By Noah Merrin
I arrived in the town where I had organised to meet Owen with the expectation that I would have to wade through swathes of tourists to reach the agreed location. Owen had warned me as much. Surprisingly, I found him in one of the large gaps between the few people populating the sleepy town centre (rather than the bustling high-street I had expected).
The Owen I mention is Owen Winter, who agreed to discuss his activist work with me. A former Member of Youth Parliament, in June 2015 he co-founded a grassroots campaign for proportional representation. Or, sort of.
‘It’s difficult to say exactly when Make Votes Matter began.’ Though Owen tells me that it is best to take June 2015 as the founding date, Make Votes Matter has its genesis in May of the same year. It was then, following the 2015 General Election, that he launched a petition (which is still available to sign digitally) calling for the use of proportional representation in elections to the House of Commons.
That year is significant. 2015 marked the most disproportionate general election in British history. The ground swelled with support for proportional representation. More people began to notice how, under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, the number of seats a party gains in parliament often does not come close to matching the percentage of votes it receives at election. Owen’s petition was a rallying call to balance this.
His petition was amongst a collection of those delivered to 10 Downing Street on 17 May 2015, by a cross-party group including Natalie Bennett and Nigel Farage, all demanding the same thing: proportional representation. People from various organisations saw Owen’s petition online and added him to a Facebook group. The like-minded individuals within the group decided to do something. ‘We decided to do a rally.’ This, then, was the beginning of Make Votes Matter.
But, there seems to be various organisations concerned with shifting to a system of proportional representation. One such is the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), the world’s oldest organisation concerned with electoral reform. I questioned Owen, who sits on the ERS council, what makes Make Votes Matter distinct from groups such as these? ‘Make Votes Matter is more focused. It’s activist-based.’ That is, it is a single-issue organisation. Its lifeblood is proportional representation. Meanwhile, the ERS ‘is the go-to for democracy issues’ in general.
He mentions that the ERS has no local groups. I press him further on this point. ‘Local groups are a big part of our campaign. We’re a networking organisation.’ Whereas the ERS is academic-based, about publishing research, Make Votes Matter is, of course, about activism – rallies, street stalls and conversations with friends. The two complement each other, and frequently work together; the ERS provides information and Make Votes Matter provides an accessible platform for this information to be utilised: ‘After 2015, people wanted to do things. There was a gap there.’
So, what is Make Votes Matter doing? One of their key campaigns is Labour4PR – a lobbying effort encouraging Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) to pass motions endorsing proportional representation. Already in 2017-18, 18 CLPs have passed such motions. 41 CLPs have scheduled meetings with Make Votes Matter representatives to discuss proportional representation. Excitingly, it took between 30 and 40 CLPs to pass similar motions for the party to include a referendum on proportional representation as a manifesto pledge in 1997. It seems that the party is well on its way to reaching this figure once again.
On a personal level, Owen’s current job as a spokesperson for Make Votes Matter includes ‘responding to what’s in the news’ and highlighting how a disproportionate electoral system contributes to everyday injustice. For example, the revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s role in data harvesting featured prominently in an article on Owen’s blog. Owen explains to me that the data firm’s methods of targeting a minority of swing voters function most effectively in democracies with FPTP. This is because, under FPTP, constituency candidates only need one more vote than any other candidate to win the seat – even if most people didn’t vote for them. So, if parties can find out which demographics are sitting on the fence, they can focus their campaign spending on convincing these groups to vote for them. He argues that constituencies which are steadfastly loyal to a party are the most likely to be ignored.
It is clear from our conversation that Make Votes Matter is an organically-evolving organisation. But it is also clear that the primary host of Make Votes Matter’s growth has not been the placid environs of Owen’s hometown. Although, it did get its name here: ‘My mum came up with it.’
Rather, it has flourished on online platforms. These have provided Make Votes Matter with the digital springboard to launch its physical campaigning. The ideological basis of the organisation combined with this potent networking formula goes to the core of why Make Votes Matter has experienced such rapid growth and why people have been so keen to get involved. Perhaps Owen sums it up best: ‘Make Votes Matter is not about the brand. It sounds clichéd, but we’re a movement.’
Clichés accounted for, I think he is absolutely right.
Photograph: PJ Spooner via Flickr