Belfast Telegraph

We need a fair alternative to a failed election system

Our history of proportional representation makes the AV referendum a foregone conclusion, says Quintin Oliver

At Easter 1998, I was stunned by our politicians' remarkable feat in consenting to what became known as the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement. Remember the polls that week were indicating that 85% of us didn't think they would ever agree.

I helped set up and run the Yes campaign for that referendum six weeks later that became a pivotal moment in our lengthy peace process, attracting an 82% turnout and through a 71% Yes vote, setting up our new institutions, dealing with prisoner release, police reform, decommissioning and what we then called 'terrorists in government'.

Interestingly, there was no public debate whatsoever on the voting system that would elect six MLAs to each of 18 constituencies; the parties and the two governments had negotiated proportional representation by single transferable vote in order to accommodate all the various strands of opinion. It was deemed to be simple, manageable and, above all, fair.

It has, therefore, come as some surprise to me that the upcoming referendum on May 5 seems necessary at all; and it is certainly a foregone conclusion that Northern Ireland, familiar as we are with 1, 2, 3 voting, will plump our Xs in favour of this long-overdue UK change.

Last May, we had hopefully our last 'first past the post' Westminster election; that term in itself is a misnomer - as I pointed out on my first trip to Drumbo greyhound stadium the other night.

For the poor dogs, there clearly is a post they must pass first; but in elections, no one knows where the post actually is until the votes are counted.

For Sylvia Hermon MP in North Down, for example, it turned out be two-thirds of the way round the track (68% of votes cast), but for South Antrim, winner Willie McCrea MP only had to make one-third of the way round (33.9%). How can that be fair?

Only three of our 18 MPs reached the 50% bar - half the UK figure. The reason? Because we have substantial minority groupings, making many seats three or four-way marginals. That's also now the case in Britain where no longer do 95% cast votes for Labour or Tory, but only 65%; that's enough of a reason to review the system.

Indeed, four MPs here won their seats on less than 40% of the vote (David Simpson, Gregory Campbell and Naomi Long, too); how much more legitimacy would they have if they were to seek transfers from eliminated runners and thereby move above 50%?

They would have to work harder to appeal to wider support, perhaps even across the 'community divide'. Naomi Long MP, to her credit, supports the move to Alternative Vote (AV).

AV would also remove the need for both tactical voting (where the voter shifts from their favoured runner to another choice with more chance of winning) and it would obviate the sectarian pressures for 'unity' candidates from unionism or nationalism.

The case of Fermanagh-South Tyrone proves this point clearly, where, had AV operated, there would have been no need for Rodney Connor to run, since voters could transfer their preference from the lower-placed candidate to the higher-placed.

Ironically, Jim Allister's TUV, which opposes the change, has made much of this in the Assembly poll, arguing that their running will not 'shred the vote', so voters can cast for them and then transfer to other unionists.

The BNP, interestingly, opposes the change, since their only hope of scraping through is in low turnout marginal seats, where they can pass 'the post' on 25% sometimes in English council elections - that's not fair.

The main opponents of the change, however, are the Conservatives, who, like the DUP, benefit from the system (copied only in recent years by Zimbabwe) and some Labour diehards, who argue it is quintessentially 'British' to retain a clumsy, majoritarian and blunt voting instrument. What an insult to Northern Ireland.

I'm voting Yes.

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