All-party backing grows for PR voting in England

Written By: Bill Cobbett
Published: February 22, 2016 Last modified: October 25, 2016

Former Labour Business Secretary and former leadership contender Chuka Umunna has backed a new cross-party campaign for electoral reform, claiming that “things could boil over” if the demand for change is not addressed.

At a Westminster conference staged by the campaign group Make Votes Matter, representatives from seven parties highlighted evidence showing that public support for some kind of proportional representation is at an all-time high. Corbyn is said to want the constituency link retained.

Polling by BMG conducted in December for the Electoral Reform Society found that 57 per cent of the public agree that “the number of seats a party gets should broadly reflect its proportion of the total votes cast” – compared to only 9 per cent who disagreed.

Umunna, was joined at the conference by fellow Labour MPs Stephen Kinnock and Jonathan Reynolds with the Tory campaigner John Strafford, vice-chair of Conservative Action for Electoral Reform.

Umunna said democracy is “in crisis” and that national institutions are seen as “increasingly remote”:

“We have to accept reality. Two-party politics in the conventional sense is over and the British people simply won’t continue to put up with an electoral system which is so unfair, disenfranchises millions and distorts political debate.

“Everybody is pissed off with our democratic system, which is in crisis. They are disillusioned with it. Until we fix the system I don’t think we’re going to be able to do anything about that.

“It is not sustainable to carry on with First Past the Post. I honestly think that if we do not fix this there is a serious danger in the future that things will boil over when people don’t feel they have a voice.”

So far five parties represented in the current House of Commons have committed themselves to electoral reform – the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, the Lib Dems and UKIP. However, the Labour leadership is believed to be hostile to electoral reform on the grounds that it would probably prevent the party ever winning an overall majority.

The Tory leadership is even more determined to oppose changes, and David Cameron has frequently insisted that the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum had put the issue to bed for the foreseeable future.

Make Votes Matter insists, however, that Alternative Vote is closer to First Past The Post (FPTP) than it is to proportional representation, a point emphaised by Cameron himself during the referendum campaign.

The organisation also pointed out that the 2015 General Election had been the most “disproportionate” ever, while the Electoral Reform Society claims that 74 per cent of votes in that poll  – some 22 million – were effectively wasted, since they didn’t contribute to electing a single MP.

The ERS correctly predicted the results in 363 of 368 seats it examined in the 2015 election, highlighting how safe most seats are. Some ultra-safe seats haven’t even changed parties since Queen Victoria was head of state.

FPTP saw the SNP win 56 out of 57 seats in Scotland in 2015 on only 50 per cent of the vote there, or 1.4 million votes. The SDLP in Northern Ireland tok 3 seats for 99,800 votes, Sinn Fein 4 seats for 176,000 votes and the DUP 8 seats for 184,000. By comparison, UKIP won a single seat with 3.88 million votes and the Greens one seat for 1.2 million votes.

If seats had been based on a proportion of the national votes, the Tories would have taken 240 seats, Labour 198, UKIP 82, the Lib Dems 51, the Greens 25, the DUP, Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru 4 each and the SDLP 3. Small parties such as TUSC and National Health Action would also have been represented with a seat each.

“First Past the Post ends up with us focusing on 120 marginal seats rather than the whole country and this has huge economic impacts,” Stephen Kinnock said at the conference. “The economic priorities parties set reflects the voting system we have.”

FPTP thus leads political parties to neglect the majority of the country, as economic resources and efforts are concentrated on a few ‘swing seats’, he added.

The cross-party PR Alliance is aiming to see change introduced around 2021 – one year after the next general election. A follow-up event to the conference is to be held on May 7 – the first anniversary of the 2015 general election – and will include a lobby of Parliament.