Second Reading

Part of Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:52 pm on 24th March 2010.

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Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat 6:52 pm, 24th March 2010

I did not expect to reach my contribution quite so soon.

Part 3 of the Bill is different from any other part of the Bill because it does not decide anything but lets the people decide something rather important. There are arguments for and against electoral reform and for and against referendums, but I have never understood how there can be a democratic case against a referendum on electoral reform. It must surely be more democratic to allow voters to decide how their representatives are chosen than simply to argue for a status quo that allows MPs to decide for themselves the means by which they are elected. It is generally accepted now that MPs should not decide how much they are paid, so how could it be right for them to decide how they get their jobs? We know that many MPs like the present system because at least two-thirds of them are in safe seats. They are effectively chosen or reappointed by their parties. People cannot vote against them without voting out their own party. So I, too, welcome the provisions in the Bill to hold a referendum on electoral reform, although I wish it was for a more fundamental reform, a properly proportional system and, preferably, a single transferable vote.

There is opposition to the principle of any referendum on the issue of electoral reform from the Conservatives, but I cannot understand how those who have argued for a referendum on European treaties could convincingly argue that voters should have had their say on the fine print of such treaties but not on the principle of how their elected representatives are chosen. The Conservatives say that this should be the year for change, but when it comes to the most fundamental issue of reforming our political system, they are the party of no change and no say for the voters. It would also be right in this debate to ask about the Government's own sincerity in going some small way at this stage towards only partially fulfilling their promise on this issue that was the basis on which they were elected 13 years ago. They are, of course, finally reneging on the manifesto promise that they made in 1997 that people would be offered a choice between first past the post and a proportional system to be recommended by a soon-to-be-established commission on voting systems. Any promises or hints that they may make over the next few weeks on constitutional reform may therefore be received with some scepticism, but some of it would be reduced if the proposal for a referendum on an alternative voting system was reached and on the statute book before dissolution. If, however, they fail to achieve that, it will be a clear signal that 13 years and three Parliaments with three large majorities have been wasted on this issue and they have failed to deliver.

This is not the occasion for a full debate on electoral systems-and I know some noble Lords will welcome that statement. However, I shall deal just briefly with a couple of myths. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, argued that the AV system would result in there being more Labour MPs and Liberal Democrat MPs and fewer Conservative MPs, a point made repeatedly in another place from the Conservative Benches. That would only be the case if the voting shares in future were along the same lines as those in the previous three general elections. I doubt that the Conservative Party accepts that that will be the case, so they should stop making that bogus argument.

The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, attacked the basis of the alternative vote system, but it is exactly that same system that is used by his own party in all its internal elections, including that for electing its leader. It cannot be such a bad system if the Conservatives use it for themselves. What an alternative vote would mean is that most MPs would require the support of most voters; that is a principle that is hard to argue with. Those of us who are unelected should not ask to oppose the rights of the voters to have a say on how their votes are cast and counted, whether in the wash-up or not.

On the timing of election counts, the general discussion has revolved around concerns about losing the excitement of the so-called Portillo moments being broadcast at three o'clock in the morning, as against the need for accuracy in the counting process. The staff employed by returning officers may well be tired if they have been working at polling stations all day long and are then employed to count votes in the small hours of the following morning, but the volunteers from the parties, who may well have started the day much earlier delivering leaflets, working hard on polling day and in their evenings and weekends for many weeks and months through the course of the campaign, all want to be able to see the result that night, not to hear about it when they are back at work doing their jobs the next day. A far better solution to these conflicting priorities would be to allow voting at weekends, as in many other countries, with an early Sunday evening count that may not rival "The X Factor" but would probably engage rather more people in the whole process. But in the absence of that change to voting at weekends, I think that there should not be a problem in achieving accuracy and conducting the count shortly after polling stations close, in all but those areas in the Scottish Highlands and Islands where ballot boxes must be collected from remote locations. I shall never forget acting as agent in a parliamentary by-election when we lost by just 100 votes. I insisted on three full recounts and getting exactly the same result twice before finally accepting the result at 6.30 am, at which time it was broadcast live on the TV breakfast news.

Nor will I forget the call from the Winchester count in the 1997 general election, telling me that counting had been suspended, given the doubt and uncertainty over the result. The returning officer there very sensibly suspended the count and we started it at 1 pm, concluding at 6 pm that evening with the declaration that my party had won by two votes. It is for such moments that many of us live, and we hope that election officials and the Electoral Commission will understand that and respect Clause 90 requiring counts generally to begin within four hours of the polls closing.

My Lords, that is exactly eight minutes.