Closing the democratic deficit 

Cat Smith welcomes the 30th October Westminster Hall discussion on proportional representation and calls for real change by government. 

The debate was delayed by the June general election and I am sure that we all welcome the huge increase we saw in political participation. Two million young people registered to vote after the election was called, leading to the highest youth turnout since 1992. We must continue to build on this level of engagement, in which the petition process (which triggered the October debate) plays a powerful role. 

The debate focused on our voting system and, particularly proportional representation. Labour is committed to taking radical steps to ensure that all eligible voters are registered and can use their vote, and we welcome the opportunity to discuss wider electoral reform. 

All voting systems have strengths and weaknesses. Although the election did not produce a strong majority Government, some argue for first past the post (FPTP) based on its history of returning single-party Governments and because it retains the constituency link, a vital aspect of British political life. As MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, I represent the people of my local area and am directly accountable to them. However, moving to a proportional system does not necessarily rule that out. 

At the election the Conservative party and the Democratic Unionist party received just 43 per cent of the votes between them but gained a majority of seats. In Scotland, Labour and the Conservatives received similar vote shares, on 27 per cent and 28 per cent respectively, but the Tories won twice as many seats as Labour. Supporters of PR argue that seats in Parliament should reflect votes and that a PR system will give people the opportunity to vote for what they believe in, instead of voting tactically. 

What the British public wants is unclear. Much has been said about the 2011 AV (Alternative Vote) referendum. Ed Miliband as Labour leader supported the yes campaign because he believed that it was good for democracy and accountability, and fairer than the current system. However, the UK voted overwhelmingly to reject changing the system, with just 32 per cent of voters supporting AV. Yet public opinion may have changed since 2011. Supporters of PR highlight recent ICM poll findings that 67%  believe that seats should match votes, while 61% support replacing FPTP with PR. It is therefore important to consider different voting systems. However, changing the voting system alone will not fix the disconnect between some voters and politics. We need wide-ranging transformation of our political structures to help build a vibrant, active democracy and reduce the power of vested interests and big money. 

Labour’s 2017 manifesto committed to establishing a constitutional convention to examine and advise on reforming how Britain works at a fundamental level. The convention would have the option to consider different voting systems and would consider extending democracy locally, regionally and nationally, starting by ending the hereditary principle and reducing the size of the House of Lords. That should be part of a wider package of constitutional reform to address the growing democratic deficit across Britain. This is about where power and sovereignty lie—in politics, the economy, the justice system and our communities. 

A recent study by Demos found that only 37% of young adults feel that British politics reflects the issues that matter to them. What are the Government doing to increase democratic engagement and ensure that voters have their say on decision making, both during and outside election time? As we approach 100 years since the start of women’s suffrage, it is important to reflect on the ways in which more people can participate in our democracy. Reducing the voting age to 16 would make our constitution clearer across the whole UK. Currently 16 and 17-year-olds can vote in local elections in Scotland (and Wales is considering following suit) but they are not entitled to vote in a general election. What is the Government’s position on votes at 16?  

It is also important that people are entitled and registered to vote, which is a particular challenge for private tenants, students and young people who often move house. What are the Government doing to ensure that such mobile and transient groups do not fall off the electoral register every year? It is hard for people to check whether they are on the electoral roll but the London Borough of Hackney is the first council to enable people can check online. Would the Government consider rolling that out nationally? 

Finally, there is no point making radical changes to our electoral system if we lack staff to manage them. Electoral services are generally administered by small, often relatively junior teams. What are the Government doing to ensure that elections are properly staffed, and what will they do to protect the mental health and wellbeing of electoral administrators? 

We should review voting systems as part of a wider package of constitutional and electoral reform to address the growing democratic deficit across Britain. 

Cat Smith MP is theVoter Engagement and YouthAffairs Minister in the Shadow Cabinet.