Don’t call it proportional representation

Most Liberal Democrats care passionately about electoral reform.  Most voters don’t begin to understand what it’s all about.  So how do we catch their attention, let alone their support?

Let me make some suggestions about how to gain public attention.  First, don’t talk about ‘proportional representation’ or ‘electoral reform’.  Say ‘fair votes’, and ‘a more democratic system’.  If we mention the choice between STV (the Single Transferable Vote) and the Additional Member System (AMS) eyes will glaze over.  Tell them that Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic use more democratic systems.  The choice for fairer voting lies between the Irish and the Scottish systems; both are already in use and easy to understand.  Putting it this way makes it harder for Conservatives to argue, as ministers did when removing the Supplementary Vote system for electing mayors in the Elections Act in 2022 that even that half-baked form of the Alternative Vote (proportional when there is only one person to be elected) was ’too complicated for voters to understand’.  If Scots, Irish and Welsh voters can manage this, it’s absurd to argue that English voters can’t.

Second, link it to the broader issues of Westminster’s toxic culture and popular disillusion with the style of our national politics.  Both Sunak and Starmer attacked the close world of the UK’s over-centralised Westminster politics in their conference speeches this year – though neither suggested they were going to do anything much to change it. Ask your Tory and Labour counterparts if they are happy about the way Westminster has worked in recent Parliaments (Sunak said it’s been awful for 30 years) and how they propose to improve the way government and Parliament operate.  Changing the way politicians are recruited and elected is central to opening Westminster up.

Third, recognise that changing the way our political leaders are recruited is only a part of the reforms that are needed to open up UK democracy and regain public trust.  Tighter controls on party finance, loosening the government’s control of parliamentary business, reinvigorating local democratic authorities, reconstituting the second chamber, would all contribute to transforming British government and politics for the better.  The strongest case for electoral reform is as part of a broader programme of constitutional reform, not as a project on its own – as it was presented in the Alternative Vote Referendum in 2012.  Not all of those changes can be introduced within a short timescale, of course, nor without carrying a disengaged public with them.  If we want electoral reform to last longer than the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act has done (enacted in 2011, repealed in 2022), we need to build a groundswell of public support.

Fourth, point out to those who care about holding the UK together that our electoral system contributes to driving it apart.  First Past the Post in 2015 brought 56 SNP MPs to Westminster out of 59 Scottish seats, on 50% of the vote – the three ‘Unionist’ parties won 47% of the vote but only one Scottish seat each, making it easy for the SNP to argue the Tory government was ‘English’. FPTP leaves Northern Irish representation at Westminster to the DUP, with Sinn Fein boycotting Parliament and the three ‘moderate’ parties, the SDLP, UUP and Alliance, winning nearly 44% of votes between them but only 3 MPs. FPTP promotes adversary politics, 

For those who would like more detail, a recent Institute for Government paper, Electoral Reform and the Constitution, sets out the potential choices and consequences (intended and unintended) of changing our voting system, with helpful references to experience of change in New Zealand and elsewhere.  It’s good that the issue is being seriously debated, though hardly surprising after the chaos of single-party government over the past eight years, with expulsions of MPs from both parties, controversies over candidate selections, UKIP infiltration of the Conservatives and the surge and subsequent marginalization of Momentum within Labour.  But the Conservatives are desperately opposed to a more open system that might break their party apart, and Starmer is determined to maintain Labour’s claim to be the only alternative to Tory government.

Opinion polls show that the British public continue to claim that they support democracy, but now deeply distrust ‘Westminster’ and the government.  We have to find a way of persuading voters that widening electoral choice is a key element in improving the way our politics works.  And we have to press Labour leaders before they become too comfortable with the executive power they wield as a single-party government.  Are they determined to preserve a political system in which the only alternative to Labour, when public opinion gets tired of them, could be a hard-right Conservative government?

* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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37 Comments

  • James Fowler 25th Oct '23 - 3:10pm

    Lots of the arguments here are well rehearsed, but they haven’t worked in the last half century, so why are they going to work now? One of the problems is that they all play to an audience that essentially accepts the premise already. We need to ‘Red Team’ this:
    a. Fair votes. What has fairness got to with it? Many voters want their chosen Party to be the government and then make the decisions they identify with. PR actively inhibits that.
    b. Other places use PR. So what?
    c. PR will end a toxic political culture. Why, and how? I suspect that voters are rightly disbelieving, understanding that different systems produce different elites but that the structural problems with a political culture run a lot deeper than voting systems.
    d. PR protects the Union. Firstly, not everyone wants to protect the Union. But setting that aside, FPTP has marginalized the nationalist parties far more effectively in the past 100 years than PR would have done.

    I am, broadly, in favour of more discerning system than FPTP single member constituencies – a relatively recent development. I think change will have to be smuggled in though, and presented as a return to, or continuity with, old certainties.

  • The 2022 Labour conference overwhelmingly backed PR Labour delegates back motion calling on party to back PR However, the manifesto is expected to be limited to:
    – Abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a second chamber that is smaller, offers the taxpayer better value for money and is reflective of the regions and nations with elected representatives rather than political appointees
    – Review the voting system for directly-elected mayors and police and crime Commissioners.
    The Labour leadership seems to believe that FPTP remains in their best interest despite the system having returned a Conservatives government in much of the post-war period. The Labour party is clearly not enamoured by the prospect of sharing power with other parties and prefers to wait its turn for an overall majority rather than cement a progressive government as the reflection of the popular UK vote.

  • Chris Moore 25th Oct '23 - 6:26pm

    James Fowler is absolutely right that changing the electoral system will not eliminate a toxic political culture. The causes of political corruption lie much deeper.

    William, I’m happy to host you here in Spain with an enviable PR system and levels of political corruption that makes the UK seem a shining paragon.

    I’m afraid claims about PR along those lines seem naive to anyone who’s actually aware of what’s going on in other political cultures.

  • Steve Trevethan 25th Oct '23 - 7:36pm

    Our taxation set up is obscure and skewed to benefit the (very) wealthy because our democracy lite political set up is similarly obscure and skewed.

    Might making these connected facts interestingly well known, increase awareness of the benefits of electoral reform?

  • Mary Fulton 25th Oct '23 - 7:57pm

    @Joe Bourke
    Though I support changing our system to STV, I can understand the Labour fear of PR. Under FPTP, the Labour Party may achieve political power by becoming the largest party at an election on around 42% of the vote. Under PR, Labour could become the largest party at an election on around 42% of the vote and find that two parties that lost the election – the Tories and the Liberal Democrats – could have 43% between them and then work together to keep Labour out of power.

  • Neil Hickman 25th Oct '23 - 8:08pm

    Not, I suggest, Fair Votes but Democratic Votes. You can say an awful lot of things about a system that gives absolute power (and, by convention, the right to spend five years bloviating about “our mandate from the British People”) to a party that gets 35% support (Labour in 2005) or 36% (Tories in 2015). That, twice since 1950, has awarded “victory” (and the “mandate” bloviating rights) to a party that didn’t get the most votes. That absolutely, mathematically, guarantees that the majority of the votes cast in every single constituency in every single election in which it is used will have no effect on the result. That gives the effective power of hire and fire to the party machines.
    One thing that you cannot sensibly say about such a system is “This is democratic”.
    Why is it relevant that other countries use democratic systems and we don’t? Simply that if every other European nation bar Belarus rejects X-voting, that might just suggest to anyone not consumed with British exceptionalism that X-voting actually isn’t a very good way to elect a government or anything else.

  • Andrew Tampion 26th Oct '23 - 7:12am

    “Third, recognise that changing the way our political leaders are recruited is only a part of the reforms that are needed to open up UK democracy and regain public trust.”
    What has this got to do with fair votes or electoral reform or proprtional representation?
    But I do think there is a need to reduce the number of aparachniks whose sole experience of life is working for a think tank. Parliament and local givernment worked better when most elected members had a background outside politics.

  • Peter Wrigley 26th Oct '23 - 7:30am

    Thanks to William for his very sound advice on tactics. We really must go further than reforming the electoral system, and look for a root and branch overhaul of our constitution. Since this is unlikely to excite the electorate, one way to bring it about would be to get the other progressive (?) parties to agree to set up Citizens’ Conventions on the constitution.

  • Rachel jordan 26th Oct '23 - 7:49am

    I think we should look along the lines of a completely new form of democracy based around our government departments with mps being split proportionately between them and civil servants serving those group of mps with expertise in the areas not chopping and changing every two minutes.

  • While it’s obvious that many voters simply don’t understand what any form of PR is they know what they don’t like. Being ignored by their MPs, not doing what they said they would do for them and passing laws that people don’t want.

    Wouldn’t it be better to ask if they like the idea of parties to work closer together in the public interest or that MPs have to listen to what their constituents want and not what their party wants? Or that laws being passed would need more than 50% of parliament to agree with? (Insert your favourite reason for PR here!)

    Explain the benefits of changing the voting system – and why voting for the Liberal Democrats would make it better – rather than just saying it should happen?

  • Nonconformistradical 26th Oct '23 - 8:10am

    “Wouldn’t it be better to ask if they like the idea of parties to work closer together in the public interest……”
    Yes.

    And then perhaps ask them what they think about the fact that the only other country in Europe which uses FPTP is Belarus…..?

  • Rif Winfield 26th Oct '23 - 8:57am

    The worst evil of our current system is that it limits choice for the electors to one Thursday every five years. Between elections no elector is given any choice as to who their representative is, and inevitably no single representative can represent the full range of views within their constituency. So claims by successful candidates that “I intend to represent everyone in my constituency” are simply lies. Irrespective of what political strand or party they belong to, a multi-member constituency means that each elector will continue to have a choice between the representative they can approach throughout the five years, not just on election day.

  • Peter Martin 26th Oct '23 - 10:18am

    “The worst evil of our current system is that it limits choice for the electors to one Thursday every five years.”

    Such is the level of cynicism amongst electors that many would think it even worse if it were once every four years!

  • Deliver PR simple – Get out. Knock on doors. Relate to people’s concerns. Get more and more Lib Dems elected. Take more councils. Win by-elections. Get more MPs. Build the party back up to where it was pre the coalition catastrophe and beyond. Win a general election. Deliver PR.

    Whatever you do, don’t waste your time forever debating how to deliver it now. it stops you doing something useful!

  • William Wallace 26th Oct '23 - 10:57am

    Andrew Tampion: single member constituencies don’t give voters any choice about which candidate they prefer within parties; multi-member seats with STV (the Irish system) do – which is why Labour and Tories prefer the Scots system. Candidate selection is increasingly influenced (even controlled) by central party HQs; shrinking of party membership means that where local parties choose, it’s a very small selectorate. So a more open voting system opens up political recruitment. (Lists systems of course don’t loosen party control, of course.)

  • Stephen Hesketh 26th Oct '23 - 12:39pm

    Greetings from the Green Party – nice to see several familiar and newer names on here.

    Several good points raised in the piece and in the comments.

    For those of you who are Lib Dem councillors, while I am here, could I take this opportunity to promote the joint Make Votes Matter/Get PR Done, ‘Councils For PR’ initiative? As part of this, local authorities are passing motions calling on government to introduce PR for UK general elections.

    Do please check out the Councils for PR website for our model motion and other information and also find us on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you and good luck.

    https://councilsforpr.org.uk/

  • George Binney 26th Oct '23 - 12:43pm

    Much incisive, good sense (as ever) from William Wallace. I think we are still failing to focus on what is required in byelections. I have huge respect for Emma and the team in Mid Beds. But the core message was the same (as for years past): “It’s a two-horse race – vote Lib Dem to get the Tory out.” Which wasn’t true. It was a three-horse race. And left people without a compelling reason to switch to Lib Dem.

    The main impression I got on the doorsteps in Mid Beds was yet again the chasm between politicians and public. The great majority of people didn’t vote and didn’t believe in any of the offers made by the parties. Labour won with the support of a tiny share (15%) of the electorate.

    People want this government out. But a change of ruling party is not enough. We need to change the system: end elective dictatorship, make votes matter, find more democratic and more intelligent ways to make the big decisions.

    Of course, it’s not easy. Bread and butter issue are front and centre at the moment. But what solutions were we offering on the cost of living? We have to demonstrate that democratic reform and a new politics are the key to tackling long-term challenges.

  • Graham Jeffs 26th Oct '23 - 1:41pm

    PR: too much pointless intellectualising – an excuse for not doing something practical?

  • I popped along to Epsom town centre a few years ago to see the Make Votes Matter “stall”. There was just one person (a Green party member) leafletting the passers-by. I (Lib Dem) decided to help. In due course a UKIP lady joined us.

    One passer-by asked of me “Who (sic) do you represent?”
    I replied “Everyone who does not approve of governments winning large majorities of seats based on 40% of the votes.”
    He took a leaflet.

  • Peter Martin 26th Oct '23 - 2:18pm

    “single member constituencies don’t give voters any choice about which candidate they prefer within parties”

    I’m not sure that a change to STV would make that much difference. The Labour Party would offer a “choice” of several Starmerites, the Tories a choice of several Rishi-ites etc. Even between the two groups the differences wouldn’t be that great.

    You could change the law to allow any member of a political party to stand as an unofficial candidate for their party providing this was made clear on the ballot paper. That would give a greater choice.

    You’d also have to legislate to make it illegal for any party member to be expelled for exercising their democratic right to stand for election. I’m not sure how it works in the Lib Dems but at present anyone can be expelled from the Labour Party on any kind of trumped up charge. Such as liking a tweet from a member of a rival political party for example.

  • 1. Unless we want something other than proportional representation we should call it proportional representation.
    2. Re being chucked out like fixed term. Look at what New Zealand did. Started with cut and paste of UK. Got rid of HoL in 50s. Asked the public sensible Qs: a) do you want a change? b) if so, which of these 4 options. AMS thrashed STV! c) fptp v ams. d) after next 2 GEs, stick with ams or revert to fptp?
    3. MPs should chose party leader.

  • Cj Williams 26th Oct '23 - 6:47pm

    PR gave us Adolph Hitler, could give Germany the AFD and will almost certainly give France this weeks iteration of the Front National. Progressive alliance anyone.

  • Alex Macfie 26th Oct '23 - 7:16pm

    Cj Williams: France doesn’t use PR except for European Parliamentary elections. It uses the two-round majoritarian system in single-member districts — one step away from FPTP. I don’t think you can blame PR for the rise of the moustached monorchid either. What enabled him to take control was the willingness of other parties to put him in power. German politics nowadays has a firewall whereby no other party is willing to touch the far right — they’ve learnt their lesson, unlike in some other countries.

  • Alex Macfie 26th Oct '23 - 7:41pm

    @Peter Martin: Your suggestions would kill off freedom of organisation for political parties. If political parties were banned from excluding anyone who doesn’t fit in with their ethos then there would be no way of stopping the kind of entryism that allowed Trump to take over the US Republicans. Parties would become merely political vehicles for charismatic demagogues and would lose their meaning as ideological groupings.

  • Cllr Sally Yalden 26th Oct '23 - 9:05pm

    Thank you Lord Wallace. As an activist, volunteer, parish and borough councillor, and electoral reform campaigner, I care deeply about PR. Firstly I would encourage fellow Liberal Democrat members to join LDER if you are not already a member. https://www.lder.org/
    I would also strongly encourage readers to join the national movement for PR: Make Votes Matter https://www.makevotesmatter.org.uk/ who campaign tirelessly alongside an army of passionate volunteers.

    When I became a parish councillor in 2019, what struck me was how well fellow councillors got along for the benefit of our community and how much we could achieve. Why? It was clear we were cross-Party or no party, but party politics never came into it. If only the district/borough council where I serve could be the same where the opposition rules with the minority of votes and the atmosphere is completely different. PR would change the situation on so many levels. PR for House of Commons and local government please.

  • Cj Williams 26th Oct '23 - 9:12pm

    Alex Macfie. Are you saying that France is not a PR system?
    “was the willingness of other parties to put him in power” Inter party negotiations the essence of PR.

  • Peter Davies 26th Oct '23 - 9:23pm

    My guess is that Labour would try to keep anyone slightly off message from standing and a Corbynite alternative would emerge (even more control freekish but smaller). They would get some seats. We’d do all our selections by STV which tends to produce diverse sets of candidates. That’s good because diverse candidates get more people elected under STV.

  • Peter Parsons 26th Oct '23 - 9:31pm

    @Cj Williams, it was PR that kept Hitler from power.

    In 1932, the Nazi party became the largest party, but its vote share of 37.3% left them 65 seats short of a majority:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/July_1932_German_federal_election

    Note that that’s actually a higher percentage of the vote than the Conservatives won in 2015 (36.9%) and Labour won in 2005 (35.2%), both of which were enough to secure a single party majority under FPTP.

    In fact, according to Goering when he was being tried for war crimes:

    “Had the democratic election system of England or the United States of America existed in Germany, then the National Socialist German Workers Party would, at the end of 1931 already, have legally possessed all seats in the Reichstag, without exception. For in every electoral district in Germany at that time, or at the beginning of 1932 at the latest, in every one — I emphasize this once more — the NSDAP was the strongest party; that is to say, given an electoral system as it is in Great Britain or in the United States”

    https://avalon.law.yale.edu/imt/03-13-46.asp#Goering1

    Goering’s view was that, had Germany used FPTP, the Nazis would have won all 608 seats in the Reichstag in 1932, not the 230 they actually received.

  • Alex Macfie 26th Oct '23 - 9:46pm

    Cj Williams: Exactly, France does not use PR except for the European Parliament.
    “Inter party negotiations the essence of PR” the point is the democratically-rooted parties did not have to work with the Nazi Party, they could have formed a cordon sanitaire to keep it out.

  • Nigel Baldwin 27th Oct '23 - 12:12am

    Instead of using the term ‘proportional representation’, why use the term ‘equal votes’?

  • Mick Taylor 27th Oct '23 - 7:19am

    To answer Peter Martin’s question directly. The only explicit reason for a person to be expelled from the Lib Dems is to stand against an official Liberal Democrat candidate in a public election. You don’t get chucked out because you hold views that diverge from official policy.

  • Nonconformistradical 27th Oct '23 - 7:53am

    @NIgel Baldwin
    How equal is ‘equal’?

  • Peter Martin 27th Oct '23 - 9:34am

    @ Alfie and Mick,

    It’s fair enough for a party member to be expelled if they unofficially contest a seat under FPTP. This clearly reduces the official candidate’s chance of winning. Why would it would matter, though, there were, say, a system of AV in place?

    It’s worse than is generally appreciated in Labour. The 2022 rulebook stipulates that:

    ” Neither the principles of natural justice nor the provisions of fairness in Chapter 2, Clause II.8 shall apply to the termination of Party membership..”

  • Peter Hirst 28th Oct '23 - 4:08pm

    It is a challenging communications issue. The pivotal thing is that the processes that brought us empire are no longer working. There is plenty of evidence of that. Fairness is a large part of the argument but on its own is a bit lame. Perhaps fairness, empowering the voter and choice might win the day.

  • I agree that we need to be careful how we communicate these things, tailoring our words to our situation. Leading with the phrase “Fair Votes” stops it from being an abstract concept, and harder for supposed democrats to dismiss as a side show, or losers knowing they can’t win fairly, so trying to change the rules. But there are definitely times when it is appropriate to name our preferred system, even if that requires a brief explanation of what that system is or description of the benefits.

    The bland ‘Proportional Representation’ allows people to assume, or pretend to assume, you are talking about pure list systems, and they’ll launch into everything that is wrong with them, so we need to be prepared to counter with ‘that is avoided with STV, which actually gives voters more choice …’.

    And we need to be careful of those who want to distract us and the public with lengthy and elaborate reform of the House of Lords instead.

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