Sir Vince Cable MP: Elections must be about everyone, not just a few swing-voters in a handful of marginal seats
Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable is launching a cross-party 'Good Systems Agreement' which plans to hold a short, focused, citizens’ assembly, where a large group of ordinary citizens can subject the arguments for different electoral systems to scrutiny.
The Conservative Party – with a hopelessly unrepresentative membership: elderly, rich, white, male; many of whom don’t even vote Conservative – is selecting a new Prime Minister on behalf of all of us. Millions of people – the rest of us – are left powerless and excluded, with no say over how our country is run.
Yet when an election does come around, too many voices will still be silenced because of our outdated electoral system. The need for reform used to be a niche issue reserved for political science lectures and Liberal Democrat party conferences. Not any longer.
More and more people are moving away from the two big parties, which have been captured by their extreme elements: Labour’s hard-left Corbynistas and the Tories’ ‘no-deal’ Brexit fanatics. They have shifted far from the views of the vast majority of the public – as their joint drubbing in the European elections showed.
With this big electoral shift, the prospects for reform are growing. First-Past-the-Post has over decades protected the Conservative and Labour parties, allowing them to maintain their grip on the vast majority of seats in Westminster, even as they collectively represent an ever-smaller segment of the population.
Yet previously ‘safe seats’ are now becoming vulnerable to the Liberal Democrats and to other political forces. Fewer seats where the outcome is a foregone conclusion will mean fewer MPs who only need to keep their parties and donors happy, rather than their constituents.
As well as denying voters a real voice, First-Past-the-Post also denies them a genuine choice. It forces many to vote tactically: against their least favoured candidate instead of for their most favoured one. At the 2017 General Election, for example, anti-Brexit voters in Labour-Tory marginals were faced with an invidious choice: vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s pro-Brexit Labour Party, or risk letting in Theresa May’s even more pro-Brexit Conservative Party. In 2015, this negative anti-Labour tactical voting did enormous damage to the Lib Dems. In the 2017 election, the Lib Dems got 7.4% of the vote but only 2% of the seats. The Greens won 525,665 votes but only one MP. UKIP nearly 600,000 votes but no MPs.
Meanwhile, it forces political parties into electoral pacts: backing candidates they disagree with to stop others with whom they disagree even more profoundly. The Liberal Democrats did this in Brighton Pavilion in 2017, standing down against Caroline Lucas to make sure the Conservatives didn’t win. In my own Twickenham seat, the Greens generously stood down for me, and now they have done the same for the by-election in Brecon and Radnorshire, backing Liberal Democrat Jane Dodds to beat the Tories and the Brexit Party.
These are absolutely the right decisions, but they shouldn’t be necessary. We have a lot in common but parties should not have to compromise their identity in this way, nor deny voters choice. Instead, we should have a system where every vote counts. This week I am involved in launching the cross-party 'Good Systems Agreement', which sets out key principles for choosing a new system that retains a link between MPs and constituencies and ensures votes cast nationally closely match seats won. Liberal Democrats have always argued for the Single Transferable Vote, which would allow voters to rank their choices 1, 2, 3, etc, allowing you to support your favourite candidate without risking the election of your least favourite, and ensuring that seats match votes overall.
But choosing the right system cannot be left to any one party or to Westminster alone. Our Good Systems Agreement sets out an intention to hold a short, focused, citizens’ assembly, where a large group of ordinary citizens can subject the arguments for different systems to scrutiny: a sort of jury trial for a new system.
Of course, a new electoral system is not a panacea that will magically heal all our political ills. That’s why the Liberal Democrats are also campaigning to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year olds and to EU citizens; to reform of the House of Lords; and to place a cap on donations to political parties.
Improving our democracy is not just an end in itself, but the foundation stone for building a better country, with good schools and hospitals, affordable housing, safe communities and clean air.
Government of the people, by the people, for the people can only be achieved if elections are about everyone, not just a few swing-voters in a handful of marginal seats.
Sir Vince Cable is the Liberal Democrat leader and MP for Twickenham