Some thoughts on the Alliance for Radical Democratic Change

In December of last year, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown published his report A New Britain. It endorsed constitutional changes including the replacement of the House of Lords with an elected senate and greater devolution for cities and regions across the UK, intended to resolve the ‘unreformed, over-centralised way of governing that leaves millions of people complaining they are neglected, ignored, and invisible’.

Last Thursday, he announced the launch of the Alliance for Radical Democratic Change, a campaign aiming for the adoption of A New Britain’s recommendations as policies in Labour next election manifesto and subsequent enactment by a future Labour government. Members of the ARDC include Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford and Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, with Scottish Labour leader Ansar Sarwar and West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin appearing as speakers at the group’s launch event.

Whilst there is significant overlap in the constitutional reforms supported by our party as policy and recommended by the ARDC, there is one area where the ARDC have come up short: electoral reform. Like Labour’s National Executive Committee, the ARDC seems apprehensive to support the replacement of Britain’s outdated First Past The Post voting system with one of proportional representation, despite such a move being favoured by a majority of Britons and an overwhelming majority of Labour members. As a matter of fact, by not supporting electoral reform, the ARDC will likely have hobbled its own agenda.

One of the key reasons why millions of people currently feel alienated from Westminster, and by extension Whitehall, is because of FPTP. It horribly distorts voters’ intentions at both the local and national levels. Members of Parliament can be elected despite being opposed by most of their constituents and may not feel any need to engage with them if they represent a safe seat. And solitary parties that can exercise total control in government with only a plurality of the national vote; although its advocates state that ‘strong, stable government’ is a benefit of FPTP, it does not guarantee it, as recent years have proved. If the ARDC were serious about

Without supporting electoral reform for the House of Commons, the ARDC’s endorsement of an elected upper chamber will only throw Parliament off-balance. Although the Lords is criticised mainly for its gargantuan size (778 sitting members compared to the Common’s 650) and membership partly of political appointees and hereditary peers, its diverse membership, ability to review legislation free from popular pressure and limited delaying powers have been cited as saving graces.

In the ARDC’s vision of an elected ‘Senate of Nations and Regions’, how will these senators be elected? More likely than not, a PR system may be adopted if the Nations and Regions were to serve as multimember constituencies. If this were the case, not only may it pit two partisan elected chambers against each other, the theoretically weaker Senate could claim to have greater democratic legitimacy than the Commons elected under FPTP. Legislative gridlock more contentious than that usually experienced in the US Congress would likely result from this imbalance.

And, without supporting electoral reform for local communities, the ARDC’s plans for devolution are unlikely to empower them. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, local elections are held using Single Transferable Voting, meaning that councils closely represent the political opinion of their areas, with different parties in coalition or confidence-and-supply having to work together for the common good. In England and Wales, the opposite is the case. The use of distortive FPTP and exclusionary leader and cabinet executive arrangements has left millions disconnected from the political entities which have the most direct impact on their lives. In England, local democracy has suffered serious setbacks, namely the replacement of Supplementary Voting with FPTP for electing Police and Crime Commissioners and Metro Mayors via the 2022 Elections Act. If institutions and individuals are not truly representative of their constituents, granting them additional powers from Westminster will not make local communities feel as though they have more control over their own affairs.

If the ARDC really is offering democratic change, it should include electoral reform, at the very least to make all their other reforms worthwhile.

 

* Samuel James Jackson is a member of the Executive Committee of the Calderdale Liberal Democrats, the Secretary of the Lower Valley Liberal Democrats and has served as a council candidate in the Ryburn and Park wards

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17 Comments

  • Georgiana Sale 3rd Jun '23 - 8:43am

    The good news is that the poll that recently said 51% of the overall population were in favour of PR gave 68% of the Labour Party. It was about 40% 2/3 years ago. So the members are moving and moving fast. Only a matter of time( and not that long in my opinion) before their leaders Catch catch up.
    Géorgie Sale Richmondshire LDs

  • A Labour person looking for a means of diverting misplaced energy away from Labour’s current internal struggles might warm to an alliance for limited constitutional change. However those who are fed up with their party’s traditional internal warfare may well be the strongest supporters of PR.

  • Martin Gray 3rd Jun '23 - 10:49am

    “One of the key reasons why millions of people currently feel alienated from Westminster, and by extension Whitehall, is because of FPTP”…..
    Really ….Never gets brought up in canvassing & never has …
    Unless labour adopt it (PR) there’s zero chance of it being enacted … It would be bitterly opposed by the Cons who would undermine it at every opportunity…

  • Why did the Canadian Trudeau led Liberals, committed to PR during the election, suddenly drop it when in Government with a large majority?
    I would suggest we should be wary what we wish for, PR would probably boost the Greens and devastate our prospects.

  • George Thomas 3rd Jun '23 - 2:07pm

    “If institutions and individuals are not truly representative of their constituents,”

    I don’t believe that changing the voting system is sufficient to change this. Before election day we would need to ask who makes the choice of which candidates stand and stand where? What role does the press and campaign funders have in building them up or knocking them down? How much quality information do voters have about who these individuals are and what role they can play in changing policy?

    It’s quite possible that austerity, Brexit, covid-covered-donations to friends of the Tory party would have all happened regardless of the voting system. Inactivity with regards to building affordable (good quality) housing, investment focused on one small part of the UK… etc. etc.

    Changing the voting system may be a part of it but it’s not the silver bullet.

  • Chris Moore 3rd Jun '23 - 3:07pm

    @ George Thomas: indeed, look at the various nearby countries with PR and their produgious levels of scandal, corruption, poor governance etc.

    PR gives a fairer election result. It cannot end the all too human flaws of society.

  • Chris Moore 3rd Jun '23 - 3:08pm

    …prodigious levels….

  • Samuel Jackson,

    The report “A New Britain” calls for “An Assembly of the Nations and Regions” not a Senate. It is also clear about reducing the power of the second chamber so it can’t delay all legislation. Their power of delay will be limited to “a very limited range of constitutional issues”. It also assumes that the House of Lords can’t eject a bill. I don’t think this is true. I think the House of Commons has the power to overturn the House of Lords’ rejection, which is slightly different. It therefore assumes that the new second chamber will not have the power to reject anything.

    With regard to how members of the second chamber are elected, the report states, “The second chamber should certainly be elected on a different electoral cycle from
    the House of Commons, so that elections for the Commons and new second chamber do not coincide. The precise method of election to be used is a matter for further consideration.”

    It also suggests that elected regional leaders (including those for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) should be “able to participate in the second chamber to raise issues of pressing concern on which the voices of the nations of the UK, or of its different localities, should be directly heard” (page 143). I wonder what they mean by “participate”. If it doesn’t include voting I wonder why “speak” was not used!

  • Samuel Jackson,

    “The use of distortive FPTP and exclusionary leader and cabinet executive arrangements has left millions disconnected from the political entities which have the most direct impact on their lives.”

    I don’t think it is party policy to abolish directly elected mayors or the Cabinet system. Do you wish it was?

    With regard to councillors not being truly representative of their constituents, reducing the councillor / electors ratio to 1:2000 would help this enormously; as would keeping the area which elects councillors small. Perhaps 8800 should be the maximum number of electors allowed in any council ward, which would make four the maximum number of councillors elected by STV per ward.

  • Keith Sharp 3rd Jun '23 - 7:46pm

    First things first – PR for Westminster is the single-most important change needed to connect people to politics and political institutions. The biasses and distortions of first past the post are destructive and cut people out of the process. (In 2019, 70.8% of votes were wasted; few seats ever change hands; swing voters in marginal seats get nearly all the attention while others are ignored; a minority vote share delivers absolute power…and so on).

    Bringing in fair, equal votes for General Elections – to a ‘proportional representation’ system and preferably the single transferable vote, which enhances individual voter choice – is the trigger to the cultural and other changes we so badly need in this country. There’s plenty of other reforms that can follow.

    But as Ed Davey said when asked whether Lords reform should come before Commons voting reform: ‘That’s like changing the tyres when the car’s on fire’!

  • Michael BG, if you reduced the number of councillors to as little as 4 per ward under STV then small parties would struggle still to get elected because of the fairly limited proportionality.

    One of the tests that should be applied to a new PR system is will it markedly improve real political diversity and I suggest those PR systems that are more liable to make many more votes count such as open party list PR or MMP will do that more effectively.

    STV may have its virtues but it also has its drawbacks. Systems using preferential ranked ballots are distrusted by many, viewed as overly complicated, the results obtained are often not easily and readily understood by the electorate etc.

    The country seems to be suspicious of systems using ranked ballots hence the overwhelming defeat of AV in 2011. No doubt one reason the Tories enabled that disastrous referendum to go ahead was to capitalise on that sentiment which they knew would be prevalent amongst their voters and others on the ‘Right’ of politics thereby ensuring AV would be heavily defeated. At least some note should be taken by electoral reformers of that referendum and lessons learnt.

    Also, a virtue of a new PR system should be if it increased turnout levels. In Scotland, the national turnout in local elections has declined slightly since FPTP was replaced by STV.

  • We should be seeking to reduce the size of council areas. If we did this open party list PR for local councils would make for a better fit . Local government size areas are too big in this country compared to many Continental countries. Overly large unitary councils such as Buckinghamshire should be abolished with the local councils being recreated and made smaller preferably whilst the more important services especially things like transport provided by these very big unitary authorities being devolved upwards to provinces/regional government

  • Yes, Keith Sharp, changing stand alone FPTP to PR for the House of Commons is vitally important because the unfair and undemocratic results produced by that system is at the heart of the overall political system and the mass levels of disaffection with politics the public are feeling.

    Leaving stand alone FPTP in place whilst tinkering around the edges with other changes is like attempting to play a game of football with eleven team players but no football.

  • Peter Martin 4th Jun '23 - 3:34pm

    As is perhaps to be expected any discussion of radical change on LDV focusses on PR.

    Many Lib Dems seemed happy enough that they finished second the last time we had a national election based on PR in May 2019. But maybe not so happy about the party which actually won?

    PR likely won’t just mean the Lib Dems getting an increased number of MPs and councillors whilst everything else remains much the same. Maybe this is a good thing and maybe it isn’t. Either way it does need some discussion about what the other changes might be. It could even involve a three way split of the Lib Dems with the Social Democrats and more right wing Economic Liberals both going their own way.

  • Steven,

    I believe that the larger the ward the less representative of their constituents, councillors are. With wards with a maximum of 8800 electors it should be possible for one person to get round to every home in the ward. Having four councillors is likely to result in representation from three political parties and so it is important that for an individual councillor to get round the whole ward because they don’t have a colleague to share the work with.

    The Mixed-Member Proportional system means that the wards have to be larger because of the need of having some elected by PR to provide proportionally.

    I agree many unitary councils are too large, unlike those in Berkshire, however transport should not be transferred up to regional government. The purpose of regional government is to take on responsibilities from central government not take on roles currently carried out by local government. With a maximum of 8800 electors per ward it is likely that councils’ areas would have to be smaller so the number of councillors is not too large.

  • Keith Sharp 7th Jun '23 - 2:45pm

    Re- Steven’s comment that:

    ‘national turnout in local elections has declined slightly since FPTP was replaced by STV’

    It’s correct that the first post devolution local elections under fptp did generate a high turnout (eg 49.1% in 2003). However it’s worth getting a full context – these elections and indeed the first STV local elections (52.8% turnout in 2007) were held on the same day as Parliamentary elections and it is safe to assume local election turnout was boosted as a consequence.

    But if you take the three ‘stand-alone’ STV local elections, the turnout was:

    2012 – 39.6%
    2017 – 46.9%
    2022- 44.8%

    which suggests consistency of turnout. And of course these figures compare favourably with English local FPTP elections which generally hover around the mid 30’s for turnout.

    (Thanks to the Electoral Reform Society for confitming this data)

  • Peter Hirst 10th Jun '23 - 1:36pm

    I agree. Without The Commons adopting PR, HOL reform will falter. The former is so vital to remedying so many of our weaknesses that it should be introduced without the need for a referendum. It should be a main plank of our GE manifesto.

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