Wera Hobhouse MP: These Tory plans to change the voting system are a power grab

Home secretary Priti Patel has been accused of launching an 'attack on democracy' as she presses ahead with her plans.

Wera Hobhouse is Liberal Democrat MP for Bath.

Having grown up in Germany, with a voting system that delivers both responsiveness to the voters and stability, I have been campaigning for electoral reform in the UK for many years now. What I can tell you is that Britain needs less First Past the Post (FPTP), not more.

This week marked the start of a new term of parliament. It should be an opportunity for forward thinking politics, not the disastrous, backward step for democracy that more elections by FPTP will create. But the back-door move that Home Secretary Priti Patel slipped in during the last parliamentary session seeks to change the current mayoral and police and crime commissioner (PCC) voting system to past-its-sell-by-date First Past The Post. This is an attack on our democracy which should not go unnoticed. 

I’m not here to defend the supplementary voting system used last week to elect mayors and PCCs. Voters were asked to express first and second choices and if no candidate got 50% of the first-choice votes, candidates apart from the top two were eliminated. So in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough for example, that meant the new metro mayor went to the Labour candidate, based on second round preferences.

But moving to FPTP would be so much worse. It’s a voting system that’s not fit for purpose and is damaging to our democracy. It encourages tactical voting where people have to make do with an inferior choice, rather than voting for who they want to represent them. If introduced to elect future mayors and PCCs, it will mean powers over policing and crime in our local communities could be handed to officials on just a minority of the votes they need to sneak into office. Inevitably, individuals will be let down by the very people who are supposed to keep our communities safe and functioning better.

We need to scrap FPTP, not impose it on more voters. When I raised the issue in Parliament with Jacob Rees-Mogg in March, he typically brushed these legitimate concerns to one side. Did he answer my question on whether the government would publish its findings on how this move would lead to better democracy and more accountability? No. Instead he rose to defend the outdated system used to elect MPs in Westminster.

We all know that strengthening accountability and improving transparency starts at the ballot box. But in order to have better democracy we need to move away from the antiquated and unresponsive First Past the Post system. This means keeping ranked ballots for single winner elections like Mayors and PCCs – and moving to forms of Proportional Representation for UK general elections as well as all local councils.

The Scottish Parliament, Welsh Parliament, Northern Ireland Assembly and London Assembly all already use forms of PR – as do local councils in Scotland and Northern Ireland, with Welsh councils now able to adopt PR permissively. It is only English local elections and Westminster that are stuck in the 19th century. In both cases, adopting a system where seats match votes is not only fair; it’s the right thing to do. 

Personally, I think using PR for elections across the board would lead to better gender equality. Numerous studies have found that countries with Proportional Representation produce a better gender balance (Matland, 1998; Reynolds, 1999). Every single country with more than 40 per cent female MPs in its primary legislature uses a proportional voting system.

So why can’t we have PR at Westminster? It’s ten years since the AV Referendum and yet supporters of FPTP are still claiming, falsely, that the British people rejected PR in 2011. They are stuck in a time warp, pedalling out the same old lines to prop up their version of history. After all, the referendum was on a system which is often less proportional than FPTP, there was never a choice for voters to select a proportional system. 

And as we begin to emerge from the cruel Coronavirus pandemic, I believe that now, more than ever, we need a politics of compassion and cooperation. Where every voice is heard. Proportional Representation won’t be the end of the UK’s political problems, but it will certainly be the starting point to solving them.

But we can be sure of one thing. Introducing First Past the Post where it hasn’t previously been used is not a part of the solution. So, I am supporting a petition started by campaign group Make Votes Matter against proposals to introduce FPTP to elect the Mayor of London, all Metro Mayors, and Police and Crime Commissioners. If you believe in democracy, you should sign it too.

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