Last year, despite a large amount of criticism, the coalition government survived the tuition fees saga, which at one point threatened the possibility of large numbers of Liberal Democrat MPs walking away from government.
However, now the next potentially divisive issue has appeared upon the horizon, with the bill introducing the referendum on alternative voting reform recently being passed after going back and forth repeatedly between the two Houses.
The referendum marks a potential landmark change in the way elections in the UK take place. The current “First-Past-The-Post” system allows the party with the majority of the votes to automatically triumph. Critics of FPTP argue that it is a highly unrepresentative system, as it allows for a party supported by a minority of the population to nevertheless attain power. Under an AV system, voters would be required to rank the candidates in their preferred order. If a party failed to gain an outright majority, then the party with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the people who voted for this party have their votes allocated to the party which was their second choice. If still no party hits the 50% mark then the process is repeated with the next lowest scoring party. The process continues until one party crosses over the 50% threshold.
This eliminates the possibility of a party being elected with the support of a minority of the electorate, when the majority of the vote is divided amongst the various parties. The vast majority of the Conservative Party look set to align themselves behind the ‘No’ campaign, as David Cameron outlined in the last fortnight in a speech carefully aiming to not split the coalition in two. The country is in a strange position in the run-up to the referendum with the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister falling on opposing sides of the debate. It will be interesting to see whether they can keep up their currently cordial relationship after the referendum result, and whether the campaigns beforehand can avoid the sort of political mud-slinging that is always prevalent in the run-up to an election.
An interesting point to note is that obviously the political system has changed dramatically since the early 20th century. From 1922 onwards, as the Liberal Party declined and Labour became the official opposition party, 90% of voters would be placing their vote with either the Conservatives or Labour parties. In this situation, a FPTP system was the most practical, as it allowed for a clear majority and opposition party. However since the late 20th century, when other parties such as the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and UKIP have become far more prominent, there is a very strong argument that an AV system would be required, in order to prevent the majority vote being split between various parties. Such a system could lead to massive swings in elections, as a majority could come down to a number of voters’ 3rd or 4th choice parties.