Letter from Westminster

I am not sure that I would yet make the claim that the Scottish Parliament election campaign has set the heather ablaze but there is no denying that it has certainly captured the public imagination more forcefully than the other vote which we will be offered with our ballot papers next week, namely for the referendum on voting reform.

The choice which will face us next week is between the present “first past the post” system where we mark our ballot papers with a cross and the “alternative vote” (AV) where we mark our ballot papers by listing candidates in order of preference. To many in the London press this seems to be a crossing of the rubicon with all sorts of dire predictions about confused voters faced with an immensely complex system.

This is an argument which has rather less resonance in Scotland where people took very easily to the switch when it was introduced for council elections four years ago. In fact the system being offered is simpler even than that system as it elects one member only, not the three or four members in every area which are elected to councils.

Electoral reform has been Liberal policy since Jo Grimond was a boy and I am very much hoping that local people in the isles will deliver a yes vote next week. The system being offered is not ideal. The purists will tell you that the particular system being proposed is not perfect in that it does not deliver a House of Commons where the number of seats reflects the percentage of votes cast. The purists are right in that even if they rather miss the point – as purists tend to do.

The alternative vote will deliver a more proportional parliament and it will ensure that no-one should be elected without getting at least 50 per cent of the vote. Academics have calculated that this will make a significant difference to the number of so-called “safe seats” and you can see their point. At the moment in a three or four party system a candi­date need get only 40 per cent or so to maintain a pretty constant hold on a seat in parliament. In order to get elected that candidate need only appeal to that 40 per cent or so and is effectively able to disregard the remaining 60 per cent.

Change would also allow an end to “tactical voting” where people vote not for the party that they support but for the one most likely to beat the candidate they most dislike. Under AV the argument that any party’s vote is wasted is redun­dant. If your candidate does trail the others in third or fourth place then it can be transferred to your second preference.    Some of the arguments against change have verged on the hysterical – accuracy has clearly not been a valued quality. So I hope that next Thursday you will back a change this modest change to our political system. Is it complex? No. Is it earth shattering and radical? No again. Will it change our politics for the better? I believe it will.

Alistair Carmichael MP


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