24 February 2018
The Green Councillor John Coughlin, the only councillor who is not Labour on Lewisham Council, put forward a motion at Lewisham Council on Proportional Representation in local elections. This would make the local voting system fairer and allow the views of all residents to be represented on the council.
At present, there are 54 councillors, 53 of whom are Labour and 1 is the only opposition councillor, John Coughlin for the Greens in Brockley Ward. In the last local elections in 2014 51% of voters gave their vote to Labour candidates, but Labour took 98.2% of the seats in the council chamber. 16% of voters opted for the Greens, who were in second place, but only 1 seat, or 1.8% of the available seats, went Green.
A fairer voting system would have resulted in Labour winning, but representatives from the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and maybe some of the minor parties being able to hold the Council properly to account. With a single opposition councillor Lewisham is effectively a one-party state.
Recently, John put forward a motion to change the voting system to make it fairer. The Mayor of Lewisham graciously seconded the motion, allowing John to argue his case in the council chamber. Here is his speech in favour of the change.
Motion to Council, proposed by Cllr John Coughlin (Green), seconded by Mayor Sir Steve Bullock (Labour)
It would be remiss of me if I didn’t start by thanking the Mayor for seconding this motion tonight; no better way, I suggest, to reinforce the fact that this is not a party political issue
By passing this motion we are not saying that the system as it exists is undemocratic or anti-democratic, what we are saying is there is a better system, that a proportional voting system is a better way forward, that better reflects the democratic wishes of the electorate. It does not restrict us to one particular version of PR, but it does oblige us to identify which version would be the most appropriate for the people of Lewisham.
What relevance does this have for Lewisham? We are examining an issue which affects all forms of government, which is relevant to all forms of governmental democracy. The lack of any proportion in the voting systems we deploy and the resulting representation we achieve diminishes democratic legitimacy, and we should none of us ever think that the voters don’t realise this
Wherever democratic representation is denied or restricted, be it at local or national level, the will of the people is subverted. This is not simply hyperbole! I fully recognise the fact that democratic representation is not denied in Lewisham, but it is restricted.
Your party, colleagues, gained 51% of the vote in Lewisham at the last local elections and has 98% of the representation in this Chamber. This is an amazing statistic that bears repeating: 51% of the vote and 98% of the representation. Now you may be happy with this, indeed it would be strange if you weren’t, but it is not fair. This is not a question of me stamping my feet or the Green Party throwing the toys out of the pram; fairness is at the very heart of democracy; demos the people, kratia power; it is the entitlement of the people to have the power to choose the representatives they want to govern them, be it at local or national level. I submit that a system of proportional representation is a fairer and more democratic expression of the will of the people of Lewisham.
I have heard say that proportional representation is a gateway for extremism. I contend the exact opposite is true, it is under-representation that foments grievances that, unchecked by democracy, unchecked by fair representation, expand to fill the democratic vacuum until all we see on our horizons is grievance and injustice, until the only way out is to accept the siren song of extremism. It is our duty as people and politicians to combat extremism and this is best done within the context of a voting system that most accurately delivers democratic representation.
The people who chucked all that tea into Boston harbour were protesting under the slogan “no taxation without representation”. From the shores of Boston harbour in 1773 to the banks of the Ravensbourne in 2017; the same applies! We cannot impose laws, rules or taxes on people without those people having the option of choosing who represents them. A system of proportional representation is a better system, the optimum system, as expressed in the wording of this motion, to reflect the plurality of voting preferences. It is not for me or the Green Party or you or the Labour party to stifle or restrict that entitlement; it is our job to argue for what we believe in and then accept the wishes of people of Lewisham. What this motion does is oblige us to identify the method that best reflects the wishes of the people of Lewisham, by matching the amount of votes a party receives with the amount of representation a party gets in this chamber.
Failure to identify the best system of PR will be a failure to identify the best way to reflect the wishes of the people of Lewisham. Ultimately, this will have negative outcomes, political power fluctuates, but our respect for the will of the people, for democracy, does not.
The motto of this council is “Salus Populi Prima Lex”, literally “the health of the people is the first law”. As a professional translator, let me come up with a better translation “the wellbeing of the people is our number one priority”. The principles which underlie this motto are best reflected by a system of proportional representation.
By passing this motion, we give an undertaking that we will do our best to ensure the votes of the people of Lewisham will count, that, to the best of our ability, we will attempt to ensure that the amount of votes obtained will correlate with the amount of representation received.
By passing this motion we look the people of Lewisham straight in the eye and say “we trust you with the responsibility of choosing and we are listening”: I commend this motion to the Chamber.
Sadly, the motion did not pass. Many Labour members recognised the validity of John's argument, but the final result was 20 for, 21 against, and with 3 abstentions.
Even though the motion did not pass, this shows that Greens are making the argument for fairer votes in Lewisham, and working against the odds to get those arguments heard. Unfortunately, both the big parties, Tories and Labour, oppose fairer votes because it would undermine their control of our two-party system. They're scared of losing their dominance and as professionalised politicians many of them put their careers ahead of genuine democracy.
In the Green Party we are not machine politicians. We will always fight for what is right, not what is to our personal advantage. In the May local elections this year, a vote for the Greens is a vote for a fairer voting system representing a range of views, and a vote against a one-party unaccountable state in Lewisham.