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The cross-party launch of the Good Systems Agreement hopes to revolutionise UK politics

All over the world people are pushing for more meaningful and participative democracy. In Hong Kong, 30% of the population has been out on the streets. Risking ten year prison sentences, the largely young protesters took over the parliament building, claiming that it has ‘never represented its people’.

At the same time in the UK Parliament, a group of lower-risk revolutionaries were making a similar claim. MPs from across the party-political spectrum gathered to protest a first past the post voting system that makes the up to 68% of our votes redundant. See here and here for previous blogs on MVM.

This week saw the launch of the Good Systems Agreement at the Houses of Parliament. It’s the culmination of a year and a half of research, consultation and consensus-building by the Make Votes Matter Alliance

A/UK is a Signatory Organisation to the Good Systems Agreement (see here). Together we have achieved something that has never been done in the UK - securing broad agreement about the principles that define good voting systems. To anyone outside the 2% who are members of political parties, it’s hard to imagine that our democracy does not already guarantee the principles as follows:

·      Proportionality: good systems ensure that seats closely match votes, with parliamentary representation at least as proportional as the Scottish Parliament.

·       Representation: good systems ensure MPs and governments represent the views of the voters.

·       Equal votes: good systems ensure the value of individual votes is not distorted by factors such as geography, and minimise the need for tactical voting. 

·       Local links: good systems maintain links between MPs and specific geographic areas. 

·       Diversity: good systems encourage the election of parliaments reflecting the population.

·       Voter choice: good systems allow voters a wide choice of parties, and allow voters to express preferences for people rather than just parties. Any lists used must be democratically determined.

·       Accountability: good systems ensure MPs and governments are accountable to the voters.

·       Balance of stability and flexibility: good systems engender stable, flexible government that has the ability to compromise.

·       Sustainability and adaptability: good systems are able to respond and adapt to changing needs without requiring frequent or fundamental change.

·       Voting simplicity: good systems and ballot papers are easy for voters to understand and use.

Co-founder Klina Jordan introduced MPs from all the UK’s political parties (except Change and Brexit, who are nevertheless signees) who backed this fundamental shift. “We don’t live in a democracy” she said “and unless we change that we won’t be able to stop the climate breakdown.” It was a rare moment of easy consensus in the UK Parliament. 

Co-host of the evening, SNP’s Tommy Shephard referred to the spectacle of Westminster breakdown in the face of Brexit, as offering an important window of opportunity: people are disillusioned with politics, we should offer them genuine change. 

Labour’s Stephen Kinnock added, the greatest argument for First Past the Post till now, is that it delivers stable government -that is clearly no longer the case.

Until now, Labour has been one of the main obstacles to a more coalition style of government – they refused to join a Progressive Alliance at the last General Election. However, Kinnock said, this contradicts the party’s core message of equality: the current voting system favours only a very small section of the population. 

“We need the courage of our convictions. We should not be afraid of populism – everyone has a right to represent their views. Sunlight is the best disinfectant for anything toxic. Don’t allow the extremists to talk about themselves as an insurgency. In Wales national parliament – which is proportional - UKIP took a number of seats. However, in the heat of parliamentary life, they have made fools of themselves”.

Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party – and the first black leader of a UK party – agreed. “Politics will only change at the speed of trust.Looking at the details of the first past the post system may seem mechanistic, but is the very means by which our political system guarantees business as usual. Would we be in the mess we are in if the people could be properly heard?

We have to work together better. We encourage political promiscuity- let’s all belong to each-others’ parties. A new politics that’s more polyamorous!

Outgoing Lib Dem leader, Vince Cable noted in his constituency, it was almost a one-party Lib Dem state. Despite having 15% of the vote, Labour could not get a single councillor voted in, which seems wrong. Younger people too, seemed completely uninterested, thinking of voting as something the older people did through a sense of duty – never expecting change! However, at national level, President of the Liberal Democrats, Baroness Sal Brinton, the opposite was true. Despite getting 25% of the vote in a General Election, they only secured 1.5% of the seats!

The Green Party’s Jonathan Bartley pointed out that experiments with different proportional systems are occurring around the country – as if we are constantly in rehearsal. Maybe it’s an idea to start with local elections operating differently from national level -something AUK have also suggested. It would be a way for those who currently feel excluded to be seen and heard (and also encourage more local participation.)

Liz Saville Roberts MP, Westminster Leader of Plaid Cymru, noted that duopoly is physically built into the system with the opposition benches in the House of Commons. “And when the building was bombed during WW2 in 1941, they rebuilt it exactly the same way!” She invited us to look at when change really happens – such as the institution of Citizen Assemblies in Ireland after the economic crash. In the midst of this Brexit crisis, the duopoly has been called into severe question by the people. The two so called dominant parties only managed to win 22% of the vote between them in a proportional European elections. It’s time for Parliament to recognise that this is a moment for deepening democracy.

Conservative MP Derek Thomas agreed. “Electoral reform is inevitable: there’s nothing to fear for any of us”.

More on the Good Systems Agreement.