openDemocracyUK

Speeches from Parliament's electoral reform debate I

Yesterday's Second Reading of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies bill should have been a historic moment in many ways, but it was marred by serious and widely-shared concerns with the whole process, not least the absence of pre-legislative scrutiny.
Guy Aitchison
7 September 2010

Yesterday's Second Reading of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies bill should have been a historic moment in many ways, but it was marred by serious and widely-shared concerns with the whole process, not least the absence of pre-legislative scrutiny. Anthony Barnett, who I watched the debate with in the chamber, will be blogging his take on it later, but for now here are a selection of speeches, touching on the most important issues, as recorded in Hansard

The Deputy Prime Minister introduced the bill:

Nick Clegg: In the run-up to the election in May, all the major parties pledged to reform politics. Some of the measures proposed were quite different from this one and others strikingly similar, but there was consensus that this Parliament has a duty to restore trust to the institution of Parliament. So the people who put us here must now see us taking the action needed to do that, ensuring that politics is transparent, making certain that we can all be held to account, and ultimately, demonstrating to them that we understand that they are in charge. This Bill is a major step towards achieving that, because it is about the legitimacy of this House and restoring people's faith in how they elect their MPs...

These proposals have rightly provoked a great deal of debate-they are matters of major significance-but while new boundaries and the prospect of a new voting system may seem radical to Members of this House, and certainly the changes will have a direct impact on each of us, these reforms are the bare minimum that any Parliament serious about political renewal must deliver. To the people we serve it is patently obvious that individuals' votes should carry the same weight, and if that means reforming the rules for drawing boundaries, that is what we must do...

New rules will demand that every constituency is within 5% of either side of a single size. Using the electoral register from last December, we estimate that this will be around 76,000 voters, as I have said. Subject to that strict requirement, the independent boundary commissions will then be able to continue to take into account the same factors as now: local geography, local authority boundaries and local ties. To guard against future misalignment of voter numbers in constituencies, boundary reviews will take place on a five-yearly basis..

The commissions will continue to use the electoral register as the basis for their reviews. That has been a feature of the system for decades, under Governments of all shades. With registration in Great Britain at well over 90% and in line with comparable countries, the register remains the best basis for reviews. That is not to say that where people are not on the register, we should do nothing...We are investigating a number of solutions.

We must address the question of reform of our voting system. Some believe that we are better served by sticking with the current system, which, they say, benefits from its familiarity and strong constituency link. Others believe that it leads to too many safe seats, giving many MPs jobs for life with only minority support from their constituents. Advocates of AV note that it would retain the current constituency link, but that it would give people more say over their vote by allowing them to rank candidates in order of preference. As a general rule, therefore, MPs would come to Westminster with the support of the majority of their voters.

The date of the poll is set for 5 May 2011. There are a number of reasons for that. First, the coalition agreement set out a commitment to hold a referendum, and it is right for us to move swiftly to meet that commitment. People have been promised the chance to decide, and they should not now be made to wait. Secondly, it makes sense to combine the referendum with the other elections that are already happening on that day...

The reforms that the Bill proposes are at once significant and simple. Ensuring that people's votes are more equal and giving voters a say over their voting system are both important reforms. They are about correcting unfairness in the way voters elect their representatives and putting power in the hands of people. If we together cannot deliver these reforms, we will have to ask ourselves what we really meant when each of us promised our constituents that we would seek to reform and strengthen our politics. We promised a new politics. Today is the day we must begin to deliver on that promise. We must make the system fair. We must put people back in charge. I commend the Bill to the House.

The shadow justice minister responded on behalf of the opposition:

Jack Straw: The Labour party remains committed to that referendum on the alternative vote. Of course, opinions on the merits of voting systems differ within parties and across them; I am in favour of AV, but many of my colleagues take a different view. Regardless of our personal preferences, the Labour party is united in its belief that the people should decide how their Parliament should be elected.

Our plans were to hold a referendum no later than October next year and for there to be extensive consultation before we decided on the exact date. The right hon. Gentleman proposes by this Bill that the referendum should take place with a date set, without any prior consultation, for next May, to coincide with local and national elections. I urge him to consider carefully the legitimate concerns expressed by people of all political persuasions, inside and outside this House, about clashing the referendum with local and national elections...

The exact date of the referendum, although important, is a Committee matter. If it had been our only concern with this Bill, Labour Members would have enthusiastically supported it on Second Reading and left such matters to the Committee stage. However, in the four months since he took office, the right hon. Gentleman has shown an extraordinary capacity for making the wrong call and for maximising opposition to himself and his policies when with a little wisdom-this certainly applies in this case-he could have minimised it. He could and should have made the AV referendum the subject of a single-issue Bill. Instead he either chose to join, or was suborned into joining, that measure with one that is not directly related to it and which could and should have been put in a separate Bill...

Part 2 of the Bill is one of the most partisan proposals we have seen in recent years. It proposes arbitrarily to cut the number of Members to 600, to redraw parliamentary boundaries according to inflexible new arithmetical rules based on an electoral register from which millions of eligible voters are missing and, extraordinarily, as we have heard, under clause 10 public inquiries by the Boundary Commission into the Government's preliminary proposals are explicitly to be prohibited...

If enacted, those proposals would represent the very antithesis of the high ideals that the Deputy Prime Minister initially set out for his political reforms. They have nothing whatever to do with those high ideals. Instead, they represent the worst kind of political skulduggery for narrow party advantage. 

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