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By Bishop of Leeds
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Electoral reform is needed to inject fresh life back into our democracy

Image: Adobe Stock

4 min read

If voting is the cornerstone of democracy, first past the post perverts that entirely

It is all too easy, as Members rush around in the bustle of Westminster and shortly head off to party conference, to forget that regardless of party, most people don’t like or trust us. Voter turnout has sat stubbornly around the two-thirds mark for the past four elections. The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer found that trust in the institution of government fell to just 27 per cent. The same survey also reported that 68 per cent feel politicians are more likely to lie and mislead the public, and 57 per cent felt their interests were not represented in politics. This is not a pretty picture. 

Unlike many MPs, I’ve not been involved in politics that long. I may be chief whip now, but it’s only a little over eight years since I joined the Liberal Democrats. Reading these statistics, I feel particularly disheartened. I want to show the public that Westminster isn’t a world apart, that there are ordinary people from local communities here who share the same goals and aspirations for those communities as everyone else. 

But when for most people their only engagement with Westminster is the ballot box, I can understand where disenchantment with the system starts. If voting is the cornerstone of democracy, first past the post perverts that entirely. Voters are often left voting tactically for whichever of the two biggest parties in their area they dislike least. It is hardly surprising that so many voters don’t feel represented by those they elect. 

The Liberal Democrats have long campaigned for change, but electoral reform is needed now more than ever. We want to see reform because under a different system, where each voter feels their vote makes a difference, engagement in politics would be turned on its head. If the issues you care about aren’t being represented, then you should be able to vote for a candidate who will represent them. If representatives make promises during an election campaign that they never follow through on, voters hold the power to vote them out. In this way voting is powerful and the public should feel that they are making a difference if they vote.

Voters are often left voting tactically for whichever of the two biggest parties in their area they dislike least

Of course changing the electoral system isn’t the only reform needed. The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) must be given teeth, and ministers required to follow its findings. The size and make-up of the House of Lords needs reform. Standards in public life must be enforced – starting with empowering the government’s ethics advisor to launch their own investigations. And we absolutely have to improve rules around misleading the House. In a world where a social media clip is king, it isn’t enough to be challenged by another Member or to correct the record at a later date. 

From a Scottish perspective, the type of political reform I’d like to see – and need to see for my constituents to feel represented – would involve mainstream devolution across Whitehall and a better understanding of differences between the nations. This way every nation's interests have an equal role in decision-making. 

But, as we gear up for a general election, voters’ minds will be focused on one thing. Who should I vote for, or should I bother voting at all? Elections are one of the most basic aspects of our democratic system and they must be done properly. Any bars to voting, like voter ID must be dropped. And then we must turn our attention to how we can make every vote meaningful. We must show the public that they can trust us. We must put them at the heart of everything we do. 

Wendy Chamberlain is Liberal Democrat MP for North East Fife

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