Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

New voting system is not a proportional alternative

Voting for AV tomorrow would be an expensive mistake and bad for the province, says Owen Paterson

Tomorrow Northern Ireland goes to the polls. The elections to the Assembly and the district councils are very important. I hope everybody uses their vote to re-affirm our faith in democracy.

There is, however, a third ballot taking place in Northern Ireland tomorrow. Along with people in the rest of the United Kingdom, you can decide whether you want to change the way we elect the Westminster Parliament.

The choice is between keeping the existing system of first-past-the-post or something called the Alternative Vote (AV).

I think that moving to AV - not to be confused with the STV system used for Assembly and council elections here - would be a mistake and bad for our country.

AV is unfair. Under the current method of electing MPs, everybody has one vote. The candidate with the most votes wins.

With AV, supporters of marginal, single-issue and extreme parties - like the BNP - would have their vote counted many times while supporters of mainstream parties would have their vote counted once.

AV does not work. Rather than the candidate with most votes winning, the candidates who finished third or fourth could end up being elected. AV is also expensive and calculating the results would take much longer than under the current system.

In circumstances where it was essential to form a government quickly, there could be prolonged delay and instability. That could damage business and affect the markets.

Hung parliaments would become commonplace rather than being the exception in UK politics. That would lead to more haggling and horse-trading between politicians.

Hung parliaments can bring parties together in the national interest - as happened last May. Yet if the expectation of a hung parliament became the norm, it would make party manifestos irrelevant.

AV is not a proportional system. The independent commission chaired by the senior Liberal Democrat Roy Jenkins in 1998 concluded that AV was 'even less proportional' than our existing system of first-past-the-post and warned that it was 'disturbingly unpredictable'.

AV would not bring to an end - as its supporters claim - 'safe' seats in Parliament. It would have made no difference at the last UK general election in at least 291 seats - that's just under half the House of Commons.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that AV is obscure and unpopular. In fact, only three countries in the world use AV: Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Australia.

In Australia, six out of 10 voters want to get rid of it. The number of spoilt ballot papers in Australia is five-times higher than in the UK. Negative campaigning is dominant.

Even those people who are now campaigning for AV don't really want it. Less than two years ago, the now-Labour Party director of the Yes to AV campaign said: 'If one of the reasons that we want reform is to rebuild public trust and confidence in politics, make MPs more accountable, give more power to people and establish a political and parliamentary system that more reflects the will of the public, then AV doesn't deliver that."

As Winston Churchill put it, when talking about different electoral systems, AV "is the stupidest, the least scientific and the most unreal . . . The decision of 100 or more constituencies, perhaps 200, is to be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates."

Churchill added: "An element of blind chance and accident will enter far more largely into our electoral decisions than ever before and respect for Parliament and Parliamentary processes will decline lower than it is at present."

Churchill was right. AV won't fix our broken politics. It won't get rid of 'safe' seats, or negative campaigning, and it won't make MPs more accountable.

AV means a voting system that is unfair, processes that are unclear and politics that is unaccountable.

It is the precise opposite of what we need and why I urge people across Northern Ireland to reject it.

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