Last week MPs voted to hold a referendum over changing the way we elect representatives to Parliament. ROB ALDERSON speaks to people on both sides of the debate and explores what it could mean for Hastings and St Leonards.
HORNTYE PARK in the early hours of May 7, 2010, and the General Election count is drawing to a close. Rumours are rife that Amber Rudd has snatched the Hastings and Rye seat. Tory activists strut confidently around the hall while sitting MP Michael Foster looks increasingly glum.
Under the existing first past the post (FPTP) electoral system – where the candidate with the most votes wins – the result was confirmed within the hour. But in May the country will be asked whether future polls should be held under the alternative vote (AV) system instead, changing election nights, and politics in this country, forever.
Under AV, voters rank candidates in order of preference, and the winner needs to secure 50 per cent of all the votes cast. If nobody reaches that threshold after the initial votes are counted, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and second preferences on their ballots are redistributed. This continues until someone reaches the magic 50 per cent mark.
For Clive Bishop, coordinator of the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign for 1066 Country, it’s very straightforward. “This is not about the parties, it’s about the people and how they want to be represented. Nearly 60 per cent of people here did not actually vote for Amber Rudd – it would be better for her to be in Parliament with 50 per cent of the constituency supporting her.
“It would change electioneering in a very positive way – candidates would have to go out and get broader support, they wouldn’t just be able to play to their core voters.”
He dismissed claims that changing to AV would be too complicated and put people off voting. “People don’t have to rank the candidates if they don’t want to and anyone complaining about the cost of the changes should remember we have a completely unelected House of Lords that costs us about £100 million a year.”
At the last election, Ms Rudd secured 41 per cent of the vote, with Mr Foster on 37 per cent. As only 6.1 per cent of the votes went to the three smallest parties (The English Democrats, the BNP and UKIP) it would have been the 7,825 voters who plumped for Liberal Democrat Nick Perry whose second preferences would have determined whether Hastings and Rye stayed Labour red, or turned Tory blue.
Mr Perry believes Labour would have held the seat, but insists this is a debate about the future, not the past. “This is about trying to make politics less confrontational and two dimensional,” he said.
“The problem is that if voters think the LibDems cannot win under FPTP then they will vote for the least worst option between the main parties. AV would stop people voting tactically and less votes would be wasted. It makes seats a lot more competitive, and remember it was the safest seats where the worst abuses of MPs’ expenses took place.”
It is difficult to know what an AV Parliament would look like, but fringe parties like the BNP would almost certainly win seats for the first time. It is also predicted that the LibDems would be the big winners, mainly at the expense of the Tories, so unsurprisingly while LibDem leader Nick Clegg is spearheading the “Yes” campaign, Tory Prime Minister David Cameron supports the status quo.
And despite her brother Roland being the vice chairman of the “Yes” campaign, Amber Rudd MP is with her boss on this one. “The more I hear about AV the less I like it and I will be voting against it. The only thing which seems sure is that the LibDems will get more seats, and that would make coalitions more likely. That means compromises and voters not getting what was promised in manifestos. I don’t see that it would make MPs work harder or make them more accountable, and I would not welcome a situation where any major party is looking at how to win the BNP vote.”
Her views were echoed by Liam Atkins, a local Tory activist and staunch “No to AV” supporter. “If something’s not broken then why try to fix it?” he said.
Locally, Labour has not yet decided which side to support, but the party leader Ed Miliband is backing the “Yes” campaign.
Whichever way they go, we are sure to hear a lot more about AV over the coming weeks, which for Clive Bishop can only be a good thing. “Let’s hear what the British people think about it. I have been out on the streets and about one third of people have not made up their minds up yet. There is everything to play for.”