LibLink: Wera Hobhouse – Without proportional representation, there’s no future for moderate politics in Brexit Britain

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Over on the Independent, Wera Hobhouse MP argues that the whole EU referendum and ensuing mess came about due to the faults of the First Past the Post voting system, and has now left us with a government elected by 44% of voters which can deliver any Brexit it wants, despite 52% of voters voting for parties committed to a People’s Vote or revoking Article 50:

But first-past-the-post had had another pernicious effect on British society. With its “safe seats” and wasted votes, (in 2016) it had made millions of voters justifiably feeling ignored for decades. In doing so, it sowed the seeds of Brexit.

Theresa May summed this up in a “letter to the nation” in 2018. “In the summer of 2016,” she wrote, “millions came out to have their say. In many cases, for the first time in decades, they trusted that their vote would count.”

This was an astonishing admission for the leader of any democratic country to make, but it was absolutely correct.

Millions of people live in seats that have not changed hands in decades – in some cases, in more than a century. In some of our country’s most deprived areas, voting in general elections seemed to make no difference. Then voters were offered an opportunity to give the Establishment a kicking (albeit an Establishment that somehow didn’t include the Eton-educated gentry and billionaire businessmen).

To be sure, bona-fide Eurosceptics voted Leave in 2016. But they didn’t win it alone. Without the votes of those driven by their sense of intense voicelessness, Leave would have lost.

You can read the full article here.

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* Web Magpie, collecting shiny things from the internet (and, yes, we know such a characteristic has no ornithological basis). Magpie photograph by Steve Bittinger, Flickr CCL CCL licence

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  • Richard Underhill 3rd Jan '20 - 10:24am

    Be careful what you wish for!
    What we want is the Single Transferable Vote, which empowers all the voters who can count higher than two.

  • This is an interesting point. It reminds me of a question that troubles me: what is the Prime Minister’s reason for thinking leaving the EU is a good idea? I am not aware he has ever provided a coherent explanation. Does anyone know if he has? It appears to me that he believes the UK is strong enough to survive outside (i.e. not necessarily a good idea, but not terminal either), and then proceeds to repeat empty slogans about sunlit uplands to woo voters. But what is his positive case? This is important as he has been a prominent public face of Brexit for several years, and is now in charge of delivering it.

  • “This was an astonishing admission for the leader of any democratic country to make, but it was absolutely correct.”

    And yet we based our campaign on continuing to ignore those voices, and still appear to be taking the view that those voters’ views shouldnt count, and that we need to change the system to make sure they continue not to be heard in the future. Bit of a disconnect there that we need to do more to understand and address.

  • David Evershed 3rd Jan '20 - 11:24am

    This Lord Ashcroft poll should give us plenty of reasons for concern, as this data suggests real serious issues for the Lib Dems across the UK:

    (1) 43% of our voters, did so to stop another party. (i.e. not won over by our policies)

    (2) 58% of our voters considered the NHS to be a real priority, but we limited ourselves just to talking about mental health funding.

    (3) 28% of our voters would have voted for a different party, if it wasn’t for Brexit.

  • In Scotland we already have the Additional Member System for elections to the Scottish Parliament, and the Single Transferable Vote system for local councils.

    Sorry to remind folk down south, but its much more democratic up here than in Tory dominated England. Who knows, one day we might even rejoin the EU having voted in favour of staying in the EU by 62% to 38% – with all 32 council areas backing Remain.

  • Dilettante Eye 3rd Jan '20 - 1:07pm

    David Raw

    To be honest I have no issue with Scotland having another referendum on independence because I agree that the 2014 referendum hadn’t factored in the possibility of leaving the EU.

    What does intrigue me is this notion that an independent Scotland could continue using the UK sterling (£). How do they think that is even possible?

    Who would bail out (independent), Scottish banks in the event of a run on the £?
    Who would compensate Scottish bank customers for the loss of deposits of £75,000 sterling on the failure of a Scottish bank or Building Society?
    Would Scottish banks diverge from Bank of England interest rates, or stay tracking the Bank of England?
    Can a country be truly independent if you have no control over your own sovereign currency?

    My guess is that an independent Scotland would be forced to use the Euro from day one of its independence, prior to applying to re-join the EU if that is what Scottish voters want. I think the SNP will have to be a lot clearer on what will be in Scottish wallets and purses, before they can assume Indref2 would go any different to the 2014 vote?

  • Dilettante Eye 3rd Jan '20 - 1:41pm

    I think the essential issue is, why do people still vote LD. For me it was always about electoral reform and making the most of the once in a generation chance to get it sorted. But Brown insulted old ladies, Cameron got away with a referendum on AV, and that was that. Liberal principle are good, but the there was the tuition fees debacle and the refusal to support a referendum on self determination in scotland. Then there was Brexit, and then revoke – eek!

    May I be so bold as to suggest the party read the preamble to the constitution and then formulate some decent proposals very quickly. I have no idea what the LDs can say to Scotland beyond ‘we happen to be the unionist party best placed to stop the Nats here and there), to Wales (Assembly group of one, no MPs again), the Midlands (?!?) or anywhere that doesn’t have a nice big university in the middle of it.

    As to currency, I don’t recall Latvia, South Sudan, the Irish Republic or East Timor worrying about which bank notes they can use. I do recall hearing that the BoE might not be exclusively the preserve of England, since its existence will be trammelled up by the Act of Union. The answer will be a transition period, a debate about Scotland paying a share of the rUK debt, and the Scots presenting rUK bill for historical reparations, and then when the BoE£is trashed, eother by this or by Brexit, either shared steerage in future or, more likely, the Scot£. The currency ‘issue’ is quite literally a paper tiger.

  • Is there a future for the LibDems. I have not renewed my membership. I would vote Labour if Keir Starmer becomes the leader. What can LibDems offer the nation that a moderate Labour party can’t?

  • The SNP are making two fundamental assumptions
    1. The EU will let them back in without meeting the entry criteria for new members; they may but they really should get a guarantee from the EU, but I can understand why they won’t ask for it a reply of ” No you need to meet the criteria” would be a major problem.
    2. The rest of the UK will bend over backwards for their old friends, they won’t and I would urge anyone who thinks they will to watch how the EU treat their old friend the UK. And no it isn’t different, in fact it will be less unpleasent than Scotland leaving the UK when the gloves will be off and the boots will be flying.

  • Until the Labour Party splits, it will continue to be a FPTP- (and Brexit-) supporting blocking party that ensures Conservative dominance, as it has done since it’s creation.

  • Of course we know she is right.

    Which is why Labour’s betrayal of the Jenkins Commission remains one of the biggest political mistakes of recent years.

    And also why our suggesting that a majority of seats won under an obviously flawed voting system could ever trump a majority vote in a nationwide referendum was a catastrophic mistake.

    Clegg should have settled for STV for local government, without a referendum, rather than Cameron’s pitiful offer of an AV referendum. Water under the bridge, now.

    Hobhouse needs to focus now on achievable steps we can take to start to put right the mistakes of the past.

  • @Russ Kent “What can LibDems offer the nation that a moderate Labour party can’t?”

    There is no such thing as a “moderate Labour Party”. It is always authoritarian, and often Socialist. And it suffers from something called “Labourism” (see my comment above) – where it will not countenance cooperation with anyone without dominating them first.

  • marcstevens 3rd Jan '20 - 2:40pm

    I am convinced Scotland will thrive as an independent nation within the EU with the euro as their currency. The SNP brand of nationalism is outward looking and open. I do not detect any xenophobia or anti-semitism within their ranks as is also the case for Plaid Cymru.

  • @ Dilettante Eye You make completely fair points which I happily concede. That’s why I personally would go for Devo Max on a gradualist basis. I agree the EU deficit requirements are particularly powerful points.

    However, a possible scenario before any new referendum is that Johnson might happily concede pre-independence financial underwriting guarantees to allow himself an unassailable future position in Tory voting England – so anything is possible.

    I must be honest and confess my comments were tongue in cheek to wind up some of the more Anglo supremacist Home Counties Lib Dems who get an attack of midges and vertigo every time they go north of Potters Bar.

  • David Allen 3rd Jan '20 - 5:33pm

    PR would be nice. But to blame FPTP for our failure to Stop Brexit is about as perverse as the football striker who persistently stands closer to the goal than all the opposing team, and then grumbles that the offside rule is philosophically wrong-headed. When you’re playing a game, you need to find a way to win while playing by the current rules. Crying foul after the event won’t do.

    Yes, a majority of voters didn’t want Brexit to go ahead – in fact Yougov asked voters that very question on polling day, and found a 54 to 46 majority in favour of Remain. So, how did Remain politicians manage to throw away that advantage?

    By refusing to work together. By deliberately adopting confrontational instead of collaborative postures – in particular, the Lib Dem shift to “Revoke” in response to Labour’s shift towards a People’s Vote. By letting down the majority of Remain supporters up and down the country. By gifting Johnson his election victory against a divided opposition, instead of demanding a People’s Vote with a united force for Remain.

    Before Remain politicians call for rule changes which would make it easier not to mess up, they should start thinking about why they messed up, and how not to do it again.

    It seems the voters have already caught on to this point. Hence the popularity of the Remain politician who is rightly seen to have done better than anyone else in trying not to mess up – Keir Starmer.

  • David Allen 3rd Jan '20 - 5:40pm

    “Without proportional representation, there’s no future for moderate politics in Brexit Britain”

    Well, without moderate politics, there’s no chance of getting proportional representation in Brexit Britain. So Wera Hobhouse, congratulations – you’ve invented Catch-22!

  • Morgan-Ross Inwood 3rd Jan '20 - 5:50pm

    Both Scotland and Wales uses the D’Hondt formula to calculate the List Seats, 20 in Wales for the Welsh Assembly and 56 for the Scottish Parliament. There are two other formulas I know of which calculate seats that should be part of the Proportional Representation debate, Hare-Niemeyer and Sainte-Lague. Both Germany and New Zeland currently use the Sainte-Lague method to determine Seats and prior to Germany using Sainte-Lague it used the Hare-Neimeyer method for most of its Elections. Both Germany and New Zeland use the Mixed-Member Proportional system

    Another point I want to raise is the House of Lords as in if there is an elected second chamber then what Electoral System shall be used and then you have the impact of Federalism regarding the nature of the Second Chamber as in what model like the American Senate, the Australian Senate or the German Bundesrat?

  • “Incidentally, they’ve obviously had such a good time with referendums that they’re having 2 more this year (held at the same time as the GE) on euthanasia and cannabis.”

    Which one comes first ?

  • Innocent Bystander 3rd Jan '20 - 6:51pm

    David Raw,
    Just visit Kielder Forest. Our midges are better than your midges.

  • Martin Land 3rd Jan '20 - 7:12pm

    @marcstevens. Scotland will not be allowed into the EU. Spain will veto it.

  • David Allen 3rd Jan '20 - 8:24pm

    Martin Land,

    If Scotland declares independence after a DIY referendum like the one held in Catalonia, Spain will indeed veto EU accession, and will be supported by the rest of the EU, who believe in nations following their national constitutions.

    If however Scotland has a bona-fide referendum conceded by the UK government and on that basis achieves independence, I doubt whether Spain would succeed in vetoing EU accession (if, indeed, they wanted to). The rest of the EU would point out that legally sound and reasonably amicable changes in national boundaries, such as the separation of Czechia and Slovakia, should not be discouraged.

    If the rest of the EU could talk Macron out of vetoing a Brexit extension, they can talk Spain out of vetoing Scotland joining the EU.

  • I rather think that the antics of the EU fifth columnists in parliament which turned it and, by extension, the country into a laughing stock will have finished any prospect of replacing FPTP anytime soon. If an AV Referendum (or similar) was ever held again, opponents would simply highlight that it makes hung parliaments more likely and then ask voters if they want to repeat the chaos of the 2017 one.

  • Paul Barker 3rd Jan '20 - 8:41pm

    There are only 3 situations that could produce Electoral Reform at Westminster level :
    A Libdem Government; that would require us to get at least 33% in a General Election.
    Either Labour or The Tories split.
    Either Labour or Tories start persistently Polling below 25%, even then they would be very reluctant to give up FPTP because it means giving up ever being a “Majority” Government again.

  • An independent Scotland would cease to be a one party state fairly quickly. The SNP dominate because of a desire for independence that cuts across ideological differences. Once achieved the kinds of arguments every sovereign nation has would come to the fore. The perception of “progressive liberal” Scotland v “regressive conservative” England may even prove to be the by-product of Westminster dominance more than it is a reflection of public attitudes.

  • David Allen wrote:

    “It seems the voters have already caught on to this point. Hence the popularity of the Remain politician who is rightly seen to have done better than anyone else in trying not to mess up – Keir Starmer.”

    While I would welcome Keir Starmer as Leader of the Labour Party, and would expect a government hat he led to get the UK back into the EU as quickly as possible, with regret, I very much doubt that he would make the Labour Party any more electable than would the much less attractive people potentially on offer.

    Tony Blair succeeded in reaching parts of the electorate that Kinnock and Foot could not. “New Labour” was able to win over substantial numbers of urban and suburban middle-class voters, while holding on to its working-class voters, giving Labour three successive landslide victories. Would a Starmer led “New New Labour” party be able to do the same? A lot of people seem to think so, but I very much doubt it. Last month, Labour captured that very same demographic that flocked to Blair and still lost by a mile. Labour won Battersea, Birmingham Edgbaston, Cambridge, Canterbury, Exeter, Portsmouth South, Putney, Sheffield Hallam, Warwick and Leamington. Where else can Labour go? To win back their lost seats in the North and Midlands I suspect they would have to combine big spending commitments with English nationalism, protectionism, opposition to all but essential immigration, and a heavy focus on law and order, family and school discipline, etc. A Lavery or a Burgon might try that, but what would that do to Labour’s middle-class support? Labour has had a stake thrust straight through its heart and it is hard to see how it can recover. The same pattern emerged three years ago in the USA, but Trump faced a single opposition party, not three. Many people who voted Labour last month did so to stop the Tories, not because they wanted Soviet style socialism. Those voters could easily back another party that they felt was credible.

  • Richard Underhill 3rd Jan '20 - 9:33pm

    Paul Barker: who is Round? and why does he object?

  • “An independent Scotland would cease to be a one party state fairly quickly.”.

    It’s not a one party state now domestically given our PR system. The SNP Government are dependont on the Scottish Greens (and occasionally the Lib Dems) to get their budget through.

    Westminster FPTP exaggerates the differences in London.

  • Peter Watson 4th Jan '20 - 12:21am

    @Richard Underhill “who is Round? and why does he object?”
    Thanks for the flashback. I used to love that programme and this was one of my favourite lines (although I think it was “Who is Round and to what does he object?”).

  • @TCO
    Blair’s governments obviously seen as moderate in successive elections. Keir would be the same in my view.
    LibDems under Swinson hardly a model of a progressive cooperative party. Which nonentity will they choose to lead them to the next disaster.

  • Denis Loretto 4th Jan '20 - 10:23am

    The only way to get PR is for a Labour-led but not an overwhelming Labour majority government to emerge under a leadership progressive and far-seeing enough to recognise that only by PR can they hope to lead in the longer term. We were close to that in the Ashdown/Blair talks prior to 1997 but were blown out of the water by the size of the Labour majority. This is unlikely to recur. Despite the narrow argument that a Starmer-led Labour party would be a tougher rival for the Lib Dems it would certainly be better for the scenario set out above. Liberal Democracy has an important part to play in preserving a mixed economy and
    liberal values but cannot do this on it’s own or even survive meaningfully without PR as Wera rightly says.
    By the way the overwhelming attachment in the UK for single member constituencies makes it highly unlikely that our beloved STV will ever find acceptance. This was recognised by Roy Jenkins who advocated something very close to the Scottish system. What a tragedy that his wise counsel was spurned.

  • Matt (Bristol) 4th Jan '20 - 10:52am

    Nice to have a key figure in the party thinking critically about democracy and its role in the future of the country.

    I do think that the decision to go for ‘revoke’ at the last election accidentally implied a legitimisation of First Past The Post as a way to get things done, which either shows the party felt no-one would notice, or has gone native within FPTP to a worrying extent.

    The other issue is, as some have pointed out, about compromise. Proportional voting systems ‘work’ because parties know they can’t have it all their own way so are forced to compromise, and by-and-large voting populations recognise that when you vote for X party, you are unlikely to get all of its policies as a personal right, because of that culture of compromise.

    The 2016 referendum, and the 2017 and 2019 elections, all show the British political culture of ‘winner takes all’ in full effect, both in terms of where there was a ‘clear’ (ie artificial winner) there was an expectation that that faction (whether it was the Conservative party or the Leave campaigns) could dictate any terms it wanted to the rest of the population, and where there wasn’t a ‘clear’ winner (ie in 2017), there was mass confusion and angst that the system had gone ‘wrong’, whilst the PM (May) showed no sign of knowing how to lead collaboratively across parties.

    But whilst we can talk this talk of democratic consensus and collaboration, what worries me is whether the Lib Dem party really believes it when it comes to policy areas other than electoral reform. So many of our other policies increasingly seem to be about factional agendas, and becoming the party of 10 to 20% of the voting population, and not having any desire to listen to or engage with the 90 to 80%.

  • Peter Hirst 4th Jan '20 - 2:40pm

    I can’t agree more Vera; if we are a Party that I believe we are that deals with causes not sticking plaster temporary solutions then campaigning for a more proportional system is fundamental. Without we will not survive. We need to put all our resources into changing our voting system and facilitating a codified written constitution that limits the power of government however it is elected.

  • David Evans 4th Jan '20 - 3:40pm

    I’m sorry, but this enthusiasm from some Lib Dems for a change to our voting system just shows how out of touch they have become from the vast majority of the UK population.

    PR is of no interest to most people. They are interested in making ends meet, keeping a roof over their heads, education for their children and quite often their favourite football team. In 2011 on a turnout of only 42%, only 6 million people voted for it in our referendum on it in 2011. That was our once in a generation chance.

    We squandered our chance. We may be right on the issue, but Nick made an ill judged, all or nothing charge to try and get it and we lost. It’s gone. Like Jo and Brexit. Get over it.

    What we need to do is work out how we can make Liberal Democracy relevant again. But we won’t do it if we waste time banging on about PR.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Jan '20 - 7:46am

    David Evans

    PR is of no interest to most people. They are interested in making ends meet, keeping a roof over their heads, education for their children and quite often their favourite football team.

    An important issue with proportional representation is that it means local minorities get a representation. Without it there are large areas of the country where every MP is a Conservative. People in those parts of the country who are not Conservatives have no-one to represent them.

    That is why I joined the Liberal Party in the first place, growing up in a working class family in southern England where at that time every MP was a Conservative. So we had no-one to represent us. Not local Conservative MPs, and not Labour MPs for northern and urban areas who had little knowledge or interest about working class people in southern and rural England.

    In 2011 on a turnout of only 42%, only 6 million people voted for it in our referendum on it in 2011.

    That was not a referendum on PR. The Alternative Vote system still means only those who are a local majority get a representative. It does, however, end the problem of votes getting split, so people have to vote for who is not their first choice out of concern that not doing so means who is their least choice has more chance of winning.

    We needed to stress when that referendum took place that it was not our ideal, but as far as the Conservatives would go in letting us influence things a bit. I.e. what happened in the Coalition was not all what we would have done if we had been the main party of government. However, given what has happened recently, why aren’t we now coming out and saying some of the problems happening recently would have been resolved if we had AV?

  • David Evans 5th Jan '20 - 7:08pm

    Russell – You ask “If we don’t talk about PR after that election then when will we?” The simple fact is that we never stop talking about it. Since 2009 there have been 49 articles tagged Proportional Representation, and many more tagged PR, Electoral Reform, STV including one titled “On voting reform, the Lib Dems must seek an ally in UKIP”

    People out there really don’t care. Only those intellectual Lib Dems do. If you don’t believe me, next time you go out canvassing, ask a few people you don’t know what they think about PR and see how many get past two sentences. Once you’ve done that ask yourself who is out of touch with the real world out there – Is it the Lib Dems, or those Oh so successful Conservatives?

    Matthew Huntbach – I agree with a lot of what you say here, but most people are not interested. However, regarding the question you put, I suggest you ask voters out there “given what has happened recently, some of the problems happening recently would have been resolved if we had AV?” and assess whether it makes them one iota more likely to vote for us.

  • @David Evans
    PR as a concept might not be the most exciting to your average voter, but the feeling of not being represented, the feeling of having to vote against your least favourite rather than what you actually want, the feeling of your vote just being wasted anyway… these are pretty common sentiments. I mean, we literally saw just that with the Brexit referendum – people showed up to vote for that who generally felt pretty ignored and forgotten about. That isn’t going to go away, whatever token efforts the Tories put in to move a few departments north or such.

    We’re really behind the program on this, being one of a handful of developed democracies to still use FPTP, and it’s not like there’s any mega strong reason not to do it. You can keep the constituency link via STV (and other methods), and more hung parliaments may be a good thing in practice; governments have to become more sensitive to a more active voter population under PR systems. It’s a lot tougher to try running ‘bad’ vs ‘awful’ if people legitimately have several other good alternatives to turn to without having to worry about wasting their vote. And it’s just a bonus that you get more diverse parliamentary voices, increased voter participation and therefore government responsivity as it’s much easier for voters to plausibly go elsewhere without wasting their vote.

    I don’t think there’s really been a better time in the last 20 years to push for it. Labour members are, reportedly 75% in favour of including a PR process as a policy. So much of the Brexit Rorschach has been about arbitrary ‘mandates’, the last of which was to try to answer a single issue with a General Election, and this is all very fresh in peoples’ minds.

    Also, unlike AV which no one really wanted and whose campaign was Theresa May levels of bad, there are people who are passionate about systems like STV who can actually sell it. It’ll be 13 years on in 2024, that’s plenty of time away from the issue of real electoral reform. I’d take the argument that in isolation it’s not a top ticket item (unfortunately despite its importance neither is climate change) but it can absolutely form part of a wider manifesto narrative for example of really taking back control, doing what Brexit promised but failed to.

  • I think that the antics of the EU fifth columnists in parliament which turned it and, by extension, the country into a laughing stock will have set back any move towards PR by some decades. If an AV Referendum (or similar) was ever held again, opponents would simply highlight that it makes hung parliaments more likely and then ask voters if they want to repeat the chaos of the 2017 one.

  • David Evans 6th Jan '20 - 6:55pm

    Mack – You say a lot of erudite words, but as part of an electoral strategy it is a fantasy. There has never been a time in the last 20 years when it has been a *worse* time for the Lib Dems to push for it. We lost it in 2011. That horse has bolted. It is a dead parrot. Exactly as our party will be in 10 years time, unless we learn to drop what are really our personal fringe interests and instead focus on what the public are interested in. As you say, and it might be true, ‘Labour members are, reportedly 75% in favour of including a PR process.’ What you might have also quoted is ‘Around 80 local constituency Labour parties have passed resolutions calling for electoral reform – 12 per cent of the total, with most since 2017’.

    In the meantime, I really do suggest you try selling it to a wider public than political anoraks and try the sort questions I suggested to Russel and Matthew and then consider why you are so right when they (the public) don’t give a stuff about it – or Liberal democracy unless we pull our socks up.

  • Paul Murray 7th Jan '20 - 9:29am

    There are a number of mentions of Keir Starmer as someone who is “popular”. Yet according to a poll released today, Starmer’s name is only recognised by 21% of voters. It feels like Remain supporters are projecting – they know Starmer’s name, they like what he did and so feel this means he is “popular” when in fact he is virtually unknown.

  • Starmer is the hope for a repeat of the Blair/Ashdown axis as he is in favour of a wider alliance with other parties and I believe he supports PR. He also supports a Federal UK including regions of England.

    The door is now open for a multi party pre-election pact that might stand a chance of getting Johnson out if it is done properly and Labour are not scary anymore. It can jointly support constitutional reforms and green issues and keep other issues separate. It could offer a caretaker government until running a new election within two years and not in winter. The SNP would consider supporting such a government, but that opens the obvious.

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