The "secret" to fixing our broken voting system?

Guest blog by Jack Maizels, Unlock Democracy council member

Yesterday The Independent on Sunday reported that “secret” talks are taking place between Labour and the Lib Dems over a possible alliance in 2020 on the issue of voting reform. Those involved apparently believe that by standing on a single platform (possibly with the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru as well), anyone voting for these parties would know their vote would count towards ending our current system of First Past the Post (FPTP), and so a referendum would not be necessary.

Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has since said there was “not a lot of truth” to the story and there may well be concerns about the practicalities and limiting voter choice - but if an alliance were to happen, perhaps it would be a measure reflective of desperate times. Picture the scenario in May 2020 - over 60% have voted for parties who back reform (assuming Labour decide to adopt the policy), but are frozen out by another Conservative majority (aided by boundary changes) on just over a third of the vote. We would be left with the continuation of a cycle where those who benefit from an undemocratic system are the only ones empowered to change it. If this cycle is to be broken, an alliance may be the only way to do it.

Could there be change without a referendum though? Our lack a written constitution means there no set rules about what should be put to a referendum - often they’re born out just trying to resolve a difficult political situation (as was the case with the AV referendum, which incidentally failed to offer us the choice of a proportional system). Everything in a manifesto is usually taken as endorsed - even if voters are not as keen on some policies. However, while possibly justifiable, not having a referendum would be a missed opportunity to engage with voters and debate the pros and cons of different systems. Constituency link? How proportional? Can you rank individual candidates or just parties? There are many legitimate voting systems and the British people should have a chance to choose between them.

But there is one instinct that we should consider resisting - the automatic right of the status quo on the ballot, simply because it’s what we’ve got now. While on the face of it, offering a wider choice may seem more democratic, in 2015 FPTP effectively removed the voice of 25% of the electorate who voted Lib Dem, Green or UKIP, returning those parties just 1.5% of MPs. This failure of FPTP demonstrates how undemocratic it is, and while a majority could vote in favour of it, they would effectively be voting away the right to representation for a significant minority. Some may consider this the right thing to do - but it’s hard to call it democratic if so many voices are explicitly excluded.

Whatever happens over the next 4 years, those in favour of reform must work together to build the case for change, and when the time comes, we should involve people in the decision. We mustn’t, however, settle for the undemocratic status quo.