We need a new electoral system that means that every vote in Wales matters

Ceredigion’s new MP, Ben Lake

Ben Lake

I won my seat at the 2017 General Election with 29% of the vote. Under a more representative electoral system I would not, in all likelihood, have a seat in the House of Commons today.

However, creating a fairer and more representative Parliament, where every vote matters, is more important than any single MP, myself included.

Creating a Parliament which truly represents its people does not just mean reform of the voting system – it also means ensuring those who have a stake in our society have the opportunity to shape it.

The right to vote from the age of 16 is necessary, progressive and, quite simply, the right thing to do.

Just this week the issue has been debated in Parliament, and Friday a Private Member’s Bill seeking to give 16-year-olds the vote will be debated in the Commons.

Voting reform is coming and it is knocking louder than ever on the historic gates of a dated Westminster system.

The UK is the only country in Europe still clinging on to the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system, and yet the idea that this is a bastion of democracy continues.

Under the current system, a smaller party could win a significant number of votes nationally, but still end up with no MPs if they fail to have a high enough concentration of votes in any one constituency.

This system inherently serves a two-party political system.

Every vote matters

Thanks to Plaid Cymru and the SNP, there are six competitive political parties in Wales and Scotland.

England’s not quite as lucky, but there are generally five parties competing for constituencies across the border.

The current system offers no space to represent such political diversity. This system, and the injustice that a vote for a smaller party is perceived to be a “wasted vote”, is undoubtedly one of the root causes of political apathy and distrust.

Although far from a perfect system, Welsh Assembly elections mean we have a taste of a more proportional system in Wales.

In effect, it is a mixed system – the first vote following the FPTP system to elect constituency Assembly Members, the second to elect a list-based member, on a regional basis.

The logic behind this system was to ensure that an element of familiarity remained, and local links were retained with constituency Members; whilst seats allocated by the list system would ensure the overall number of seats for each political party better reflects the aggregate number of votes they receive.

The Wales Act 2017 empowers the National Assembly to devise its own electoral system.

This is a real opportunity for Wales to re-engage and inspire the electorate, and I am excited to see how our Welsh Parliament can lead the way in UK politics by ensuring that every vote matters.

The fact that Westminster parties refuse to accept that the current system is not fit for purpose is just another example of the establishment protecting itself. In 2015 David Cameron’s Tories won the General Election with 36.8% of all votes cast.

Over 75% of the eligible UK electorate did not vote for the Tories and austerity, yet we still ended up with them.

Diversity

Labour are equally guilty. It is nothing short of hypocrisy to profess to represent “the many, not the few”, and then stand in the way of a reform that would mean it was the many, not the few who decides the political make up of Westminster.

It is tragically laughable that a state which constantly proclaims to be the home of the mother of democratic parliaments can watch 22 million votes be ‘wasted’, as was the case at the 2017 General Election.

A proportional system would shake up Parliament and re-energise the electorate. This is desperately needed as our current system is becoming increasingly discredited and unrepresentative of the diversity of views in our society.

We need to create a democracy that works for everyone, and electoral reform will be a crucial part of our efforts to do so. Another reform that will contribute to this change is lowering the voting age to include 16 and 17-year-olds.

Under an SNP Government in 2015, Scotland reduced the voting age to 16. It was a reform that enjoyed cross-party support, including the Scottish Conservatives.

16 and 17-year-olds can vote in Scottish Parliament and local elections, but have no voice in Westminster elections and had no vote in the EU Referendum.

Poorer democracy

As the youngest MP in Wales and one of 13 MPs under the age of 30 in the current Parliament, I unequivocally refute the claim that young people have no understanding of the political system or interest in voting.

The argument that young people are not politically engaged is a total fallacy. The idea that you could select an age group in society, arbitrarily claim that they are not politically engaged and should, therefore, have no say is beyond unfair.

From the age of 16 young people are, to all intents and purposes, regarded as adults by society – they can marry, join the Army, they are expected to pay tax, National Insurance, and contribute to society like every other adult.

And yet, they have no choice as to which political party shall govern the society in which they live and contribute to.

It is essential that young people have a say in the direction we are heading. The voting age should be lowered and civic education should be introduced in schools to ensure young people have the means to make an informed decision.

Young people have just as much – if not more – of a stake in the country’s future as older generations.

It is important for any parliament to be as diverse as the society it serves. Our democracy is certainly poorer for ignoring their voices.

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Chris
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Chris

I kind of disagree with lowering the voting age. One of the reasons being, making an informed decision…. If it was lowered to 16 and taught in school, whats to stop the teacher influencing their vote… Teach them all they need to know, but like many, they will follow their peers vote… How many people say, Im voting X as Mum and Dad always voted them….

CapM
Guest
CapM

If so how does that make 16 and 17 year olds any different than most 18 to 80 plus year olds. You could say that these 18+ voters’ choices are based to a significantlydegree on being uninformed, following their peers and voting as mam and dad do( or did).
However sixteen and seventeen year olds would probably not be readers of the Daily Mail etc so at least they wouldn’t be influenced by the English press unlike their parents, who likely are.

Angharad Shaw
Guest

Well said Ben. However, I think you would still be in parliament (or rather, I think Plaid would still have at least four MPs) under a proportional system, because: * Plaid probably does not benefit significantly from tactical voting in the four seats held. * However, unquestionably Plaid loses out to tactical voting in nearly all seats it does not hold, due to the “wasted vote” effect, which you mention. The last election was an example of extreme tactical voting. Plaid (very unfairly IMHO) were criticised for failing to gain ground, at a time when most progressives were just intent… Read more »

Red Dragon Jim
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Red Dragon Jim

Yes, it is a fact that the last (UK) election had the highest ever reported levels of tactical voting.

But in the Assembly I think Plaid gets extra votes because of the Welsh context, not because of it being slightly PR. I admit to not having seen research on this, but voting Labour is still very ingrained at the Assembly level as well. Even in 1999, which I can barely remember by now, Labour still romped home.

CambroUiDunlainge
Guest
CambroUiDunlainge

Unfair? Wales always votes to keep out the Tories and thats not just “progressives”, thats Labour voters in the Valleys too. In fact… correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t Plaid win a seat off another progressive party in Ceredigion? Polarising is temporary? Lets be honest here… Plaid are not making big gains in Generals or Locals. If they had a swing like the Lib Dems have had then yes I’d agree with you but thats not the case. They’re still 100k short of their ’99 result therefor still in the red. In that time we’ve seen UKIP rise and… Read more »

Edeyrn
Guest
Edeyrn

So whats the solution Cambro bach?

CambroUiDunlainge
Guest
CambroUiDunlainge

For Plaid Cymru? Probably a leadership race. Ultimately though I think political entities are born through a singular cause and need. For Plaid that was to prevent the extinction of our language. The establishment has usurped that cause and is not burdened with the Welsh speakers party tag. Arguably our language has been saved from extinction – although its not thriving. Plaid being unable to connect with the wider Welsh public means it is ill equipped to further that goal. Welsh Nationalism requires rebuilding from the ground up it needs to – like Plaid in its infancy – be a… Read more »

Angharad Shaw
Guest

Ceredigion was only ever going to be won by a progressive. The Tories had a snowball’s chance in a dragon’s breath and the only UKIP councillor fell to Plaid the month before. There is something wrong with a system that pits progressive against progressive in this way. It discourages parties working together, where in fact there is a huge amount of common ground. It’s a bit of a strange claim you make that Plaid are not making big gains in generals or locals, in a year when they have made significant gains in both, in the face of a massive… Read more »

CambroUiDunlainge
Guest
CambroUiDunlainge

Correct me if I’m wrong but wasn’t there an incident where Plaid refused to work with the Tories to form a Local Council? Or something like that? Surely the common ground was the Welsh people? Something wrong with a system that pits progressive against progressive… but going back to your original post you said about keeping the Tories out. The Tories were not a threat as you point out and it has been a Lib Dem seat since 2005… so surely Plaid Cymru in the interests of working together should have stepped back and focused elsewhere? We can talk about… Read more »

Angharad Shaw
Guest

Argue with zealotry? No, I really won’t. There comes a point when the appropriate thing to do is not to bother.
You see it one way, I see it another.

Red Dragon Jim
Guest
Red Dragon Jim

33 seats was the second most gains in the UK. Not even per head. Where I live got a new Plaid cllr! People wanted Theresa May out in the June election. More Welsh schools, road signs and so on wouldn’t have cut it, although these are the bread and butter for the council elections.

CambroUiDunlainge
Guest
CambroUiDunlainge

Yes. Second best with 33. Second to the Tories in Wales who got 80. Most gains in UK… what did they have nationally? 560 odd? In the general election… this may have escaped you but she still won the popular vote. As much as we can talk about people wanting her out she got 120,000 more votes than Cameron did in 2015 (in Wales). Plaid were just nowhere to be seen… apart from Ceredigion where they nabbed a Lib Dem seat for the cause.

Angharad Shaw
Guest

In the Welsh elections, I am sure Plaid does better because of a combination of PR and the elections being Welsh. Most voters in Powys or Mynwy (for example) understand that a vote for Plaid will help elect a Plaid regional AM. But doubtless, as you say, there’s the Welsh context effect too.

Eos Pengwern
Guest
Eos Pengwern

Bear in mind that across the UK as a whole (I don’t have the figures for Wales at hand), the party that would have benefitted most from an alternative electoral system in recent history would have been UKIP; in 2015, four million votes and just one MP. So, it doesn’t follow that a change in the system would necessarily be a gift for ‘Progressive’ parties (as word I use advisedly because most parties who label themselves in that way would inflict the opposite of progress upon us, if they were given the chance). Although as someone who voted UKIP in… Read more »

CapM
Guest
CapM

“the only argument for doing so that is at all compelling is the one that says 16-year-olds can join the armed forces and fight for their country, …… but in fact 16-year-olds can only join the armed forces with parental consent”

Sixteen year olds do not need parental consent in order to pay income tax. At the moment however there is no say in how their contribution to the UK state gets spent.
I’ve not yet seen an argument for preventing 16 and 17 year olds from voting that couldn’t be applied to the current electorate whatever their age.

Richard Morse
Guest

Yes ‘CapM’ that’s a very pertinent point. Remember the beginning of the American war for independence/revolution was the protest over taxation:- ‘No taxation without representation’ is a very valid slogan here.

Eos Pengwern
Guest
Eos Pengwern

I’d be astonished if there’s a single under-18-year old in the country who pays more in income tax than they receive in state-funded services and benefits, including their education. The ‘no taxation without representation’ argument is a good one, but needs to be used carefully. All taxation? Even five-year-olds pay VAT when they spend their pocket money on sweets. Only net taxation (i.e. paying more in tax than you receive in state-funded services, which is what would have been the case in the 18th Century when the slogan was coined and there was no such thing as state benefits). Well,… Read more »

CapM
Guest
CapM

My point was an attempt to show why parental consent being needed for a 16 year old to join the armed forces was not justification for maintaining the voting age at 18. The government demands that sixteen year olds pay income tax. They are treated in the same way as those aged 18. The government does not need to get their parents consent in order to tax them even if does have to if it wants them to join the armed forces. There are plenty of people over the age of 18 who receive more in state- funded services and… Read more »

Eos Pengwern
Guest
Eos Pengwern

Mine was that children don’t suddenly become liable to pay tax when they’re 16; five-year-olds pay tax as well (maybe even income tax if they’ve inherited savings that pay them over £1000 in interest every year). Therefore the argument that everyone who pays tax should have the vote, because they pay tax, doesn’t wash [I could bring resident foreign nationals in as well at this point]. I think we can agree that there has to be a threshold. Eligibility to make a free choice to fight for the country where one votes seems to me a better criterion, for a… Read more »

CapM
Guest
CapM

“Therefore the argument that everyone who pays tax should have the vote, because they pay tax, doesn’t wash” – I pointed out to you that wasn’t my argument, -At age 16 a person is eligible to make a free choice to leave their parents home The state recognizes that they are mature enough to take responsibility for their decision and subsequent actions. -At age 18 a person is eligible to make a free choice to fight for their country. The state recognizes that they are mature enough to take responsibility for their for their decision and subsequent actions. -At age… Read more »

Geraint
Guest
Geraint

The context is important. The 2016 Police & Crime Comissioner elections saw the following results for Plaid Cymru. Dyfed Powys – Plaid gain (50% turn out) Plaid 28% vote first round North Wales – Plaid gain (42% turn out) Plaid 31% vote first round South Wales – Labour hold (43% turn out) Plaid 18% vote first round Gwent – Labour gain (42% turn out) Plaid 23% vote first round On the same day Assembly elections took place. The Mid and West region voted 26% Plaid and The Northern region voted 12.6% Plaid. ( these areas don’t quite match the police… Read more »

Benjiman L. Angwin
Guest
Benjiman L. Angwin

Ben Lake, dwi’n cytuno á chi ynghylch First Past the Post a chreu system degach o ran pleidleisio, rhan helaeth o’r amser. A dwi’n cytuno á chi o ran llawer o bethau yn yr erthyl hon yn gynnwys cael addysg sifig. A pheth da bod chi’n fodlon dweud hyn er byddai’n golygu na fyddech chi’n AS. Ond dwi ddim yn cytuno á chi o ran gostwng yr oedran pleidleisio. Mae’r syniad fel ‘marmite’, a dwi’n derbyn os ydy’r syniad yn ennill y tir canol na fydd modd troi’r peth yn ól mae’n debyg, heb dreigl canrifoedd i newid barn a… Read more »

CapM
Guest
CapM

” …. if voting is the highest responsibility and political office the highest honour in a democracy, it should be the last right given according to age, maybe even 20 years old, to teach citizens that democracy it is such an enormous responsibility that we must be careful with it.” Yet that argument applies across all age groups. Could you honestly say that you think the electorate as a whole, when they enter a polling station are showing “enormous responsibility”. Democracy is not solely about putting an “X” on a piece of paper. It is about being informed about social,… Read more »

JD
Guest
JD

I disagree with lowering the voting age. Yes, people can get married, work and join the army, but I think that 16 is now too young to do these things.

Better to raise everything to 18 – school leaving age, driving licences etc and have consistency across the board.

Add in ID cards and then you’ll see a big reduction in under age smoking and drinking. You know it makes sense!