A vote counter at work

"What do you mean I'm counting it the wrong way?"

Parliament began the new term by debating the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. If passed, the system of deciding who governs Britain could change forever. But how? Today’s and tomorrow’s posts attempt to explain.

On the first day Parliament returned from summer recess, it began debating the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. The Bill was a key demand for Liberal Democrats to join the Conservatives in coalition, and will be an important test of the strength of their partnership. If passed, the Bill would do two things. First, it would enable a referendum to be held on the future voting system for electing Members of Parliament. Secondly, it would reduce the number of constituencies from a record high of 650 to 600, and even out the number of people each MP is meant to represent. Let’s first look at the proposals for a referendum on the alternative vote.

The referendum, to be held next May alongside elections in all the four nations, will ask the electorate whether they want to replace the current “first-past-the-post” system of electing MPs with the “alternative vote” system.

First-past-the-post is very straightforward. It basically means “majority wins”: whoever receives the most votes wins the seat. However, many criticise it for its unfairness. if 51% of the electorate votes for Party A, and 49% Party B, Party A’s candidate can hardly claim to have won over the electorate. Choice is also limited, as many voters might have to opt for who they think will win, rather than who they hope will win, as process known as tactical voting (e.g. a Liberal Democrat-supporter votes Labour instead of Lib Dem because she wants to “keep the Tories out”, rather than truly wanting Labour to win).

The ultimate result of FPTP could be that the party that commands a majority in the House of Commons, which becoming the governing party, may be enjoying only very weak popular support. For example, after the 2005 election, Labour only took 35% of the popular vote, yet ended up with a 157-seat majority over the Conservatives, who won 32% of the vote.

A system of alternative vote would change how people cast their votes. Instead of picking one candidate, people will list candidates by preference: 1, 2 and 3. If a candidate gets more than 50% of first-preference votes (i.e. “1”s), he wins. But if that is not achieved, the candidate who holds the fewest “1” votes will be eliminated, and the second-preference votes (the “2”s)  of those ballots will be distributed among the remaining candidates. Eventually, a candidate will obtain more than 50% of the vote and win. This system is praised by some to be fairer, as the winner would have to have gained at least half of the electorate’s approval.

But the price of “fairness” could be to complicate the composition of Parliament. Majority governments will be harder to emerge, and more hung Parliaments will produce more coalitions. But the British people have now seen how a hung Parliament can work, and may decide that having them once in a while to keep party politics in check is beneficial. Of course, another drawback is to increase the workload of vote-counters on election night.

Of course, the AV system itself is not alien to Britain, as it and its variants are used to elect the party leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and the mayors of London and other cities. The Conservative party is against the proposal, but was forced to accept the referendum as part of the coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats. It is expected that Conservative MPs will vote the Bill through to allow the referendum to happen, but campaign against changing the system next May.

Tomorrow we will look at the other half of the Bill, which proposes to reduce the number of MPs and to “equalise” the size of constituencies.

Do you support the first-past-the-post, alternative vote, or another voting system? Let me know!