Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Voting reform 'key' to coalition

While Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has given his blessing to David Cameron to seek to try and form a government, the two parties currently seem unlikely to strike a deal.

Mr Clegg has insisted that an overhaul of Britain's outdated voting system is an "absolute pre-condition" for the country's renewal.

He wants to see proportional representation (PR) replacing the first-past-the-post system, so that smaller parties are more widely represented in the Commons.

But Conservatives have consistently argued that PR would take power away from voters and simply result in more messy outcomes and secret backroom deals.

Mr Cameron fears that PR would boost the number of Lib Dem seats while reducing the number of Tory seats. The first-past-the-post system exaggerates the number of seats awarded to a winning party, benefiting the Conservatives, but does not take account of voters' second or third choices.

Gordon Brown, on the other hand, today emphasised his willingness for a referendum on the use of PR in Westminster elections.

In a blatant bid to woo the Lib Dems, the Prime Minister made a Downing Street statement making clear that he wished to see more "fairness" in the voting system.

On the core issue of electoral reform then, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have a lot in common.

Senior Labour ministers including Lord Mandelson and Peter Hain have left no doubt that the party would be ready to deliver some form of PR in return for the Lib Dems joining them in an anti-Conservative majority in the Commons.

Mr Clegg said this morning that he would continue to push for "extensive, real reforms" needed to "fix our political system".

He said the election campaign had made it "abundantly clear that our electoral system is broken", adding: "It simply doesn't reflect the hopes and aspirations of the British people."

If Labour and Liberal Democrats do sit down to discuss electoral reform, there are a number of alternatives to choose from:

:: Single Transferable Vote (STV) - This is the Liberal Democrats' ideal choice and it would work for multi-member "districts" rather than single-candidate constituencies. Each voter would get one vote, which would transfer from their first preference to their second preference and so on. Candidates need a known "quota" or share of the votes to be elected, rather than a majority of votes. This "quota" is determined by the size of the electorate and the number of positions to be filled.

:: Alternative Vote (AV) - Labour prefer this system. Voters would rank their candidates numerically in order of preference. If a candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, they would be elected. But if no candidates receive more than half the votes, the second choices for the lowest ranked on the first count are redistributed. The process is repeated until one candidate gets an absolute majority.

:: AV Plus - This could be a compromise for the two parties. Proposed by the Jenkins Commission in 1998, it would see the majority of MPs elected using AV and the rest by a "top-up" system. As well as voting for a constituency MP, each elector would get a second vote to cast at a county level or equivalent. Around 500 MPs would be elected under AV and 100 in the "plus" part.

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