Gale`s View – 9th March 2011
For getting on for twenty eight years I have been writing these columns because I believe that those that I represent have a right to know what I think about important local, national and, sometimes, international issues.
I have to recognise that a significant minority of those that read these views” will not agree with me and that on occasions even those who have consistently been good enough to vote for me may not share my stand over a particular issue. I have to live with that. I am not mandated. I have been elected to exercise my own judgement in the light of the knowledge, information and experience that is available to me and I do that openly, honestly and to the best of my ability.
In May, on the same day as the Local Council elections, there will be a referendum on the Alternative Vote system. I shall be campaigning for a no” vote and I shall be voting no”, accordingly, myself.
In every General Election but one since I was first elected to parliament in 1983 I have been fortunate enough to have received more than 50% of the votes cast. I can reasonably claim, therefore, to have no particularly personal vested interest in our tried and tested first-past-the-post voting system but I do not believe that changing the rules in the hope that minorities will benefit makes any sense at all. Let me explain.
Under the Alternative Vote system the voter is expected, instead of placing a cross beside the name of one candidate only, to number all of the candidates in order of preference” even if the voter does not in fact prefer” any of the other candidates at all. If no one candidate secures 50% or more of the votes cast first time around then the votes of the second, then third, then fourth, then fifth and so on preferences” are added in until eventually a winner” with more than half of the votes is arrived at. This is described as fair” because, it is claimed, it would mean that all votes count”.
In fact, it would mean no such thing. AV would lead to outcomes that are unfair, through a voting system that is unclear and that would deliver a political system that is effectively unaccountable.
AV will not make every vote count”, it will ensure that some votes count for more than others. Supporters of unpopular parties will have their votes counted several times while people who back the most popular party will have their vote counted only once. This is because if you vote for a mainstream candidate who tops the ballot in round one then your other preferences” will never be counted while if you vote for a fringe party, who gets knocked out your other preferences will be counted. So why should the Monster Raving Loony Party or the BNP be allowed, possibly, to deliver the election of a second or third choice candidate in place of the person that most people have voted for first? ( Caroline Lucas, the UK`s only Green Party MP, was elected with 31% of the vote in 2010. Under AV a second or third choice would almost certainly have been elected in her place!)
AV is used in only three countries in the World, Fiji, Australia and Papua New Guinea. Of those three Australia and Fiji want to abandon the system. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that even Nick Clegg, who wishes to rearrange the voting system in what he believes to be his party`s interests, has described AV as a miserable little compromise”. Whether you agree with Nick” or not there can be little doubt that, compared with the first-past-the-post system, where you give your support to just one candidate and the one with the most votes wins, AV is neither popular nor successful.
In 1982 I fought a by-election that has, to date, been the only parliamentary election that I have ever lost. I was beaten by just 279 votes. I did not scream foul” or call for a change in the system because I believed then, as I believe now, that if you win a race by a nose or a whisker then you have still won and those that have lost have to dust themselves off, re-think their approach, work or train harder and win next time. Trying to fix the odds so that the man or woman who comes second is given a place at the top of the podium is not the answer.
We do indeed need a change in our democratic system. At present some seats are much larger than others, some seats require many more votes to win than others and there are too many Members of Parliament. The same Act of Parliament that paved the way for the AV referendum in which I urge you to vote no” also made provision to both reduce the number of seats and level up the size of constituencies so that every vote will, at the next General Election, carry the same weight. Now that will, indeed, make a fair and real difference.