Conservatives are divided as they get ready for the May referendum on electoral reforms

Thursday, 13th January 2011

news011311_09

Published: 13th January, 2011
by RICHARD OSLEY

TORIES in Camden are divided over the wisdom of electoral reform with a difference of opinion over how an alternative system might have changed the party’s fortunes in Hampstead.

The former leader of the Conservative group is backing the end of the first-past-the-post system, which simply requires candidates to score the most amount of votes.

In an article for the New Journal, Councillor Andrew Marshall, who  led the Camden branch for four years, suggests the knife-edge result in Hampstead and Kilburn in last May’s general election might have reached a fairer conclusion had the proposed Alternative Vote (AV) system already been in place. A national referendum in May will decide if AV, which includes second preference votes until a winner can establish a majority victory, should be introduced.

Cllr Marshall said the contest, which saw Glenda Jackson’s 18-year parliamentary career survive by just 42 votes, descended into tactical voting with various candidates urging people not to waste their votes on other candidates they claimed could not win the seat.

“Anyone who thinks that the 35,490 voters who didn’t vote for Glenda should have been able to express a second preference, to ensure the eventual winner had majority support, should vote yes to AV,” said Cllr Marshall.

Yet the Tory candidate at the heart of that dramatic battle, Chris Philp, has no complaints about the system. What’s more, he has taken up a role within the Conservative party co-ordinating a “no” vote to electoral reform within London.

Mr Philp said he believes first past the post ensures “strong governments” are formed.

“I don’t think it has been a problem for the United Kingdom in the past – it has produced strong governments able to react to the problems of the day,” he said. 

Although Mr Philp’s own party is locked into a deal with the Lib Dems at Westminster, he said that he did not like coalitions.

“Although the coalition at the moment is doing the best job they can, you get a situation like with the Lib Dems where they promise things like no rises in tuition fees and VAT and then they end up doing it anyway,” he added.

Mr Philp, himself a former councillor in Camden who lives in Hampstead, said: “Another problem I have with AV is that people who vote for extremist parties like the BNP get to vote more than once – whereas others don’t. It is their votes which will go to the second preference, so they will end up deciding who wins and who runs the country.”

There is no party whip to the vote meaning  members can disagree publicly on the issue. 

On Saturday, Mr Philp was due to stand on a street stall with Labour’s finance chief in Camden, Councillor Theo Blackwell, to show their shared opposition to the electoral reform. Observers joked that it would be the first time the pair had ever agreed on anything – but in the event, Cllr Blackwell had to pull out because he had flu.

Speaking on his way back from by-election campaigning in Oldham, Mr Philp – hotly tipped as a future MP – said that people who felt disenfranchised in safe seats would get a similar feeling with AV.

He said: “Those people would call for full proportional representation. I still wouldn’t go down that line, but that’s not what’s on offer here anyway. 

“In the safe seats in the country, they will feel exactly the same. In Holborn and St Pancras, you might not want Frank Dobson but you would be stuck with him.”

The choice of systems

  • FIRST PAST THE POST

The candidate with the most votes in a constituency wins the seat, without any need to hit a certain percentage or threshold. The system is praised for its simplicity and speed in finding a victor, although critics say it unfairly favours larger parties and in some areas leads to tactical voting.

  • ALTERNATIVE VOTE

The winning candidate needs to claim a 50 per cent majority to secure the constituency. If this is not achieved after one round of voting, the candidate in last place is eliminated and their votes are redistributed through a second preference vote. The process is repeated with the bottom candidate eliminated until a winner has passed the 50 per cent threshold. Supporters say it would stop candidates winning with little more than a third of the vote as in the case of Glenda Jackson in Hampstead and Kilburn.

‘AV’ makes sure every vote counts

AS a long-time Conservative activist, I’m voting for the Alternative Vote in May. AV isn’t perfect, but it builds on the strengths of the existing system, while tackling some of its glaring weaknesses.

Nowhere were those weaknesses more evident than in Hampstead and Kilburn. The winner, Glenda Jackson, got just 32.8 per cent of the vote. Most people, more than two-thirds, got an MP they didn’t vote for. That isn’t fair. AV would ensure that every MP was supported by more than half those voting.

What was particularly pernicious in Hampstead and Kilburn was that, because no one had a second preference, the whole campaign was distorted into arguments about tactical voting rather than policy. Who was best placed to beat Glenda, or to keep the Tories out? Just look at the reams of campaign literature from all parties making tactical appeals based on previous results. And in the final week, the Daily Mail, with its unerring lack of judgment, advised Conservative voters in Hampstead and Kilburn they needed to vote Lib Dem to beat Labour. I know many Conservatives who voted Lib Dem as the only way to beat Labour who were subsequently horrified that they missed the chance to put Chris Philp over the top. 

AV would stop all that. Everyone could vote for their first choice knowing that their second choice would count as well. I happen to think it might have resulted in a Conservative gain in Hampstead and Kilburn, but the real point is we need an electoral system that’s fair.

The traditional arguments for first-past-the-post are that it makes coalitions unlikely, and that electoral reform would lead to weak, unstable coalitions. Both arguments have been weakened by events – the current system has given us both a hung parliament and a coalition that, whatever you happen to think of it, is hardly weak or unstable.

I’d love to see a majority Conservative government and have spent many, many hours working for that. But if a party wants to form a majority government, it surely should be looking to get something like half the popular vote.

The Conservatives got just 36.1 per cent nationally last year: thoughtful Conservatives need to consider whether a slender Conservative parliamentary majority, on say 38 per cent of the vote, would really have been seen as a legitimate mandate for radical reform.  

I simply urge everyone, but especially Conservative supporters locally, to listen to the arguments and make up their own minds. AV keeps the constituency link and means that every vote will count.

Anyone who thinks that the 35,490 voters who didn’t vote for Glenda should have been able to express a second preference, to ensure the eventual winner had majority support, should vote yes to AV.
ANDREW MARSHALL
Conservative councillor for Swiss Cottage

Related Articles