May 5: A chance to change the country?

YES Campaign gets under way in Guildhall Square, Portsmouth
YES Campaign gets under way in Guildhall Square, Portsmouth

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ON MAY 5, most city, borough and district councils in our area will hold the first elections since last year’s General Election.

On the same day, the nation’s first referendum is to be held into whether the UK’s voting system should be changed.

NO Gosport Tories launch their No campaign

NO Gosport Tories launch their No campaign

The campaigns for and against the Alternative Vote (AV) system – a form of proportional representation – to replace First Past the Post are well under way.

‘Yes’ campaigners say it will be a fairer system, while those who say ‘No’ argue it is too complex.

But campaigners in both camps are agreed: this is the most important election decision since the suffragettes won women the vote in 1918.

Below, Suzy Horton, leader of Portsmouth’s ‘Yes’ campaign, and Graham Burgess, co-ordinator of Gosport’s ‘No’ group, tell The News’ political editor Rory O’Keeffe why – and which way – they think people should vote.

Councillor Graham Burgess, deputy leader, Gosport Borough Council, and co-ordinator of the Gosport Against AV campaign.

I believe, in accordance with Conservative policy, that AV is unnecessary.

The system we have in place works well.

Candidates campaign with manifestos, and people vote for the person or party they like most.

They have the chance to have their say and whoever gets the most votes is the person who goes to represent the area in parliament.

It’s a system which has worked for hundreds of years, so I don’t see why we should change it now.

The AV system says whoever’s elected has to have 50 per cent of the vote.

But it can lead to a situation in which the person who’s returned hasn’t won the majority of votes.

Apathy amongst voters is a real problem in the UK, and it’s something we’d all like to improve, but that’s not the fault of any single party, candidate or the electoral system.

And even so, people still go out to support the candidate they want to see elected.

Anyone who votes has their opinion taken into account, and the candidate who has most ‘yeses’ is the one who is elected.

We should also take into account how many other countries use the system.

Maybe three or four, and you have to ask why that is. It seems to be because nobody else wants it. You have to wonder why we’d change First Past the Post for that.

People will vote for whoever they want to, and it’s the people who decide. That’s the way it should be.

There are arguments about how much it will all cost to change the system and it’s an important issue.

The estimate is that it’ll be £250m and it’s a huge amount of money, that could be spent on other things.

But more important is that it’s just unnecessary. First Past the Post works, it’s proven, and AV won’t make any improvements on it.

Bearing all that in mind, it’s vital that people should take part in the vote in May.

My one real concern is that the whole debate, both sides, hasn’t been well publicised. If people are opposed to AV, they mustn’t just sit at home thinking if they don’t vote for it, it won’t happen. They have to get out and make their feelings known.

They must vote ‘no’. This referendum is another victory for free speech and democracy, as it gives people a chance to say not only who should be in power, but how they should be elected.

It’s a chance for people to have their say, but they have to make sure they do. Otherwise, AV could creep in through the back door.

The major point we and the yes voters agree on is it’s an opportunity, and it’s important for the future that people take it.

Suzy Horton, campaign organiser of the Portsmouth ‘Yes’ to AV campaign.

This is a rare opportunity for the people in this country to have a say in how they elect representatives to work for them in Parliament.

It’s a national discussion to decide whether or not we make the biggest change in our political system since women won the vote.

And it’s vital that people vote ‘yes’, to make our electoral system fairer.

The current system means people can win a seat in Parliament with only around 35 per cent of the vote. It means a majority of people can be, and regularly are, effectively disenfranchised, as their views don’t count.

We all understand there can only be one winner, but under AV the winning candidate will be the person with more than 50 per cent of the vote. The majority of people will have chosen them as their MP, or as an acceptable choice.

AV will also effectively end a system in which people use a ‘negative’ vote – voting to keep someone out, rather than for what they believe in.

Using the Green Party as an example, I am sure many people in Portsmouth who may support them have looked at the situation, decided the Greens won’t get in, and voted for a so-called major party, because they are afraid if they ‘waste’ their vote someone they really don’t want may win.

AV stops a situation in which voting for what you believe in is seen as a wasted vote. This way, if you want to vote Green and also want to stop a larger party winning, you can indicate preferences, so the candidate you like least is lowest on your list. Or doesn’t feature on it. You only have to put numbers against candidates you want your vote to go to.

There are arguments about cost, but this is a way to change the political system for the better, and much of the costs people keep talking about include the price of the debate, rather than just that of setting the system in place, which is far cheaper than they say.

People also say it’s a complicated system, but for voters it’s just a matter of writing numbers in boxes. Number one for your top choice, then in descending order. Or, if you choose, just write in your top three, even just your top one. It’s a step change in British politics.

It will enable people to vote for the people who they actually want to, but have maybe been unable to before.

It’s also a good step towards proportional representation, because the current system’s supporters claim one of its main advantages is that it makes local representatives work hard for their community. But under AV, they will have to work harder. There will be no more relying on a hardcore of voters, at the expense of everyone else. Candidates will have to engage with their whole community.

What is AV?

UNDER the Alternative Vote (AV) system, voters place a number alongside the name of one or more candidates, in order of preference – ‘one’ for first choice, ‘two’ for second and so on.

To be elected, a candidate must win 50 per cent of the vote.

If no-one achieves that from a count of ‘choice one’ ballots, the person with the lowest number of ‘one’ votes drops out.

Their votes are redistributed among the remaining candidates. The process continues until one candidate reaches the 50 per cent level. Under the current First Past the Post system, voters each choose one candidate. The one with most votes wins.

Critics say it is unfair, because candidates can be elected even if two-thirds of the electorate vote for other people. But supporters say it’s a simple system which works well.

Everyone who is registered to vote can vote in the AV referendum.