Clause 1 — Referendum on the alternative vote system

Part of Royal Commission (London) – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 12th October 2010.

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Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury) 8:45 pm, 12th October 2010

My hon. Friend has punctured the argument and identified the inconsistency of the Liberal Democrats, and I shall not add anything further on that.

As legislators, we will have to think about these difficulties. We must look at previous legislation and at the situations that might be generated by what we do tonight. It is not about saying that the public cannot cope with different choices, but about the media and political systems and the Electoral Commission itself. Many of us have asked questions in the past about how well the commission does its job of monitoring elections and election expenditure, and the bye balls it appears to give to some people who cannot complete returns or who put in returns of very little expenditure that completely contradict their evident and expensive publicity material. So it is about ensuring that the elections are fought free from controversy and confusion about referendum campaign spending, and about ensuring that the campaign takes place in conditions that are most conducive to full and proper debate.

Naomi Long made an important point about cross-party campaigning. One of the benefits of a referendum campaign that perhaps enables people from different parties to unite and join forces to commend or resist a reform is that it offers an almost unique opportunity in Northern Ireland for cross-party campaigning and a public debate. That will be completely eclipsed if the referendum takes place against a backdrop of Assembly and local government elections. The imperatives of party politics and the party vote will always outweigh the democratic debate about which is the better voting system.

I believe that in Northern Ireland we can have a debate about the merits of the alternative vote, and if later amendments succeed and we have a bigger choice in the referendum, so much the better. However, we could at least have a debate in Northern Ireland about the alternative vote, which would be one way of freeing us from the tragedy of the first-past-the-post system. The latter condemns us to sectarian head counts at Westminster elections, because people have to vote tactically either for the nationalist likely to beat the Unionist or the Unionist likely to beat the nationalist. People who want to vote for other reasons and express more sophisticated political preferences and endorsements find themselves trapped in that sort of sectarian head count by first past the post. If people do not want to be freed from the sectarian headcount, they can make that choice, but at least let us have that honest and open debate on a cross-party basis. We will not be able to have that debate if this referendum takes place on 5 May 2011. If that is what the Liberal Democrats want to condemn Northern Ireland to, so be it, but the rest of us want better-not just for next year, but for the future.

Some Members have raised issues about differential turnouts. I am less concerned about that. If I am concerned about anything, it is that some Conservative Members who do not have to contend with elections of party colleagues in their constituencies will turn up and have time to spare campaigning on the referendum in Northern Ireland. They could be prolific and very active in the referendum campaign, while the rest of us would be preoccupied with election campaigns. The issue of differential attendances can work more than one way, which is why hon. Members, including Mr Leigh, are right to say that we should suspend our calculations of how one day might favour the vote on one side or another. Let us just say that we want to ensure as little confusion and controversy as possible. If we go for the day proposed, there will be confusion, controversy and allegations of undue conduct and improper spending, which will only bring us back all over again to the expenses scandal and the contamination of politics by money.