Clause 1 — Referendum on the alternative vote system

Part of Royal Commission (London) – in the House of Commons at 9:00 pm on 12th October 2010.

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Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 9:00 pm, 12th October 2010

This has been a long debate on clause 1 and one thing that I have learned, and which could apply also to other parties in the Chamber, is that we should all go to Grantham and Stamford and introduce 90% of the electorate to the hon. Member who represents them at the moment. If they knew Nick Boles, there would perhaps be a different result in that constituency. He did, however, point out that some of the debate that goes on here does not have a resonance outside; people are not talking about d'Hondt, the alternative vote or PR.

My position is that there should not be a referendum. On 9 February, when there was a vote in the House on the issue, I was not persuaded when the Whip said, "Vote for a referendum on AV because the Lords will overturn it." That struck me as an inadequate justification for a major constitutional change, and I have not altered my position. I have listened to all the contributions today, and I watched with exquisite pleasure the misery on the faces of his right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench as Mr Jenkin destroyed the case for a referendum on 5 May-the same day as different elections in different parts of the United Kingdom. I think that that argument was won fully. I also accept what my hon. Friend Mr Davidson said that one reason why we are discussing the matter when people outside do not want to do so is quite simply that a deal was done between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. The Conservatives do not like it but it will keep them in power, and it will give a political advantage to the Lib Dems, who will therefore vote for cuts.

The situation is slightly worse than that, though. There is a double gerrymander in the Bill. The changes in boundaries-perpetual changes without any right to challenge them-deal only with a tiny part of the problem of more votes being needed to elect a Member from one party than from another. The Bill also cuts 11%-a Rawlings and Thrasher estimate-of the seats that the Labour party has, 11% of those that the Lib Dems have, and 4% of those of the Conservatives. In an alliance, there has to be a quid pro quo, so what is it? It is believed, with rather less statistical analysis than in the boundary review, that AV will benefit the Lib Dems. It may well do so; I suspect that there is some common sense to that.

The justification for the referendum on AV, then, has nothing to do with what the Deputy Prime Minister tells us-that it is about putting trust back into politics after last year's horrific expenses scandal. I have yet to hear any explanation as to how AV as opposed to first-past-the-post will make people feel better about somebody who wants to buy a Stockholm duck house at the public expense. There is no relationship whatever between the two issues.

I have come to a slightly different conclusion from that of Conservative Members to whose speeches I enjoyed listening. Fundamental constitutional change is proposed which will give advantage to the two political parties in a coalition Government. It is more common to change the rules in between elections for the party political advantage of those parties in government. This proposal has been a trait more of nearly democratic countries in eastern Europe in the past, and now more commonly occurs in Africa. If Parliament is to go through with what I consider to be an unnecessary referendum, it should be with an eye not to the next general election, where clear vested interests are at stake, but to the one after that. That is why I tabled amendment 225.

Some good general points against having referendums on the same day as other elections have been made, but the focus of a UK-wide election and a decision to change the voting system for the future takes out the rather cynical self-interest of the two parties in government. When not just 85% but 100% of the electorate are involved, such a thing is worth doing. There is thus a sound argument for proceeding on that basis, although there is not much of a sound argument for having the referendum itself.

Let me provide the three reasons why I believe it would be worth proceeding on such a basis. First, there would be a higher turnout-coherently and consistently across the whole country. Secondly, there would be no self-interest, so we would avoid the cynicism of the two parties in coalition changing the rules in between elections to their own advantage. Thirdly, although the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford thinks that everyone can understand things instantly, I do not. This is a complicated issue and most of the electorate take these things seriously. Much of the current propaganda says things that might be true but are not true. People say, "If you have AV, you get the support of 50% of the electorate." Well, in some cases that is so; in others it is not. It is still possible to get elected on AV on less than 50%.

Some people believe that AV is more proportional. In some cases, such as the general elections of 1983 and 1997, AV would have produced a less proportional result, with more extreme victories for the Conservatives and Labour respectively. What AV probably does produce-experience of this coalition before the next general election will provide a very good argument against it-are more coalitions. For those reasons, I will support amendments that move the referendum away from 5 May, because that is the worst of the proposals before us. My preference, however, is for having a referendum that will affect not the next general election, but the one after that.