AMS Bill

This Wednesday, We Have a Chance to Put Fair Votes on the Agenda in Westminster

It’s not an opportunity that comes up very often, so this is an important one: this Wednesday, MPs will have a chance to back proportional representation in Parliament.

May 7th was the most disproportionate General Election result in British history – so it’s about time there was a proper debate in Parliament on switching to a fairer voting system.

The ‘Representation of the People (Proportional Representation) Bill‘ will come before the House of Commons on Wednesday. Proposed by Stalybridge and Hyde MP Jonathan Reynolds, the ‘Ten Minute Rule Motion’ – a form of Private Members’ Bill – is a great opportunity to put PR on the agenda.

There’s just a couple of days to build some momentum behind it – so it’s vital we take action today. The Electoral Reform Society are asking supporters to write to their MPs to ask them to back the Bill and to build some public support behind it.

At the crux of the issue is this: multi-party politics is here to stay, but our old-fashioned two-party system can’t cope with the choices of modern voters. We clearly need a much fairer voting system.

We’re not alone in saying it either – in May, nearly half a million people signed petitions calling for a proportional voting system, joined by five party leaders from across the spectrum, while 61% of people back reform.

Sadly, as it’s a non-government Bill it’s not very likely to pass – but rallying behind it will really help keep the issue on the agenda.

The Bill isn’t perfect: it proposes using the Additional Member System for Westminster elections, rather than our preferred Single Transferable Vote, a proportional system that maximises voter choice. But it does represent a chance for positive change.

As the ERS say in our letter to MPs, “AMS is a tried and tested system, is simple and clear, and is used both in the UK and around the world. It has been shown to let the public kick out unpopular governments, and ensures that governments can’t be elected with tiny majorities. Politics has become far more multi-party since 2010, but our out-dated First Past the Post system cannot keep up with how people’s voting habits have changed.”

Crucially, this Bill is also a chance to find out what MPs think about PR – we can build up a strong database so that we know where they stand and so we can improve our Parliamentary work to keep putting democratic reform on the agenda. We want this Bill to go to the next stage – and while it may not pass, the more support the Bill has outside of Parliament the more support it could have within, too.

Pile on the pressure for PR – write to your MP today to put a fairer voting system on the agenda in Westminster

Originally published on the Electoral Reform Society blog


Democratising devolution: how the Greens can lead the debate

Under the surface, a quiet revolution is taking place with our constitution.

The government’s devolution agenda for England isn’t exactly at the top of the national conversation. But it marks a re-working of the British state – and it’s a debate that Greens can’t ignore.

Of course, the devolution agenda comes alongside big cuts to local government – putting many authorities in a difficult situation. But councils do want these powers, and the extra investment that is coming alongside some of the deals (over £30m extra every year for West Midlands and Liverpool). Last week these deals were signed – with the former being the biggest handover of power to date. And there are around 30 deals going through as we speak across the country.

If the Greens are about anything, we’re about democracy. That’s why it’s essential we don’t let the push for devolution go by without getting involved in the conversation.

On Tuesday, Caroline Lucas published a piece on Left Foot Forward arguing that “We can’t have our constitution written on the whims of the great and good – with politicians writing their own rule book. It’s time for citizens to lead the debate on our democratic future.” She’s absolutely right.

So far, devolution deals have been negotiated and signed behind closed doors, to ridiculously tight time-frames, and often with ‘commercial sensitivity’ preventing the public even looking at the documents. The conversations about powers and resources have been at a top-level, with almost zero public involvement.

But what is localism if local people aren’t involved? Here is a real chance for the Greens to carve a niche, calling for a democratised devolution agenda with real public involvement. Labour have so far been fairly quiet on the issue – they’ve had their own disputes and issues to deal with. The Greens though, have the space to work on this issue – and previous form, with the party’s reputation as a grassroots-led, democratic force for empowerment.

This month, the first ever ‘Citizens’ Assemblies’ in the UK on local government finished in Southampton. Run by universities from across the country together with my own organisation, the Electoral Reform Society, the project aimed to give local people what politicians haven’t so far given them – a say on the devolution deals currently going through.

What the ‘Democracy Matters’ project – based on two Assemblies in the Solent region (in Southampton) and South Yorkshire (in Sheffield) – has offered is a chance for citizens to debate the power-transfer for the first time. Up to now, many feel they’ve been left out in the cold. A recent poll showed that two-thirds of Northerners haven’t even heard of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – a sign of the extent to which the public have been engaged in the discussions.

How about Greens call for Citizens’ Assemblies when devolution deals are going through locally? And if the councils don’t agree, set up ‘People’s Panels’ of residents to do a similar thing? Greens could be raising some key points:

  • Negotiations could be minuted, with documents released to the public. No more secret deals.
  • Mayors should not be imposed against the wishes of local people. But if areas get mayors, shouldn’t they be accountable to an elected assembly, rather than just other council leaders?
  • Genuine consultation should take place on the initial deals – with a real chance for the public to change the outcome.
  • The deals could be ratified by a referendum after extensive public debate.
  • What about our voting system – do we want to consolidate power in the hands of single-party states under First Past the Post? We need to open up the conversation on electoral reform
  • Local people should help determine the area the authority should cover, the powers they want for their authority and what kind of democratic set up they think should go alongside the new powers.

Let’s not let the biggest power-shift for decades in England pass us by without comment. It’s time for Greens to call for a democratised devolution agenda that puts people at the centre – not a handful of officials in back-rooms.

Citizens want a say on devolution

My article for

This month saw two ‘Citizens’ Assemblies’ come to an end – the finale of a ground-breaking UK-wide project to engage the public in the devolution debate. And one thing that kept coming up was that citizens want a say over the plans to hand councils more powers.

Residents from Southampton, Portsmouth, the Isle of Wight and surrounding areas took part in first ever ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ on local democracy and devolution deals, running in tandem with one in Sheffield.

In Southampton, citizens strongly endorsed the idea that any new devolved body should cover the Hampshire and the Isle of Wight area, with the integration of health and social care seen as the top priority. In Yorkshire, participants voted for a strong, Yorkshire-wide Assembly, with public involvement in the devolution process.

While participants in Southampton were evenly split on whether they support the devolution proposal currently being negotiated with government, they wanted far greater public involvement in the Hampshire devolution deal being proposed. Most said they wanted to stay involved in the process – something that echoed in Sheffield. Clearly, people think it’s time to ‘democratise devolution’.

How did it work? Over two weekends of discussion and voting, nearly 30 participants were drawn from a broadly representative sample – from the Solent region for Assembly South and South Yorkshire for Assembly North – in response to an invitation by polling company YouGov. They reached their conclusions through a deep process of engagement with the details of different potential devolution arrangements.

‘Assembly South’ was only the second such event in the world to include both citizens and politicians as participants in the process, after the Republic of Ireland, with five local councillors participating alongside the citizens for the four days.

In both Assemblies, the participants were given unique access to national and local experts to aid them in reaching their own conclusions on how their areas should be governed in this new phase of devolution. The project has been closely followed by local councils across the region.

Last weekend saw local politicians and other experts giving evidence to the Assembly, including Cllr Roy Perry, leader of Hampshire County Council, and the project is being backed by Alan Whitehead, MP for Southampton Test, who attended the Assembly on Sunday and called it ‘really important and significant’.

The Assemblies come in response to the sweeping constitutional changes currently facing the UK, a year on from the Scottish referendum and with key questions of devolution, English Votes for English Laws and the EU referendum currently high up the agenda.

At their core, what the Citizens’ Assemblies have shown is that when given a chance to have a say, people jump at the opportunity. They have challenged the myth that people are disengaged from politics – people are more than capable of grappling with complex questions about the way we are governed, and politicians across the UK should sit up and take note.

There is a real potential for a new way of doing things – that instead of devolution being a stitch-up between local and national politicians, we can have engagement from citizens to bring new insights and new ideas into the debate.

For more information visit

Josiah Mortimer is communications officer at the Electoral Reform Society

With Labour in open revolt against Corbyn, I’m sticking with the Greens

Originally published on the Norwich Radical

It’s now three months since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party. For Greens, it’s posed some interesting questions.

For a start, Greens didn’t really know how to respond to the new political context. The party positioned itself as the left party for so long (and rightly), but few had thought about what might happen if the Labour Party actually turned left. Suddenly, the political space for the Greens appeared to shrink dramatically. And for a while, there was silence.

But when the time came, Greens welcomed the election of Corbyn – albeit in varying terms. Both Natalie Bennett and Caroline Lucas praised his election as a boost for progressive politics. Members were cautiously pleased.

There remain, though, some crucial distinctions. While membership fell back slightly, most Green Party members have thus far stuck around. Why?

  1. Greens are in it for the long game. It says something that it’s a truism, but few in the Labour Party think Corbyn will last the full five years. Even many in Corbyn’s camp think he’ll be out before 2020. The Greens are pretty solid on their feet – it’s serious business being in a party, and it’s a choice people don’t make lightly. Many in the Greens are adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach to ostensibly left-wing Labour. It seems like a wise move. Years of the Greens being socialist won’t be undermined by a few trembling months of a progressive Labour Party under Corbyn.
  2. Only the Greens are pushing hard on issues like democratic reform and environmental action. Labour has thus far remained silent on policies such as reforming the House of Lords, introducing proportional representation or keeping 80% of fossil fuels in the ground, as is effectively mandated by the science if we are to keep below catastrophic levels of global warming. Given these are policies that few in Labour – including Corbyn – appear to feel strongly about – and that they are policies Greens feel very strongly about – the lack of overlap is clear.
  3. The Labour Party machine appears un-reformable. Any attempts to deselect right-wing MPs will be struck down before they get off the ground. The 91% non-/anti-Corbynite Parliamentary Labour Party remains the most influential part of the Labour machine – after all, it is they who vote on our laws. So a shift there looks unlikely anytime soon. Just last week, the Labour right triumphed in the influential backbench committees of the PLP. They are not going anywhere. Talks of a coup are not even behind the scenes – Labour are in open revolt against their own left flank – and the potential upcoming vote on Syria will bring the crisis to the fore.
  4. Westminster Labour is not Labour in Brighton, Glasgow, Manchester or Cardiff – council chambers are, needless to say, not echoing with Corbynite speeches across the country. Politics, for most people, is not party conferences. It is the local. And at the local level, Labour has a lot of answer for, if you’re services are being outsourced in Hull or your housing estate is being sold off in Lambeth.
  5. Political traditions matter a lot in politics. And the Greens have a fundamentally different approach to politics. In next May’s devolved (and proportional!) elections in London, Wales and Scotland, it will be the Greens pushing for radical grassroots democracy, for real public engagement, for direct action against housing evictions and climate change, and for a new way of doing things.

The Greens aren’t blowing in all directions like a weathervane – and they certainly aren’t going anywhere.

The Labour Party is in a period of flux, and the Greens are still navigating a new and confusing political terrain. But there remains a place in British politics to praise the good and challenge the bad from outside the Labour Party. The Greens aren’t blowing in all directions like a weathervane – and they certainly aren’t going anywhere.

What it comes down to one is thing: Labour is far too broad a church to remain a consistently left-wing party. Under First Past the Post, it is a party of both neoliberals and Marxists – a contradiction that can’t be reconciled.

All the best to socialists in Labour, but my place is in a party that’s comfortable with being radical.


Revealed: the true scale of opposition to our unelected Lords

The full extent of opposition to our unreformed House of Lords has been revealed…the day after the government announced their ‘rapid review’ into the powers of the upper chamber.  

Yesterday the ERS released polling showing that just 10% of the public think that the House of Lords should remain a fully-unelected chamber. Needless to say, that’s a pretty low level of support to base an institution’s existence on.

The findings follow last night’s announcement by the government that they will be launching their ‘rapid review’ into the powers of the House of Lords, led by Conservative hereditary peer Lord Strathclyde (you couldn’t make it up, could you?).

The polling by BMG Research has found that 48% of the public think the Lords should be an elected chamber, while 22% back abolition. That compares to only one in ten who back the unelected status quo. So 70% want radical change.

So what will the government’s review entail, on the back of this? It looks likely that it will focus on enshrining the currently-unwritten conventions preventing the House of Lords from over-ruling the government on financial matters. But we think it should go much further.

The review itself is welcome. But the public clearly want real reform of the House of Lords – not just tinkering around the edges. Only one in ten back the unelected status quo.

Yet the government are tying themselves in knots over this question, with George Osborne saying he supports an elected upper house yesterday, while this review only looks at the issue of conventions.

All this comes off the back of Monday’s defeats of the government in the second chamber. But if we’re going to have change, they shouldn’t be fiddling with our constitution out of partisan interest, just because they lost a couple of votes – they have to deal with the crux of the matter: the make-up of the constitutional calamity that is the House of Lords.

So instead of simply emasculating our revising chamber, they should ensure it has the legitimacy it needs to be a real check on executive power. That can only happen through electing it.

We have a crisis of democracy in this country – a government handed a majority on just 37% of the vote, and on the other side a house with too many political hacks and cronies. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and two democratically-dubious chambers look pretty ridiculous shouting about each other’s alleged illegitimacy…

Whatever the case, this review needs opening up to the public. It can’t be left to ‘the great and the good’ to decide on Britain’s constitutional future behind closed doors.

A national debate is now needed about the nature of the House of Lords – and it has to deal with the issue of electing all those who vote on our laws. It is expensive, over-sized and archaic – and the public know it.

For more of the ERS’ research on the House of Lords, see our recent report, “The House of Lords: Fact vs Fiction”. For headline figures see here.

The ERS calculated on Monday that packing the Lords with 100 extra Conservative Peers would cost at least £2.6m per year in expenses and allowances – before extra office, infrastructure and staffing costs are taken into account –

democracy gathering

Democracy matters – we need a debate on devolution

If you’ve not been following the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill going through Parliament at the moment, you’re not the only one. But something exciting is happening this weekend that can finally get the public stuck into the debate.  

Saturday will see a major democratic experiment to find out where citizens think power should lie at the local level. In Sheffield and Southampton, we’re launching ‘Citizens’ Assemblies’ to coincide with the Government pushing through devolution legislation.

The two Citizens’ Assemblies – four-day events in Southampton and Sheffield taking place in October and November – will bring representative samples of the local population together to discuss and decide on the future of local democracy.

With city deals being brokered left, right and centre (no political pun intended), it will be the first time citizens in English regions will be given the chance to deliberate on the question of where power should lie – within a few days of the government’s Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill receiving its second reading in the House of Commons.

All this is being co-ordinated by Democracy Matters, a group of leading academics and the Electoral Reform Society, in a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. They are pilot projects for the sort of deliberative event envisaged by those calling for a UK-wide Constitutional Convention. We want to eventually see a proper national debate about Britain’s constitutional future.

A year on from the Scottish referendum, it’s more vital than ever that the public – particularly in England – have a say on where power should lie in the UK.

As the Government seeks to devolve powers towards local areas, they need to include citizens and not simply deliver their chosen solutions from above.

These Assemblies are a real chance to shape the devolution agenda so that it genuinely involves the people which it affects.

We’re expecting some really interesting stuff to come out of this project – so make sure to follow its progress.

About the Assemblies

These Assemblies have been organised to rigorous academic standards. Each assembly will have 45 members – one will be held in Sheffield with membership drawn from across South Yorkshire; all participants will be members of the public. The other will be held in Southampton with members from across Hampshire; 30 participants will be members of the public and 15 will be local politicians.

Members of the public have been chosen by YouGov to be representative of the local population. Politician members of the Southampton assembly have been invited in proportion to their vote shares.

The Sheffield Assembly (Assembly North) will be chaired by Len Tingle, BBC Yorkshire Political Editor. The Southampton Assembly (Assembly South) will be chaired by Peter Henley, BBC South Political Editor.
The work of each assembly will be based around four phases: learning; consultation; deliberation; and decision.

Each assembly will use a mix of plenary and small-group formats at every stage, in order to facilitate inclusive deliberation. The work of each group will be aided by a trained facilitator and a note-taker.

For more information visit or contact Edward Molloy (

Trusting ourselves – why we should bring power closer to home

‘Democracy is nothing if it isn’t local’ – so Scottish journalist Lesley Riddoch kicked off her speech at Scottish Green Party conference over the weekend.

The situation in Scotland is significantly different to its ‘Nordic neighbours’. In Norway, one in 81 people stand for local council. In Scotland, the figure is one in over 2,000. It’s a statistic that highlights the distance between people and their democracy north of the border – and indeed in the rest of the UK too.

Although Scotland is getting greater powers, the UK as a whole is still highly centralised. In Sweden, local taxation is so prioritised that people only start paying national tax over the equivalent of around £35,000. The contrast with the UK – where almost all taxes are raised nationally – led to one Swedish academic asking Riddoch: ‘Don’t you trust yourselves?’ Why not have more power in local communities? At heart, democracy is a principle of trust in citizens to determine the outcomes that affect them.

The structure of local government is a major cause of problems in Scotland, says Riddoch. Scotland has the largest local authorities in Europe, representing 170,000 people per council. The European average is just 14,000. In Germany, that figure is 7,000. When power is so close, political inequality is much reduced, too.

In most of Europe, local councils represent each community. Yet in much of the UK, councils often cover many local communities and social units, increasing the political separation between citizens and their democracy. Councils in Scotland cover enormous areas that often have little relation to actual communities.

However, parties haven’t engaged well with localism. The devolution agenda has been conducted without the involvement of citizens. The litmus test is when you ask people ‘do you feel powerful in your local area?’ – the reply almost universally being ‘no’.

So parties need to start ‘banging that drum’ of power for local people – smaller, more localised governance, and true devolution alongside democratic reform.

By bringing ourselves into line with much of Europe in our local institutions, we can reduce the antipathy and disconnect most people feel with mainstream politics. Let’s trust ourselves.