Electoral reform has momentum: 2024 is our best opportunity

The campaign for fair, equal votes is bread and butter politics for most Lib Dems. The idea that governments can win power on a minority of votes while other parties go significantly under-represented weakens the claim that the UK is a representative democracy. This is seen time and time again, with 2019 a particularly brutal example where the Conservatives gained a majority on just 43% of the vote while our own party gained over a million votes but fell back in the Commons.

First Past the Post leads to unrepresentative parliaments and unrepresentative governments – frequently resulting in policies that most voters are unhappy with, but which appeal to marginal seat voters. We know what the solution is: Proportional Representation, with STV as our preferred model.

PR treats voters equally, shown by countless fair elections around the world, but for decades our cause has been dismissed and ignored. The system is stacked against us of course. The current model deters those in power from implementing real change, but reform is possible. Just look at New Zealand where the country is going to the polls in October safe in the knowledge that the party political distribution of seats will by and large reflect votes won across the country.

The UK could very well be on the cusp of a New Zealand moment of its own where First Past the Post is rejected in favour of a system of Proportional Representation. For the first time in a long time, there’s a real sense that change could very well come to Westminster.

There was some sense of that in 2010 but the odds were even more stacked against us back then. Being in power with a party so opposed to reform limited our options from the outset. Many of the challenges then still persist but there are some major differences.

Electoral reform movements are active like never before. Trade unions are lining up in support of Proportional Representation. Labour supported reform at its conference last year and most recently recognised that our voting system is flawed in its draft party programme. The Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform (LDER) are working hard to ensure that more voters are clear on how the broken voting systems lead to flawed policies that the majority doesn’t want ahead of the General Election. Our party is working hard to make the next election the last one held under First Past the Post. These significant developments should not be overlooked.

Crucially, there is a credible pathway to electoral reform via progressive governance with liberal influence emerging as the Conservatives continue to fall out of favour with the electorate.

This isn’t all to say that we should be complacent. Nothing is guaranteed in politics and life, not to mention we’ve been here before. Blair promised reform in 1997 and look how that turned out. More recently, across the pond, Canadian reformers felt the sting of Trudeau’s betrayal on fair votes.

Nonetheless, the route to PR next year isn’t a pipedream. The best post-election scenario is one where Liberal Democrats do well and have a real influence (the shape of which is up for debate and circumstance). It’s also one where Labour wins more seats than the Conservatives, with something in their manifesto calling for transformational democratic change, and needs our support. Liberal Democrat MPs can leverage for real change on a whole range of issues including Proportional Representation.

On top of that we must have a focus on electoral change during the campaign. It won’t be the central issue for obvious reasons but calling for democratic improvements, with fair votes as a key part of that, should be a key election pledge that appeals to voters let down by the Conservative merry-go-round of prime ministers.

Our democracy is crying out for reform. It’s a travesty that we’re set to enter the second quarter of this century as one of just two European countries using First Past the Post. That said, there’s a real sense of hope that change is coming. Our party can and must drive that change.

Note

If you’re coming to our autumn conference, the Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform have a stall (stand 31), as well as a fringe event (Sunday evening 18:15 – 19:15, Bournemouth International Centre, Meyrick Suite) with Unlock Democracy and Make Votes Matter: “Clean up our Politics. Restore our Democracy.” Come along and say hello!

* Richard Wood is a member of the Liberal Democrats. He sat on the Electoral Reform Society Council (2022 - 2023) and has been on the Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform executive committee since 2021.

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9 Comments

  • We can all wish.

    But the reality is that Labour is on course for a large overall majority.

    PR will not be in their manifesto; ergo there will be no PR.

    In the highly unlikely event that Labour can’t govern without us, they are likely to go for a minority government and reject our calls for PR. We might, of course, then defeat them on a motion of no-confidence and have another election. But this brings PR no closer. And we would be blamed for putting our pet interest above various other crucial reforms that our support from the backbenches could have put through.

  • David Symonds 14th Sep '23 - 2:32pm

    First Past the Post seems likely to deliver Labour a massive majority and the only way that STV can be achieved is if Labour are in the unlikely position of not getting a majority. In 2010 Lib Dems should have insisted on PR instead of the awful Alternative Vote which in some ways is as bad as FPTP. Labour will never agree to PR unless they are forced into into it as they benefit from the current system, though not as much as Tories. I worked for a local authority where Labour took all seats with only 65% of the vote and the other 35% (Lib Dems, Tories and Greens) didn’t figure at all. They won’t give that up lightly.

  • Martin Gray 14th Sep '23 - 2:33pm

    Well said Chris – it’s a pet subject that the average voter doesn’t give a fig about .. We’d need a substantive increase in MPs to influence voter reform …Holding a government to ransom with a dozen MPs isn’t a great look …

  • Paul Barker 14th Sep '23 - 4:50pm

    We know the result of the Election – unless Argentina invades the Falklands again its a Labour landslide. Labour have moved a long way on Reform but the Power lies with The Leader, even more when he is PM.
    This should not be a major campaign for us – it looks like self-interest or nerdishness to most potential voters.

  • Alex Macfie 14th Sep '23 - 7:49pm

    Actually I think the Tories are past the point where a War would save them from an electoral disaster. The Boer War didn’t help the Tories in 1906.

  • Keith Sharp 15th Sep '23 - 7:25am

    We know millions are fed up with our broken politics, feel alienated and distrustful and want things to work differently. Votes are unequal and the system is blatantly unfair. People sense that.

    We’re the one major party fighting for the democratic right of the voter and proposing a solution. So, while we also know that political reform is not in the top three doorstep issues, we should not hide it away either (we did that after the 2011 referendum and a fat lot of good it did us). Make it a support story – eg put it on p2 of the Focus leaflet, not the p1 headline, and link it to rebuilding trust for people and not a nerdy or party-benefitting pitch.

    Leader Ed Davey has rightly placed fair, equal votes squarely in the body of his recent speeches.

    LDs for Electoral Reform have worked with ALDC to produce some campaigning materials – aldc.org/2023/03/electoral-reform-campaign-pack-lder-aldc/

    We need to get our appeal to the electorate right. Listen and respond to concerns and issues like cost of living, crumbling NHS will be top of the list. But we must also be ready with the right solutions that we know are key to moving our society and democracy to a better place.

    (Keith Sharp is Chair, LDs for Electoral Reform).

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