Clause 1 — Referendum on the alternative vote system

Part of Royal Commission (London) – in the House of Commons at 8:00 pm on 12th October 2010.

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Photo of Ian Davidson Ian Davidson Chair, Scottish Affairs Committee 8:00 pm, 12th October 2010

I think that the hon. Gentleman has just entered the Chamber, so he may have missed my saying that we agreed that we would not take a position; otherwise I would be speaking to that position. However, we took the view that it was important-indeed, vital-that political stakeholders in Scotland should be consulted by somebody, because that had not been done by the Government, so we gave people the opportunity to express their views. I am glad that in such a short time many strong views were expressed. To be fair, some people expressed one view and other people another, but there is an opportunity for all those views to inform the debate. The hon. Gentleman will agree that it is regrettable that we have not had longer to discuss those views.

Speaking as the hon. Member for Glasgow South West, I was initially agnostic about AV, and in many ways I remain agnostic about the principle of AV. I oppose the single transferable vote and other forms of proportional representation, but I could live quite easily with AV. I am much more concerned about the context in which the proposal has been introduced. It was not in my party's manifesto, so it must be a good thing and should be supported. [ Interruption. ] It is early in the Parliament. I am in favour of the principle of a referendum, but it was never proposed in my party's manifesto that it should be held on the same day as the Scottish elections. There has been some interesting illumination of why that is the case by Dr Lewis.

I want to make my views known on two points: why we are having the referendum, and why so soon. As Mrs Laing made clear, the Conservatives have agreed-I am sorry if I am not quoting her exactly-that the referendum was the price they had to be pay for tackling the economic crisis. To put it in simpler language, it is the reward to the Liberals for supporting Tory cuts. That is basically why this is happening. Cuts would not go through and would not necessarily command a majority in the House if the Conservatives did not have the support of the Liberal Democrats, who have signed up to a vicious set of proposals on cuts and public expenditure to obtain the reward of a referendum on AV.

The referendum is coming soon, because the Liberals trust the Conservatives no more than the rest of us, and they want to make sure that they are getting the reward sooner rather than later, lest they are simply fobbed off and it does not arrive at all. They do not want to be taken for mugs, so they want to make sure that the opportunities for the referendum are pressed quickly before negative publicity attracts too much opprobrium. In those circumstances, the fact the AV referendum is taking place as a reward for Tory cuts means that certainly in Scotland big campaigns will be run on the basis of saying no to the Tory cuts, no to the coalition's dirty deals, and no to AV.

The way in which that will spill over into the Scottish elections will undoubtedly be beneficial to my own party. It will be immensely damaging, thank goodness, to the Liberals. The Conservatives, who are essentially irrelevant in Scotland, will not suffer much damage, because they cannot go much further down. No one can argue in those circumstances that holding the referendum and the elections together will not contaminate the Scottish elections. Admittedly, that benefits my party-and I look forward to that-but it means that the AV referendum will not be conducted on its own merits.

Returning to the lack of consultation with stakeholders, I am genuinely shocked by the fact that the coalition Government chose, as far as I am aware, not to ask anyone in the Scottish Parliament or in civic Scotland what they thought of the idea of having the AV referendum and the Scottish parliamentary elections on the same day. That was entirely a top-down decision. We have heard a great deal about a new politics. [ Interruption. ] I am not sure whether that was an approving heckle, or just a heckle, but I accept that the Member concerned is demonstrating that he is still alive. The fact that there was no consultation or discussion at all very much harks back to the old politics of drive and control, and shows immense contempt for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and- [ Interruption ]-the Northern Irish Assembly; I knew that there was another one. To add insult to injury, it is my understanding that the AV referendum will be described as the senior poll to be given priority when decisions are made about counting, publicity and all these other things.

To hold Scottish parliamentary elections on the same day as the AV referendum is bad enough, but we have been told that those elections will be subsidiary to the referendum, which no one particularly wants. It is not the first choice of anybody, as far as I am aware. It is coming about simply because of the shabby, shoddy and disgraceful deal that I described earlier. That really is an insult-