Caroline Lucas: A fair electoral system would tackle why people don’t vote

Caroline Lucas MP
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Caroline Lucas MP

Posted on the 1st November 2017

Green Party Co-Leader Caroline Lucas at the Westminster Hall Debate on Electoral Reform

If democracy is about fairly representing the views of the people, we are failing at it with first past the post.

As a country, we pride ourselves on our strong commitment to democracy, yet the vast majority of votes cast up and down the land simply do not count. In June’s General Election, 68% of votes made no difference to the outcome.

I say this with a vested interest, yes. One million people voted Green in 2015 – under a proportional system, that could have given them over 20 Green MPs.

But I also say it because I’m deeply worried about what our outdated, dysfunctional electoral system is doing to the legitimacy of our governance system.

A system that is not only failing the political parties and failing to deliver effective government – it’s failing the citizens of this country.

33% of people don’t think that voting for their preferred party will make a difference. 44% of people don’t feel that the UK Parliament is capable of understanding and effectively representing their concerns.

That’s a tragedy.

It’s also an irony.  We may be on the path to leaving the EU but all those who were promised they would be taking back “control” simply will not have any without meaningful electoral reform.

Proportional representation would not just bring some much needed fairness, it would go some considerable way towards helping tackle some of the reasons people don’t vote. And, in these times of voter volatility and diversity, PR would be a system worthy of the name democracy.

The current unrepresentative voting system is doing long term pervasive damage.

It manifests itself in phenomena such as a widespread lack of trust and faith in public servants and the growth of what some have coined, with Orwellian overtones, “post-truth politics”.

Far too many of our constituents are disillusioned, disaffected and disengaged, and continuing to deny them a voice in the decisions that affect us all only perpetuates the problem.

Yet this is exactly what happens under our first past the post voting system.

A system where votes are not equal because, unless you live in one of a small number and heavily targeted marginal seats, your vote quite simply does not count.

The Electoral Reform Society described the 2015 general election as “the most disproportionate in electoral history”, with the majority of MPs elected on fewer than 50% of the votes cast in their constituencies and the Government elected on 24% of the eligible vote.

They further report that in the 2017 election over 22 million votes (68%) were wasted because First-Past-the-Post takes no account of votes for the winning candidate over and above what they need, or for the losing candidates’ votes.

In five constituencies (Manchester Gorton, Liverpool Walton, Knowsley, Liverpool Riverside, Liverpool West Derby) 90% of votes made no difference to the outcome because they were cast for candidates that didn’t win, or cast for the winning candidate over and above what they needed to win.

I’d also argue that First Past the Post does not deliver the best governance.

Elections where a single winner takes all the power promotes adversarial politics.

It sees each of the major parties seek to unequivocally defeat the opposition and negate the need for any co-operation post-election.

It also means policy is likely to change quite dramatically when government’s change, with greater extremes and greater impacts on economic and environmental policy for example, and on social justice and inclusion.

It’s no surprise that research by Dutch professor of Political Science Arend Lijphart found that countries with proportional voting systems outperform those with first past the post when it comes to issues that require a long term view.

For example, countries with proportional systems score significantly higher on Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index. Others have found that PR countries are more likely to use renewable energy and pay for high environmental standards. [1]

They tend to be more progressive when it comes to issues such as assisted dying, militarism, LGBT rights and freedom to marry. And their reduced susceptibility to vested interests is cited as one reason PR countries are generally better at reducing inequality.[2]

Former Labour MP and Foreign Secretary Robin Cook observed that electoral reform isn’t just about functional outcomes – it’s about values. PR is one way in which we can express our commitment to fairness, openness and equality in our society.

People are not interested in politics, goes the refrain. But everyone is interested in the state of their local schools, in whether or not they have a local hospital.

And whatever your take on the EU referendum, it demonstrated that if you give people a say, they can be very political indeed – in the best possible sense of the word. As citizens who feel they can be genuine agents for change.

When people start to feel their actions make a difference they step up – and we saw this in the 2017 election. Huge numbers of younger voters in particular mobilised because, perhaps, for the first time they felt their vote would make a difference.

This was reflected in a turnout of 68.7%, the highest it’s been since 1997. It was also estimated that turnout in the 18 to 24 age group was up 16% compared to 2015.

This is all positive, but we can do even better.

The turnout amongst young people, for example, is still lower than turnout in older age groups.

Under PR we’d increase voter turn-out even further because people would know it was worth voting, that their vote really did make a difference. That’s borne out by the evidence from countries where all votes do matter, which is on average 5-8% higher than first past the post countries.

We would also improve the chances of electing a Parliament that better reflects modern Britain.

Only 32% of MPs are women and women MPs are still outnumbered two to one by male MPs. The UK is now only 40th in the world when it comes to women’s parliamentary representation. So much for the mother of all parliaments.

People of colour, disabled people, carers, LGBT people are still under represented in Parliament.

Without the artificial majorities afforded by First Past the Post, MPs can’t just rely on the votes of their tribe. To win the support of the majority of voters they are forced to reach out across the party divide to the wider electorate – to women, to BME communities and so forth. And, hopefully that means more traditionally excluded groups standing for election too.

Robin Cook understood all this when, back in 2005 he said, and I quote:

 “Our objective, our slogan, should be to achieve an electoral system which puts our democracy in the hands of the many voters, not the few voters who happen to be key in marginal seats.”

[1] (Orellana, 2014; Cohen, 2010).

[2] http://behindthenumbers.ca/2016/10/11/proportional-representation-likely-produce-better-public-policy/

  • Chris Dodson, Reading

    Caroline makes a well reasoned argument for why this country badly needs reform to our system of electing the representatives that enact our laws. I fully support the view that we currently do not have a truly representative democracy. One could argue that we do not have a democracy at all. How can we, when our current government is only supported directly by 24% of the elegible electorate! The difficulty we all have is finding a PR system that will guarantee a PR outcome. Neither AV nor STV do this and thus our lobby for PR is often less effective because these systems do not achieve our stated objective. They are also complex in operation and for the voter who has to make many choices instead of just one.
    I have however a proposal that may produce a more positive outcome. Based on one vote per elector, and on the number of constituencies being reduced by 50%, it is possible to elect 50% of representatives based on ‘First Past the Post’ as currently, and electing the remaining 50% of representatives based on the proportion of national vote achieved. Under this system Parties achieving a notional vote higher than a set minimum, say 1%, would have additional candidates ‘elected’ proportionately up to the share of national vote. These elected representatives would be those that performed most highly for their party but failed to win a FPP seat. They would also stand and represent the constituency in which they stood. Under this format all constituencies would be represented by at least one representative, most would have two and some may have three. This will mean that in many more constituencies the electorate will have a choice of help, and more likely to have a representative more in line with his or her views.

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