The SNP secured 50 per cent of the vote but took 95 per cent of Scotland's seats. Photo: Getty Images
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The time is right for Labour to embrace electoral reform

The electoral system has always been unfair and undemocratic - but now it could shut Labour out for generations. The time is right to embrace reform. 

The election of 2015 was, it has to be said, one of the strangest results in recent electoral history – even by our bizarre voting system’s standards.

Labour increased their vote share – from 29 per cent to 30.4 per cent - while the Conservatives’ support went up by less than 1 per cent from 36.1 per cent to 36.9 per cent. Yet their votes were organised more effectively and resulted in a majority of twelve. 

Under winner takes all systems like ours, the number of votes a party needs to elect an MP varies widely. In 2015, the range was from 23,000 votes for a Democratic Unionist MP to over 3.8 million for UKIP. Conservatives got one MP for around 34,000 votes, while for Labour the magic number was around 40,000. Votes for parties other than the Conservatives, Labour or Liberal Democrats reached a record high - nearly a quarter of the votes cast (up from 11.9 per cent in 2010). This was multi-party politics being squeezed into a two-party voting system, as our new report makes clear.

Numbers matter. Five million UKIP and Green votes gave them one seat each, whilst the SNP got 95 per cent of Scottish seats on 50 per cent of the vote.  The relationship between votes and seats is now almost non-existent. We are used to governments on relatively small vote shares and unfairness for the third party - traditionally the Liberal Democrats. But the extent of disproportionality combined with the weirdly distorting effects the system now has on our electoral map has ignited interest among doubters and forged a more genuinely cross-party initiative than ever before – including many in Labour.

Why Labour should back reform

Multi-party politics conducted under first past the post is now capable of producing such random results, as Professor John Curtice demonstrated before May 7, that Labour will be forced to confront the anomalies – and unpredictability - thrown up by a two-party system being used by a multi-party electorate.

But the better impetus for Labour to consider first past the post and the alternatives is their place within wider debates about devolution and democracy.

First, there are the divisive effects of first past the post on debates about where power lies between the nations and regions of the UK. The system exaggerates divisions within and between the nations of the UK, instead of faithfully reflecting the democratic diversity of modern voters - wherever they live.  Yesterday’s Guardian editorial reaches a stark conclusion: ‘without a more proportional voting system it may be all the harder to get the wider reform of parliament and its relationship with the constituent nations of the Britain needed to save the union.’  

The second - and related – reason comes down to local politics. Devolution from Westminster to English regions and neighbourhoods is a policy area with genuine cross-party potential. The Government’s Cities Devolution Bill will give substantial new powers to major cities. The Opposition will have a vital role bringing democratic considerations to the devolution table, recognizing that with more powers should come greater scrutiny and accountability. A more proportional voting system that challenges one-party domination locally and ensures every area has an effective Opposition is worth considering as part of a reform package.

Third, Labour needs to address the obstacles first past the post creates for parties to thrive in every community. Parties have to focus resources on the most competitive areas, leaving safer seats to fend for themselves. Without the drive to win, in some though not all areas Labour withers away.  

Whilst exact numbers are hard to come by, it is obvious that the party’s strength in London dwarfs operations elsewhere. Some local parties beat the system but as joining a party becomes less usual - especially for younger generations, the challenges grow. Scotland offers a thought-experiment in the alternatives. Labour now has one MP in Scotland, a challenging basis for rebuilding the party.  Under the Single Transferable Vote (the system used for Scottish local elections since 2007) we predict that the party would now have 14 MPs - nearly half the estimated 34 for the SNP. Labour suffered such a big defeat in Scotland in part because of our broken voting system.

Labour can reject the alternatives to first past the post if it genuinely feels that for principle and party salvation the electoral status quo should be maintained. But as the party dissects the election results, decides on a new leader and deputy and embarks on soul-searching about Labour’s purpose in the 21st century, it can’t afford to ignore the wider impact that first past the post has for our democratic landscape, our constitution and the future of the UK. This election has put electoral reform back in the spotlight. Labour should seize the chance to scrutinise the system – on its own terms.  

Katie Ghose is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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