General election 2017: ‘This is the first time I can vote – and it will be wasted’

My interview with i: General election 2017: ‘This is the first time I can vote – and it will be wasted’

Although he has established a petition with almost quarter of a million signatures demanding political leaders introduce proportional representation to “Make Votes Matter“, teenager Owen Winter has a rather more pressing engagement come June.

“My first A-level exam is the day after the general election, so the timing of it is very annoying for me,” he laughs.

A place at Jesus College, Oxford, awaits the 18-year-old from Wadebridge, Cornwall, should he achieve the required grades in history, politics and maths. He co-founded the single-issue campaign for PR following the 2015 General Election, which created a petition on the official website that quickly achieved the 100,000 signatures needed for MPs to consider debating it.

“Our FPTP [First Past the Post] voting system makes Parliament unrepresentative,” the petition stated. “In 2015, the Green Party, Liberal Democrats and Ukip won almost 25 per cent of the votes but now make up just 1.6 per cent of MPs. Ukip won 3.8 million votes and one MP, whilst the SNP won 1.5 million votes and 56 MPs. It was the most disproportionate general election since women won the vote in 1918, with 74 per cent of votes wasted.”

Parliament dissolved before the chance to debate came around, but the Government was forced to respond, calling FPTP “a robust method of electing MPs”. It pointed out a referendum on changing the voting system – albeit to an “alternative vote” system – was held in 2011 and the public voted overwhelmingly in favour of keeping FPTP.

Now Mr Winter is back – his follow-up petition has more than 257,000 supporters – and is passionate as ever at transforming the system.

“I’m excited to vote for the first time, but unfortunately I’m probably going to vote tactically and vote Lib Dem, because I’m broadly progressive,” Mr Winter told i, describing himself as “politically homeless” at the moment.

“There are pros and cons to all the main political parties at the minute. I don’t know if there is scope for a new political party though, there’s a lot of scope for regeneration in the current parties. The French example is a good one with [Emmanuel] Macron and his En Marche! party, but I don’t know if that can be replicated in the UK -especially because of our voting system.

“If that changed, though, it could be a totally different ball game.”

Had PR been in place in 2010, the BNP would also have secured their first MPs having won over 560,000 votes, while Ukip’s four million votes in 2015 would have translated into more than 80 MPs at Westminster. Mr Winter argues that would have brought the fringe parties into the mainstream and opened them up to greater scrutiny.

“That’s absolutely what you need to take the wind out of their sails. Look at what happened to the BNP in Brussels [in 2009 after Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons were elected MEPs].”

Far right support collapsed

The BNP’s support collapsed from securing over 6 per cent of the vote in 2009 to just 1.14 per cent in 2014, losing both their seats.

“What happens now in the UK elections is that the more extreme views are left outside to fester outside Parliament in the shadows where there’s no responsibility to any constituents and no chance to challenge it.”

It is not the first time that calls for proportional representation have been made. Mr Winter believes that whatever happens on 8 June, that support will grow. “A lot of people won’t see their choices reflected in Parliament,” he says.

“On a practical level, for legislation to be passed, the Conservative party are so opposed to it that there will have to at least a Coalition deal to get it passed MPs. It seems unlikely at the moment, I admit, but we’re making inroads into the two main parties. Labour seem slightly more receptive.

“Hopefully over the next few general elections, one of the two main parties at least will get on board.”

Mr Winter, who was elected as a member of the UK Youth Parliament for East Cornwall in 2015, points to European examples, Scandinavia in particular, Germany and Ireland as good models where PR has worked.

“Ireland especially has an interesting system as they use a Single Transferable Vote and they still have a strong constituency link and lots of independent MPs, not just a few main parties, It’s a broad Parliament – not [like here] where you have safe seats you can be parachuted into and have a job for life.”

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