UK holds referendum on voting system

Friday, May 6, 2011

File photo of a UK polling station sign.
Image: secretlondon123.

The United Kingdom electorate took to the polls yesterday to vote in both local elections and a UK-wide referendum regarding the system used to elect its members of parliament to the House of Commons. The polls opened at 07:00 BST (0600 UTC) yesterday morning and closed at 22:00 BST (2100 UTC) last night.

Alongside the normal local elections for seats on 279 councils, and elections for seats in the devolved Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies, the country saw the first nation-wide referendum since 1975, regarding potentially replacing the current first past the post voting system with the Alternative Vote (AV) system currently used for general elections in Australia, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea, as well as for some mayoral and party leadership elections worldwide, including in the UK.

Mayoral elections also took place in Leicester, Mansfield, Beford, Middlesbrough, and Torbay. Some areas also experienced elections to parish councils, while the constituency of Leicester South underwent a by-election after its Labour MP Sir Peter Soulsby stood down to run for mayor.

At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead?

One polling station in Stockport was delivered the wrong ballot papers, causing around 90 people to cast invalid votes. Those affected were, where possible, contacted and asked to cast their vote again, according to the local council. Another, in Llandeilo, was closed for two hours after escaped dogs bit four people nearby.

The AV referendum came about as a result of the coalition agreement between the Liberal Democrats, who support voting reform and promised a referendum in their campaign, and the Conservatives, who initially opposed reform but agreed to a referendum as a compromise, following the election in May last year.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) hopes to retain control of the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, where it currently runs the minority government, in the hopes of potentially holding a referendum regarding Scottish independence, which they did not deliver in their first term in power; meanwhile Labour hope to end their coalition with Plaid Cymru by taking control of the Welsh Assembly; however, sources from within the party report that it is likely that Labour will fail to reach a majority. Little is expected to change in Ireland, where the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin are expected to retain their dominance over the Northern Irish Assembly.

Polling booths in the New Forest.

Polls taken prior to the election implied that AV would be rejected by some margin, but due to low turnout — despite good weather — the results are likely to be unpredictable. The results of the AV referendum are not due to be declared until 20:00 BST (1900 UTC) today, and counting is not due to begin until 16:00 BST (1500 UTC).

As usual, Sunderland was the first council to report, and was held by Labour; as is the case with many councils in the north of England, it is considered a Labour safe seat. Early predictions indicate that a number of Liberal Democrat councilors in northern cities will lose their seats to Labour or Conservative candidates. Former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett reportedly said that the national opinion had changed from "Clegg mania" into "Clegg pneumonia". In an interview with the BBC, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg put predicted Liberal Democrat losses down to voters being "angry" at the coalition government, but also said that the electorate is "not stupid", and would vote in council elections based on local—rather than national—factors.

The first Scottish Parliament constituency to report was Rutherglen, which is held by the incumbent Labour MP, James Kelly. Despite being considered Labour's fourth safest Scottish seat, it experienced a swing of more than seven percent towards the SNP, and large Labour losses are predicted across Scotland. Nearby East Kilbride was the second to report, and was gained by SNP candidate Linda Fabiani from the Labour incumbent Andy Kerr.


Some information contained in this article was obtained from television, radio, or live webcast sources. Reporter's notes and the broadcast source details are available at the collaboration page.