Tom Brake writes: The route to Proportional Representation

Proportional Representation is in the Liberal Democrats’ DNA.

It might not always, or indeed ever (the party’s historians will correct me if I am wrong) have featured on the front page of the Lib Dem manifesto.  But it has always been a main plank of the party’s package of modernising democratic reforms.

If this were ever in doubt, Alistair Carmichael MP, the party’s Spokesperson for Home Affairs, Political & Constitutional Reform nailed the party’s colours to the PR mast by adding a new clause to the Elections Bill on the 17th January.  He was supported by MPs from 3 other political parties.

Its purpose: to abolish First Past The Post for UK general elections and require the Government to take all reasonable steps to introduce proportional representation.  In his speech, Alistair made the case for PR declaring, ‘we must have a system that gets rid of safe seats so that everybody’s vote, no matter where they live, is of equal value.’

Unfortunately, House of Commons’ support for PR wasn’t tested.  The FPTP system guarantees that voters who support parties like the Lib Dems never secure fair representation in Parliament. This in turn deprives Lib Dem MPs of the parliamentary numbers that would require the Speaker to grant them frequent voting opportunities.  So, no vote was granted or held on the PR amendment.

In contrast, at the last Labour conference, a vote was held on the subject of PR.

This followed a concerted and well-organised campaign by Labour for a New Democracy (L4ND) with around 150 constituency labour parties submitting PR motions.

The PR motion debated at their conference had the overwhelming support of local party delegates.  80% supported the call for reform.  However, the motion was narrowly defeated after block votes cast by a number of the trade unions.

The campaign continues, with a renewed focus on the trade union movement.  L4ND is confident of securing sufficient union support to win any future vote at the Labour conference on PR.

But it is unlikely any one party can secure this change single-handed.

To discuss how parties committed to PR, like the Lib Dems and the Greens, and parties that could soon adopt PR can work together, we are hosting a fringe on PR at the Lib Dem party conference.  The fringe will also consider the role party organisations like LDER and democracy sector organisations like Unlock Democracy can play.

The fringe is entitled ‘the Route to Proportional Representation’ and is on Sunday 13th March at 1pm with Alistair Carmichael MP.  To provide a Scottish perspective on PR, Willie Rennie MSP will also join us.  We are also very fortunate to have Laura Parker as a speaker.  She is a leading PR campaigner and strategic advisor to Labour for a New Democracy (L4ND) and has been a key player in fostering overwhelming support for PR amongst Labour party members.

This should be a stimulating debate.  The challenges about securing PR don’t start and end with manifesto commitments.  Manifesto commitments don’t always make it into a programme of government.  And a government, when legislating, can have no certainty about its ability to usher all its members into the right lobby.

I hope conference delegates will want to join us for this debate and help us work out how to take PR from aspiration to reality.

* Tom Brake was the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington from 1997 to 2019.

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7 Comments

  • Brad Barrows 27th Feb '22 - 10:36am

    Interesting to note that the largest party in Parliament committed to proportional representation – the SNP – was not mentioned in this article, but the the Green Party of England and Wales, with 1 MP was. While the SNP clearly regards Scotland’s constitutional future as a bigger priority than reforming how the UK Parliament is elected, for as long as Scotland remains part of the UK the SNP has a vested interest in having fairer elections for the House of Commons – the SNP would win less MPs with proportional representation but those MPs would probably wield more influence as no party would have an overall majority. Therefore I would like to see the Liberal Democrats reaching out to the SNP, as well as the Greens and pro-PR elements of the Labour Party, to seek to build a progressive platform for change.

  • David Warren 27th Feb '22 - 2:36pm

    The unions are key to securing a change in Labour policy something L4ND were slow to recognize. Hence the failure of a PR motion to pass at last years Labour Party Conference despite having overwhelming support among constituency delegates.

    However there has been some progress since. Unite passed a sympathetic motion at its Policy conference last autumn and a pro PR motion is on the agenda for the CWU conference in April. The debate also needs to be taken into UNISON, GMB and USDAW.

  • The reluctance of the hard core of the Labour Party’s professional parliamentary politicians, including its leader, arises, I believe, from their ambition to rule the House of Commons roost. They understand that with PR they would lead a smaller part of the Commons, with more numerous plausible opponents: a General Election would have several potential Leaders of the post-election Opposition, as well as of the Government. We must do what we can to persuade current front runners in the Labour Party to abandon the dream of winning in FPTP on their own , and to join the Anti-Conservative alliance — surely coalescing even now?

    That must happen as soon as possible, because it is clear that there will be no UBI until we have PR shaping the Commons.

    Once that is achieved, I believe the UBI campaigners will realise (as some do now) that they must choose another name for UBI: it should be the NATIONAL INCOME DIVIDEND and it will be the first and most eagerly awaited announcement in every Chancellor’s Budget speech.

  • Neil James Sandison 3rd Mar '22 - 9:22am

    British politics needs a complete make over be it PR in elections ,electronic voting , reform of the house of lords , devolved powers from Westminster to the regions . PR is the start but not be the finish constitutional reform .

  • Peter Hirst 3rd Mar '22 - 12:02pm

    Both the SNP and Labour have an issue with PR that probably reflects their internal tensions. The SNP can be applauded for seeing beyond their self interest, something that it might benefit from extending to other policy areas. Labour’s strife at achieving PR as a policy objective is worthy of a political satire programme on its own.

  • @ Peter Hirst Sorry, Peter, but can you please explain what you mean by, “Both the SNP and Labour have an issue with PR that probably reflects their internal tensions”.

    As a resident of Scotland I don’t understand your reference to the SNP and PR. I can’t detect any issue by them with PR at either Holyrood or in local elections in Scotland (both subject to forms of PR). At Westminster the voting system is set by Westminster. The SNP object to the Honours system and refuse to participate in the unelected House of Lords.

  • For the next (final FPTP) UK election,
    reform minded activists and parties must focus solely on options for a combination of:

    a. Prior to the next (final FPTP) UK election,
    a Campaign for Reform must focus solely on
    a Tactical Voting arrangement to force a hung Commons
    (by unilaterally ‘gifting’ marginal seats
    from the stronger of Con and Lab to the weaker of Con and Lab
    without any ‘whiff’ of the beneficiary party ‘returning the favour’).
    LD will be uniquely positioned with the elector power
    to ‘lead’ such an arrangement
    (i.e. ‘leading’ the SNP, Green, Reform, and PC parties).

    b. Following the next (final FPTP) UK election
    (i.e. in a hung Commons)
    a Campaign for Reform must focus solely on
    a Confidence and Supply arrangement
    (i.e. not a standing alliance arrangement,
    not a standing coalition arrangement,
    and not anything like the 2010 ConDem arrangement)
    with the least obstructive of Con or Lab in a hung Commons;
    with control over the agenda for constitutional reform as the sole ‘red line’.
    SNP will be uniquely positioned
    with the seat power to ‘lead’ such an arrangement
    (i.e. ‘leading’ the LD, Green, Reform, and PC parties).

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