Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Electoral Reform 2011

Houses of Parliament
For generations, we have been electing individuals to represent us in Parliament, and they have then made laws on our behalf. Our system for electing MP's is 'First Past the Post' (FPP), where the person with the most amount of votes wins, no matter how small that number may be. On the 5th May 2011, we are being given the opportunity to vote on whether we want a change to the age-old system of FPP.

The question that will be on the referendum ballot  paper is;

"At present the UK uses the 'first past the post' system to elect MP's to the House of Commons. Should the 'alternative vote' system be used instead?"

So we are being asked to either vote to retain the status quo, or to go for a very specific alternative voting system. Documents arriving in my post today are designed to encourage us to either say YES or NO. To be honest with you, up to now I'd been undecided how to vote, but I'm now very clear on how I will vote. That will become clearer later.

We all know what the status quo is, as most of us have been using it all of our lives in national elections, though some of us have used another system in Assembly elections particularly in Northern Ireland and Scotland. But what do we know about the 'alternative vote' (AV) system? In this you use numbers to rank the candidates in order of your preference. You put 1 next to your first choice, 2 next to your second choice, 3 next to your third choice and so on. The number 1 votes for each candidate are put into a pile and counted. If a candidate receives more than half of the number 1 votes cast, they win and there is no further counting. If no one receives more than half the number 1 votes, there would be another round of counting and the candidate with the fewest number 1 votes is removed from the contest. If their supporters' ballot papers show a number 2 vote for another candidate, they are added to that candidates pile. If the ballot paper does not show a number 2 vote, it is no longer used. This process continues with redistribution of votes until one person reaches 50% of votes cast. They are then elected.

The YES to AV has been organised by 'Yes to fairer votes', and the NO campaign by 'No 2 av'. The main reasons given to vote YES are,
  1. MP's will work harder to earn - and keep - our support
  2. We will have a bigger say on who our local MP is
  3. It will tackle the 'jobs for life' culture in Parliament
The main reasons given to vote NO, and to keep with the present system are;
  1. There is a very simple principle in politics and governments that whoever gets the most votes wins
  2. It is wrong that the person who came second or third can overtake the person with the most votes
  3. The AV system will mean the end to equal votes
My problem with this referendum is in the choices on offer. I believe in Proportional Representation (PR), particularly the system known as the Single Transferable Vote (STV). But this is not an option open to me. What is STV? In an STV election, a candidate requires a certain minimum number of votes, called the quota or threshold. The quota most commonly used is the Droop Quota, named after Henry Droop, an English lawyer and mathematician who devised it in 1868. This system is used locally in Northern Ireland today.

To understand this quota system, take the example of an election where there are 2 seats to be filled and 3 candidates. The total valid poll is 100 votes. Divide the number of valid votes (100) by the available seats (2) + 1 and you get 33.33, this is then + 1 = 34.33, and rounded down to 34. This is then the quota for the election. In the election, A gets 45 votes; B gets 25 votes  and C gets 30 votes.  A is elected on the first preference count as they have over 34 votes. A has 11 votes more than the quota, which are given to B who was second preference in A's votes. B now has 36 votes - more than the quota needed, and is elected.

Yellow Brick Road
STV might be seen as the holy grail (possibly a tad dramatic here), but the question to ask is this, "If I vote for AV, will that be a stepping stone to achieving STV at a later stage?".

I fear that flawed logic will come into play whatever the result of the referendum. If the vote is NO, it would be interpreted as a liking for our current system and the prospect of PR is dead for at least another generation. If the vote is YES, it shows a desire for change, and would be a first step towards PR.

I don't think that this would happen in my lifetime. AV would have to be used for a number of elections, so it may be at least 25 years before any momentum for PR is going to be seriously entertained. By the way, did you know that a YouGov opinion poll on the 16th March showed that PR is twice as popular as AV as a replacement for First Past the Post (FPP)?.

Antony Brown, Founder of the electoral reform organisation AV2011 has said, "When voters start voting for smaller parties the two-party system starts to fractionalise. Political scientists measure this process by an index called the Number of Effective Parties (NEP). When the index reaches 4.0 and above, FPP is seen as not fit for purpose by the electorate and is often replaced by PR. Currently, the NEP in the UK stands at 3.75. Swapping FPP for AV now (and it is a swap because AV is a variant of FPP) is introducing the wrong system at the wrong time. For those wanting a more proportional system, the timing could hardly be worse. Will AV lead to PR? Definitely, if you ignore the wicked witch of the facts and just follow the yellow brick road".

So, on the 5th May I shall be voting NO to AV. If only I had the option to say NO to the status quo as well. Those of us who want to see Proportional Representation introduced will then be free to carry on with the battle.

For those of you who are still with me at this point, thank you. I greatly admire your stamina.

However you vote, vote well.

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