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The UK’s largest environmental organisations have come together ahead of next week’s global COP28 summit to call for voting reform to help tackle the climate crisis.
Organisations backing the campaign – initiated by cross-party campaign group Compass – include Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Green New Deal Rising, and Rapid Transition Alliance. It is understood to be the first time Greenpeace has backed electoral reform to tackle the climate crisis.
Researchers analysed British Social Attitudes survey data for cross-party progressive group Compass and found that Westminster’s First Past the Post voting system “distorts our debate on climate”.
Campaigners endorsing the report say the UK’s ‘winner-takes-all’ electoral system – whereby only the one winner’s votes in each seat contribute result in representation – acts as a “political stranglehold” that prevents governments from taking meaningful action on climate, locking the country into a “fossil-fuelled status quo”.
The Westminster voting system’s focus on swing seats and their constituents reduces the scope of political debate, excludes vast swathes of voters, and gives the already rich and powerful – especially party donors and media magnates – a disproportionate influence over our politics, according to the report.
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To win under FPTP, parties have to promise small groups of influential voters who have the greatest voting power. In England, those voters tend to be most separated from the climate crisis, Compass argues.
Britain’s current economic and cultural geography means more progressive voters tend to be located in ever greater numbers in cosmopolitan cities. But these are often safe progressive seats, and aren’t the places that win elections – the swing seats are, the analysis shows.
The coalition of green groups also argue FPTP also discourages the kind of cooperative, cross-party working that will be necessary to tackle issues as all-consuming as the climate crisis.
Studies show that 76% of Brits support reaching net zero, and 52% want the Government to do more to tackle climate change. But FPTP allows candidates to win with just a third of the vote in each seat, resulting in millions of wasted votes. The vast majority of votes – 70% – did not contribute to the local result in 2019, according to the Electoral Reform Society.
Pro-environmental voters are more concentrated in certain areas, but not enough to swing local elections. In contrast, votes of climate sceptics are more “efficiently” spread across the country, according to the paper.
Parties have been found to spend up to 22 times more on reaching so-called swing seat voters compared to those in safe seats in previous elections.
FPTP also reinforces England’s two-party system, focusing decision-making and power in the hands of a few people at the top of these two parties, the ‘Democratise to Decarbonise’ report finds. Smaller parties such as the Greens find it much harder to secure representation that reflects their vote share.
In one recent poll by Find Out Now, in which voters were asked how they would vote if each party had an equal chance of winning, the Green Party vote went up from 6% to 19%.
In 2019, it took the Conservatives just 38,000 votes to get an MP elected on average, while Labour needed 53,000, the Liberal Democrats 250,000, and the Greens 865,000 for their one MP in Brighton Pavilion.
Countries with proportional representation systems have slowed their carbon dioxide emissions more than four times as quickly as winner-take-all countries, the study finds.
Between 1990 and 2007, as carbon emissions were rising, the increase in carbon emissions of countries with winner-takes-all voting systems was statistically predicted to be almost five times higher (at 45.5%) than countries with fully proportional voting systems at 9.5%.
Studies have also found that use of renewable energy is 117% higher in countries with fully proportional systems compared to countries with majoritarian voting systems.
Campaigners are asking supporters to sign a petition to Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet ministers responsible for climate change to urge them to back voting reform as the cornerstone of action on the climate emergency.
Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, said: “Many of us across the UK – no matter who we vote for – are horrified at the increasing scale and intensity of extreme weather events on our screens and in our neighbourhoods. Red alert storms and flooding claiming lives in the UK; deadly wildfires and heat waves destroying lives and livelihoods around the world. And it’s getting worse.
“But when it comes to elections, so many votes cast for politicians standing to take climate action are lost due to our winner-take-all First Past the Post system.”
She added that many people’s votes “effectively count for nothing”.
“Proportional representation is not only fairer, but it would supercharge people power in the UK: ensuring that every single voice is heard and the issues they care about represented in Parliament,” Newsom said.
Hannah Martin, co-director of Green New Deal Rising, added that Westminster’s First Past the Post voting system is “woefully ill-equipped to deliver any meaningful change”.
“Our crooked voting system prioritises short-term political gain over the long-term priorities of people and the planet,” she said.
Neal Lawson, director of Compass, noted that simply “changing the party pulling the levers in Whitehall will not fix” Britain’s short-termist political system, which often sees big, disruptive changes between governing parties, as opposed to more stable consensus-based systems.
“Our ability to win climate justice in this country rests on breaking the stranglehold of FPTP and our centralised, and narrow politics,” Lawson said.
Read Compass’ report ‘Democratise to Decarbonise’
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