Guest blog from Tom Pratt chair of Unlock Democracy Birmingham and Make Votes Matter activist
What connects the Green Party Leader, Liberal Democrat and Conservative members of the House of the Lords, a UKIP MEP, the head of the Local Government Association, the Wessex Regionalists Party and Members of Parliament from Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National Party and Labour?
I’ll give you a few seconds to think about it.
Well, all those listed above were speakers at the very first Proportional Representation Alliance Building hosted by Make Votes Matter. Since its inception in May 2015, after the most disproportionate general election in history, Make Votes Matter has consistently emphasised the need for everyone who supports the use of proportional representation in local and national elections, no matter their political allegiance, to come together and be involved in the campaign. This event aimed to kick-start the process of achieving PR by 2021.
Led by facilitator Robin Aldred, seven major speakers introduced the key themes for the day. The absurdity of last year’s general election results was highlighted by Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett who said that First-Past-The-Post also created a “Yah-Boo” style of politics which puts people off. Lord Tyler from the Liberal Democrats said that voters were cheated by the current system. Labour MP Chuka Umunna- who had publicly stated his commitment to electoral reform prior to the event- declared that he wanted to make PR a policy that everyone in Labour was in favour of.
Katie Ghose, the Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, aimed to find a practical route to reform; John Strafford, a prominent Conservative, powerfully declared that the kaleidoscope of British politics has been shaken, and if the established parties didn’t change their views, they’d be replaced by parties which offered “opportunity, hope, action and success”. Umunna’s Labour colleague Stephen Kinnock noted that First-Past-The-Post distorts the distribution of resources, and ensured that political priorities were skewed into appeasing a small number of voters in truly competitive seats- leading to poor decision-making and people being ignored.
Diane James, the only politician in the room to have won an election under a PR system when she became a UKIP MEP in 2014, highlighted the creation of one party states in local government thanks to FPTP, and how the system prevents smaller parties from breaking through. Hywel Williams, a Plaid Cymru for one of the smallest constituencies in the UK, called for more inter-party talks on the issue. Tmmy Sheppard, one of 56 SNP MPs elected at the last general election, said that change didn’t necessarily have to be introduced via a referendum.
The room also heard from Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds who recently introduced a 10 minute Private Member’s Bill on Proportional Representation. Reynolds emphasised the unfairness of FPTP right across the country- he felt it was vital to make everyone aware of this situation, because the rules of the game affect everything else. The Labour MP had received a receptive reaction from party leader Jeremy Corbyn, but stressed that reform needs support from both inside and outside Parliament.
After these key speeches, and networking sessions, the attendees discussed which issues they wanted to discuss: 4 groups were convened to discuss the best way of moving forward on campaigning and outreach work, making electoral reform in local government a reality, discrediting First-Past-The-Post for good and bringing the political parties together. Lots of ideas fizzed around in these sessions, with everyone contributing- there was a real sense that momentum is really building on this issue.
Make Votes Matter’s chief spokesman Owen Winter, a 17 year old Member of the Youth Parliament for Cornwall, further pushed the ball down the road when he announced a second Gathering will be held on May 7th- a year on from that most infamous of general elections. Beyond the big occasions, however, there is a real need for organisations like Unlock Democracy to encourage and help ordinary people who have been alienated from politics up and down the country to stand up for a fairer electoral system. The campaign is afoot- roll on 2021!