End of first-past-the-post voting?

On May 5, Britain will hold a referendum on whether to ditch the time-tested voting system in favour of Alternative Vote, a light variety of proportional representation.

There are two big dates coming up in Britain over the next few days. One, of course, is April 29, when Prince William will marry Kate Middleton — an event that has got even the country’s republican press into a frenzy of synthetic enthusiasm. But this article is about that other big event which, despite its huge political significance, has barely registered with many Britons beyond the Westminster bubble.
On May 5, Britain will hold a national referendum on whether to ditch the time-tested first-past-the-post (FPTP) system in favour of Alternative Vote (AV), a light variety of proportional representation (PR), in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. The same day, elections will be held to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and hundreds of local government bodies in England.
A veritable mini general election, its outcome will be seen as a verdict on the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition government. According to opinion polls, both parties look set to be routed. Lib Dems are predicted to be wiped out in many areas, including their traditional strongholds, as voters prepare to punish them for getting into bed with the Tories and reneging on their key election promises. The Opposition Labour Party is expected to gain hundreds of extra seats at the expense of the Tories and the Lib Dems.
But it is the referendum on AV that is of real crucial importance to the coalition. It has pitted the coalition partners against each other with the Tories in favour of retaining the existing system and the Lib Dems campaigning for a change. The referendum is an idea of the Lib Dems — a concession they forced out of the Tories as a condition for joining the coalition. Their original demand was for a referendum on PR but, in the end, the party settled for AV, which its leader Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg famously described as a “miserable little compromise” at the time.
“Miserable little compromise” or not, this was the only real concession the Lib Dems were able to extract and, in recent weeks, Mr. Clegg has gone to town trumpeting it as a historic victory and first important step in achieving the party’s long-standing demand for wider electoral reforms culminating, eventually, in PR. Indeed, it has been sold to party grassroots as enough justification for his decision to sign up to a Tory-led government.
Having put his personal prestige on the line, the stakes are very high for Mr. Clegg; and he recognises that if he loses the referendum (the “Yes” campaign is trailing in opinion polls), his position could be threatened. His rivals in the party are already said to be positioning themselves in gleeful anticipation of a leadership challenge.
Likewise, for the Tory leader and Prime Minister David Cameron a lot rides on the outcome of the May 5 vote. Few Tories, if any, support the idea of abandoning the existing system, which has served the party well over the years. They fear that, given their vote base and its distribution, they would struggle under AV.
Yet, Mr. Cameron was so desperate to get into power that he steamrolled the party into agreeing to the Lib Dems’ demand. It is no secret the he is detested by “old” Tories who distrust his “modernising” policies (they also opposed the deal with the Lib Dems) and would like to see the back of him at the first opportunity. A defeat in the referendum would hand them the ammunition they are looking for and it could all start to unravel for Mr. Cameron.
As The Guardian writer Jackey Ashley has pointed out, if the “Yes” camp wins, “Tory right-wingers who already see Cameron as a closet sandal-wearer and secret muesli-chomper [that’s how the Lib Dems are mockingly referred to by their critics], will rip into him.”
With the stakes so high, both Mr. Cameron and Mr. Clegg are personally leading their camps and leaving nothing to chance. Already, the campaign has turned dirty with both sides accusing each other of indulging in “smear” tactics and making personal attacks. A “No” campaign poster warns that AV would lead to “President Clegg,” a reference to the view that the proposed system would disproportionately benefit smaller parties like the Lib Dems. There have been sharp public exchanges between senior coalition partners.
Lib Dem Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne accused Tory chairperson Baroness Sayeeda Warsi of indulging in “Goebbels-speak,” “playing the politics of the gutter” and “poisoning” British politics after she claimed that AV would allow fringe fascist parties like the British National Party to get in through the backdoor. Tory Chancellor George Osborne caused a furore when he claimed that an organisation with close links to the Lib Dems and which had given £1.5 million to the “Yes” campaign would benefit financially from the alternative voting system. The Lib Dems hit back with a vitriolic attack by their former leader, Paddy Ashdown, who normally tries to stay above the fray. For someone of the stature of the Chancellor to make such allegations, he said, was “bizarre” and showed how low the Tories were willing to stoop. They were trying to shut down an honest debate by resorting to “deliberate misrepresentations and downright lies.”
“The strategy is clear. Throw as much mud as you can, don’t let the issue be discussed openly and frighten the public over the next three weeks into voting to preserve the power the present first-past-the-post system gives you. This strategy stinks of the same odour which has surrounded our politics recently,” he wrote in The Observer in what the newspaper described as an “aggressive intervention.”
Labour is split with its leader Ed Miliband backing the “Yes” campaign and many of his colleagues opposed to it. Making a virtue of necessity, he has allowed his members to campaign and vote according to their conscience, spawning strange political alliances with senior Labour figures appearing alongside the Tories to make the case for retaining FPTP.
So, what’s AV all about? The main criticism is that it is too complicated and time-consuming as count can go into several rounds if no candidate gets 50 per cent of the votes in the first round. The last-placed candidate in each round is eliminated and his/her votes are transferred to the “second preference” candidate. This goes on until one candidate has majority support. The system is practised in only Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, and the feedback, according to critics, is that there is little public enthusiasm for it in any of these countries. Fiji is actually inclined to drop it.
The argument in favour of FPTP, claimed to be the second most widely used system in the world, is that it is simple, easy to understand, cheap to administer, doesn’t take long to count votes and produces a clear winner. On the other hand, AV is complex, confusing for ordinary people, expensive, and, more often than not, produces a fragmented verdict resulting in horse-trading with smaller groups and independents able to make secret deals in exchange for their support.
“AV is an unfair, complex and expensive system that could potentially damage democracy,” says Matthew Elliott, Director of the “No” campaign. The “Yes” campaign counters saying AV is fairer, makes candidates work harder to “earn” their seats, and gives voters a bigger say in choosing their MP. “AV keeps what works with our current system, and eliminates many of its weaknesses. It’s a long overdue upgrade to make a 19th century system fit for the politics of the 21st century. Our Parliament will better represent our communities. MPs w
ill have to have a better view of what your community thinks — and that’s because they will have to listen harder to your views,” claims the “Yes” camp.
Whatever the outcome, it would have an impact on the already fragile intra-coalition relations. The two parties are deeply divided on a raft of key issues including immigration, health reforms, university tuition fees and welfare benefits. Recently, tensions over immigration bubbled over into the public when Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable accused Mr. Cameron of “inflaming extremism” and described as “very unwise” the Prime Minister’s remarks that mass migration was creating social tensions. Such exchanges are becoming increasingly frequent over a range of issues. The AV referendum, it is feared, has further inflamed the tensions and the question on everybody’s lips is: has Britain’s most vaunted political honeymoon run out of steam, and is the alliance headed for the rocks?
Source: The Hindu