‘We have to build the biggest possible campaign’ for democratic reform, Liberal Democrat conference told

"Vote for candidates that want PR at least and make sure you're voting for somebody who is more likely to bring in real democracy."

Liberal Democrat conference fringe on democratic reform

There was standing room only as delegates crammed into a packed out fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrats’ autumn conference. Party members sat cross-legged on what little space there was on the floor, or propped themselves awkwardly against the walls. They’d all given up a chunk of their evening for one reason – to discuss how to secure political reform in the UK.

It’s not hard to understand why. Democratic reform has long been an issue championed by Liberal Democrats, and political developments in recent years have only increased its salience. Cronyism in pandemic procurement. Peerages being handed to political friends and donors. Governments winning super-majorities in parliament with a minority of the public vote. All of these and more have made the case for a meaningful shakeup of our democracy all the more compelling.

At the conference meeting, though, speakers were clear that they think addressing the democratic deficit in Britain isn’t just a matter of improving accountability and cleaning up politics. Rather, it is central to tackling the biggest issues facing the country today.

Neal Lawson, the director of cross-party campaign group Compass told the meeting that the current political system in the UK is a block on tackling political and economic problems that are effecting people across the country. He said: “If democracy is run in the interests of a few swing voters in a few swing seats, if it’s done in the interests of Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail, if it’s done in the interests of a few big billionaire party donors, then you can’t put the issues on the table, that are going to put food on people’s tables, that are going to enable their kids to breathe because the air’s not toxic, that we can deal with all the issues we’ve got to deal with. Because first past the post will not allow us to do it.”

Similarly, Klina Jordan, from Make Votes Matter argued that taking meaningful action on the cost of living and climate crises won’t happen without democratic reform. She told the conference: “It’s not just the climate crisis – there’s a healthcare crisis, there’s a cost of living crisis, this is a huge omni-crisis. And this is all because we don’t have real democracy.”

This assessment was shared by Liberal Democrat MP Christine Jardine, who also addressed the meeting. She said: “We have to change the electoral system and way we vote” in order to “get the people into power who will make change”.

Given the Liberal Democrat membership is among the top contenders for being part of the proverbial choir that doesn’t need preaching to on the arguments for democratic reform, panellists at the meeting also gave their views on how that reform can be won.

Lawson said that the “penny is beginning to drop” among the public that “first past the post will not allow us” to tackle the big issues facing the country. In light of that, he says, “we have to build the biggest possible campaign in our country to say that we need democratic reform”.

Jordan, meanwhile, said that proportional representation needs to be a “topic on all of the doorsteps” during election campaigns. She said: “We need to be bringing about a massive cultural shift – not just a bunch of very enthusiastic electoral reformers at the Lib Dem conference saying ‘yes, we need PR’ – but let’s get out there and make this the topic on all of the doorsteps. At Make Votes Matter, we’re doing a lot of that and getting people out on the streets in by-elections and […] at the next election.”

She also called on attendees to push for cultural figures to engage in the campaign for electoral reform, saying: “If you’re on whatever social media, message the people that you follow who you admire, like the cultural leaders and the public figures. Get them to start talking about the need for real democracy, about the need to make seats match votes. Get the musicians, get the singers, the actors all involved in this. That’s the way we’ll reach out to groups past our little bubble.”

The meeting concluded with a simple message from Jordan on the question of how to win electoral reform. Her final advice to people who want to see change in the democratic system was: “Vote for candidates that want PR at least and make sure you’re voting for somebody who is more likely to bring in real democracy.”

The fringe at the Liberal Democrat conference was titled ‘Clean Up Our Politics, Restore Our Democracy’. The panellists were: Neal Lawson – director of Compass, Klina Jordan – chief executive of Make Votes Matter, Christine Jardin – Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West, Mike Wright – head of communications at the Electoral Reform Society and Jess Sergeant – associate director at the Institute for Government. The meeting was chaired by Tom Brake – director of Unlock Democracy

Chris Jarvis is head of strategy and development at Left Foot Forward

This article was sponsored by Unlock Democracy and Make Votes Matter

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