Referendum Makes Interesting Bedfellows in Britain

Britain's traditional voting system will be challenged in a referendum that splits the coaltion.

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Amiel Ungar, | updated: 23:10

Ed Miliband
Ed Miliband


Britain will go to a referendum on May 5 where the voters will be asked to approve or reject a change in its voting system from the "single past the post" system to the alternative vote (AV) system.

Under the current system, the candidate getting a plurality of the votes, but not necessarily a majority, is declared the victor and  represents his district at the parliament in Westminster.

There are usually three competitive parties and in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales nationalist parties are competitive. Independents occasionally win and there are additional parties that  pull votes such as the United Kingdom Independence Party or the British National Party. Therefore it is quite normal for the winning candidate to get 30% or less.

Under the AV system, voters select their favored candidate and  list second and third choices. If one candidate gets a majority of the vote, he will be elected as under the old system. If no one gets a majority, then the last candidate is eliminated and the second and third choices are factored in until one candidate gets a majority.

The supporters of the current system argue that "single past the post" creates a stable majority, although not in the last election, and therefore accountability. A government usually gets a clear majority to work with and its failure cannot be blamed on coalition difficulties or compromises.

In addition, for this referendum the No supporters have argued that a change in the system will require 350 million pounds to educate the voter and to administer it.

The big proponents of change are the Liberal Democrats, the junior members of the coalition, who feel that the current system victimizes them. The Liberal Democrat vote has been respectable but more dispersed than the Conservatives and Labour. The Conservatives are the dominant party in rural Britain and in the more prosperous south of the country. Labour bastions are the old northern industrial heartland and Scotland.

Liberal Democrats would regularly finish second to Labor in the North and to the Conservatives in the South. In a  "pass the post system" to be a silver medalist is as futile as coming in dead last. What the Liberals would really like is proportional representation. That would have been dead in the water because it promised continental European style coalitions evoking instant voter rejection. AV, should it pass, is expected to provide some help to the Liberal Democrats.

The Conservatives agreed to the referendum as part of the coalition dowry and it was agreed that each party would campaign on opposing sides of the issue. The Conservatives would be the clear losers in the event of a yes victory.

Labour is split on the issue and the divisions cross the old party fissures between supporters and opponents of Tony Blair.  Those in favor of the yes believe that the current coalition is an aberration and the Liberal Democrats are much closer to Labor than to the Conservatives. Therefore, strengthening the Liberals at the expense of the Conservatives will insure Labour led coalitions. This is the position of party leader Ed Miliband who has been making joint appearances with Liberal Democrat leaders.

Most of the Labour Party parliamentary faction is supporting the no side and Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has appeared with former Home Secretary John Reid of Labour. Labour opponents of AV would prefer to rule without the Liberals and argue that if AV had been in effect during the last elections Labour would have lost 20 additional seats.