Voting about voting: ‘reform’ or just change?

Two rival camps have just launched their campaigns for and against a change to our electoral system. On 5th May, every voter in Britain will be asked to decide. Which side will you support?

On May 5th, each one of the 40 million Britons eligible to vote will be asked to say 'yes' or 'no' to one question. The answer will determine the nature of our politics for decades to come.

The question? Do we want to use our existing 'first-past-the-post' (FPTP) voting system for general elections, or change to a different system called the 'alternative vote' (AV).

Currently, under FPTP, each local area chooses a Member of Parliament by voting once for their favourite on a list of candidates. The one with the most votes wins the seat.

It's simple to understand, but in most constituencies MPs are elected on far less than half the votes cast. It has also led to 'safe seats' where the largest party hardly ever gets voted out, and people increasingly don't bother to turn up on polling day.

The new system, if adopted, will force candidates to aim for 50 per cent support. AV lets each voter list their preferences, then the least popular is eliminated and his or her second preferences counted. Then the second lowest ranking candidate is eliminated, and so on until someone has passed the 50 per cent mark. The advantage is broader support for each MP. But it couldn't be less easy for people to understand.

The biggest pitfall for the pro-AV campaign is probably the danger that their movement is too closely identified with Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats, who have lost popularity since forming a coalition government with the Tories.

The Lib Dems have long favoured 'electoral reform,' and under AV they would get more MPs. But the Conservatives mostly oppose AV, so Clegg and Cameron will be arguing on different sides this time. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, is in favour of changing to AV, but over 100 of his MPs are against it.

Meanwhile, the 'no' lobby run the risk of being portrayed as blocks to progress and defenders of the status quo at a time when the public is still angry about the state of British politics after the recent House of Commons expenses scandal.

Pros and Conservatives
So, the campaigns have already begun, and both camps want to be seen as the reasonable side of the argument, drawing support from all political parties.

'The one thing that is certain is that this referendum is going to be very close and hard to predict,' says psephologist Mike Smithson.

At the beginning of May, the people will decide: do we want the old system or the new, will we choose 'reform', or reject 'change'?

You Decide

  1. Is 'reform' a neutral word? If not, why not?
  2. Politics has been described as 'show-business for ugly people.' What does this mean and is it fair?

Activities

  1. Hold a class vote about something simple - your favourite fruit, for example – under FPTP and AV. Do you prefer picking one fruit or listing preferences?
  2. The 'Oscars' now use an AV system to pick winning films and actors. Describe some other votes and how they work – the X Factor and other popularity shows, for example.

Some People Say...

“Politics is too far removed from my life for me to care about.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What is a referendum?
It's when the electorate get to decide in a direct vote on an issue of importance (usually our elections are to choose representatives, who then decide things on our behalf).
Why is it such a big deal?
This is only the second in British political history. In 1975 a campaign featuring politicians from all parties convinced 67 per cent of voters to approve continued membership of the EU.
History in the making, then?
Possibly. If it's a 'no' result, the question is unlikely to be asked again for at least a generation.
And what's the voting system for the referendum?
With only two options, it's a simple case of which answer gets more votes. But if there is a low turnout or a close result on the day, the answer is unlikely to silence the losing side!

Subjects

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