With all of the talk of electoral reform following the 2010 general election I thought I should do some reading up on the various systems being talked about, the four main ones that have been mentioned are:
Alternative Vote (AV)
The alternative vote system is the closest to the existing first past the post system that we have at the moment in the UK. It will keep the country divided into constituencies which elect one MP. The big difference comes in the way that you vote, instead of putting an X next to a single candidate you rank all of them in order of preference. Initially all of the 1s are counted up and if no-one has achieved 50% of the vote then the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated. The second preferences of this candidate are then added to the other candidates and this process is repeated until someone gets 50% of the votes.
This system of voting doesn’t actually tend to help minority parties that much as there is still a single winner for the constituency (it isn’t proper proportional representation). It would help tackle the problem of wasted votes though – whereby if you back a losing candidate your vote counts for nothing, instead your second ranked candidate would receive your vote and possible propel them to victory. It would also help to reduce tactical voting whereby you vote for a candidate that isn’t your first choice but has more chance of beating a candidate that you really don’t want. Under the AV system you will be able to rank your preferred candidate first and the more likely victor second and still keep out the other candidate.
Labour promised in their manifesto to hold a referendum to bring in this system and it is the one that the Conservatives promised to the Liberal Democrats yesterday.
Alternative Vote Top Up/Alternative Vote Plus (AV+)
This is very similar to the AV system above but as well as doing an instant run-off to determine your constituency representative your first choice vote will also go into electing members of parliament from a mega-constituency using proportional representation. These MPs would account for around 15-20% of the MPs elected and would be elected based on the number of votes a particular party receives in the traditional constituency election. This type of MP would be put forward on party lists and seats allocated to the top candidates on the list according to how many seats that party wins.
This maintains the advantages of having a constituency MP that you can visit but adds a proper proportional element that the AV system does not have. At the same time, because only 15-20% of the MPs come from the proportional part of it and as it is done in regional buckets this system should still avoid giving seats to MPs from extremist parties which is a risk in fully proportional systems. It does however mean that there will be two types of MPs in parliament.
This was the system that was suggested by the Jenkins Commission in 1998 which was set up specifically to recommend what the best voting system would be for the UK.
Single Transferable Vote (STV)
Again this is similar to the AV system as it is an instant run-off system that involves you ranking candidates in order of preference. However, unlike AV you are not just voting for a single MP but instead a set of MPs for a mega-constituency. As with the AV system an MP is only elected once they receive 50% of the vote and the candidates with the least votes are eliminated until this happens. However, once one candidate reaches 50% of the vote their votes are then redistributed according to the second preferences on the ballot papers. This process is repeated until enough MPs have 50% of the vote to fill the number of seats for that mega-constituency.
This breaks the traditional link between a single constituency and their MP but does reduce safe seats by a considerable amount.
This is the system that the Liberal Democrats suggested in their manifesto.
First Past the Post
Last but not least it is our existing system! Here the country is divided into multiple constituencies and voters select a single candidate from a list. Whichever of the candidates has the most votes becomes the MP for that constituency.
This system makes it a lot harder for smaller parties to win seats in parliament, especially if their vote is spread across multiple constituencies as was seen in the general election this year where the Liberal Democrats won under 9% of the seats with 23% of the vote and the Tories won over 46% of the seats with just 36% of the vote (as was repeated in Labour’s “landslide” victories over the last decade). This system also leads to safe seats where the incumbent is very unlikely to be challenged so the Prime Minister is often decided in a few constituencies as we saw this year with the Tory “target list” where they focussed most of their effort on swing seats knowing there was little point in the safer seats. Despite its drawbacks this system does tend to lead to strong mandates where an obvious winner emerges so back-room deals don’t determine who will run our country and what policies they will enforce.