Political and constitutional reform will give us the best chance to facilitate the radical green transformation which our country needs
By Wendy Chamberlain MP
As the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for political and constitutional reform, the whole focus of my approach is trying to demonstrate the positive change which reforms can have. Our arguments are often too theoretical. They fail to meet people where they're at. If we cannot couch the case for a different voting system in terms of how it impacts people's lives, then I think we will continue to preach to the converted only.
One of the areas which best demonstrates this is the climate emergency. The challenges of the 21st century - of Covid, of the journey to net zero - require a different type of politics. This is the case both internationally, where we will need concerted co-operation, but also at home. If you're concerned about global warming, then you should be concerned about how our politics operates. I was particularly pleased, therefore, to have the opportunity to address the Green Liberal Democrats online conference on the subject of electoral reform.
Some simple maths demonstrates the problem, and the opportunity. At the last election, the Conservatives received 43.6% of all votes; but they received 56% of the seats. A 1% increase in votes for the Tories transformed Parliament from no overall control to one which was dominated by an eighty-seat governing majority. It is remarkable how well adjusted we are to the fact that a majority government requires only a minority of votes. Meanwhile, Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined received more votes than the Tories, but fewer seats. Perhaps this analysis is simplistic, but the fact is that a majority of votes in 2019 went to parties advocating more radical climate policies than the Conservatives. If our electoral system was fair, Britain would now be pursuing a greener path.
But the intertwining of climate policy and electoral reform goes further than the mere failure of translating votes into seats. Our First Past the Post system has two impacts: one is 'positional' and one is 'cultural'.
Firstly, positional. Majoritarian democracies tend toward two party systems. Within that system, polarisation can occur. We see this with climate policy in the US and Australia particularly - both countries with disproportional voting systems - where the direction of travel on climate policy can vastly differ between administrations, depending on whether they are from the party of the left or of the right. The environmental debate in the UK is, thankfully, not stuck in that unfortunate rut. However, our politics still suffers from watering down on issues where the two main parties play it safe and aim for the middle. The move to Net Zero will undoubtedly involve difficult policy trade-offs. How the Labour Party will respond to climate change under Keir Starmer is yet to be seen.
Secondly, First Past the Post is at the root of our political culture. It's exemplified by the fact that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition stand at the Despatch Box, exactly two swords' lengths apart. I was bemused when, last month, Boris Johnson criticised Keir Starmer for not doing enough to support the Government. We simply do not have that kind of system. The idea of a politics of consensus and co-operation is little more than a pipe dream. It is interesting to note that in the more proportional Scottish Parliament, the goodwill afforded by political parties to the Scottish Government has lasted far longer than in England.
There is also a case for arguing that electoral reform results in better politicians. Legislatures are more diverse under proportional representation: the countries with the highest proportion of female representatives use it. There has been much press coverage of the fact that many countries which have 'handled Covid well' have been led by women - I would add to this that the common factor is a political system underpinned by proportional representation. Diverse legislatures take into account a wider variety of perspectives. The UK Parliament is not diverse - be it in terms of race, gender or socio-economic background. There are many people who have benefitted from a system that harms our climate. It is a huge barrier to change.
But it's about more than just proportional representation. We should be making a suite of changes which will have a positive impact in the fight for radical climate action. To give one example, there is a clear moral case for 16 and 17 year olds having the right to vote. They do in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. At a time of climate crisis, we should be giving those whose futures will be most affected the right to have their voices heard. But there are other steps too - clearer and better regulated laws on lobbying: the Westferry affair has demonstrated the problems regarding apparent 'cash-for-access'; better use of democratic innovations like citizens assemblies, which not only produce excellent policies but empower people; and the devolution of more powers to local people.
It's easy in these days of populist politics to point to something 'other' - some sort of fundamental system change - and say that this would solve all of our problems, whether that be getting out of a union or getting back into one. Such an approach might make good rhetoric, but I believe it is an irresponsible way to conduct politics. Therefore, it's important to note that electoral reform is not some paean which will solve all our problems. At the end of the day, we will still have to work incredibly hard to ensure that people do co-operate; that consensus is the aim of the game. But I do think that electoral reform sets the conditions for that better politics - for a system of pluralism, of local empowerment, of long term policy making. That will give us the best chance to facilitate the radical green transformation which our country needs.