As part of his deal to become deputy Prime Minister, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has abandoned his party’s policy of introducing a proportional representation “single transferable vote” (STV) system for the “alternative vote” (AV) system which the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) has dismissed as “even more disproportional than the first-past-the-post” system.
The shocking reversal of core Lib Dem policy is bound to sit uneasily with its supporters. The Liberal Democrats, just like the British National Party, bear the brunt of disproportional elections which see vote tallies not reflected in seats in parliament.
According to the Liberal Democratic 2010 election manifesto, that party promised to “(C)hange politics and abolish safe seats by introducing a fair, more proportional voting system for MPs. Our preferred Single Transferable Vote system gives people the choice between candidates as well as parties.”
However, in terms of the deal Mr Clegg struck with the Tories, the Lib Dems have now agreed to hold a referendum on the introduction of an AV system rather than their promised STV system, despite the differences between the two systems being vast.
According to the ERS (which officially backs the STV system and thus was inclined to support the Lib Dems), STV is a preferential voting system in which votes are initially allocated to an elector's most preferred candidate.
After candidates have been either elected or eliminated, STV then transfers surplus or unused votes according to the voters' stated preferences. According to the ERS, this minimises "wasted" votes, provides proportional representation, and ensures that votes are explicitly cast for individual candidates rather than party lists.
It achieves this by using multi-seat constituencies (voting districts) and by transferring votes that would otherwise be wasted on sure losers or winners to other eligible candidates.
According to the ERS, STV ensures that each voter gets one vote, which can transfer from their first-preference to their second-preference and so on, as necessary. Candidates don't need a majority of votes to be elected, just a known 'quota', or share of the votes, determined by the size of the electorate and the number of positions to be filled.
If a preferred candidate has no chance of being elected or has enough votes already, the vote is transferred to another candidate in accordance with the elector’s instructions.
“STV thus ensures that very few votes are wasted, unlike other systems, especially the First-Past-the-Post, where only a small number of votes actually contribute to the result,” the ERS says.
The AV system, now endorsed by the Lib Dems, is “very much like First-Past-the-Post (FPTP),” continued the ERS explanation of the two systems.
“Like FPTP, it is used to elect representatives for single-member constituencies, except that rather than simply marking one solitary 'X' on the ballot paper, the voter has the chance to rank the candidates on offer.
“The voter thus puts a '1' by their first-preference candidate, and can continue, if they wish, to put a '2' by their second-preference, and so on, until they don't care anymore or they run out of names,” the ERS explains.
“In some AV elections, such as most Australian elections, electors are required to rank all candidates.
If a candidate receives a majority of first-preference votes (more people put them as number one than all the rest combined), then they are elected.
“If no candidate gains a majority on first preferences, then the second-preference votes of the candidate who finished last on the first count are redistributed. This process is repeated until someone gets over 50 percent.
“AV is thus not a proportional system, and can in fact be more disproportional than FPTP,” said the ERS, adding that the AV system does “not give proportionality to parties or other bodies of opinion, in Parliament.
“Research by Democratic Audit in 1997 showed that the results could actually be even more distorting than under first-past-the-post,” the ERS said.
“It also does very little to give a voice to those who have been traditionally under-represented in parliament” and as there is “no transfer of powers from party authority to the voters, it does not produce a proportional parliament,” the ERS concluded.
In other words, the AV system is no improvement upon the existing system and is merely designed to make it more difficult for a party such as the BNP to gain parliamentary representation.
The AV system is obviously a sleight of hand which is directed against the BNP and is not aimed at improving democracy in Britain. Rather, Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg’s sudden conversion to AV are an indication that they have now fully comprehended the meaning of the BNP’s surge in vote totals in last week’s election — and are desperate to undermine democracy even further.