Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Early Parliamentary General Election Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 30th October 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Constitutional and Political Reform) 4:45 pm, 30th October 2019

My Lords, I shall follow the points that the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, has just made in a moment but, first, I want to deal with the specific timing of this election.

In the winter election of 1974, polling day was on 28 February. I paid my morning visit to the polling station for the scattered parish of Temple, in the wilds of Bodmin Moor, with snow and bitter winds developing. I asked the staff about turnout. They told me that 17 of the 18 on the electoral register had already voted. I asked whether I should collect the final voter. They said, “No, Mr Tyler. That would be difficult because he’s dead”. However, as he was still on the register, they had to stay there until 10 o’clock at night and could not go home, because that was how the law applied then.

The point I want to make is that even that very bad weather and the short amount of daylight produced an 83% turnout in that constituency, because the wise electors knew that it was going to be very close, and they were right. I had a majority of just nine votes, and the Liberals scored a post-war record of 19.8% of the GB share of the poll. The point is that it is not the weather or the time of year that is important; it is whether people feel that their votes will be important, valued and matter.

Indeed, the great reforming Liberal/Whig Government of Lord Grey were elected on 10 December 1832, so there is a good precedent.

Such is the present uncertainty and volatility of public opinion that there will clearly be very unpredictable local contests, and, as Professor Curtice has pointed out, there is a strong likelihood that no party will have a majority. It may be that our political system is at last catching up with public opinion. It is several decades since a majority of the electorate supported one political party, and they have long since departed from the bipolar, bilateral choice between the old parties. Therefore, every vote should count and should matter far more than in recent elections.

As my noble friend Lord Newby has already said, we would have preferred a people’s vote confirmatory referendum. Our MPs have urged this on no less than 17 occasions but they were thwarted by the vacillation and indecision of the Labour leadership.

Members of your Lordships’ House may recall that I convened a group comprised of colleagues from all parts of the House—cross-party and non-party—to supervise the drafting of legislation for a new referendum. We could have passed that legislation relatively quickly if we had used the very brief paving Bill that we drafted. That would have made it possible for the other, fuller Bill to correct the defects in the 2015-16 legislation without holding it up, and meanwhile the Electoral Commission could have undertaken the consultations that were required.

However, it was not to be. Both the then Conservative Ministers and the Labour leadership chose to ignore the growing clamour for the public to be given the final say, and the time wasted after January contributed to the collapse in support for their parties in May.

I and my Liberal Democrat colleagues would have preferred the public to complete this process, since they began it in 2016. We believe that it would have seemed more logical and more clear-cut, but we are realistic. As I have said before, there should have been a political will; then there surely could have been a parliamentary way. However, I accept the inevitability of this Bill and this election timetable.

As the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, has just emphasised, Ministers have also said in recent months—to me and to others—that our electoral laws are not fit for purpose. The fallout from the Supreme Court judgment last year has not yet been properly addressed because the Electoral Commission’s excellent codes of practice have not been approved by Parliament. Similarly, the lack of effective regulation, reporting requirements and transparency of funding for online political messaging remains a potentially damaging omission. In our debate last Wednesday the noble Earl, Lord Howe, gave me specific assurances on this. Where are those assurances now?

Meanwhile, whatever the Prime Minister may now promise, this election is very unlikely to “get Brexit done”. With his deal there will still be many months, if not years, of complicated and significant negotiation. The public do not understand that; they have a nasty experience to look forward to. The only way to bring this to a halt is to stop Brexit— and that is what we Liberal Democrats will be inviting the public to vote for.