Working behind the scenes
To change the electoral system for Westminster we need legislation to go through parliament. Building connections with politicians is incredibly important because this allows us to better understand their existing priorities, the shifting party dynamics in which they operate, to become a source of trusted information by providing evidence-based research on a variety of democratic issues which enables politicians to feel confident when approaching us with concerns regarding upcoming legislation or wider constitutional issues.
Our work behind the scenes consists of promoting our reports and events, meeting with MPs and their staff to better understand their democratic concerns, gathering information to identify politicians who might share our goals, working closely with other organisations in the democracy sector, supporting MPs to highlight democratic concerns to the government and organising events to facilitate conversations amongst politicians around our policy issues.
A key area of work for us this year was our campaign against the Elections Bill which reached its final stages in parliament in the early part of the year. The bill was set to introduce voter identification laws for all non-devolved elections, change the voting system for mayoral and PPC elections to First Past the Post, put new restrictions on campaigners and give the government powers over our independent elections regulator, the Electoral Commission. We continued to highlight concerns and press for change during the latter stages of the bill.
Work we carried out while campaigning against the Elections Bill included drafting amendments to the bill for parliamentarians to table, providing tailored briefings for MPs and Peers both in person and written, liaising with front bench MPs and key groups within all the political parties, and supporting a rally at parliament. We used our research and understanding of the technical details of the policies in the bill to help shape the campaign to change the legislation – including moves to repeal the introduction of FPTP for mayoral elections.
Thanks to our work behind the scenes working closely with MPs, civil society organisations and those across the democracy sector, we won an amendment to the Elections Bill which would have ensured fewer people were disenfranchised by the introduction of Voter ID. Sadly in the final stages of the bill, with the Government pressing for prorogation and whipping strongly, these amendments were overturned.
Another aspect of our Parliamentary work is engaging with All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs). APPGs bring together MPs and Peers from across different political parties who have a shared interest in a particular topic. This year we have continued our work with APPG for Electoral Reform. Launched in February 2021, the APPG is a group of MPs and Peers from across the political spectrum working towards a more proportional voting system for all UK elections, while pushing for other reforms to boost democracy at Westminster and empower voters.
Alongside Make Votes Matter we provide the secretariat for the Electoral Reform APPG. This means planning a yearly agenda that the APPG will follow, organising invitations, guest speakers and facilitating APPG meetings on a regular basis to share important research, academic opinions and political experience concerning democratic issues.
This year we have organised several meetings around the theme of ‘The Democratic State of the Nations’ in which we have heard first hand experience from politicians and research from academics on a range of topics. We covered the Elections Bill and the impact of Voter ID hearing evidence from Kyle Taylor of Fair Vote UK and Pakou Hang of Vote Run Lead discussing the issue of voter suppression in the United States and Dr Nik Johnson, Peterborough and Cambridgeshire’s metro mayor, on how the Government’s instruction to impose First Past the Post for mayoral elections represents democratic backsliding. We presented our Democracy Made in England report and heard from Chris Clarkson MP and former Secretary of State, John Denham.
For the APPG meeting on Scotland’s experience with deliberative democracy we heard from Scottish Government Minister George Adam MSP and Dr Oliver Escobar. Our final meeting of the calendar year will be looking at the package of electoral reforms in the Welsh Senedd highlighting the variations of democratic initiatives and policies across the UK nations.
In Cardiff Bay
The ERS Cymru team have had another busy year working on two major areas, Senedd reform and local government reform, and seen significant progress within both areas.
The ERS Cymru team have been instrumental in providing Senedd Members and political parties in Wales with salient and vital information on all aspects of potential PR electoral systems as part of the campaign to reform the Senedd. While every Senedd Member has received a written briefing on the pros and cons of different electoral systems, face to face meetings and presentations also took place, including with Ministers, party leaders and other senior Senedd members.
The Welsh team were also focused on Local Government reform. In January 2021 the Local Government and Elections Wales Act 2021 was passed – and one of the standout parts was that it enables a council to choose between STV and First Past the Post to elect their council chambers.
This part of the Act came into force following the local elections in May of this year, however, work was already underway by ERS Cymru. In the years prior, a survey to find out where support lay for PR was sent out to all councillors. During this time the team also met with sixty-nine councillors, from all parties and at least one from every local authority in Wales trying to build up a strong network of supporters. Since the election the ERS Cymru team has built on its work during the 2017-22 term, whilst adapting to the new political landscape.
Target local authorities have been identified and there has been an increase in work in those areas including face-to-face meetings with councillors in their wards. Circulation of another survey, this time directly asking councillors their views on changing their electoral system, has seen an improved return with more than a third of local representatives giving their views. We have met with 17 councillors so far including the leaders of two target local authorities.
We were instrumental in establishing the group ‘Plaid councillors for STV’ which brings together Plaid Cymru councillors who support STV and continue to provide secretariat and recruitment support for the group.
Our work on local government reform in Wales led to members of the ERS Cymru team visiting East Ayrshire in Scotland in April of this year. Colleagues from our Welsh and Scottish offices spent a week observing the campaigns of different parties, learning directly from the experiences of voters, party members, councillors and candidates. By talking to people with different experiences of an STV election we have a more comprehensive understanding of some of the practicalities which in turn allows us to speak to councillors in Wales and better answer their questions.
We have produced four short films that will hopefully give our supporters and elected representatives an insight into the Scottish experience of STV.
When the Scottish local elections came around in May of this year, the ERS Cymru team returned to East Ayrshire to witness an election count under STV. Again, the insight gained was invaluable. Not only did it allow us to see the end point of the election, the differences and nuance of a count under STV, but it also meant we were able to strengthen the connections between ourselves and the candidates we had campaigned with in April. ERS Cymru now has links with councillors in East Ayrshire that could be an asset to the campaign in Wales.
This year the team at ERS Scotland have continued their campaign for a truly local democracy in Scotland researching the effectiveness of representative democracy in Scotland, campaigning for improvements in the processes of government, and seeking to promote discussion about Scotland’s democratic future.
At ERS Scotland we are constantly monitoring the political seas and updating our course to make sure we have the proper heading. Following this year’s local elections and the elections to the Scottish Parliament in 2021, we set out our goals for the coming years.
ERS Scotland took further steps with their project to pilot citizen-led decision making at a local level, beginning to draw more partners into the project and looking into potential sources of funding for it. In March the Ministerial Working Group which ERS Scotland’s director Willie Sullivan was a member of, published a comprehensive report which advises how and why deliberative and participative processes should be embedded within Scotland’s democratic system.
The Scottish Parliament’s lobbying register is currently under review, and in collaboration with the Scottish Alliance on Lobbying Transparency we engaged with the Minister and committee responsible to argue that we urgently need more transparency over who influences policy.
We also began work with Sortition Foundation and others to help flesh out the Scottish Green Party’s policy on participation, looking to bring some of our local democracy expertise to bear on how citizens’ assemblies and participatory methods can be institutionalised at all levels of government. This potential amendment to their policy will be debated as a motion at an emergency meeting soon.
We also continued our engagement with Scottish unions, including ERS Scotland staffing a Politics for the Many stall at STUC Congress in April.
We were invited to make a submission to the Scottish Parliament’s Citizen Participation and Public Petition Committee as part of their inquiry into Public Participation and will sit on the stewarding board of the ‘mini public’ which will review the evidence.