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Will a hung parliament bring electoral reform?

By Emma Thelwell

Updated on 07 May 2010

Electoral reform is a key Liberal Democrat coalition condition, MP Simon Hughes tells Jon Snow. So will this hung parliament produce an overhaul of the electoral system?

Electoral reform to emerge from hung parliament (Image: Reuters)

Both Labour and the Conservatives have offered a review of the system which could see a move towards proportional representation, as the two parties vie for a Liberal Democrat deal.

In the run-up to the general election, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg made it clear that electoral reform would be the price of his party's allegiance.

While no party achieved an overall majority, the Tories have won the most seats in Britain's first hung parliament since 1974.

In a speech this afternoon, Tory leader David Cameron outlined the areas of policy agreement between his party and the Lib Dems, which he said could provide a "strong basis for a strong government".

Simon Hughes MP on electoral reform
Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes told Jon Snow wholesale political reform, including reform of the electoral system, was one of the Lib Dems' election priorities.

He said that in any conversation with other parties, "although the economy must be the number one priority, political reform – serious political reform, not a conversation about it – must be part of the priority package too".

Recalling the failure of a previous government to respond to the findings of the 1997 Jenkins commission on electoral reform, Simon Hughes said: "We're not fools about his. We understand exactly the score. But you have to start the conversation in the proper way."

And he stressed that the Liberal Democrats had a clear set of priorities: "It's the economy first, it's a fairer Britain in terms of taxes, it's investment in the green economies of the future, it's investment in children – and political reform."

He pledged that his party would not change its priorities "just because we have a fairly light-gloss first offer from the Tories".

He said policies would be the test of whether the Tories were "serious about a conversation or whether this is just window-dressing and presentation".

Mr Hughes concluded: "An intelligent party leader, realising what the electoral system has produced, would realise that he must move further than his party has moved before."

However, conceding that the two differed on some policies Mr Cameron said he was prepared to compromise on some points with the Lib Dems.

Within these overtures, Mr Cameron offered an all-party committee of inquiry on political and electoral reform. This would look into the possibility of changing Westminister's first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system.

He stopped short of promising immediate legislation on a referendum on voting reform, which Prime Minister Gordon Brown had offered the Lib Dems just hours earlier.

Mr Brown said: "My view is clear, there needs to be immediate legislation on this (electoral reform) to begin to restore the public trust in politics and to improve parliament's standing and reputation.

"A fairer voting system is central and I believe that you, the British people, should be able to decide in a referendum what the system should be."

The Lib Dems have long favoured the proportional system (PR), which would increase the number of seats the party would receive for the same share of the popular vote.

Both Labour and the Conservative party benefit hugely from FPTP, while the smaller parties lose out.

Mr Brown has proved open to reform of the system in the past, with proposals in February to call a referendum on introducing alternative vote (AV) as a means of choosing MPs.

Under the AV system, voters rank candidates first and second, and the two candidates with the most votes contest an instant run-off (as with the Mayor of London or French Presidential elections).

The Lib Dems rebuffed Mr Brown's proposals in February, championing a more proportional system than AV - the single-transferable vote (STV). This system, already used in Northern Ireland, allows voters to rank all candidates, and surplus votes are redistributed on the basis of second preference.

Independent political analyst Greg Callus said this way, the Lib Dems can boost their current standing both because they would attract Labour and Tory second/third preferences, but also through the proportional rise.

Mr Callus added: "The question becomes whether the Liberal Democrats would compromise on STV as the price of their support in a hung parliament. Although the Liberal Democrat manifesto refers to STV as their "preferred" solution, their commitment is only to 'a fair, more proportional voting system' and leaves the possibility of accepting AV+ open."

The latter. AV+, advocates a "top-up" - an extra group of MPs whose election is based on regional votes for parties, he explained. They are added to all the AV-elected MPs to bring the total seat distribution broadly in line with proportions of the popular vote.

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