Flaws remain

The decisive rejection of the Alternative Vote (AV) system by the British electorate in a referendum held on May 5 has set back any possibility of electoral reforms there by many years. The overwhelming support of 69 per cent for those who said no to change, as against 31 per cent for those who wanted it, was a surprise.  The flaws of the first-past-the post (FPTP) system which exists in many countries, including India, are well-known. Most elected representatives win seats even when they secure only a minority of votes.

The system therefore is not adequately representative. The AV system is considered an improvement. Under it the voters would rank all candidates in their order of preference. If no candidate gets more than 50 per cent votes in the first round, the second preference votes of the candidate who comes last would be redistributed. The redistribution process would continue till someone gets 50 per cent.

The referendum was held because the Liberal Democrats who are partners in a coalition with the Tories had made it a condition for their support last year. The Tories are against the AV system because they would lose seats under it. The Labour is divided on the issue. Lib Dems had for long demanded a proportional system because they have suffered under the  present system. In the last election they won about 25 per cent of votes but got only 10 per cent of the seats.

The present system favours parties whose support is geographically concentrated and ensures that MPs continue to hold ‘safe’ seats. Its one advantage is that it tends to avoid political instability. But AV would have made the system more representative and in fact truly democratic by making smaller parties more relevant. It might even have persuaded the MPs to work harder to secure wider support from the constituents. It has worked well in countries like Australia.

The idea was rejected by the voters perhaps because it sounded more complex than the FPTP system. The voters probably punished the Lib Dems for their association with the Tories and in the process the AV idea which they championed was also rejected.   Liberal Democrats will take a long time to recover from their electoral disaster and the idea of electoral reforms will also have to wait.

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