AV or not AV?

Houses of Parliament in Westminster
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FIRST past the post might be an acceptable way to decide a horse race. But is it the best way to elect a government?

That is the question which will be asked of the electorate on May 5, when the Alternative Vote referendum is held.

Residents voting at the local council elections will be given an additional ballot paper on which to select their preferred method of electing MPs to Westminster.

At the moment, the candidate who gets the most votes in their constituency wins the seat. Simple.

But a look at local results from the 2010 General Election, shows only two of our five winners polled more than half the total vote in their constituencies, with Lancaster and Fleetwood MP Eric Ollerenshaw attracting only 36 per cent at the ballot box.

Nationally, two thirds of MPs are now elected with less than 50 per cent support. Supporters of the Alternative Vote (or AV) say this is not fair and is undermining democracy.

If it were to be adopted, the AV system would see voters rank candidates in order of preference in their constituency. (Although people can vote for only one person if they want to.)

Only first preference votes are counted initially and, if one candidate secures more than 50 per cent – as did Wyre and North Preston MP Ben Wallace and Fylde MP Mark Menzies in 2010 – then they are duly elected. But if that does not happen, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their second choices allocated to the remaining nominees in a second round of counting.

This continues until one candidate gets more than half the vote.

So if the AV system had been in place last year, Blackpool’s two MPs, Gordon Marsden (who polled 41 per cent of the vote), and Paul Maynard (with 42 per cent), would have faced a nail-biting second, and maybe even third count, to see if they had garnered enough second preference votes to get across the finishing line.

The referendum is the outcome of post-election horse-trading between the Conservatives and Lib Dems, when the Tories conceded a vote on AV as part of the negotiations which led to the formation of the coalition government.

Fylde Lib Dem Coun Howard Henshaw is one of those who says moving over to AV will be fairer.

He said: “At the moment you get a lot of MPs who only get 30 per cent of the vote so 70 per cent of the electorate haven’t voted for them. So you end up with safe seats and MPs who aren’t bothered about the electorate.

“Under AV, but using second preference votes, candidates who are acceptable to the whole electorate would come to the top.”

Blackpool South Labour MP Gordon Marsden is also a supporter of AV.

He said: “I have been a supporter of the principle of AV ever since I first stood in Blackpool in 1992.

“I think people want to feel there is firm backing from the majority of the electorate and I think AV delivers that.

“It also retains the physical link between an MP and their constituency, while ensuring as many people as possible have a stake in the election.”

But opponents of AV say the first past the post system provides a more stable government and is easy to understand.

They argue getting the most ‘first’ votes should be all that counts, and that putting candidates in Parliament who may have got the most ‘runners-up’ votes is more likely to produce indecisive outcomes and weak governments.

Blackpool North and Cleveleys MP Paul Maynard believes the current system should remain.

He said; “I will be voting ‘no’ because, while no system is ever perfect, what we have now is easy to understand. The alternative will make little difference to the outcome of elections as it only changes the outcome in three to four per cent of seats, if that.

“It is a ‘miserable little compromise’ in Nick Clegg’s own words, and I will not be supporting it.”

Both sides of the argument are now wheeling out celebrity supporters with the likes of Colin Firth, Joanna Lumley and John Cleese said to be in favour of saying yes to AV.

Meanwhile, sports stars, perhaps more used to winning by close margins, are among those who want to retain the status quo.

Former England cricket captain David Gower said he would “much rather have the best, albeit with a little fallibility.”

Votes will be counted on May 6, the day after the local elections, with the outcome of the referendum expected later that evening. If the nation comes out in favour of AV, it will be used for future elections to the House of Commons.

shelagh.parkinson@ blackpoolgazette.co.uk