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01 March 2011

To the polls: Electoral reform

To the polls: Electoral reform

In May we once again get to vote, and depending how we vote, it might change the way we vote, writes Daniel Webster...

This is not a normal election; we are not choosing who we want to represent us in Parliament, or on our local council. Instead, this vote is about whether we change the voting system. It's an opportunity for every voter in the country to have their direct say on a specific issue: the way that elections take place. Only once before has a referendum taken place across the whole UK - in 1975 when Britain voted to remain in the European Economic Community, while in Scotland and Wales more recent votes paved the way for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

Voting system reform was a key topic discussed during the formation of the coalition Government. The Conservative offer to the Liberal Democrats of a referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote (AV) system was a crucial step in cementing the deal, and a vote will now take place on 5 May.

At the moment, under the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system, when you vote for an MP you choose the candidate you want to be elected and whoever gets the most votes wins. The referendum will ask whether you want to change from this system to AV. Instead of choosing one candidate, the voter can rank as many candidates as they want in order of preference. When it comes to the count, the first choices are all added up and if one candidate has more than 50 per cent, then they have won. If not, then the bottom-ranked candidate is eliminated and the second preferences of their supporters are reallocated among the remaining candidates. This process continues until one candidate has at least 50 per cent of the vote.

It matters how our country is run, and it makes a difference who runs it. Christians will no doubt disagree about who that should be and what they should do, but that must not stop us from bringing our beliefs into the heart of the political process. This referendum should be no different, and as with many political issues there will be a range of opinions, from passionate advocates for change, to those who see nothing wrong with the current system. It is essential that Christians engage in the political process, and this referendum provides the opportunity to discuss, debate, disagree, and then vote on how we will vote in the future.

Here, two Christian MPs on opposite sides of the fence share their views: 

YES

AV system means every vote counts, says Tim Farron, MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale

Making our voting system fairer ought to be something all fair-minded people can support. We currently have an electoral system that is medieval. It allows the majority of MPs to win their seats despite the fact that most of their constituents voted against them. It also means that a party can win a majority of seats in Parliament and have total control of the government despite getting only a third of the votes. Both of these things are unjust and wrong.

Having an unjust system means that most people know their votes simply don't count. That's why so many people, especially younger folk just don't vote at all - they don't see the point.

Having an unjust system means governments do extreme things against the will of the majority. That's why Tony Blair was able to take us to war in Iraq and why Margaret Thatcher was able to sell off our gas, water and electricity - despite overwhelming public opposition.

Having an unjust system has meant that many MPs become complacent and, sadly, some have been corrupt. Without doubt the culture of corruption within the MPs' expenses scheme was created by the fact that two-thirds of them are 'safe'. So many become arrogant, taking their voters for granted.

The arguments used against voting 'yes' to a just and fairer system centre largely on the line that they would create hung parliaments and lead to coalition government - and that would lead to chaos and unspeakable disarray. Well, we have a hung parliament and a coalition government now - and whatever you think of its policies, it's clearly stable and delivering good government. It's the first peacetime government since the early 1930s to command the support of the majority of British people. This form of government has forced politicians who disagree with each other to compromise, to behave in a grown-up and decent manner to one another. It has stopped much of the childish Punch and Judy behaviour that has dogged our politics.

Fairer votes will be a simple step. AV is currently used by Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties when electing their party leaders, as well as the London Mayoral elections. AV means if your favourite candidate doesn't win, your second preference candidate would then get your support meaning that your vote isn't wasted. Every vote will count and the overall balance of the House of Commons will better reflect the actual will of the British people.

NO

AV will lead to more hung parliaments, says Tom Harris, MP for Glasgow South

All electoral systems are rubbish. As Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all the alternatives. First-past-the-post (FPTP) is a rubbish electoral system, but it's better than all the alternatives, including the one that will be on offer on 5 May: the Alternative Vote (AV).

Both government parties have historically opposed AV; Nick Clegg, as recently as April 2010, dismissed AV as a "miserable little compromise - and he was right. Is it really wise for such a profound change to our constitution to be implemented simply for the convenience of a coalition agreement?

And most of those in the "Yes" campaign have similarly opposed AV, but they now see it as a stepping stone towards far more radical reform - full-blown proportional representation (PR). I doubt if the prospect of spending yet another £100 million on a second referendum further down the line would endear the notion to voters who are already unconvinced by the case for spending that amount on May's referendum in the first place. So the "Yes" campaign will keep quiet about its longer term ambitions, pretending instead that AV will represent a massive improvement to the current system.

But it won't. Its supporters claim it will mean an end to tactical voting; in fact the reverse is the case. We will all be encouraged to vote tactically with our second, third or even fourth preference votes. And in most constituencies, if you're a Labour or Tory voter, the second preferences of Green, UKIP or BNP supporters will count for more than yours and they - not you - will be courted appropriately.

As for the notion that MPs would be elected with 50 per cent of their constituents' votes, this is nonsense. Second, third and fourth preferences cannot and would not have the same value as first preferences. Neither will AV get rid of so-called "safe seats"; MPs consistently elected on more than 50 per cent of the vote under the existing system would continue to be so elected under AV on the first ballot.

AV simply means that the least unpopular candidate is elected. And because centre parties are more likely to receive Labour and Conservative voters' second preferences, AV will lead to more hung parliaments - and therefore more coalitions. So if you believe that parties' manifestos should be bargained away behind closed doors after the voters have had their say, then maybe AV is for you after all.


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