Were you expecting this?

When I arrived home for Spring Break, I found a polling card lying around on the kitchen surfaces. Alarm bells starting ringing. Hadn’t we just had the general election? ‘What’s this for?’ I asked my mum, waving it around in her face as though I was still seventeen, without any obligation towards life responsibilities. Then I noticed it was addressed to me.

‘It’s for the referendum. You need to decide how you’re going to vote; by post or proxy,’ she informed me. Before my brain had time to dredge up any dregs of memory on current affairs, I garbled, ‘What referendum?’ – pretty shameful coming from an A-level Politics student.

With no politics course in St Andrews, there’s a reasonably limited exposure to national and international issues – especially if you’re not one of the multitude studying IR.  Let’s face it: if I do decide to visit the gym (it’s happened once, I think, in a moment of madness), watching Sky News isn’t going to give me motivation to put myself through that torture we call exercise anything like the music channels are.  Though I do occasionally make an effort to buy a copy of The Times, I’m so behind on what’s happening in the world that there are huge holes in my understanding, so those long, in-depth analyses of the Gaddafi situation in Libya get skipped over without so much as a scan. Back in 2008, DRA hosted a US election party. My vague memory recollects it involved waving mini American flags around in an over-enthusiastic manner and watching the results of the Electoral College come through on giant projected screens through the night. I have a worryingly hazy memory of voting in the General Election last year – it involved a trek down to the Badlands, which was probably more of a reason that it had any resonance, than for any particular passion for the political situation at hand. So when it comes to situations such as the looming referendum, in which all of us UK citizens are registered to vote, us bubble-wrapped students don’t know where to begin.

Because apparently, though it had evaded me until a week ago, a referendum on the voting system used in the UK is indeed taking place on May the 5th. I strained my brain back three years – no, four – to my AS level politics classroom, where we learned the pros and cons of the various voting systems employed around the world (we also discussed the degree to which Monica Lewinsky could be considered attractive). All my weak memory washed up was my general distaste for the subject: it was mostly numerical (I’m what I like to call “mathslexic”; numbers just don’t compute) and I wasn’t, therefore, very good at it. ‘First-past-the-post,’ I remembered, physically squinting in an attempt to resurrect something intelligent. The List System, I panicked, and that French baddie, Le Pen – didn’t he almost succeed because of the French voting system? My knowledge was proving to be reasonably limited (sorry, Mr Cross) so, as a woman who takes pride in her right to vote – Suffragette City and all that – and since I had some free time on my hands (mindlessly bored during Easter holiday), I decided some revision was in order.

Stage One: Crack out the old Politics textbooks. Obstacle One: I no longer have any of my old Politics textbooks. That, I thought to myself, is commitment. The only tome I could find, sitting virtually unreachable on one of my highest shelves, gathering dust, was ‘US & Comparative Government & Politics.’ It was from the wrong year, and pertained to the wrong syllabus, which was a shame – I’d always liked this textbook. It contained lots of diagrams and tables. But, against all odds, I did find a section on the merits and demerits of the First Past the Post system.

In summary:

  • FPTP, the voting system used in the UK to decide the results of the 659 seats in the House of Commons (and, for those Americans amongst us, how 48 of the 50 Electoral College votes for presidency and all the seats in Congress are filled).
  • FPTP does what it says on the tin. The winner of the race is the first to pass the winning post. So, in the UK, the party with the overall majority of parliamentary votes is the winning party and forms the government, even if collectively those who voted against that party is a higher number.
  • Generally, it lends itself to:
    • Stable, single-party governments
    • Discouragement of narrow, ideological and extremist parties.
    • Discouragement of coalitions
    • Close link between elected members of the legislature and their constituents (as MPs represent geographical areas).
    • Simplicity
  • However, reasons for potentially changing from this system include:
    • That it’s possible to win constituencies with well below 50% of the popular vote
    • The relationship between votes won and seats gained in the legislature is often poor
    • A significant number of votes are wasted
    • FPTP produces unrepresentative legislatures in regards to women and ethnic minorities.

So what’s our alternative? That would be the appropriately entitled ‘Alternative Vote’ system, in which we (the voters) rank our candidates in order of preference. Initially, only the first preference votes are counted, but if nobody gets a majority with 50% or more, the second votes are counted and added (although the lowest scoring candidate at this point is eliminated) – just like in Student Union Elections. This continues until one party has 50% of the vote. The Conservatives are against a change from FPTP; the Liberal Democrats are in favour of it, and have been campaigning for a remodelling of the UK’s voting system for some time now, though the Alternative Voting System isn’t their preferred setup.

So which way will I vote? God knows. In opening the can of worms that is the debate between voting systems, I came to realise, as historian Will Durant once said, that ‘education is a progressive discovery of our ignorance.’ The intricacies of a debate over a system that is so much a part of our country’s history and sense of tradition have left me feeling pretty ignorant indeed (I blame the numbers). But, as a former Politics student and a firm appreciator of the feminist movement, I will be ploughing on through that handy textbook known as Wikipedia until I have an education and an opinion worth voting for. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am.

For a summary on the Referendum and information that’ll help you cast the right vote, visit:

•The BBC’s Q&A on the Alternative Vote Referendum: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-11243595

•The Electoral Commission’s page on the Referendum: http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/elections/upcoming-elections-and-referendums/uk/referendums

 

Alexandra Davey