George Stevenson argues that electoral reform is the route to rejoining. But how realistic is it?
Over the last six months, passionate pro-EU campaigner Professor AC Grayling has participated in a series of webinars setting out his view that the route to rejoining the EU will be through electoral reform; and that given this precondition, rejoining could occur much sooner than we think, perhaps by the end of the decade. I don’t know if Professor Grayling is being optimistic with these timescales, but the core message that electoral reform is the route to rejoining seems to be an important one.
The reasons for this have been well rehearsed, but perhaps bear repeating. Culturally, conservative voters are more evenly spread across the country than culturally liberal voters, who tend to be concentrated in larger towns and cities. So under the First Past the Post (FPTP) system, winning a majority is easier if a party can appeal to culturally conservative voters, even if these voters aren’t numerically in the majority. Although there were other factors at play, the Conservatives were more successful with this approach in 2019, despite having received only 44% of the overall vote, thus securing their majority, and their ability to ‘do’ Brexit (whatever ‘doing it’ means).
Whilst there’s not a direct overlap, cultural conservatives also tend to be more pro-Brexit. So, even if it feels that a closer relationship with the EU (or even rejoining) is in the UK’s best interests, a party needing to win a majority must tread a delicate line between this and not spooking more pro-Brexit voters. This probably accounts for Labour’s fairly lukewarm approach towards improving the relationship with the EU.
This feature of this electoral maths also means that, even if we were to rejoin, there will always be a temptation for any party, whether in government or opposition, to adopt a more euro-sceptic position. Never let it be forgotten that the whole Brexit debacle started, because of the rise in support from UKIP, with Conservative party anxiety about securing a majority in 2015. In such circumstances, the EU could be forgiven for being wary of readmitting a potentially troublesome child to the club, and would want reassurances that the UK were sincere in its desire.
We shouldn’t be downhearted by this - Andy Pye’s penultimate article before Christmas showed how, as public opinion is changing, we may be able to secure a full rejoin in the medium term, and a much improved relationship sooner. The electoral maths described above just means that we will have to work harder to change public and political opinion, and it will potentially take longer.
Electoral reform, which usually means some form of proportional representation, could present a way of breaking this logjam. There would no longer be an electoral advantage in appealing to a particular demographic, meaning that cultural conservatives would lose their stranglehold over the ability of a party to secure a majority. They would, of course, still be able to express their views. It’s often been said that there is no majority for this type of Brexit, and there may no longer be a majority for any type of Brexit!
Electoral reform would allow different approaches for closer co-operation with the EU to be put forward without the need to appease the most hardline of opponents. Similarly, if and when public opinion moves decisively against Brexit, then this allows rejoining to be put forward as an option more easily, as Brexit supporters won’t have a disproportionate influence in the electorate. This would also provide reassurance to the EU that the UK would be a constructive member of the club in this event.
Electoral reform has been talked about for a very long time, but with no success so far. But there are reasons for cautious optimism now. Labour’s difficulty in bridging the cultural conservative/liberal divide means that it is more difficult for it to secure a majority. Maybe as a result, opinion in the party is moving in favour of electoral reform. More than a quarter of Constituency Labour Parties have backed motions supporting electoral reform, and Momentum has also given its backing, suggesting that there is no longer a left/right divide in the party on this issue. Whilst the failure to back reform at last year’s party conference is disappointing, it is to be hoped that this is a temporary setback.
The Conservatives have probably run out of potential coalition partners. Both the Liberal Democrats and the DUP have been burnt by such associations, and are unlikely to want to repeat the experience. Recent by-election results also suggest that the Conservatives have as much difficulty with the conservative/liberal divide as Labour.
Finally, the prospect of a hung parliament gives real power to the smaller parties, who in general favour electoral reform, but who rarely have had the opportunity to do anything about it.
Now is the time to back electoral reform, and we may not have a better chance. We can support organisations such as Make Votes Matter or Open Britain which campaign on the issue. If we’re Labour Party members or supporters, we can ask our constituency parties to support electoral reform, or campaign through other forums. We can raise this as a way of addressing the many deeply held frustrations which many have regarding all levels of government.
Maybe it won’t speed things up much, but it would be lovely to think that it could, and that it will secure our future at the heart of the EU. The time for electoral reform is now.
London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.