Report of regional meeting organised by Electoral Reform Society, October 26th, Birmingham

Geoff Gay reports:

The insights gained and contacts made at the meeting were well worth the travelling ( in spite of going the wrong way and subsequently having to pay £10 for car parking ! ), in spite of the drawbacks of the venue ( a restaurant area barely insulated from the noise of a very crowded and noisy pub ) , the late start caused by what I thought was the rather discourteous behaviour of the organisers and others in eating a full meal between 6.30 and 7.00 when they had scheduled the meeting for a 6.30 start, and the tendency of many participants to arrive late, in some cases by up to an hour. Inevitably, all the participants except myself were from the West Midlands conurbation. Eventually the attendance was 12 men and only 2 women together with the ERS officers, namely Darren Hughes ( Campaigns and Research Director ) and Claudia Laidlaw ( Campaigns and Membership Officer ). Darren hails from New Zealand and Claudia from Australia. Whereas the  gender balance was poor, there was a good spread of ages from, I would guess, about 20 to 70.
I think that most of the participants were not politically-aligned, but there were several Labour members and several Libdem members, including Steve, who is the Treasurer of “Libdems for Electoral Reform”.  One of the participants was Ashley Walsh who was our link to the national
“Yes to AV” Campaign.

At the start or at their arrival, everyone was asked to make a brief statement on where they were coming from and why they were involved in ERS and the democratic reform movement. Some statements were very brief, others rather longer, and one much longer.

Darren’s opening address was based on a discussion paper given to all participants which contained the  following proposals for ERS activity and campaign aims in the run-up to the 2015 general election :

  • A demolition job on First Past the Post.
  • Make the case for fair votes in local government.
  • Win victories for voters today ( by seizing opportunities and building alliances/ support).
  • Fair Representation : making our institutions reflect the people they serve.
  • Improving the form, function and culture of democratic decision-making.
  • Giving everyone the opportunity to shape the decisions that affect their lives.

Darren also confirmed that the UD/ERS joint activists’ conference will be held in Birmingham on Saturday February 9th 2013. Hopefully this will address the matter of relationships, raised several times during the meeting, between ERS and other democratic reform bodies, UD in particular.

This was followed by a discussion / QandA session in which numerous points emerged, from which
I have selected the following as being, in my opinion, the most significant :

– there was a consensus that, in explaining the “demolition job”, we need to say that the alternative should be “a proportional system in which every vote counts”, only going into details about particular systems if we are then questioned about this.

– ERS are working on analysing the results of the last two rounds of local government elections in Scotland ( and to some extent in Northern Ireland ) under STV, in order to draw the lessons, to be used in arguing that English and Welsh local electors would be better served by this system. Easily the most important key to achieving this change is to convince the Labour Party to include at least a willingness to consider this in their 2015 Manifesto :  Democratic Renewal is one of the strands in the Labour policy review headed by Jon Cruddas, and ERS are in talks with key Labour figures as well as undergoing “targetted engagement” with trades unions.

– Darren explained what led to the change to the Additional member system of PR in
New Zealand : Labour became very “wound up” because, in two successive elections under FPTP, they won more votes than their opponents but their opponents won the majority of seats and formed governments. So when Labour did finally get into government, they set up an electoral reform commission. The resulting referendum had two questions : Change or not, and then a choice of four ( fully-explained ) different systems, including STV, in which AMS came out on top. There was later another referendum which decided to stick with AMS. The NZ experience is very relevant here, in spite of the differing circumstances.

– A view was expressed that “ERS should shout a bit louder” and should better inform its own members and supporters. I pointed out that members of the Leics. group have submitted a motion to the Nov. 17th AGM making precisely this latter point.

– In a discussion ( initiated by myself ) on the fourth bullet point above – Fair Representation , we heard about an organisation “Bite the Bullet”, bringing political discussion into schools, state schools in particular, and agreed that such an initiative should be supported and that schools’ curricula should include a much more organised and focussed element of political education.
A radical suggestion was Open Primaries ( although we would not want a return to an American-style two-party system ) and I flew the even more radical kite that, along with all-women shortlists, parties could consider all-minority-ethnic, all youth, even all-working-class ( carefully defined ) shortlists.  We also agreed that FPTP, along with all its other faults, mitigates against fairer representation.

I hope that the other six regional meetings are as lively as this one, informing the work of ERS, and the AGM in particular.

Geoff Gay            27.10.12.

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