A referendum for a change

The last time I voted in a referendum was in 1975 when the UK voted on whether to stay in the Common Market, ie European Community. Two thirds voted in favour.

Referenda are pretty rare. They can only really be used when a simple yes/no question can be put to the electorate, and most issues are more complex than that.

But we can now expect another referendum on May 5th next year, and the choice will be very straightforward - whether to elect the House of Commons using the current first-past-the-post system or to switch to the Alternative Vote (AV) method.

With AV you rank the candidates in order of preference on the ballot paper. If any one candidate gets more than 50% of the first preferences then they are elected. If no-one gets enough, the person with the least number of first preferences drops out and the next preferences of the people who voted for that person are then added to the first preference totals. This continues until one person tops 50%.

This choice may seem rather a technical one compared with the great issues that face the Government today - sorting out the economy, controlling the banks, whilst protecting the most vulnerable. No doubt in the past opponents have said much the same in the face of campaigns for voting reform - from the Reform Act of 1832 to Votes for Women. But electoral reform is crucially about fairness, which must lie at the heart of democracy. We should not let this opportunity slip because there are other matters to deal with as well.

Lib Dems have campaigned for proportional representation (PR) for many, many years. In a pure PR system the proportion of MPs in Parliament would match the proportion of votes cast for each party across the country. In the May election the Conservatives got 36% of the vote, Labour 29% and Liberal Democrats 22%. If those percentages had been converted directly into seats then the Conservatives would have gained 234 seats, Labour 188 and Liberal Democrats 149, instead of 306, 258 and 52.

The challenge is to produce something close to proportionality at Westminster and still maintain local representation. What we are after is fair votes - a system that feels fair to the voter, and where each person elected can truly be said to represent the majority of people who voted.

AV has the advantage of being simple to understand. Under AV the majority of voters will have given the winner a high preference. Whilst it won't deliver pure proportionality, it will move in that direction, and will certainly appear to be fairer.

AV will change voter behaviour, because people will no longer feel the need to vote tactically in order to keep out the person they don't want. They can give their first preference to the candidate they really support, knowing that their second preferences will come into play if their preferred candidate is not popular.

One of the consequences of voting reform is that there will be far fewer safe seats. Some interesting research last year on the blog Mark Reckons showed that MPs in safe seats were more likely to cheat on their expenses than others. Under AV, MPs will know that they have to earn every vote.

Another consequence is that there may be a greater chance of no overall winner in Parliament. Coalitions are common in other democracies, such as Germany. It is a new experience for us all in Westminster (though not in the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly which already use AV) and as a country we may well discover that it produces moderate and sensible government. Coalition government tempers the extremes of parties; it focuses on areas of agreement instead of fighting over the areas of disagreement.

Fair votes are the way forward, and I'm really looking forward to the campaign for a Yes vote next year.


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