Editor: In a week when a former minister, Nicky Morgan, claims that name-calling from the opposition somehow justified Conservative MPs voting to deny poor children access to free meals, it’s clearer than ever that we must have electoral reform and put an end to playground politics. Caroline Voaden’s experience as an MEP allows her to share her insights into a more collaborative, inclusive and constructive system in which our votes really matter.
You don’t have to look far to see signs of a government that is out of its depth, and a parliament that is failing to hold it to account. With an 80-seat majority our government can do pretty much what it wants and get away with it, which is a bitter irony given that it lost the popular vote by a significant percentage at the last election (elected on 43.6 per cent of the vote).
The Conservatives romped home with an unshakeable majority in terms of seats won, because of an electoral system that means a candidate can win by a margin of one vote, or by 30,000, and it makes no difference. Seats remain in the same hands for decades and attempts at ‘tactical voting’ in most places are futile.
In fact, we could probably run general elections in 50-100 constituencies each time and it would make no difference to the outcome – the battle is won or lost in the marginal seats.
But look around the world at the countries that have best managed the coronavirus pandemic and you’ll see that, in general, those who have fared the best are run with a more consensus-based collaborative politics. A proportional electoral system that produces governments that actually represent the people who elect them.
In fact the only other countries on the European continent to still use the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system are Azerbaijan and Belarus.
It is way past time that we changed our electoral system here in the UK – not only so that we elect more representative governments, but so that our politics changes nature between elections as well.
With a PR system we would be far more likely to have coalition governments, where there isn’t a ruling party and several opposition parties, but a group of parties who have come together to govern, requiring patience, compromise and goodwill on all sides.
Imagine for a minute if the House of Commons was replaced by a chamber that looked like the Scottish parliament chamber in Edinburgh, or the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where I served. A hemisphere where people sit in groups, rather than ‘them and us’, government and ‘opposition’, standing two sword lengths apart across a combative, divisive debating chamber. A 200-year-old historical relic that is way past its time.
I am one of a few hundred people in England to have served in a proportionally representative parliament, having been elected to the European Parliament in May 2019. The politics and the way of working were light years away from what goes on in Westminster.
Aside from the physical geography of the place, which makes for more inclusive debate, MEPs are obliged to work together, across political groups, to achieve anything.
In order to amend legislation that comes from the Commission, to improve it, make it stronger, or to fit an agenda, an MEP has to build enough of a consensus to get a majority of votes in the chamber.
The Digital Services bill going through the European Parliament at the moment is a classic case in point. The kind of legislation where the demands of freedom of speech are balanced against the need for security and safety on online platforms, and different groups can have wildly varying views on such matters.
The work is divided into committees and each committee has representatives on it from all political groups.
I worked on the Environment Committee (ENVI), the largest, with 81 members, and I was one of 11 members from the Renew Europe, or liberal group, sitting on the committee.
We would go through legislation and discuss amendments that we wanted to see – these discussions even amongst ourselves could be lengthy and heated. The group included a Dutch farmer, a German doctor and a Slovakian environmental campaigner among others – so opinions could be deeply divided.
But we would reach consensus and then our representative, or coordinator, would meet with the coordinators of the other political groups on ENVI, and they would try and thrash out an agreement – or reach the wording that was most likely to receive majority support in the chamber.
Usually this would mean that the Labour group (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats), the centre right group European People’s Party (EPP), and Renew would find a compromise that would secure enough votes to pass in the house. Those three groups together had a majority and could ensure the passage of policy if most of their members agreed.
There would always be some members of the group who wouldn’t vote as suggested, so the majority was never a done deal – but you could be fairly confident you’d get a majority on the day.
The reality of this system was that those with more extreme views very rarely, if ever, made any headway because they couldn’t get enough backing to secure a majority vote in the house. This often happened to the Greens as their policy ideas could be seen as too radical by the EPP, which is the biggest group in the parliament.
It was tiring work – and don’t forget this is all being done in 24 different mother tongues. English and French were the working languages but often people spoke through interpreters at committee meetings so they could use their mother tongue to make their points.
Even though I speak fluent French I did find it exhausting to try and follow nuanced arguments about the wording of a motion carried out in native French.
The European Parliament is elected by the d’Hondt method, named after a Belgian statistician, and it’s a very pure method of proportional representation. The South West of England & Gibraltar was a huge constituency, stretching from Cheltenham to Bournemouth and from just west of Swindon to Penzance, not forgetting Gibraltar as well. Six MEPs represented the whole region and even with three anti-Brexit MEPs we struggled to get to all the meetings and rallies we were invited to.
There’s no saying what system Westminster would use if it were to adopt a proportional system, but the one used in Scotland and New Zealand involves a mixture of local constituency MPs and a party list that is used to make sure the result is proportional. This ensures there is still a local MP attached to a constituency, which is one of the arguments people use against PR.
Having a multi-member constituency meant that most people felt represented by somebody, rather than the situation we have at the moment – for example in Cornwall – where there are six Conservative MPs and anyone who didn’t vote Tory has no representation in parliament at all.
I find it hard that political activists from all opposition parties don’t see that this is a fundamental issue that – if resolved – would change so much about the way we do politics in the UK. I’d go so far as to say we would never have had the Brexit referendum if we had introduced PR before 2015.
First-past-the-post ensures that a right-wing government will pursue its agenda for five or ten years and will then be voted out and replaced by a left-wing government that will have to spend the next five years working out how to untangle some of the changes made by the previous administration. And so on… How, as a modern, progressive and developed country, are we meant to make progress on anything if our governments are continually trying to undo the work of the one that went before?
It feels like lunacy, and I believe so much could stem from doing things differently.
In Brussels you would often see MEPs from different groups, and different member states, drinking coffee together, discussing and debating, sounding people out, trying to reach consensus – looking for the common ground.
How often in Westminster do Labour and Conservative politicians work to find the common ground? How different would our political life be if that is where they started from? If that was the ground from which they built?
People say it’s impossible to make it happen here. So let’s look at New Zealand.
It changed its voting system in the 90s because it became clear to voters across the country that the governments they were electing did not represent them.
In 1978 and 1981 the Labour Party won more votes than the National Party, but the National Party remained in office. And the country’s third party won only 1 and 2 seats respectively on vote shares of 16 per cent and 20 per cent. People knew this wasn’t right and in the end the politicians had to agree that the system was failing.
Three referendums were held in total – the first, in September 1992, was indicative, but the vote was so overwhelming in favour of changing the system (85 per cent) that another was held just 14 months later, offering a straight choice between first-past-the-post and mixed-member proportional representation (MMP). The proportional system won with 54 per cent of the vote.
The country’s last election under FPTP was held in 1993 on the same day as the referendum in which voters adopted the MMP system, and in 1996 its first proportional election was held under the new system.
It has taken a while for the system and the parliament to settle down following the changes, but the difference was immediately obvious – more women and more Maoris elected to parliament than ever before. Coalitions have remained stable and another referendum in 2011 showed that a majority of people wanted to stick with the new system.
And in a first for New Zealand, and a rare event for proportional systems elsewhere too, Jacinda Ardern has just been re-elected with a majority Labour government through a PR election. Her inspirational leadership and decisiveness during the COVID pandemic have reaped the rewards of an electorate who value what they’ve got.
So take note, Labour – it’s still possible to win a majority, regardless of what system is used!