The British People Deserve An Electoral System In Which Every Vote Counts

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The petitions committee granted a debate in Westminster Hall for the proportional representation petition. I took part in that debate and advocated that we need a change in our voting system to one where every vote counts. 

You can read my contribution below.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I thank the Petitions Committee for enabling this debate. I rise to argue that the central purpose of the campaign for proportional representation must be to shine a light on the clear, strong and manifold causal links between the state of our broken politics and the state of our discredited voting system.

The simple fact is that the British people deserve an electoral system in which every vote counts. Why do the vast majority of developed nations use proportional representation, while our electorate are forced to accept second best? Why should our people be forced to accept the fundamentally flawed logic of a system whereby seats in Parliament do not reflect vote share? Why should we have to tolerate tactical voting? Polling found that on 8 June 20% to 30% of the electorate voted tactically. Why should we have to put up with a system whereby almost 7 million people felt that they had to hold their nose while voting?

What does it say about our democracy when millions of people are going to the ballot box to vote for the “least worst option,” as opposed to voting for the party or individual they feel will best represent their values, beliefs and interests in this place? Can we really sit here today, in the building that is sometimes referred to as the cradle of modern democracy, and defend a system that fails to pass the most basic principle of democracy—namely, the right of voters to vote for the party or candidate that they actually support? Perhaps most importantly of all, why should the British people have to accept a system that delivers the winner-takes-all political culture that is the root cause of the deeply divided, polarised and fragmented country that we have become?

Decades of research from around the world shows that proportional representation correlates with positive societal outcomes: greater income equality, less corporate control, better long-term planning and political stability, fairer representation of women and minorities, higher voter turnout, better environmental laws and a significantly lower likelihood of going to war. This is the real prize of electoral reform: building a better politics. It is the means of shaping a more inclusive society in which resources are allocated on the basis of real needs and opportunities rather than cynical swing-seat electoral calculations. It should therefore come as no surprise that polls consistently show that a majority of the public want PR. The latest poll shows that 67% want to make seats match votes, and those people are joined by a growing alliance of parties, MPs and public figures who want real democracy.

There are those who argue that the great advantage of first past the post is that it delivers “strong and stable” government—I think the less said about that, the better. We are also told that the great danger of PR is that it will mean back-room stitch-ups. What, like the £1 billion bung for the DUP?

Wes Streeting: On the point about back-room stitch-ups, does my hon. Friend also recognise that, under the present system, political parties are themselves coalitions? In the Conservative party we see the libertarian tradition and the patrician tradition. In the Liberal Democrats we see the social democrats and the “Orange Book” liberals. Of course, in the Labour party we agree on everything all the time. [Laughter.] Let us let the people in to some of those compromises, choices and trade-offs.

Stephen Kinnock: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right; the transparency of a more coalition-based system whereby parties are able to self-identify clearly as parties in their own right is a far more healthy way of running a democracy.

The truth is that it is first past the post that increasingly leads to smoke-filled rooms, backstairs deals and pork barrel politics. I prefer the open politics of transparent coalition building, in which parties are clear about the trade-offs that they would make in a coalition, and the public clearly do too. They like to see their politicians putting the national interest ahead of narrow party political gain, because they can see that our entire political culture, underpinned and compounded by our winner-takes-all electoral system, is not geared to building broad-based political support right across the country. No, it is geared to focus on approximately 100 constituencies —the so-called battleground seats.

Mr Jayawardena: The hon. Gentleman talks about constituencies, but if he is talking about open politics and fairer politics, will he make it his policy—indeed, is it Labour party policy—to allow the redrawing of boundaries so that they are fairer in themselves?

Stephen Kinnock: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I think that the equalisation of constituencies is, in principle, right, but it should be on the basis of 650 MPs, particularly in the light of Brexit and so many more responsibilities. As I am sure he will agree, we are taking back control in this Parliament.

Mr Jayawardena: Welcome aboard!

Stephen Kinnock:  I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely delighted by that development, but still, arguing for 600 seats does not really make sense.

The system is geared to focus on approximately 100 constituencies that always tip the balance when it comes to polling day, 100 constituencies that hold the future of our country in their hands, 100 constituencies that drive and define our politics, 100 constituencies that can give a party with 40% of the vote the powers of an elective dictatorship.

A proportional system, however, is genuinely representative. It forces parties to come together and build consensus around policies that advance our long-term national interest. What a refreshing change that would make, following the short-term, tactical party management that has driven so much decision making in Westminster for so long. That is why I am so keen to point out that the campaign for electoral reform is not, and must never be, about partisan interests. I favour electoral reform not because I think it will particularly benefit the Labour party, but because it is right for our country, our economy, our society, our people and our democracy; because the campaign for electoral reform is about showing people that this is their society, they have a voice and they can shape their future.

I shall finish in that spirit by calling on political parties to commit to including two things in their manifestos: first, an undertaking in principle to replace first past the post with a more proportional system; and secondly, a commitment to organising a constitutional convention, shortly after the next general election, to identify the best possible proportional system that we can implement for our country. True radicalism is about going to the root cause of a problem, identifying the solution and building consensus for change, so let us for once be truly radical. Let us accept that our politics is broken and that our utterly discredited first-past-the-post system is preventing us from building the new political culture that our country so urgently needs.