Proportional Representation is necessary - and the only way to stop voter apathy - Vince Cable

Nigel Farage
Nigel Farage has confirmed that he will stand as the Reform UK parliamentary candidate for Clacton, Essex, in the General Election
Nigel Farage has confirmed that he will stand as the Reform UK parliamentary candidate for Clacton, Essex, in the General Election
Vince Cable

By Vince Cable

Published: 17/06/2024

- 17:21

Updated: 04/07/2024

- 20:08

Vince Cable is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats

Not much it must be said. But for one thing: a demand to change our ‘first past the post’ parliamentary (and local government) voting system.

The current system is unrepresentative of national opinion, produces exaggerated swings in parliamentary numbers and leaves millions with ‘wasted’ votes is (mostly Labour) safe seats. The result is more political apathy and cynicism. ‘They would say that wouldn’t they’ is the riposte of the two established parties.

And ‘yes, they would’ for good reason.

Reform is polling in the mid-teens but its vote is spread widely and thinly (‘inefficiently’ is the new bit of political jargon). and will be lucky to get one or two seats.

The Greens or on 6 or 7% and will do well to hold their one seat. Lib Dems have had three bad elections but the vote of 12% in 2019 should have yielded around 70 seats and a clear third place in parliament instead of the 12 or so we had (until boosted a bit by by-election wins).

The distortions are even bigger in local government. .

My own council is a (well-run) Lib Dem One Party State with no Labour or Conservative councillors. The Lib Dems have survived nationally by concentrating heavily on target seats and maximising tactical voting but we have shown competence in government and should realistically aspire to more than survival.

The system survives because it serves the interests of Labour and the Conservatives even though it provides bad government. They each think that they stand a chance of achieving undiluted power for a decade or so after spending another decade in opposition. But that calculation may no longer work.

The unruly coalition that is the Tory party may be facing an existential threat and could slip below the ‘cliff edge’ of just over 20% support when it faces a wipe-out.

The Labour Party has been convulsed by civil war whenever faced with a long stint in opposition. The Labour party’s members and affiliated unions have voted for electoral reform though Starmer is backing off with power just within reach. Opponents of electoral reform point to the bad cases: the extreme fragmentation in Holland and Israel; remote politicians dependent on party lists; and the entry of dangerous antidemocratic parties.

But European experience is varied and there are good models. The French two-stage election is one. The German part-constituency, part-list, system provides a representative democracy in which all shades of opinion are fairly represented. The Jenkins Commission set up by Tony Blair recommended a variant of the latter suited to British conditions.

I hope that the next – presumably, Labour-government is wise enough to look beyond tribal triumphalism.

A good place to start is local government where there is less at stake and urgent need for reform. Local government has been hollowed out and infantilised by successive governments leaving us with a massively overcentralised system.

Alongside radical decentralisation of powers local government needs more political legitimacy. At present local elections are little more than confidence votes in whichever party is in power nationally. It would help to energise local government politically if there were a greater incentive to vote under a more proportional system and if representative councils were forced into cross-party working. It would be wrong to overstate the benefits of changing the voting system.

If there is a deep social malaise caused by prolonged economic failure, changing the political make-up won’t produce better outcomes. Proportional voting is a necessary not a sufficient condition for national renewal. But it is an important step.

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