Page last updated at 13:35 GMT, Thursday, 17 February 2011

Voters split on Alternative Vote

Nick Clegg
Nick Clegg has personally pushed for a referendum on changing the system

Voters are evenly split over whether the first-past-the-post voting system should be replaced by the Alternative Vote (AV), a Newsnight poll suggests.

Forty-one percent of those questioned support the UK adopting the Alternative Vote in place of first-past-the-post.

But an equal number (41%) of people said they oppose the move to AV.

A referendum on whether to change how Westminster MPs are selected will take place on 5 May after the legislation received royal assent on Wednesday

Some 63% of those polled said a referendum on changing the system is a waste of time and money when there are other pressing needs in the country.

A random sample of 1,002 people in England, Scotland and Wales were polled for the BBC's Newsnight programme. The data was gathered between 11-13 February 2011 by ComRes.

Referendum plan

Newsnight commissioned the poll to assess public feeling about government plans to hold a referendum on whether to change the electoral system.

Ballot box

In the referendum, which the government hopes to hold in May, the public will be asked whether they want to replace the existing first-past-the-post system for electing MPs to Westminster with a method known as the Alternative Vote (AV).

Under the current system the candidate who gets most votes in a constituency is elected as its MP.

Under AV voters rank candidates in order of preference. Anyone getting more than 50% of first-preference votes is elected.

If no-one gets 50% of votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their backers' second choices allocated to those remaining.

This process continues until one candidate has at least 50% of all votes in that round.

In its poll Newsnight asked whether people thought "the system of electing MPs to the House of Commons needs a major overhaul".

Sixty-five percent of those polled agreed with the statement, 25% disagreed and 10% said they did not know.

'Waste of money'

However, when asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement that "it is a waste of time and money holding a referendum on changing the system of electing MPs to the House of Commons when there are so many other pressing needs in the country", 63% agreed.

Thirty-two percent disagreed with the statement, and 5% said they did not know.

When asked whether the UK should adopt AV rather than continuing to use first-past-the-post, 41% said Yes, 41% said No and 18% said they do not know.

Critics of the first-past-the-post system say it discriminates against smaller parties - despite getting 23% of the vote in the 2010 general election, the Liberal Democrats only won 9% of seats.

Defenders of the current system say first-past-the post generally leads to strong government, while a change to AV or proportional representation could make coalition governments the norm rather than the exception.

More coalitions

Those polled were asked whether having coalition governments elected more frequently would be good for Britain, 38% agreed. However, 51% disagreed.

Eleven percent said they did not know.

Peers have voted to reinstate a clause which would mean a referendum on the Westminster voting system would only be binding if 40% of the public took part.

MPs removed the measure from the bill authorising the referendum on Tuesday but the Lords have defied them, backing it by a majority of 62 votes.

The two Houses now face a showdown over whether the measure will make it into the bill as its final terms are agreed.

The bill must become law by Thursday if the referendum is to go ahead on 5 May.

Newsnight is broadcasting a special programme on AV, considering how it works, exploring the arguments for and against it, and investigating what its impact might be on Wednesday 16 February 2011 at 10.30pm on BBC Two.

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