16 Feb 2011

A long night ahead as Parliament battles over AV

With Lords and Commons locked in a late-night battle over the Bill proposing a referendum on electoral reform. Tory rebel Lord Lawson tells Channel 4 News the Government is being “pig-headed”.

A late night of debating ahead for the Commons and Lords (reuters)

The proposed referendum on the switch to an Alternative Vote (AV) electoral system is under threat as Parliament runs out of time to pass the Bill that will make it happen.

The House of Commons and the House of Lords are playing political ping-pong with the Parliamentary Voting and Comstituencies Bill in a last minute effort to find consensus before Parliament rises for its half-term recess tomorrow.

Two parts of the Bill have caused contention between the chambers. The Lords placed two amendments on the Bill they received from the Commons, firstly a greater leeway for the Boundary Commission over maximum constituency electorates, but more contentiously a 40 per cent minimum turnout for the referendum on AV to be binding.

In the latest round of back-and-forth voting the Lords have dropped the amendment relating to boundary restrictions but continue to dig their heels on their other caveat and insist on a minimum turnout for the AV vote to be imposed.

“There is no prospect of us accepting this amendment or anything like it tonight.” Lords leader Lord Strathclyde

Unless a consensus can be found before tomorrow’s recess then there is no chance that the referendum will coincide with the local elections on 5 May.

But the leader of the Lords – Lord Strathclyde – told Channel 4 News that there would be no compromise over the amendment.

“There is no prospect of us accepting this amendment or anything like it tonight,” he told our Political Correspondent, Cathy Newman.

“The House of Commons has spoken very clearly over the course of the last 24 hours. They will do so again this evening. I very much hope that good sense will prevail in the House of Lords.”

“They are being thoroughly pig-headed – or perhaps that is an insult to pigs.” Conservative rebel leader Lord Lawson

One of the leaders of the Tory rebels in the Lords – Margaret Thatcher’s former Chancellor Lord Lawson – said the Government was being “thoroughly pig-headed – or perhaps that is an insult to pigs”.

“This is one of the problems of the Coalition,” he added. “I am sure there have been private undertakings given between the two Parliamentary leaders, which makes the flexibility – which any intelligent government requires – much more difficult than if it were a single party.”

Manifesto pledge

A referendum on electoral voting reform was a major part of the Liberal Democrat manifesto and one of the policies the party has been determined to push through since forming the Coalition Government with the Conservatives. They have become increasingly frustrated, however, by the strength of opposition from Labour Peers.

A total of 27 Conservative Peers also voted for the 40 per cent figure in the most recent vote in the Lords. Liberal Democrat Peer – and former party leader – Lord Ashdown described the votes of these Conservatives as a “betrayal that strikes at the cornerstone of the Coalition“.

But opposition to the Alternative Vote goes right to the top of the Conservative Party. The Foreign Secretary William Hague labelled the AV system as “unfair” citing that it allows “candidates that finish third to win elections”, and raised fears that such a system could help marginal parties like the BNP gain more political power.

Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin reportedly claimed the proposals had been “cobbled together” and that the Conservatives did not generally support a move to AV.

Under-Secretary for Constitutional and Political Reform Mike Harper, said the Coalition would be prepared to accept “genuine improvements” to the Bill, but nothing that would go against “the key principles underpinning the Bill”.