Binary indicative votes were never going to achieve a consensus

Willie Sullivan, Senior Director, Campaigns and Scotland

Posted on the 29th March 2019

This is an expanded version of a letter from our Senior Director,  Willie Sullivan, that was published in the Times on March 29th.

When MPs voted to take control of the order paper in an attempt to agree an alternative Brexit plan, it was seen by many as a chance to break the parliamentary deadlock.

But in last Wednesday’s votes, MPs failed to get behind any of the options on offer, with none of the eight getting majority backing in the chamber. The same could well happen again tonight. Obviously.

Let’s face it: the binary nature of the indicative votes – with MPs voting ‘Aye’ or ‘Noe’ to each option – was realistically never going to achieve a consensus. That’s something the architects of the process no doubt expected – and an outcome which helps the government. It’s why a second round of indicative votes is scheduled for today. Yet when Sir Oliver Letwin proposed this next round of voting, he was hounded down by MPs on his own benches: ‘Ridiculous’.

Regardless of their motivations for opposing a fresh round of voting, on Monday, when the indicative votes on Brexit options return to the commons, we risk seeing more of the same: we could once again find ourselves in a position where no single option commands a majority meaning Parliament’s Brexit paralysis continues.

The failure of this process to find a way through lies in the fact that it didn’t let MPs rank their preferred options – i.e. simply putting numbers down instead of an X next to the options. If they had done, we might have seen them find common ground by working out which of the solutions on offer could secure majority support. Indeed, Ken Clarke (architect of the permanent Customs Union motion) is among many MPs calling for a ‘preferential’ model to be used.

But the failure of imagination when it comes to the way MPs voted last night shouldn’t come as a surprise. Even in this time of national crisis, Westminster is still locked in an outdated binary mentality – and averse to working towards a common goal.

What we’re seeing in the Brexit debate is a microcosm of Westminster’s adversarial politics as a whole. Two opposite sides digging their heels in, and a long-standing failure to ‘reach out’ to other parties and viewpoints.

It’s a culture that stems from the divisive voting system used to elect MPs themselves: one where only one person can win each seat (and all the other voices/votes are ignored), where results are distorted, and where the diversity of the public’s views often goes unrepresented.

The whole debate on Brexit has been pitched by many as the battle of the 52 vs the 48 – a continuing fight between the winning Leavers and losing Remainers. But that too is to diminish the many shared perspectives and priorities of people across that divide: from health and public services to simply being heard.

Across our politics, on Brexit and beyond – both inside and outside Parliament – we need to move towards ways of building consensus and bridging these divides. To do that, MPs needs to recognise that the decrepit First Past the Post electoral system is no longer fit for purpose.

We find ourselves in this state of continued uncertainty because Westminster’s adversarial structures don’t function in today’s society. We are not a country of two parties, divided solely on class lines, anymore.

When our electoral system gives us a distorted parliament – dominated by an over-represented group of voices, while others are side-lined – and when MPs mimick this with a indicative vote system antithetical to reaching consensus – how can we expect it to be any different?

MPs should have another chance to vote for a Brexit solution. But using the same discredited tools won’t break through this deadlock.

The vote is a chance for MPs to embrace a new, positive, consensus-building approach to politics and use proportional voting to break this deadlock.

It offers a way out of the current political impasse – it’s up to Parliament to take it.

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