Theresa May has called a snap election for 8 June. With Labour sliding even further behind in the polls the temptation to increase her Tory majority has proved too strong. Short of an unexpected twist in tomorrow’s Parliamentary vote, we’ll have just seven weeks to decide the next five years.
The question, as in any election, is what issues matter most, and how should campaigns be run. So here’s my case for Electoral Reform as political priority #1.
The election debate, of course, will revolve around Brexit. But the very process of the Brexit campaign and its result told us a lot about the nature of politics in the UK.
Turnout for the EU referendum was 72.2% whereas the 2015 General Election had 66.1%, itself the highest for nearly 20 years. That’s nearly 3 million people who decided their EU vote was worth casting who didn’t feel the same about a hotly contested General Election. (Source: ONS)
In terms of why people voted to Leave the EU there are, of course, many reasons. But it has been generally acknowledged that post-industrial regions left behind by decades of post-Thatcherite economics voted out more consistently, even though they will likely be hit harder by Brexit than anyone else.
Part of Labour’s recent decline has been an unexpected drift of its voters to UKIP, with the so-called ‘regions’ feeling that such a London-based leadership no longer represents them.
At the 2015 General Election, the SNP received less than 1.5m votes and returned 56 MPs. UKIP received nearly 4m votes and returned only 1 MP. The Green Party and the Liberal Democrats combined received more than 38% of Labour’s share of the vote, despite it being the worst election for the Lib Dems in a generation. Yet they received less than 4% of Labour’s share of seats. Most disconcertingly of all, the Conservatives were able to form a majority government with less than 37% of the vote. (Source: Wikipedia)
Whatever your political persuasion, there is a major issue with representation. Representation is the very basis of democracy. One person one vote is important because it means that all voices can be heard. But when those votes don’t translate into power, then representation – and therefore democracy – is undermined.
That is the situation we find ourselves in. Our electoral system is now structuring out democratic representation. People don’t vote because their vote doesn’t matter. During the 2015 General Election campaign, 364 seats (56%) were judged to be ‘safe seats’ – i.e. the result was not in doubt in advance. It’s no wonder that Brexit was seen as an anti-establishment vote, when the voting system has consistently denied voters democracy over decades.
Not only is our current First Past The Post electoral system bad for democratic representation, it is bad for the ongoing business of politics too. So many policy decisions and party posturings are driven by the demands of a electoral politiking. During Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership campaign, I heard so many Labour members say that he could not viably continue as leader because he wasn’t the right person to convince the handful of swing voters in the roughly 40 marginal constituency Labour most needed to target. That’s an astonishing amount of electoral power in the hands of a tiny number of (generally middle-class) swing voters. It’s contributed to a weak opposition which also means poor democracy.
The election on 8 June is a chance to change that.
There has been talk for some time of a Progressive Alliance, with the recent Richmond Park by-election (where Green Party support enabled the Lib Dems to defeat Zac Goldsmith) a good example of the power of electoral pacts.
But the focus of any Progressive Alliance must be to deliver Electoral Reform. There is a short-term need to defeat the Tories in order to prevent such an unrepresentative government from holding power. But no short-term fix can take Britain forward in any meaningful way. We have a long-term task on our hands to rebuild a social contract and renew mutual trust. To do that we must first heal our democratic deficit. That means making every vote matter.
This Google Doc has a list of every constituency with the most likely viable opponent to the Tories (excl UKIP). Pacts should be made to support a single opposition candidate in exchange for a commitment to electoral reform. The Lib Dems, the Greens and the SNP are already committed to Proportional Representation. Senior Labour figures – among them Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, and Chuka Umuna – are also in support, but Labour needs to make it official policy. There is no way back for Labour in Scotland, and elsewhere support is shifting. The days of a Labour majority are over. The sooner they accept that, the sooner we can build effective coalitions together.
We have only seven weeks to seize this opportunity – to take power away from an undemocratic, unrepresentative Tory government and return it to the people. Divided we fall, but as allies we win.
The Brexit vote was won on a promise to Take Back Control. But Brexit is only handing control from one unaccountable group to another. To really take back control we need Electoral Reform. 8 June is our opportunity to achieve it.