A new voting system – is it really what Britain needs?

With 16 weeks to go before the nation makes a historic decision, the two camps put their cases and Paul Bignell invites leading advertising agencies to devise the billboard posters

Sunday 09 January 2011 01:00


Paul Sinclair

Head of communications for Yes to Fairer Votes Campaign and former adviser to Gordon Brown

Our politics is broken and at its heart is an electoral system which is no longer fit for purpose. First past the post may work in a two-party state, but over the past few decades more and more voters have decided that they want a multi-party, multi-issue politics in the UK, and the system has failed to catch up.

In the 1950s, the two main parties were regularly supported by more than 90 per cent of voters. And that meant that back then, 86 per cent of MPs were elected with more than half of the vote in their communities.

But times have changed. The long-term trend from the 1970s has seen many of us decide to vote for a plurality of parties and causes. It was no blip when, in last May's election, only 65 per cent of voters supported either the Conservatives or the Labour Party. And that in turn has meant that now only 33 per cent of MPs elected in this Parliament have the support of a majority of the people they are seeking to represent.

Think about that for a moment. That means that two-thirds of our MPs were elected on less than 50 per cent of the vote. Most of us are represented by an MP that most of us didn't vote for. That is fundamentally undemocratic.

We need a system where those people who seek to represent us need the support of at least 50 per cent of their communities. That is what the alternative vote will force MPs to do. They will need to get a majority of votes in their constituencies. They will need to work harder and reach out beyond their core votes.

Opponents of AV do nothing to defend the current system. Instead they perpetrate myths about the alternative. AV will not mean more coalitions, for example. Australia has had fewer hung parliaments than the UK since it adopted AV. As the IPPR reported last week, the current system is going to make it harder to avoid hung parliaments.

AV, or a form of AV, is used by the House of Commons, most political parties and as broad a range of corporations and civic groups as you could imagine. If it is good enough for our MPs, why is it not good enough for the people who elect our MPs?

Some want greater reform, but AV is all we have on offer. It will retain the strengths of the current system, such as single-member constituencies, but make sure that our true preferences are reflected in our elections.

It is time to upgrade the system.


Jane Kennedy

Former Labour MP and minister

Those who wish to change our electoral system have three main arguments. The first is that the alternative vote is a constitutional magic bullet that will make our electoral system inherently fair. The fact that supporters of minor parties may have their votes counted several times, while those supporting mainstream candidates have theirs counted once, is deemed fair. The fact that the candidate who comes third may actually be pronounced the winner is regarded as just. The fact that votes may switch back and forth, seemingly randomly, between numerous candidates on one ballot is apparently equitable.

The second argument is that it emancipates. It gives the electorate more control over those slippery politicians it elects. Except that the alternative vote embeds hung parliaments into the electoral system. Instead of having one coalition government every 40 or 50 years, we'll be virtually guaranteed one every four or five. Under that system, as we've seen, the doors close, and you and I are gently ushered out, while the politicians sit down to decide who will govern us, and under what prospectus. And under that system, the only vote that truly counts will be Nick Clegg's.

The final argument is its simplicity. Except that it's not very easy to comprehend. At the forthcoming Oldham and Saddleworth by-election, there will be 10 candidates. "As easy as one, two, three... er... four, five, six... er... seven, eight, nine... not done yet... 10." And be careful. Make sure you've ranked them in precisely the right order, or else that principled vote for the Greens may let the BNP slip through.

Oh and don't worry about the fact that you're not using a pen and paper any more, or popping your ballot by hand into one of those reassuringly battered old boxes. It takes too long to count under AV so we'll be using these shiny new electronic voting machines. Yes, like the ones they use in Florida. Places like that. They call it "black box" voting.

Of course it's a safe system. They use it in Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Australia. OK, they're the only three nations that do. But why not make Britain the fourth of this illustrious group?

Our current voting system isn't perfect. But we do know what we've got. Everybody gets one vote, and we know where that vote goes.

Defend one person one vote. Vote no to AV on 5 May.

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