THE referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) on May 5 is of historic constitutional significance, the results of which will be felt for at least a generation.
The existing means of electing MPs by First Past the Post (FPTP) is a dinosaurian anachronism. It was designed for the old two-party system but, with the present varied poitical spectrum, it has long ceased to be a fair way of representing the views of the electorate.
Now, more often than not, an MP takes his or her seat with less that 50 per cent backing from the electors (sometimes with under 40 per cent or even one vote in three). Conversely, this means that over 50 per cent voted for other candidates.
The present FPTP system cannot make sense of that anomaly. AV attempts to make voting more representative by ensuring that an MP has over 50 per cent support due to the use of second preferences. There will thus be fewer safe seats meaning that no longer will it be up to voters in a few marginal seats to decide the outcome of an election. The greater involvement of ordinary electors in the democratic process should go some way to counter voter apathy.
Under the AV system, parliamentary candidates have to appeal to a broader section of the electorate and, once elected, MPs will have to strive to retain that broader appeal.
A broader appeal means of necessity that AV militates against narrow, extremist candidates. Alternatively, AV means that other smaller parties with a broader appeal have more chance of representation. As a member of the Green Party I must declare an interest here. But, nevertheless, this constitutes a fairer system.
Some of the opponents of AV claim that it is complicated. Whilst the vote count is undoubtedly more time consuming, the act of voting itself is simply a matter of listing candidates in order of preference (1, 2, 3, 4 etc). However, any voter who so wishes may still vote in the old way, for just one candidate. In fact AV is already used in the election of union reps and leaders of political parties and by MPs to elect the speaker.
AV detractors claim that it is vastly more expensive that FPTP. Not so, as there are no plans nor need to introduce electronic counting machines. Interestingly, this argument reveals a distorted sense of values for surely democracy is a pearl beyond price, the struggle for which has taken many precious lives in the past.