Ian lawrence Writes: Proportional representation – The long road ahead starts at Brighton

This month’s Trade Union Congress will see two important Napo motions feature in the debates.

The first is on the need to strengthen the existing processes and accountability mechanisms on child safeguarding, and how the authorities can better protect young people against harm and abuse. It’s right up there in terms of being a key professional issue that will find resonance amongst our members in Probation and Cafcass, and hopefully the wider public following the horrendous revelations from the Scunthorpe inquiry last year.

Our second motion on Electoral Reform (see below) seeks the support of the TUC to commission independent research and use this to campaign more widely for change. It is certainly a radical departure from those that we normally submit; but the Officers and NEC supported my recommendation that a new debate needs to be started within the trade union movement and the UK electorate on what is (and always has been) a highly controversial issue.

Sour grapes syndrome?

Defenders of Britain’s ‘first past the post’ electoral system (FPTP) will always claim that it has served us well and will not unreasonably ask: if it isn’t broken why fix it?

Yet the advocates for change seem to have more in their locker these days, especially in light of the unexpected result of this year’s General Election which saw the Tory party secure a 12 seat Parliamentary majority after receiving just 25% of the popular vote.

But the issues about participation and the mandate to govern run deeper than just this single depressing statistic. Firstly, it is the case that more of the UK electorate failed to bother to vote for anyone as opposed to those who actually did. Naturally this ought to be causing all political parties to reflect on their engagement strategies and how they can create clear water between each other so as to attract the ‘they are all the same’ tendency. Yet it is also a fact that many people patently refuse to shore up a discredited and tired system that was essentially designed to cater for a two party governance structure which no longer reflects the diverse demographics and voting preferences within many constituencies.

Critics of FPTP point to the fact that any system which sees a candidate returned on Bottom of Form

a low percentage vote, which only has to be higher than any other candidate, is ridiculous. It has been widely reported how some MP’s were returned to parliament in this year’s general election despite having the backing of just 16% of voters. This is a result of the move away from the two party system as evidenced by the way in which Ukip, the Greens and SNP gained from traditional Tory or Labour voters but in the case of the first two parties failed to translate that into more than two seats.

Is there a solution?

Proportional representation (PR) means that if a political party receives 25% of the vote, they will have 25% of the seats in Parliament. However, this basic form of PR doesn’t factor in the regional perspective which many people want to see properly reflected.

The late 1990s saw some support in favour of the system’s implementation in Britain with the Liberal Democrats leading the way. Yet the ‘great opportunity’ for electoral reform that caused Paddy Ashdown to recommend a Coalition with the Tories in 2010, led to the ill-fated referendum in 2011 to decide whether or not to move to an alternative voting system (a result of a bill introduced by the Lib Dems).

This exercise which was widely seen as something of a ‘damp squib’ saw just 42.2% turn out to vote with 68% against and 32% in favour. Critics claim that there was insufficient time and discussion for the debate about which system would replace the current one. Some might argue that this time the stakes are higher.

The possible answer, which seems to be gaining increasing popularity, is the Mixed Member Proportional system (MMP) where voters indicate a preference for a political party and one for a parliamentary candidate (their constituency representative). Prospective MPs stand in constituencies as they do now, but there would also be a proportional number of Parliamentary seats available to the parties based on their percentage of the vote. This presents the likelihood that candidates from parties seen as ‘extremist’ may get through, but it’s often held that the only realistic way to expose such people is to engage them in open debate.

It will be a long hard road from Brighton to electoral Nirvana and it may take decades if not a generation or two to bring about change. Nevertheless, we will be arguing that the quest for real democracy cannot wait any longer.

Electoral Reform

The outcome of the 2015 election in terms of the share of Parliamentary seats in comparison to the votes received by the participating parties indicates that the British electoral system is no longer fit for purpose.

Congress instructs the General Council to commission independent research which would consider how this inequitable situation has developed and the options for change.

The General Council are to report back by the 2016 Congress with recommendations which would form part of a wider campaign for change.

Ian Lawrence

Napo General Secretary



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