So wrangles about how and when to hold a referendum on the future of the UK’s election system rumble on… and how messy the whole thing gets.
The only given is that there will be a referendum sometime in this parliament – it’s in the coalition deal. So even if some people have the incentive to stop even that I won’t go into that issue.
What do the Tories want? They do not want AV because they think it will not benefit them. They do want a reduction in the number of seats (from 650 to 600) because that will assist them as city seats will be reduced. They want seat boundaries decided according to numbers on the electoral register, not numbers eligible to be on the register, because numbers on the register already are higher in their areas of support. Finally they do not want the referendum on 1st May 2011 as a higher turnout, especially in Scotland and Wales, will assist the Yes side.
What does Labour want? They mildly want AV as it might favour them, and will not favour the Tories. They do not want a reduction in the number of seats. Boundaries decided according to numbers eligible to be on the electoral register would assist Labour as younger voters and ethnic minorities are more likely to vote Labour and numbers on the register now are lowest among those groups. 1st May 2011 for the referendum is OK as it might assist the Yes side, and Labour is moderately in favour of AV.
What do the Lib Dems want? They strongly want AV as election reform has been a core party policy for as long as anyone can remember. They have argued for a reduction in the number of seats to reduce waste, and as they get some support in rural areas it might benefit them electorally too. It’s unclear what their position on the electoral register issue would be – here the Tories seem to be in the driving seat. They want the referendum to be on 1st May because that will boost turnout, and that will assist the Yes side.
What a mess! That’s no way to reform an electoral system…
How would it look if you applied some principles to it, rather than electoral advantage?
For a start you would not bundle the issue of the system and the number of seats together – those would be split as they are two separate issues. So the question would be posed as to what the system would be, and then the second question on whether the number of MPs should be reduced.
The clear, principled position is that everyone’s vote should count equally and that poor levels of electoral registration need to be addressed – so equal sized constituencies on the basis of population eligible to be on the register, not actual numbers on it now, is clearly the principled approach. Same for the referendum date – it should not be 1st May 2011 as this would boost turnout unequally across the country as not all of the country has local or Assembly / Parliament elections at that time.
So – on principle – you should have a referendum with two questions, constituencies on the basis of population eligible to be on the register, and a referendum date that’s not 1st May.
As it stands at the moment we’re going to get precisely the opposite – one question on AV and a seat reduction in the bill, constituency sizes on the basis of those on the register, and a referendum on 1st May 2011.