Yes, It's Boring - But Our Voting System Matters

03/05/2011 10:43 | Updated 22 May 2015

If you can tear your thoughts away from the intense post-wedding analysis currently gripping the nation and possibly the world, I have news. There is something happening this week that is even more exciting and important than the union of an exceedingly posh to another not-quite-so-posh person.

Okay, I lie. It's not actually more exciting – it doesn't have canapés or commemorative china or the glitter of royal involvement (unless you count Joanna Lumley, which we probably should). But it is quite important. Yes, you guessed it, it's the national referendum on our voting system.

This Thursday, the British public will be invited to decide whether we should keep our existing system of electing MPs to the House of Commons or change it to something called the Alternative Vote, or AV system.

As things stand, MPs are elected under the First Past the Post system, which means that the candidate who gets the most votes in a constituency is elected. Supporters argue this leads to stable government. Opponents say it's undemocratic since MPs can and do win seats even with less than 50 per cent of the vote. In other words, candidates can win even when the majority of people in an area didn't vote for them.

Under the AV system, things would work differently. Voters would be asked to rank candidates in order of preference. If a candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote, they win. If nobody wins more than half, the second preference votes of those who voted for the least popular candidate are redistributed to the remaining candidates. This process continues until somebody achieves over 50 per cent. Supporters say it gives voters more choice and makes candidates work harder. Opponents say it's overly complicated, expensive and more likely to result in hung parliaments.

Still with me? Truly, I salute you.

Now, I can't pretend to know the best thing to do – maybe I should have attended my British Politics lectures instead of spending mornings in a Hooch-induced coma – but it does seem to me that this referendum, only the second we've ever had, is in serious danger of being ignored.

Organisers must wish they had had access to Kate and Wills' diaries before they arranged proceedings for a week after the wedding of the century. But the way the Yes and No campaigns have conducted themselves hasn't helped either. Arguments on both sides have been reduced to the kind of drivel that does little to inspire a soaring sense of duty in protecting our democratic rights.

Sample Anti-AV argument: "Do you want babies to die or an alternative voting system?" Sample Pro-AV argument: "Colin Firth reckons it's a good thing so you should vote yes."

It's easy to forget that all this was prompted by justifiable outrage over the endemic sense of entitlement that allowed MPs to think that claiming thousands of pounds of public money for duck ponds and non-existent mortgages was acceptable behaviour. Another system might at least force complacent MPs in "safe seats" to work harder on our behalf. But then again, is AV really the best alternative? Some say it offers little more than a tweak when a wholesale overhaul is what's needed to truly make every vote count.

Anyway, we have two days to decide and I can think of few more enjoyable – nay, joyful - pastimes in the post-Bank Holiday slump than reading up on electoral reform. With the royal wedding out of the way, it's not as though there's anything more exciting going on, is it?


Suggest a correction