Tim Farron: Turmoil makes case for voting reform

Tim Farron holds a flyer at the Liberal Democrats annual conference last year. (PA).
Tim Farron holds a flyer at the Liberal Democrats annual conference last year. (PA).
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Truly, we live in extraordinary times. Potentially heading out of Europe, a new Prime Minister who hasn’t been elected by party members, let alone the country, and a Labour Party tearing itself apart.

But just as extraordinary in its way has been the letters page of The Yorkshire Post. It has been bursting with debate on the need for electoral reform in the light of Brexit and the divided state of our country.

It is normally Liberal Democrats accused of talking too much about electoral reform, so it has been quite a surprise to see such enthusiasm for a subject often considered pretty dry beyond the boundaries of Westminster.But actually, is it any wonder the mood is changing? I went back to my home town of Preston this week to meet people who voted “Leave” to see what lessons Westminster could learn in the wake of Brexit.

Even though I campaigned passionately to Remain, several points raised by Leave voters struck a chord. Many said that London had boomed while places that had been hit hard by the recession still haven’t seen much evidence of a recovery.

True, there were some who had voted Leave because they were worried about what they saw as an erosion of sovereignty. But many raised issues such as low wages, poor housing and lack of investment.

Even when immigration was mentioned, it was in the context of lack of training and opportunities for people in cities such as Preston to improve their lives and share in prosperity. I pointed out that London certainly has its share of disadvantaged people, but several people asked: “Where is the infrastructure investment in other parts of the UK?”

So we come back to electoral reform. The Conservatives, remember, won less than 37 per cent of the vote and less than a quarter of those entitled to vote. Many have simply given up voting in general elections because they live in safe Tory or Labour seats where they don’t feel their vote will count.

Contrast that with the referendum campaign when a higher than average 72 per cent of the electorate voted. Especially encouraging were the vast numbers of young people who turned out – 73 per cent to Remain – when traditionally it has been harder to engage first time voters. That is because people realised every vote counted, and could really change the outcome.

An effect of electoral reform is that you tend to have coalitions, representing the views of more than half the electorate. The effects are clear. Look at the last coalition government which stabilised the economy and enabled the Lib Dems to deliver our manifesto commitments to reduce tax for low and average paid workers, introduce free school dinners, extra money for education for disadvantaged kids and a national apprenticeship scheme.

Contrast that with the current majority Conservative government which prompts many to ask: “What are this lot doing to help me or my family?” In all the tributes to David Cameron, it was noticeable that virtually every achievement he was (rightly) praised for occurred when he was in coalition with us – usually with the Lib Dems having driven the policy.

Something I learned from the referendum was that far more unites than divides many politicians in the centre of British politics.

I shared a stump with moderate Labour and Conservative figures and found they also wanted to increase social mobility, build more houses and prioritise education.

So Britain may look more divided than ever and those divisions will deepen if Westminister doesn’t listen to the people, possibly even breaking-up the United Kingdom. I haven’t changed my mind on Europe, and think we need European trade more than ever to provide the money to invest in our people. But our country must now unite.

Electoral reform would force politicians to drop their theatrical insults and hammer out a programme that two or more parties could unite behind. Precisely because such programmes must command broad support, they are more likely to answer concerns of a wider electorate. I’m not claiming electoral reform is a silver bullet. But as the public increasingly wonders if the old two-party system delivers for them, even many in Westminster are talking about realignment.

In these extraordinary times, anything is possible.

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats Party.