On Monday I began my role as Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society – the world’s longest-standing pro-democracy group. I join at a time of huge change for democracy in the UK.
The ERS has grown significantly over the past few years, following the most disproportionate election ever in 2015 – and now an election that saw one in five voters ‘hold their nose’ and feel forced to opt for a second or even third-choice party.
That’s 20% of those who turned out – double the proportion of 2015 – trying to second guess other voters. Meanwhile millions of wasted votes piled up in safe seats across the country, with a majority of ballots going effectively uncounted. That’s no way to run a modern democracy – and does nothing for faith in politics.
But the ERS is in a strong position to challenge this. Thanks to the work of previous Chief Executive Katie Ghose and our fantastic team, the Society has become the leading voice on democratic issues over the past five years – with a widened remit as the ‘pressure group for voters’. That is a role I want to fulfil and build on.
The campaign for a fair, proportional voting system is stepping up, particularly with more and more Labour and trade union figures coming on board.
And there are fresh opportunities for deepening our democracy. Brexit offers a choice to rethink how we do politics: we have the chance to spread power to the nations and regions of the UK. It’s an opportunity that must not be wasted.
Yet there are serious concerns that the public are being left out of the Brexit process. There has been very little attempt to engage the public on the key debates – with the General Election largely overlooking this huge constitutional shift. We have a chance to change that. Projects like the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit offer a way forward in involving citizens themselves in the big questions that were largely overlooked in the election campaign.
And just as trade negotiators arrive from around the Commonwealth to help with post-Brexit trade talks, as a New Zealander I hope to bring perspectives of similar Westminster-style democracies who have modernised to proportional representation where seats match votes.
Global democracies are moving towards voting systems where votes count and voices are heard. New Zealand – where I was an MP and Minister – has over twenty years of experience of minority government and power-sharing between parties, which have resulted in governments led by the centre-right and centre-left and no question about the country being both a strong and stable democracy and economy.
This is an exciting phase in the ERS’ history. It’s an honour to be taking over from Katie and I look forward to continuing her efforts to improve how our politics works.
There is a lot of work ahead to make our democracy work for all, but with an outstanding staff team and a renewed vision, I’m confident about this next chapter in the campaign for fair votes and a political system where every voice is heard, every vote is valued equally, and every citizen is empowered to take part: in sum – a democracy fit for the 21st century.
The ERS will launch their definitive report on the General Election in mid-August.