We can’t tackle the climate crisis without voting reform

'Effective action on climate chaos is purposefully rejected because First Past the Post (FPTP) privileges the voices and votes of a tiny minority'


Neal Lawson is Director of Compass and author of Democratise to Decarbonise

After COP 28 drew to a disappointing close, attention turns back to national climate policies.  The reality back home is a political and democratic system that means whatever is decided in Dubai will have little UK take up because the people who call the political shots here have almost zero interest in net zero targets.  And their views hold sway primarily because of our voting system. 

Our democracy now works for the few against the many. Real power and decisions lurk behind a paywall that only a rich elite can afford, and a small voting minority are invited to participate in. And it’s causing climate chaos. 

Effective action on climate chaos is purposefully rejected because First Past the Post (FPTP) privileges the voices and votes of a tiny minority. Because the only people that matter under our winner takes all system are big global corporations and the extremely wealthy, especially those that donate to the two-party duopoly, the owners of the mainstream media and the digital platforms, and the few swing voters in a few swing seats whose votes are decisive. 

And they all tend to be driven by the desire for minimum taxes and regulation and maximum growth. To win under FPTP, because of their stranglehold on the system, parties that want to win have to explicitly promise not to do anything on climate that might upset these narrow interests.  So, the climate agenda is lost before a single vote is cast. 

Meanwhile, back in the land of the many, studies show that76% of Britons that support net zero, and 52% want the government to do more to tackle climate change. Furthermore, countries without this voting stranglehold  have slowed their carbon dioxide emissions more than four times as quickly as FPTP countries. 

Much of the anti-climate voting skew is simply down to where voters live. New research shows that this big pro-climate support is bunched up in huge majorities in a small number of seats compared to the more even spread of more sceptical voters, and their support  under FPTP is counted more efficiently.   

So where is Labour in all this democratic log jam on climate action? Under real pressure from its members and the trade unions, the leadership have conceded that FPTP is part of the crisis of democracy, but they have refused so far to admit to the logical conclusion, that a proportional alternative that ensure everyone’s vote counts, is the answer. 

The current stock response from Labour’s leadership is that constitutional reform is not a priority, the urgent issue is the cost-of-living crisis. The constitution for them is a can to be kicked down the road of a second term. But the growing gap between rich and poor, like real action on climate, is impossible under FPTP and is exactly the reason why changing the electoral system is a day one priority.  Nothing significant changes unless our democracy changes.  

Like the Tories, Labour’s leadership don’t yet see fair votes as in their interest.  While the choice in most seats is boiled down to one or other of the duopoly, voters are forced to hold their nose and back the least bad option. These tactical votes pump up the cartel no matter how badly they perform or are viewed.   Neither of the two parties, who gain so much from such an abusive ‘choice’, have any incentive to shift to a proportional voting, which is the only route to inject effective competition and innovation into our failing political system. And so, the cycle of disappointment and frustration continues. 

So where does hope and change come from? Two vital places. First the recognition that beyond this narrow ruling elite, Britain is in effect a hugely progressive country. In every election since 1979, bar 2015, there has been a progressive majority of voters. The problem is this vote splits three ways, while the regressive vote consolidates around one right-wing party.  Thatcherism would never have happened if progressives had learned how to cooperate.  Indeed, research shows, when people place themselves on a left to right scale, the UK is more progressive than a large sample of other nations. But this radical intent is snuffed out by our voting system.

The second source of hope is the penny dropping amongst the electorate and many big single issue campaign organisations, that democracy is now a first order issue. PR now has majority support amongst voters and campaigners like Tax Justice UK, the Equality Trust, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Green New Deal Rising and more are now backing the case for voting reform. It’s in their interest.  

Of course, progressives must win under the current voting system. But here a more hopeful and radical electoral strategy opens up.  By backing PR Labour can create the conditions in which this notional progressive majority can be mobilised at the next general election.  That of course means not competing in ways that stop better placed progressive candidates winning, a small one off price to be paid for a democratic system that allows climate and inequality policies to get a fair hearing. 

The choice is Labour’s, to go on trying to secure narrow, shallow and occasional FPTP victories on policies only acceptable to those who want nothing to change, especially on climate, or mobilise and build the progressive majority that exists in our country. Infrequent, weak single party government or strong progressive alliances most of the time? The flick of a switch in terms of how we count votes is a game changer for progressives and the planet. 

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