The last hurdle was finally cleared this week. The course is now set for the first nationwide referendum in Britain since 1975 and only the second in our history. On 5th May we shall be invited to go to the polls to decide what sort of voting system we should use to elect our future governments. Should it be the existing ‘first-past-the-post’ system or the so-called ‘alternative vote’? Much may hang on the result.

First, a quick explanation of how AV works. instead of placing an X against our preferred candidate, as we do now, we would rank them in order of preference. If, after first preferences have been counted, no candidate has secured 50% of the total vote, the candidate with the fewest first preference votes is eliminated and his votes are then distributed according to the second preferences of those who voted for him – and so on until someone has 50% of the vote.

It may sound simple enough, but it’s politically explosive. It splits both the leadership of the coalition and the two main parties and it was a close run thing whether parliament would pass the legislation in time to hold the referendum in May. Opponents, especially in the House of Lords, used every tactic in the book to hold things up. Some wanted to postpone the date of the referendum, some wanted to insert a requirement that at least 40% of eligible voters would have to vote for the result to be binding. But finally the rebels succumbed to pressure from their party leaders and now the campaign can begin.

The Prime Minister will be very relieved. He is opposed to change and has urged the nation to stick with the status quo, but even so he was very anxious that the referendum should happen. That’s because the promise to hold one was the deal-clincher in his negotiations with the Liberal Democrats to form a Coalition Government last May. If the referendum had fallen by the way there would have been a real sense of betrayal among many LibDems that could have created a threat to the survival of the Government.

So, the campaign is under way and on the very day Mr Cameron is urging us to stick with what we’ve got, his deputy, the LibDem leader, Nick Clegg, is making a speech encouraging us to do the very opposite. What case are the two sides making?

Those who defend first-past-the-post make several claims for it. They point out that it’s tried and tested. It’s the system we have been using for donkey’s years and there is no evident groundswell of opposition to it. The public may grumble about politicians and even more about some of their policies but there has never been much complaint about the system of voting itself, except among some activists.

First-past-the-post is also simple and easy to understand, they say. That’s not just because it is the one we are used to but because putting an X against the name of the candidate you want is the most straightforward way of carrying out an election.

But the greatest thing about the system, they say, is that it is decisive. It tends to produce majority governments and that is good for the country. It means that parties can campaign in elections on explicit manifestoes and then set about implementing them without having to make compromise deals with other parties in order to form coalition governments. Voters can then make their judgement on the government at the following election and “throw the rascals out” if they don’t like them. Both in 1979 and 1997, they say, the electoral system allowed voters to chuck out governments that had had their day and even though the results did not strictly reflect the balance of opinion in the country, overall the result did express what the country wanted.

Their opponents say that that may all have been very well when political opinion in the country was divided almost exclusively between the two main parties (as, for example, in the early 1950s) but that hasn’t been the case for a long time. At the last election Labour and the Conservatives secured the support of only about two thirds of the electorate yet took 89% of the seats. This isn’t fair, they say. At constituency level two thirds of MPs at the last election won their seats even though they failed to secure 50% of the votes. In other words, most of the voters in their constituencies voted against them.

Those who argue for AV say MPs in safe seats can pretty much assume they have a job for life. They also say the system means that general election results are decided in the few constituencies likely to change hands. That means the votes of most electors don’t really matter at all in the business of deciding who should govern.

These objections to the old system have been used by Liberal Democrats and others in the past in support of a radically different electoral system called proportional representation which, in its simplest form, would distribute the number of seats in the House of Commons in direct proportion to the votes cast for each party nationally. But objections to this idea from the other parties, made on both principled and narrowly partisan grounds, mean that it is not on offer in this referendum. Some people think it ought to be.

Supporters of AV say that this way no MP can get elected without having a majority of his constituents voting for him, even if not all of them as their first preference. Voters will have a bigger say regarding who their MP should be and sitting MPs will have to work harder to maintain their support. And the House of Commons will at least have in it only MPs who can claim to represent a majority of their constituents even if it does not exactly reflect the division of opinion in the country at large.

The counter arguments run along these lines: it is too complex and many voters won’t understand it. It’s unfair because it will allow supporters of fringe candidates 'more than one vote', since it is their second and third preference votes which will ultimately be decisive. And will be costly – the ‘No to AV’ campaign estimates it will cost local authorities £250m to install the equipment necessary to make the system function.

But their greatest objection is that they say it will lead to more hung parliaments, more horse-trading between politicians both before and after elections and more coalition governments. This latter point, they say, is bad for the country.

It may well turn out that the main argument in the campaign is the one between advocates of decisive single-party government and those who say that, actually, coalition government is quite a good thing because it leads to rational compromises. For the Prime Minister this will be quite difficult ground to negotiate. As Tory leader he will want to put the traditional Tory case in favour of single-party government, but as the leader of a coalition government he will need to claim that coalitions can be quite good things.

As for the result, what do the party leaders want? Nick Clegg most obviously wants a ‘Yes’ to AV, not only because he and his party loathe first-past-the-post but because it would hugely ease tensions in his party arising from the coalition with the Conservatives. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, has come out unequivocally in favour of AV, even though his party is divided on the issue.

It is what the Prime Minister may really want that is most intriguing. On the face of it he wants AV to be defeated and has said so publicly. But his political interests may point in another direction. A victory for AV would not only help his coalition to survive until the planned date of the next election in 2015 but some commentators suspect he may also be looking beyond that date, imagining that AV might help the coalition to carry on after it.

If this is what is in his mind then he could turn out to be another Robert Peel, the Tory leader and prime minister in the first half of the nineteenth century, who twice went against what his party believed but, in the process, sustained it as an electoral force.

What’s your view?

  • Which system do you support?
  • Should the option of proportional representation have been allowed in the referendum?
  • Which of the arguments of each side do you find most and least persuasive?
  • What outcome do you think David Cameron wants?
  • And what do you think the result will be?
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