Building a better democracy – 2020 and the Electoral Reform Society

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive

Posted on the 7th December 2020

It’s hard to think of a more troubling year in living memory. But the public health crisis has, perhaps counter-intuitively, put issues of democracy at the forefront.

The election may feel like a distant memory, but its ramifications are being keenly felt. Single party majorities are used to command and control, pushing buttons and pulling levers. But during a health emergency, it is countries with more cooperative forms of government which appear to have performed best.

Going back to last December, the government secured an 80 seat majority – with just over a one percent increase in vote share. That election saw a surge in tactical voting and all the usual flaws of winner-takes-all politics. But really it was a crisis of representation.

Over 70 percent of people’s votes did not contribute to the result, ERS research showed. That’s a shocking indictment of Westminster’s warped voting system. It’s no wonder trust in politics is at rock bottom and people feel fundamentally locked out of decision-making.

The winner-takes-all mentality has been precisely the wrong mindset for trying to lay out policy and conduct communications with the whole country in a crisis.

I’m proud of our work this year shining a light on the failings of this zero-sum political system.

Early on in the crisis, we realised it was important to continue to campaign for political reform, but be sensitive to what was going on. We played a constructive role. Amid fears voters could be effectively silenced without their MPs being able to contribute, we led the calls for virtual proceedings.

We noted that emergency legislation vested huge powers in ministers – at a time when there appeared to be less parliamentary activity. Our warnings of a vacuum in scrutiny led to real change, with the UK’s virtual proceedings offering an excellent example to the world.

It was a sign that, when pushed, parliament can move reluctantly into the 21st century. 

But we know that we need lasting change to open up government decision-making. To ensure ministers have to listen to all voters – not just those in swing seats. That requires
a shift to proportional representation
across parliament.

For the unelected House of Lords, this was the year that for most people their patience totally ran out.

We know that through our polling work, and the media work we did, with the ERS’ calls for a fully and fairly elected second chamber chiming with the way many voters were thinking.

It is a point of near-consensus now that the ‘private members’ club’ style of politics has got to go. This year saw the PM pack the second chamber with yet more donors and party cronies, and ERS concerns dominated the headlines on this. But 2020 also highlighted that the nations and regions were simply being ignored in our patchwork constitutional set-up. That’s why our calls for a PR-elected Senate of the Nations and Regions are more vital than ever.

We’ve seen real success across Britain. In Wales, ERS Cymru’s campaigning has been instrumental in ensuring that councils will soon be able to use the Single Transferable Vote. Automatic voter registration could soon be a reality there, and we are leading coalitions to secure visible wins on a range of vital democratic issues. Fairer elections – and a different way of doing democracy involving citizens directly – are firmly on the agenda. In Scotland, the ERS has been closely involved in the government-backed Citizens’ Assembly, as well as pressing ministers on the need for stronger lobbying rules.

All this is a living example of ERS strategy in action: pushing for real democracy at all levels. I’m proud of how the ERS has moved quickly to respond to the pressing issues this year – and to raise the voice of voters in the debate.

I’d like to say a huge thanks to the new ERS Council for their support in the governance of the organisation, and a heartfelt thank you to the staff of the ERS who have soldiered on through a difficult year – while continuing to produce excellent work. And to the members who are making this all possible. Together we are leading the fight for the democratic change the UK so desperately needs.

Read this year's annual report

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