Today I have joined MPs and political parties from across the political spectrum in backing a cross-party initiative to change the UK’s voting system.
The Good Systems Agreement, brokered by the campaign group Make Votes Matter, calls for a proportional voting system in which seats match votes — and crucially for a citizens’ assembly process to choose it.
Labour has nothing to fear from a voting system that ensures parliament reflects the votes cast by the British people. Indeed, such a system is both demanded by the principles we hold and beneficial to the outcomes that we fight for.
Labour is the party of equality. Yet first past the post guarantees inequality at the ballot box. Notoriously, a vote for one party can on average be worth dozens or even hundreds of times more than a vote for another. But the most pernicious form of voter inequality is based on geography — with the value of a person’s vote being determined by whether they live in a marginal seat or a safe seat.
We may say all votes are equal, but come election time all parties pour resources into marginal constituencies where the votes have the greatest value. In 2017 Labour even had an app, called My Nearest Marginal, that in effect mapped voter inequality and funnelled our activists toward the democratically privileged few — those in marginal seats. A system that makes it rational to focus on the few to the detriment of the many cannot be in keeping with our party’s values.
A reformed voting system would also help, not hinder, the creation of the progressive society for the many that is our ultimate goal. Look round the world at the democratic societies that come closest to this ideal and you notice something striking: none of them achieved what they have using first past the post.
It turns out this is not a coincidence. Political scientists have found strong relationships, which they frequently characterise as causal, between the use of a proportional voting system and positive outcomes across areas that we care about: economic equality, poverty reduction, social spending, even environmental protection and action on climate change.
Contrast the kind of ultra-egalitarian societies that proportional systems have built in the Scandinavian countries with the highly unequal, socially immobile societies of the UK and US, and you get a picture of how different things could be.
Some say that proportional representation is a bad idea because it “lets the populists in”, but the fact is that sunlight is the best disinfectant. The motley crew of UKIP AMs who were elected to the Welsh Assembly in 2016 descended into a farcical mess within months of being exposed to the scrutiny and accountability that comes with public office. Populists thrive on grievance and love to style themselves as insurgents, so first past the post plays into their hands.
The new cross-party agreement is signed by MPs and whole parties from across the political spectrum: from the Greens to the Lib Dems, the Brexit Party to the SNP, Labour to Conservative. It sets out probably the only thing such a diverse group all agree on: the principles we believe a new British voting system should uphold.
These principles include that seats should match votes, so parliament reflects the people it governs. All votes should be equal, wherever they are cast and whoever by. MPs should be accountable to voters, with voters able to vote for named candidates rather than just party lists. The valuable constituency link should be retained between voters and their local representatives.
Systems that deliver on all these principles are already used across the world and in the UK’s devolved assemblies and the Scottish Parliament. But we believe it is the people who are best placed to decide what system would best serve them. That is why we are calling for the choice to be made by citizens through a deliberative democratic process.
Labour’s last manifesto pledged to set up a constitutional convention “to examine and advise on reforming of the way Britain works at a fundamental level”. Few details of how this process would work has so far been forthcoming and, disappointingly, as a party we seem to have carefully avoided promising that such a convention would look at changing the voting system.
By building on this pledge, Labour has the opportunity to show true leadership on democratic reform, while bringing this new cross-party consensus in behind it. In our next manifesto, we should pledge to make voting reform a key area of the planned convention — and commit to a recommendation on the issue being made within the next parliamentary term.
Crucially, we must be clear that the convention will be organised like a citizens’ assembly — with a representative body of citizens rather than party appointees taking evidence, making deliberations and generally calling the shots. Otherwise who in the Labour Party — let alone the country at large — can really believe the convention’s work will be free from partisan interests?
The opportunity may not be around for long. Politics is changing. Our two-party voting system is under growing pressure as a diverse electorate turns to diverse parties, with ever more unpredictable results.
If we do not act, insurgent parties can say — with some justice — that we are trying to maintain a status quo because we think it benefits us, not because we think it is right or fair. If Labour does not show leadership on electoral reform, others will.