It’s not the hottest topic of conversation around South Yorkshire - but the referendum on changing the voting system could make a big difference to how Britain is governed, affecting everyone’s lives. Richard Marsden and Mark Hookham report on the arguments for and against, and the views of South Yorkshire residents and MPs.
CUTS have been the big political issue in South Yorkshire of late but what do you know about AV?
On May 5, you will be asked to make up your mind on plans for the biggest change to the UK’s polling system since women got the vote in the 1920s.
The new system proposed to elect our MPs - Alternative Vote - is backed by South Yorkshire’s two most senior politicians, Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, and Labour leader, Ed Miliband.
Those in favour say it is a fairer system of voting, as candidates would need at least 50 per cent of votes to win.
Currently, in marginal seats, MPs can be elected with as little as a third of votes cast.
Under AV, voters rank the candidates on the ballot paper by preference. If no candidate gets more than half of the first preference votes, the bottom candidate is eliminated and his or her second preference votes are redistributed.
This process is repeated until someone gets more than 50 per cent.
But critics argue the system would prevent one party gaining enough MPs to form a majority in Parliament, so there would be more coalitions in the future.
It is also set to cost £250 million to make the change, including £90 million for May’s referendum, at a time of austerity.
Where the system has been used in other elections around the UK, such as for elected mayors, some winners have been elected through second choice votes rather than as the people’s first choice - such as Peter Davies, controversial Mayor of Doncaster.
And in Hartlepool, H’Angus the Monkey, mascot of the town’s football club, beat established politicians in a shock result in 2002 - but he has proved popular, winning two subsequent elections.
Had AV been used at local elections, the BNP could have won seats using second choice votes after it came second behind Labour in the Southey and Shiregreen and Brightside wards for a couple of years running.
The Star spoke to ordinary people around South Yorkshire and the general mood was in favour of the status quo - although a number of people confessed they did not know much about the AV system.
In Nick Clegg’s Hallam constituency, Ian Laurie, of Totley Residents’ Association, said: “I think things should stay as they are. Nick Clegg has probably made the best arguments he can but I doubt the argument would be good enough when it comes to winning the referendum. AV is a fudge - can it really be right voting for second choice and having that person elected instead of the person with the most votes?
“We ought to be improving the quality of politicians and getting out of the European Union.”
Sheffield-based chartered surveyor Nick Riddle, who lives in Dronfield, said: “The argument is six of one, half a dozen of the other. Whatever happens they will still all be pigs in the trough paying themselves too much. If you have AV, you will end up with having some middle-of-the-road person in charge who no-one particularly wants, or minor parties in prominent places who don’t represent the majority. ”
On the Flower Estate, in Wincobank - formerly part of Shiregreen and Brightside ward but now under Firth Park - June Smith, committee chair at the estate’s community centre, was equally sceptical. She said: “I’d stick to the old system. It’s a Liberal Democrat thing but they are going to lose all their seats. I think the politicians need to inform the people more about what the vote means. The cost is too much at this time - priorities are wrong.
“While they are spending millions on this referendum, we are going to have to close in May if we don’t get more funding and our eight community workers will lose their jobs.”
David Alexander, aged 35, of Crookes, said: “Most people feel disenfranchised with politics because you end up with a party in power that has a minority of votes. AV is a fudge between the current first past the post system and full proportional representation where parties are allocated seats according to their share of the vote, which would be a better idea, but the change is a good idea.”
Johnny Thompson, aged 31, of Nether Edge, said: “A different solution would be to increase turnout under the existing system by making voting compulsory. It would give politicians a better mandate.
“The referendum is a luxury we cannot afford when so many cuts are being made.”
In Doncaster, the view of independent councillor Mick Maye, who received the most first choice votes at the town’s last Mayoral election but was defeated by Mr Davies, was not surprising.
He said: “I believe the first past the post system is the best choice. We have a Mayor who was people’s second choice, not their first. Everyone who voted for me as first choice has ended up disenfranchised because their votes didn’t count.”
Joffrey Sprakes, chairman of Doncaster Council Watch, a group of political enthusiasts, said: “It looks to be a way of saying to those minority parties who don’t get any power, there’s a chance you might get a bit of representation but, on balance, do we want to live in a perpetual state of coalition?”
Pro-AV campaigners based in Sheffield claim they carried out a survey of voters and found they were in favour of changing the system by a margin of two to one.
Emily Wilkie, Sheffield Yes to Fairer Votes Coordinator, said: “This poll shows that the people of Sheffield have realised what an opportunity this referendum presents and are keen to make their voices heard.”
Labour MPs to reject the Alternative Vote system
ThE majority of South Yorkshire’s Labour MPs disagree with Ed Miliband on electoral reform and are set to vote “No” against changing the voting system.
Eight of the region’s 12 sitting Labour MPs have made it clear they do not believe the existing system should be replaced with the Alternative Vote.
Only Ed Miliband, MP for Doncaster North, Paul Blomfield for Sheffield Central and Kevin Barron for Rother Valley are campaigning for a “Yes” vote at the UK-wide May 5 referendum.
The public will be asked whether AV should be used in future general elections, instead of the current First Past The Post voting system. Mr Blomfield said he is backing AV because it will create “stronger, more open and participatory democracy for Britain”. He added: “With AV, every vote counts. With AV, voters can cast a positive vote for who they want to win, not vote based on who they don’t want.”
Labour leader Ed Miliband has pledged to vote for a Yes vote, arguing that AV will challenge the status quo. “The very fact of having to gain the majority support of the voters will increase political accountability,” he added. However, research by The Star reveals that he has failed to convince most of his fellow South Yorkshire Labour MPs. Those who have indicated that they will vote against AV, include Sheffield MPs Angela Smith, Clive Betts, David Blunkett and Meg Munn, Don Valley MP Caroline Flint , Wentworth’s John Healey and Michael Dugher of Barnsley East. Rosie Winterton, MP for Doncaster Central has not said how she will vote.
Mr Blunkett said: “It is time to speak out and to cut through the woolly belief that a change in the way we vote would somehow be more democratic than the existing system.
“What is wrong with the existing system is that not enough people are actually using their vote and making their voice and their power count.”
Michael Dugher said AV would mean more coalition governments and “after the last nine months I’m not thrilled by that prospect”.
John Healey said: “This is a low political priority for me. I do not like the system in which third or fourth preferences can count as much as other people’s first preferences. I am content to see the system we have in place remain in place.”
Hallam MP and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is backing AV, saying: “The alternative vote is better, fairer. It puts you back in charge and makes MPs work harder for your vote.”