Discussing electoral reform in York

Five years after the Liberal Democrats comprehensively messed up on electoral reform, the ludicrously disproportional 2015 general election result has put it back on the agenda.

There will be two related fringes at York, organised by Pro-PR (1-2 p.m. Saturday, Hilton) on the idea of an electoral pact for 2020, and by the Electoral Reform Society (6.15-7.15 p.m. Saturday, Novotel) on the idea of a Constitutional Convention.

Electoral reform is about more than fairness (avoiding disproportionality, safe seats and the need for tactical voting). As Ed Straw sets out in his recent Treaty for Government, our present voting system of FPTP distorts the fabric of politics, leading to wasteful `zigzag government’. Getting politicians to allow change in how they are elected is always a difficult matter, as the long struggles for voting rights illustrate. FPTP is defended by the two parties that benefit from it; perhaps the greatest current hope lies in Labour’s recognising how difficult it is going to be for them to win a majority in the foreseeable future.

Opportunities for reform in Scotland came with Labour’s rush to devolution in 1997, and the Liberal Democrats’ successful coalition negotiation with Labour in 2003.

The two proportional representation systems introduced to Scotland are very different. STV (the Single Transferable Vote), now used for council elections, has been Liberal policy for over 100 years: a voter-centred system that minimises wasted votes and the need for tactical voting. Most recently, a specific proposal that I devised, for STV for Westminster with constituencies based on local authority areas, got as far as a vote in Parliament in February 2010.

AMS (the Additional Member System), used for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, is a mash-up of FPTP with Party List PR, and combines many of the faults of both. But at least in Scotland the list element is large enough to almost entirely iron out the disproportionality of FPTP. [Rather less so in Wales, which has only one-third of list seats in its Assembly.]

Both systems share the advantage that the great majority of voters have at least one representative that they have voted for. Perhaps because of this, proportional representation is now an accepted part of the political scene in Scotland; it is almost as hard to envisage the change being reversed as to imagine going back to the time when only male property owners had the vote.

But is there an opportunity now, and if so how is it best pursued? Examples from 1990s Scotland and 2000s British Columbia suggest that it is key that reform is led by citizens with buy-in by political parties rather than vice versa. This is a major theme of the Electoral Reform Society‘s discussion.

Pro-PR is calling for an electoral pact of the opposition parties, campaigning together on the single policy of ‘Bring in proportional representation and then immediately call a re-election’. An important question here is whether the particular system of PR put forward is negotiated between parties, or determined by a citizen-led constitutional convention as preferred by the ERS.

An interesting alternative strategy currently being considered by Unlock Democracy is to take forward an electoral pact through a sequence of by-elections, to be fought on the single issue of electoral reform. There are successful precedents for such a strategy, including by John Wilkes for freedom of speech in the 18th century, John Bradlaugh for freedom from religion in the 19th, and Tony Benn for his right to give up his peerage in the 20th.

Please come and join in Saturday’s discussions to help us find the best way forward.

* Denis Mollison is Chair of Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform, and has been a member of the party since joining the SDP in 1981. Here, he writes in a personal capacity.

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  • How fantastic that this is taking part in the North of England where general elections are usually far more about which constituency can count the votes the quickest than debates about issues that matter. How fantastic that it takes places equally between Edinburgh and London – one where their most recent vote counted everyone (85% turnout) and another where their most recent vote for many didn’t have any chance of impacting the final result (66% turnout).

  • Electoral Reform will achieve greatly-improved gender balance in the parliamentary representation of a third, fourth or fifth-placed Party in a way that none of the processes advanced for this purpose at York will do.

  • Michael Cole 13th Mar '16 - 2:07pm

    Most people don’t know how STV works and are fooled by the arguments of the incumbents – that it’s too complicated, it destroys the link between the MP/counsellor and constituents, leads to weak government, etc.

    That’s why it’s important to explain and demonstrate STV to the public at large. Thus far, I have found, unfortunately, little or no enthusiasm in the Party to campaign for this.

    Is there anyone out there who shares my concern ?

  • Laurence Cox 15th Mar '16 - 11:48am

    I looked at your proposed constituencies for London and saw that you had paired Harrow with Hillingdon and Barnet with Brent. Living in Harrow, I would have argued against this on the grounds that Harrow is more closely connected to Brent because the main transport links are radial rather than tangential. Using this basis, one would have seen constituencies like: Brent & Harrow, Ealing & Hillingdon, Hounslow & Richmond, Barnet & Camden. Did you talk to anyone in London before you produced these proposals?

    While to non-Londoners, London may seem like an amorphous mass that can be divided up with little forethought, there are good reasons for associating particular pairs or triples of boroughs to create new constituencies for STV.

  • @ DJ “How fantastic that this is taking part in the North of England where general elections are usually far more about which constituency can count the votes the quickest than debates about issues that matter”.

    Am I alone in finding that incredibly patronising ? No wonder there is increasing hostility to London and the South East the further north one travels.

  • Michael, I do share your concern. Sadly, when we had the chance to do it, our negotiating team came back and presented us with a fait acconmpli – the referendum on the totally useless AV – rather than anything that was remotely useful.

    Tony, Indeed. But why not waste even more of our very stretched resources on yet more internal bureaucracy to support a vanity project for a few ideologues who can’t accept that local Lib Dems should be trusted to do their best in their judgement. They aren’t perfect, but they are Lib Dems and I trust them more than any centralised (or even regionalised bureaucracy.

  • Denis Mollison 15th Mar '16 - 10:56pm

    Laurence –
    Thanks for looking at my STV for Westminster scheme.
    I apologise that the London Council area allocations to seats were somewhat arbitrary. Please understand that this scheme was done initially simply as proof of concept in two weeks during the summer of 2009; the concept being that with STV constituencies could be based entirely on local government areas, yet with variability in the elector/MP ratio no greater than at present (though more than the Tories’ proposed +/- 5% straitjacket).

    My scheme was then rather suddenly taken up by David Howarth MP for the party to propose in Parliament as an amendment to Gordon Brown’s feeble “Electoral Reform” Bill, for which a precise implementable scheme was required.
    I was aware that while some constituencies seemed obviously right – e.g. Cornwall, Edinburgh – others were pretty arbitrary and if the scheme is to be adopted in earnest it ought to go through a phase of proper local consultation. Even with that, it would I believe produce a far more satisfactory result in far less time than our FPTP Boundary Commissions.

  • Michael Cole 16th Mar '16 - 2:11pm

    @David Evans

    I fully agree that we were fobbed off with the AV referendum. How could our leadership have been so naïve to settle for that ?

    That’s why it’s so important now to demonstrate STV and all its many advantages.

    Yes, it benefits us (and also political Parties with whom we disagree – that’s democracy) but that is no reason to be shy of campaigning for it.

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