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Regional democracy and PR go hand in hand

Regional Democracy goes hand in hand with Electoral Reform

Jenny Cronin and Ying Ho, Hannah Mitchell Foundation, posted February 13th 2021

To achieve prosperity and equality in Northern England, it is imperative that central government funding is more equally distributed among the regions, and that the priorities of development are controlled at the regional level. To establish fairer and inclusive regions, a fundamental change in the electoral system is necessary to bring about a more representative democracy. An electoral system that will ensure a long term, consensus-building approach to policy making is necessary, instead of the current short term, confrontational approach under the first past the post (FPTP) system.

According to the Electoral Reform Society, over 70% of the votes in the 2019 General Election were wasted; meaning that under 30% of the votes determined the outcome of the election. With only 43.6% of the votes, the Conservatives formed a government with a majority of 80 seats. The current government does not represent the majority of those who cast their votes. And yet, government policies are determined by ‘unearned majority rule’. To campaign for democracy in Northern England, the current FPTP system must be replaced by a more democratic system to bring diverse voices from different political persuasions, namely a proportional representation system that will make every vote count.

The current Conservative government has indicated an interest in devolution of powers to English regions, and a White Paper on devolution is being prepared. Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office Minister, was quoted as saying that “The appropriate thing is to recognise that what is right for London might be slightly different from what is right for Greater Manchester and that will certainly be different from what is right for Devon or for Surrey”.  Judging by the unfair allocation of public spending in the English regions over the years, devolution under the current system will not bring any real changes to the Northern regions.

It has been well documented that regions in Northern England do not receive the same level of investment and public spending compared to London and the South East. According to IPPR North, over a ten-year period, the average annual public spending on transport was £739 per head in London, 2.4 times more than the amount in the Northern regions (£305 per head). Likewise, the spending on economic affairs in London and the South East was 37% of England’s public spending, compared to 25% in the Northern regions in 2018-19.

The budget cut for Transport for the North (TfN) is the latest example to show how the whim of Westminster dictates infrastructural development in the north. TfN will lose 40% of its core funding in the next financial year and there will be no funding for the rollout of a Northern Oyster (contactless payment systems). When TfN was launched, it was hailed as a game changer for regional devolution. TfN is a partnership of 19 Councils and business leaders but unlike Transport for London, it lacks the power to raise capital and thus depends on central government funding.

To redress the regional imbalance of resources distribution, it is beyond any doubt that establishing regional democracy is a necessary step forward. While the most appropriate approach to devolution is open to debate, the form of voting system will also be an important element in bringing about true democracy in the regions. Indeed, in all the devolved nations in the UK, the FPTP system has either been ditched or supplemented by some form of proportional representation.

The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) provides a good analysis of different voting systems across the world. In most western democracies, some form of proportional representation is adopted for both national and local elections. The UK is the outlier, still retaining the crude FPTP system for the General Elections, leading to the least democratic outcomes.

There are, however, encouraging signs that changes in the electoral system are gaining traction. Within the Labour Party, local constituencies have started discussions on proportional representation. According to Make Votes Matter, a national campaign for proportional representation, over 130 Labour constituencies have passed motions to call upon the Party to support proportional representation

For the debate for regional democracy, it is worth looking into current voting systems in the devolved nations. The Northern Ireland Assembly adopts the Single Transferable Vote system. Each political party can put forward a number of candidates on the ballot paper. Voters will indicate their preferences by ranking the candidates.

In both the Scottish and Welsh Parliament elections, there is a combination of two voting systems i.e. FPTP and Party List, known as Additional Member System. Voters are presented with two ballot papers. The first one provides a list of candidates, one per each party. The candidate with the most votes will be elected. The second one is a list of parties; the party with the most votes will be elected. A list of candidates for each party is published in advance of voting.

In Scotland, there are eight electoral regions, each providing seven regional parliamentary members – a total of 56 MSPs. The remaining 73 MSPs are elected by FPTP system and they are known as constituency MSPs. In Wales, there are five electoral regions, each providing four Senedd members – a total of 20. The remaining 40 members are elected by FPTP.

Proportional representation is also practised at local elections in the devolved nations. In Scotland, it is Single Transferable Vote. In Wales, the Senedd just passed the local elections bill to introduce Single Transferable Vote in future council elections. After the 2021 election, the Welsh Parliament is also planning to introduce Single Transferable Vote for Senedd elections, thus unifying the voting systems at national and local levels.

The voting systems in the devolved nations are leading the way to a more representative democracy. There are pros and cons to each electoral system, and the system to be adopted in devolved regions is certainly open to debate. One thing is clear – it is about time for the UK to ditch the FPTP system for the General Elections and to replace it with proportional representation. And on the journey to regional democracy, proportional representation must be a companion of the campaign, in order to establish fairer and inclusive regions.

Reference documents:

Electoral Reform Society (March 2020) Voters Left Voiceless

IPPR North (2020) Ten Years of Austerity – Eroding Resilience in the North

IPPR North (2019) Divided and Connected – State of the North 2019

Transport for the North (2021) Transport Budget Cuts Threaten Levelling-up Agenda

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