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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.