With just the 3 Principle Council by-elections, one without a candidate for the Liberal Democrats, and the other two where the Liberal Democrats didn’t stood a candidate in years it looked like a quiet night was in store…
In previous instalments of Westminster Wednesdays, we’ve looked at some of the most important institutions of the UK’s political landscape – the constitution, Parliament, the executive, local and devolved government. Now we’re going to move on to touch on a variety of important issues confronting the UK’s politics, beginning with the topic of electoral reform. As Liberal Democrats, generally, one of the things we have in common is a belief that the system we use for choosing MPs should be changed. To begin with, I will briefly outline the three main electoral systems used in the UK – First Past The Past (FPTP), Single Transferrable Vote (STV), and the Additional Member System (AMS). Then we’ll move on to consider the Lib Dem position on electoral reform, and the recent history of that topic in the UK.
Electoral systems in use
Let’s begin by defining our terms – what is an electoral system? An electoral system is the means through which votes are considered valid, and then converted into representatives in an elected body. There are a variety of ways of doing this, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. There is not a single part of the UK that uses one electoral system to choose its elected represents – a situation that will likely change when the UK leaves the EU and so no longer elects MEPs. In some areas – Scotland, for example – at least 4 separate electoral systems are used for different elections. Rarely, however, are there days when voters are called on to use more than one system at once.
Elections to the House of Commons are held using the First Past The Past electoral system, with the country divided in 650 constituencies, each one electing a single MP. The candidate that wins the largest number of votes – not necessarily a majority of votes cast – wins the seat contested. This means that parties can, and indeed always have since 1931, win a majority of seats in the House of Commons without a majority of votes cast in the country behind them. In 2015, the Conservatives won a majority with just under 37% of the vote.
For elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, the Additional Member System is used. Under AMS, a voter has two votes – the first elects a constituency member, using FPTP. The second is a regional vote – Scotland has 8 regions for this, Wales 5 – where candidates are elected proportionately based on party votes. However, the more constituencies you win in a region, the less likely you are to win list seats in that region, balancing out representation.
Finally, elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and local government in Scotland and Northern Ireland, use the Single Transferrable Vote system. Again, voters are divided into constituencies – but each one will be represented by multiple elected representatives, like the AMS regions. Rather than placing a cross in a box, as with FPTP and AMS, voters rank the candidates on the ballot paper – 1, 2, 3 – giving as many votes or ‘preferences’ as they like. Then, all the votes are counted and that total, plus the number of seats in the constituency, is used to calculate a number of votes required to win a seat – this is called a quota. If any candidate has enough first preferences to meet the quota, they are automatically elected. Votes over that quota are re-allocated to the second preference on the ballot, and then any candidates who reach the quota are also elected. If there are seats remaining – as there often are – the candidate with the fewest first preference votes is eliminated, and their second preferences are handed out. This continues until all the seats are filled.
So those are the three most important UK electoral systems, but what of their future?
Electoral reform in the UK
One of the key policies that the Liberal Democrats wanted from entering a coalition at Westminster was a change in the way MPs are elected to the House of Commons. Opponents of FPTP argue that it is disproportionate – that is, the number of votes cast and the number of MPs won is not as closely related as under other electoral systems. The largest number of votes will get you a majority, but smaller parties struggle to make a break through, and governments are often elected with the support of fewer than 40% of the electorate. The concession that the Lib Dems gained on electoral reform in 2010 was the promise of a referendum on changing the voting system for the House of Commons to the Alternative Vote – which is somewhat similar to STV. That referendum was held in May 2011 and resulted in a heavy defeat for electoral reform – 32% to 68%. Despite this, there have been other, more successful Lib Dem efforts to implement electoral reform. During the first government of Tony Blair (1997-2001), the Lib Dems helped drive through the AMS voting system for Scotland and Wales; they subsequently, in coalition with Labour in Edinburgh, implemented the STV system for Scottish local government.
But why change the electoral system in the first place? Defenders of FPTP argue that it produces stability – a majority government is almost always elected (only two elections since 1945 in the UK have failed to do this; February 1974 and May 2010) – and can readily take decisions and lead the country. As we’ve already noted, opponents argue that it is disproportionate, discriminating against smaller parties and resulting in governments elected by considerably less than a majority of voters. They argue that a system that is more proportional – that more closely ties the number of votes to the number of seats – is fairer, because any government will need the support of parties that attracted a majority, or nearer a majority – of seats. Opponents of reform often argue that the result is chaos; they point to countries such as Belgium, which once went over 500 days without a government while its political parties struggled to reach agreement to form a coalition with a majority in its parliament.
At the moment, the defenders of FPTP have the upper hand – they are able to use the AV referendum as a tool to push back on demands for electoral reform, and the Conservative Party, which is currently in power, shows essentially zero interest in extending electoral reform to Westminster, or to English and Welsh local government. But advances continue around the world – Maine, in 2016, voted to move to the Alternative Vote. Proponents of electoral reform in the UK have a steep hill to climb, but as 2011 recedes into the distance, their chance will likely come again.
As Tim Farron observed in his conference speech yesterday, membership of the Liberal Democrats has risen to its highest this century; over 1,000 people joined us in the last ten days alone. Our spring conference also broke records: it was the best attended in party history, with the largest number of first timers ever.
As was often said to me during many conversations I had with both new, old and returning members, the concept of “a newbie” is a state of mind. Being a newbie could just as easily describe the renewed energy and confidence amongst our members which has led us to win 34 seats in council by-elections since the general election, along with the election of Sarah Olney, a newbie herself, in Richmond Park last year.
What is now clear is that the newbies have the potential to drive this party back into government, perhaps even in their own right, and, as Tim said yesterday, this should be our aim.
As part of that aim, we want to give our members, particularly our newbies, the chance to share their views. As can be seen from our policy debates at conference, we are an open party where opinions can be shared and respected. Not only that, but ideas from our members can become law. The increase in personal tax allowance, which is now enjoyed by every income tax payer in the country, came from an ordinary member of the Liberal Democrats.
So if you’re interested in contributing to our Monday Member blog, we are taking submissions.
You can submit an article or contact us for more information by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
We look forward to hearing from you.
It was a quiet set of results in last night’s Principle Council By-Elections with none of the 4 seats contested changing hands.
Tomorrow sees the beginning of our Spring Conference for 2017, once again in York. It’ll be my first party conference and I look forward to meeting many of you there!
This week we step away from the series on Party Political Broadcasts and take a relatively short hop back in time to our last conference in Brighton back in September. This is Tim Farron’s closing speech which, in my opinion, is where we see him at his most passionate.
It had been a tough year so far but it was also a year that saw thousands of new members join our ranks.
This week, we’ll be looking at the devolved assemblies of the United Kingdom – in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each of them presents a different case study, and so we will tackle them one by one, rather than going by theme as we have in previous weeks. We’ll briefly see how these bodies came to be, what powers they have, and how they function in turn. We’ll also consider, right at the end, the missing piece of the puzzle, as it were – England.
Northern Ireland has not had a happy history – since the division of the island of Ireland in the 1920s, the province has been the scene of tensions between the Catholic (Nationalist) and Protestant (Unionist) communities. For the first 50 years of its existence, there was a Parliament of Northern Ireland, dominated by the Protestants. However, in the 1970s, a spiralling surge of violence in the province led to the dissolution of the Parliament and the assumption of direct control by the government in London. This continued up until the late 1990s, when a lengthy, tangled peace process finally resulted in an agreement between Nationalist and Unionist politicians. The centrepiece of this agreement was a new Northern Ireland Assembly, which came into being after the peace agreement was approved in a referendum in 1998.
The Assembly has power over agriculture, education, health, infrastructure, justice, and a variety of other areas, with members of the Assembly (MLAs) serving as members of the Northern Ireland Executive. Both the Assembly and the Executive function differently to how similar bodies in the UK function. In the Assembly, for example, certain votes require majority support of politicians from both the Protestant and the Catholic communities. The Executive is comprised of members of both communities – and sometimes from parties that define themselves as “other” – and there is no collective responsibility. Each minister is scrutinised by an Assembly committee chaired by someone from another party.
Since its creation, the Assembly has been suspended several times – most notably between 2002 and 2007 – when agreement between the two communities represented in the body broke down. Most recently, it has been dominated by the two largest, and traditionally less moderate, parties of those communities – the Nationalist Sinn Fein, and the Unionist Democratic Unionist Party. At the moment, there is an election campaign in process for a new Assembly, after the previous one was dissolved in the midst of a political scandal. This election, like all others, will be held using the Single Transferrable Vote system, but will see fewer MLAs than before – 90, rather than 108 – elected.
Wales’ path to devolution has been a far less violent one than Northern Ireland, but also a far less enthusiastic one. In a referendum in the 1970s, the people of Wales rejected the offer of a devolved assembly – when asked again in 1997 by the Labour government, they very narrowly voted (a margin of just over 6,000 votes) – in favour of the proposition. Wales is not a nation with a long history of independent political institutions from the rest of the UK – since the 16th Century it had broadly been governed on the same basis as England, and only after the Second World War did a party dedicated specifically to advocating for Wales – Plaid Cymru – emerge.
The Welsh Assembly that was approved in the 1997 referendum has typically had far fewer powers than its Scottish cousin – most notably with regards to tax, which the Assembly has no power to vary. It does have power over areas such as agriculture, education, health, local government, policing and transport, and an executive to carry out the responsibilities attached to these areas. But it has lagged behind Scotland in the scope and strength of powers it has had devolved to it by Westminster. The Assembly has long been dominated by Labour – though they have rarely had a full majority – and comprises 60 members, elected originally every 4 years using the Additional Member System.
The Scottish Parliament is perhaps the most complete, and stable, example of devolution in the UK. Much as with Wales, the Scottish people were offered a chance at devolution in the 1970s – and indeed voted in favour of the proposal, but a clause in the Westminster legislation requiring 40% of eligible voters to support the proposal meant that devolution was not pursued. Again, it was left to a 1997 referendum, offered by the Labour government, to re-open the issue. On a higher turnout than Wales, the Scottish people backed a Scottish Parliament by 75% to 25%, and giving it tax raising powers by 63% to 37%. Scotland had retained a host of independent institutions after joining the UK in the 18th Century, including its own legal and education systems, and its nationalist party – the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) was much more electorally successful than Plaid Cymru managed to be.
Subsequently, there have been further rounds of devolution to Scotland, as with Wales, most notably after the 2014 referendum on independence. The Scottish Parliament and Executive have control over a wide range of policy areas – cultural, education, health, environment, local government, justice, housing and planning are some of them. There are 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), elected, as in Wales, with the Additional Member System. The system originally delivered Parliaments where Labour were the largest, and formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats – 1999, and 2003 – but since 2007 the SNP have been the largest party, and indeed from 2011 to 2016 they maintained a majority in the Parliament.
The ‘missing nation’ in this equation is, of course, England. The Labour government elected in 1997 was open to devolution to England, on a regional basis – in 2004 they held a referendum in the North East of England on the establishment of an assembly, a proposal that was very firmly rejected by voters there. Whilst London experienced a form of devolution through the Greater London Assembly, the rest of England has yet to gain devolved institutions.
- If at a loose end head to the conference bar. There will always be lots of people milling around to chat to. Don’t be afraid to talk to other members that you don’t know – Lib Dems may have strange taste in foot wear but the never bite!
- Find out who from your local party or region is also going and make arrangements to meet up early in the weekend that way you know you’ll have a touch point early on and can arrange further meet ups then.
- Plan but plan in pencil, things will change as you talk to people and do things.
- Read the motion papers and get hold of conference daily. I know it seems a bit dull at first, but if you want to follow any of the policy debates you really need to have read the motion and the amendments. Some of this can sound complicated, and it is, but after a couple of sessions it will start to make sense.
- Don’t be afraid to speak on a motion. The phrase “This is my first conference” or “this is my first time speaking at conference” in your opening statement will be bound to get you a cheer and boost your confidence.
- Make sure you eat, drink and sleep! With everything going on and sessions running from early morning to past midnight it can seem like there aren’t enough hours in the day! Make sure you allow time to get some food, many fringe events offer food and some offer drinks (be it coffee or wine) and these can be vital pit stops as well and interesting sessions.
- Be prepared for a lot of selfies, if you come across any of Newbie HQ we will be sure to grab a selfie with you!
EVERYONE WELCOME (newbies & oldies)
If you are heading to Conference in York on Friday, 17th March 2017 the Newbies will be hosting our welcome to conference.
Please get your free ticket for our Lib Dem Newbie UK #LibDemPint here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/york-conference-libdempint-event-tickets-31025069819
Location: Revolution York, Coney Street YO1 9NA York
Doors open at 7 with events starting after the Rally has finished at the main conference venue.
- Alistair Carmichael (MP For Orkney & Shetland)
- Amna Ahmad (PPC Sutton & Cheam)
- Cllr David Hancock (North East Derbyshire District Council & Tupton Parish Council)
- Rebecca Vincent (Newbie & Director of Reporters Without Borders UK Bureau)
- Sam S Collins (Newbie & Engineering Journalist)
This event has been organised by a group of volunteers from the Lib Dem Newbies UK Facebook group and promises to be a great start to the weekend!
Facebook Event: https://www.facebook.com/events/1290273754354294/
Yesterday there were seven principle council by-elections and with Liberal Democrat candidates in all seven, including two with no recent past Liberal Democrat candidates, there were plenty of reasons to be hopeful.
This week is the final part of the Pythonology. John Cleese returned to Lib Dem PPBs in 1997 where he asked the voting public to help him with a problem.
According to polling at the time half of every voter surveyed stated that they would vote for the Liberal Democrats if they thought we could win. This, as Mr Cleese points out, leads to somewhat of a paradox.
Though not as energetic or informative as his two previous broadcasts, I wanted to include this particular one up as it also signals my own entry into the Lib Dem universe.
I remember watching this particular PPB live back when I was an eleven year old boy, and my understanding of politics had only just started to manifest. Whether the fact a member of Monty Python was trying to reach out to me as a non voting child could be attributed to my eventually becoming a Lib Dem, I cannot say. I would probably assume having a Grandmother who voted liberal her entire life might be the most important influence. However, it’s my oldest Lib Dem memory and the start of a long journey in politics.
Looking at the history, according to some within the inner circles of the Lib Dems at the time, there was at this time a possibility of a “progressive” alliance in parliament. With Labour, under the soon to be Prime Minster Tony Blair. After the subsequent Labour landslide of 1997, the Lib Dem’s services were no longer required and Labour governed alone.
But more, much more, was still to come.