A referendum will be held on Thursday 5 May 2011 on whether to change the system for electing MPs in general elections. The referendum will ask the public whether they want to replace the existing first-past-the-post system for electing MPs to Westminster with a method known as the Alternative Vote (AV).
Critics of the current first-past-the-post system argue too many votes are effectively wasted under the this system, with elections decided by a small number of voters in a handful of seats where no single party has a large majority. This discourages people from voting and makes them disengage with the political process. A key weakness of first-past-the-post, they say, is that two thirds of MPs are now elected with less than 50 per cent of support of voters and this undermines democracy.
They argue a different system will provide voters with more choice, force candidates to appeal to a broader section of the public and work harder to get elected. AV would see voters rank candidates in order of preference. Anyone getting more than 50 per cent of votes in the first round in a constituency is elected as MP. If that doesn’t happen, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their second choices allocated to the remaining candidates.
If one candidate then has more than 50 per cent of the votes in this round they are elected. If not, the remaining candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their second preferences (or third preferences if they were the second choice of someone who voted for the first candidate to be eliminated) reallocated. This continues until one candidate has 50% or more of the vote in that round.
The referendum on AV was the key concession the Lib Dems extracted from the Conservatives before they agreed to form a coalition Government in the days following the last general election on 6 May 2010. It’s a free vote for MPs. Most Tories will campaign against it. The Lib Dems will campaign for it. Labour is split but Labour Leader Ed Miliband says he will campaign for a yes vote.
For full guide re where parties stand on AV click here.
Currently, according to a ComRes poll for BBC2’s Newsnight on 16 February 2011 the UK is split on the issue. When asked do you want the UK to adopt the AV system instead of the current first-past-the-post system for electing MPs, 41 per cent agree while the same amount disagree. However while more than two thirds of people (65 per cent) agree that the system for electing MPs needs major overhauling, 63 per cent of people feel it would be a waste of time and money holding a referendum on changing the system when there are so many other pressing needs in the country.
If the Yes campaign supported by Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg loses (and it might) then there is an interesting scenario that could unfold: The majority of Lib Dem MPs already nervous and getting heat for public sector cuts could want to withdraw from the coalition. Nick Clegg and may be Chris Huhne and Danny Alexander may want to remain within the Government. So the Lib Dems might split as they did in 1922 which lead to the end of the Liberal / Conservative coalition when the Conservative Party withdrew from the Coalition. After their withdrawal Lloyd George resigned as Prime Minister on 19 October 1922.
The general election that followed was disastrous for both Liberal parties. Only 62 Liberals and 53 National Liberals (Lloyd George’s stay in coalition Government faction) were elected. Could history repeat itself?