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The Case for Proportional Representation: In Conversation with Zack Polanski and Emma Kennedy

The upcoming election: what is in store?

For a special edition of Chamber’s Political Sandbox series, our editor, Charlotte Dignam, hosted an interview between Zack Polanski, Deputy Leader of the Green Party and Emma Kennedy, Author and Screenwriter.

Both Zack and Emma are keen supporters of proportional representation (PR) so sat down for a discussion on the issues surrounding electoral reform, particularly in the context of a Labour government.

Proportional Representation in the Next Parliament

To kick off the discussion, Emma and Zack delved into the potential of PR being introduced by the next Government. Emma argues that she does not see it happening and contends that the current nature of our electoral system is undemocratic as “the only votes that count are the votes for the winner”.

Zack posed a more optimistic stance, asserting that the call for PR is now louder today than ever before. Noting people’s disapproval of the two-party system on the doorstep, Zack stated that even when people do not necessarily use terms such as ‘electoral reform’ or ‘proportional representation’, their support for a more democratic and trustworthy political system is apparent.

Moreover, Zack highlighted how the London Assembly, one of the UK’s few political bodies to use PR (along with devolved governments), has Conservative members who are supportive of the way they are elected. He stated “I’d like to think that’s because when you’ve worked within a PR system where people have to compromise and negotiate, there’s not that fear of coalitions or working together. You have to work cross-party; you get less of the tribalism that’s encouraged by first-past-the-post”.

However, Zack noted that there is the fear that the Labour Party would rather maintain the status-quo and “wait their turn” to be in government. He emphasised the need for those who support PR within the Labour Party to look at the bigger picture and fight for a “genuinely democratic system for the future” as change goes wider than simply removing the Conservative Party from power. Off the back of this, Emma noted that if the next Labour government introduced PR, their chances of maintaining power through future elections would be higher.

Facing up to challenges: Extremism, Instability and Tactical Voting

A common criticism of PR is that it would allow small extremist parties into the mainstream political sphere and create unstable coalitions. Discussing this, Emma argued that a system in which represents people’s votes equally and promotes high turn-outs does not have a downside. “If there are people for whom that party speaks, then they should be represented in Parliament, and chances are they will never be a majority party. They would never be in a position where they would be in the driving seat to form a government. But to be honest, if they were, then that would be because people had voted for them, and that’s democracy, so I agree” she asserted.

Emma then pointed to Brexit, a vote she described as deriving from people and communities feeling unheard. “I don’t think Brexit would have happened if we had PR. I think that if you feel you have a Parliament which represents you, then you are less likely to feel disenfranchised” she stated.

Following this, Zack contended that referendums increase political engagement amongst the public. In reference to Brexit, he stated “it was a sense, even for the people who weren’t politically engaged, that for once their vote would count because it was either remain or it was leave, so there was no sense of a wasted vote or your vote won’t count”. This makes a huge change from our general elections as Zack argues the notion of safe seats can lead to a lack of accountability and abuses of political power.

Zack also noted that parties shifting to extreme and polarising positions can happen within unrepresentative systems which he believes has been demonstrated by the current Conservative government. He asserts that those with progressive ideas must support PR as democratic decisions should be made across a more diverse group of voices.

On the issue of tactical voting, Emma speaks from personal experience and argues that people should not have to resort to this as they should be able to vote for a party they want without feeling as though their ballot is wasted. Furthermore, Zack believes that voting Labour is not tactical; to him, the Labour Party does not pose a political alternative in terms of policy and without a commitment to introducing PR, voting Labour is “a vote to maintain the current system”.

“The one thing that depresses me more than anything if I’m out canvassing around the village is people who say to me, what’s the point in voting? And that really makes me sad that there is a great swathe of people who just will not bother turning up and voting, especially when they’re in a safe seat or they perceive it as a safe seat. Because what’s the point? Your vote is just going to go into the bin”.

Emma Kennedy

Looking Forward

Concluding the discussion, Zack and Emma discussed the Labour Party’s current standing. Emma suggests that the leadership are avoiding “big sea change items” to be perceived as inoffensive and non-threatening to the status-quo.

Zack argues that parties such as the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP must stand united on PR so every vote for them is a vote against the two-party system. He says that he understands why people tactically vote, especially in our current political climate, but states “I would always encourage people to vote with their heart. If proportional representation is important to them, if it’s important to see a change to the system, then they have to vote for a party that is going to change the system”.

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