On May 5th this year voters will be confronted with two ballot papers. Not only will they be asked who they want to represent them on the local Council but they will also be asked whether they would like to keep the current voting system, known as ‘First Past the Post’ or change to a different system, the ‘Alternative Vote’.
The current system, which has been used in elections since democracy was first invented, could not be more simple. You place a cross next to the candidate and political party you would like to win the election. Our whole political system and ideological structure is based upon this and it enables political parties to give clear reasons why individuals should offer their support. Virtually all national elections in the last century have produced a clear majority for one Party and that Party has a mandate based on holding the most Parliamentary seats. The current coalition government is a rarity in the UK – the last one being the National Government at the end of the 1920s – it has been established following a failure of all three major parties (including the Labour Party) to convince enough voters that they were the best placed to run the country. What has to be emphasised is that under First Past the Post coalition governments are a rarity.
The proposals being presented in this years’ referendum are to introduce the ‘Alternative Voting’ system in which the voter ranks the candidates/party in order of preference, i.e. 1 next to the favourite, 2 next to the 2nd favourite, etc. Under this system the least popular candidates are eliminated one by one and their votes allocated amongst the more popular until one is victorious.
The Liberal Democrats are supporting the AV proposals as they claim that the new system will lead to a fairer, and more proportionate allocation of MPs to Parties. They have always campaigned for Proportional Representation on the basis that under the current system it could be argued that those who did not vote for the winning candidate have ‘wasted’ their votes and are unrepresented. Three points should be noted in responding to this argument. 1) That no winning Party in the UK has achieved 50% of the total vote since World War Two, and so every Government would have been a coalition (as opposed to just the current Government), 2) That the only party that would have significantly benefitted under Proportional Represntation would have been the Liberal Democrat Party (funny coincidence that they want PR and they are the only ones who will benefit). And 3) That once elected an MP takes on a duty to represent everyone in their constituency no matter what their political persuasion. It should be remembered that in our society voters have a secret ballot. Therefore the MP has no business questioning whether or not a person who seeks their assistance supported them or not as political persuasion should not prejudice any individual. The truth of this is that if an MP works hard for their constituency they will be re-elected time and again and often receive the votes of those who do not share the same political perspective but recognise the MP’s work. Blackburn’s MP, Jack Straw is a perfect example of this – often polling significant votes in areas otherwise considered to be rock solid Conservative.
Now in theory you might say, ‘surely a coalition is better if the votes of more than 50% of the electors are represented’, however, what I would point out is that it falls to the small party, which holds the balance of power, to decide which party it will join to form a government. This therefore gives the small party, which has received a small minority of the overall vote, the biggest share of the power – for example – 40% for the Conservatives, 20% for the Liberal Democrats, 40% for Labour so the Lib Dems have all the power. The small party is able to broker deals with the big parties to get it’s policies implemented, which means that the Party which was least popular amongst the voters is actually in charge. Where is the fairness in this? Imagine if that small party was the BNP.
As it happens, the fact that we have no real experience of coalitions in the UK means that the Lib Dems have been hopelessly out of their depth in the negotiation stakes and have been dragged into a Tory Government which is doing precisely what it likes and letting the Lib Dems carry the can. Part of the so called deal which produced the current coalition was that there would be a referendum on AV – but the Tories are not supporting a ‘yes’ vote and indeed some prominent Conservatives such as William Hague and Ken Clarke have publicly stated their opposition.
The First Past the Post system is not perfect, granted; but what it guarantees is that the largest party will form the government and the policies it implements will be those set out in its manifesto. What we would have under PR is elections fought on the basis of ‘we might do this if another party agrees with us but we might not’. I want to see people motivated to go out and vote for political parties with strong policies that aim to improve peoples’ chances in society. Turnout in elections is more often than not low and has been declining overall for the last 40 years. I fail to see how a PR system is going to give anyone the incentive to go out and vote.
So on May 5th I’ll be voting ‘no change’ in the referendum – a vote for Democracy and against the Liberal Democrats.