Electoral reform: Planned vote next week
The BBC has learned that the government plans to ask MPs to vote next week on taking the first step towards changing Britain's voting system.
The move could mean that in future general elections - though not in this year's - voters would be asked to rank candidates by preference instead of putting a cross next to one name as now.
Senior ministers agreed today to propose an amendment to the Constitutional Renewal Bill to offer voters a referendum by the autumn of 2011 on scrapping Britain's "first past the post" system and replacing it with the "alternative vote" (AV) system. The cabinet is to be asked to approve the plan tomorrow, allowing Gordon Brown to unveil the idea in a speech he is delivering on political reform at lunchtime.
Under AV - the voting system used in Australia - every candidate is ranked on the ballot paper. If no candidate wins at least half of the votes, the votes of losing candidates are redistributed until a winner emerges with an overall majority.
The system is not a form of proportional representation. Indeed, in the event of a big electoral swing, it can exaggerate the majority that a winning party gets.
Gordon Brown backed AV at Prime Minister's Questions recently, claiming that "[g]iven the issues that have arisen about trust in politics, there is a case for every member of this House coming here with the support of more than 50% of the electors," but has met opposition from a sizeable group of Labour MPs who fear that the move could be a thin end of a wedge leading to full PR - which could undermine Labour in its traditional heartlands.
However, a growing number of ministers have argued that a vote on a referendum will expose the Conservative Party as opposed to political reform and will woo Liberal Democrat voters and Lib Dem MPs whose votes might be needed in the event of a hung Parliament.
Even if the Commons votes for a referendum on AV next week, the measure is very unlikely to become law as there is not sufficient time between now and the general election for it to pass through all its Parliamentary stages.