Electoral Reform on the Horizon in the UK
by Charles Lemos, Wed Feb 03, 2010 at 12:41:03 AM EST
Bumped. - Nathan
With a general election due in the United Kingdom by early June, opinion polls show a tightening race. Over the past month, the Conservative party's lead over Labour has been cut almost in half to just eight points. The latest ITN poll gives David Cameron's Tories 39 percent of the vote to 31 percent for Gordon Brown and the Labour party. The Liberal Democrats, led by Nick Clegg, trail with 19 percent. The balance is split among various regional parties.
Based on these projections, the Tories would fall short of a majority by 24 seats resulting in a hung Parliament raising the prospect of a coalition government. Britain hasn't had a coalition government since 1945.
With the prospect of a hung Parliament looming, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has taken to wooing the Liberal Democrats, the perennial third party, with the prospect of electoral reform. On Tuesday, PM Brown vowed that he would overcome a daunting timetable to force through a law in the next two months requiring a referendum to be held on changes to the voting system for the Commons after the general election. Such a referendum would require passage by both houses of Parliament. If passed, the referendum would be held by October 2011.
Britain currently uses a single member district first-past-the post (FPTP) electoral system. The referendum would be restricted to whether to stick with the first past the post system or to move to the Alternative Vote (AV) system which has been used in Australia to elect the lower house since 1918. Under AV, voters rank candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference so that the winning candidate has the legitimacy of more than 50% of the vote.
Here's how the system works:
The same constituency boundaries are used and voters would elect one person to represent them in parliament, just as we do now. However, rather than marking an 'X' against their preferred candidate, each voter would rank their candidates in an order of preference, putting '1' next to their favourite, a '2' by their second choice and so on.
If a candidate receives a majority of first place votes, he or she would be elected just as under the present system. However if no single candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, the second choices for the candidate at the bottom are redistributed. The process is repeated until one candidate gets an absolute majority.
The alternative vote is not actually a proportional system, but a majoritarian system. It is effectively a variation to the current FPTP electoral system. Though it would have an effect on British politics though it is not clear which party might benefit the most from such a system.
The main argument for an AV is that all MPs (Members of Parliament) would have the support of a majority of their constituents preventing election of an MP with a minority of the vote. In 2005 general election, only 34 percent of British MPs were elected by more then 50 percent of the votes in their constituencies. This is a decline from 2001 general election, when half of MPs could claim 50% support of their constituents.
Still, the prospect of a referendum will have three key benefits for Gordon Brown's Labour party:
• Allow Labour to depict itself at the general election as the party of reform in response to the parliamentary expenses scandal.
• Make David Cameron look like a defender of the status quo. The Tories, who are opposed to abolishing the first-past-the-post system, would have to introduce fresh legislation to block the referendum if they win the election.
• Increase the chances that the Liberal Democrats will support Labour – or at least not support the Tories – if no party wins an overall majority at the election, resulting in a hung parliament. The Lib Dems have traditionally regarded the introduction of PR as their key demand in any coalition negotiations. While AV does not technically count as PR, many Lib Dems regard AV as a step in the right direction.
Prime Minister Brown also announced that he wants a written constitution by 2015, the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta; a right for constituents to recall MPs if found guilty of corruption; and a draft bill introducing a mainly elected House of Lords.
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