Friday, 30 July 2010

AV Referendum

There's been some criticism coming from the coalition over Labour's decision to oppose the bill which would allow the referendum on a change to AV voting to go ahead. I thought I'd clear up how its perfectly legitimate to support voting reform (indeed I'd rather we had more reform than just AV) but still oppose this bill which would allow a referendum.

I'll start with what the actual referendum is about, the Alternative Vote. At the moment we use the First past the post (FPTP) system to decide who should be the MP for a certain constituency and the party with the majority of constituencies becomes the government. (Right now we have 650 MP's so any one party needs 326, or parties can work together like the ConDems have done) As it is, everyone gets one vote and whoever wins the most votes in a constituency becomes MP. However, this can be problematic. If two parties are similar then they can split each others vote and mean a less popular party gets in because it doesn't have its vote split. There are other problems in terms of winning votes but not seats (as explained here by a Tory supporting blogger, just to be partisan).

In AV voting we still keep constituencies but rather than getting one vote you can instead rank the candidates. After all the first choices have been counted if no one has 50% of the vote then the second choices get counted and added to the totals. This goes on until someone has 50% and that person is then the winner. This is just one of several choices for reform, you can find the others here.

So back to the point of this post, why are Labour opposing this bill when they had AV reform in their manifesto, is it opportunism like Cameron claims? Well, no is the simple answer.

The reason being that this bill isn't simply for a referendum on AV, it also includes reform to constituency boundaries, which we can't accept. If Cameron did the decent thing and put two separate bills through then we could wholeheartedly support the AV referendum.

The boundary changes are an attempt to equalise the number of voters voting for each MP, which by itself is no bad thing as some constituencies are considerably bigger than others at the moment effectively meaning some people's votes are worth more than others.

What I and others have more of an issue with is the way they propose going about changing the sizes. It is still  very easy to gerrymander (draw the boundaries in such a way that the opposition vote is split and so can't win a seat despite having the same votes) seats that have equal numbers, and that is what these proposals amount to. There are a few reasons why I think the way they plan to do this is deeply unfair and solely aimed at keeping Labour out of power.

Firstly, the speed that they hope to push through the changes means that they will have no chance to tackle the problem of people who aren't registered on the electoral register. If they aren't on the register they are effectively frozen out of the whole process. This problem of under-registration is most severe in dense urban areas, the very seats which Labour typically win. By going ahead with the reform before making sure people are registered they will ensure that urban areas, and by proxy Labour, are under-represented.

That's also the case with the arbitrary reduction of the number of seats from 650 to 600. Why, when they want to give more power to people, are they reducing the influence that the public has. This cut will mean each member of the public has proportionally less representation than before. And more than that, the devious choice of 50 seats to be rid of is designed purely for political gain. The cuts of 50 seats will mainly hurt Labour as we lose a quarter of Welsh seats and historically Labour held seats are merged.

Then there's the much more obvious deception of the Lib Dem's who have put in special exemptions for a small number of seats, which coincidentally happen to be held by themselves and will provide them with safe seats that they might otherwise have lost. It's the most blatant gerrymandering element of the whole bill.

My final reason for opposing it is that far from their idea of 'big society' this is hurting the local community's power to have a say. Traditionally, local communities have had the chance to appeal against certain boundary changes that would cut across tight knit areas. This bill removes the public right to challenge, and gives all that power to central government. Hardly in keeping with the Cameron rhetoric of less centralisation is it?

In short, neither partner in the coalition wants one half of this bill, the Tory's don't want AV and the Libs don't want this change in boundaries. That's the only reason I could think that these two distinctly separate issues are being packaged together as one. If we want to oppose blatant gerrymandering we have to oppose the part of it we actually want as well, AV reform. Its a stunt from Cameron so that he can paint Labour as going back on their word when in fact we've done nothing of the sort. In case you're still not convinced, here's what the Labour ammendment actually said:

“That this House, whilst affirming its belief that there should be a referendum on moving to the Alternative Vote system for elections to the House of Commons, declines to give a Second Reading to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill because it combines that objective with entirely unrelated provisions designed to gerrymander constituencies by imposing a top-down, hasty and undemocratic review of boundaries...

The solution is simple, split the bill in two, let us vote for the referendum and oppose this blatant political cheating that they are trying to push through.

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