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Electoral Reform Public Meeting votes yes to the Alternative Vote

as a small step, while much preferring proper proportional representation

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Kate SweenyCraig WhittakerNader FekriSusan Press

Local politicians Cllr. Nader Fekri, Craig Whittaker MP, Cllr Susan Press and Kate Sweeny of the Green Party were the speakers at a public meeting in Hebden Bridge yesterday evening.

The meeting at Hebden Bridge Town Hall was attended by 50-60 people last night showed support for voting for the Alternative Vote (AV) system at next year's referendum on electoral reform.

The meeting was chair by Chris Sawer, Hebden Royd Town councillor, also chair of the Upper Valley Liberal Democrats who organised the debate. Chris explained that our current voting system was one where the person who wins the highest number of votes wins the seat. The AV system of voting would mean that we would put candidates in order of preference. If no one candidate received more than 50% of the votes, the candidate receiving the least votes would be eliminated and his or her votes allocated to the remaining candidates according to second preferences. This would continue until one candidate received 50%.

Nader Fekri was the first to speak. He said that the first past the post system that we have now was broken and unfit for purpose. Most other countries had abandoned this form of voting. In the 2010 General Election, fewer than one in three constituencies elected an MP with more than 50% of the votes. 40% of the parliamentary constituencies have elected the same party since 1970. 29% of constituencies have elected the same party since the Second World War. 11% of constituencies have elected the same party since the First World War and 31 constituencies have remained unchanged since the time of Queen Victoria.

This leads to complacency and is probably connected to the decline in turnout at elections since the war, and leads to Governments supported by just over a third of those voting.

AV is not the answer, Nader argued. The Liberal Democrats want the single transferable vote version of proportional representation (PR). But the AV system would be one small step, and it has the advantage that it retains the link with the constituency MP. He claimed, though this was later disputed by the other speakers, that AV would have led to the following results at the General Election: Conservative, 280 seats, Labour 260 seats and Liberal Democrats 80 seats.

Susan Press spoke next opposing the AV proposal. She quoted from Nick Clegg who described it as a "miserable little compromise". Susan emphasised that the debate was not about PR which she would support. It is about changing to a system which is very similar to what we have already got. She pointed out that Green MP Caroline Lucas proposed an amendment to the referendum bill which would have allowed people to vote for PR, and that not one of the Liberal Democratic MPs supported this amendment.

The Electoral Reform Society, she said, argues that the only fair way of voting is PR. In the Labour Party, opinion was divided but there was anger that Nick Clegg had agreed to allowing the Tories to redraw the boundaries in return for the referendum on AV. In Liverpool, it would have made no change at all as all Labour MPs received more than 50%.

It would, argued Susan Press, push politics permanently into the centre.

Kate Sweeny said she agreed with Nader Fekri about the problems with the current election system, which is not fair to the small or the middle parties. Where she grew up in East Yorkshire, there was little point in campaigning or voting because a Tory candidate was always returned. Kate echoed the point that there was a correlation between MPs in safe seats and those accused of ripping off the most parliamentary expenses.

Kate referred to the supposed landslide Thatcher victory of 1983. 42% of the those voting voted for the Conservatives on a 72% turnout. The landslide victory was actually the will of less than 30% of the electorate.

The Liberal Democrats made a mistake in accepting the offer of a referendum on AV; they should have held out for PR, which they would probably have got. AV isn't PR and is a 'miserable little compromise' but it is nevertheless better than what we have now.

Craig Whittaker told the meeting that he was open minded but had not yet heard a decent argument in favour of AV. He thinks it's good that people wil have their say in a referendum, but personally he doesn't think the current system of voting is broken or beyond repair. What is unfair, he argued, is the differences in size of constituency.

The current first past the post system of voting is simple, well known and would be confusing to change. He questioned whether it was a fairer system. As candidates with lower votes are eliminated their votes are redistributed. But those with the most votes don't have their votes redistributed. In the recent Labour Party leadership election, this meant that Ed Milliband's votes were not redistributed.

Craig grew up partly in Australia where there is compulsory voting which leads to more wasted votes - 1.3 million in a recent Australian election.

Kate Sweeny made the point that it's not possible to say what the 2010 would have been with a different electoral system. Even with AV, people may have decided to vote differently, and there was good reason to believe that the Greens could have won another seat: Norwich. She also dismissed Craig Whittaker's suggestion that AV and PR would be too complex. "We are clever enough, I think."

Kate referred to when she lived in Ireland where the the single transferable vote (STV) form of PR was the electoral system. The winner won after several recounts by 27 votes. She said she was 50 years old and that is the only time her vote has ever made a difference. In 1993, New Zealand voted by 85% to change the voting system. If we don't vote for AV at the referendum, it will be our last chance to change the voting for a generation.

Susan Press dismissed the Liberal Democrats talk about fairness when "they sold the country down the river."

Craig Whittaker said that AV isn't fair. "Nor is the current system" came the retort. "Well life's like that," said Craig Whittaker. He claimed that under AV, the Calder Valley would still have had a Concervative MP in 2010.

Questions and points of view were then made by members of the audience, and responded to by the four speakers.

Points made during general discussion included

  • Most Presidential systems have two rounds, if the first round doesn't give a candidate 50%. The French parliamentary system works in the same way.
  • In 1951 Churchill won the election for the Conservatives with less votes than Labour.
  • There should be an option on the ballot paper: "none of the above".
  • With PR, there may be less opportunity for voters actually knowing the candidate which could lead to "donkey voting".
  • Both Labour and Conservatives benefit from the current system so it's not surprising they don't want to change it.
  • Labour has 13 years when it could have changed the voting system
  • In 1929, Labour introduced a bill to bring in PR; the Liberal Democrats voted against it.
  • At the end of the Second World War, Britain decided that the best system for Germany was PR

A vote was taken at the end of the meeting. Out of the 50-60 who attended, only three voted against AV, and two voted against PR of any kind. The vast majority indicated that the will vote in favour of AV at the election.


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