The 2015 General Election was the most disproportionate general election in British history. The Conservatives won a majority of 12 with only 37% of the vote. UKIP got four million votes and the Green Party got over one million votes, but only won one seat each. After the election there was a surge in support for electoral reform and petitions calling for a new, proportional, voting system received 477,000 signatures. The newly elected Conservative government, high on their unexpected electoral victory, gave this feeble response to the petitions:
There are a number of issues with this response. In an attempt to keep the debate and discussion about our democracy going, we set these out in a letter to John Penrose. This was co-signed by 1,280 of Make Votes Matter's active supporters and sent on 2nd March.
Dear Mr Penrose,
On 18 May 2015, petitions calling for the UK voting system to be changed to one of proportional representation were delivered to No.10 Downing Street by representatives of five political parties and on behalf of 477,000 signatories.
In June, you replied to one of our co‐petitioners (Unlock Democracy) in your capacity as Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office with responsibility for electoral policy. Your response, a full copy of which is attached, was this:
"I appreciate your point, but the difficulty would be that we had a referendum on it in 2011. The result was a fairly resounding rejection of the idea, with 67% voting against. As you'll appreciate, it would be pretty difficult to argue we should ignore the democratic verdict in the referendum and go ahead anyway!"
We wish to draw your attention to a fundamental error in this reply. Namely, it is not the case that we had a referendum on whether to change to a proportional voting system in 2011 as you claim. The system put forward in the 2011 referendum was the Alternative Vote, which is not a proportional system. David Cameron was emphatic about this at the time, stating on one occasion: "I'm here today to explain as clearly as I can why AV is completely the wrong reform...let me take on this myth that AV is more fair and more proportional than the system we have currently".
This being the case, it is very clear that the outcome of the 2011 referendum did not signify a rejection of, or indeed any comment upon, proportional electoral systems. Indeed polls of the British public consistently show overwhelming support for the principle of proportionality.
The 477,000 petitioners were in fact attempting to draw your attention to problems which afflict the Alternative Vote every bit as much as they do First Past the Post, and which broad proportionality would solve. The undemocratic effects of First Past the Post are more visible than ever, following the most disproportionate General Election in British history last May:
● It severely suppresses political participation and diversity. One quarter of voters voted for either the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats, or UKIP. These parties now share a negligible 1.5% of seats between them ‐ effectively excluding the voices of their seven and a half million voters from our Parliament.
● It makes votes unequal in value. In last year's election one party needed just over 23,000 votes to win a single seat while another needed almost four million. This means that some people's votes had more than one hundred and sixty eight times greater value than others.
● It distorts the electorate's express wishes. 64% of those who voted did not vote for the present government, and yet it now has a majority of parliamentary seats and total executive control. The election demonstrated that most people in our country did not want the present majority government, yet this is the result that our electoral system has delivered.
We hope you will consider these problems and their implications for democracy in this country very carefully. They seem to us to be indefensible ‐ though if you should wish to defend them we would welcome a genuine discussion of the matter.
Something else that David Cameron said in 2011 was this: "Two centuries ago, voting was limited to the privileged few. Generations of campaigners fought and died to change that. Their struggle gave us the principle that sits at the heart of our democracy today: we are all equal, therefore we all have an equal say at the polls."
Image courtesy of Klina Jordan
The struggle he speaks of continues. Every OECD nation that still uses First Past the Post has a major popular campaign to abolish it. There are good reasons why countries with proportional systems do not have popular campaigns to adopt First Past the Post ‐ it would make no more sense than campaigning for the withdrawal of universal suffrage, the abolition of secret ballots, or the return of property qualifications for MPs.
Our country is a gentler place than it was in the eras of the Chartists and the Suffragettes that Mr Cameron alludes to. In these more enlightened times, it is our greatest hope that the improvements our democracy requires can be not evaded or suppressed as in the past, but considered willingly and openly, by an amicable collaboration between the government and the campaigners for democracy, whom the Prime Minister so admires.
For this reason, we ask that you agree to meet, at a time and place of your convenience, with representatives of the 477,000 petitioners and the wider movement for a fair democracy, to discuss how we may, together, find a way forward.
Make Votes Matter
Unfortunately, more than a month later, we have had no response of any kind from Mr Penrose or his office.
In democratic societies, it is the responsibility of citizens to defend their rights to representation, participation and self-determination when these are threatened or suppressed.
But it is also the responsibility of those in public office to protect democratic principles; to steward and, when necessary, change the processes by which we choose our representatives and leaders - not to retain political power, but to make sure everyone has fair representation in the Parliament whose decisions have a profound effect on us all.
At the very least, a Minister responsible for electoral policy has a responsibility to respond (with at least some factual accuracy) to hundreds of thousands of people when they legitimately complain that their democratic rights, and the democratic rights of millions of others, are being suppressed by our failing electoral system.
Make Votes Matter is part of a broad movement for fair democracy in the UK - encompassing seven political parties and organisations like the Fabian Society, Unlock Democracy, Compass, and the Electoral Reform Society. Some of this campaign focuses on building alliances to enable reform of our broken voting system under a future government (for example, you can sign our letter to Jeremy Corbyn, which will seek his commitment to the principles set out in the Declaration for Voting Reform)
But it is the present government that decides whether or not we all have a fair say in the next General Election - and we cannot allow complaints about such an unfair democratic process to be ignored or diverted by officials who owe their power to the unfairness of that process. For this reason, we hope Mr Penrose - the Minister responsible for these issues - will resume this discussion with us very soon.
If you would like to encourage John Penrose to address the concerns put to him by almost half a million people, his contact details can be found on the Parliament website), or you can tweet @johnpenrosenews).