The unrepresentative nature of the House of Commons that arises from the present electoral system has long been the subject of adverse comment, for reasons that include two factors of constitutional importance: (1) The present system often enables a party supported by a minority of the voters to wield a commanding majority in the House of Commons. The most recent illustration of this arose in 2005 when the Labour party was supported by 36% of those who voted in the general election and occupied around 55% of the seats in the Commons. Such a distorted result, that our European neighbours find incomprehensible, comes at the cost of the under-representation of the third and other parties. (2) At the constituency level, as more and more voters have supported the third and other parties in successive general elections, more than half of MPs have been elected by less than 50% of those who voted in their constituency.
The direct consequences of these two factors include: the temptation to a government to expect the House of Commons to vote through its proposed legislation without proper scrutiny; and, on the part of many voters, disillusionment with politics and politicians, as they ask themselves, in many constituencies, what is the point of voting?
Certainly, AV will not produce a truly proportional system for the United Kingdom: for that, three possibilities would be (a) a national party list system, (b) a system providing for additional members (as in the devolved Parliaments in Scotland and Wales), (c) adoption of the ‘single transferable vote’, that would require single-member constituencies to be replaced by multi-member constituencies.
Probably no-one would support a national party list system, but there is a statable case to be made for an additional member system, and an even stronger case to be made for the single transferable vote. However, there are arguments to be made against creating ‘two classes’ of MPs, and against ending the single-member basis of constituency representation.
By comparison with those two systems, AV offers less, but it is much easier to achieve. Contrary to what the ‘No’ campaign is claiming, it will be a simple system for the voters and for those who administer elections. It will enable most MPs with greater justification than at present to claim that they represent the constituency. It is a step in the right direction and it deserves to be taken. Those who say that it does not go far enough, should reflect that nothing else is likely to be on offer in the foreseeable future.
Anthony Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Constitutional Law, Edinburgh University, and a visiting research fellow at the Institute of European and Comparative Law, University of Oxford.