A Strong Voice for Croydon Central - Gavin Barwell MP
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No2AV
29/03/2011 21:11:00

As you may know, on 5th May there will be a national referendum on whether we should change the system by which we elect MPs. The choice is between the current system, first-past-the-post, where whoever gets the most votes wins; and the Alternative Vote (AV) system, where you rank candidates in order of preference and if one candidate gets more than half of the first preference votes they win, if not the bottom candidate is eliminated and the second preferences of those who voted for that candidate are allocated to the other candidates and so on until someone has more than half the votes.

Although it’s not perfect, I think we should stick with the current system for the reasons set out below. But my main concern is that many of the people I talk to don’t even know that the referendum is taking place, let alone what the options are and their pros and cons. To try to address that, this evening I spoke at a public meeting held at Ruskin House alongside Labour MP and President of the No2AV campaign Margaret Beckett (the ‘Yes’ campaign was invited to supply speakers but sadly chose not to do so, though thankfully there were some ‘Yes’ supporters in the audience so there was a pretty balanced discussion).

My starting point is that there’s no such thing as a perfect voting system – if there was, everyone would be using it. People’s views as to which system is best tend to depend on what they attach importance to.

Personally, I think the most important thing in a voting system for the House of Commons is that it delivers a strong government that can take decisions and which people can hold to account if it doesn’t deliver its manifesto promises. Our current system normally delivers such a government, although to be fair it didn’t last May.

Other people think the most important thing is that the number of MPs each party has in the House of Commons is proportional to the number of votes they got across the country as a whole and therefore support proportional representation systems like the Single Transferable Vote (STV). They argue that our current system is unfair because smaller parties tend to be under-represented. I can understand this argument but the problem with proportional systems is that they lead to perpetual coalition government. Whilst I support the current coalition – I think it was the best outcome given the result of the last Election – I don’t think perpetual coalition government would be a good thing for two reasons. First, it would mean the Liberal Democrats would always be in government. And second, coalitions give politicians an excuse for not delivering their promises – they can legitimately say, “I know I promised to do x but we didn’t win an overall majority and our coalition partners wouldn’t agree to do it”. I think the way to address the problem with our current system is to have a second chamber that is elected by a proportional system – no party having an overall majority in the second chamber, which has a revising function, is a positively good thing.

But the key point with regard to 5th May is that hardly anyone thinks that AV is the best system – most of the people who are currently trying to convince you to vote for it actually want STV. Personally, I think it is the worst system. It is confusing, more expensive to administer and can be less proportional (the evidence suggests that under AV Margaret Thatcher would have won an even bigger majority in 1983 and Tony Blair an even bigger majority in 1997 – would that have been good for the country?) Only three countries in the world use it – Fiji (but they are getting rid of it), Australia (but 60% of Australians want to get rid of it) and Papua New Guinea. The only arguments people make for it is that it:

- ensures that each MP gets at least half of the vote - but it only does that by counting the second, third, fourth etc preferences of supporters of fringe parties and treating these as of equal value to other people’s first preference votes (and even then it only works if everyone expresses second, third, fourth etc preferences, which the evidence suggests many people will not). Take the recent Labour leadership election: after everyone’s first preference votes had been counted, David Miliband had 37.8% of the votes, his brother Ed 34.3% yet once the second, third and even fourth preferences of people who voted for Diane Abbott, Andy Burnham or Ed Balls had been re-allocated Ed Miliband was declared to have got at least half the vote and to have won. How is that fair?

- puts an end to safe seats – this is clearly nonsense: MPs in safe seats get more than 50% of the vote so AV would make no difference to them.

As I said at the start, our current system isn’t perfect, but it is better than the alternative that’s on offer. That’s why I’ll be voting no to AV.

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