Committee (1st Day)
Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill
Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan (Labour)
In his comprehensive treatment of electoral systems, my noble friend Lord Foulkes missed out one system. As a consequence of the experience of multiple elections in Scotland, there have been two changes to the electoral system. In 2015, as my noble friend said, the elections for the Scottish Parliament will not take place on the same day as the elections for the UK Parliament. Equally, in May 2011, there should have been local government elections under the single transferable voting system on the same day as we would be having a Scottish Parliament election.
Much as I respect my old friend's political acumen and his attractiveness to the electorate, the fact that he is a Member of the Scottish Parliament is down to only one thing-namely the low vote that the Labour Party received in the first past the post seats for the Scottish Parliament. One of the reasons why the Labour Party did not do as well in the 2007 elections was that people were being asked to participate in two elections using two different systems. Across the country there were incredible numbers of spoiled papers. In my former constituency, the majority of the successful nationalist candidate was less than the number of spoiled papers, which in our estimation tended to come from the areas which had been the traditional stalwarts of Labour support. That is the kind of confusion that seems to have escaped the attention of the previous speaker.
The confusion that arose may take a slightly different form in this election, but it has already been admitted by the desire to have two elections in different years, and two elections in the same year but at different times. Simply trying to get a bigger turnout seems to be the only argument. It could be that saving money is one of the arguments, but I suspect that that is a pretty feeble one because £15 million is a lot of money in one area, but it does not amount to a great deal across the country. Certainly, if we are to do this election properly, we will have to have more people in the polling stations than we had at the last election. We will require sufficient numbers to get the job done. If £15 million is a figure that would break the bank, I would be very worried about the staffing of the polling stations on election day.
I do not want to prolong my speech too long, but I want to make another point. There will be confusion. I have fought several referenda, and I think that I have won one and lost two. I lost the European one in 1975. I lost the Scottish one in 1979, but then went on to win my seat. My point is that the result of a referendum is often largely dependent on the popularity of the proposers. At present, Tory supporters, although they are wilting a wee bit, by and large are quite happy with what this right-wing Government are doing. But I cannot imagine that the proponents of AV-the pure and unalloyed, or the slightly alloyed, proponents in the Liberal Democrats-will be accorded the respect of the electorate, given the way in which they have failed to stem the right-wing tendencies of this Government.
It would be in the Liberal Democrats' interests to have a referendum as far away from next May as they can-probably to have it a year and a half before the general election, if they are to have one at all. By that time they might be a wee bit less unpopular than they are at present. The university towns and cities of this country are the kind of areas where young people would be expected to turn out to vote for constitutional or electoral change, but the Liberal Democrats do not have a hope in hell of getting any support from them at present.
This is a confused, ill-constructed, badly thought-out proposition of which the date is only one part. It would be desirable for us to look afresh at the date. My noble friend Lord Rooker wants to give electoral reform legitimacy. If we are going to give the result legitimacy, we should hold the referendum at a time when it is not tainted by or confused with any form of political activity.
A referendum is an awkward political weapon which has to be used carefully. Let us face it, over the years there have been referenda across Europe which have resulted in outcomes that none of us would have liked. I do not think this is the same, but it lends itself to confusion in ways that this country could well do without at this time. That is because there are forces at work that are anti-democratic and who wish to use every opportunity to denigrate the democratic system. Having a referendum on the day suggested, when elections are being held in other parts of the country, and in the format decided upon, is foolhardy. No one will be a winner and democracy will be the loser.