In the three-and-a-half-year aftermath from the 2016 vote to leave the European Union, the conversation has shifted well beyond arguments around trade deals and how Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe will look like into fundamental questions about how UK democracy works. The biggest argument was over whether or not Britain should hold another referendum on the government’s eventual deal with Remain once again as an option. However, throughout the past few years, we have seen a plethora of other questions about the functioning of parliament, further arguments from Sturgeon about Scottish Independence and ultimately questions about where sovereignty lies in the UK.
Whilst all these different arguments around how we should elect our leaders and decide our nation’s policies, among a few an idea has cropped up again, electoral reform. The idea for Britain to adopt a new voting system, most likely of proportional representation, where voters number their choices and parties votes are reapportioned to until one party has a majority of the vote, was thought to have been buried for a generation by the AV referendum of 2011 which was rejected 67-33%, albeit with only 42.2% turnout. However recently senior politicians like shadow treasury minister Clive Lewis, who during his brief Labour leadership campaign ran on creating a number of electoral reforms such as abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with an elected ‘Senate of the Nations and Regions’ to better represent areas of the country who feel isolated from decision making in Westminster, an idea that has since been picked up by one of the current leadership candidates, Rebecca Long-Bailey.
Other similar ideas have been picked up by politicians in both major parties, mainly with a focus on empowering the regions of the UK and local councils. Keir Starmer the current front runner for the Labour leadership has argued for a greater form of federalism in the UK, alongside Lisa Nandy, the MP for Wigan who remains committed to empowering towns across the UK with more local funding and strengthening decision making made at the level of local government. Nandy also suggests that whilst Labour is out of power, the party emphasizes the work of its councils and metro authorities such as the Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham who has made significant strides in reducing homelessness in his city. A recent interview with Conservative Party Chairman James Cleverley involved him proposing that the government move the House of Lords to York, which alongside recent funding commitments such as the building of HS2, appears to be an appeal to the North of England, who in many constituencies broke nearly century-long habits and voted for the Tories, with the plan being to ensure they stick with the government come the next election. Whilst this is not all entirely about the voting system that the UK should be using but it all related to potentially how proportional representation could come about nationally in the UK.
The increased focus and importance that is being placed on the local in modern politics, particularly parts of the country outside the South East that have not received the same infrastructure and funding as London and the home counties. I personally believe that we should change our voting system to a specific system of proportional representation called Single Transferable Vote or STV. In an STV system like in Northern Ireland, MPs would be elected in Multi-Member Constituencies rather than single-member constituencies, for example rather than Ben Bradshaw being the Member for Exeter, he would instead be one of a number of MPs from different parties representing South West England. Votes would be numbered as explained earlier and the proportion of the vote a party gets will determine how many MPs it wins in that area e.g. if there are 10 seats in parliament up for grabs in the south-west and the conservatives win 50% of the vote in the region, they will be allocated 5 MPs, if Labour wins 30% of the vote then they will get 3 MPs, if the Lib Dems and the Brexit party win 10% of the vote each, then they will win 1 MP each. Obviously this is a hyper simplification but the end result is that not only does the representation an area like the South West receive almost exactly equivalent to how people voted, it provides people with the opportunity to have a representative that they affiliate with politically even if they are not a plurality of their region. In practical terms, this often means that nationally no one party wins an outright majority and so it leads to what some criticize as ‘weak governments’. However, this more so reflects how people choose to vote as shown by how most democratic nations have some form of PR.
Even last year which had a landslide victory for the Conservatives, they only won 43% of the popular vote, which made them the largest party but meant that a majority of people in the country did not vote for them. This has been true of all UK governments in post-war Britain. Coalitions also do provide stable and representative governments, such as Germany’s famous grand coalitions under Angela Merkel, which have maintained popularity and enabled consistency in government policy with changes in policy depending on voters’ preferences. In Northern Ireland, STV was used to ensure power-sharing between the Unionists and Nationalists as a part of the Good Friday agreement. Whilst this may be unlikely to happen in the near future, the fact that a large focus of our politics post-Brexit seems to be more on local and regional issues and empowerment, it may well be that questions about our voting system may come up once more as we seek to make our democracy ever more trusted by the people.
If you’d like more specifics on how an STV system would work then please do check out CGP Grey’s video on the system, with some fun animation and clear and concise explanation of all the aspects of the voting system:
Written by Jonny Pickering