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The story so far:

The government is introducing a bill that would do two things: (1) arrange a referendum on changing the British voting system to the alternative vote, and (2) redraw the constituency map of Britain, equalising voter population sizes and getting rid of 50 MPs.

Part 1 – The referendum

Labour do not want the alternative vote system, partly because many of them feel that the system gives an unfair advantage to voters for fringe parties and partly because many distrust the uncertainty and political fudges that can result from coalitions. They note that Australia already has AV and seems increasingly unhappy with it.

The Conservatives do not want the alternative vote system, mainly for the same reasons as the Labour party. If the referendum goes ahead they will urge people to oppose it, and the chances are that their side would succeed.

The Lib Dems do not want the alternative vote system. They are aware of its shortcomings, and it is nowhere near a proportional representation system, which they feel (a) would be fairer and (b) would, specifically, benefit them. (The pre-election Nick Clegg notoriously labelled it a “miserable little compromise”, a phrase that the opposition, unsurprisingly, brings up on average five times per session when this issue is being discussed.) However, the Lib Dems see AV as a baby-step along the path to one day getting a fully proportional system—it would be the first change to the voting system for decades, and, realistically, it’s the only chance they’ve got—so, slightly reluctantly, they are supporting it.

So: no-one in the room actually wants the AV system.

But the Lib Dems are supporting it, and the Conservatives in turn are supporting their coalition colleagues by introducing a referendum on it—even though they would then campaign against it in that referendum.

The best date for the referendum on the alternative vote system is 5 May. People will already be out voting for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, and it would cost less money just to introduce another question for them to answer. Holding the referendum on its own would not only be more expensive but actually deranged; how many people do you know who would feverishly tumble out of their house to go and vote in a referendum on the alternative vote system?

So: ideally the referendum should be on 5 May.

Part 2 – Redistribution of seats

The other part of the bill would completely redraw the map of constituencies in the UK. The Conservatives are very keen on this, hoping that it will favour them electorally. Some Lib Dems are equally keen, as they contend that the existing system is inherently unfair and regularly disfavours, specifically, the Lib Dems.

However, the changes being suggested would see many geographically close but societally unconnected unrelated areas lumped together, while others could find themselves unfairly divided on purely numerical grounds. That might not be too much of a concern so long as people could appeal against contentious decisions—but it’s planned that the Boundary Commission should not be allowed to hear such appeals. (This from the coalition bringing you all the lofty talk of “freedom” and “accountability”.) Amusingly, too, these changes might end up not favouring the Lib Dems at all.

Labour want these changes properly scrutinised and, if necessary, modified. The coalition wants the changes agreed to, unchanged, as fast as humanly possible. This is partly because it thinks the changes will be to its benefit, but mostly because it wants the referendum to happen by 5 May.

But! You can’t set deadlines in the Lords. In the Commons the government can cut off business, pretty much at whim. “Now we move on part 2 of the bill, which contains the controversial proposa—“ BONG! Time’s up. The Lords, however, are not so easily cowed by the executive, and they take as long as they take. Don’t get me wrong; this can lead to some real horrors, like the several deathly months it took them to grind through the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, with outside observers looking on incredulously as Lord Greaves (in particular) took the opportunity to muse on topics such as: “I was wondering, my Lords, what is an estuary?” I don’t think I’m breaking any confidences here by mentioning that the bill was widely and unaffectionately known as “Death by Liberal Democrat”.

The plus side is that, in a situation like the current one, the government doesn’t find it as easy as it would like to blast its pet back-of-an-envelope legislation through the Lords. We’ve had eight days of committee stage so far (most legislation can be given decent scrutiny in two or three), and we are not quite halfway through this very long, dense and controversial bill.

The coalition claims that Labour are filibustering, making endless speeches and debates in order to hold up the legislative process. Labour claim that the coalition has forbidden its backbenchers to speak on the bill at all, in order to speed up the process. There is said to be an element of truth to both allegations. The upshot is that for almost the whole of committee stage, there hasn’t been a peep out of all but three of the Lib Dem backbenchers, and the Tories have been silent, other than to indignantly deny that they’ve been told to be silent. Six out of the eight days of speeches have consisted almost entirely of Labour talking about the bill.

The reason for this is that the coalition has inadvertently made itself vulnerable. If the referendum is to be held on 5 May, the law states that 10 weeks are necessary to prepare for it. The bill therefore has to be finished by late February. If it gets held up in the Lords for long enough, the referendum can’t go ahead on that date and will effectively be kicked into the long grass for quite some time. Decouple the two parts of the bill, Labour are suggesting, let the unwinnable referendum go ahead, and then we can take more time to properly go through the boundary changes.

The coalition is having none of it. As with all its other contentious legislation, this government is proceeding with its plans with the kind of haste that in an employee would make you immediately suspicious, as if at any minute they expected to hear approaching sirens. The government is threatening to introduce a cut-off point for the bill in the Lords (pretty much unheard of, and a proposal that itself could well sink into procedural quicksand), and has withdrawn all co-operation with the opposition and indeed anyone else in the House—on the grounds that they might let on to the opposition what the government is planning. Tempers are fraying all round, leading to snappish late-night exchanges in the chamber:
Lord Howarth of Newport [Lab]: Before the Minister sits down, I want to pick him up on his use of the term “paranoia”, which he has used a couple of times.

Lord McNally [LD, Minister]: I can give the noble Lord evidence. There has been bullying by—

Lord Howarth of Newport: May I just make my point?

Lord McNally: No. [Hansard]
So it is that we head into this week, with the government suddenly having set aside three extra days of committee on the bill. Labour are standing fast, scenting blood—they might be able to force the referendum to be scrapped, at least for the immediate future—but the government is equally implacable in its determination not to be crossed. Consequently, the House has had to make contingency plans in case today’s business, day nine of the committee stage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, goes right through the night to tomorrow lunchtime, and then does the same on Tuesday and Wednesday nights too. Such 24-hour sittings would obviously be ridiculous, but right now the whole situation is ridiculous: the “usual channels” are all sulking at each other, all communication has broken down and, thanks to the magic of coalition politics, everyone in the room is squabbling over the introduction of a voting system that none of them actually wants

EDIT: They sat until 1pm the next day. There was a brief break and then Tuesday's business began, at usual, at 2.30.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 17th, 2011 03:32 pm (UTC)
I'm really not sure what I'd put my money on right now. Publicly, the coalition is sticking to its guns, and this mammoth pissing contest looks like it's going ahead. But Lord Falconer has just announced in the chamber that senior coalitioners have said privately that they're willing to decouple the two parts of the bill so that the 5 May referendum deadline doesn't mean the boundary changes are skimped and botched. If that happened, though, I still wouldn't know whether to expect both parts of the bill to go ahead. It's chaos right now, behind the scenes as well as on the public stage.
Jan. 17th, 2011 06:33 pm (UTC)
This--there are some daft bits in the bill, that need dealing with, but I've always said I'd accept AV as a compromise that's much better than FPTP, it doesn't preclude further reform later.

And a large number of Labourites, including many I know well, have always favoured it in and of itself. Saying "no one wants it" makes good copy, but is falsifiable hyperbole.

One point though: I really wish people would stop calling it gerrymandering, it's palpably not, if any gerrymandering is there, it's the current boundaries, which in some cases are palpably wrong. So if anything, it's a reverse gerrymander, it undoes a dodgy set of boundaries. But the way they want to do it is problematic and needs better scrutiny.

eg, I live about 500 metres from Huddersfield constituency, at last boundary review, 66,275 voters. Next door to that is Colne Valley constituency, at last boundary, 78,355 voters, including several wards that are clearly part of urban Hudds, some of which were in the Hudds set previously. Hudds is a safe LAbour seat, Colne Valley a 3-way marginal, 12,000 difference in voters at the time the review was published. That's wrong.

This solution might not be the best one, but the problem is palpable, if you believe in equal votes and equal value. If we're to be stuck with single member seats, they ought to be equitable and seen to be equitable.
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 18th, 2011 02:44 am (UTC)
On the latter, absolutely (and see my other comment further down). I've always thought we'd need a two step move, although one step is easier than I thought it would be (an academic has mapped the country for STV in a way I can't find fault with, you know me and maps).

For the former? Actually, yes, it is several peoples end goal, especially within Labour, it's been an on/off objective of Labour since at least the 1930s (they actually tried to introduce it at one point, at a time when I don't think it would have favoured them, now half of them oppose it at a time it does favour them, weird). To some, AV is an end point reform, they like single member seats, etc.

To be honest, if we get STV for the Lords and Councils, and AV for the Commons, then that's an acceptable compromise. I want STV, but the votes aren't there, currently.
Jan. 17th, 2011 03:24 pm (UTC)
Lest it go unsaid (which it might, as although I often think it I never actually write it in the form of a comment) -- your posts explaining certain political situations are both very interesting and very informative.
Jan. 17th, 2011 04:44 pm (UTC)
very true, and I hope webofevil that you don't mind me linking to this
Jan. 17th, 2011 04:03 pm (UTC)
However, the changes being suggested would see many geographically close but societally unconnected unrelated areas lumped together, while others could find themselves unfairly divided on purely numerical grounds.

I'm still not sure what the problem is here. Possibly because I've tended to live in cities, which are already divided in semi-random fashion. But why should physical proximity actually matter at all? So long as everyone gets a vote I'd actually be happiest with one that doesn't bunch people together into clusters.
Jan. 17th, 2011 06:27 pm (UTC)
Exactly. I plan, and have been slowly researching, a post on this point. It is, frankly, utterly spurious, as it's based on a false assumption, that the current boundaries make sense.

This is a brilliant resource for that, and having checked every seat I've ever lived in, I've found each and every one is already guilty of that, but I was pointed at a worse one--on the border between Burnley and Pendle, there is a road called May Tree Close.

I was wondering why it wasn't on my delivery route when I was up there during the campaign. It's the worst I've found. It's by no means the worst out there, I've only checked 8 or so seats so far.
Jan. 17th, 2011 08:21 pm (UTC)
That's pretty much what I figured. Some people seem to be acting like the current districts are magically right, and that changing them to actually have the same number of people in each district is wrong because....well, I've never actually heard a reason.
Jan. 17th, 2011 08:50 pm (UTC)
Some people seem to be acting like the current districts are magically right

That'd be the Labour Party, on account of the current boundaries being outrageously skewed in favour of Labour.

to actually have the same number of people in each district is wrong because....well, I've never actually heard a reason

Well, then they wouldn't outrageously favour Labour, and clearly we can't have that, can we? It's not fair! For the special Labour Party value of "fair"...
Jan. 17th, 2011 09:40 pm (UTC)
ACtually, they're not that skewed in Labour's favour--the bigger effect is the much smaller seat size in Scotland and Wales, but that was for historic agreement reasons.

Smallest seat in England is held by a Tory. There is some bias in Labour's failure, but it's mostly geographic concentration that gives them the advantage--Tories would be much better off with STV.
Jan. 17th, 2011 09:46 pm (UTC)
The border between Torbay and Totnes changes depending on whim of the commission, with the ward they swap the most being the one the Torbay MP used to be a councillor for (and where I used to work, as it happens). It currently goes down a side street, weaving between houses. I think it's following a postcode boundary, but it definitely doesn't make sense.

Some people have bought into the myth that the old system was supposed to be based on census data, and that "Labour areas" are historically under registered to vote, so this new change to using just the electoral register is Wrong. Where that particular myth came from (that census data was used) I don't know--urban deprived areas are under registered, but they also tend to have LAbour councils and Labour MPs. I do voter registration drives, my local council does registration drives. Not sure why those councils and MPs can't. Knowing which houses aren't registered is something easily figured out by an activist.
Jan. 18th, 2011 12:52 pm (UTC)
Care to repeat some of these comments over on my latest LJ post?
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 17th, 2011 11:27 pm (UTC)
Yup. Good, isn't it.

And it's exactly that the tories say they want and is being implemented according to their manifesto. To the letter.

And the havoc it'll cause will give the perfect in to switching to STV very soon, as that negates the need for regular changes in one easy simple change. That can be sold to Tories as being a return to tradition.

They value the constituency link, but want to destroy it as they think it hurts them. They'll figure it out eventually.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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