Notices of Motion (A)
Motion A: Supporting Proportional Representation for UK General Elections
Proposed by Councillor Baker, seconded by Councillor Wilkinson
This Council notes that:
The First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system originated when land-owning aristocrats dominated parliament and voting was restricted to property-owning men.
In Europe, only the UK and authoritarian Belarus still use the archaic, singe-round FPTP system for general elections while Proportional Representation (PR) is used to elect parliaments in more than 80 countries. Those countries tend to be more equal, freer and greener.
PR ensures that all votes count, have equal value, and that seats won match the votes cast. Under PR, MPs and Parliaments better reflect the age, gender and protected characteristics of local communities and the nation.
MPs better reflecting their communities leads to improved decision-making, wider participation, and increasing levels of ownership of decisions taken.
PR would also end minority rule. In 2019 43.6% of the vote provided one party with 56.2% of the seats and 100% of the power. PR also prevents ‘wrong winner’ elections such as occurred in 1951 and February 1974.
PR is already used to elect the parliaments and assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and should be extended to elections to the Westminster Parliament.
Council therefore resolves to request that the Chief Executive writes to the relevant minister in the Cabinet Office urging the bringing forward of legislation to enable Proportional Representation to be used for general elections.
Councillor Baker was delighted to propose the motion, which proposed rejection of the archaic and unrepresentative first-past-the-post system, and adoption of proportional representation instead. This is a longstanding aim of the Liberal Democrats and Green Party, supported at the recent Labour Party Conference, and also with a small number of advocates in the Conservative party. He said that the UK is almost alone in Europe in continuing with this system – the others being Belarus and France – and it leads to millions of wasted votes, with some parties completely under-represented and others grossly over-represented.
He told Members that in the 2019 general election, the Conservatives received 43.6% of the votes yet were rewarded with 56% of MPs, forming a majority government despite having failed to persuade 50.1% of the electorate to vote for them. Labour won 32% of the votes and 31% of MPs, Liberal Democrats 11.5% of the votes and 1.7% of MPs, the Green Party 2.7% of the vote and 0.7% (1) MP, and Brexit 2% of the vote and no MPs. The FPTP system doesn’t deliver representative government; it is not fair or representative or democratic. There are several types of PR system, but whichever one is used, he said it would result in a government that reflects the wishes of the majority, and doesn’t waste millions of vote for UKIP, Brexit, the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats, Labour voters in the south and Conservative voters in the north. In 2019 it took 38k votes to elect a Tory, 50k to elect a Labour candidate, 334k to elect a Liberal Democrat, and 864k to elect a Green Party MP.
He noted that it is argued that PR doesn’t return constituency MPs, but said this depends on the system chosen – the mixed member PR system in Germany and the Scottish and Welsh assemblies keeps local MPs, people are properly represented and have access to their MP. It is also said that coalition governments are weak and indecisive, but many European countries have shown that coalition governments can be effective, successful and representative, truly reflecting the values of the majority of the people.
In seconding the motion, Councillor Wilkinson pointed out that the single best argument for the FPTP system – strong government, consistent leadership, clarity of purpose – was clearly not working out at present. The system freezes out minority voices, and can never be successful – there has been no single party government with the support of more than 50% of voters in anyone’s memory. The Labour landslide in 1997 was won with 43% of the vote, the Conservative landslide in 2019 with 43% of the vote, yet they lost their majority in 2017 with 42% of the vote – this doesn’t give clear outcomes, reflecting the will of the electorate.
He reminded Members that the only other place in Europe using a FPTP system in Belarus – not a favourable comparison – which is why it is important to support the Councils for PR campaign. He recently spoke at its cross-party panel launch, alongside Green Party, Labour and Independent representatives. He said PR is not about stopping certain people from getting power, but ensuring that all votes count equally and that everyone has the chance to impact the outcome of an election. This applies equally to Conservative voters in Liverpool, Labour voters in Cheltenham, Green Party voters anywhere outside Brighton, and Reform UK (Brexit) or UKIP voters just about anywhere. It isn’t the liberal way to revel in their opponents’ voices being quashed, but without change we will continue to have dysfunctional governments that serve nobody. He therefore urged Members to back this worthy and just campaign.
The Conservative group leader said his group would not be voting in support of the motion, though noted that it only referred to general elections and, ironically, there would be a lot more Conservative Members if PR had been used at the last local election. He reminded Members that as part of the Liberal Democrats’ coalition deal in 2011, a referendum on the alternative voting system was held – it was rejected by 66% and cost £75m. The Brexit referendum cost £150m, and apart from the cost, he did not think a referendum on PR would be a priority for British people at the moment. He felt that encouraging more people to be involved and vote was the best way forward.
Councillor Flynn said she supported the motion, as PR ensures every vote counts and is of equal value and seats won match votes cast. She said that under PR, MPs and parliaments better reflect voters and communities, leading to improved decision-making, wider participation, and increased levels of ownership of decisions. It would also end minority rule, as demonstrated by the average results of the last two CBC elections, where the party with 49% of the votes were rewarded with 70% of the seats and 100% of the power. She said this demonstrated that local elections were unfair, undemocratic and did not reflect voters’ views, and pointed out that Northern Ireland had used PR for local elections since 1973 and Scotland since 2007.
She proposed an amendment to the motion to include local elections, with the additional of ‘and local’ between ‘general’ and ‘elections’:
The proposed amendment was seconded by Councillor Joy. She told Members that she first voted at a general election in 2010, and as councillor for St Paul’s ward had now come full circle in seeing how people interact and engage with democracy. She said everyone in the room knew the value of local democracy, how vital it was to ensure people engaged, and it was superfluous to say there was a difference between general and local elections – if people can have a real say in what is happening locally, their faith in the electoral system will be rewarded, and they are more likely to engage. Many local regions in European countries work well without one strong figure in charge, and local government should be a microcosm, part of a strong eco-system of participation.
Councillor Baker was supportive of Councillor Flynn’s comments, but said the motion was part of a national campaign for general elections, being proposed by councils up and down the country. He would therefore prefer to stick with the motion as given.
A Member wondered how the proposed motion would affect Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, if it is a UK-wide campaign, and already use PR in their national elections.
Councillor Flynn said she was struggling to understand why the insertion of two words – ‘and local’ – was unacceptable to Councillor Baker. The Fair Votes in Local Government campaign is a campaign of the Electoral Reform Society. She wondered if his reluctance to adopt her amendment had anything to do with the fact that it would result in the Liberal Democrats losing control of Cheltenham Borough Council. She repeated that PR in local elections would be fairer and give local people more of a say and be properly represented.
With no more debate, the Mayor invited Members to vote on Councillor Flynn’s amendment to the motion:
Council therefore resolves to request that the Chief Executive writes to the relevant minister in the Cabinet Office urging the bringing forward of legislation to enable Proportional Representation to be used for general and local elections.
The vote was as follows:
4 in support, 25 in objection, 6 abstentions
The motion was not carried.
In debating the substantive motion, Members made the following points:
- the 2010 election, which resulted in the coalition government, was a good demonstration of why the first-past-the-post system didn’t work for everyone. It should also be noted that France actually uses two-stage voting which knocks out the candidates with the least votes, and is not the best system. Proportional representation best reflects the results in the vote;
- the general election was a good place to start in the push towards PR, though it would also be welcome in local elections, resulting in broader representation across the council and encouraging more people to vote. This is a long-held Liberal Democrat goal;
- knocking on doors, it is clear that people are more likely to vote if they can feel confident that their votes will count;
- it is clear that the system needs to change, as demonstrated by the results of the 2019 general election. People don’t vote because they cannot see the point – in areas with a majority of a particular age or income bracket, many people will not bother voting as they feel their voices will not be heard;
- we need a voting system which gives everyone a fair vote that counts, that encourages people to vote, and means that we get the government we want and deserve rather than one which the system imposes on us.
In summing up, Councillor Baker thanked Members for their support. He said a fairer voting system may not be top priority at the moment, but it is fundamental that we a government that reflects the wishes of the people, and it is really important to bring the UK up to speed with other European countries. He reiterated that this was a national campaign, shared by councils up and down the country in the format presented today, and therefore not appropriate for it to be amended.
The Mayor then moved to the vote, where Members voted as follows:
31 in support