A switch from the current first-past-the-post system to the alternative vote (AV) would give more power to the average voter, according to an independent study published today.
The nef (new economics foundation) think-tank, which is remaining neutral in the debate on electoral reform, has calculated that a Yes vote in the 5 May referendum would boost people power by increasing the number of very marginal seats from 81 to 125. The number of very safe seats would fall from 331 to 271.
According to the study, the Liberal Democrats would have been the big winner if last year's general election had been fought on AV, winning 87 seats rather than 57. Labour would have had slightly fewer MPs (245 rather than the 258 it won) while the Conservatives would have been the biggest loser, with 286 rather than 305 seats. Although the Tories would still have been the largest party, an AV election might have allowed Labour to hold on to power by forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The two parties would have commanded an overall Commons majority between them, which they failed to do in the actual election.
Although the nef study concluded that AV would be fairer than first-past-the-post, it admitted that the proposed new system was not perfect. It would bring an increase in the average power of UK voters from 0.285 of a vote to 0.352 of a vote, where a score of one is a fair vote.
Nic Mark, the creator of nef's voter power index, said AV would bring some improvements but would not get rid of the main problems. "Voters need to ask themselves whether these improvements are worth a Yes vote," he said. "Unfortunately, whatever the outcome of the referendum, politicians will still largely ignore voters in safe seats, while they spend most of their time, money and energy on voters in marginal constituencies."
With a month to go before the referendum, the Yes and No camps have stepped up their campaigns. Although Ed Miliband is backing AV, another seven Labour MPs joined the No lobby, which enjoys the support of a majority of the party's MPs. They included Rosie Winterton, the Opposition Chief Whip, and David Hanson, a Labour Treasury spokesman.
The Yes camp highlighted new evidence that the public was still angry about the scandal over MPs' expenses. An ICM poll found that only one in 10 people saw the affair as an isolated incident, while 71 per cent believed it was a sign of wider problems.
Greg Dyke, the former BBC director general who is vice-chairman of the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign, said: "It's hardly surprising that MPs seem so remote and unresponsive when the voting system has handed most of them a 'job for life'. A Yes vote for AV will help bring politicians back down to earth by making them work harder for their jobs. A No vote just tells Westminster we're happy with business as usual, expenses scandal and all. It means nothing will change."