PR ‘Ten Minute Bill’ on the 16th strategically all wrong (posted Dec 2015)

First of all, have you heard anything in the media about the Representation of the People (Proportional Representation) Bill? Have you any idea what it is, that it’s about electoral reform?

On 16th December 2015 – yes, as soon as that – Jonathan Reynolds MP is proposing a Bill in Westminster which will give ‘your MP a chance to support proportional representation.’

What are its chances of success? Well, in the briefing on social media asking you to send an email to express your support to your local MP, it says ‘…the kind of Bill being put forward rarely becomes law.’

On 5.5.5 & Counting we desperately want to see electoral reform because we believe that a fairer society is not possible without a fair voting system. So we think you should send that email. But we also think that the crucial objective of getting rid of first-past-the-post and replacing it with a fair voting system for UK general elections is not firmly enough at the heart of the strategic approach this Bill represents. And here are the main problems:

•The idea of electoral reform certainly got some profile after the 2015 general election when millions saw that UKIP and the Greens got five million votes and ludicrously only two seats in parliament. But things then stopped a long way short of putting any real flesh on the bone. This Bill must be treated with caution because we simply don’t know at this stage if it will serve as a vehicle for the political class to claim ‘we’re doing something about it’ while actually steering electoral reform for general elections onto a sideline and into a good ol’ fudge of classic British proportions.

•It is a compromising and guarded approach. For example, it says, ‘If (the Bill) were to reach later parliamentary stages…’: ‘…the Bill is a crucial step in the right direction…’ that may move to ‘the system used in N.I. and Scotland for local elections…’ but is ‘…a vital move to a more proportional voting system for Westminster.’ This doesn’t sound or look like a focussed intention to get rid of FPTP for general elections. We worry that there’s an aim for a halfway house that might be palatable to the Westminster political class. It comes across almost as an appeal to Westminster for a top-down solution.

•Optimistically, there may be a little more public support for a bill of this sort than when the Liberal Democrats agreed with the Tories a referendum on AV in 2011. That never had a hope of winning and it was a setback for the electoral reform movement. It served ‘status quo’ politicians well by giving them all the ammunition they’ve needed ever since to say the people were asked but they didn’t want electoral change.

•This Bill claims to have the support of about half-a-million petitioners and five party leaders. How many people are now going to write to their MPs at this stage remains to be seen. It may not be a complete empty vessel but it clearly lacks the confidence and assertiveness that would come with the known support, understanding, awareness and ownership of a significant proportion of the electorate. It would be strategically better to have that in place before bringing the Bill to parliament rather than keeping fingers crossed that millions are going to be inspired to write to MPs two weeks before Christmas.

•There has not been ongoing momentum for change building up in the public at large. We believe that to have any chance of getting the Westminster political class, putting it in a seasonal context, to vote like turkeys for Christmas, support in the order of 5 to 10 million people will be needed. Half-a-million isn’t enough because anyone sitting in Westminster in a safe seat knows that the electorate in total is 46m and voters for ‘other’ parties (not Tory or Labour) who want electoral reform number around 10m. About 15m don’t vote at all and the support of a significant number of them would also be a powerful persuader (‘Make it worth voting and I’ll vote).

•There is talk in the briefing of different types of PR system which, as far as we are aware, have not been consulted upon or agreed with people who want to see fair voting in this country. In the briefing and draft letter, STV and Additional Member systems are mentioned. But what we should know already is exactly the system that the wider electoral reform community understands, approves and wants. Again surely, this should be before a Bill like this goes to parliament. Arguments for electoral reform have never gained a hold on public imagination in the UK. But that’s (1) because the arguments haven’t been put over well enough or often enough, (2) because PR systems are difficult to explain and there has been no consistent process of raising awareness of how they work and what their benefits are, (3) arguments for FPTP are in contrast easy to explain, come with ‘hooks’ that appeal to a sense of simplicity, decisiveness and good old British pragmatism and (4) are backed up with false claims and mythology that we haven’t worked nearly hard enough to dispel.

Please respond with your views and comments. 5.5.5 & Counting undertakes to review and publish to this website your best suggestions for actions and strategy to achieve full electoral reform within the next five years.