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.


  1. One point. The seat equalisation takes place regardless of the referendum result, and has nothing to do with the referendum.

    Ergo, there is one referendum, with one question, on one issue.

    Personally, I’d rather follow the New Zealand model, “do you want to change the voting system Y/N” and then “if we change the voting system, what should we use 1/2/3/4” but that’s not going to happen with either the current Tory or Labour party leaderships or senior memberships, and it’s too long to wait until we get the right people senior enough.

    I personally have no problem with the date, it’s a simple question, and I’d rather deliver AV yes leaflets at the same time as Vote LibDem leaflets in our council elections than have to do the whole lot again in September, plus it’d be nice to get the issue settled for this Parliament.

    Plus, with the Bill as is, boundary review after every GE, fairly easy to push for STV at the next boundary review if the political will is there.

    I think the boundary review has to be on those registered; it’s for those registered by the end of this year, ie the end of a years registration process, so there’s still months to get people on the rolling register, and a clear incentive for those areas that are under registered to get out and register people. If the review is always done with the electoral register from the end of the calender year containing a GE, then it’s going to have the highest registration levels likely–note all the touted “X percentage aren’t registered” numbers are from studies done by the electoral commission a few years back, there was a massive spike in registrants in the run up to this election, my ward saw a couple hundred extras on the register, and it’s a traditionally high registrant area.

    Ultimately, I don’t believe in compulsory voting (although I would like to see the penalties for not registering better enforced), and if someone isn’t going to register to vote for the closest and least predictable GE for nearly 20 years then I suspect they’re unlikely to register at all.

    However, I’m not sure the anlaysis that AV favours Labour over Tories is correct, at least not anymore.

    I strongly suspect AV will see LD first prefs fall, but not massively (mine is up for grabs from a decent Green candidate). And if Labour keep behaving the way they have been towards LDs, LD voters will be much more likely to give their second prefs to the Tories until the Labour leadership (and indeed backbenchers) grow up.

  2. Matthew Cain


    I agree with splitting the question. If nothing else because it will become so difficult that it will be hard for some to understand.

    I do think Labour’s on totally the wrong side of this argument in principle – by opposing the recalibration of seats to size.

    Just a practical point – how can you possibly work out how many people ‘should’ be on the register? Particularly in fluid inner-cities where there’s a 20%+ churn in between elections that’s going to be a nightmare for the commission to sort through; no?

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