Wendy Chamberlain – 2020 Speech on Electoral Reform

Below is the text of the speech made by Wendy Chamberlain, the Liberal Democrat MP for North East Fife, in the House of Commons on 8 June 2020.

It seems that debates on potential electoral reform are a bit like buses: wait a long time for a chance to discuss it, and then, with the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill last week, two opportunities come along at once. I welcome the opportunity to engage with the Minister on this topic, as I indicated on Second Reading of the Bill last week. I believe that this is the first debate on positive reform to our electoral system in this Chamber since 2016. As we reflect on last year’s general election and the challenges that the UK faces in relation to the covid-19 pandemic, I believe that revisiting this topic and the impact that the current first-past-the-post system has on democracy is valid.

During that Second Reading debate last week, I mentioned a statistic: for every one vote it took to elect an SNP MP at the last election, it took 33 votes to elect a Green one. The Green party polled over 800,000 votes and ended up with only one Member of Parliament: the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). The Brexit Party, polling over 600,000 votes, got no MP at all. Its biggest impact as a party was in standing down in seats, effectively preventing those who wish to vote for it in those seats from being able to do so.

I do not want to drown Members in statistics—I know that the Government have been in trouble with the Office for National Statistics recently—but I do want to highlight the following. The Government have an 80-seat majority in this House, but they did not receive the majority of votes—far from it, in fact. They got 43.6% of the votes, but due to first past the post, they now hold 56% of the seats. I do not know what is more remarkable: the fact that the Government have a majority in Parliament, despite not having a majority of votes from this country, or the fact that we have grown so used to this disproportionality that we rarely comment on how remarkable it is.

If Government Members—were they here—to say, “Well, at least the largest party in the Commons is the one with the most votes,” I would agree. After all, in 1951 and 1974, the party with the most votes did not end up with the most seats. The electoral maths is very clear. First past the post does not do a good job at all of representing voters’ preferences or the will of the people, as some like to call it.

One of the arguments in support of first past the post is—to quote a previous Conservative general election slogan—that it provides strong and stable governance. The last 10 years have demonstrated that this is far from the case. We have a broken system. It is unfair, unrepresentative, and undermines the legitimacy of our democracy and, indeed, the UK itself. We often take pride in the fact that this Parliament is the mother of Parliaments, but we should not let our pride in our heritage blind us to the areas in which it needs improvements. We should not uphold tradition at all costs, particularly when it prevents us from making the progressive changes that will have a positive impact on people’s lives, or prevents Members from properly representing their constituents. Every election that we ​hold under first past the post runs the risk that we end up with a Government who did not win a majority of votes, impacting on the legitimacy of our whole democratic process. This is a scenario that should worry anyone and which we should be acting pre-emptively to avoid.

Although I take pride in our heritage, the reality is that the vast majority of democratic countries have chosen not to follow our system. Exactly the scenario that I have been talking about—the party with the most votes not becoming the Government—happened in New Zealand in 1978 and again in 1981, and it set that country on the road to changing first past the post in 1997. It was abandoned in Ireland, Australia, Malta, South Africa and Cyprus. Across Europe, 40 out of 43 countries carry out elections using some form of proportional representation.

The Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, and the Northern Ireland Assembly, use forms of proportional representation in their elections to those bodies. When we have the chance to start from scratch, first past the post is never anyone’s first choice. Surely now, following two divisive referendums in the past decade—again resulting in winner takes all—and with the challenges facing us going forward, we require a different kind of politics from the adversarial two-party politics that is the natural result of first past the post. Last week, the Prime Minister criticised the Leader of the Opposition for not working in a constructive way, but this is exactly the way in which our system forces politicians to operate—across the Dispatch Box, two sword lengths apart.

As the Scottish National party’s vote is concentrated in the 59 Scottish seats, the situation that first past the post creates there is even more serious. In December, 45% of the vote for the SNP equated to 80% of the seats. The adversarial nature of things becomes even more stark when two parties each claim to be the voice of their people, and I am pleased that the SNP is in agreement with me that we need a more proportional system and we need it to be found soon.

As we seek to recover from the impact of covid-19, other challenges—most crucially, our response to the climate emergency—remain. Such challenges will not be solved by one side or way of thinking. They require co-operation, mutual trust, welcoming a diversity of thinking, and an ability to set aside our differences and work together for the common good.

Some commentators have observed that states with the perceived best response to coronavirus so far are those with women leaders. The underlying factor is that these are countries with proportional systems and a focus on pluralistic decision making, such as New Zealand and Germany. Every single country with more than 40% of female representatives in its legislature has a proportional system. The current system is inhibiting the progress that both the Government and the official Opposition say they want to make.

It is not only our governance that is weakened by first past the post. Our voting system results in the permanent disenfranchisement of millions of voters, creating persistent minorities, and a real and legitimate sense of anger alongside the harm to the regions and the devolved nations. How depressing is it that, for a great number of people in this country, being represented here in this place by someone they actually voted for feels like a treat?​
In last week’s debate, many MPs spoke about how much they love their constituencies and the pride that they take in representing them. I have personally enjoyed the tradition of the maiden speech, referring to my constituency and its attractions as well as acknowledging the work of my predecessor. But as Members of Parliament, we do not actually represent our constituencies; we represent the people in it. In my constituency of North East Fife, the majority of people did not vote for me in December. Tactical voting probably played a part in the result, but my job now is to represent everyone in my constituency, and we must acknowledge that many feel unrepresented as a result of our system.

Surely we should all like to be elected on the basis of a positive voter choice, as opposed to being the least worst option on the ballot paper, as is often the case. Surely the proliferation of tactical voting websites and electoral pacts at the last general election suggests there is something fundamentally wrong with the way we elect people to this place. We talk about the collapse of Labour’s red wall without critically asking whether it is right for any party to believe it has the right to any seat or its electorate. We do however comment on the extra attention that these seats and their new Conservative representatives expect to get from the Government. That suggests that, as previously safe Labour seats, where the same party had won every election, people’s votes there were worth very little and the parties could therefore ignore them. Only when a seat becomes marginal does it seem to matter.

As I pointed out last week, it is strange that the Conservative manifesto recognised that votes mattering equally is a “cornerstone of democracy”, yet is blind to the huge disparities in our current system. It was pointed out to me by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) that she has more than 20,000 more electors in her constituency than I have in mine, but this unfairness is because our system is based on defining boundaries and areas for a single Member to represent under first past the post. Some of the criteria being set out in relation to boundary changes undermine the arguments for single-Member constituencies by diluting the identified community links that many argue are the main benefit of first past the post and risking further disenfranchisement in an already broken system.

One other promise in the Conservative manifesto was to have a constitution, democracy and rights commission in the first year of the Government. Will the Minister update us on the plans for that commission, including its scope and potential membership? Fair votes are just one spoke on the wheel of reforming our broken politics and there is lots more to be done; I have not touched on the House of Lords or the fact that England needs to follow the reforms of the other devolved nations, including Wales, where, from last week, 16 and 17-year-olds are now eligible to vote. I find it strange that only in England are 16 and 17-year-olds felt to be incapable of exercising their democratic rights.

Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)

My hon. Friend is giving an incredibly powerful speech, at an important time in our democracy. I used to be a teacher and I can say from experience that 16 and 17-year-olds are just as capable of understanding the complexities of the political landscape as anyone else and quite often ask very insightful questions. From her ​experience as a Scottish MP, does she agree that it is time England followed suit and gave 16 and 17-year-olds the vote?

Wendy Chamberlain

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and entirely agree with her. As I say, only one of our four nations seems to feel that its young people do not have that insight, and we should absolutely be giving them that opportunity.

Countries around the world are moving forward beyond fair votes, with democratic innovations such as citizens’ assemblies or participatory budgeting programmes. We need to look at participatory democracy better empowering local communities and groups. We have seen multiple marches and demonstrations in the past few years, including, most recently, this weekend. People protest when they feel they have no other option in terms of making their voices heard to demand change. It is tempting to be comfortable with the current system—after all, every Member here has benefited from first past the post—and I understand the reverence in which Members hold this place, but we best revere it when we acknowledge that its practices are letting down the very people who elected us to represent them. We should not let warm feelings get in the way of cold, hard reality.

Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)

Does my hon. Friend agree that we are creating a very divisive politics in this country, where we are persistently looking for argument, rather than consensus, and that that completely overshadows our political culture and we need to change it?

Wendy Chamberlain

Again, I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend says; this has created our two-party politics and divisiveness, and, as a result, there is not the opportunity to work in consensus.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

In my political career, I have been a councillor on Ards Borough Council, elected under a proportional representation system; I was also in the Northern Ireland Assembly, to which I was again elected under a PR system; and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to come here in 2010, under a straight first-past-the-post system. I understand the benefits of both systems, and why in Northern Ireland we needed an Assembly that could bring the parties together. There is a reason for using the proportional system where it is used, but does the hon. Lady agree that the first-past-the-post system sits here as well?

Wendy Chamberlain

I cannot agree that first past the post has a place, because I believe that we can use other ways and methodologies to represent constituencies, such as the single transferrable vote, which would give us the same result but would be more representative of the way people voted. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

We should not let warm feelings get in the way of cold hard reality. I urge Members and the Government to reflect on whether there is an unfairness here. Will a change benefit people’s lives across the UK and the devolved nations? Indeed, would what we are talking about actually work better across the four nations, when three of our four nations, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, actually have some ​form of proportional representation in how they elect Members to their Parliaments and Assemblies? I believe there is only one answer. Now really is time that we should consider electoral reform.