How coronavirus pandemic has shown proportional representation is vital for UK – Wendy Chamberlain MP

Countries like Germany and New Zealand, which have not seen the same level of deaths from Covid as the UK, have systems of government that encourage co-operation and compromise, writes Wendy Chamberlain MP.
The UK's first-past-the-post voting system can give a large majority in the Commons to a party on the basis of a minority of the votes (Picture: Rui Vieira)The UK's first-past-the-post voting system can give a large majority in the Commons to a party on the basis of a minority of the votes (Picture: Rui Vieira)
The UK's first-past-the-post voting system can give a large majority in the Commons to a party on the basis of a minority of the votes (Picture: Rui Vieira)

Demands for ‘electoral reform’ are often seen as overly technical and not understood by the general population. The topic is full of strange terminology like ‘STV’ or ‘the Borda Count’ feeling totally disassociated from the day-to-day reality of people’s lives and the services they access.

So it might seem strange – in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis which is leaving so many at risk – to be arguing that fairer votes have never been more relevant. Even stranger, then, to be holding the first debate on the subject in the House of Commons Chamber since 2016.

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But this is exactly what I plan to do. In fact, I believe that the coronavirus crisis has made the need to reform our politics clearer and more urgent than it ever was before. Covid-19 has exposed the political culture in Westminster as not fit for purpose. It’s time for reform.

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So why do I think this? Over the coming months and years, we’re going to face numerous issues as we seek to overcome and recover from the coronavirus crisis. We need to work together – yet our Westminster politics is adversarial and divisive.

Those roots reach down into the foundations of our political culture. When Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer stand opposite each other at Prime Minister’s Questions, they are two swords’ width apart. Just far enough that they can’t physically fight each other – so words are left to do the job instead. Plus, an effective barrier to voices from different, smaller parties.

First Past the Post is the cause of this. It creates a ‘winner takes all system’, incentivising parties not to work together but to pull apart. It also results in a huge democratic deficit.

We have a Conservative Government which has a huge majority, achieved on an increase in vote of just one per cent, but based on just 43 per cent of the vote. In Scotland, the result is even more skewed, with 45 per cent of the vote resulting in 81 per cent of the 59 Scottish seats for the SNP. It took 33 times more votes to elect a Green MP as it did an SNP MP.

Simply put, that means the true variety of the electorate’s voices are not heard. When you are elected by and accountable to so few people, how can you have faith Westminster will govern in the interest of everyone?

It also means that many areas have never seen a change in the party representing them for decades, with safe seats producing huge majorities and more wasted votes.

This crisis has put paid to the idea that First Past the Post produces majority governments which are good for the country.

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All the evidence suggests that the UK’s coronavirus death rate is the worst in Europe – and one of the worst worldwide.

In comparison, countries like Germany or New Zealand – countries which do have far more proportional voting systems – have avoided the terrible death tolls we have seen in the UK. In those countries, co-operation; compromise; consensus – these form the basis of a pluralistic political culture. We totally lack this in the UK.

People deserve better than this. That’s why I believe it’s time for a change. Liberal Democrats are champions of renewing and reforming our democracy – in the last week we’ve been leading the argument in Parliament to allow MPs who are shielding from coronavirus to take part virtually as well as continuing to make the case that the hybrid parliament and remote voting should stay.

This crisis is the latest example that fair votes matter, and proportional representation will ensure people’s voices are heard and no-one feels forced to vote for who they dislike the least. It’s time for change.

Wendy Chamberlain is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for North-East Fife

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