Voting reform: AV is not enough

Posted on: 04 May 2011 by Ian Dunt

Alternative vote: Are we ready for a better kind of politics?

Alternative voteNever waste a good crisis. If that sounds flippant, it’s quite the opposite. Once the worst has happened, the most constructive approach is to work out how to prevent it happening ever again.

It is the art of salvage. Mercifully, most of life is made up of avoiding crises, but when they do occur it’s best to maximise what we can learn from them.

Britain is currently in a unique period of crisis, the like of which we have not seen for a generation. The expenses crisis was ultimately a parochial issue. But it pointed to a deeper malaise, a rot at the heart of the political system that was far greater than its symptoms.

These twin crises hit during the dying days of a Labour government, a government which no-one expected to survive the election. Its decrepitude emphasised the sense that Britain was going through a period of serious decline.

And yet the government changed in a very interesting and dramatic way, offering Britain a coalition for the first time in many voters’ lives.

In terms of the financial crisis we have also had to face, the opportunity has already passed. We have allowed it to go by despite the knowledge that we will be paying for it for the rest of our lives. The coalition’s banking reforms are timid. Little has changed.

The debate over reform of the political system was more wide-ranging. There was an acute understanding that things had to fundamentally change. The mood of anti-politics during the last parliament was so severe, the animosity towards MPs so fierce, that no options were off the table.

With that in mind, Nick Clegg is driving his constitutional reform agenda through the Commons. House of Lords reform is also going ahead. These are all commendable developments, so it is a shame that the separate matter of voting reform is restricted to a referendum which will either retain the current system or introduce AV.

People tend to lose interest when it comes to discussing electoral reform because it is considered far too technical. But at its heart is a very simple question: When you walk to the voting booth, does it count? As things stand, the answer is ‘hardly ever’.

Take a typical Kensington voter in last year's General Election. Of a population of around 116,000, the number of people in Kensington whose votes counted was 8,980, as they helped Tory MP Malcolm Rifkind to win by 17,595 overall.

As for those non-Tories, their votes counted for nothing. There was no point even going to the voting station. It is, to all intents and purposes, a rotten borough.

We are quite used to this, but we do ourselves a disservice if we stop being angry about it, or even start to consider it legitimate. People's votes should count. Without this foundation stone in place, our entire political system is illegitimate.

There are problems with a purely proportional voting system, of course. Opponents say the back-door negotiations which typify the coalitions it tends to throw up are undemocratic and that it ends the constituency link.

On the first I would posit that what we witnessed after the 2010 general election between the Liberal Democrats and Tories was not undemocratic, but rather a series of trade-offs between two parties whose ability to negotiate a coalition was a result of their level of democratic support.

As for the constituency link, this could be maintained in the second chamber, not least since the House of Lords is apparently to be reformed anyway. As it happens, the government is pursuing the mirror image of what I envisage, with the House of Lords being elected on the basis of proportional representation, and MPs maintaining their relationship with constituents.

Given the Tory animosity to voting reform, any sort of referendum on AV is impressive. But while it makes constituency elections much more fair - ensuring at least 50% of voters support the winning candidate - there’s a limit to how fair they can be. They will never represent the absolute will of the British people.

AV is simply not enough. We need to radically overhaul our entire sense of how British democracy operates. Our constituency representative should be in the second chamber, representing us in parliament, but the Commons must reflect the true intentions of the British people. The new government may be new and distracting, but the rot remains, and it will not go away until, finally, every vote counts.

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Alternative Vote

A referendum on Thursday 5 May 2011 will give UK voters the opportunity to replace the existing first-past-the-post system for electing MPs with a method known as the alternative vote (AV). Under first past the post (the current system), the candidate with the most votes is elected. AV would require the winner to gain the approval of more than 50% of the voters in their constituency. With voters ranking candidates in order of preference.

  1. 75% No
  2. 25% Yes
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