By Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society
Today is my last day at the ERS. What a journey it’s been.
My time since joining in 2010 has been an exciting period – one which has seen the Society emerge from the heavy disappointment of the AV defeat, to become a confident campaigning organisation with ambitious vision of a healthy, vibrant democracy fit for the 21st century.
As the Chief Executive for seven years in our long history (we were founded in 1884 as the Proportional Representation Society), I wanted to transform the organisation’s capability to tackle the seismic developments that are shaking up democracy in the UK and all around the world.
Sir John Lubbock, who founded ERS in 1884, was a true renaissance man, whose achievements include the bank holiday, the cheque book, and the Ancient Monuments Act. Electoral reform (or ‘effective voting’) was one of many passions, and it will continue to be one of mine.
For the ERS, voting in public elections takes place in a wider political culture, within institutions in dire need of other reforms – from our outdated Lords to the need for an extended franchise to bring younger people into the fold.
Now as democracy shifts around us and populist shocks are a daily occurrence, the ERS also has a passion to renew representative democracy alongside a deeper understanding of participative and deliberative democracy – giving citizens real power and say year-round. A reformed representative democracy and deeper forms of participation can and should go hand in hand.
Developing the Society’s expertise in newer forms of democracy, including pioneering citizens’ assemblies has been a major highlight of my tenure. The old fashioned model where the public role is tasking a delegate to make decisions for them is crumbling. Joint endeavour and sharing power – between citizens and representatives, movements and institutions – is common practice in life, work and caring. It’s time for politics to follow suit.
A fortnight ago, I received a letter from an 88 year old member thanking me for my work. After 66 years of voting in every general election he had only once been represented by a candidate whose policies he approved of – every time he felt forced to vote tactically. “The rest of my votes were thrown in the bin because I happened to live and work in a ‘safe seat area’ of a party of which I didn’t approve,” he told me.
In a democracy it is bad enough to have one person feel their voice is worthless. To discard millions because they live in the ‘wrong area’ is a travesty. For a man in the sunset of his life to feel his views have never truly heard, exposes a huge gulf between people and politics. And as we saw at this election, our current system makes tactical voting the normal – as many as one in five voted for a party or candidate that wasn’t their first choice.
Electoral reform isn’t about the mathematical beauty of a perfect system. For me, the campaign is about people – about a democracy in which every voice is heard, every vote counts, and all of our votes fairly represented in Parliament.
I remember the voters we talked to ahead of the 2015 election. Many thought we already had proportional voting. They just assumed that in a democracy parties’ strength in parliament would reflect votes cast for them.
That election was a game-changer. When local radio presenters start putting the case for reform, as happened countless times after what was the most disproportionate result ever, you know the mood is changing.
Our political culture is the real winner from a reformed system. Instead of punishing parties for campaigning country-wide, they are rewarded for their efforts. Instead of bussing activists away from their local community to a marginal seat miles away, people can campaign near their own home. And instead of the woeful disparity in spend – politics becomes worthwhile everywhere.
As I leave the ERS there are unprecedented levels of openness in civil society, in trade unions, and encouragingly, in one of the two main parties: the Labour party. There is a recognition that challenging old ways of doing politics must include voting reform.
Smaller parties stand firm for reform, and it is striking that the SNP, having benefited from First Past the Post, is staunchly committed to a fairer system. The Conservatives favour the status quo, but as they enter confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP, the advantages of an open, transparent system that is designed for power-sharing will become ever more obvious. Rushed talks, done behind closed doors after a surprise result are no comparison to the open, honest discussions you get before elections in countries with fair votes.
The ERS has a fantastic staff team now working in all four nations of the UK, supported by a dedicated Council and fuelled by the passion and dedication of members, supporters and partners.
After seven years at the ERS, I am convinced that it is not a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when’ we’ll get a fair voting system for all elections in the UK. Though I’m leaving the organisation, I will always be a fierce advocate for reform and part of the movement for a better democracy – one which is growing all the time.
The 88-year old member who wrote to me speaks for millions. His wish to ensure everyone’s voice is heard in the corridors of power and throughout our country is one shared by countless others. It is what has sustained and inspired me – and it’s what is certain to lead the ERS to win a democracy that works for all.