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Extinction Rebellion protesters are getting arrested because our political system has left them no choice

The rebels have tried playing by the rules by turning out and voting in first past the post elections in their hundreds of thousands. And what impact has it had on parliament? None

Klina Jordan
Wednesday 17 April 2019 17:31 BST
Extinction Rebellion protesters continue to block Oxford Circus and Waterloo Bridge in third day of action

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is one of the most remarkable grassroots movements of the 21st Century. Spurred on by dire warnings about climate breakdown, it has mobilised thousands of people who are willing to get arrested, or even face prison, to make their voices heard.

How is it that in our supposedly democratic society so many feel compelled to break the law to make such an overwhelmingly reasonable point: that we shouldn’t destroy the environment on which all life depends?

The answer is that our broken democracy leaves little choice. XR may be a global movement, but a glance at their map of local groups reveals just how heavily weighted their activity is towards the UK – the only European country that still uses the antiquated first past the post voting system.

Germany has eleven local XR groups. Norway has two. The Republic of Ireland, four.

The UK, on the other hand, has over one hundred and thirty local XR groups – each consisting of dozens or hundreds of otherwise law-abiding citizens; citizens so desperate for their politicians to listen that they are willing to go to jail. And in second and third place globally for number of XR groups are the US and Canada – the only other two major developed countries to use first past the post.

This makes perfect sense. Our first past the post voting system has systematically denied representation to the people who care the most about the protecting the natural world. In 2015, over a million people voted for the Green Party and their policies aimed at averting climate disaster. In 2017, despite the hundreds of Green candidates standing down in the hope of unseating Tory MPs, they still received half a million votes. Yet at both elections they won just a single MP.

The rebels have tried playing by the rules by turning out and voting in their hundreds of thousands. And what impact has it had on parliament? None. Our electoral system silences them almost as if they’d never voted at all.

It’s obvious why XR is nowhere near as big anywhere else in Europe. Almost all other European countries use some of proportional representation – so seats match votes and all votes count equally. When a party wins a million votes, it picks up a lot of seats in parliament. It’s then able to represent the views of its voters, shape the debate and influence legislation.

Some Germans are just as worried about climate breakdown as their British equivalents. A few are even willing to risk arrest. But in Germany, every climate activist could instead choose to spend their time campaigning to elect environmentally friendly MPs – and their efforts will be rewarded in proportion to votes they win.

Indeed, the Germany’s Green Party has surged in national and regional elections in response to rising concern about climate breakdown. It’s not surprising that most European activists decide the parliamentary approach has a much better risk/reward ratio than getting arrested.

First past the post doesn’t merely make people feel unrepresented; it stops vital change from happening in response to public demand. There’s a wealth of academic evidence showing that countries with proportional representation far outperform those with winner-takes-all systems like first past the post when it comes to climate action and environmental protection.

Countries with PR slowed their greenhouse gas emissions faster, perform significantly better on the Environmental Protection Index, ratified the Kyoto Agreement faster, and have deployed significantly more renewable energy.

Most countries have still done nowhere near enough. But there is hope in countries with PR – because these democracies are responsive to rising public demands and are able to build consensus in order to address these serious long term threats.

Compare this to the depressing situation in the UK. In 2017, most people voted for parties promising to ban fracking for shale gas (no surprise given overwhelming public opposition to the idea). Yet our voting system handed a majority of seats to two parties that shared just 43 per cent of the vote; the only parties in parliament that are pro-fracking. Together the Conservatives and DUP are rushing to create a whole new fossil fuel industry: something no other country in Europe is doing and – according to the scientists – something the planet cannot afford to happen.

For the UK, the climate crisis is a crisis of democracy – and as much as anything else Extinction Rebellion is a rebellion against the way crucial voices are systematically shut out of our politics. To create a democracy capable of addressing the most urgent challenges of our time, we need proportional representation. As the chant goes, ‘Change the system, not the climate!’

If you agree then, whatever else you do to make your voice heard, join the movement to Make Votes Matter and help us win PR.

Klina Jordan is a lifelong environmental activist and the co-chief executive of Make Votes Matter

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