Climate action through a fairer voting system

“Allow people to demand the climate action they want through the ballot box." Green MEP Molly Scott Cato says the time is right to move to an electoral system based on proportional representation in the UK, taking Finland as a leading example of where voters’ choices are fairly represented in Parliament.

House of Commons
House of Commons

Image: UK Parliament / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-3.0

An electoral system based on proportional representation would allow voters to vote for parties they know are going to push for climate action.

Molly Scott Cato

Finland’s new five-party coalition government has just agreed the most ambitious climate target of any EU country. It has pledged to go carbon neutral by 2035. It will do so by rapidly phasing out fossil fuels and peat, which account for 40 per cent of energy consumption, and dramatically scaling up wind and solar power while electrifying heating and transport.

Meanwhile, the UK is a laggard, near the bottom of EU member states when it comes to National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs). A new analysis by the European Climate Foundation places the UK as 21st out of 28 EU members, pointing to the fact that the UK lacks clear emissions, renewable energy and energy efficiency targets and has failed to specify when fossil fuel subsidies will be phased out.

Yet despite the gulf between the two nations on tackling the climate emergency, the two countries increasingly have much in common when it comes to politics.

Finland is a prime example of the more fragmented and pluralistic politics common in much of Europe. In particular far-right nationalist, leftist and green parties are all growing in support. Ten parties are represented in the Finnish parliament – including a far-right nationalist party – and no party achieved more than 20 per cent of the vote.

In the UK too both the European election results and recent opinion polls reveal support is fragmenting with recent opinion polls suggesting no party would win more than a quarter of the vote and that the old two-party system is in meltdown.

The recent Opinium poll puts the Green Party on 11 per cent support for a general election, exactly the same as support for the Greens in Finland. But in Finland, voters can vote Green in the knowledge that this can translate into Greens holding key ministries. The Greens won 20 seats in the 200-strong Finish parliament and crucially have claimed three ministries: Foreign, Environment and International Aid.

In the UK with our archaic first-past-the-post electoral system, Greens find it extremely difficult to win seats and be fairly represented at Westminster. This leaves street action and protest as the most viable way to support climate and environmental demands. Interestingly, 60 per cent of the public support the aims of Extinction Rebellion while only 29 per cent support their methods and the disruption they cause. There's an easy answer here: allow people to demand the climate action they want through the ballot box by having a fair voting system.

This isn't just a political problem; our failing democracy also means we're falling behind as other countries take leadership in the clean industries of the future. Brexit is clearly part of the reason for the closures at Honda and Ford but a Green government strongly committed to supporting electrification of our cars – not to mention huge investment in public transport and a shift from selling cars to selling mobility – could be presiding over a country that would be creating thousands of jobs while developing a climate-friendly transport policy.

But perhaps we can dare to believe change is coming. There is clearly a growing mood of rebellion against our current system; a growing sense of confidence to vote outside the two-party box, even within our flawed electoral system. The 11 per cent support for the Green Party in a general election almost exactly mirrors the actual 12 per cent result in the European elections, which of course was conducted under a system of proportional representation. People seem increasingly willing to vote with their hearts.

And a recent poll shows exactly where people’s hearts are. Concerns over climate change and species extinctions have led to record levels of concern about the environment. A new YouGov survey finds the environment is ranked third in a list of people’s concerns, behind Brexit and health, but ahead of the economy, crime and immigration.

There is an unmistakable correlation between a fair voting system and tackling climate change. Equally there is a disconnect between our own politicians and the concerns of citizens under our current political system. It is clear that in order to address the climate emergency, we need first to change our voting system.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West.