom the system works wonders, and Labour who are a work in progress -see below.

Many commentators have lately been making the point that progressives need to work together on this as well as many other issues. So it has been heartening over the last few weeks to hear both Ed and Layla articulating their wish to work together with Labour for the common good. The key question is of course – ‘Are Labour ready to work with us?’ There are some promising signs.  At the very least, the electoral arithmetic, especially with the rise of the SNP, means that Labour need to think carefully about where their best option lies.

Typical of the new cooperative sentiment is Jonathan Lis writing in last month’s Prospect Magazine:

But the moral of 2019 is that the progressive parties must work with and not against each other. The second, fundamental truth is that Labour must back proportional representation or face the possibility of near-permanent opposition.

And as Joe Sousek, from Make Votes Matter and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, points out:

In 19 out of the last 20 general elections, most people have voted for parties to the left of the Conservatives. Yet the Tories have been in power for 63 per cent of this time. … It’s time for Labour to recognise that First Past the Post has done nothing to create an equal society.

So the idea of true representative democracy is rapidly gaining ground within Labour, underscored by a December 2019 YouGov poll of Labour members which showed 76% in favour of PR.

Compass, headed by Neal Lawson, is another group strongly in favour of PR and campaigning for a new collaborative approach to politics. He urges the LibDems and the Greens to demand that Labour adopts PR in order secure cross party cooperation on ideas such as the Green New Deal, Basic Income and a Constitutional Convention. Compass have already started work on this ‘Common Platform’ approach which we should warmly welcome as a way to prevent continued Tory minority misrule.

Perhaps most encouraging of all, Labour now has a sensible leader in Keir Starmer who has said he is willing to look at this question, and he may well be influenced by shadow cabinet member Jonathan Reynolds, a longstanding and powerful PR advocate.

Part 2 of this article deals with the practical advantages of PR and steps we can all take to promote it.

* Tim Trimble rejoined the party in 2016. He is an active LibDem campaigner, and 2021 Wiltshire County Council and Town Council candidate for Bradford on Avon. In 2019 he was Election Agent for Helen Belcher in Chippenham. He is also an active member of Make Votes Matter in Bath and Chippenham.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • What just happened? Is it any accident that government admits breaking international law? Seriously, this is something we need to worry about! Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Liam Fox, Ian Smith and others all stand to benefit massively if the UK leaves without a deal. Believe me when I say, breaking international law is the most dangerous thing Vote Leave has done since the BREXIT saga began. It is the coming together of Vote Leave’s master plan. Why do we need to worry? Because they want to roll back workers’ rights, women’s rights, the welfare state. They want to strip away all the rights and protections that have been hard won over the years. They want to do this in a race to the bottom so that large American corporations and billionaires can exploit us and allow extreme capitalism to rule our country. Chlorinated chicken and hormone injected beef are only the tip of the iceberg. We are talking more surveillance, more control, more people being silenced for speaking out. What has happened in parliament could finally be what causes the house of cards to collapse. This is something that has been planned from a long time ago. About 30 years ago during the Thatcher years and it’s all coming to fruition now.
    Maybe you are thinking. Congress have just told us there is no chance of a trade deal now. If only that were true. But already US behemoths have a massive footprint in the UK. It is only a matter of time. I don’t know what? But I know something needs to be done and it needs to be done quickly, or we will all feel the pain.

  • Paul Barker 11th Sep '20 - 4:01pm

    I dont think we should be counting our chickens Re Labour. Yes, 75% of Labour Members back the principle of Fair Votes, thats not new & Labour is not a democratic Party. By & large the members dont matter. MPs & Unions matter & theres no sign of a shift in opinion there.
    2024 could well be like 1997 in which case Labour wont need Scotland; they wont be rushing to give up the prospect of absolute Power

  • John Marriott 11th Sep '20 - 5:35pm

    As I have written before, Labour will only officially support a change in the voting system when it realises that it cannot again win under FPTP.

    More worrying for me is what our government is doing with what is left of our wonderful democracy. The local government White Paper, due to be published next week, appears to seek to set up in England what would appear to be not dissimilar to what Hitler did to the Third Reich, namely to divide the country into areas, run, to add a facade of democracy, by elected ‘Gauleiter’. I suspect the hand of Tsar Boris’s modern day (and unelected) Rasputin, aka Dominic Cummings, behind much of this business. We know what he thinks of politicians and civil servants. It’s weirdos that he prefers. Iconoclasts would be a better description.

    With the prospect of our breaking international law by the likely passing of the so called Internal Market Bill, together with the attempt to prorogue Parliament last Summer, the inability on the part of the opposition parties to get their collective act together before Christmas, not forgetting what could conceivably happen over the pond in November and you really do have to wonder, in some of our ‘democracies’, whether the lunatics really are taking over the asylum. Cheer up, folks, the PM has promised us a ‘normal Christmas’ – or is he taking his lead from Trump and keeping something back from us? Oh, and there’s also a little matter of a certain virus.

    So, stressing about the voting system is the least of our worries, with the greatest respect.

  • Peter Watson 11th Sep '20 - 5:42pm

    “Why have we LibDems only got 11 MPs when we should have 70 in a truly democratic, proportional system?”
    Perhaps Nick Clegg should be given more credit for his contribution to PR in the Coalition years, reducing support for the party to a level that matched its representation in the House of Commons! 😉

  • Peter Martin 11th Sep '20 - 5:55pm

    How is that Ed Davey is 100% the leader of the Lib Dems when he only received 63.5% of the vote and 36.6 % of the potential vote?

  • Tim Trimble 11th Sep '20 - 6:02pm

    Paul Barker-
    A couple of Labour contacts have commented that I should have been more optimistic about Labour coming round to PR , telling me there is a distinct change of mood. And the chances of Labour securing a landslide in 2024 seem vanishingly remote from where we are now. The Mail, Express, Sun and Telegraph will see to that.

  • Yeovil Yokel 11th Sep '20 - 7:36pm

    Am I missing something clever here, Peter Martin? Ed Davey is 100% the Leader of the LD’s because we only have one Leader – what do you suggest, that Ed is Leader for 63.5% of the time and Layla Moran Leader for the rest? PR is irrelevant when there are only 2 candidates for 1 post.

  • Paul Holmes 11th Sep '20 - 8:03pm

    @Peter Watson. I have no time for Nick Clegg or the Coalition but your point doesn’t remotely stack up.

    The appalling 7.9% of the vote under Nick Clegg in 2015 would, under a PR system, equal around 51 MP’s not the 8 that FPTP delivered. The 11.6% in 2019 would be around 75MP’s instead of the 11 that FPTP resulted in.

    Which is precisely why our single most important Red Line for entering a Coalition should be getting PR. Under a fair voting system our number of MP’s in 2015 would have barely dropped as compared to the 57 we won (with 23% of the vote) in 2010. Which is why it was such a disaster (the first of many on his watch) that Nick Clegg abandoned this Red Line before the 2010 election even took place.

  • Peter Watson 11th Sep '20 - 9:27pm

    @Paul Holmes “The appalling 7.9% of the vote under Nick Clegg in 2015 would, under a PR system, equal around 51 MP’s not the 8 that FPTP delivered.”
    As part of the gap between 2010’s 23% and 2015’s 8%, I was thinking more about how support dropped to a much more representative 10% or so throughout most of the Coalition. Obviously first-past-the-post gave the party a hammering in 2015, restoring the normal state of unfairness. Given that the writing was on the wall for so much of that time, it was like watching an extremely slow bus crash wondering why nobody was using the brakes or the steering wheel, or changing the driver.
    I agree that the approach to electoral reform was one of the disasters on Clegg’s watch.
    However, I think that rather than talking so much about PR now (a surprising amount of discussion about it all of a sudden on this site given that it’s been something the party has wanted for decades), Lib Dems should be prioritising getting the votes to make the party relevant again. Then, voters will share the outrage that Lib Dems are unfairly under-represented in the House of Commons.

  • George Thomas 11th Sep '20 - 11:20pm

    “How can it be right that it takes 830,000 votes to elect just one Green MP? But 1.24 million votes (just 400,000 more than the Greens) give the SNP 48 MPs? Is an SNP vote really worth 32 times a Green vote?”

    We’re in a position where Tories are going to push, or at least become very vocal about it, for M4 relief road into Wales despite Wales saying that it doesn’t work in the medium to longer term and wanting to spend budget elsewhere, despite participants in first citizens assembly highlighting environmental concerns of focusing on building roads because it will make life better for those coming into Wales. That’s what happens if you start to think courting votes in the devolved nations is a needless exercise and yet, it appears, that’s what you’re promoting here despite it being a fast-track to an independence vote.

  • Peter Martin 12th Sep '20 - 7:36am

    @ Yeovil Yokel,

    I don’t think you are missing anything. Just like the Lib Dems only have one leader so do we only have one PM.

    We have two parties which are capable of being the major party in the HoC. Lib Dems are some way off that. We have to choose one of them just as you had to choose Ed or Layla.

    You might want to ask Tim Trimble if he thinks Boris Johnson should be PM for 56% of the time.

    PS I say this as someone who voted Labour in 2019

  • Alex Macfie 12th Sep '20 - 8:26am

    Peter Martin: We have a Parliamentary system not a Presidential system in this country. So we don’t vote for a Prime Minister, we vote for a Parliament. There is no constitutional rule dictating that the Prime Minister has to be the leader of the largest party in government. The coupon election of 1918 led to a Prime Minister from the minority faction of the winning coalition. For 5 months in 1940 the Prime Minister was an MP from the largest party but not its leader. A rotating Prime Minister isn’t such an outlandish idea either. It’s just recently been agreed for the ruling coalition in Ireland. Mícheál Martin (from Fianna Fáil) is Taoiseach until 2022, when he will be replaced by his predecessor Leo Varadkar (Fine Gael).

  • Rif Winfield 12th Sep '20 - 8:34am

    Can we establish what we mean by PR? There are several options which are discussed under this heading, but we must be clear that we are talking about a system which allows individual electors to choose between individual candidates, not one which placed power into the hands of the party machines, with closed lists of candidates put forward by party bosses. This system is called Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies, and to allow for proportionality within those constituencies, each must return enough elected members to allow for the votes cast within that constituency to be split proportionally among candidates for that constituency.
    Rif Winfield
    Founding Secretary, Liberal Action Group for Electoral Reford (LAGER)

  • Peter Hirst 12th Sep '20 - 9:48am

    Time for once is on our side. As this Conservative administration sinks into unpopularity, mistrust and oblivion we can work with others to decide how best to replace it. A common manifesto pledge to abandon FPTP and allow a Citizens’ Assembly to decide on our preferred form of elections for Westminster would allow a wide coalition to make the next General Election the last on our present voting system. Trust is paramount and we need a strategy that prevents Labour from taking advantage of whatever we decide.

  • John Marriott 12th Sep '20 - 9:51am

    @Rif Winfield
    Whether STV, AV Plus, De Hondt, or anything else, it would be nice if we could persuade the public at accept that change SHOULD come in our voting system. Personally I like the system they have in Germany, which partially retains the link between an MP and their constituents, with a 5% hurdle for a party to overcome to get any representation at all.

    It’s not rocket science to go 1,2,3,4,5, or even just 1 on your ballot paper. After all, as John Cleese told us in his 1987 PPB for the SDP “If you can’t count up to five it might be a bit bewildering”.

    Finally, when it comes to beer, Real Ale wins over LAGER for me every time!

  • Rif Winfield: I love the name LAGER, although I imagine the real ale enthusiasts in both your party and mine won’t be so keen. The Lib Dems used to have DAGGER (Democrat Action Group for Gaining Electoral Reform), but I think it now has a more boring name.

  • Peter Martin;
    I really struggle to see what point you are trying to make.
    Nobody is seriously suggesting we somehow divide the the Prime Minister or his time.
    And I acknowledge that realistically, there are currently only 2 parties with a chance of being the majority party in HOC. However, the LIbDems did exert a restraining and highly beneficial influence on the Tories during the coalition; just look at the horror show we have had to endure since they got a majority of MPs! My main point in this part of the article is to say that the conditions are now right for PR to rise up the agenda and we need to work with other like minded parties to make this happen. Because that will be good for everyone in the country.
    John Marriott;
    You are right, we need to first persuade people that PR is a better way of electing AND results in better government. That is the approach MVM take, and they have designed a ‘Good Systems Agreement’ which stipulates all the requirements; For the record that is how New Zealand dealt with the change to PR;- first a decision swap away from FPTP to PR, then a decision on the type of PR, in their case Mixed Member Proportional, very similar to Germany. There isn’t any move in NZ to go back to FPTP!
    Peter Hirst;
    You are also right, time is on our side but we need to start work now to gain cooperation with all progressive parties.

  • David Garlick 12th Sep '20 - 1:42pm

    Labour and the Conservatives will never give up on the first past the post electoral system. Neither will contemplate working with us as they fear any help they give might lead to them suffering at the ballot box.
    So just who do we cooperate with?
    The Green party are an option…

  • Sue Sutherland 12th Sep '20 - 2:46pm

    Electoral Reform will only become popular with the general public when they can see for themselves the disadvantages of first past the post. If this government brings the country to its knees then we may be in with a chance.

  • Peter Hirst 12th Sep '20 - 4:51pm

    If the minority parties agreed to oppose FPTP in their manifestos it might shift Labour and would certainly start to build a head of steam.

  • Peter Martin 13th Sep '20 - 3:32am

    @ Tim Trimble,

    I’m not sure why it should be a struggle. The OP asked the question:

    “How can it be right that one party gains 43.6% of the vote, but wins 56% of the seats in Parliament -and 100% of the power?”

    Whatever system we devise we have to declare someone and some party a winner, and give them the job of PM and govt. It gives them a great deal of power but they aren’t dictators. So it’s an exaggeration to say 100%.

    Various PR schemes do recognise this and arbitrarily award extra seats to the biggest party to ensure they have the means to govern. Many countries have Presidential elections with considerable power given to a single individual. No system is ideal but FWIW I would choose AV as the least worst.

    Australia has a successful voting system based on AV and a similar constituency system to ours. There is a more proportional system for the Upper House which is where the Lib Dems might want to concentrate their efforts too. The winner often picks up much less than 43.6% of the vote on first preferences.

  • Peter Martin 13th Sep '20 - 4:34am

    @ Tim Trimble,

    You’ve been spruiking the NZ system. Jacinda Ardem became PM in 2017 with her Labour Party picking up 37% of the vote. They are in coalition with the Greens who have 6% of the vote. Add the two together and we have 43% ! Not a lot different from BJ and the Tories.

    The Right wing parties of the Nationals and NZ First together have 51.5%. Isn’t PR supposed to mean that they should be the Govt? But I don’t fully understand the system they have chosen for themselves, so maybe someone else can explain all this better that I can.

    Incidentally there is one Socially Liberal Party in NZ known as the United Future Party but they lost their only seat at the last election. So you can’t rely on PR to boost Lib Dem fortunes. You still need to increase your vote share.

    IF the people of the UK would prefer to end up with a similar system to NZ’s, or anyone else’s, then that of course should be a matter for everyone to decide. There are enough systems to choose from around the world. Why not choose the one you like best and argue for that?

  • Tim Trimble 14th Sep '20 - 9:34am

    Peter M;
    I’m not sure which PR countries arbitrarily award extra seats to the largest party, Spain maybe? But that would subvert the whole rationale of having PR in the first place, surely?
    AV is definitely not proportional, and Australia has seen a serious increase in dissastisfaction with democracy in the last 25 yrs, though not as great as UK and US (see Part 2 of the discussion).
    In NZ, the New Zealand First party opted to go into coalition with Labour in 2017, so, along with the Greens, the coalition had a majority. Parties don’t have work with other parties along strictly left/right lines. And that might be considered a strength of coalition govt, as a wider range of views come into play.

  • Daniel Walker 14th Sep '20 - 11:43am

    @Tim Trimble “I’m not sure which PR countries arbitrarily award extra seats to the largest party”

    There’s been a couple. (see Wikipedia) In the EU, Greece did, but as I understand it the 2019 election is intended to be the last to be held under that system, and similarly the Italian version was struck down in 2013.

  • Denis Mollison 14th Sep '20 - 2:36pm

    @Peter Martin
    Your suggestion that the current NZ government are in power on the basis of 43% of the vote – like Boris Johnson – is not correct. Their majority, with coalition partners NZ First and supported (“confidence and supply”) by the Greens, has 52.5% of the seats from 50.4% of the votes (*), against opposition parties (National and ACT) with 47.5% of seats from 44.9% of votes.
    If you omit the 4.7% of votes spread among minor parties that got no seats, the result is even more proportional, with seats 52.5-47.5 from votes 52.9-47.1.
    I don’t support MMP because (among other faults) it’s party rather than individual based, but the New Zealand version is highly proportional.

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