Opinion: Voting reform must take a back seat to maintain #LibDemFightback momentum

Standing at a North London bus stop the evening after Britain went to the polls, I overheard a man give his take, on David Cameron’s surprising majority, to a friend:

You see people that don’t live in cities just don’t understand…they’ll always vote right-wing.

As someone from the countryside who has now voted for a hat-trick of different parties, I took offence in a quietly British way to his throwaway analysis of the left’s failure to make gains outside of London. And yet of course he had a point, too.

In 2010 my friends and I voted for the first time knowing that unless we chose the Conservatives, our vote would effectively not count. Recently local support for UKIP was obvious by the number of signs in front gardens, and I was saddened to see Nigel Farage’s party move up to second in my constituency, displacing the Liberal Democrat alternative. But, just as the idealistic Sixth Formers I knew in 2010 were thwarted by First Past the Post and its safe seats, so were the significantly older and larger contingent so visibly backing UKIP in many constituencies like mine in 2015.

We now have two relatively new parties at opposite ends of the political spectrum, the Greens and UKIP, arguing for electoral reform. The contrast between the SNP’s 1.5 million votes returning 56 seats and UKIP’s 3.9 million producing just 1 isn’t just a damning indictment of the system’s unfairness – it’s a wake-up call for those who believe in the Union. Most commentators agree that Scottish independence won’t be a swift consequence of the results, but they also share the view that reversing the SNP’s rise will be a mountain to climb for its rivals.

And, yet, PR would not be a solution to everything or a recipe for harmony, as history has often proved. More importantly for the growing movement that is #LibDemFightback, it is not a battle the party should prioritise at present. The Lib Dems will always be the party of fairer votes and steps should be taken to remind the country of that fact once a new leader is elected. But the AV referendum of 2011 was badly handled and a wasted opportunity. It was right to go into a coalition, indeed it would have been foolish to waste the chance to implement real change, but there were also inevitable mistakes and missed opportunities. The AV referendum was one of them and I doubt the general public are ready for another debate on the issue.

The Londoner at the bus stop was right about Tory strength in the countryside. But until recently the Lib Dems had many more of their own rural fortresses. To win back seats the party must defend its achievements, regain trust, carve out a unique evidence based policy position for itself and stay high profile. With a weakened parliamentary presence, the last of these is especially crucial.

The harsh fact is that voting reform is a not realistic at present. Change must be achieved within the system we have and with the government we have. Lib Dems need to be champions of causes no one else will fight for, putting the party firmly in the public eye and rebuilding electoral support as a result. Issues like devolution, the Union, the EU, civil liberties, human rights, education, welfare and climate change are crying out for a party with a strong alternative vision. Both leadership candidates have some fantastic ideas and whoever is elected needs to make these urgent topics their own in the media spotlight. But picking its battles and deploying a growing membership in a targeted, highly visible way will be crucial to the party’s influence, success and survival.

* Liam Trim is a History graduate and former student journalist currently working in Digital Marketing

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34 Comments

  • Oh dear.
    You are welcome to your view, of course, but IMHO if we prioritise anything OTHER than STV right now we’re being daft

  • Trevor stables 12th Jul '15 - 9:55am

    Interesting piece but I totally disagree. Electoral Reform is THE key to achieving the kind of pluralistic society we need. It is one of our reasons to exist, survive and flourish.

  • There’s a real opportunity to get STV in now, with both the SNP and UKIP agreed on the need for a proportional system (about the only policy they do agree on.) Now isn’t the time to stop fighting for it.

  • This is exactly the logic the labour party uses to justify not only an.unreformed electoral system, but also the house of lords. Subscribing to this view would make us a conservative party like the big two: we are lucky to have to little to lose. We can tell truth to power in the way that has delivered the SNP such success.

  • Richard Underhill 12th Jul '15 - 11:20am

    The fightback will occur in elections of all types, including the Mayorality of Greater London and the Greater London Assembly. In order to contest these elections effectively it is necessary to know what the electoral systems are.
    The Mayor is elected on second preference votes.
    The GLA is electedby a mix of first-past-the-post and proportional representation by party list.
    If there is a parliamentary by-election as a result of the mayoral campaign it will be by first-past-the-post.
    We do not know who the candidates are yet, but if an MEP from a constituency in England, Wales or Scotland, is elected as London Mayor s/he will be replaced on the party list by the next highest candidate from the 2014 election.

  • Richard Underhill 12th Jul '15 - 11:28am

    It is possible to stand for Mayor and Assembly at the same time.
    A Green has done so.
    When they were told that they could have a peer they elected her as their candidate.
    She has accepted, which puts her in a unique position, albeit outnumbered by life peers, hereditary peers and bishops.

  • Paul Pettinger 12th Jul '15 - 12:07pm

    Big money influencing politics and unequal votes undermines the UK’s claim to be a liberal democracy, and holds back other reforms. I don’t think we should be looking to downgrade our commitments to party funding or electoral reform, but make them red line issues. If we won’t stand up for liberal democracy we can hardly expect others to.

  • Mick Taylor 12th Jul '15 - 2:07pm

    Have we learned nothing? One of the biggest errors in negotiating the coalition was accepting a cop out in the form of a referendum on AV instead of insisting on STV. We could have demanded STV for Europe and local government and the Tories, desperate to be in office, would have given it and then we could have had a referendum on STV for parliament, not AV.
    The result is that now have a greater number of parties than ever before grossly underrepresented in Parliament and most of those who have joined us see that, as do many ordinary voters. To put STV on the back burner would be madness. Of course we must campaign on other things as well, like the EU, like the HRA, support for immigration, the list goes on.

    If we abandon the one policy that will make the UK a real democracy, then we might as well fold up the tent and join another party.

  • I agree with everyone on this, even the people with contradicting views! Simply put, we’ve got a Tory majority and 8 MPs, we’re not going to change the electoral system now. If it’s not in Tory interests it won’t be happening for a while, UKIP turned out to be a bit of a damp squib and I can’t see SNP achieving anything as regards this over the next 5 years.

    It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t campaign for reform, but we should understand that our odds are very poor at this moment. We’re fighting for survival, expecting to attain electoral reform in the middle of that is classic Lib Dem over-optimism at work.

  • Little Jackie Paper 12th Jul '15 - 4:49pm

    Trevor stables – ‘Electoral Reform is THE key to achieving the kind of pluralistic society we need.’

    No it isn’t. STV is, in my view, the system we should use. But let’s be clear here: it is a system for changing votes cast into results. No more no less. It confronts all electors with a meaningful ballot, which FPTP too often does not do. But there are no guarantees of any sort that it will lead to more political pluralism or, ‘better politics,’ and there should be no such guarantees made in any campaign for change. STV is right because it gives voters a meaningful ballot – what they do with it is totally irrelevant.

    If the result is a CON-UKIP-DUP coalition then so be it. If the result is a single majority then so be it.

    There is no reason whatsoever to assume that STV would have any particular effect and it should never be sold on the basis of effects. What will achieve a pluralistic society is people voting for one – no more no less.

    Mick Taylor – ‘ We could have demanded STV for Europe and local government.’ It’s tempting to say this, but my feeling is that STV probably would not make a big difference in local government, particularly where there are multi-member wards.

  • The possibility of getting a minor reform by way of AV with the prospect of a major reform with STV was scuttled by purists who would rather wait another quarter-century for the possibility of major reform than accept a present half-measure.

    Nonetheless, it’s no good blaming those who felt that way; a proper leadership should have anticipated the objection and dealt with it one way or another.

  • The problems the libdems have is that they are no longer the protest party. UKIP are now a political force and the Tories knew that Labour and the libdems would suffer most from their rise. I’ve always been a conspiracy theorist but I do believe the Tories in conjunction with Farage and his cronies planned this all along. You only have to look at Douglas Carswell back on the Tory benches voting for a budget that doubtlessly will hurt millions of poor people. It’s sad to say but the Tories are here for many many years while ever UKIP are still on the scene.

  • Steve Comer 12th Jul '15 - 8:21pm

    Mick Taylor is right and Little Jackie paper is wrong. PR in local government in England and Wales would make a huge difference just as it has in Scotland. One party fiefdoms like Rotherham, and Surrey would be a thing of the past.

    As for the argument about multi member wards, well it depends on whether the council has annual elections. if it does then its the same distortion is as for Westminster, but if like London Boroughs and many Districts you have the combination of all-up elections and multi-member seats, then that amplifiesthe distortions of FPTP. Eg. in a 3 seat ward which is marginala small switch of votes usually leads to all three seats changing hands.

  • Matt (Bristol) 13th Jul '15 - 12:00am

    I agree that actual opportunities for getting a changed electoral system are not obvious at the mo, but the sense that the system is unfair is stronger than ever.

    And what are we ‘fighting back’ FOR, if we are going to drop some of our key agendas?

    I’m not as sold on STV as some, but what I would hope for from it is, as LJP says, a ‘real choice’ in more constituencies, with the possibility of ending
    a) ‘safe’ seats
    b) long periods of rule by one party

  • Paul Kennedy 13th Jul '15 - 6:00am

    I agree with other commentators. In a recent local by-election which we won in Surrey I was able to squeeze several UKIP supporters into voting Lib Dem precisely because of our support for voting reform, as well as Labour and Green supporters who are more usual squeeze material. Here in the countryside, frustration with unaccountable Tory MPs and councillors in their safe seats and rotten shires and boroughs is very strong. Electoral reform continues to be a strong plus for us on the door.

    We need other policies too but as a party that wants to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society of course we should be shouting about the need for voting reform. The SNP narrative emphasised again and again the problem of being ruled by an unrepresentative Conservative ‘majority’. Having 8 MPs in Parliament can generate two narratives: (a) Lib Dems are politically irrelevant or (b) Parliament is increasingly remote and unrepresentative of the views of ordinary people. I prefer narrative (b).

  • Zack Polanski 13th Jul '15 - 8:22am

    Electoral Reform, alongside other more obvious topics such as fighting for housing or protecting those vulnerable to welfare cuts, should be at the front and centre of any national campaign.

    I was disappointed that we didn’t mention it more during the election. I think the argument that the public rejected it in 2011 was given too much favour. The public voted on AV, in odd circumstances at that, and not for the principle of the inherent unfairness and disproportionality of first past the post.

  • Liam, it flies in the face of everything a lot of Lib Dem members have wanted for a long time, to suggest that electoral reform is irrelevant to our agenda.

    If you want a party of vision and goals, you should want a party that wants to tear up the United Kingdom and start again from scratch, and have a clearly model UK to put to the electorate at the next General Election. A party with clear ideas as to how we should be governed, structured and represented. Yes, all of that but also alongside our other core values.

    But if you want to pick battles that nobody else is interested in because you think that it’s better to stand alone and fight battles that are distinctly ours and nobody else’s then we will, as Paul Kennedy points out above, be utterly irrelavent. The narrative will be “Lib Dems are politically irrelevant” rather than “Parliament is thoroughly broken”.

    Further, your argument is so inconsistent: in suggesting that we should fight only in corners in which we stand alone you give a list of issues in which it’s clear that we *don’t* stand alone! Do you think there are no other non-political or political organisations which fight for civil liberties, the EU, devolution and the other things you list?! Most of our battles are fought alongside a variety or organisations and pressure-groups.

    And why would you include devolution on the list of things to fight for but NOT electoral reform? I can’t see the rationale behind that at all, as the two are part and parcel of the same problem: a remote Westminster, a bodged constitution (made worse by the assymetric devolution in Scotland) and wholly unrepresentative “representation”.

    You pointed out that there are more parties with a lot of support (UKIP, Greens etc) who are all interested in electoral reform, and yet despite it being abundantly clear to anyone with the remotest idea of mathematic that the 2015 election was the most unrepresentative General Election of all time, you think we should deliberately avoid being involved in a growing mood of revulsion at our electoral system?

  • (Matt Bristol) 13th Jul '15 - 10:50am

    I think the yes/no approach used in the AV referendum is not helpful to exploring the range of options, and it does not establish a madate on the principle of whether to change or not.

    Consider how different things may or may not be if we used the New Zealand two-question approach:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electoral_reform_in_New_Zealand

  • Richard Underhill 13th Jul '15 - 11:42am

    Multi-member borough wards are contested First-Past-The-Post, Second-Past-The-Post and Third-Past-The-Post, as in London boroughs.

    In parish and town councils this process can continue down to seventh.
    Sometimes some of the electorate know something about some of the candidates.

    The Republic of Ireland elects by STV and has had single-party minority and majority governements in the past.
    What STV does is to reflect voters’ preferencews more accurately.
    Hostility to electoral reform was an issue in the 2015 UK general election, misleadingly quoting the AV referendum.

  • Richard Underhill 13th Jul '15 - 12:21pm

    “FPTP, F2PTP, F3PTP etc! Yes. Go for it, so long as a busy electorate understands.

  • peter tyzack 13th Jul '15 - 5:50pm

    I do wish that people who are obviously non-LibDems would keep out of our internal discussions. They are welcome to have their point of view but on here THEY are irrelevant.

  • Peter Tyzack, it’s hardly an internal discussion – it’s on the open Internet and “comments from everyone” are welcome. Internal party discussions are held in the Members’ Area.

    And if you think the comments on here are harsh, they are pretty mild compared to what people say about Lib Dems in real life these days. So perhaps you need to think of a better comeback than that.

  • i have always seen STV as a cornerstone of Liberalism because it gives real choice to the voters… They can prioritise the person from their own party that works hardest or agrees with them on a particular issue, and they can do the same with people from other parties.

    For me this is far more important than being strictly proportional in party terms. However if you only have 3 member wards as in Scottish local government, the choice is rather limited (often parties only put up one candidate) and the result not very proportional either (small parties like the Lib Dems generally don’t get a look-in where the “quota” is 34%). So we should be campaigning for STV in local government but typically in 6 member wards (in current 3 member wards just stick two together).

    Despite my lifelong interest in voting reform, I tend to agree with the OP that it is not likely to happen in the near future. However I do think this is an area where we can increase our “core vote”, as David Howarth and Mark Pack have suggested, by arguing for the right thing… So we should think about where we can work with others and lead (not join) campaigns for voting reform.

    Generally STV does not favour extreme parties like UKIP, because they do not attract transfers.. I dont think UKIP or the Greens will ever back STV for Westminster, and I think we may have to accept that any consensus would fall around an additional member system like Holyrood. But I think STV for local government is more obviously a good thing and a big contrast with the Tory love for dictatorship (aka Mayors…). So lets argue for it and make it a condition of any future deals..

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Jul '15 - 1:22pm

    Andrew

    For me this is far more important than being strictly proportional in party terms.

    If everyone who voted in STV always made their choices for the candidates of just one party, and always listed them in a fixed order which the party told their supporters to use, the result would be the same as a party list system.

    So, in suggesting that STV is inferior to list systems in some way because it is not “strictly proportional”, you have it wrong. STV is MORE proportional because it lets everyone put together their own list. A list system is just a degenerate form of STV in which the voters are forced to choose between only a limited number of the permutations.

    The only reason STV might be less proportional is if it has smaller multi-member constituencies, so resulting in a bigger rounding factor. But that’s not directly an STV v. list system issue.

  • >I do wish that people who are obviously non-LibDems would keep out of our internal discussions.
    >They are welcome to have their point of view but on here THEY are irrelevant.

    I wish that people who are obviously non-LibDems would get in to “our(?!)” internal discussions. They are welcome to have their point of view and we’ll listen to them, try to persuade them of our position and otherwise respectfully disagree?

    You can sign up for the members-only forum, where you won’t be bothered by such things; I’ve not done this because I’d rather have the opportunity to debate with a broader demographic.

  • Richard Underhill 15th Jul '15 - 9:03pm

    “the Tory love for dictatorship (aka Mayors…).”
    Most of the British people voted against having mayors when asked.
    Therefore the tories are offering various incentives (claimed devolution) if a mayor is accepted.
    The Tories have money to win elections, having received £250 million during David Cameron’s leadership (Times).

  • Richard Underhill 19th Jul '15 - 6:59pm

    Tim Farron is in favour of voting reform. It must be a priority.
    The Tories abaility to raise and spend money undermines our democracy, please will many people say so, as Shirley Williams did.

  • The danger is that a campaign for PR is seen in Mandy Rice-Davies terms (look her up on Wikipedia if you’re not old enough to remember): “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?” In other words, it’s those LIb Dems who just lost nearly all their seats arguing for a system that would give them a lot more seats. Surprise, surprise.

    However, there is now a mood much more favourable to constitutional reform than in 2010 and it includes many Labour people as well as people not firmly attached to any party. What we need is a broad campaign in which we will be prominent. And of course, we must be campaigning hard on a limited number of other issues – civil liberties, poverty, climate change.

  • Richard Underhill 13th Aug '15 - 10:10pm

    Simon Banks 20th Jul ’15 – 11:56am
    Ted Heath invited Jeremy Thorpe to a meeting in 1974. No deal. In Ted Heath’s memoirs, after the 1997 general election, he said that there was a rumour that Thorpe wanted to be Home Secretary. In a slim volume Thorpe denied it and replied that he had wanted proportional representation, which Heath was in no position to grant. The Conservative minority was replaced by a Labour minority with Harold Wilson as PM.

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