In a national referendum, the British electorate has rejected, by 69 per cent to 31 per cent on a turnout of 42 per cent, the Alternative Vote (AV) system for elections to the House of Commons. Under AV, voters rank candidates in order of preference, and if a candidate gets 50 per cent of first-preference votes, he or she wins the seat. If none reaches that figure, the second preferences of the candidate who comes last are redistributed, and so on until one candidate reaches 50 per cent of the total number of votes cast. The current simple majority (SM) system has been found wanting on many counts. Very few British MPs win their seats with even 40 per cent of the vote, which means the principle of representativeness suffers. Three quarters of seats are safe for one or the other of the two main parties, Labour and the Conservatives, which in practice means safe regions, such as the largely Tory south of England, and millions of wasted votes. Significant third parties such as the Liberal Democrats can record a quarter of the national vote-share but win only a few seats. The simple majority system tends to gift the main parties overpowering Commons majorities on aggregate vote-shares of about 40 per cent.
Unfortunately, the political context of the referendum obscured the issues. For one thing, it was held on the same day as elections to the local governments and to the Scottish and Welsh assemblies. Secondly, the LibDems, the strongest proponents of electoral reform, have paid a heavy price for their May 2010 decision to enter into a Tory-led coalition. They have lost backing from disaffected Labour voters, and have divided their own supporters through unprincipled policy compromises with Prime Minister David Cameron. This, in part, turned the AV question into a referendum on the LibDem leader Nick Clegg, and may have made the Labour leader Ed Miliband temper his public support for AV. The Labour Party is split on voting reform; many Labour heavyweights combined with Tories to attack it. The AV proposal was itself a coalition compromise; the LibDems favour the fully proportional Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. With AV decisively rejected, the United Kingdom will have to live with parliaments that do not represent the range of political opinion among voters. In 2001, a fully proportional system would have given the LibDems at least 120 MPs, instead of the 52 they got under SM. That would have virtually guaranteed defeat for Prime Minister Tony Blair's proposal to invade Iraq. There can be few better examples of the damage done to national policy by parliaments that are formally but not substantively representative of their people.