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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 January 2008, 09:27 GMT
Has time come for voting change?
By Ben Wright
BBC political correspondent

Polling booth
Is it time to reform 'first past the post'?
It is hard to imagine that people will ever riot in the streets demanding proportional representation.

For a start there's no single system to shout for.

"What do we want? STV!!.. no, AMS!.. oh hang on, AV with a top-up from a regional list would be fine too..."

To many, it's simply Westminster wonkery of the highest order.

But its acronyms might be about to matter much more and Thursday's report by the Ministry of Justice is the government's most significant contribution to the debate for years.

Labour promised a referendum on whether to change the voting system used for elections to the House of Commons in its 1997 manifesto.

Too radical

But thumping majorities won the old way tend to blunt a party's enthusiasm for something new.

The referendum has never happened, "first past the post" remains in place and the issue has been kept under review ever since.

And there have been many reviews. A commission headed by Roy Jenkins reported in 1998 and recommended a new voting system for Westminster (Alternative Vote Plus).

Opponents of first past the post say it's unfair, discourages turnout, penalises small parties and produces excessive majorities

But it was too radical for the government. It sat on the shelf gathering dust, to be joined by nine more reviews examining the merits of various systems.

Nothing happens fast in the world of voting reform. The Electoral Reform Society has been campaigning for a change since 1884.

And the arguments for and against reform have remained stubbornly static. Opponents of first past the post say it's unfair, discourages turnout, penalises small parties and produces excessive majorities.

Swing voters

In 2005, Labour won 55% of the seats in Parliament with 35% of the vote.

Most importantly, it means that a huge number of votes actually have no bearing on the outcome of an election.

A Conservative voter in Bootle for instance is never going to see their preference matter. Nor a Labour voter in Chelsea.

A referendum on a reformed voting system.. would be a terrific move
Patricia Hewitt
Former health secretary

Elections become focused on a small number of swing voters in a small number of swing seats.

But supporters of the current system point to its simplicity, the strong link between MP and constituency, and its tendency to produce clear outcomes and strong government.

PR can be confusing and has a much greater chance of producing coalition administrations.

Coalition governments

But the arguments are no longer theoretical in much of the UK.

Various systems of PR are now used in elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh, London and Northern Ireland assemblies as well as in European elections.

And the consequences are clear, most obviously in Wales and Scotland where there have been no outright majorities since 1999.

Ballot papers
Some feel their votes don't count under the current system

Coalitions and minority government have become the norm.

So would it work for Westminster? Reviews and analysis pile up but in the end it's up to the government to make a call.

While many Labour MPs have no enthusiasm for changing the voting system, significant numbers of others do.

The former health secretary Patricia Hewitt has long argued for reform and senses there is "growing support" in government for what's called the Alternative Vote system, where candidates are ranked in order of preference.

'Partisan advantage'

It's not PR, but it's a change. "A referendum on a reformed voting system.. would be a terrific move" for Gordon Brown to take, she said.

But it might be pragmatism as much as principle that eventually brings about a change.

A hung parliament at the next election now looks a distinct possibility and a deal on introducing a reformed voting system could be the price the Liberal Democrats extract from a potential coalition partner.

The Tories are certainly suspicious of Labour's motives.

Nick Herbert, their Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "We reject the approach which Labour has taken, which is to raise this issue, to toy with these alternatives systems only when it suits them and for partisan electoral advantage."

Labour has flirted with PR for years. But if the next election is a close-run thing, it might be the Liberal Democrats who force the party to commit.

SEE ALSO
Brown sets out reform proposals
03 Jul 07 |  UK Politics
Lib Dem belief in PR 'absolute'
09 Mar 07 |  UK Politics
Trouble ahead for Lords reform?
08 Feb 07 |  UK Politics
Hain backs reform of vote system
16 Mar 04 |  UK Politics

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