The government is levelling down democracy: we must redouble our electoral reform efforts

The UK government’s Elections Bill and the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act are part of a clear strategy to entrench Conservative dominance and weaken our democratic foundations.

Rather than merely oppose calls for positive change – such as perpetual Conservative opposition to Proportional Representation and begrudgingly working within the framework of fixed-term parliaments – this government is on the offensive. We must push back against these regressive changes with our positive vision of a fairer, more inclusive and truly representative democracy.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act isn’t perfect but fixing parliamentary term-lengths and election dates created an even playing field for elections. With fixed terms, all parties know when the next election will take place and can plan accordingly, while also allowing flexibility for early elections. The pre-coalition system gave an unfair advantage to the prime minister of the day. If presented with the opportunity, we must reverse this government’s decision to recreate that uneven playing field.

The government’s Elections Bill is the latest manifestation of the Conservatives’ regressive political reform agenda. The bill weakens the independence of the Electoral Commission and will introduce voter ID, which is set to marginalise voters through putting additional hurdles in the way of their democratic right. There would perhaps be a rational case for voter ID if there was genuine widespread electoral fraud but there simply isn’t, making the government’s plan extremely disproportionate.

And if you thought that wasn’t bad enough, the Bill also contains provisions, snuck in at the last minute, to replace the Supplementary Vote with First Past the Post for mayoral and PCC elections. The Supplementary Vote is flawed but it rightly gives single-seat representatives broader mandates than under FPTP. We have a government actively trying to weaken the link between voters and representatives. For a so-called representative democracy, that is truly unacceptable.

Liberal Democrats in parliament and across the country are working hard to oppose these illiberal changes to the face of our democracy. And crucially, we are also making the positive case for progressive democratic reforms.

Our party should continue to bang the drum loudest for electoral reform, pushing back against Conservative changes while promoting a better way of doing democracy. This should be spearheaded by our proposals for a fully representative House of Commons, as part of our package of reforms to rebuild liberal Britain.

Implementing PR (ideally STV) is the single most important electoral reform we can make. First Past the Post fails to represent voters across the UK. We must stand up for PR in the face of a government rolling back positive democratic reforms.

There are valuable lessons we can learn from the Alternative Vote referendum of 2011 for how we can play our cards in any future hung parliament to achieve this reform. Labour conference may not have backed PR due to union opposition but the party’s membership is overwhelmingly in favour. A future hung parliament where there is opportunity to cooperate with Labour may provide a route to real reform. A strong Liberal Democrat parliamentary presence can lead the way.

Proportional Representation isn’t a top priority for most people but an estimated 1 in 4 voters voted tactically in 2019, with many frustrated that politicians don’t listen to them. The problem is largely because we have a system where millions of votes are wasted. People voted Liberal Democrat in almost every seat across the country yet in only twelve are they directly represented by a Lib Dem voice in parliament. PR will ultimately strengthen the link between voters and representatives, ensuring that people are listened to.

When we next have the opportunity to shape our politics, we must tear down the government’s regressive reforms and build a better democracy. We must seize the opportunity to roll back the Elections Bill and reintroduce fixed-term parliaments, while moving forward with implementing Proportional Representation in conjunction with modernising Westminster and democratising our upper chamber.

That opportunity can come at the next election.

Let’s turn the tide in 2024 by removing illiberalism and upgrading our democracy.

* Richard Wood is a member of the Scottish Liberal Democrats and works in Westminster. He runs Upgrade Holyrood and often writes for Politics.co.uk on democracy issues. He is also currently standing for election to the Electoral Reform Society’s Council.

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8 Comments

  • Roger Roberts 1st Oct '21 - 8:46pm

    A system which was largely satisfactory when only two parties Liberal and Conservative ,contested most constituencies has been unfit for purpose ever since the Labour party emerged as the third party over a century ago. Until we have Proportional Representation true democracy is impossible to achieve. Never again should we support a Tory party in any form of agreement or coalition. Always difficult when an item in a joint Manifesto is massively attractive as was the

  • Roger Roberts 1st Oct '21 - 8:58pm

    A system which was largely satisfactory when only two parties Liberal and Conservative ,contested most constituencies has been unfit for purpose ever since the Labour party emerged as the third party over a century ago. Until we have Proportional Representation true democracy is impossible to achieve. Never again should we support a Tory party in any form of agreement or coalition. Always difficult when an item in a joint Manifesto is massively attractive as was the end of detention of children for immigration purposes. That could have been included in an agreement with another party and we would not have tied ourselves to the Tories (and increasing tuition fees !) Any agreement with other parties must include P.R.

  • Nigel Hunter 1st Oct '21 - 9:43pm

    Yes an agreement has to be put in place if we need future parties involvement.The PR we prefer MUST be spelt out IN SIMPLE EASY TO UNDERSTAND form in our leaflets on the door step media etc. EQUALLY counteract the ways that FPTPers will oppose the measure

  • Peter Martin 2nd Oct '21 - 6:49am

    “With fixed terms, all parties know when the next election will take place….”

    Except we didn’t.

    The so-called “fixed term Parliament Act” didn’t do what its proponents claimed it would. We had elections in 2017 when they should not/need not have been held until 2020. We had elections in 2019, again three years early according to the schedule. Many MPs who had supported the FTPA voted for these early elections. Go figure!

    The FTPA makes no difference at all. If a PM wishes to call an early election, the opposition leaders can hardly refuse him/her one. They can’t be calling the government the ‘worst in living memory’ etc etc one day and then suggest they have to stay on for another few years, the next day, because of the FTPA.

    That it wouldn’t work was entirely predictable and shows a lack of foresight on the part of those who supported the FTPA in the first place.

    The first problem with PR is that it’s rarely discussed outside of minor party circles. There’s no popular clamour for changing the system as we all discovered during the AV referendum. Even that small sensible step was rejected.

    The second, and probably bigger, problem is that you need to be very much a major party to have any hope of bringing in PR.

  • John Marriott 2nd Oct '21 - 8:52am

    @Peter Martin
    You are right about the FTPA. As in many aspects of life, it takes two to tango. The act allowed for the dissolution of Parliament through clauses that were used by the government. Perhaps these should not have seen the light of day. It was clearly too tempting for opposition parties to ignore the opportunity twice during the titular five years to avoid the bait. So, why abolish the FTPA as the Tories have indicated they intend to do? It clearly in its present form does NOT guarantee a five year Parliament, so why waste legislative time?

    Now, when it comes to PR, of course you bring up the 2011 AV referendum. What a shambles that was. In particular was the cynical way Cameron duped Clegg and Co into accepting a system that, while slightly less unfair than FPTP, was not really PR. As soon as the campaign began, he released his attack dogs in a ‘No to AV’ campaign led by Matthew Elliott (Cummings’ sidekick in the Brexit campaign), which featured in its many leaflets the photo of Clegg about to enter No10. The ‘Yes to AV’ campaign was frankly pathetic – no leaflets, at least not where I lived – plenty of razzmatazz, t shirts etc, but no real attempt to win people over by explaining to them how easy it would be the number the candidates in order of preference or still just vote for one if you preferred. As John Cleese famously said in his SDP PPB back in the 1987, if you can’t count up to five, you might find it “pretty bewildering”. Perhaps they should have asked him to reprise that broadcast in 2011! About the only coalition cabinet member to object at the time to some of the ‘No’ tactics was Chris Huhne – at least he got the point(s)! If I had to name the greatest mistake the Lib Dems made during the coalition it would be how they blew it over PR.

    As for your final paragraph, do you still class Labour as a ‘major party’?

  • William Wallace 2nd Oct '21 - 9:02am

    Thanks very much for this. The Elections Bill was originally to be called ‘the Election Integrity Bill’. At least there govt was honest enough to drop the claim to integrity. The Bradford Electoral Registration team briefed me on how changes in the Bill (and proposals to shorten the campaign period) will affect them raising large questions about how the extra work can be managed. We will fight this Bill hard in the Lords. But it will be interesting to see whether Labour do the same, or knuckle under as they too often do.

  • Peter Hirst 2nd Oct '21 - 4:29pm

    Electoral reform in the form of PR is the single most effective change we can make to improve our politics.

  • Helen Dudden 3rd Oct '21 - 7:48am

    What ever we need, it should contain the ability to think out of the box on how the treatment of voters after an election.
    I’ve been totally shocked by some of the outcomes and failures of this government.
    The comments that related to those who have loved ones and relatives with cancer, I know a close family member who is battling with lung cancer. It took a footballer with compassion to highlight hungry children. It’s taken an ITV company to show the issue’s with housing and the need for reforms. Cladding and that to seems to not have an end in sight.
    There has been comments on The House of Lords if it goes or stays, but I do feel we have reached a situation that questions the very democracy we value in our lives.
    The questions of how and where Covid started, perhaps also the question, did those who came from the EU get paid fairly?
    So many questions that need answers.

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