Ed Davey sets sights on political and electoral reform in IPPR speech

30 Nov 2022

Please see below for a speech given by Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey at the IPPR today in London discussing political and electoral reform.

Hi everyone! It’s great to be here with you today, and I’d like to thank IPPR, Unlock Democracy and the Electoral Reform Society for putting on this event and inviting me to speak.

For a Liberal Democrat to be asked to speak about constitutional reform is like Christmas come early! So thank you very much.

And I’m especially grateful to Unlock Democracy for allowing us to share what is effectively your birthday.

It was on the 30th of November 1988 that Charter 88 began its campaign for a new constitutional settlement.

Starting with an advert in the Guardian. Endorsed by some of the biggest names of the day:

Helen Mirren. Judi Dench. Terry Jones. And our very own William Wallace.

Of course back then, the Liberal Democrats campaigned hand-in-hand with Charter 88 – and have done ever since. 

And now Charter 88 has become today’s Unlock Democracy, I want us to continue working with you. So happy birthday – and thank you.

And let’s recall and celebrate the important victories we’ve achieved, together and with others – most significantly perhaps the Human Rights Act and the Freedom of Information Act.

Even though we must all be aware that we can’t be complacent about those past victories - when we see the constant attack on the very concept of human rights – and have a Justice Secretary who is eager to overturn the progress made on human rights.

Of course, it’s not only about fighting to defend hard won success, it’s also about completing the Charter 88 mission to unlock democracy. 

From a written constitution to reform of the House of Lords, from reviving powerful local democracy to restoring the concepts of good governance and a strong impartial civil service to Downing Street and Whitehall, there is so much we still have to do.

In fact, after the last few years, it seems like there’s more to do than ever. 

The challenge remains a pretty big one. Put simply, it’s fixing politics.

To do that fully, will take some time. So we need to be clear on the urgent and essential steps to kickstart that process of fixing politics. 

Don’t worry. This isn’t a standard politician’s ten-point plan. My immediate remedy has just two steps:

First step: get the Conservatives out of Government.

Second step: reform our electoral system, so everyone’s vote counts equally.

Friends, we will not fix our broken politics if we don’t start with these two essential steps.

Now, today’s not the moment to dwell too much on the first step. 

But my focus as Leader has been to make my party match fit to play our part in beating Conservative MPs.

And I think there are now a few proof points to show we’re getting match fit. 

Three by-election victories in 18 months, in Tory heartland seats - where we showed we could break down the blue wall. Not to mention last May’s local election successes across the UK, where the Liberal Democrats made more net gains than any other party.

And be in no doubt. The Lib Dem team is training intensely for the next election, to beat as many Tory MPs as we can. 

Today my job is to focus on the second step: electoral reform. So here goes.

Perhaps the first and most obvious thing to say is this: electoral reform is not some new policy idea we’ve just dreamt up.

This year marks a century since the Liberal Party made its first commitment to proportional representation. 

One hundred years on, our Liberal Democrat commitment to PR is stronger than ever.

This may surprise you but I see electoral reform as part of our great patriotic mission.

After all, it was the nineteenth-century Liberal John Bright who famously described England as the “Mother of Parliaments”. 

And for a long time, the world looked to British democracy as a beacon - as the quality standard. Regrettably, that’s no longer the case. 

So as someone who wants my country to lead the world once more, in the quest to build strong, vibrant democracies, I firmly believe we have to strengthen our democracy at home. To re-establish Britain’s democratic reputation in the world.

I should note for historical completeness that John Bright also coined the phrase “flogging a dead horse” in relation to his own efforts to reform our electoral system.

So our job is to revive the horse, and finish the work!

And the good news is this: I believe we now have a real chance to deliver electoral reform. Perhaps the best chance ever.

After prorogation and partygate and three Prime Ministers in two months…

After all the damage done to our democratic institutions by Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings and the whole Conservative Party…

After seven years of an out-of-touch Conservative Government, taking people for granted…

Many many more people get that there is an urgent need to strengthen our democracy.

Many many more people have a real yearning for real change. Real reform. 

Indeed, this year, the British Social Attitudes Survey no less found that, for the first time ever, a majority of the public now supports electoral reform.

Electoral reform is no longer a topic confined to political science lectures or Liberal Democrat fringe meetings.

You don’t need a degree in psephology or an unhealthy predilection for bar charts to know that our politics is broken.

I believe our collective task today is - at long last - to deliver electoral reform - the one reform that can open the door to the full-scale democratic reform of our country that is so badly needed. 

To do that, we need to refresh and refine our arguments for electoral reform - and be ready to take on the arguments of the vested interests who will try so hard to stop us. 

So let me start with a core argument for change: making our democracy work for everyone. Or, as I call it, ending the “take them for granted” culture. 

More than ever before, I think people get that First-Past-the-Post distorts democracy.

It’s allowed the Conservative Party to cling to power, despite a majority of the British people voting against them at every election.

At the last election, the Conservatives got a good result - with 44 percent of the vote – but that still wasn’t close to a majority of votes cast.

And yet they were rewarded with, in effect, a Parliamentary fiefdom. A massive majority in MPs. 

And that’s left millions of people feeling powerless and excluded; robbed of their rightful say over how our country is run. Feeling they are being taken for granted.

When I knock on doors, increasingly people who voted Conservative at the last election feel they’re being taken for granted. On the economy. On the NHS. On the environment.

And that’s before they saw the Conservative Party change Prime Ministers and Cabinets faster than at any time in history, without a shred of accountability. 

Now don’t get me wrong: I wanted them to get rid of Boris Johnson. But in that case the democratic question to Conservative MPs was this: why did you think you could get away with propping up a lawbreaking Prime Minister for so long?

From breaking manifesto commitment after manifesto commitment - on tax rises, on new hospitals.

To turning a blind eye to bullying and corruption by Cabinet Ministers. 

What makes Conservative MPs think they can get away with taking their constituents for granted like this?

What makes a Conservative MP think it’s okay to jet off to the jungle for three weeks - to eat a cow’s anus on national TV - when Parliament is sitting and there’s an economic crisis?

There is one core reason that makes too many Conservative MPs like Matt Hancock take voters for granted and it’s this: the voting system. Under first-past-the-post, too many Conservative MPs think they have a job-for-life. That their re-election is a foregone conclusion.

And that’s one of the best arguments for electoral reform isn’t it? Ending the “take them for granted” culture in British politics. 

Putting an end to safe seats, once and for all. Forcing MPs to listen to their constituents. Making them accountable. Making everyone’s vote powerful. 

And that’s the next concept I want to talk about. Power. 

For me, as a liberal, the case for democratic reform, the case for electoral reform comes down to power. To how we make voters in a democracy more powerful. 

And there’s no doubt that a fairer voting system puts more power in people’s hands. 

And it shouldn’t surprise people – it certainly doesn’t surprise Liberals – that if you give people more power, you get better outcomes.

As academic studies have shown time and again, stronger democracy IS good for the economy. For social justice. For the environment. 

You see, we support electoral reform, not just because it’s intrinsically a fairer, more democratic system – but also because it’s a better one.

So if you’re really interested in growing the economy, or getting the cost-of-living crisis under control, or repairing our NHS, or tackling climate change, then you should be looking at whether our politics and in particular our electoral system is fit for purpose.

So here are the best reasons for electoral reform I know. With PR, you’re more likely to get better schools, more funding for the health service, more affordable housing built, safer communities, and a cleaner, healthier natural environment. What are we waiting for?!

Now, we need to be ready for our opponents’ arguments. 

For example, some will tell you that a proportional system risks letting extremists in. As if first-past-the-post had protected us from Nigel Farage. Or the US from Trump. 

The truth is, electoral reform is a crucial weapon in the battle being fought by liberals the world over – against populism and the far-right.

Because what’s driving the rise of those dark forces is people’s disillusionment with politicians and politics more generally.

People feel like they have no real ability to change things – and it’s hard to blame them.

People need to feel like they have agency. That their voices can and will be heard. That their votes matter.

First-Past-the-Post fuels the disillusionment that feeds extremism. Proportional representation can help tackle it.

Now, I am by no means saying that electoral reform is a panacea that will magically heal all our political ills.

That’s why the Liberal Democrats are still campaigning for those things we and Charter 88 were calling for three decades ago:

An elected House of Lords. A written constitution. Greater devolution of powers to local communities. Greater transparency and accountability in Government.

It’s why, like Hannah and the Institute for Government, we have been calling on Rishi Sunak not only to get on with it and appoint an independent ethics adviser, but to give them stronger powers to tackle ministerial wrongdoing.

And if he does want to give them real powers and write those powers into law, I'd be willing to work with the Prime Minister to help him clean up his own mess.

And it’s why we firmly opposed the Conservatives’ Elections Act that undermines the independence of the Electoral Commission and makes it harder for people to vote.

But let me be clear: I believe that reforming our voting system is the biggest and most important way to mend our broken politics, and I am determined to achieve it.

Every vote for the Liberal Democrats at the next election will be a vote for proportional representation. 

And let me be a little provocative as I end. ONLY a vote for the Liberal Democrats will be a vote for PR. 

Labour are now promising House of Lords reform. Great. But it’s clearly an attempt to placate those Labour members who do know that a fairer voting system is the only way to mend our broken politics.

But Lords reform without Commons reform is like changing the tires when the car’s on fire.

And while Labour fail to be crystal clear on this, it falls to us to be the agents of change, to make it happen.

This is the moment. This is our opportunity.

So I will set the same challenge to you that I set my party a few weeks ago: let’s make the next General Election the last one to use First-Past-the-Post.

That means defeating the Conservatives and getting rid of this awful Government. And getting as many Liberal Democrats elected to Parliament as possible.

To change our electoral system. And change politics for good.





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