Putting people first, making the public case for Proportional Representation

“Without popular buy-in, any voting system won’t last long. Hopefully these three arguments can start to make the case for equal votes”.

Alex Toal

If you’re far enough into policy discourse to be reading a blog about Proportional Representation (PR), it’s somewhat likely that you already know what the main arguments are on either side of the electoral reform debate.

As Tom Brake detailed in his blog earlier in this series, detractors of PR claim that it leads to unstable governments and gives power to smaller parties, while its supporters point to the societal benefits which PR provides: from lower income inequality to more effective action on the climate emergency.

Electoral reformers like us at Make Votes Matter (MVM) can recite facts and figures as much as we want. Indeed it’s a valuable way to persuade key stakeholders like MPs, political parties, and academics on the merits of PR.

But, at some point down the line, this debate is going to have to go outside of the ‘bubble’. Any attempt to change the voting system will have to involve the British public, and any conversation with them will be on their own terms, rather than ours.

However, with the right arguments, this discussion could well happen in favour of change. Many of the sentiments currently in British politics could meet well with the need for PR. With scandals over second jobs and Downing Street parties, and inaction over the cost of living and other urgent issues, people feel like politicians are simply failing to represent them.

PR can change that, and, with the right message, the latent popularity of PR shown in polling can become an irresistible momentum for change. Anyone who has ever run a street stall with MVM knows well the surprising uptake which electoral reform can often have with the average punter.

But how can we most compellingly make the case to the broader public about the need for PR? These three messages could well be a start.

An end to safe seats

Many voters know that, where they live, “a monkey with an [insert colour here] rosette would win”. Even at such a seismic election as the 2019 general election, 88% of constituencies did not change hands, and over half of constituencies have stayed safe from 2010 – 2022.

Indeed, MVM identified 213 constituencies which have voted for the same party for the whole of the Queen’s reign!

What’s more, MPs in safe seats spend 21% less time doing casework for constituents, and the MPs who earn most from second jobs live represent safe seats.

To make MPs as accountable in their jobs as their constituents are in theirs is a common-sense case for PR.

An end to unaccountable majorities

The only thing more frustrating than news of the prime minister partying during the worst periods of lockdown was the realisation that nothing could be done about it.

In majoritarian systems, our leaders are less accountable to voters than they are to their own parties. When Conservative MPs decided to back Boris Johnson in the Vote of Confidence, there was little that most people could do.

What’s more, even when a policy is overwhelmingly popular, it is not always a guarantee of its success. Issues like taking away tax breaks for private schools or reforming the House of Lords, which enjoy cross-party and popular support are often not acted on, due to the opposition of the governing party which was elected with a minority of the popular vote. Even when popular policies are enacted, like the extension of free school meals or a windfall tax, it has only been achieved through exerted campaigning. 

Nor is this exclusively a Conservative phenomenon. One only has to remember the decision of a majority Labour government to back the Iraq War, despite the millions who marched in protest, to see that this is a cross-party phenomenon.

It is not always the government’s job to do what is popular. But First Past the Post gives parties an undeserved mandate to act with little accountability while representing a minority of the vote. When they do things regardless of opposition from the majority of the electorate, it is not good for the state of our democracy.

Ending false majority government may not ensure that every decision is a popular one, but should at least help to ensure that, when an issue becomes overwhelmingly popular, a parliamentary majority emerges for it.

An end to tactical voting

One of the most infuriating aspects of our voting system is the lack of choice it provides. Having bar charts thrust in your face and being told that “only [insert party] can win here” is hardly democracy in its ideal form.

At the national level, when asked whether they would prefer Keir Starmer or Boris Johnson as prime minister, many voters reply “neither”. Yet, particularly among the overwhelming majority of constituencies in the UK where the question is Conservative or Labour, voters feel forced to vote based on their next prime minister, rather than on who truly represents them.

An end to tactical voting could well be a popular message among all voters, giving them the freedom and the power to pick the candidate they truly want, over their least worst option.

There are popular arguments for PR

The next few years will feature fascinating discussions about types of voting systems, and about all of the potentially beneficial outcomes of PR.

But the most important conversation will be the one with the British public who are as of yet unaware of PR. Without popular buy-in, any voting system won’t last long. Hopefully these three arguments can start to make the case for equal votes.

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In this article Alex Toal of Make Votes Matter sets out how Proportional Representation can end unaccountable majorities, safe seats, and an end to tactical voting. Find out more here:

We need to make the case to the public in support of Proportional Representation. You can find out how we can do this here:

About the author

Alex Toal is the Alliance & Support Executive for make Votes Matter. He was previously the Head of Digital Communications for Centre and graduated from the University of York with a Masters in Public Administration.

About Make Votes Matter

Make Votes Matter is a cross-party campaign group which supports proportional Representation.

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