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