Building Alliances for Electoral Reform – ERS at Lib Dem conference

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 30th September 2015

With five parties united against First Past the Post – the Lib Dems, UKIP, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru – the issue of how to win proportional representation has come to the fore. And it’s a particularly pressing issue after the most disproportionate election in British history on May 7th.
With that in mind, we went to Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth last week to share ideas on how people from all parties and none work together to achieve a fairer voting system.

As Owen Winter MYP began, ‘It’s not often that parties put aside their differences and work together, but what unites millions of people is having been failed by First Past the Post’.

And it’s a number that may soon rise: ‘Labour voters who have never considered electoral reform before are now wondering why they have been left with only four MPs in the South West; while Conservatives who voted No to AV are wondering why they have only one MP in Scotland’. All parties are damaged by our bizarre voting system.

Katherine Trebeck, Oxfam’s Global Research and Policy Advisor, said her native Australia’s constitutional framework offers some lessons, including an elected upper house which is filled proportionately. She noted that the keys to working together are to recognise and celebrate each others’ strengths and what they bring to the table, and to complement each other. The campaign for PR cannot be a single-party issue:  ‘the worst thing that can happen is for an issue to become the baby of one party rather than for others’. That’s why it’s fantastic to see discussion among parties at all the conferences.

In Katherine’s role, working together means focusing on the big-picture issues you share – rather than the tiny details. And, importantly, having fun. Let’s make the joint campaign for PR an energising and exciting experience!

Stephen Kinnock MP had a message for the fringe too: he said our voting system ‘distorts our democracy, encourages adversarial politics and divides people’. It’s also geographically unfair: ‘it is pernicious for whole swathes of the country to be taken for granted or disregarded because they’re safe seats.’

This has not gone ignored. Our Chief Executive Katie Ghose said there has been a ‘profound sea change in public and political attitudes towards electoral reform since the General Election’ – making building alliances much easier. ‘Proponents of the status quo are now welcoming a debate.’

One sign of this was the Trade Union Congress’s conference in Brighton just a couple of weeks ago. They voted, for the first time, to open up a debate about the need for a fairer voting system. This was a historic shift. The ERS will soon be chairing a meeting of senior trade unionists to move this forward.

Equally, we’re working more with UKIP to build debate there – Katie Ghose was given a twenty-minute slot to talk about our preferred system of the Single Transferable Vote on the main stage of their conference on Saturday. While the senior leadership of UKIP is in favour of electoral reform, some members are sceptical – so this was a fantastic opportunity to make the case.

The push for PR is a long-term campaign. There are encouraging signs within Labour however. Katie noted that Labour’s new Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Jon Trickett and others have been strongly behind the notion of a Constitutional Convention, and the involvement of the public in decision-making including on the electoral system. Labour will soon be launching their own Convention project. We hope it will be an open project and it’s a great move forward. The TUC’s shift on PR may have an impact on its direction, so it should be an interesting development to follow.

With the political situation as it is, a lot is possible. ‘During constitutional flux, when all the cards are up in the air, it presents a great opportunity’ for reformers, Katie said.

So with a small government majority, Citizens’ Assemblies on their way, debate opening up within Labour, and greater unity among many parties than for a long time, now is the time for hope. Let’s build on that hope by working together for change.

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