Electoral reform must be about more than voting

CONSERVATIVE backwoodsmen who are wedded to our first-past-the-post electoral system are gleeful. They contend that the horse trading behind closed doors over the weekend proves that UK politics will not benefit by the introduction of proportional representation.

However, the argument that the present system produces strong, decisive government has been destroyed by the outcome of last week’s General Election when David Cameron and the Conservatives failed to overcome the odds stacked against them and fell short of winning an overall majority.

The UK’s political stability was severely undermined by the MPs expenses scandal last year and as well as the financial crisis, a new government has to urgently introduce reform of the body politic.

Post election pacts are commonplace through the European Union, with most member states used to weeks of negotiating before an administration can be formed.

But the crucial difference between those countries and the UK is that they have consensual politics while the British are used to confrontation politics.

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That is clearly demonstrated in the House of Commons itself which is a debating chamber with the main Government and Opposition front benches separated by more than two sword lengths to prevent MPs from killing each other. Most European legislatures require MPs to walk to a podium, rather than making a speech from their own seats.

Does it matter that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have spent four days in negotiations? In normal circumstances it would not, but with the economic meltdown needing quick, decisive action, this was probably not the best General Election to experiment with a new consensus.

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Dyed in the wool hardline supporters of FPTP like it because, apart from February 1974, in every election since the end of World War II, we knew the name of the Prime Minister by dawn on the day after the election.

Allister Heath in yesterday’s City AM newspaper in London said: “If that’s the new politics, I already miss the old kind, warts and all.

“What we witnessed yesterday was embarrassing: groups of exhausted men meeting in secret locations in Whitehall; behind-the-scenes discussions about the future of the country, with everybody tearing up their manifesto promises; and all the while Gordon Brown, who has been humiliatingly rejected by the electorate, remaining defiantly in power, clinging on as long as possible, his lame duck Chancellor somehow supposed to represent us at crucial EU bailout talks.

“Nobody is happy: not the Lib Dem voters who backed Nick Clegg’s party because they don’t like the Tories; not the Tories who backed David Cameron’s party because they loathe the Lib Dems.”

Jonathan Isaby, co-editor of ConservativeHome - the web site which is the froum for Tory activists to vent their feelings - said: “We must not allow those who want to change the electoral system to claim that the result of last Thursday’s election proves the need to introduce PR for Westminster elections. If anything, it is a demonstration of exactly why we should not change the electoral system.”

There are three possible proportional representation systems, and the one chosen would also apply to council elections.

Single Transferable Vote (STV) - This is the Liberal Democrats’ ideal choice. Designed for multi-member ``districts’’ rather than single-candidate constituencies, candidates would need a known ``quota’’ or share of the votes to be elected, rather than a majority. This ``quota’’ would be determined by the size of the electorate and the number of positions to be filled. Each voter would rank candidates in order of preference; the votes would then be transferred if necessary from candidates who were comfortably elected or have done so badly that they have been eliminated.

Alternative Vote (AV) - 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 candidate receives 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 - Proposed by the Jenkins Commission in 1998, this 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.

No Prime Minister can promise to change the voting system. It will have to be put to the people in a referendum and there is no guarantee that voters will say “yes.”

But last Thursday demonstrated also that our electoral system is creaking and needs wholesale reform and not just how we vote.

The chaos at some polling stations when people were turned away was an affront to democracy.

A new government must introduce legislation to reform electoral law to ensure returning officers conform to a set of rules on the conduct of elections - such as allowing people in a queue at 10pm to be admitted to the polling stations - and to establish fixed term parliaments, reduce the number of constituencies, and ensure all constituencies have the same number of voters.

There should also be an equivocal commitment to reform of the House of Lords, and a mechanism put in place on parliamentary legislation which affects England only.

It clearly is time for change.

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