It's Thursday, 05 May 2011 and the British are being given the opportunity to decide in a Referendum on whether or not to change the way the electorate votes and chooses its MPs. On offer, is sticking with the current system of electing one outright winner who simply gets the largest number of votes cast, commonly known as "First-past-the-post" (FPTP) or, to change to an Alternative Voting system (AV) whereby the winning candidate must obtain more than 50 per cent of all votes cast - more than the others combined - in order to be elected.
Both systems will keep one-member constituencies; both systems are "winner-takes-all" but whereas FPTP gives one person, one vote, the AV system that is being offered in the 05 May 2011 Referendum, allows the voter to list, in order, their preferences of all the prospective candidates on the ballot paper. Unlike the Australian AV system, the ballot paper in the UK will remain valid if the voter simply puts a "1" against their preferred candidate and makes no other choice, or they can number in order of preference as many of the other aspiring candidates they choose.
Simple and straightforward though FPTP is, it does have its detractors. The main criticism is that it over-represents the larger political parties, often flattering the winning party in particular, whilst under-representing smaller parties - such as the Liberal Democrats. A knock-on effect, many claim, is voter apathy and a lower turn out at general elections - the "wasted vote", or constituencies where either of the two main parties have won for generations. Typically, at a general election in the UK, 30 per cent or more of voters do not exercise their right to vote and this is surely bad for democracy.
Looking at the returns for the votes returned in the UK's 2005 General Election, excluding Northern Ireland, Labour won just over 56 per cent of the seats in Parliament with 36 per cent of the vote. Second came the Conservatives with just over 31 per cent of the seats with a third of the votes cast. Third, the Liberal Democrats got over 22 per cent of the vote but a mere 10 per cent of the seats.
In terms of House of Commons seats, Labour was close to a "landslide" result and able to pass any legislation they pleased with the "support of the country", whilst it was good of the Lib Dems to bother turning up at the polling station.
The Referendum therefore is for the best? Not exactly. It is the price the Conservatives are having to pay for not gaining a clear majority of seats in the House of Commons and the formation of the coalition after the May 2010 General Election. The consolation for Conservatives is the Prime Minister, David Cameron's insistence that he and his Party did not have to support the change to the AV system.
The only major party solidly behind the "Yes" campaign is the Liberal Democrats. Ed Miliband, Labour Party Leader has chosen to campaign for the "Yes" campaign and might be able to persuade half of his MPs to follow suit with varying degrees of enthusiasm. That will probably leave the other Labour MPs voting with the Conservatives - who says democracy doesn't work! Opinion polls expect 60 per cent to vote "No" and 40 per cent, "Yes" to AV in the Referendum.
The biggest "hitter" in the "No" campaign is undoubtedly the Prime Minister, David Cameron. Quoting the Conservative's flier that I presume has been sent to most households in the UK he says:
VOTE NO TO AV ON 05 MAY
The 'Alternative Vote' is an unfair system that allows candidates who finish third to win elections. I urge you to vote 'No' to AV on 05 May, otherwise Britain could be stuck with an expensive and discredited voting system for generations to come.
Signed David Cameron.
On the other side it emphasizes its unfairness because "some people's votes would be counted more than others' "; only three countries in the world use it; and "under AV, the person who comes second or third can end up winning".
The biggest problem by far for the Liberal democrats and the "Yes" campaign in general, is that they have not been able to put across the relative simplicity of AV and Mr Cameron's flier above goes unquestioned and frightens people.
AV is relatively simple. Voters rank candidates in order of preference - simply "1" if they so choose in the proposed UK version. If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the votes cast, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and that person's second preference votes are allocated to the remaining field. If necessary, the process is repeated using the second round loser's second preference votes, until such time as one candidate gains more than 50 per cent.
It is possible for a candidate who came second in the first preference vote count to ultimately be declared the winner just as it is possible to win a constituency under the current system by less than 50 votes. Stories I've read in the press of the BNP candidate's fourth or fifth preference vote deciding the result misrepresents the system. Provided there is a single member constituency, it is most unlikely to even require the third preference votes of the electorate.
The AV system in Australia came about after the formation of the Country Party, a conservative party representing rural areas, split the Liberal Party - another conservative party - vote in the Swan by-election in 1918 and let Labour win on a minority vote! The electorate did not wish to bend to the will of a minority. Since that time Australia has become used to having coalition governments.
The real question is: "Does Britain want to become used to coalition governments?"