By David Bowers and Joshua Boswell - 3rd September 2010
The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill contains two major provisions which, if passed, would mean major changes for the UK electoral system: a referendum on the alternative vote and reducing the number of constituencies to 600.
The first part of the Bill allows for the holding of a referendum – scheduled for 5 May 2011 – on changing the voting system for Westminster elections from first past the post the alternative vote (AV) system.
Elections held under the AV system would see voters ranking candidates in terms of their preferences. In constituencies where no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the votes based on first preferences the lowest-ranking candidate is discarded and the second preferences from these ballots added to the tally for the remaining candidates. This process continues for as many rounds as necessary until one candidate crosses the 50 per cent threshold.
Research by the Electoral Reform Society suggests that this system would not have a profound impact on the UK political landscape. Analysis performed by the society on the outcome of the 2010 general election suggests that had it been run under AV it would still have resulted in a hung Parliament, although the Liberal Democrats would have received a larger share of the vote (79 seats rather than their actual tally of 57).
A referendum on AV was first promised by Gordon Brown prior to the general election in what was seen as an attempt to woo the Liberal Democrats. In their manifesto the Conservatives had argued against moving away from first past the post, but the coalition agreement committed both parties to supporting a referendum on the subject.
In light of the broad consensus on AV, the second part of the Bill could be the more controversial. On the face of it cutting the number of constituencies to 600 should be politically neutral, but both the Labour Party, the SNP and Plaid Cymru have tabled motions opposing the Second Reading.
The nationalist parties argue that representation in Westminster could suffer disproportionately in Scotland and Wales. This claim appears to have merit as the Bill sets out that all constituencies – with a few exceptions such as Orkney and Shetland – should be within five per cent of the average size.
At present the 22 smallest constituencies in terms of electorate are in Wales or Scotland while the 16 largest are all English. The largest English constituency – the Isle of Wight – is over two and half times larger than Arfon, the smallest Welsh constituency.
For supporters of the reform this disparity between the size the of electorates is a compelling reason for reform.
According to the Independent, "Conservatives complain that the current boundaries require them to win more votes than Labour to gain the same number of MPs, because on average Tory seats have more constituents.
But shadow justice secretary Jack Straw insisted that the difference was only "marginal" and could be dealt with by the existing system of Boundary Commission reviews.
He accused the coalition of attempting to “bash through” a US-style system that would produce "not equalisation but the worst kind of gerrymandering in the world."