Leading article: Britain's chance for a fairer voting system

First-past-the-post has created a malign empire of safe seats that are unlikely to change hands

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The democratic blockage in the House of Lords has been cleared. Royal assent for the legislation authorising a referendum on electoral reform on 5 May was finally granted late on Wednesday night. The unholy alliance of Labour and Conservative peers – many of them former ministers – put up a ferocious fight to block the electoral reform bill. They deployed all manner of justifications for their filibustering, ranging from the supposedly unconstitutional reduction in the number of constituencies, to concerns about the referendum turnout. But few doubt that one of the main motivations behind these attempts to thwart this bill was opposition to the very principle of electoral reform.

If the bill had not been passed this week, the referendum on moving to the Alternative Vote would not have taken place. The House of Lords often performs a valuable role in checking the partisan follies of the House of Commons. But on this occasion, the peers were the ones playing politics. This was not the upper chamber's finest hour.

Thankfully, attention can now turn to the issue at hand: reforming our electoral system. This newspaper has long argued that there is something fundamentally wrong with the first-past-the-post voting system. This voting system, biased as it is towards the largest parties, could be justified in the post-war decades when more than 90 per cent of British voters tended to put their cross in the box of either the Conservatives or Labour. But in the 2010 general election, only 65 per cent of voters endorsed these two parties at the ballot box.

Yet, last year, first-past-the-post still delivered Labour and the Tories 87 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons. This is undermining the popular mandate of those sent to Parliament. In the 1950s, most MPs received more than half of the votes cast in their constituencies. In 2010, just a third did. The existing system has also helped to create an empire of "safe" seats, which are most unlikely to change hands between parties at elections. At the last election, 69 per cent of the electorate lived in such constituencies and were largely ignored by party campaigns as a result.

AV is no panacea for these ills. Yet it would have important advantages over the present arrangements. It would put more power in the hands of voters. The public would be able to list their votes in order of preference. The old "wasted vote" argument would wither. AV would also help to make safe seats more competitive. All candidates would have to work harder to gain the support of the local population. The focus of national campaigns would widen in a healthy way too.

It is true that AV is not a proportional system. Under AV, smaller parties would find it just as difficult to win representation in the Commons as they do now. And there are circumstances in which AV might deliver a distribution of seats in the Commons that is even less representative of the manner in which most people cast their first preference votes than now. Landslides could be enhanced.

Yet there is a solution to that deficiency. The 1998 report by the late Roy Jenkins came up with an elegant blueprint for voting reform that would retain the best feature of our existing electoral system, namely the link between individual MPs and their constituents, while also making Parliament better reflect the proportional support of each party. The majority of MPs would be elected by AV, but there would also be a number of MPs chosen from open regional party lists.

This referendum to secure AV can be a step towards a fundamentally fairer and more efficient voting system of the sort envisaged by the Jenkins Report. It is a step that the country should have no hesitation in taking.

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