LONDON – The British government is set to give voters a chance to overhaul the country’s electoral system next May, fulfilling a key pledge by the ruling coalition that came to power two months ago, media reports here said Friday.
A national referendum will ask voters whether they want to jettison the longtime “leader-takes-all” method of electing members of Parliament in favor of a new, more proportional method that could permanently change the face of British government.
Such a system, allowing voters to make first and second choices when they vote, would boost smaller parties and make coalition governments more likely, breaking up the longtime Labor-Conservative duopoly. A formal announcement of the referendum is expected next week.
Reforming the electoral system is a core issue for the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the new Conservative-led government. Britain’s perennial “third party” has long contended that the current voting system unfairly handicaps it in elections, and insisted on a referendum as a condition of joining the Tories in a coalition that knocked the Labor Party out of power.
Despite his personal opposition to any change, Prime Minister David Cameron acceded to the Liberal Democrats’ demands to hold a plebiscite.
A spokesman for the prime minister told reporters Friday that Cameron would campaign against the measure once it goes before the public, putting him at odds with his own second-in-command, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats.
The Conservatives say there is no reason to tinker with a system they say has served Britain well for decades. Under the present electoral system, whoever receives the most votes – not necessarily a majority – in a district wins a seat in Parliament.
The new system to be offered up in the referendum would allow voters to also list their second choice on the ballot. If no candidate wins by an outright majority on first count, the lowest vote-getter’s votes are distributed according to the second-choice preference on his ballots. If that also fails to produce a winner by outright majority, the same process is repeated, using the second-choice votes of the next lowest vote-getter – and so on until one candidate emerges with more than 50 percent of the vote.