Lord Tyler writes: the mischief continues

The BBC’s excellent Westminster correspondent, Mark D’Arcy has got the measure of what’s going on in the House of Lords at the moment, and his update is as good as any.

I only question the credit he gives to Lord Falconer, who is far too obviously partisan to attract serious support from the Crossbenchers. It is former Labour Minister – and shrewd operator – Lord (Jeff) Rooker who has twice achieved victory over the Government by bringing a healthy chunk of them along with him. He does it by saying his amendments are meant to be helpful, to provide flexibility, and that they are ‘lifeboats for the Government’!

In fact, this latest attempt to put in a totally anti-democratic turnout threshold for the ‘yes’ vote to succeed in the AV referendum is anything but a lifeboat. It is an iceberg. It would mean that “don’t knows”, who stay at home, would become ‘no’ voters, as we (and other more rational Labour speakers in both Houses) have pointed out.

And Jim Wallace observed in debate that those who were on the register but sadly deceased, or moved, or registered in two places, would cast – by default – an effective ‘no’ vote by virtue of their apparent abstention! It could hardly be more absurd.

We battle on…

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  • So when you lose a vote it’s ‘political mischief’. Seems to me that you don’t have a lot of respect for our Parliamentary Democracy.

    And when you look at the Coalition record on electoral registers in the run-in to the boundary changes methinks ‘crocodile tears’ is the politest way to describe the comments by Jim Wallace.

    In any case I have no doubt that the Vote Early – Vote Often strategy will apply to the dead as well as the living on the day.

    I’ve always believed that in any referendum on major constitutional change and probably on quite a few other issues like hanging that there has to be a clear electoral majority and not rest on a decision which could be determined by a single vote – that is the alternative and not a very attractive one IMHO.

    But it’s so obvious that LibDems have dug a deep hole on this issue and just keep digging deeper and everyone opposed apparently has no democratic right to object but is just plain anti-democratic and wrong according to the LibDems. Just have faith in the electorate to make the right decision and they will with a massive NO vote I hope but I have no beef with anyone voting Yes because that’s their right.

    You’d be better off spending your time knocking on doors if you’re that worried about the YES Vote or split the Bill but maybe it’s too late for that.

  • Perhaps now is the time to drop the whole AV referendum. Let’s have something better like a house of lords elected by Single transferable vote. Or STV for the Euro Elections, or Local Government, or Mayoral elections
    or no rise in tuitution fees.

  • Stuart Mitchell 10th Feb '11 - 7:08pm

    I like the irony of pro-AV campaigners forever telling us (falsely, as it happens) that the beauty of AV is that it ensures (except that it doesn’t) a 50% vote for every winning candidate (which of course it doesn’t) – yet they have no qualms whatsoever about a major constitutional change such as this going through on possibly a very low turnout.

    “And Jim Wallace observed in debate that those who were on the register but sadly deceased, or moved, or registered in two places, would cast – by default – an effective ‘no’ vote by virtue of their apparent abstention! It could hardly be more absurd.”

    Surely this is *exactly* the same kind of absurdity that Labour have highlighted in relation to the proposal to “equalise” constituencies based on numbers on the electoral roll?

    Labour are behaving very sensibly here. They are using the government’s wholly unnecessary linking of the referendum with other measures (which, let’s not forget, Labour begged the Lib Dems not to do) to win some small but worthwhile concessions. It is a pickle of the government’s own making.

  • I take it the Noble Lord will vote against moves if brought forward by the Government to insist on a minimum turnout in Union ballots then ?

    Or are “don’t knows” only voting “no” when a strike is called ?

    Actually if there are many don’t knows by May both campaigns need shooting! We’re actually talking about can’t be bothered’s.

    I am not convinced by AV, in fact I view as on the same level as FPTP until someone convinces me it is a genuine step to STV and not an end in itself. But I will turn out and vote, I was brought up to believe that my vote was paid for by those who faught to gain it, and later to keep it. I think there are many others who feel this way, for example I have no idea how my wife will vote but I know she will be doing so. I also know that the day she votes she will be telling my daughter why women must always remember their struggle to gain the vote.

    I’ll also promise this, the day the No campaign advise people to stay at home I will definately vote yes, as I will consider it an abuse of democracy.

    But if 60% of the electorate cannot be bothered to vote then a change of this magnitude does not have validity.

  • To add to my last comment I will use the words from a “liberal” on the Union rights thread, only those words in inverted commas are changed…

    If a “campaign” cannot prove even a majority of “voters” turnout, let alone a majority in support, of “electoral change”, it goes the same way: a minority forcing their will over a majority. This is the antithesis of liberalism and we should recognise it as such.

  • Has to be said that I’m not totally convinced that it is a model of good democratic practice to hold this referendum on the same day as elections held in some parts of the country.

    And, as others have pointed out, the way that this referendum was linked to other issues leaves a rather bad taste in the mouth too.

  • Paul McKeown 10th Feb '11 - 9:06pm

    Thanks for publishing this article.

    I think it should be said that this specific amendment was not passed in an attempt to guarantee democratic legitimacy for the plebiscite, but in fact the polar opposite.

    As views appear fairly evenly divided regarding the desirability of changing the electoral system, anyone opposed to the idea of changing the electoral system could simply refuse to cast a ballot to deliberately lower the percentage turnout, effectively requiring a turnout of about double that of the mandated minimum for the plebiscite to succeed, in other words, 80%.

    As such it is an underhand trick to subvert the public will, one that one might have expected from a country under tyrannical rule, rather than a mature democracy. As such it should be shameful for anyone in Britain’s Parliament to have supported it.

    Liberal Democrat MPs and Ministers should refuse to allow the Bill to pass with this poisonous amendment. If necessary the whole Bill should fail, including the Conservatives wished change to the size of the Commons and to electoral boundaries. The Conservatives must understand that their dealings will be reciprocated in kind, honest for honest, dishonest for dishonest. It is better that the Bill fails to be enacted than it to be enacted in a way that guarantees that the plebiscite will fail: it would always be possible to hold another plebisicite in the next Parliament if none were held in this one, but a failed plebisicite now would guarantee that the issue could not be raised again for a generation.

  • @Paul McKeown
    “effectively requiring a turnout of about double that of the mandated minimum for the plebiscite to succeed, in other words, 80%”

    That would mean everyone who disagrees with AV not voting which would be virtually impossible. It would take an organised campaign pushing people not to vote that would have to be more persuasive than any campaign ever mounted….

    If this is the real concern (rather than just not getting 40% of the public to vote) then the Noble Lord could add an amendment that if less than 40% of the electorate vote then the result will still be valid if one side of the other gets 70% of the votes cast. Unless of course you believe the No campaign could get 12% of voters to vote no and the another 60% to not vote….

  • Paul McKeown 10th Feb '11 - 9:29pm

    Further, can anyone explain to me, how on Earth anyone knows what that magical 40% threshold is? How many people own two or more homes and are subsequently on the electoral register in two or more constituencies, even if they only vote in one? How many students are registered in their parent’s constituency as well as in that of their university? Has anyone proposed a workable mechanism to remove all such instances, simply for this one referendum?

  • Paul McKeown 10th Feb '11 - 9:45pm

    Perhaps the whole issue of the electoral system might be amenable to contest under the European Convention on Human Rights.

    Today saw an interesting debate in the Commons on the potential enfranchisement of prisoners based on the application of Article 3 of the First Protocol in the ECtHR’s ruling in the Hirst case.

    Article 3 is interesting:

    The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.

    Could it be said that the British electoral system legitimately ensures the expression of the opinion of the people, when it manifestly fails to deliver parliamentary representation for parties other than the Conservatives or Labour concommitant to the level of support for them expressed by the electorate.

    Is 8.8% of the seats for the Liberal Democrats in the Commons fairly express the opinion of the electorate, when 23% actually voted for them?

    Again, does no seat at all for UKIP when 3.1% voted for them fairly express the opinion of the electorate, or 0.2% of the seats for the Greens fairly express the opinion of the electorate when 1.0% voted for them?

    I have sometimes wondered if such a case taken under the HRA to the national courts or under the convention to the ECtHR would succeed.

  • Didn’t seem to bother too many Tories at Westminster when the 40 per cent rule was voted in for the 1979 Scottish Referendum

    The result was a narrow majority in favour of devolution. However, Parliament had set a condition that 40% of the registered electorate should vote “Yes” in order to make it valid. Thus, despite a high turnout of over 60%, devolution was not enacted since less than 40% of electorate voted yes. The Scotland Act 1978 was repealed in March 1979 by a vote of 301-206 in the UK House of Commons.

    In the wake of the referendum the disappointed supporters of the bill conducted a protest campaign under the slogan “Scotland said ‘yes'”. They claimed that the 40% rule was undemocratic and that the referendum results justified the establishment of the assembly. Devolution was, however, lost from the mainstream political agenda for a decade.

  • Interestingly the man who introduced the 40 per cent amendment was none other than George Cunningham who later defected from Labour to the SDP in 1982. Was the beaten twice by Labour and I don’t think got back to Parly.

  • @Paul McKeown

    I wouldn’t get too worked up Paul as the LibDems will be lucky to poll 5 per cent at the next GE if things keep going the way they are – how many seats will that give you 🙂

  • Paul McKeown 10th Feb '11 - 10:14pm

    Dear Eco, that is a rather Tyrolean point, is it not?

    But, simply answering your substantive question, rather than responding to the well worn catcalls, 5% of the vote ought, naturally enough, to secure 30 seats in a 600 seat HoC or 33 in a 650 seat chamber.

    I belief that your partisan jibe is wildly incorrect, though, and expect the Lib Dems to poll, as per usual, somewhere around 20%, in which case about 120 or 130 seats ought to be returned in a 600 or 650 seat chamber.

  • @Paul McKeown
    ” in which case about 120 or 130 seats ought to be returned in a 600 or 650 seat chamber.”

    In a world with PR yes, with either AV or FPTP…….

  • Paul McKeown 10th Feb '11 - 11:22pm

    @Steve Way


  • Andrew Suffield 11th Feb '11 - 12:38am

    They are using the government’s wholly unnecessary linking of the referendum with other measures (which, let’s not forget, Labour begged the Lib Dems not to do)

    An act that was as disingenuous as it was silly. Everybody in professional politics knows that UK parliamentary procedures more or less demand that you do not have two bills on the same subject in the same session, and that unrelated issues are voted on separately during the process of the bill through parliament; their presence in the same bill is a procedural matter, and there is no difficulty whatsoever with voting for one thing and against another. All legislative items on a single topic (electoral reform, in this case) are into a single bill in this way,. This is how business is conducted in parliament.

    All parties are aware that the Tories will not permit the AV referendum to be passed without also fixing Labour’s routine abuse of constituency sizes at the expense of the Tories – that’s the deal, one big long-standing electoral reform issue for each party. The Lib Dems wouldn’t mind them going into separate sessions, and are certainly not the ones blocking this. “Begging the Lib Dems not to do it” is nothing more than a lie to the public.

    Labour were treating the public as ignorant tools to be manipulated. Strange how eager you are to be treated that way.

  • @Andrew Suffield
    It’s not the fact that the two issues both relate to constitutional reform that matters. The AV vote should have been a relatively consensual issue, as such it’s passage as a single issue Bill would have hardly caused a stir and all would be in place for the May referendum.

    You talk of “Labour’s routine abuse of constituency sizes at the expense of the Tories”, Labour did not set these constituencies it was the Boundary Commision and it’s rules and guidance were agreed consensually prior to the last changes. There is no doubt that it needs changing again and currently favour Labour. There is also no doubt that this needs to happen prior to 2015. The problem is that the simplistic size +- 5% doesn’t work without causing significant problems caused by geography and infrastructure in rural areas and under registration in urban ones. A time limited independant view on this leading to legislation would have been the best way to proceed. It could still have been in place in time for 2015 and it would have been better legislation giving the Boundary commision a fighting chance of achieving a reasonable outcome not just for political parties but also for constituents. There wasn’t even the standard pre-legislative process to enable the problems to be resolved earlier.

    Labour have behaved badly in the Lords, but the Governments stubborn refusal to compromise left them both the political cover and no frankly no other option but to do so. In fact far from the predictions of cross benchers forcing the issue in the Governments favour it appears to be swinging the other way.

    Of course if a truly proportional system was on offer instead of AV none of this would be an issue.

  • I was going to bring up the 1979 devolution referendum but EcoJon beat me to it. It was introduced by a group of Labour MPs who were opposed to devolution, and supported by the Tories (who didn’t support devolution at that time.) However, I’d disagree with his assertion that it forced devolution off the mainstream political agenda – in fact, it was the opposite. The effect of the failed referendum was that the Tories got the blame for it, and their share of the vote and MPs in Scotland and Wales declined election by election until 1997, when they were left with no MPs outside of England and therefore unable to represent in any form 3 of the 4 countries in the union.

    But if you’re going to introduce a minimum turnout for a referendum, why not go all the way and insist on it for a General Election? Why should any party with less than 50% of the total electorate vote be able to call itself a “majority”? Hmmm….

  • Stuart Mitchell 11th Feb '11 - 7:23pm

    Andrew Suffield: “Everybody in professional politics knows that UK parliamentary procedures more or less demand that you do not have two bills on the same subject in the same session… All legislative items on a single topic (electoral reform, in this case) are into a single bill in this way,. ”

    Are you not aware that the government has presented TWO education bills to Parliament this session? The second one had its second reading just this week. (And I know this despite being only in “amateur” politics.)

    The government is perfectly able to “split” bills whenver it wants to. It could have done it with electoral reform. It chose not to. I warned you Lib Dems about six months ago that this was a catastrophic tactical blunder – and current events are not exactly making me look wrong.

  • @KL

    I don’t want to pick over long-ago battles which I personally was heavily involved in but I think that because of the SNP support of the Tories in the confidence motion that brought down Labour in 1979 it delayed any hope of co-operation between like-minded people in both parties’

    I have the feeling KL that you are not Scottish or don’t live here or you wouldn’t have written what you did – the hatred against the Tartan Tories of the SNP was palpable in Scotland and it was more important for the LP to defeat them than even Thatcher because the Tories were of no account in Scotland politically.

    The Nats had to be defeated in case they became the Trojan Horse for Toryism. Turncoat LP members like Roy Jenkins meant nothing.

    It wasn’t till July 1988 that we had the Claim of Right and March 1989 before the Scottish Convention and June 1996 before the Referendum. So I don’t really know why you have taken issue with my decade of loss assertion.

    Scotland is different politically and thankfully we escaped a lot of New Labour but my personal interest has always been more centred on national UK politics than at a local Scottish level and I know memories fade but I really don’t remember anything for a decade in HoC as I initially wrote but if I am wrong please feel free to correct me.

  • Paul McKeown 12th Feb '11 - 12:22am


    Hmm, “Tartan Tory”… many would also say that the division between SNP and Labour in the West Coast had a lot to do with religious sectarianism, too, and dodgy town hall practise flowing therefrom. Monklands?

  • @Paul McKeown

    I really don’t think Monklands was a major determinant on what was happening in a broader electoral sense.

    And I don’t agree that religious sectarianism was a signicant fault-line between the LP and SNP – it wasn’t my experience on the ground. I have many arguments against the SNP but sectarianism has never been one.

    At the end of the day it was Thatcher that destroyed the Tories in Scotland and not devolution – it’s like deja vu with Clegg as I have never come across a national politician as hated as him other than Thatcher and Clegg has got there quicker and he ain’t even PM – lots and lots of books to be written on this one when the dust finally settles.

  • Paul McKeown 12th Feb '11 - 5:39pm


    Labour had consistently obtained 45% or so in Scottish polls for the last three decades, presumably because Scotland suffers from a relatively under-developed private sector economy and many Scots, although they may be cynical about Labour, trust them to maintain higher levels of public sector expenditure to compensate. I do hope to see the day when the private sector thrives in Scotland as it does in the south east of England. The developing green economy holds out some small hope at least, as Scotland has many natural resources.

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