Should we change our voting system?
Posted By: Wera Hobhouse
Date Posted: 09/02/2010
Gordon Brown has recently proposed a referendum on the current ‘first past the post’ voting system for the House of Commons. The government's proposal subject to a referendum to be held by the autumn of 2011, is so late in this parliament that few believe it has a chance of getting through.
But the proposal is historic. Throughout the last 150 years political reforms came thick and fast: the end of rotten boroughs, the gradual extension of the franchise, votes for all men, votes for older women and finally equal votes for men and women but in the last 80 years there has been little change in our electoral system for the Commons.
The Alternative Vote (AV) is a small step in the right direction, but it is minimal. AV will end "tactical" voting, whereby people vote for their second preference party to block the party they dislike most. AV will allow everyone to vote for who they want, secure in the knowledge that if their preferred candidate has no chance and is eliminated in the count, their second and third preferences will be used for someone else. The process of elimination and counting goes on until someone has at last half of the votes in the constituency.
AV is better because voters have more choice, and can honestly support who they want. It may have a role in helping to revitalize politics as a result.
But it is very similar to first-past-the-post in one major aspect: AV is based on single constituencies .The advantage of single constituencies being a clearer link between MP and constituency, but the disadvantage is that parties continue to select one candidate each, and voters only have one choice for each party.
That means that in the majority of parliamentary seats, the important decision about who should be the MP will continue to be taken within each party rather than at the public ballot box.
Compare AV in this respect with the Liberal Democrats' preferred option, the Single Transferable Vote (STV), which is the system used in the Republic of Ireland, Scottish local government and in most Northern Irish elections. Each multi-member constituency has three to five members of parliament, so that each party has the incentive to put up two or more candidates. The voter therefore has the choice not only of party, but also of person.
Such a system is clearly the most liberal: it gives the maximum opportunity to the voter to express their preferences, and reserves the minimum power to the party machines. It is perfectly adapted for the world of the MPs' expenses scandal. Unlike AV, voters can stick with their party and vote for a "clean" MP. Or they can vote for an MP irrespective of party politics who shares their particular enthusiasms. With AV and first-past-the-post, voters have to change party to punish an individual MP.
STV provides more discipline for MPs, and keeps them on their toes. MPs elected under STV have to provide a sterling service to their constituents, or they will find someone from their own party proving more attractive. The voter wrests power from the party.
Under AV, as under first-past-the-post, there would continue to be safe seats where the MP will effectively have a job for life. A third of all the constituencies in the country have not changed party since the Second World War. Research has shown that the worst expenses abuses occurred in safe seats where MPs face no threat of sacking by the electorate.
We need a parliament that properly represents our country. Only when the Commons becomes an honest reflection will we be able to resolve the tensions and conflicts in our society. Tomorrow the Liberal Democrats will move their proposal for the Single Transferable Vote.
Every voter, whether in an Essex marginal or a Welsh safe seat, should have a vote that counts.
A similar longer article by Chris Huhne MP was published in today's Guardian.
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