Ben’s Echo Column (April 8th, 2011)

April 8, 2011 in Uncategorized

On May 5th we have a once in a life-time chance to change our unfair voting system. No system is perfect, but our current first-past-the-post must be the worst of all. It means elections are decided by a few thousand voters in a handful of “swing” seats. The rest of us are ignored. Most constituencies never change hands. Places like East Devon, for example, have always elected Conservative MPs. Non-Conservative voters there are in effect disenfranchised.

The same could be said about rock solid Labour seats in some northern towns. This does nothing to build trust in politics or to encourage people to get involved. It also means MPs in these safe seats have a job for life, however well or poorly they perform. If you remember the recent MPs’ expenses scandal, there was a strong relationship between “safe seats” and excessive claims.

The Alternative Vote (AV) hands power away from the politicians and gives it to the voters. We keep the constituency link – one MP for one place.  But instead of just putting one cross against one name and the person with the most votes winning, you put 1, 2, 3 etc in the boxes next to names – in order of preference. If no candidate manages to get 50% of first preferences, the bottom candidate drops out and his or her second preferences are distributed to the surviving candidates until one of them reaches 50%. This means that instead of winning with less that 30% support – as can happen now – a candidate would need at least 50% support.

This would give the MP more legitimacy locally, but would also force him or her to work harder to reach beyond his or her own Party’s core supporters. Voters would no longer face the dilemma of whether or not to vote tactically to keep their least favourite Party out. I know quite a few Liberal Democrats and Greens in Exeter, for example, who vote Labour under the current system because they’d rather get me than a Tory MP.

Similarly, some Labour supporters in Teignbridge vote Lib Dem, as the best way of stopping the Tories. Conservative voters are under similar pressure in other parts of the country. Under AV you can vote for the Party you actually support without it being a wasted vote. Every vote counts. It makes it harder for a lazy or incompetent MP to squat in a safe seat for life and it also makes it less likely that Parties would put up with such an MP or candidate, for fear of losing the seat.

AV is already used in several countries including Australia. 14 million people in Britain already use it in elections for organisations ranging from the Royal British Legion to trade unions. AV would not need counting machines or any extra cost, as some have claimed.

I hope you’ll vote Yes on May 5th for a fairer voting system and a better politics.