Proportional Representation: House of Commons — [Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 23rd April 2019.

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Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Independent, Penistone and Stocksbridge 4:30 pm, 23rd April 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered proportional representation in the House of Commons.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I begin by thanking the House of Commons digital engagement service for its work in preparation for this debate. It engages with voters on Facebook to great effect. Between 15 and 23 April, its Facebook post on proportional representation was seen by 29,448 accounts and had 7,936 clicks and 1,803 engagements. Of those engagements, 496 were Facebook users who wanted to comment on the issue, clearly demonstrating that there is a lot of interest—such is the interest that the debate is being streamed on the House of Commons Facebook page. I was impressed by the quality of insights made on the post and humbled by the number of them, and I thank all those who took the time to share their thoughts on proportional representation on Facebook.

In trying to do justice to the online discussion I can do no better than to begin by admitting that for many years I remained stubbornly resistant to the arguments for proportional representation, but no longer. Recent events have forced me to rethink my stance. In other words, I am happy to admit that I was wrong to defend first past the post for so long. My epiphany came in the wake of the 2017 election, when it became painfully obvious that the current electoral system is no longer fit for purpose. That was the third general election in a row in which our voting system failed to secure the strong, stable government that we all see as its key strength. It gave the Tories just under 50% of the seats available, with 42% of the vote. According to the Electoral Reform Society, 22 million voters had no impact on the result because they remained loyal to their tribe, despite knowing there was no chance whatsoever of securing victory for their candidates.

Many online respondents felt despondent and angry that living in a safe seat could mean that their vote counted for nothing. One respondent, Jamie, said:

“No one could possibly condone a system that essentially makes hundreds of thousands of voters redundant, and even worse reinforces the feeling of apathy that puts many people off from participating in the political process in the first place.”

On the other hand, 6.5 million voters decided to vote tactically in order to empower their choices, to give themselves a small but nevertheless important opportunity to help shape the outcome of the election. The situation was summarised beautifully by one of the contributors to the Facebook page, Adrienne, who said:

“I would like a proportional representation system so that I could vote for the party whose policies I agree with. At the moment my choice is either to vote tactically for a party I don’t want but whose policies I object to less, or to ‘waste’
my vote on the party I like—I live in a safe seat and can’t ever see my preferred party being successful. I think this question is more pertinent than ever following the political mess that has been Brexit. I have lost all faith that my voice will be heard in the current system.”

At this point, many hon. Members will be thinking, “Yes, we’ve always argued that the current voting system is unfair.” Quite fairly, they would accuse me of having remained willingly blind to its iniquities. I have believed throughout my adult life that first past the post is justifiable because it promises strong government and a democratic basis for the implementation of the winning party’s manifesto. However, as I conceded, the key defence of first past the post has crumbled and is no longer credible, leading to my road-to-Damascus moment.

Three elections in a row failed to deliver strong government. Why? What is going on? Let us begin with the deep and ongoing crisis afflicting the two biggest political parties. Brexit is seen by many as the cause, but I would contend that it is a symptom of a newly emboldened populist discourse that has fractured our politics. As a consequence, both the Tory party and the Labour party are struggling with widening ideological divides that threaten to become an existential threat. That development is important because in a two-party system, voters need to be sure that the party they support is capable of delivering the realistic, pragmatic politics vital to the effective governing of the country.

There is a strong sense that both major parties are failing to maintain an approach to policy making based on consensus within each party and with the electorate, because the broad churches they represent are evaporating in the face of a blistering assault from the far reaches of the right and the left. We face a serious and possibly terminal decline in the ability of the two major parties to process political options, sift them and present them as a meaningful choice at an election. It is no wonder that long-term trends in voting behaviour indicate that the case for reform of the voting system is getting stronger, not weaker.