As the year draws to a close, here’s a snapshot of some of the work we’ve been doing at the ERS to put real political reform on the agenda in 2019.
We kicked off the year calling for reform to the unelected and undemocratic House of Lords. January saw the first of this year’s hereditary peer ‘by-elections’ – and we highlighted the injustice of a man winning a seat for life in Parliament thanks to his ancestor becoming a Lord in 1628.
We also called out ‘disappearing peers’ with new analysis that found that some peers attend as few as one in five sittings in the upper chamber.
In February we were proud to launch our new report, Reining in the Wild West: Campaign Rules for the 21st Century, on the 15th anniversary of Facebook’s launch. We drew in academics, regulators, politicians and campaigners alike to say it is time we brought Britain’s broken political campaign rules up to date. It was featured in the Sunday Times.
We led a wide coalition of campaigners to directly call on the PM to rein in the online ‘wild west’. The Guardian and the tech press also joined the debate, while we had op eds published on ConservativeHome, LabourList, OpenDemocracy and Democratic Audit. Read the full series.
House of Lords reform was a top story of Scottish Labour Conference this year, as Baroness Bryan launched an official report calling for an overhaul of the House of Lords at our ERS Scotland fringe. It was picked up by the Herald too, while fresh polling by us showed the scale of support for a fairly-elected second chamber. We’ve also written up why we see Lords reform as the gateway to further constitutional reform in the UK.
Ahead of the May local elections we found that around 300 seats had been secured by parties and candidates ahead of May’s local elections – without any real contest. We went big on this scandal of uncontested seats under FPTP, with features in the i newspaper, ITV and Financial Times, where we hit out at ‘democracy deserts’. The findings also led to a fantastic feature in the Economist, The Times and on radio.
Our same analysis found that more than 2.6m potential voters in 816 council seats across England faced a choice between just two candidates – despite 40% of the public supporting parties that are not the ‘big two’. We revealed this research in a HuffPost exclusive.
In May we took on the government over its damaging voter ID plans as figures were released showing that hundreds of people were turned away from May’s local elections for not having the correct ID. After calling the proposals to roll out the trials nationwide ‘deeply mistaken’, we were featured in The Guardian and PoliticsHome.
We also commented on new analysis showing members of the House of Lords claiming thousands of pounds in expenses without taking part in a single debate – vocally renewing our calls for a fair, democratic elected second chamber.
We spent June highlighting the fragmenting nature of our politics as support for the two main parties continued to slide. This trend continued into July, with polls showing support for the two main parties remaining low.
Jess Blair wrote a letter to The Times calling for a proportional system in Westminster, making the argument that: “Far from being a “strong and stable” system, first past the post is now an engine of uncertainty.”
July saw not one but two leadership elections taking place in Parliament, with Boris Johnson and Jo Swinson elected to head up the Conservatives and Lib Dems respectively.
Earlier in the month we spoke to both Liberal Democrat leadership candidates about their plans for democratic reform. (Darren Hughes also wrote in June about the constitutional questions thrown up by the Conservative leadership election for Times Red Box.)
As talk of a General Election grew over the summer, so too did discussions of ‘electoral pacts’ – which could potentially deprive voters of a real choice of parties. We described it as ‘the latest desperate attempt to game a broken first-past-the-post system’. Under a fair, proportional way of electing MPs, they simply wouldn’t be necessary.
Polling for the Society – published by Politico – showed that voters agreed: they want real choice, not party stitch-ups. This work was picked up by the Sun, the Times and more. We also went on LBC to discuss the need for PR as well as the scourge of ‘tactical voting’ likely at the next election. Several outlets highlighted our calls for a genuinely democratic voting system, while we continued to argue that putting up barriers through mandatory voter ID was a dangerously misguided policy.
We were also proud to publish our audit of the 2019 elections (up to that point!) in August. It contained heaps of new analysis on the local and European elections. We pointed out that the UK’s ‘warped’ first-past-the-post system gave ‘wrong winners’ in 17 local authority elections – in other words, an absolute disaster for voters. This was picked up by the Independent and local government press.
The prorogation challenge put political reform in the spotlight, and we made the case why the crisis was the symptom of our current political system and that reform was urgently needed.
September also saw party conference season kick off and we took the message of reform to the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative conferences talking Lords reform and campaign regulations.
We also commented on new Electoral Commission figures showing that 9.5 million people could be missing or incorrectly registered to vote and renewed calls for a ‘registration revolution’ to improve voter registration in the UK.
We continued our calls for a ‘registration revolution’ highlighting the huge numbers of people missing from the electoral register in Scotland (up to 890,000) which was covered in the Scotsman and Northern Ireland (430,000) as well as the disproportionate impact on younger voters and private renters.
When the government announced plans to roll out Voter ID nationwide in the first Queen’s Speech of the year, we made the case that the reforms are a ‘solution seeking a problem’ and amount to little more than ‘voter suppression’, with our analysis featured in the Independent, the Guardian and widely online.
Our research and policy officer Michela Palese made the case for Citizens Assemblies and the role they can have in embedding democracy in our local communities, and Dr Jess Garland was interviewed on the Radio 4 PM programme, discussing the Citizens’ Assembly in Scotland.
In November we continued lead the call for voter registration, launching a National Voter Registration Day. That saw over 300,000 people register to vote in just 24 hours – the highest figure up to that point. Our work leading the call was covered in the Metro, Independent, Guardian and Local Gov.
We also spoke out about the poor handling of the General Election debates – making the case for an independent debates commission to oversee such contests. And we commissioned polling showing that nearly one in three voters – 30% – were planning to vote ‘tactically’ for someone other than their first choice in December’s election.
Ahead of the General Election we highlighted our broken electoral system with new research that showed over 200 seats have not changed hands since WWII, which was covered in the Guardian, Metro and more.
We flagged the absence of electoral reform in the parties’ main platforms, and called on them to commit to supporting voter reform in any post-election government/coalition discussions. Our ‘Democracy Day’ – working with other leading democracy organisations – trended on Twitter, and we published exclusive polling, comment and analysis across the media.
Once the election result was in – which saw the Conservatives gain a majority of the seats on a minority of the vote – we renewed our call that this election should be the last fought with our broken voting system with Chief Exec Darren Hughes writing for the Independent, Senior Director Willie Sullivan making the case in the Scotsman, and our Director of Research Jess Garland featuring on BBC Radio 4 (multiple times!).
All this work has helped put electoral reform back into the political debate – and a surge in new interest, members and support for the Society. Thank you for your support this year. What will 2020 bring?