Forget votes at 16 for now - alternative reforms are more important

The votes at 16 debate has reared its head once more in recent days, resultant of proposals in Wales.

Earlier this week, Welsh Local Government Secretary Alun Davies announced a number of reforms to Welsh democracy, according to the BBC. The big story to emerge from this was the proposal to introduce votes at 16 for local authority elections.

While the wind is certainly blowing in a direction favourable to votes at 16 advocates, with most major parties bar the Conservatives and UKIP supporting a change, the votes at 16 debate is probably the wrong thing to focus on.

As part of my role at think-tank and campaign-group TalkPolitics, I recently outlined our position that if votes at 16 is to happen then large-scale, obligatory political education needs to be introduced. In fact, regardless of whether the franchise is extended, significant improvements to political education in schools should be made. Without an understanding of basic political processes, it is no wonder that young people - and the wider population - are turned off politics.

Additionally, while votes at 16 grabbed the headlines, Davies’ proposals contained some other revitalising reforms which deserve exploration.

According to Wales Online, the proposals include automatic voter registration, which would make sure that no one is unable to vote due to not being registered, thus making democracy more accessible, and the opportunity for voting in non-traditional places, which could make voting easier for many. The BBC also reports that the proposals introduce the possibility for voting to take place on multiple days, which could maximise turnout.

Additionally, according to the Electoral Reform Society, the proposals would allow councils the option to switch to using the Single Transferable Vote rather than the current FPTP system.

First-past-the-post is outdated and does not even meet the goals it sets itself. A switch to a proportional voting system would lead to results that truly reflect what people vote for, and would not lead to “wrong winner” elections.

4. An end to coalitions of convenience

One of the reasons the Labour and Conservative parties are so dominant and united (not with each other, but in terms of the fact they remain distinct parties) in British politics is that the voting system forces a two-party system and keeps them glued together. Under a fair voting system, the parties would likely split and be more honest about who they are. Clearly, there is a large segment of Labour voters that would like to see an end to Corbyn and a large chunk on the left of the party who kept their heads down in the Blair years.

A fair voting system would allow for the big parties to split and be honest with themselves and public about their internal divisions. Different factions could put forward competing manifestos and unite after the election to form coalitions of compromise. The plurality of political opinion in this country is far too big to be caged by a two-party system.

5. A strengthened constituency link

Another supposed merit of FPTP is that the constituency link it creates is a crucial component of British democracy and should not be tampered with. The idea of an MP being a local champion is an important one, but there does not need to be a direct trade-off between fair representation and the constituency link.

A switch to the Single Transferable Vote would create slightly larger constituencies, but would result in a diverse mix of representation. Currently, there is just representative that voters can go to with issues on the Westminster level, something which can be off-putting if said MP comes from a greatly different viewpoint on key issues from the constituent. STV, used in Ireland, Northern Ireland and in Scottish Local Elections, gives voters choice at the ballot box and choice during the parliamentary term and therefore strengthens and diversifies the constituency link. Surely a healthy democracy should result in effective communication between voters and representatives?

6. Higher turnout and political engagement

Electoral Reform Society's Jessica Blair writes"Wales is leading the way on democratic reform. The Prime Minister should take note."

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