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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:18 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat 8:18 pm, 8th January 2020

My Lords, I very much enjoyed the entertaining contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, which he made immediately in response to the gracious Speech. He was himself gracious in acknowledging his own defeat in the general election of 1997 by my noble friend Lord Willis of Knaresborough.

Some time ago, I also enjoyed reading the memoirs of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont. To be precise, I enjoyed the pages in which he blamed his demise in that election on the way in which voters in Harrogate had been inundated with letters in the name of my late, and much missed, noble friend Lord Ashdown. I suspect that the noble Lord is unaware that I was the person who drafted all those letters. These were happier times for my party. We had high hopes that the UK’s constitution would be radically reformed in a way that would greatly improve the health of our democracy.

In the months before the 1997 election, Paddy had asked me to be the joint secretary of the consultative committee between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, established under the joint chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart and the late Robin Cook, to agree a consensus on such reforms. A considerable number of the proposals in that package were subsequently achieved, including the creation of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly with systems of proportional representation, but the promised referendum on a proportional voting system for the House of Commons was never held. Hindsight is easy but I believe that those people within the Labour Party who blocked that referendum then, and a move to a fairer voting system for the House of Commons, must share at least some of the responsibility for events in the last 10 years—and for what may now lie ahead. Things really could have been better and our place in Europe would never have been threatened by a deeply flawed referendum.

During his speech the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, described the recent general election as a second referendum. I think he used the phrase “a second people’s vote,” but over the last three years the position of the Conservatives has been strongly opposed to letting people have the final say on the issue of Britain’s EU membership. Now that people have voted, we are told that the vote is to be considered as the result of another referendum. Ever since the 2016 referendum, the Liberal Democrats have stood up for the 48% who voted to remain. We believe that if there really had been a second referendum, based on the facts, then more than 48% would have voted to remain. It was repeatedly argued by those in favour of Brexit that the views of the 48% in 2016 should be ignored. But on Brexit now, and on every other political issue, we are told that the views of the party which received 43.6% of the vote on 12 December should be imposed upon us all. It was said before that 48% should be ignored, even when they might have become a majority, but it is said now that less than 44% of the vote is to be taken as a mandate to determine every issue. That is both illogical and undemocratic.

The Liberal Democrats want this place to be more democratic but we want the other place to be more democratic too. The recent Conservative manifesto referred to the need to have votes of equal value, but the facts are that in the recent general election it took 38,265 votes to elect a Conservative MP, 50,717 votes to elect a Labour MP and 336,038 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat MP. The present system is not unfair to the Conservative Party but the Government continue to threaten to make it even more favourable to the Conservatives with a boundary review. The principle of roughly equal numbers of voters in a single constituency system is right, but so is the principle that everyone entitled to vote should be registered to vote. A boundary review without dealing with the problem of underregistration is unfair and is clearly intended to further favour the Conservatives.

Electoral processes, we are told, may also be changed to favour the Conservatives by introducing compulsory photo ID at polling stations. There is no evidence that this is based on anything other than the principle of seeking to reduce the ease with which people less likely to vote Conservative can vote at a polling station. Can the Minister please undertake to ask electoral registration officers how many times somebody went to a polling station on 12 December only to find that their vote had already been claimed by somebody else? This would provide an indication as to whether there really is a problem or simply a fear on the part of the Government that they may not be re-elected so easily another time.