Committee (8th Day) (Continued)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 10:15 pm on 12th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour 10:15 pm, 12th January 2011

I am in all in favour of the noble Lord going home to bed. All the Government need to do is accept that this is a constitutional Bill and proceed on that basis. They have not done that, so I find myself having to move amendments of this nature.

It gives me the opportunity to argue the case for a recalibration or readjustment in the relationship between the two elements in the coalition. The relationship at the moment is unbalanced; it is one-sided. In questions on the Statement on banking yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, drew attention to the way in which the arrangement in the coalition agreement is unbalanced and favours the Conservative element.

The Bill is a product of a coalition with two very different objectives. The Liberal Democrats wanted electoral reform; the Conservative element of the coalition wanted a reduction in the number of seats. However, in the introduction of what the Liberal Democrats want, they show a very opportunist desire in pursuing a system that they have never believed in, never subscribed to, and repeatedly argued against over all the years that I can recall. They have argued in the Electoral Reform Society and outside that it is an utterly inadequate system. It is a product of the coalition. They want that; and the Conservatives want, as I said, a reduction in the number of seats.

However, the introduction of AV is dependent on two factors: a yes vote in the referendum, and the passage through Parliament of orders bringing in boundaries. I add a third: in my view, the introduction of AV should also be dependent on turnout thresholds or question approval thresholds, but that is a matter that we have already debated.

The reality is that if the boundaries do not go through, voting reform is blocked. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, may want to confirm that. What could delay the boundaries going through in the way that the Government want? There could be legal challenge. There could be judicial review. My noble friend Lord Soley, in a very interesting debate on 20 December, was pressing the Government precisely on the question of judicial review and the circumstances in which it might arise. There could be delay as a result of public dissatisfaction, leading to the petitioning of Parliament. No one has thought of what might happen then.

As I understand it, the Government are proposing in separate legislation some arrangement whereby electors will be able to petition Parliament. What happens if an electorate within a particular constituency decide to petition Parliament against the recommendation of the Boundary Commission? Would that in any way influence what the Boundary Commission recommends? Technically, that could happen in the course of an inquiry which, under the Bill, may well not take place. To what extent could a local referendum-based petition or local petition objecting for the arrangements for the boundary review for a particular constituency affect the final decisions by the Boundary Commission?

There could also be further legislation in Parliament. When I say further legislation, the coalition agreement appears to be holding at the moment, but we do not know what the future holds. A couple of weeks ago, my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer moved an amendment which worried me-I am sure that he does not mind me saying that. It was to insert an amendment in Rule 45B(4) in the Representation of the People Act 1983-rules which deal with amendments to primary legislation. I think that my noble and learned friend was concerned that the Bill provided for amendment of primary legislation, whereas I was in favour of that. Even at this stage, it is possible-we do not know what is going to happen over the coming months-that there may be some desire to change the Bill's provisions which require amendment in primary legislation. Again, that could delay and hold up the publication by the Boundary Commission of the draft Orders in Council.

What all this means is that there are circumstances in which if a boundary review has not been given final clearance by Parliament, a change to the voting system is blocked. I would call that a very one-sided agreement between the coalition parties. If the Conservative element does not get its boundary changes, the Liberal Democrats do not get their AV. I keep on repeating this because it is very important that they understand that that is precisely what happens. But what happens if the Liberal Democrats do not get their AV? The answer to that question is that the Conservative element in the coalition still gets its boundary changes.

Let me tell the Liberal Democrats what that could mean for them because Lewis Baston of Democratic Audit did some work on these matters. His article is entitled "Do Turkeys Vote for Christmas? Yes, when it comes to Liberal Democrat MPs and the boundary review for Westminster constituencies. Nick Clegg's party will lose a fifth of all its MPs". It states:

"Lewis Baston of Democratic Audit models the effects of a smaller House of Commons and finds that while we cannot be completely certain of the outcome at this stage, it could well be disastrous for the Liberal Democrats".

Are they getting the message? This is not a very good deal for them. If they lose their system, they still get the boundary review. They might have to revise their position. They get the new boundaries under which, as I will now show, they lose. The document states that,

"the first detailed model of what the new constituencies might look like shows that the worst hit party will probably be taken by the Liberal Democrats, as my first Table below shows. It is possible that the 'reduce and equalise' policy could end up being what is known in Ireland as a 'Tullymander'-an electoral change introduced for partisan reasons that backfires on its authors".

Under the modelling he has done, the Conservatives lose 21 seats, 7 per cent of their total, Labour loses 13 seats, 5 per cent of our total, and the Liberal Democrats lose 12 seats, 21 per cent of their total.

"The model redistribution was undertaken using the rules proposed in the government's Bill, giving special treatment to two island seats in Scotland and then distributing the 598 other seats across the four nations. Constituencies were then allocated to the English regions, and the entitlement of each county was calculated ... The Liberal Democrats are badly affected by the upcoming boundary changes for two reasons. First, their seats tend to be geographically isolated rather than clumped together ... Changing the boundaries of Liberal Democrat seats will tend to pull in areas of neighbouring seats, where the party's vote is much lower. Second, on average, Liberal Democrats have much smaller majorities than Tory or Labour MPs ... Their seats are therefore less able to withstand adverse boundary changes ... In terms of the numbers of Conservative and Labour casualties of redistribution, there are several reasons for this surprising result. One is that the journalistic standby of the 'depopulated inner city'"- let us get it all on the record so that we all know what he says-

"is largely a myth ... We do not know how the Boundary Commissions will choose between the different schemes that are within the rules. Accordingly, we looked as hard as we could at all other possible extreme results based on essentially the same template, with boundaries systematically tweaked to their maximum extent within the rules so as to boost one or other of the top the three parties".

We will not go any further. I think I have made my point that it is a bad deal for them. It was negotiated in the heat of the moment, in the panic conditions of trying to create a Government. It does not say much for the deal.

I want to help the Liberal Democrats. The Jessica amendment puts a little more balance into the coalition's agreement on the Bill. It would mean that the Government do not get their boundary changes approved unless the referendum has approved the new voting system. Now why would I want to do that? It is very simple. At the moment, the Conservative element in the coalition has no incentive whatever to change the voting system. All of them, or nearly all of them, as we know, are completely opposed to it. They are already lining up the expenditure and the personnel to take part in a national campaign to block electoral reform. They are being assured of substantial support in the national media.

If the Liberal Democrats want their Conservative partners to be more flexible, more supportive and more understanding of their position, they have to give them a little bit of an incentive. The Conservatives need an incentive. What better way to do that than to arrange the Bill in such a way as to deny the Conservatives their boundary changes unless they tone down their opposition to electoral reform? Surely that must commend itself to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. He wants to see that case, that argument, against electoral reform, which he knows is coming. He is the guru for the Liberal Democrat party on this issue. Surely he wants to maximise the support for the change and reduce the emphasis from the other element of the coalition that will argue against the change.

If the Conservative element in the coalition is really driven down this route, the first thing it will want to do is ditch Queensland AV because it is well aware of the dangers in it. That is where I come in. I know that many Tory MPs support the electoral system that I have been promoting throughout this Bill, so if the noble Lord or the Liberal Democrats want to see a change in the Tory position away from opposition at least towards mild support for the proposition of electoral reform, what better than to choose another AV system that will deliver the kind of support or remove the opposition to electoral reform which they know may lead to defeat for their case?

There may be those who dispute what I said when I said that some Conservative Members of Parliament were winding us up and asking us to argue passionately against this Bill. Indeed, some of them went as far as to say, "Block the Bill", but we do not want to block it; we simply want to amend it. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, who is not in his place, said from a sedentary position, "Name them". I can name some of them, although not those who have talked to me, because they are on the record in the House of Commons Hansard. Their speeches are to be found in the debate on an amendment moved by Mr Christopher Chope, MP for Christchurch. In moving the SV system-my system, which I have been pushing-from the Conservative Benches in the House of Commons, he said:

"Were my amendment to be carried, it might make it easier for those who want to secure a yes vote in the referendum-that is the irony of my amendment-because it will actually make the system much simpler to understand ... However, it is a lot more satisfactory than the full alternative vote system, which is what is proposed in the Bill ... That leads to a very undesirable system, in which not even the person who came first or second past the post is elected, but instead somebody who came much further down the running order, all on the basis of the lowest common denominator, which is the wrong way to choose representatives to this House".

Miss Eleanor Laing, another Conservative Member, said:

"My hon. Friend's amendment is therefore technically and linguistically absolutely correct. If the system is to be called the alternative vote system, the sense of 'one of two' must come into it somewhere, not the sense of 'one of four or five'".-[Official Report, Commons, 19/10/10; col. 837-38.]

There were a number of further interventions, including one from Mr James Clappison of Hertsmere and another from Mr Robert Syms of Poole. That was in an empty House.

I know from conversations with those on the Conservative Benches that many of them are prepared to support the supplementary vote. I am giving the Liberal Democrats a way around this problem. All they have to do is go to their coalition partners and say, "Hang on, this deal is a bit unbalanced. Perhaps we should just accept the amendment being moved by Lord Campbell-Savours because it redresses the balance and gives us a bit more of an opportunity to win our referendum. It will also get you off our backs because we know that you"-that is, the Conservative element of the coalition-"loathe intensely the proposal that is in this piece of legislation".

I come back to why we are here. We would not be debating this issue at this time of night if all these issues had been dealt with during prior scrutiny of the Bill, but there was no prior scrutiny. That is why we have to scrutinise it in detail now. It is because of the stupid way in which the Government sought to proceed with this legislation. I beg to move.