Nick Clegg’s statement on political and constitutional reform

Nick Clegg has just made a statement in the House of Commons outlining the Government’s proposals for political and constitutional reform, including plans for a referendum on the use of the Alternative Vote system in the UK.

The statement included the announcement of two important dates: the date for the AV Referendum (in the Bill to be introduced before the Summer recess) is intended for 5 May 2011 and the next General Election on 7 May 2015.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s proposals for parliamentary reform.

Mr Speaker, every member of this House was elected knowing that this parliament must be unlike any other; that we have a unique duty to restore the trust in our political system that has been tested to its limits in recent times.

And, if anything was clear at the General Election, it was that more and more people realised that our political system is broken and needs to be fixed. They want us to clean up politics. They want to be able to hold us properly to account.

So the government has set out an ambitious programme for political renewal, transferring power away from the executive to empower parliament, and away from parliament to empower people.

That programme includes:

Introducing a power of recall for MPs guilty of serious wrongdoing.

Tackling the influence of big money as we look again at party funding.

Taking forward long overdue reform of the other place.

Implementing the Wright Committee recommendations, and taking steps to give people more power to shape parliamentary business.

Speeding up the implementation of individual voter registration.

And increasing transparency in lobbying, including through a statutory register.

Today I am announcing the details of a number of major elements of the Government’s proposals for political reform.

First, we are introducing legislation to fix parliamentary terms. The date of the next General Election will be 7 May 2015.

This is a hugely significant constitutional innovation. It is simply not right that General Elections can be called according to a Prime Minister’s whims. So, this Prime Minister will be the first Prime Minister to give up that right.

I know that when the coalition agreement was published there was some concern at these proposals. We have listened carefully to those, and I can announce today how we will proceed, in a Bill that will be introduced before the summer recess:

First – traditional powers of no confidence will be put into law, and a vote of no confidence will still require only a simple majority.

Second – if, after a vote of no confidence, a Government cannot be formed for 14 days, Parliament will be dissolved and a General Election will be held.

Let me be clear: these steps will strengthen parliament’s power over the executive.

Third – there will be an additional power for parliament to vote for an early and immediate dissolution. We have decided that a majority of two thirds will be needed to carry the vote, as opposed to the 55% first suggested, as is the case in the Scottish Parliament. These changes will make it impossible for any government to force a dissolution for its own purposes.

These proposals should make it absolutely clear to the House that votes of no confidence and votes for early dissolution are entirely separate. And that we are putting in place safeguards against a lame duck government being left in limbo if the House passes a vote of no confidence but does not vote for early dissolution.

I am also announcing today the details of the Government’s proposals to introduce a Bill before the summer to provide for a referendum on the Alternative Vote system and for a review of constituency boundaries in order to create fewer and more equally sized constituencies, cutting the cost of politics and reducing the number of MPs from the 650 we have today to a House of 600 MPs.

Together these proposals help correct the deep unfairness in the way we hold elections in this country. Under the current set up, votes count more in some parts of the country than others, and millions feel that their votes don’t count at all. Elections are won and lost in a small minority of seats. We have a fractured democracy: where some people’s votes count and other people’s votes don’t count; where some people are listened to, and others are ignored.

By equalising the size of constituencies we ensure that people’s votes carry the same weight, no matter where they live. Only months ago the electorate of Islington North stood at 66,472, while ten miles away, in East Ham, the figure was 87,809. In effect that means a person voting in East Ham has a vote that is worth much less than a vote in Islington North. That cannot be right. These imbalances are found right across the United Kingdom.

Reducing the number of MPs allows us to bring our oversized House of Commons into line with legislatures across the world. The House of Commons is the largest directly elected chamber in the European Union, and it’s half as big again as the US House of Representatives.

It was never intended that the overall size of the House should keep rising, yet that is precisely the effect of the current legislation – the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. Capping the number of MPs corrects that, and it saves money too. 50 fewer MPs saves £12m a year on pay, pensions and allowances alone.

On the referendum, by giving people a choice over their electoral system, we give that system a new legitimacy. Surely when dissatisfaction with politics is so great, one of our first acts must be to give people their own say over something as fundamental as how they elect their MPs?

The question will be simple – asking people whether they want to adopt the Alternative Vote, yes or no. And the precise wording will be tested by the Electoral Commission.

As for the date of the referendum, in making that decision we have been driven by three key considerations:
That all parties fought the General Election on an absolute pledge to move fast to fix our political system, so we must get on and do that without delay.
That it is important to avoid asking people to keep traipsing to the ballot box.
And, finally, that in these straitened times we must keep costs as low as possible.

That is why the Prime Minister and I have decided that the date for the referendum in the Bill will be 5 May 2011, the same day as the elections to the devolved legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and local elections in England. That will save an estimated £17m. I know that some Honourable Members have concerns over that date, but I believe that people will be able to distinguish between the different issues on which they will be asked to vote on on the same day.

Our Bill will make explicit provision for the Boundary Commissions to report on more equally sized constituencies for the process to be completed by the end of 2013, allowing enough time for candidates to be selected ahead of the 2015 election, and we will ensure the Boundary Commissions have what they need to do that. That means that, in the event of a vote in favour of AV, the 2015 General Election will be held on the new system, and according to new boundaries. Let me be clear: these are complementary changes – the outcome of the referendum is put in place as the new boundaries are put in place.

The Bill will require the Boundary Commissions to set new constituencies within 5% of a target quota of registered electors, with just two exceptions: Orkney and Shetland, and the Western Isles, uniquely placed given their locations. We have listened, also, to those who have very large constituencies – so the Bill will provide that no constituency will be larger than the size of the largest one now. And we intend that, in the future, boundary reviews will be more frequent to ensure that constituencies continue to meet the requirements we will set out in our Bill.

I understand that this announcement will raise questions on all sides of this House – these are profound changes. But let me just say this: yes there are technical issues that will need to be scrutinized and approached with care as these Bills pass through Parliament. But ensuring that elections are as fair and democratic as possible is a matter of principle above all else. These are big, fundamental reforms we are proposing, but we are all duty bound to respond to public demand for political reform. That is how we restore people’s faith in their politics once again. I commend this statement to the House.

For more information on the Liberal Democrat position on AV, visit www.fairervotes.org.uk

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22 Comments

  • Happy about the move on the 55% rule, I was very critical of that and pleased that the Coalition have shifted position on that to avoid the fixed term parliament proposal being side-stepped by a cynical government.

    However I am angry about the protection of very large constituencies. If you’re going to have an equal constituencies proposal then surely that must apply in all circumstances. The proposal is broadly pro-Coalition parties already, but by keeping the very large Lib Dem constituencies of the Scottish Highlands and the perennially Lib Dem seat of Orkney and Shetland the Coalition have put their thumb on the scales.

    Nick Clegg is rightly upset that a vote in Islington North is worth 1.3 more than a vote in East Ham, but to fix that while having a vote in Western Islands worth 3.5 times average, a vote in Orkney & Shetland worth 3 times average and the Highland constituencies worth 1.5 times average for partisan advantage can’t be right.

  • Love it!

    I’m finally pleased with the Fixed Term proposals, I always thought 55% was too low, and the clarification of no confidence votes… actually writing them into law, should deal with the only real objection labour could bring forth so far.

    Constituency size sounds very fair… the only issue is how the lines are drawn, and that must be independent and free from political manoeuvring.

  • >by keeping the very large Lib Dem constituencies of the Scottish Highlands and the perennially Lib Dem seat of Orkney and Shetland the Coalition have put their thumb on the scales.

    First: the Western Isles (not ‘the Scottish Highlands’) are an SNP seat.

    Second: Look at a map and try to imagine, as an MP, covering either from mainland Scotland. And imagine how well represented you’d feel, as an islander, by someone a ferry ride or plane ride away.

  • @Cassie – I know that Western Isles is an SNP seat. But the three seats in the Highland Council area are all Lib Dem held and will be protected by the maximum geographical size criteria despite being hugely undersized in electorate terms. Between them, Highlands, Orkney & Shetland could be represented by 4 Lib Dem MPs when the population only justifies 2 MPs.

    Do you think it’s fair for Clegg to announce an exception to the fair votes policy that only benefits the Lib Dems and SNP and only harms Labour?

  • “And imagine how well represented you’d feel, as an islander, by someone a ferry ride or plane ride away.”

    Skye (before the bridge), Arran and Argyll & Bute all contained islands in such a situation coupled with parts of the mainland so that’s not a clinching argument.

  • I wonder if the coalition deigned to inform the Scottish parliament of their intention to hijack next year’s Hollyrood elections.

  • Oh I’m sure the voters can cope with it, but if it’s possible that holding both on the same day could affect the outcome of either ballot then I hope that’s been considered and that the Scottish parliament was consulted.

  • Cameron offers us a referendum on electoral reform. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well yes, until we discover that it isn’t real electoral reform, it is pretend electoral reform. And it gets worse. We can only have this ersatz “proportional” voting system if we agree to the gerry-mandering of the Parliamentary boundaries that would give Cameron an overall majority even under AV. More MPs = less democracy; a simple and unanswerable equation, and something no Liberal Democrat should support. This is a thoroughly bad deal, for the Liberal Democrats and the British people. It isn’t compromise, it is capitulation.

  • >Do you think it’s fair for Clegg to announce an exception to the fair votes policy that only benefits the Lib Dems and SNP and only harms Labour?

    I think it would be a brave (if saintly) politician indeed who announced they were going to introduce something that would CUT the number of their own MPs, even if it was by one!
    However, I suspect the overall effect of boundary changes will be mostly to the Conservatives’ advantage and Labour’s disadvantage, as small city seats (Lab) will be merged with Tory-voting ones around them. Currently, the bias is in Labour’s favour, or the Tories wouldn’t be proposing changes at all
    .
    Until we know exactly what the proposed changes are, tho’, and how, if applied to May’s vote, they’d have changed the balance overall, I’m not sure we can conclude too much. But whatever changes are proposed, there will be winners/losers and geography IS relevant. Isle of Wight, for instance, wants to keep its high ratio of voters: MP, because it doesn’t want to be split and part-lumped with Portsmouth South (a split which might, btw, COST the Lib Dems its seat there).

    >I wonder if the coalition deigned to inform the Scottish parliament of their intention to hijack next year’s Hollyrood elections.

    Lot of Welsh politicians upset at idea of a referendum on same day as Assembly elections and they’d like the referendum on increasing Assembly powers to be held separately again. IE three ballots.
    Vox pop of general public – do you want to traipse to the polling station three times in one year? and do you want the costs of three polls at a time of cuts? and do you want schools to be shut three days where used as polling stations? – might produce a different view.

  • The so-called “equalisation” of constituency electorates that Cameron is pursuing as cover for his gerry-mandering is something that is done by the Boundaries Commission every time there is a review. Inevitably, Labour seats become smaller, for the simple reason that cities have been losing voters ever since the slum clearance programmes began in the 1930s. What the Tories want to do here is repeat their 1983 trick, when they split towns in half to create two constituencies and topped them up with Tory-voting villages – eg, Chelmsford, Colchester, Norwich and Oxford. If “equalisation” retained the current total of MPs, I could buy it. But it doesn’t. It reduces the number of those pesky Parliamentarians who occasionally make life difficult for elites. And sadly, so much damage has been done to the reputation of Parliamentarians by the media-created MPs’ expenses hoo-ha, that people will sit back and accept this blatant power-grab by Cameron and his cronies. When Nick talks about “cheaper democracy” (as though you can put a price on something as precious as democracy), what he really means is: “We have to do what Cameron wants, because that’s what the Americans want. They really run the show here, and if we don’t bow down to them, they’ll pull the plug on the British economy and we’ll all be sunk.”

  • Andrew Suffield 6th Jul '10 - 1:34am

    Do you think it’s fair for Clegg to announce an exception to the fair votes policy that only benefits the Lib Dems and SNP and only harms Labour?

    Yes, actually. The current constituencies are biased in favour of Labour – it takes a lot more votes to elect a Tory government than a Labour one (they need around 4-5% more of the voting population). Any fairer voting system must harm Labour, at least a little.

    Hence, it is misleading to look at who benefits here. What you need to look at is how fair the resulting system is.

    that’s what the Americans want

    The Americans want copyright maximalism, legalised kidnapping of foreign citizens by the CIA, and oil. I don’t think they care about how many MPs we have.

  • I support fixed terms and welcome the clarification over what would happen following a vote of no-confidence.

    However 5 years is too long. It means fewer General Elections, less democratic accountability. This is far too high a price to pay for fixed terms.

    I support PR but I will be voting against AV. AV is at best a marginal improvement over FPTP and in some ways is even worse. It will stymie the fundamental reform we need for at least a generation. The idea that AV represents ‘incremental’ reform towards PR is a nonsense. Not that it matters – the country (particularly Scotland) will vote against it.

    What we have is a set of political reforms designed to disenfranchise the people of this country and serve the narrow party interests of the coalition.

    The next election will be fought under FPTP and will be a straight fight between Labour and the Tories.
    Very depressing.

  • David Raynor 6th Jul '10 - 8:41am

    And now the real Tory party begins to show it’s ugly face!

    Tory members begin lining up to defy the party whip and vote down any referendum on AV!

    What a surprise, I guess we are all off to read the ‘Emporers clothes’ now,the story is a bit more realistic than the Tories supporting a change to a fairer voting system.

  • Stuart Mitchell 6th Jul '10 - 2:44pm

    There are some good things in Clegg’s speech. Nice to see he has acknowledged the obvious problems of the 55% rule (problems which many people here refused to admit existed when I wrote about them!). But we have to wait for the detailed proposals before we can say that Clegg has a solution. I still believe that the government’s whole approach to implementing “fixed” Parliaments is fundamentally the wrong way to go about it.

    On the subject of “equal” constituencies, I would be very concerned if (as seems likely) this were decided on the number of voter registrations rather than population. This would create far more unfairness than it claims to alleviate. Somebody else has already pointed out the issue of second home owners. I am also concerned that some groups in our society (ethnic minorities, young people, people in deprived areas etc) may end up under represented if they are less likely to be registered voters. Then there are those who CANNOT register – people under 18, immigrants, etc. These people may not vote but they should still be entitled to the same level of representation as anybody else.

    We could end up with a situation where electoral power is weighted in favour of constituencies with large numbers of older, white, affluent, second-home-owning voters. Or, in a word, Tories. Outrageous though this is, one can only admire the sheer nerve of David Cameron in forcing through such a measure when he doesn’t even have a majority of his own. I wish he were on my side.

  • David Allen 6th Jul '10 - 7:02pm

    “We can only have this ersatz “proportional” voting system if we agree to the gerry-mandering of the Parliamentary boundaries”

    I am pleased to see that this is not true. As Clegg said, on the referendum: “The question will be simple – asking people whether they want to adopt the Alternative Vote, yes or no.”

    The boundary equalisation scheme should simply be debated and voted upon by Parliament. It is not a suitable subject for a referendum and we don’t want it confusing the AV versus FPTP issue.

  • Paul McKeown 12th Jul '10 - 11:57pm

    Interesting to read some a frothing mouthed red reactionary working himself into a paroxysm of indignation about the constitutional changes, http://www.labourlist.org/david-levene-coalition-clegg-cameron-reforms , but the response from sensible Labourlisters was to tell him that the changes were actually fair. A good resource, I would suggest.

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