Clause 1 — Referendum on the alternative vote system

Part of Royal Commission (London) – in the House of Commons at 7:15 pm on 12th October 2010.

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Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest 7:15 pm, 12th October 2010

It is a pleasure to follow Thomas Docherty; he made some excellent points, and I hope the House will pay attention to them.

I accept that we must have a referendum. I voted for this Bill on Second Reading, and I will vote for it again on Third Reading and subsequently. A referendum is the price we pay for the coalition, and the coalition is the price we pay for economic stability, which is what the country needs most at the moment. However, it is not for this House to submit to the dictatorship of the coalition agreement and to accept every word therein as being inscribed on tablets of stone. It is for this House to exercise its duty to seek to improve the legislation before it.

I shall speak mainly in support of amendment 4, to which I have put my name, but other amendments in the group are similar in principle, so I also accept the arguments for them. I am not, however, saying I could possibly bring myself to vote with Sadiq Khan. I congratulate him on his appointment to his new position on the Front Bench, and I look forward to our having many arguments in future. Tonight, we have been very much in agreement, but I know that he will understand that I could not bring myself to vote for his proposals. However, I have listened to his arguments and, as with those of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, the House ought to take heed of them, because this is all about principle, not party advantage.

There are arguments that if we have a referendum on the same day as other elections turnout will be higher and people will be more likely to vote for AV. There are other arguments that people will be more likely to vote against AV. There are arguments about why AV might be good, too-although there are not many arguments that AV would be good for anyone apart from the Liberal Democrats. There are, however, also arguments about why any particular party might be at an advantage or a disadvantage in respect of AV as a whole, but none of us can predict that. We can look at the statistics and, as my hon. Friend Mr Jenkin so eloquently explained a short while ago, we can look at the party advantage, but this is not about party advantage: it is a simple matter of principle.

A democratic procedure that changes our country's constitution must be fair and be seen to be fair. If the result of a referendum on changing our voting system does not command the respect it should, every subsequent general election, based on whichever system is chosen under that referendum, will be open to question and challenge. There is no doubt that holding more than one election on the same day undermines confidence in the referendum, so the issue is simple: if this referendum is held on any day but 5 May 2011-or any day when another significant election is taking place-it will command more respect than if it is held on that day with other elections.

I care about democracy. If we are having a referendum, I want it to be fair and to be seen to be fair. It is the duty of this House to protect democracy by ensuring that any referendum is fair. There are 365 days in every year, so plenty of other dates are available for us to hold a referendum that would be far fairer than one held on 5 May 2011. When I intervened on the right hon. Member for Tooting, I referred to the fact it is not valid to argue this matter on a point of economics and saving taxpayers' money. Undoubtedly, it will cost less to hold a referendum on the same day as other elections, but are we going to say in this House that what we want is a cut-price referendum and, thus, cut-price democracy? That is not fair to anyone, but there is another overriding argument. If the Deputy Prime Minister's overriding concern was really cost and where the £100 million cost of this referendum could be spent elsewhere for the good of the British people, there would be no referendum. So we have to examine this as a matter of principle.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex set out some excellent arguments, which I shall not repeat, given the time available. Mr MacNeil also made some excellent points, with which I agree. He is right to stand up for what happens in Scotland and for the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and their elected Parliament and Assemblies, as they are being denigrated by the way in which the Government have put together the plans for this referendum.

This is a matter of principle, and the first duty of this House is to make sure that the workings of our democracy are protected. A referendum must be fair and it must command respect. Listening to the arguments here this evening, and to those in the media, among think tanks and on both sides of the AV campaign, makes me increasingly sure that holding this referendum on the same day as other significant elections will mean that it is seen to have a result that is not fair. I have never found myself in a position where I might vote differently from the leadership of my party, but the leadership of my party has never been represented by a Liberal Democrat.