Half-Way House to Electoral Reform

Annabelle Harle assesses the impact of the Alternative Vote had it been operating in Wales in 2005 and the way it would influence the Welsh result in the forthcoming general election

Today the Westminster Parliament will decide whether to allow a referendum to be held on the Alternative Vote electoral system to replace first-past-the-post. This is not something that electoral reformers are much excited about. None of the British groups campaigning for a change in the voting system cite AV as their system of choice. To most of us in Wales, the only person we know who favours the Alternative Vote (AV) is the Secretary of State, Peter Hain. However, AV has been chosen by the Government to star in a late amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, currently going through Parliament, with the promise of a referendum early in the next Parliament to decide whether it should be adopted for electing members of the House of Commons.

Of all the possible changes to the electoral system, AV would be the simplest to make, and would definitely improve the ‘voter experience’. Under AV, as under First Past the Post, the country is divided into constituencies, each of which elects one MP. The difference is that on the ballot paper, instead of marking an X next to the name of the candidate you want to win, you mark 1 next to your favourite candidate, 2 next to your second favourite, and so on.

At the count, the first stage is to add up the first preferences for each candidate. If a candidate has a more than 50 per cent votes they are elected straight away. If no candidate has a majority of the vote, the lowest-placed candidate is eliminated and that person’s votes are looked at again to see which candidate each of their supporters marked as their second choice. These second preferences are added to the votes for the remaining candidates. If someone has a majority now, they are elected. If not, the bottom remaining candidate is out of the running, and the process repeats until someone does have a majority of the vote.

In general, AV would have the effect of hindering the Conservatives in Wales more than in England because of the presence of Plaid Cymru as a left-wing party. Conversely, and in England especially, AV can equally help the Conservatives, since UKIP and BNP are the largest ‘minor’ parties and their transfers will go Tory. Had the 2005 election been run under AV, it is likely that Preseli Pembrokeshire and Clwyd West would have remained Labour.

The effect would probably be weaker in the forthcoming general election in Wales. There would be fewer people determined to keep the Conservatives out, and it’s plausible that Liberal Democrat preferences in Wales would skew more to the Conservatives. Also, the Conservatives are probably going to win more seats with clear margins (as they did in Monmouth in 2005). Given the size of swing to the Conservatives in Wales that people are talking about, AV might save some far-end Labour seats particularly where there is a Plaid vote (possibly the Vale of Clwyd and Delyn)  but perhaps also help the Liberal Democrats against Labour in Newport and Swansea. It might also save Montgomeryshire for the Liberal Democrats.

Under first-past-the-post MPs often only have the support of a minority of the people actually voting in their constituencies. In the 2005 General Election, 220 MPs had the vote of more than 50 per cent of those voting, but 426 did not. Sadly, none at all received the vote of a majority of their constituents. This means that most MPs cannot claim to speak for the majority of their constituents, and sometimes even those who do vote in a constituency end up with an MP most of them do not support or like.

The main improvement under AV is that this doesn’t happen because at least 50 per cent of voters have registered some degree of support for the MP elected. This is a real benefit and has the potential to improve social cohesion and community relations. So, for this reason AV is probably worth taking, but only as a halfway house on the road to radical reform.

Groups such as Vote for a Change, which have been at the forefront of the recent campaign argue that the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system is the only way to secure truly fair representation. At the time of writing, Power 2010’s website shows the introduction of a proportional system of voting as the most popular change to be pressed on candidates at the election. The Jenkins Commission recommended AV+, a variation which contains an “element of proportionality” not dissimilar to the one we know in Wales. AV on its own is not a proportional system and Electoral Reform Society projections have shown that it can work out to be less proportional than FPTP across the UK.

It could be argued, therefore, that although there is a definite dividend for the individual as voter, there is a democratic deficit when it comes to counting up the numbers of MPs and seeing which party forms the Government.

Even before the duckhouse summer, campaigns were up and running to secure a change in the electoral system. First-Past-the-Post is so demonstrably unfair that there will always be campaigns against it, just as there will always be those who claim it is simple and transparent and leads to strong government and is therefore unassailable.

The promise of change was there in the manifesto on which Labour came to power in 1997. Jenkins reported, but the issue was shelved. A desire to push the potentially outgoing government for change before the chance disappeared with the removal van leaving Downing Street began to make itself felt early in 2009. Then came the summer of sleaze, and the need to shake up the system became an imperative, highlighted by the strange outcome of the European elections which were nothing if not a kick at the status quo.

Britain has a democratically elected government, but its legitimacy is strained when turnout falls. Electors see no benefit in voting, do not see their vote reflected in Parliament and are unimpressed by the conduct of the occupants of the green upholstery of the gravy train. To persuade the elector to take up once more the stake in society that less than a hundred years ago some citizens were ready to die for, we have to render the system relevant once more.

Annabelle Harle is Head of Office with the Electoral Reform Society Wales.

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