Parliament tackles making votes match seats

Unlock Democracy has a long-history of demanding a fairer voting system, in which votes match seats. On the 30th of October the House of Commons considered an e-petition relating to proportional representation. Unlock Democracy has been supporting this petition along with the Electoral Reform Society and Make Votes Matter. We would like to thank all of you that made this debate possible. This blog contains a summary of what happened in the debate. 

Why is a debate on proportional representation is necessary?

In June’s general election millions of voters planned to vote tactically. Initiatives like vote swapping websites popped up, showing the appetite amongst voters to make their vote matter, where there was little chance of it meaning anything in their home constituency. While initiatives for making votes count are welcome, voters shouldn’t have to resort to vote swapping to make their vote meaningful - a fairer electoral system is needed to make this possible. 

What happened in the debate?

The debate gave space for parliamentarians to express their alligments with either our current system, First Past the Post (FPTP), or a system of Proportional Representation (PR). The overwhelming majority of speakers supported a change in the voting system. However Conservative MPs, who had in their manifesto to keep FPTP as the voting system in the UK, defended their position.

Conservative MPs argued that FPTP gives power to constituents, while PR would put more power in hands of party leaders. Another common argument was that PR often results in no clear majority and governments are formed through ‘back-room’ deals that are not ratified by people. Clearly, the irony was lost on members supporting this line of argument that this was precisely what happened at most recent general election - under FPTP.  In fact, in last three elections FPTP has created hung parliaments that have required parties to form agreements and coalitions. 

Cabinet Minister Chris Skidmore argued that FPTP is the simplest and best understood voting system, and that PR could increase the likelihood of ballot papers being completed incorrectly due to its complexity. He even went as far as to suggest that voters weren’t capable of understanding other electoral systems:

 “the government have serious concerns that proportional representation voting systems are less likely to be understood and followed correctly by members of the public, increasing the likelihood that ballot papers will be completed incorrectly.

Caroline Lucas MP fired back that other countries like Germany, France, Denmark, and Finland have PR and asked whether the government thinks that the population of Britain is 

significantly less intelligent than the population of (..) all the countries that use proportional representation?” 

Labour MP Stephen Twigg argued that one fundamental reason to change to a PR system is that, whilst from 1945 to 1970 well over 90% of people voted Conservative or Labour, this is no longer the case. He called for a democratic or citizen’s convention to decide what reforms should be made.

In the end, as Chris Williamson MP stated, democracy is about
“ensuring that the governing party or parties commanded a majority of support in the country”. This is something that our current voting system does not achieve, creating deep feelings of alienation with our political system, as Jonathan Reynolds MP argued. 

The impact of our unfair voting is often felt the hardest by smaller political parties. In recent general elections, as Caroline Lucas MP pointed out, many Green candidates decided to not to stand in order to not to split the ‘progressive’ vote. Labour MPs such as Wes Streeting and Ruth Cadbury thanked her for the gesture. Cadbury also stressed how the fact that this happens and tactic voting, whilst positive for her it isn’t good for democracy.

The debate showed that ‘make votes fairer’ is a demand that goes beyond party politics. SNP, Lib Dem, Green and Labour MPs demanded PR as a way of having a better and fairer democracy. 

Benefits of a PR system

The benefits of a fairer voting system of votes goes well beyond of having better representation. As many MPs pointed out during the debate, and quoting Stephen Kinnock MP (Lab): 

Decades of research show that proportional representation correlates with positive societal outcomes: greater income equality, less corporate control, better long-term planning and political stability, fairer representation of women and minorities, higher voter turnout, better environmental laws and a significantly lower likelihood of going to war”. 

PR systems outperform those with FPTP systems in issues that benefit from taking a longer term view, such as as is environmental policy - countries with PR systems score significantly higher on Yale University’s environmental performance index.

What can you do?

Unlock Democracy believes that we need a fairer voting system, in which all votes matter. This would improve the way our democracy works. If you also think seats needs to match votes, sign up to our mailing list or become a member to get the latest news on our campaigns.