On May 5 British voters will take to the polls to decide exactly how they should vote.It’s a move that would change hundreds of years of British electoral history – and could tear apart a coalition government already divided over recession, war, and austerity.
Here’s what you need to know:
The British Electoral System
The British voter has traditionally used a system called “first-past-the-post”. People vote for a Member of Parliament in their local area. Whichever candidate has the most votes becomes an MP and whichever party has the most MPs will be asked to form a government by the Queen.
In the event that one party does not receive an absolute majority and thus the ability to pass laws in parliament, a coalition government will be formed. However, the very nature of FPTP means that such events are extremely rare. The system exaggerates wins and downplays third parties, but generally creates stable, functioning governments.
AV would ask voters to rank their choice of candidates in order of preference. If no candidate has a majority of first preferences, 2nd preferences are taken into consideration, and so forth.
The concept is that the system will produce governments more in tune with the actual political sympathies of the country, and allow more room for smaller parties.
The Lib Dem Promise
Due to FPTP, two parties –Labour and the Conservatives – have dominated British government for longer than most can remember.
Last year disappointment in the mainstream parties led to a huge surge in support for the Liberal Democrats, long a relatively insignificant third place.
Nick Clegg, the party’s charismatic leader, campaigned on a platform of change, and ultimately became kingmaker when the Conservatives were forced to ask the Lib Dems to join a coalition government. His price: a referendum on AV.
Cracks in the Conservatives/Lib Dem alliance soon appeared after an all-too-brief honeymoon period. Conservative policy called for harsh austerity measures, including tough increases in higher education costs that proved unpopular with the very base that had supported the Lib Dem’s electoral success, leading to a drop from 24% approval rating in May to 8% in December.
Emasculated in a Deputy Prime Minister position and facing a revolt from his own party, Clegg has staked much of his credibility on the referendum.
While Labour leadership, keen to further the rift, has sided with the “Yes for AV” campaign, the Conservatives are willing to let FPTP go without a fight. Senior Lib Dem’s have expressed shock at the high profile role of British Prime Minister David Cameron in the anti-AV campaign.
Clegg hit out angrily at Cameron, accusing him of appealing to Far Right parties such as the British National Party and accusing the “No to AV” campaign of spreading “lies, misinformation and deceit”. Conservatives have hit back at Clegg, accusing him of “whinging”.
Why It Matters
While the referendum may be a huge, historic event in UK political history, the coalition government has to work together immediately after the vote.
The worry is that the vitriol in the campaign may drive bitter Lib Dem’s to leave the government, forcing a vote-of-no-confidence in Cameron as PM or a minority government that could collapse. Either option could be chaotic, given the dismal state of the UK economy. Many now expect Cameron to call a general election this autumn in an attempt to escape these scenarios. If the Conservatives lose, that could be the end of the UK’s austerity program as we know it.
With unpopular austerity measures and the likely failure of the AV vote, the Lib Dems may have lost the very credibility they gained with last year’s election. Senior councilors are already defecting to Labour, and the party is expected to face severe losses in upcoming local elections. Many on the party’s left wing are questioning the logic of a Conservative-Lib Dem alliance, given how the party is being forced to appeal to Labour voters in the AV Vote campaign.
The Liberal Democrats may have hoped that the 2010 elections were n a reawakening of the liberal movement in the UK. However, with the party on it’s knees, Cameron appealing to a disenfranchised right and Ed Miliband hoping to reengage with Labour’s traditional union base, it looks increasingly likely that the UK political climate will remain bipolar.