This year could herald the first general election in a long time in which the finer points of voting systems become a hot political topic.
The Liberal Democrats, traditionally the party of voting reform, have surged in the polls, Labour is offering a referendum on the Alternative Vote system, and the Tories insist our electoral rules mean ‘Vote Clegg, get Brown’.
The urgency of the issue is exacerbated by, currently placed third by several pollsters, could still end up the party with the most number of seats in Westminster. The discrepancy has moved the issue of voting reform up the agenda, but so far the Conservatives have remained unconvinced.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4 this weekend, Conservative party chairman Eric Pickles restated the Tory commitment to the current first past the post voting (FPTP) system.
“I think it is a much fairer one than PR which tend to exaggerate any trends that take place”.
What are the arguments for FPTP justify Mr Pickles claim that is fairer?
Scrutinising Mr Pickles claim is challenging, because he talks about PR systems in general. The two main proposals for reforming the system are the Single Transferable Vote (STV) and the Alternate Vote system. Although purists argue that AV is not a system of true proportional representation.
For clarity, we contacted the Conservatives for further details behind Mr Pickles to find out what Mr Pickles meant by his statement.
The Single Transferable Vote system (STV), favoured by the Liberal Democrats, could be considered fairer than FPTP in the sense that it enables a system that reflects the electoral make-up of a constituency, rather than the current winner takes all system.
However, the Conservatives dispute this necessarily being more fair, a statement from the party argued:
“Far from proportional systems like STV resulting in a government with the support of the electorate, it typically results in a coalition government for which no-one voted.”
However, the parties’ present poll positions suggest a coalition government may be created by the current system. Indeed polling evidence has suggested the public may favour a hung parliament ahead of a Conservative or Labour majority.
Indeed the website Voteforachange.co.uk is actively campaigning for a hung parliament in the 2010 campaign, in order to obtain further electoral reform.
Supporters of STV have rejected Mr Pickles claim that proportional systems would “exaggerate any trends” in the vote.
A spokesman for the Vote for a Change campaign said: “Claiming that PR systems exaggerate voting trends more than FPTP is just factually wrong.
“The whole point of proportional representation, in its many forms, is that the number of seats won by a party is in proportion to the number of votes it wins.”
Pro-reform groups argue that it is the small number of votes in marginal constituencies which actually exaggerate trends. As Ashley De of the Electoral Reform Society told us
“Landslides are possible under FPTP when only a handful of voters in supermarginals change their minds.
“We worked out a while ago that with new boundaries it only takes 8000 voters to move us into hung parliament territory.”
This is an argument used by other critics of the current system. Campaign group Unlock Democracy, who claim that as few as 35,000 voters in key swing seats could ultimately decide the result.
However part of the criticism levelled at PR systems by Mr Pickles does to hold more against the Alternate Vote system.
The Conservatives argue that AV “typically results in outcomes which are even more disproportional than first past the post, and can result in a Government with a huge majority on little more than a third of the vote.”
Supporters of the AV system accept that the system has the potentially to exaggerate a result in certain respect. As Peter Kellner, co-founder YouGov argued in a speech to the Fabian Society
“The Tories would have won even fewer seats than they did in 1997 and 2001; but the Lib Dems would have won more. There is a reason for this. The Conservatives were extremely unpopular.
AV rewards parties that the public likes, and punishes those it dislikes. Such distortions may worry proportional purists, but should not trouble those of us who think general elections should lead to a clear choice of outcome,
Although of course this is not to say the system produces such trends at every turn. The Australians have found it a workable system since 1918.
As the analysis above shows, Mr Pickles statement over the weekend was inaccurate, due to the lumping together of different electoral reform systems.
His criticism that trends in voting become exaggerated is something that even those in favour of AV accept could happen, but seems less applicable to an actual proportionate system like Single Transferable Vote.
While this may seem an academic point, with electoral reform moving up the news agenda, the need for accuracy will only become more crucial.
The question of fairness, however, will be much more difficult to settle.
by Patrick Casey