Angela Smith MP

Working hard for you

Why Proportional representation needed

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I begin by thanking the House of Commons digital engagement service for its work in preparation for this debate. It engages with voters on Facebook to great effect. Between 15 and 23 April, its Facebook post on proportional representation was seen by 29,448 accounts and had 7,936 clicks and 1,803 engagements. Of those engagements, 496 were Facebook users who wanted to comment on the issue, clearly demonstrating that there is a lot of interest—such is the interest that the debate is being streamed on the House of Commons Facebook page. I was impressed by the quality of insights made on the post and humbled by the number of them, and I thank all those who took the time to share their thoughts on proportional representation on Facebook.

In trying to do justice to the online discussion I can do no better than to begin by admitting that for many years I remained stubbornly resistant to the arguments for proportional representation, but no longer. Recent events have forced me to rethink my stance. In other words, I am happy to admit that I was wrong to defend first past the post for so long. My epiphany came in the wake of the 2017 election, when it became painfully obvious that the current electoral system is no longer fit for purpose. That was the third general election in a row in which our voting system failed to secure the strong, stable government that we all see as its key strength. It gave the Tories just under 50% of the seats available, with 42% of the vote. According to the Electoral Reform Society, 22 million voters had no impact on the result because they remained loyal to their tribe, despite knowing there was no chance whatsoever of securing victory for their candidates.

Many online respondents felt despondent and angry that living in a safe seat could mean that their vote counted for nothing. One respondent, Jamie, said:

“No one could possibly condone a system that essentially makes hundreds of thousands of voters redundant, and even worse reinforces the feeling of apathy that puts many people off from participating in the political process in the first place.”

On the other hand, 6.5 million voters decided to vote tactically in order to empower their choices, to give themselves a small but nevertheless important opportunity to help shape the outcome of the election. The situation was summarised beautifully by one of the contributors to the Facebook page, Adrienne, who said:

“I would like a proportional representation system so that I could vote for the party whose policies I agree with. At the moment my choice is either to vote tactically for a party I don’t want but whose policies I object to less, or to ‘waste’ my vote on the party I like—I live in a safe seat and can’t ever see my preferred party being successful. I think this question is more pertinent than ever following the political mess that has been Brexit. I have lost all faith that my voice will be heard in the current system.”​

At this point, many hon. Members will be thinking, “Yes, we’ve always argued that the current voting system is unfair.” Quite fairly, they would accuse me of having remained willingly blind to its iniquities. I have believed throughout my adult life that first past the post is justifiable because it promises strong government and a democratic basis for the implementation of the winning party’s manifesto. However, as I conceded, the key defence of first past the post has crumbled and is no longer credible, leading to my road-to-Damascus moment.

Three elections in a row failed to deliver strong government. Why? What is going on? Let us begin with the deep and ongoing crisis afflicting the two biggest political parties. Brexit is seen by many as the cause, but I would contend that it is a symptom of a newly emboldened populist discourse that has fractured our politics. As a consequence, both the Tory party and the Labour party are struggling with widening ideological divides that threaten to become an existential threat. That development is important because in a two-party system, voters need to be sure that the party they support is capable of delivering the realistic, pragmatic politics vital to the effective governing of the country.

There is a strong sense that both major parties are failing to maintain an approach to policy making based on consensus within each party and with the electorate, because the broad churches they represent are evaporating in the face of a blistering assault from the far reaches of the right and the left. We face a serious and possibly terminal decline in the ability of the two major parties to process political options, sift them and present them as a meaningful choice at an election. It is no wonder that long-term trends in voting behaviour indicate that the case for reform of the voting system is getting stronger, not weaker.

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con)

The hon. Lady makes some powerful points, but the only time that the British National party has ever been elected was through the d’Hondt system of proportional representation in the last European elections.

Angela Smith

I do not intend to go through the different PR models available, because I am establishing the principle, but I believe there are models of PR that prevent the accession of small extremist parties to a parliamentary system. Germany has such a system.

The recent British Social Attitudes survey found that only 8% of voters identify strongly with a political party. Polls regularly report not only diminishing support for the two parties, but a sense that “none of the above” is an increasingly attractive choice for British voters. That is best expressed by a gradually reducing turnout. In 1950, 84% of voters cast their preferences at the ballot box. In the 2017 election, turnout was 68%. There is other firm evidence that voters are losing confidence in our representative democracy. The report by the Institute for Public Policy Research on the 2015 election established that less than half of 18-24-year-olds voted, compared with nearly 80% of those aged 65 and over. That is a worrying trend.

The past 30 years have seen the emergence of a dramatic divide in how people vote, especially as far as the age demographic is concerned. The evidence is clear: voters increasingly demonstrate that they no longer trust the two main parties to manage the democratic process. Both Labour and the Tories have traditionally held a ​huge responsibility under first past the post. In an electoral process that offers only limited opportunities to change the political colour of a constituency, we have relied on the two major parties to provide candidates who are capable of taking on the coveted role of Member of Parliament, and to provide a well-thought-through programme for government that is realistic and promises to meet the needs of the country. Increasingly there is a feeling that both parties are failing to take those responsibilities seriously, to the extent that voters are no longer content to be managed by political parties. They increasingly seek plurality, so that they can sift for themselves the range of policy choices available in any given election. Voters no longer want to be patronised by the democratic process; they want to be empowered by it.

Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)

I commend the hon. Lady on her speech and on the candour and force with which she makes her points. What she says is true not just of national government but of local government. May I offer her the example of local government in Scotland where, since 2007, councils have been elected under the single transferable vote? We have seen the end of single-party monoliths across Scotland, and that has been absolutely rejuvenating for local democracy in Scotland.

Angela Smith

I completely accept the right hon. Gentleman’s point. I restricted this debate to Westminster, but that does not mean that I believe these principles do not apply to local government—they do.

Our 19th-century voting system is unfit for the 21st century. As one respondent wrote on the Facebook page accompanying this debate, the system acts as a straitjacket, denying voters the multiplicity of choices they crave. Another respondent, Benny, commented that PR

“would make sure that every vote counts, enabling all voters to feel more involved in the democratic process.”

If we are serious about changing our politics, we must start with how we elect our Parliament. We need reform to ensure fairness and integrity in the electoral process, and that means acknowledging the case made by events in the past few years for a more pluralistic system that gives back control to voters.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Will she tell us which system she favours? There are a number of systems we could use, but it would be very interesting to know which appeals to her.

Angela Smith

What I will say is that I do not favour a system that removes the constituency link. We must have a system that keeps the constituency link in place. One of the reasons the alternative vote referendum failed is that AV is not proper PR. We need proper PR, but we need the constituency link.

If we win approval in Parliament for implementing a new PR system, we should begin the process of establishing a proportional system by holding deliberative discussions—citizens’ assemblies—across the country to develop the right option for our country. That is the way we should do this. I am not going to say which system I want to see. That is not for me to decide. The country has to decide which system suits us best. That is the best way of approaching the implementation of a change in the voting system.​

As I said, we need a more pluralistic system that gives back control to voters. That is what the democratic process is about. The days of patronising voters and managing their choices for them are over, and we need to recognise that. No longer can excuses be made to avoid change. Indeed, every new legislature created by this Parliament uses some form of PR. Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the London Assembly all use proportional systems. STV, Mr Evans, is even used to elect the Deputy Speakers of this House.

I am convinced that change is coming. It is overdue. I apologise for my tardiness in acknowledging the strength of the argument for PR, but better late than never. Let’s get on with it.