The battle has commenced to win over the public, but big cross party divisions on the issue


There is an important referendum this May   –  on changing our  voting system. This is not yet it seems on everyones radar.

But clearly its is not something we should take lightly. With an Alternative Vote system in place at a General Election   everybody would  be given votes to say who their  second, third and fourth or even  lower choices are, as well as their  first choice.

The way the system works is that all  the first choices are counted,  and if one candidate gets over  half of all votes cast then they  are declared the winner. However,  if no candidate achieves this, the  candidate with the lowest number  of first choice votes is eliminated  and their votes are given to  whoever they voted for as their  second choice. This process  continues until one person has  won over half of all votes. So it can be complex and costly. The Government would have to invest a significant amount of time effort and resources in explaining how the system works . It then  takes a while to count the vote . The counting   has to be done by machine, rather  than by people. So the cost of the  counting machines adds to the expense . Candidates from small fringe  parties, such as the Monster  Raving Loony Party, would be eliminated first. The second  choices of their supporters would then be counted,  giving them an influence over who wins. Even those who want to change  the way we vote have mixed feelings about the AV system. And the only major country that uses it for national  parliamentary elections  is Australia (and Ireland for Presidential elections, the US for some local elections-Fiji has been using it but now seems to want to revert back to  a first past the post format.) Before the general election,  Nick Clegg described AV as  “a miserable little compromise”  And what about  the Electoral Reform Society? They are supposed to be the experts. Well therein lies a story reflecting not so well  as it happens on the ERS. Take a look at the website of the Electoral Reform Society today and you may be forgiven for thinking that the ERS has always been a keen supporter of the alternative vote. But not so very  long ago the society was  actually dead against AV, stating clearly that:

“‘AV is not a proportional system, the society does not regard it as suitable for the election of a representative body, e.g. a parliament” The society’s revised guide to AV billed as “all you need to know about the system on offer in next year’s referendum”, mentions none of the society’s previous concerns. Should we, one has to ask, have much confidence in the advice given by the ERS? I know  what I think.

But both Nick Clegg  and the ERS now support the AV  system and are campaigning for  us to support it as well . The ERS  now says, for the record,  that ‘AV represents a logical progression from first past the post. Preserving the traditional one member, one constituency, it ensures all MPs have a real mandate while delivering greater choice and eliminating the need for tactical voting.’. In other words Electors can vote for their first-choice candidate without fear of wasting their vote. The ERS says that  under the AV MPs would have the support of a majority of their voters. Following the 2010 election 2/3 of MPs lacked majority support, the highest figure in British political history. The leader of the Labour party Ed Miliband has come out in favour of AV . But the presence of so many Labour MPs on the No to AV campaign shows the party is deeply divided on electoral reform. Miliband will be campaigning for a yes vote after writing the Labour general election manifesto which pledged to hold a referendum on AV However opponents of electoral reform  recently unveiled the names of 114 Labour MPs who will oppose Ed Miliband and campaign for a no vote in May’s referendum

The cross-party No to AV group hailed the support of almost half of the 253-strong Labour contingent in the Commons as a breakthrough.

Opponents argue that there is  a very simple principle in  politics and governments – whoever  gets the most votes wins. So its fairly safe to conclude that its  wrong that  the person who came second or third  can overtake the person with the most  votes and be allowed to win because  the second and third choices of the  little parties are counted again. Imagine  applying the same principle  they argue at the  Olympic Games, giving the gold  medal to the person who came in third! AV treats someone’s fifth or sixth choice as having the same importance as someone else’s first preference –  but there is a big difference between  positively wanting one candidate to win  and being able to ‘put up with’ another.

The debate is just beginning but it is hard to see it catching the imagination of the British public, important  though it is. Polls suggest most are undecided, mainly because they don’t really get it. But it would be wrong to think at this stage that the anti-AV lobby has  the upper hand. There is all to play for.


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