Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:39 pm on 6th September 2010.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Deputy Prime Minister, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice 4:39 pm, 6th September 2010

I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question and add:

"this House, whilst affirming its belief that there should be a referendum on moving to the Alternative Vote system for elections to the House of Commons, declines to give a Second Reading to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill because it combines that objective with entirely unrelated provisions designed to gerrymander constituencies by imposing a top-down, hasty and undemocratic review of boundaries, the effect of which would be to exclude millions of eligible but unregistered voters from the calculation of the electoral average and to deprive local communities of their long-established right to trigger open and transparent public inquiries into the recommendations of a Boundary Commission, thereby destroying a bi-partisan system of drawing boundaries which has been the envy of countries across the world;
and is strongly of the opinion that the publication of such a Bill should have been preceded by a full process of pre-legislative scrutiny of a draft Bill."

May I begin by thanking the Deputy Prime Minister for his generous remarks about my voluntary decision to move to the Back Benches after 30 years on one or other of the Front Benches? I felt that 30 years was enough and it may be that after I have spoken that view will be shared by this House.

Over the period of the previous Labour Government more significant constitutional reform was carried out in 13 years than had taken place in the previous 70 years. Although some of those reforms initially generated controversy, we actively sought, and were able to achieve, a wide cross-party consensus as the proposals went through, and they will stand the test of time.

Last year, with the crisis of confidence in British politics caused by the expenses scandal, to which the Deputy Prime Minister referred, my right hon. Friend Mr Brown, the then Prime Minister, rightly judged that the British people should have an opportunity to decide for themselves whether there should be a change in voting systems. Legislation to that effect was agreed by this House in early February, by a majority of 188. The Liberal Democrats voted with the then Government and I am grateful for their support, notwithstanding the faint praise for the referendum from the Deputy Prime Minister, who at the time-February was a long time ago-described an alternative vote referendum as a "miserable little compromise". He is now going to support the "miserable little compromise" actively-there are many other bigger miserable compromises that he has supported since then. The proposals failed to become law only when they were blocked in the other place by the Conservative party.

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.