Chris Rennard writes… The battle for electoral reform in the Lords

Battle has been joined in the House of Lords over the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill (generally referred to as the PVSC Bill). Having passed all stages in the Commons, it came to the Lords this week. It needs to get to Royal Assent by the end of January for the referendum on using the Alternative Vote for future Westminster elections to be held on May 5th next year.

Two controversial measures have been put together in one Bill as part of the coalition agreement.  The Government won every vote in the Commons on this Bill with comfortable majorities. But Labour’s first major challenge to the Bill was only defeated by 14 votes on Monday. There wasn’t a strong turnout from Conservative peers and winning required the support of a significant number of cross-benchers. It will take some time for new peers to be introduced so there may be a number of close votes in December.

Labour’s first challenge to letting the Bill proceed was to declare that it may be ‘hybrid’.  This meant that it would have been referred to ‘the Examiners’ and if found hybrid would be dealt with by a special Select Committee ie. significantly delayed until it would possibly be too late to have the AV referendum in May.  Funnily enough they made no suggestion that the Bill might be hybrid in the period since it was introduced in the Commons in June.  In debate I raised the point by Mark Pack on Lib Dem Voice.  Labour were not able to answer this point when I made it and lost the vote by 14.

Over two days nearly fifty Labour peers outlined their various objections in speeches and interventions.  I tried to focus on the basic principles of letting the voters have a say in how their MPs are chosen.  I asked the House, “to imagine an organisation with 650 consultants working for it, each of them on a fixed-term contract. What would we think if that organisation gave the 650 consultants the exclusive power to determine all the details over whether to renew their contracts? We would say the organisation was barmy, yet this is effectively what happens at present with the House of Commons.”

I reminded the House of Labour’s manifesto commitments, “To begin the task of building a new politics, we will let the British people decide on whether to make Parliament more democratic and accountable in referenda on reform of the House of Commons and House of Lords, to be held on the same day, by October 2011.  To ensure that every MP is supported by the majority of their constituents voting at each election, we will hold a referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote for elections to the House of Commons”.

Most of Labour’s objections to the proposal for the referendum and the new Boundary Commission processes were made in the form of interventions in my speech.

You can read the speech and interventions here and Parliament Live TV also lets you see the whole debate over two days if you want. My contribution is here and that of my noble friend Lord Tyler here.

Lord Rennard is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords

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12 Comments

  • I think the problem is that the two elements are combined, i.e. Boundary changes (which I believe are rushed and could be done at any time during the course of the parliament) and the referendum on electoral reform.

    Personally I don’t see why we need the referendum so early in a 5 year parliament, I would rather have seen a combined reform bill with a multi question referendum to be held in say 2012. This would leave 3 years to implement the systems required to change by the next general election.

  • p.s. I think a Lib Dem reminding anyone of manifesto commitments at present is a bit rich. If you can ignore yours in Government surely they can ignore theirs in opposition!!!

    (Actually I think both are wrong)

  • Mike(The Labour one) 18th Nov '10 - 7:33pm

    Having to delay the referendum would be a life-line for electoral reform. You’re not going to get many Labour people campaigning for it and local elections at the same time. It’s just not going to happen.

  • My one main objection is that the near obsession with having 600 MPs is causing
    objections from distintive areas like the IOW and Cornwall.

    Some flexibility on this would be a good idea.

    There are also some objections from Wales about the drastic reductions planned
    there.

    Another five seats to make a total of 605 would be a small but important concession.

  • @Dave W
    That’s the problem there seems to be no interest in concession from the coalition in any policy area. Linking the two items will end up giving Labout the chance to disown the whole process and electoral reform will fade away.

  • The rights and wrongs of the bill have nothing to do with Falconer’s puerile attempt to delay it, which was built on opportunism and hypocrisy.

    He pulled his “justification” out of his backside and was rightly sent packing.

  • RyanM,

    You can complain about Falconer’s tactics (he is, after all, a lawyer). What is more difficult to dispute is that Falconer’s objections to the substance of the Bill are right.

  • LabourLiberal 18th Nov '10 - 11:45pm

    What a disappointment… I saw this headline, and thought it meant the coalition was finally turning it’s reformist agenda to our far less representative house.

  • The thing about Cornwall and the Isle of Wight is that their problems are clear enough to be visible already. The rest of the nation will find out how bad it is to have irrational, non-geographic, constantly shifting constituency boundaries only when it happens to them. (But they’ll find out just before the 2105 election, and they’ll work out who was to blame!)

  • David, was your comment about the 2105 election ironic, or just a typo?!

  • Daniel Henry 19th Nov '10 - 11:31pm

    I’m more interested in Lord Alton’s campaign to give us more choice on the referendum. While I accept that AV is a fair compromise between the Liberals and Conservatives, a referendum with such a limited choice is hardly going to restore the electorate’s faith in politics.

  • Tim,

    Must have been a numerical version of the Freudian slip!

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