01 August 2010

Is There No Alternative?

The New Reform Package - TOC

1. Is There No Alternative?
2. A Swift Kick in the Ballots
3. Does Size Matter?
4. Bringing It Together: Why All This Matters

It was, of course, only a matter of time before I took a look at the Coalition Government's package of reforms for elections to the House of Commons, and weighed in. And I'll be honest: of course I'm not happy with the Alternative Vote system. I would have preferred the Single Transferable Vote to strike that balance between the voter having a wide choice of candidates and representatives, and the ability to create a Parliament that actually reflects to a far greater degree the balance of opinion in the UK.

Indeed, I was amused to note that Tom Harris was once again pooh-poohing STV by working out that as a Glasgow MP, if Glasgow were one big seven-member STV constituency, he'd only need 37,501 votes on a 70% turnout to be elected. The irony here is that he himself was elected to Westminster with 20,736 votes on a turnout of just under 62%. Had he received the same vote share on a 70% turnout, he'd have got around 23,525 votes and some of those would have been surplus to his needs to get back in. So rather than being a way of losers sneaking in to Parliament, STV would in Tom Harris's case at least, require him as the candidate to work harder over a larger area to secure votes. That's a good thing.

Nevertheless, I choose to be fair to Tom Harris while at the same time hold my nose and support AV as a step in the right direction. Why? Well, if we must stick with a system where each voter and each constituency has only one MP who is the sole voice for the entire seat, then it's right that MPs should, at the very least, command the support of more than half of the people who expressed an opinion at the ballot box. Tom Harris does meet that standard, but in Scotland, he's very much in the minority: out of 59 MPs, 37 owe their position not to their popularity - more people voted against them than for them - but to the fact that support for opposition candidates broke down in such a manner that they got in by default.

They complain that PR lets losers in? First Past the Post is doing it right now. 37 MPs out of 59 could not command the support of half of those who cast a valid vote, and so were rejected by voters, but got in because no one had a majority and the split in opposition votes allowed them to come through the middle. Moreover, in one case, Argyll & Bute, Alan Reid got in despite being voted against by more than two to one - the more than twice as many people voted for someone other than Reid as voted for him - but because of the system, Reid was indeed first past the post, and was elected. This isn't meant as a personal go at Alan Reid, but this system cannot be right: it must be changed, and while Alternative Vote doesn't address full concerns about proportionality, it does at least guarantee that MPs will go to Westminster with some level of support from a majority of those who expressed their view.

That, at least, is progress.

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