Chris Rennard writes… So what was all the fuss in Parliament about?

Late on Wednesday night Nick Clegg was at the back of the House of Lords to see Royal Assent granted to the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill.

His presence there emphasised his achievement in getting this Bill through Parliament in time to enable the referendum on switching to the Alternative Vote to take place on May 5th.

Of course people may not vote to change from First Past the Post. But I have never thought that any measure of electoral reform for Westminster would come about without a referendum. The self-preservation instincts of many MPs means that they are never likely to vote to change a system that got them elected. So the referendum is a great step forward for electoral reformers. Parliament eventually decided that the voters will have the final say on the matter. Nick Clegg can fairly be said to have made more progress on the issue of electoral reform for Westminster than we have seen in any period since a Royal Commission (set up by a Liberal Government) first recommended the use of AV to elect our MPs in 1910.

Norman TebbitFor Lib Dem peers, it was certainly felt ironic to be going through the lobbies with Tory peers ranging from Ken Baker to Michael Heseltine, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Michael Dobbs to Michael Howard. Of course many of the more “Thatcherite” peers who served in the cabinets of the 1980 were led by Michael Forsyth in an ambush aimed at de-railing the referendum. They effectively showed their contempt for the coalition and also for David Cameron. For Lib Dems who have reservations about the coalition it is always re-assuring to know that what you are doing is so strongly opposed by Lords Tebbit, Forsyth, Lawson and Lamont.

Much of the Thatcherite cabinet of the 1980s joined in an unholy and deeply conservative alliance with opportunistic Labour peers who failed in their filibustering attempts to block a constitutional reform giving power to the people over their choice of MPs. Labour have many eloquent lawyers on their benches in the Lords, but none of them could explain their unprincipled ‘u turn’ on a measure that was in their manifesto of last year. An AV referendum was also in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill that their Government carried through the Commons last year before being lost in the “wash up” at the end of the last Parliament.

The behaviour of many Labour peers on this Bill was in marked contrast to Ed Milliband’s statement (Why the alternative vote gets my vote) in The Guardian on Thursday about his principled support for AV on May 5th. Whilst disagreeing with much that Nick Clegg may be responsible for, he rejected the expedient route of opposing something just because Nick Clegg favours it. Expediency over electoral reform is one of the reasons that the twentieth century in British politics could be deemed to be a largely Conservative century.

Of course, the referendum on electoral reform only came about in return for Lib Dem support for a fundamental review of constituency boundaries. Labour strongly opposed the plan to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600. But with over 300 more directly elected full-time parliamentarians in the Scottish Parliament, the European Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Greater London Authority and the Northern Ireland Assembly than we had only a few decades ago it is harder to justify the figure of 650 MPs. In any event, I doubt if Labour will seriously want to go in to the next General Election as the only major party promising that “if you vote for us we will give you 50 more MPs”.

Labour didn’t like the degree to which constituency electorates will be equalised. But the idea that MPs should have roughly the same number of electors was actually a key demand of the Chartists in the nineteenth century who wanted to end the “rotten boroughs”. There could perhaps have been more flexibility in this equalising measure but arguments about boundary distribution are an intrinsic problem with First Past the Post systems.

Labour’s desire to avoid a boundary review would have left most constituencies at the 2015 General Election with boundaries based on electoral rolls from 2000. That would hardly have been fair. Boundary reviews inevitably reduce the number of constituencies where population has fallen and create “new” constituencies where it has grown. But all the academic evidence shows that the relative advantage likely to be gained from the new boundary review by the Conservatives and at the expense of Labour is likely to be very small indeed. The net change may well be negligible compared to what would have happened in a normal boundary review and it will be almost entirely as a result of the relative over-representation of Wales compared to other parts of the UK.

Much of the recent parliamentary battle was in my view based on a massive misapprehension by both the Conservative and Labour Parties about the likely consequences of the new review of constituency boundaries. Labour peers in the opinion of many abused parliamentary procedures to try and block this Bill. Their tactics were probably based in part on an attempt to show how a tough approach to opposition in the Lords could work rather than a pragmatic one. It was largely driven by those most opposed to electoral reform. But after all the parliamentary skirmishes, Labour’s tactics failed in every regard. The coalition is stronger. But Ed Milliband and Nick Clegg will be voting together for electoral reform on May 5th.

Lord Rennard is a former Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats and speaks for the party on political and constitutional reform issues in the House of Lords.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Depressed Ex 20th Feb '11 - 9:56am

    Oh dear. It’s a bad sign when not even Lord Renard can spell Miliband correctly.

  • Just when some measures being taken start to remind me why I voted Lib Dem, a senior party member issues another statement full of spin and nonsense….

    “but none of them could explain their unprincipled ‘u turn’ on a measure that was in their manifesto of last year”

    Most of the opposition was NOT for the AV referendum and having watched many hours of it where Chris Rennard was in his seat it’s clear he knows this. The real threat to the referendum came from linking it to the ill thought through boundary changes, which under the cover of “fairness” will mean access to their MP is severely curtailed for many voters. The result of which can only be further seperation of the electorate from lawmakers, a real triumph for the party of local accountability.

    Lb Dem peers opposed moves to ensure that the executive would be cut proportionately to the number of MP’s, effectively making the back benches weaker than they already are. I suppose they now have colleagues jobs to defend….

    The behaviour on both sides was poor, but what choice did the opposition have in the face at absolute intransigence from the government benches. There were terrible points made on both sides one of the worst of which was on this site by Chris himself. He contrasted the input into commons debates of an ex Government whip with his input into the debate in the Lords. He should have known that it is the policy of both the Tories and Labour for whips not to contribute to debate in the commons. Instead of making a mockery of the content of the Labour Lords input (some of which was laughable) he tried to put negative spin on an understandable previous contribution level. It highlighted to me that the Lib dems were following Blair and co into the realms of spin over substance.

    “There could perhaps have been more flexibility in this equalising measure but arguments about boundary distribution are an intrinsic problem with First Past the Post systems.”

    And there would have been if he and his Lib dem colleagues had allowed it. 5% is too small, public accountability is too weak, the final solution to the IOW is nothing short of gerrymandering and geographical constraints are only taken into account where it suits. The boundary commision have so little flexibility that the they may as well no longer exist.

    Of course we all know that none of this would have mattered had there been a proportional system on the options in the referendum as smaller constituencies that took account of all relevant factors would have been smoothed out, but Lib Dems voted that ammendment down.

    ” arguments about boundary distribution are an intrinsic problem with First Past the Post systems”

    As they are for AV systems as AV is still single member constituency based.

    “Boundary reviews inevitably reduce the number of constituencies where population has fallen and create “new” constituencies where it has grown. ”

    Patently false. They take account of the number of registered voters not population, ignoring the fact that MP’s are to represent all in their constituencies not just those who register to vote.

    Labours tactics may have failed, but they have raised an awareness that may yet come back to bite the Lib Dems. In my area people now associate the proposed Devonwall constituency with AV and will probably vote accordingly. Labour were always split on AV, with many supporters I have spoken to wavering. I wonder how many of them will have looked at the way the other half of this Bill was managed and decide to vote against. In all I think the Lib Dems were suckered by the Tories.

    A measure that would have sailed through virtually unopposed has been associated with measures bound to drive a wedge through any real cross party support.

  • Sunder Katwala 20th Feb '11 - 10:37am

    I am a strong supporter of a Yes vote, and happy to work alongside those from the Greens and LibDems to UKIP and outside any party who share the view that it would be a better and more open electoral system.

    It is clear from the polls that Labour voters will probably have a decisive impact on May’s result. LibDems at around 10% are more than 4-1 for; Tory voters at 30-35% are almost 2-1 against (and very vocal Tory No advocacy may well harden that). Others break for. Labour at 40%+ voters are the most evenly split and the most volatile.

    There is a very active Labour Yes campaign. The party is pretty evenly divided in Parliament, with frontbenchers mostly for and backbenchers more often against. Ed Miliband being vocally and visibly associated with the Yes campaign can be important. the other thing that is helping is very vocal Tory advocacy of No. For Labour voters who find it difficult to decide, the fact that the Tories seem so strongly against change is useful. Those in Labour who want a No vote will be keen to keep Labour-LibDem antagonism as high as possible, and make the referendum about Nick Clegg. Those in the LibDems who charactise Labour as an essentially “tribal” party will assist them in achieving this. It will hurt the Yes campaign generally with the swing voters we need.

    Its in the past now, but we did lose some agnostic/persuadable opinion in the party because of the consequences of the two bills being put together. I still don’t think it was necessary. The Lords process was very poor, but the jerking together of these two measures As The Guardian has argued, two separate issues could have been carried (by Coalition agreement) in two separate bills. It was simply a question of Tories and LibDems being bound as a matter of coalition confidence to vote for what they had agreed to vote for.

    There were many legitimate challenges to the Bill which are not about challenging the principle of broadly equal electorates. 600 seats has nothing to do with equal constituencies. I am particularly surprised that nobody in the LibDems even seems to have realised just how much reducing from 650 to 600 makes it all but impossible for the LibDems to do anything for another decade to improve their very poor record on equal opportunities and diversity in Parliament, despite what Nick Clegg said to the Speaker’s conference.

    Was this a deliberate trade-off? Being able to reduce number of MPs (‘reduce the cost of politics’) is a headline worth giving up on statements like Clegg’s about the priiority give to catching up. Or did nobody notice? You might have expected (with retirements) to be selecting new candidates in, say, 8 LibDem held seats. That will now be perhaps 2, as existing MPs who want to continue will now very likely move to replace any colleagues who step down.

    For slightly different reasons, it will slow down the recent Labour and Tory progress on gender and ethnic balance in Parliament too. Those parties have improved the proportion of new cohorts who are women or non-white, and this will now decelerate change because the next Commons will have the smallest new intake of any Parliament. While, for the LibDems, it removes the chance to try to begin to catch-up

    For those opposed to ‘positive discrimination’, this seems to me a canard and misunderstanding, since one can ground this concern in impeccably liberal grounds of equal opportunity and autonomy. I believe – as Clegg does – that this issue matters to a liberal goal ‘equal chances and no unfair barriers’ where we would expect all parties to happen to get intakes around 50-50 (ish), give or take, if fair and open meritocratic competition was in place. Unless meritocrats want to argue that women are (i) less talented or (ii) less interested, then it must be the case that the persistence of current outcomes show some structural barriers to liberal/meritocratic fair chances. I don’t see “a Parliament that looks like Britain” as an end in itself. It would (after a lag of 3-5 Parliaments) be a broad outcome of the achievement of “fair chances and no unfair barriers”).

  • @Steve Way how will people’s access to their MP be curtailed by a boundary review. Yes some MPs will have to represent some more people but given other MPs are already manage to do that it somes unlikely. Also as Chris points out electors in Wales in some of the smallest Constituencies also have AMs they can go to as well.

  • @Simon
    Some of the proposed constituencies will be so geographically large that they will take many hours to traverse. These are often in the places with the worst transport infrastructure and very limited public transport. Previously the boundary commision could have taken this into account. In the debates the Governments argument was to use modern technology… Try telling that to the average 80 year old. These are also often the constituencies where the MP will lose most time travelling to / from for the same reasons.

    “other MPs are already manage to do that” At risk of sounding like a pantomime, oh no they don’t. They may represent larger numbers of registered voters, but they do not face the problems highlighted within specific areas. Of course the other major issue is that this is about registered voters and not population. As registration is not compulsary this does not reflect the actual size of some constituencies (and therefore the potential workload).

    An effective boundary commision would need to take all these and more factors into account, but the 5% overiding rule means that they cannot.

    As to the point about having AM members as well. They deal with different issues and unless Plaid get their way always will. Reasonable access to your own MP (and for that matter elected Mayor / Councillor / AM / MSP) should be a right of every citizen of this country.

    All of this is only required because we do not have top up lists to smooth out the inequalities of representation having access to a representative lead to.

  • By cutting MPs but not the number of Ministers, this bill will strengthen the power of the Executive, make backbench MPs even more powerless than they are already and make the likelihood of any meaningful backbench rebellions even more improbable.

    Good news if you’re a party Whip or if you believe that the “government” (whoever runs it) always gets things right.

    Pretty sad if you believe governments need effective scrutiny or you wish to see Parliament strengthened.

    In future, any shoddy piece of legislation will be rammed through by the payroll vote.

  • @Steve Way there are already some Geographically big constituencies that were Geographically difficult as well. Taunton Deane and North Norfolk pre the last boundary review come to mind.

    AMs and MPs deal with different issues but that still leaves less issues on an MPs plate.

    @John I agree there is a case for cutting the number of ministerial jobs. However the number of ministers was set when Parliament was smaller than the 600 MPs that it will be post this change. If the problem is the pay role vote being to large than the way to deal with that is to cut the number of Ministerial jobs.

  • @Simon
    Sorry Simon I can’t comment on North Norfolk, but Taunton Deane does not have the low level of infrastructure that some of the Welsh and Scottish seats have and is nowhere near as big as some of these will have to become. Whatever is left on the MP’s plate the constituent still needs to be able to acces them. Otherwise scrap the idea of constituencies altogether, once the local link is gone there is no need for them….

    As to the payroll vote there was an interesting article on the BBC website.

    A Tory turned down a Government job as she did not want to be part of the 150 strong payroll vote. That will mean 25% of the commons will be bound by collective responsibility after 2015 and the Government refused to guarantee that this number would be reduced in line with the reduction in MP’s.

    The executive will be untouchable and this will lead to bad Government as it did when Thatcher and Blair were in this position.

  • While agreeing with much you say, Steve Way, I don’t feel Taunton constituency does have brilliant infrastructure. Certainly North Norfolk is quite difficult to get around using public transport.

    Sarah Wollaston MP is rather an unusual case, in that she was selected by open selection and does not come from a normal politically active background, hence being able to put up much less with whipped situations. It will be interesting to watch her progress through Parliament and her career. Funnily enough most Lib Dems around Totnes and Torbay wanted to see Nick Bye (Mayor of Torbay) triumph because he is perceived as so useless. Tories have now refused to reselect him as Mayor. Most around here (Exeter East Devon area) wanted to see Sara Randel Johnson win (to get rid of her as East Devon DC Leader), but I think we actually have a very good MP, with a lot of Liberal tendencies in Mrs Wollaston.

  • @Tim13
    I’m not sure you’re comparing apples with apples. Just the journey between Taunton and Westminster is vastly easier. Taunton is on both the main train line and adjacent to the M5. In terms of major routes it is intersected by 2 main arterial a roads. I accept some parts of the constituency are harder to get to, but not on the scale of some of the Welsh / Scottish constituencies, let alone the proposed ones.

    I accept that Ms Wollaston is to the left of the Tory party, but the point she makes is a very pertinent one, and one the Lib Dems in Parliament could have done something about. 150 is simply too high a proportion of the legislature to be on the payroll vote now, let alone in the future. As we have seen with Tuition fees, members in this position do not have the chance to honestly represent their constituents, or even their own positions (as any reading of the Telegraph sting material shows).

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