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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:45 pm on 23rd April 2019.

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Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs 5:45 pm, 23rd April 2019

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Kevin Foster, to his new position, and wish the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Chloe Smith all the best on her maternity leave. I am sure that he will ably cover her post.

Before addressing proportional representation, I want to highlight the feeling, which has come up in the debate, that the current political system is in need of change. The Minister will be getting to grips with the brief, but he will be well aware that our electoral laws are out of date and need looking at as a matter of urgency. Millions of people are missing from the electoral roll, dark money is influencing politics and public trust is at an all-time low.

This debate is about proportional representation. It is important to acknowledge that, as with every electoral system, there are pros and cons to first past the post. Simplicity is the key benefit of first past the post, because it gives the electorate one vote for the candidate or party they support. The other great benefit is the constituency link. As Member of Parliament for Lancaster and Fleetwood, when I go out and speak to my constituents, as I did over Easter, many of them greet me by name—they know me. I do not think they have the same relationship with their MEPs, whom they probably could not name and would not recognise if they fell over them in the queue for the bus.

I have outlined the advantages, but there are cons to first past the post, which have been outlined by many speakers in this debate. The current voting system has been under growing scrutiny. A traditional argument in favour of first past the post was that it had a history of returning stable single-party Governments. That has been well and truly debunked since 2010. Analysis of the 2017 general election also demonstrates the limitations of our voting system. That election saw a rise in marginal seats: 11 seats were won by fewer than 100 votes. Analysis by the Electoral Reform Society found that less than 0.0017% of voters choosing differently would have given the Conservative party a majority.

Moving on to proportional voting systems, proportional representation has a number of good arguments in its favour. It is right for Parliament to reflect the political will of the people—who would not argue that a country should have a Parliament that looks like the politics of its people. I do not think that anyone can disagree with that principle. A proportional voting system would give voters the opportunity to vote for people they believe in, rather than voting tactically to stop the party that they like least.

I am sure that every political party taking part in this debate has at some point or another said to a voter, “Please support me, because if you don’t support me the other guy will get in.” As well as smaller parties standing aside in some seats at the last general election, the Electoral Reform Society estimates that 6.5 million people voted tactically. As I said, they were voting for parties that were not necessarily their first choice in order to stop the party that they perceived to be more likely to win in their area.

PR is of course well established in the UK. There are forms of it in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and here in London, for the Assembly elections. They all use proportional systems, which means that most voters in this country at some point have used more than one electoral system. In Scotland, where STV is used in local government elections, voters have demonstrated that they are capable of using more than one system and more complex systems than first past the post. Finally, all the UK-based proportional systems—except for the closed lists used in European elections—have the strong constituency basis that is incredibly important for any voting system.

Personally, I am on the record supporting PR. However, a major constitutional change such as this must have the support of the public. For example, in the 2011 AV referendum, to which I am sure the Minister will refer in his speech, 32% of voters supported AV, but the vast majority rejected it. AV is not, however, a form of proportional representation, and public opinion may well have changed since then. What has not changed is that our democracy is still fundamentally broken. I do not believe that changing our voting system alone is some magic wand that will fix the problems or mend the disconnect felt by so many voters in this country.

Millions of people across the UK feel that politics does not work for them, and it is not hard to see why. Communities are often affected by decisions over which they have no say or, even when they think they have a say, a Government can come in to override it, as in Lancashire in the case of fracking. Many people feel that what goes on in Westminster is a world away from the reality of their lives. Research published by the Hansard Society found that the UK public are increasingly disenchanted with the system of governing.

To move on to Labour’s position, Labour is committed to root-and-branch transformation of the archaic political structures and cultures of this country which work for the few and not the many. At the last general election, our manifesto committed to establishing a constitutional convention to examine and advise on reforming the way in which Britain works at a fundamental level. We will consult on the convention’s forms and terms of reference, and invite recommendations on extending democracy. The convention will bring together individuals and organisations from across civil society, and will act as the driving force behind our democratic agenda.

As well as looking at different voting systems, the convention will look at extending democracy locally, regionally and nationally, and will consider the option of a more federalised country. Of course, a constitutional convention could look at other issues to do with democratic accountability, including whether MPs who change parties and cross the Floor should face by-elections. This is about where power and sovereignty lie in politics, in the economy and in the justice system, as well as in our communities. The convention will build a popular mandate for the deep-seated political change that this country needs.

As I said, it is important that we look at different voting systems as part of a wider package of constitutional and electoral reforms, to address the growing democratic deficit across Britain. That is the change that we must see.