Committee (1st Day)
Clause 1 : Referendum on the alternative vote system
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 5, at beginning insert “Subject to subsections (2A), (2B) and (6),”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 1, I will speak also to Amendments 3 and 14, which are related or consequential. I have tabled two groups of amendments on this issue in the Bill, both of which deal with problems that follow the Government’s limiting of choice of electoral systems and total failure to consult. Amendments 1, 3 and 14 would provide for the establishment of an inquiry for the purpose of selecting a voting system that, following debate in Parliament and consideration by the Government, would lead to a decision by Parliament on the referendum question. Amendments 25 and 26, which come in a later group, would allow Parliament to decide on an electoral system after a referendum had approved an alternative vote system in principle. Although Amendments 25 and 26 are not in this group, I will seek to degroup them when we reach that debate so that we can consider them at a later stage.
At the heart of Amendments 1, 3 and 14 is my concern over the failure of the Government in specifying the optional preferential AV system, which has been decided on without any consultation whatever. The proposed AV system is mired in controversy and has never been the subject of any inquiry or examination. There has been no independent assessment of its impact, nor was the proposed system the subject of any debate in Parliament prior to the Bill. There was not even a full debate in the Commons on its operation. The proposed system is, and always has been, opposed by the Liberal Democrats, whose leader, the Deputy Prime Minister, described it as a “miserable little compromise”. The proposed system is utterly inconsistent with the historic position taken by the Liberal Democrats and has been opposed by the Conservatives on the basis that it would lead to endless coalition—which, by the way, is untrue. The proposed system has divided the academic world on the basis of its perverse results and it has been heavily criticised by the House of Lords Constitution Committee, whose report stated:
“We regret the fact that this Bill has not been subject to either pre-legislative scrutiny, or to prior public consultation”.
Amendment 1 and the associated Amendments 3 and 14 would establish a committee of inquiry that could then make recommendations to Parliament on an electoral system or family of systems. Parliament could then take a view, with the decision on the preferred system being taken by the Secretary of State, who would still have the ultimate responsibility. The Secretary of State’s decision would then be the subject of a debate in Parliament under the affirmative procedure. Opponents of my amendments will argue that such an inquiry would lead to delay. That is true. However, the Government are in a position to set their own timetable. All that matters is that we have a timetable for a time-limited inquiry, which could be agreed either between the parties in this House or between the Government and the parties involved in the debate. If that had happened, much of today’s debate could have been avoided. Certainly, it would have been avoided if the Government had adopted such an approach.
If I am honest, criticism can be laid at the door of the previous Labour Government, which introduced without consultation a proposal for the same AV system during consideration of Clause 29 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. Along with many other colleagues, we had grave concerns over how that proposal was handled. I recall that a number of colleagues on these Benches had intended to go as far as opposing that provision in the Labour Government’s Bill. With the help of the Cross-Benchers’ objective consideration of highly political matters, we hoped that the Government would, at that stage, have thought again. However, the truth is that we are now going down the same route. We are being railroaded into a system that has never been tested in the United Kingdom. The Bill proposes not the classic AV system used for the Australian federal Parliament—which is favoured by most people who argue the AV position but is not on offer in the Bill—but the system used for the Queensland state parliament, which operates a far more limited system.
As I said, the proposed system is mired in controversy. Let me quote at some length from a blog that has been placed on the internet by two professors at the University of Plymouth, who have made a particular examination of the system that the Government are offering. Under the heading,
“Suppose UK voters accept the Alternative Vote in the May referendum… but then don’t use AV to signal multiple party preferences?”—
presumably, the Liberal Democrats want the electorate to use the system in that way—the blog entry states:
“Most of the discussion of the AV referendum assumes that if UK voters endorse changing the voting system, they will be eager to vote 1, 2 3, 4 etc to express support for several or multiple parties. But Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher have their doubts. Reviewing the evidence from Queensland, which uses the same system as the proposed UK alternative vote, they believe that many voters will treat an AV election as just like ‘first past the post’, and not cast (or perhaps over time stop casting) multiple preferences”.
They go on to say:
“But evidence from real elections fought using AV or other preference systems suggests that many voters simply vote for their most preferred party and do not bother to rank any of the other competitors. In general elections in Australia not only is voting compulsory”—
which is the case in the Australian federal system but is not on offer here—
“but so is marking a full list of preferences on the AV ballot paper. Electors who fail to rank order every candidate in their constituency have their votes rejected. In the UK, however, it will be up to the voters to decide how many preferences they mark if next year’s referendum is passed”.
I hope that the House can see where my argument is going. I am saying that what is on offer in the Bill is a system that does not work. That is why we need an inquiry that can consider a wide variety of AV-based variant systems before a decision is taken by Parliament. The blog goes on to say:
“Exactly this optional preference AV system already applies in some elections in Australia. In Queensland the move from obligatory to optional preference ordering”—
which is the system proposed in the Bill—
“was made in 1992. Initially only about 20 per cent of voters marked a first preference only”.
In other words, 80 per cent voted for additional preferences. The blog continues:
“And the parties themselves continued to issue ‘how to vote’ cards to voters indicating how to cast a full list of preferences”.
We are told that the system proposed in the Bill does not provide for tactical voting, but it does. The Australian experience shows that such systems lead to very heavy tactical voting, as I am about to show. The blog continues:
“However since 2001, and the Australian Labor Party’s first ‘Just One vote’ campaign, the level of people supporting only one party (called ‘plumping’) in Queensland has been about 60 per cent. In 2009 63 per cent of those who turned out at the state elections voted for just one candidate. In individual constituencies the proportion so doing ranged from a low of 53 per cent to a high of 73 per cent”.
Under that system of elections, nearly three-quarters of all electors in particular areas of Australia did not even cast a second-preference vote, never mind all the other additional preferences that they are required to indicate under the other system. The blog continues:
“This behaviour was endorsed by the major political parties who increasingly advised their supporters to vote for them alone. Where parties took a different view (as the Greens did for instance), they were often ignored by voters. For instance, no fewer than 46 per cent of those who gave their first preference to the Greens made no other choice, despite the party advising that second preferences should be given to Labor. Similar behaviour can be found elsewhere in Australia also”.
I do not know how far to go on, but I find the whole thing fascinating. The blog goes on:
“On a smaller scale, somewhat similar patterns of behaviour can be spotted in Britain amongst a minority of voters on those occasions where electors have had the opportunity to cast more than one ballot at the same contest. … At the three London mayoral elections in 2000, 2004 and 2008 using the … Supplementary Vote (SV) system”—
which is a variant on the AV system—
“about one in five voters either voted just once or cast both their available votes for a single party candidate”.
In other words, only 80 per cent of voters in another system, which the Government reject, have used their additional preferences. Under the proposed optional preference system, a far smaller percentage of people might use their additional votes. The blog continues:
“The more such behaviour is replicated in any future UK general election using AV, the more the result will resemble one fought under the current first past the post system and nullify much of the point of any reform”.
Amendment 14 would allow for a sensible, considered and informed assessment, examination and debate of different electoral systems. I have drawn attention to the deficiencies in the voting system that has been selected. Given that there are single-member constituency systems in different parts of the world that work, I should like those systems to be the subject of my proposed committee of inquiry, which could inquire into the operation of the Australian AV federal system, first past the post and the Queensland optional preferential AV system, which I have set out to rubbish today. The committee of inquiry could also inquire into the London AV or supplementary vote system and the contingent vote system that is used for the election of presidents in Sri Lanka. The point is that all those systems should be the subject of an inquiry before a recommendation is made to Parliament.
The decision taken during the coalition talks was rushed. No one sat down and said, “Yes, we want a single-member constituency alternative vote system”. No one said, “Hang on a minute. From within the family of AV systems, which one should we select?”. The coalition just waved the matter through, perhaps on the basis of some recommendation by the Liberal Democrats, who in many areas have not fully considered all the implications of their proposal. I hope that we can change the recommendation in the Bill with the support of the Cross-Benchers, who should, I think, take a more dispassionate and independent view of what is in the best interests than the politicians might take in these matters. I hope that we can have this inquiry and that, as a result, a far more sensible and informed decision can be taken. I beg to move.
My Lords, I think I noted a moment during my noble friend’s closing remarks when the eyes of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, turned to a closed position. I quite understand when it comes to the detail of voting systems that that is a tempting posture for any man of good sense to take. However, those of us who have devoted many years to the study of these subjects are of course more excited by them.
My Lords, it has been a long-established practice in this House that Members occasionally close their eyes and lean back to the loudspeaker to concentrate more on the wisdom coming through it. I am shocked that the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, is not aware of that.
We should make sure that the noble Lord’s microphone is finely tuned, so that should some noises which indicated to the contrary emit from him, the whole House would be aware of them. I did not mean to criticise him, because it will be a long hard Bill and we all have to get our naps in when we can.
Turning to the amendment, I, as my noble friend knows, do not agree with him on which is the best of the different majoritarian systems proposed as alternatives to first past the post. I prefer the alternative vote; he prefers SV and the London alternative vote, which we will discuss the origins of in a minute. However, I most strongly agree with his fundamental point that this issue has never been looked at.
Noble Lords will remember that I was on the Jenkins committee which proposed AV as part of its solution. I have to say that we had bigger fish to fry and we never considered the difference between various AV systems. We considered SV, but only fairly cursorily. That was perfectly appropriate for a broad committee of inquiry trying to take us to square one in this reform process. It is not appropriate at a time when Parliament and your Lordships’ House are considering matters which can fundamentally affect—I do not exaggerate by saying that—the constitutional future of this country.
That we should be debating this today illustrates the sheer folly of plunging into this legislation without pre-legislative scrutiny, as a committee of your Lordships’ House has pointed out. If ever there was a Bill crying out for proper pre-legislative scrutiny it was this one. In the coalition’s first raptures of love, such considerations were cast aside and as a result they had the unsafe sex whose issue we see in front of us in this Bill.
There are two key issues that need to be looked at properly before we proceed with a change in the system. The first, which my noble friend has referred to, is the two essentially broad variations of AV that exist. In one, a voter must put all the candidates in order of preference. Even if he only really cares about the first two or three, the voter must order them all or his vote is invalid. In the other, the voter numbers as many as he chooses. There is a great advantage to the first system of making them number all preferences or their vote does not count because it means the winning candidate unambiguously gets at least half the votes of their electorate.
That is more than outweighed, however, by voter choice—this is all about voter choice. For some people—me for example—a choice way down the list may be the most important choice I make. If I am faced with a choice between a Welsh nationalist candidate and a British National Party candidate, the order in which I put them is the most important choice for me. I do not want either of them elected, but I certainly do not want the BNP elected. That is a very important choice, so I will be numbering right down my list. Others may, like the people of Queensland, decide to opt for one party. There is nothing wrong with that; it does not cause a problem for the system. That is voter choice being exercised, too. I do not say which way other voters should exercise their choice; I am simply saying they should have the right. Those are two balanced arguments that should be objectively considered.
The second issue concerns the concept of whether SV should be an alternative to AV. SV, incidentally, has been rechristened by Professor Patrick Dunleavy as “London AV”. It is important what you call things and this is a credible way of resurrecting the SV system. I cannot object because often when I am talking to Liberal Democrats about the merits of AV I describe it as “STV in a single constituency”, which indeed it is. I do not mind using the phrase “London AV”, therefore, but it is in fact SV.
The arguments for and against SV and AV are quite well balanced. They can only be assessed by a proper look at the evidence. No objective body has had a look at that evidence. It is particularly strange that the Lib Dems, who are responsible for the AV proposal being before us, do not prefer AV at all. They wanted something quite different—STV. They made no secret of that in their election manifesto. They had not thought very much about what precise form of AV should be put in a referendum and therefore we have this snap decision that is incorporated in the Bill.
I feel much more strongly that we should look at this properly than as to what the outcome of such examination should be. Whatever an independent inquiry comes up with on these issues is fine by me. However, I believe that it is the duty of this House, in its role as a constitutional reforming chamber and the backstop against hell-for-leather attempts at legislation coming from another place, to ensure that such an inquiry is held and made before we rush into this referendum and perhaps put before the British people a system that in due course they will regret rather than, as I hope, welcome.
My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has done your Lordships a great favour by introducing the amendment so early in our consideration of the Bill. He has brought it to our minds that the problem of proportional representation is that people tend to say, “I am in favour of proportional representation”, and only afterwards, when you inquire what kind of proportional representation, does the argument begin.
I suggest, in a non-party-political way, that most of us recognise that AV came into the political discussion because it was hit upon by the previous Government as the form of proportional representation least likely to do them harm and most likely to do them good. I am not criticising them for that: after all, it is the first step that people normally take when they consider an alternative to the first past the post system. They say to themselves, “Which would do me best?”. Then they choose the system—and some have to choose a most complicated and peculiar system in order to land more votes for themselves. What is odd about this proposition is that it was put forward by two coalition parties, neither of whom thinks that it will be best for them. It is a remarkable achievement. They have taken on the proposal that the previous Government made because it would be best for them and proposed it to the House on the basis that it would not be best for either of them. I cannot remember a single occasion on which such a proposition has been true.
I admit that I am opposed to proportional representation of any kind. I am very simple about it: the first past the post system is the right one. I would rather see somebody elected who is favoured by the majority of people than somebody who is the least unfavoured: I have always found this a better thing. I also believe that there is no convincing argument that proportional representation is fairer. One has only to look to Germany to find that the Free Democrats have taken part in more Governments than they ought to have taken part in. A Free Democrat vote is much more valuable than almost any other vote. Therefore, I am against proportional representation; but I am particularly against the way that we have discussed it. This is a very serious matter—the way in which our Government and representatives are elected is vitally important.
I am not in favour of the amendment. I want AV on the ballot paper because I want the least satisfactory form of proportional representation that can be presented so that I can defeat it. I am absolutely straight about that: I do not want any of this fiddling about. However, those of us who have views on the matter should be honest. We should say that it is difficult enough to get people to vote—and difficult enough to get people to vote in a way that indicates their preference—under the present system. Some noble Lords have not been elected. I was elected many times and sat in the other place for more than 30 years. What always amazed me was the number of people who found it extremely difficult to follow the idea that you put a cross—or some obvious mark—against the person you wanted. It was quite hard to get everybody to do that. The idea that people will make a choice between the British National Party and Welsh nationalist candidates at number 14 and 15 on a long list is frankly barmy—they will not.
I am sure that, like me, other noble Lords have been asked to vote in an election for a trustees’ group under such a system. By the time you have voted for the ones you have heard of, you find it very difficult to know how to distinguish between those of whom you have not heard, those you do not think much of and those you do not know whether you think a little less of than you do of others.
This is the most ridiculous proposal that could possibly be put before us. I worry about the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. The more people that take it seriously, the worse the situation will be. If we really are having that kind of argument down at 14 and 15 in the list, I do not know how I would campaign. I do not understand what I am supposed to say. I know what I would do; I would say, “Don’t waste your vote by voting for anybody else—vote for me”. In that sense, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, is perfectly right.
The difficulty for the House is to know how best to save the coalition Government from their position. I have a difficulty because I have never voted for a referendum—and I have no intention of voting for a referendum on this occasion. I think referenda are thoroughly unacceptable in all circumstances. I believe in parliamentary democracy and it is a principle one has to uphold; I have upheld it whether I thought we might win the referendum or whether I thought we might lose. I have always thought it wrong. It was a position my father convinced me of when he pointed out that in 1938—I think it was 1938—11 million people signed the peace pledge, and by 1939 you could not find one of them. The problem with the referendum is that nobody is responsible. I have a difficulty with them; but no doubt people will vote in favour of having a referendum, which will help the coalition on that point.
I would like to help the coalition further by keeping AV in this by opposing the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours; if we are to have a referendum, it is one that needs to be lost.
My Lords, I support the demands of my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours. I want to put this on the record in view of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, this afternoon. It is quite clear that if the Liberals are not going to participate in the debates in this House, then it is on their head; they will have no cause for complaint about it. My noble friend’s amendment accepts the alternative vote; it does not seek to change it. We have amendments later for PR, and I personally guarantee an opportunity for the Lib Dems to vote for STV, whatever time of day it is, as long as I can find another teller. At some time, I will give them the chance to vote for what I know they really want.
The noble Lord, Lord Deben, started off by saying exactly what I have said: those who start the journey from first past the post to something else inevitably stop off at AV. I did it myself. The first time I got more than 50 per cent of the vote was in the fourth election in 1983; I started to wonder. In 1987, again with more than 50 per cent, it felt different. It made me think that there has to be a better system of elections. I was converted to PR by the geographer’s book from Sheffield A Nation Dividing? That is where I am coming from.
The first time I ever saw the noble Lord, Lord Deben, was at the referendum meeting in what was later to become my constituency of Perry Bar—1972, I think—when he was supporting the then Conservative Member of Parliament during the campaign. I am not making a point about referendums, or referendum campaigning or participating in them. Whether he voted for it, I do not know.
We have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that just because we are going to raise issues, it does not mean that we are trying to scupper the Bill, trying to be nasty or trying to be unconstitutional. At any time, he can get up and make his case. If he does not, then it is on his head. Come the referendum—and maybe come the election that follows—questions will be asked. First, as my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours has said, the claim, which has been made by the leader of his own party, that this does away with tactical voting is simply not true. All the tactical voting goes on to the other preferences. I guarantee that if this Bill becomes an Act and we have an election, there will be some Lib Dem candidate somewhere in the country—and we will be watching—who will put out a leaflet saying “only vote one”. It will happen—and it will happen with Labour and Conservatives as well—but it is the Lib Dems making the claim.
The reason the form of AV needs looking at is that the alternative vote has not been used in any public election in the UK, except in the London Assembly elections, where it is a hybrid and quite different. We have never had a public election with AV. We have had public elections with STV—Northern Ireland has used them, while Wales and Scotland are using additional member system. So we have actual experience of these in the UK. No public election in the UK has used this form of the alternative vote.
The second claim, which the leader of the Liberal Democrats made in front of a Select Committee, is that everyone elected will get more than 50 per cent of the vote. Well, it is simply not true. It cannot be true. Fifty per cent of what? Fifty per cent of those who voted in the first part of the election’s first preferences, or 50 per cent of those who arrive at the other end after the other preferences have been knocked out? The figures are different. If people choose not to use a preference, so that their vote comes out of the system before the count is finished, how can you get 50 per cent? It is clearly impossible. Only in the Australian federal system, where there is compulsory voting and a compulsion to use all the preferences, can you come remotely near to the promise and commitment of having more than 50 per cent of the vote.
There is a need for some kind of inquiry about the form of AV if that is the route we are going to take. Whichever form of AV we choose, it is not PR. People are constantly saying it is PR; it is a majoritarian system. What form of AV should we have? Let us have a chat about it and look at it before we are accused of misleading the public.
There will be plenty of opportunity to deal with the issues that we will come to later. My noble friend used lots of examples form Australia. In the debate of 24 March I used examples from Canada. Just google “AV Canada”. What has happened at the state and provincial elections in Canada is a minefield. Parties with 60 per cent of the vote won all the seats. All kinds of things went wrong with how the alternative vote was manipulated. There is that possibility, which is why we need an inquiry. There will be a slight delay. That does not alter the fact that the next general election could be held using that voting system. The delay need not be of more than 12 months anyway. That is not the issue. It can still be put to the British people. There is plenty of opportunity for that.
My final point, which is not unimportant, is about an issue that always comes up with AV, and which this Bill allows for: why should the second preference of a person who has voted for, say—I do not want to be pejorative—the Greens or the BNP, who have come fifth, sixth or seventh, have the same quality of vote as the first preference of the people who voted for the first two candidates? I have tabled an amendment to deal with that. However, under the Bill as it stands, those people get two votes. Their second vote has exactly the same worth any anybody’s first preference. That cannot be fair.
When the time comes to argue this in the referendum, it will be much better for the Lib Dems—I leave out their coalition partners, because they will not support this—if they can point to what they said in Parliament in meeting some of these issues. The TV and media at the time of the referendum will home in on this; they will not bother with it while we debate it. Come the referendum debate and campaign, however, these little nuances, which the public are entitled to know the answers to, will be raised. The Lib Dems need to be able to say, “We answered this in Parliament when the Bill went through”. If they do not, frankly, they are not fulfilling their role as parliamentarians. Be it on their head when the time comes.
I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, will not be surprised to find that his amendment does not find favour with me. I hope noble Lords will generally appreciate the position of many of us on these Benches. We feel a high degree of frustration about suggestions of inquiries, commissions, consultations, deliberations on electoral systems, and suggestions that there should be a referendum for people to decide at some unspecified future date. We have a long history of observing these things, and these electoral systems have been examined by many people over many decades. Many forms of electoral system now operate in this country, including, for example, the alternative vote system. In particular, Scotland operates STV when all its council elections are due but the alternative vote when it has a council by-election. The problems in Australia to which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, referred do not appear to happen in Scotland when Scottish voters are using the alternative vote to elect a single councillor. So I would pray in aid what is happening in Scotland and in Northern Ireland as being perhaps a little more relevant than suggestions about problems somewhere in Australia.
It seems to me that the academic evidence generally suggests—and it is the consensus of those who take the closest interest in these issues—that there really are no advantages in the so-called supplementary vote system compared with the alternative vote system and that there are a significant number of disadvantages to it. Principally—and the reason why it is not used by any of the parties using alternative vote in their internal mechanisms—the supplementary vote system has the same problem as first past the post in that you have to try to guess who is near the top of the pile and use your vote tactically. That does not necessarily work, particularly when you have a more than two-party system, and we should recognise that these days we have a more than two-party system—indeed, at least a four-party system—in Scotland and in Wales. For voters to be expected to try to guess which two are in the lead and to use one of their Xs only for one of the two parties deemed to be the biggest is not fair. It is not fair to Green voters and perhaps to other voters in England, and it is not fair in the four-party systems that operate in Scotland and in Wales.
It was not without reason and not without considerable debate that the last Labour Government introduced a proposal for AV in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act in the last Parliament. It was not without considerable debate and discussion and proper examination, I have no doubt, that the proposal for AV and a referendum was included in the last Labour Party manifesto in the general election just six months ago. I am sure that the party has its deliberative mechanisms for forming its manifesto.
In response to this general debate about modes of AV, SV or other systems, and comments that AV does not work, we should bear in mind how widely it is used. It is used by the Conservative Party in electing its party leader and its candidates; it is used by the Labour Party in electing its leader and its candidates; and it is used by the Liberal Democrats in electing our leader and our candidates. It is widely used in many other organisations, including the Church of England and many of the charities.
Voters in this country are used to using 1, 2, 3; it is a very simple and easily understood system. I fundamentally believe that the issue of whether we go to AV now or we stick with first past the post is primarily a question for the voters in this country, which they should have in a referendum very soon and on the most appropriate day.
In my view, too much of this discussion and debate is about which system is supposed to favour which party. That is totally the wrong argument and issue. We should let the voters decide on this issue, and the system should be decided according to which system gives most power to the voter. AV gives more power to the voter than first past the post.
The noble Lord stressed heavily the importance of consulting the electorate before a change is made. Is he, with his long experience of Lib Dem organisation, able to confirm to this Committee whether in the course of the coalition negotiations the Lib Dem party was trying to persuade both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party to push ahead with a Bill for AV without a referendum? Can he throw some light on that? It is crucial to this debate.
My Lords, I can throw no more light than the books currently in circulation describing the coalition talks; I was not privy to them in detail. However, I understand that the Labour Party proposed that it would proceed with AV, as in its manifesto; and it was conceded by the Conservative Party that it would proceed with AV in a referendum to be held at some point in the future, and subsequently it was agreed that it would be held on 5 May. I do not think that that is terribly relevant. The important thing is which system gives most power to the voters. AV gives more power to the voters than first past the post and we should let the voters choose on that basis.
My Lords, I will not delay the Committee long because I very much agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has said. I would ask noble Lords to be aware of some of the laws of unintended consequences that come as a result of the different models of AV that exist. I should declare an interest in that until last year I was the British High Commissioner to Australia. I have watched the system in Queensland and the federal system with a great deal of interest. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours set it out very effectively.
One of the unintended consequences of AV is the nature of the deals done by political parties and by individuals. My noble friend talked about tactical voting, but it goes beyond that. Parties—at the national level, the state level and the constituency level—do deals. It is easy to see that a party of the Right and a party of the Left would not necessarily do deals with one another, so they might look for a third party to do a deal with in terms of their preferences. Sometimes that third party is an independent. At Second Reading, I pointed out that in the federal administration the No Pokies party held the balance of power in the Australian Senate. The No Pokies party is a one-man party opposed to one-armed bandits.
There is another way in which these laws of unintended consequences can kick in. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, thinks that we should not be thinking or looking at these issues, but we know that we have parties in this country which operate on the extremes. There is a real danger, which has been seen in Australia with Mrs Pauline Hansen and her party, that the system of preferences can be used to help parties that come from an extreme position.
Does the noble Baroness accept that, sadly, under the first past the post system we have had a significant number of BNP councillors elected in this country? With an alternative vote system, all the supporters of parties opposed to the BNP could effectively use their votes to keep out extreme members of the British National Party. That would be a much fairer and more democratic solution.
I would refer the noble Lord to what my noble friend Lord Rooker has just said about the gradations of voting and the worth of each vote in relation to voting for extreme parties. My point is that we did not have pre-legislative scrutiny of this legislation. We did not have a consultation process. Yes, politics comes into it, but I believe that on both sides of the Committee there is a genuine desire to see a more effective way of ensuring that our country is adequately represented in the Parliaments of this land. That is why I believe that my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours has done this Committee a great favour by introducing these amendments. The laws of unintended consequences could radically alter the nature of the political process in this country.
We must not rush into it blindly. There is still the opportunity for the coalition Government to achieve their dream of getting a referendum on the same day as the Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections. We will come to that later. But, please, let us not get into a situation where we take decisions that we will regret for a very long time.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has done the Committee a service by bringing forward this amendment. It demonstrates that there are many views throughout your Lordships’ House about the way in which elections should be conducted and that we need to have a moderated and thoughtful debate before rushing pell-mell into any kind of change to our electoral system.
When I first entered your Lordships’ House, one of the first issues I raised was when the then new Labour Government supported the party list system for European elections. Even though, man and boy, I supported changes to the electoral system, I opposed that change because I was always passionately opposed to the list system, not least for some of the reasons that the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, has just advanced. It militates in favour of extreme groups. We have seen how they have penetrated through the European elections—the British National Party into the European Parliament—as a consequence of the list system.
I have another reason why I am opposed to it. It is an over-centralised system that places power in the hands of party elites and caucuses who, in smoke-filled rooms, often choose a list of people. My right as a voter—like the rest of your Lordships, this is one election in which we can participate—is then simply to mark my ballot paper not for an individual, but for a party. I believe that that breaches a very important constitutional safeguard. As a former constituency Member of Parliament—and here I share the thought of the noble Lord, Lord Deben—I cherished the relationship between oneself and one’s voters, and the fact that you represented a geographically defined area, somewhere where you could have a relationship with your voters because they lived in a certain area. The representatives would not be simply people from a list that had been determined by a centralised party bureaucracy, and not a system that would militate in favour of extreme groups.
We had that system for European elections. Others have pointed out that we have different systems in different jurisdictions within the United Kingdom, at the local government, devolved and Westminster levels. Surely all this points to the need for a thorough review of the systems already working throughout the UK. Here I am with the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. I believe that there should have been pre-legislative scrutiny. I said that in the course of the Second Reading debate and in the course of a Question for Short Debate held prior to the general election. I said that we should not be stampeded into any change purely for reasons of electoral calculation. So I would say to my erstwhile friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches that they will come to regret resiling from their long-standing and proper commitment to the single transferable vote system.
I support that system rather than the supplementary vote because it gives the voter the chance to choose between candidates of parties. Inevitably it means that more women and people from ethnic minorities will be elected, and it gives the voter a choice while maintaining a relationship with a defined geographical area. We have used it to great effect in Northern Ireland and Scottish elections. But I do not necessarily expect to convince noble Lords of those arguments today, although if the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, does decide that he needs a second Teller, I would be only too pleased to join him. I say that because if, in the context of talking about multi-choice—an argument that has been advanced throughout these debates—we are going to define in the referendum question a “take it or leave it” issue, either AV or first past the post, we are denying people who have argued for the single transferable vote the opportunity of expressing their belief in that form of proportional representation.
In any event, I do not think that these issues are best decided in a referendum. It would have been far better if there had been legislative scrutiny, and if over the next 12 months we had gone through the due processes. We have been told that we are going to have a fixed-term Parliament of five years, so what is the rush? Surely your Lordships would agree that, in the end, if there is any doubt about the credibility of our voting system, if there is no consensus, and if—after an argument through all the stages of this Bill—it looks as though there is fundamental political disagreement both inside the coalition and between the coalition and the Opposition, how will that place credibility on our voting system, and how will the electorate view that? If people think that this has purely been some piece of cynical political calculation, we will all live to regret it.
My Lords, we have had a good and very important debate for precisely the reasons set out by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. Everyone agrees that there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny, no White Paper and no public consultation. What my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours is saying is this: yes, let us have a referendum on an alternative vote system—no doubt he would say that we should have it within a specified period—but, before it, let us work out what the best alternative vote system is. He identifies three systems, or perhaps four. The first is the one used in Queensland, Australia. You do not have to use all your votes; you can use just one. He pointed to the fact that sometimes three-quarters of those who vote do not use anything other than their first vote. He then pointed to the federal system in Australia, where you have to use all your votes. The noble Lord, Lord Deben—I am sorry, the artist formerly know as John Selwyn Gummer—pointed to the fact that that gives rise to difficulties. The third system my noble friend cited is that used in the London mayoral elections, where you identify the top two, and then all the second preferences are distributed between number one and number two.
All of those are alternative vote systems. Which is best? I have no idea. The one that the Government have adopted—I know not why; they have not said—is the one used in Queensland. Is it right that we put before the British people a scheme that the noble Lord, Lord Deben, describes as the worst? He says it is the worst, for reasons I do not properly understand, and he hopes that that will lead to the rejection of the alternative vote system.
If we are going to change the constitution, we need a plausible process, for the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, gave. There needs to be some thought given to what is the best alternative vote system if there is to be a referendum. The idea that the nation has to accept what was agreed over those five days as the only one is—with the greatest respect to the coalition—arrogant. I understand politics, but people can say no to politics as the reason for something happening.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has thrown a sharp light on the consequences of trying to carry out a constitutional change as a piece of politics, like this. The right thing to do is to have a process by which there would be proper consideration of which of the AV systems is the best. As I understand what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, suggests, a commission of inquiry should be set up. It would report to Parliament and, in the light of the report, Parliament would then, by a resolution, decide which of the alternative vote systems to put to the public in a referendum. In this way it would capture what the coalition wants to do, but it would do it in a plausible and sensible way, and we would not be steam-rollered into doing it in a way for which we have no explanation.
The noble and learned Lord is accusing the Government of not having careful thought and of being outrageous, yet only a few months ago he supported the Labour Party manifesto, which had at its core support for AV.
I never voted in relation to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. I assume the system was the one that is now being put forward.
If we do not have a proper, independent debate—which I believe will carry much more weight with the public—then we have to have the debate here as to which is the right system. It is a distressing aspect of this debate, but inevitably when we raise such issues, instead of the other side engaging with the issues, we get the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, appearing to say to the Cross Benches—I have not read Hansard yet, which I will check—“If you vote in favour of procedural manoeuvre, it’ll be 100 per cent elected”. What conclusion are we supposed to draw from that? Then the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, appeared to say, “We have debated this long enough. Let us get on with it”. Let us either debate the issues, or let us have a commission of inquiry to look into what is the right AV system in the context of a timetable, so that the AV vote will take place, but it will be on the basis of proper information. The Front Bench will support the amendment if the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, puts it to a vote.
My Lords, perhaps there should be a word from this side. My noble friend Lord Deben said that we should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, for introducing the amendment; I agree with him. I thank him for his support because he said that he did not agree with it and, as he is not in favour of referendums at all, that is a bold step. I also thank my noble friend Lord Rennard for his support. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said that it was sheer folly to go down this route without an inquiry. In moving his amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said that there should be an inquiry, that there are deficiencies in AV, and that other systems should be examined. All this may be true. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said that later in Committee he would invite the House to vote on other systems. I do not want to encourage him to do so, but that must be the right way of dealing with these issues.
The amendment seeks an inquiry but we believe that on an issue as fundamental as voting reform the public need to be given a clear choice which will produce an equally clear result. For all the arguments that may take place about how AV works, the attraction of the approach that we have taken is that the Bill sets it out in Clause 9 and Schedule 10. Any questions about how AV works or what form of AV is proposed can be resolved by looking at the Bill. That would not be the case with these amendments and the result would therefore be a lack of clarity, voter confusion and scope for misrepresentation about the merits of the various systems during the campaign.
As I understand the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours—and we should be clear about this—the effect of the resolutions he proposes is that the Bill will then contain one system of AV upon which the public would vote. The noble Lord’s points about clarity do not bite.
I stand by what I say unless the noble Lord can produce further amendments reflecting how he believes the various systems of AV should be explained in the Bill. We have done so. We have done the work and we have explained in Clause 9 and Schedule 10 exactly how it works.
The noble Lord’s amendments seek to determine that crucial matters relating to the referendum should be set out in an order made by the Secretary of State instead of in the Bill. How often have we heard that such issues should be debated during the course of the Bill rather than by using secondary legislation—yet here the noble Lord is arguing for secondary legislation?
The order could be made only after an inquiry had been conducted by the committee of inquiry established specifically for that purpose and would then need to be approved by affirmative resolution. This would inevitably lead to delay. It would certainly delay the 5 May referendum, possibly by a considerable period. If the amendment was carried the Bill would state that there is going to be a referendum on a matter of considerable constitutional significance but it would give no date; nor would it provide any mechanism for settling the date. Having made a firm commitment to hold the referendum next year, we would therefore be in limbo. I cannot imagine that the public would be prepared to accept that.
Quite how the process would work is unclear from the amendments. No timescale is proposed within which the committee of inquiry should report and there is no indication of who should sit on the committee. It is not clear what the extent of its powers would be nor whether its recommendations would be binding on the Government. Not only would these amendments delay a decision being made on the voting system, but they would do so unnecessarily.
The Bill’s passage through Parliament would mean that Parliament had already decided on all aspects of the Bill. Parliament is deciding on whether or not there should be a referendum on the alternative voting system and, if it passes the Bill, it should be content to let the public decide which voting system they want. The Bill offers clarity and I urge the Committee to accept it. I also urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I greatly appreciate the contributions of noble Lords across the Committee on my amendment. I do not want to delay the Committee, but I do want to say a few words on the comments made by noble Lords. The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, was very welcome because, of course, it was he, who, on 1 February 2000, in debate on the Local Government Bill, described my system as,
“a perfectly respectable system. It has a number of strong features to commend it … It is nice and simple. Academic research has found that people like using it”.—[Official Report, 1/2/00; col. 172.]
That really is at the heart of this whole question. The system I was proposing and which I want to be on the table during the course of the inquiry that should take place is simple and easily understood by the public.
I welcome the support of the noble Lord, Lord Deben, and his understanding of the unlikelihood of voters using additional preferences. I obviously dissent from his conclusions. My noble friend Lord Rooker commented on the question of the 50 per cent. That has got to be sorted out because even the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for whom we have immense respect, said during the course of his Radio 4 “Today” programme interview the other day—I took it down word for word—that he believed it took 50 per cent to elect a Member of Parliament under the AV system. That is simply not true.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said that the Liberal Democrats have not political advantage in mind when promoting AV. That is simply untrue. I have talked to huge numbers of Liberal Democrats over the years who have said, where they support AV, which is not their preferred system, that at least it gives them more seats in Parliament. I cannot see how he can possibly dissent from the view expressed by so many of his colleagues.
With the greatest respect, I did not actually argue that case. I simply argued that it should be for the voters to decide what is more important to them rather than for any party. The contrary argument to that just made by the noble Lord is that first-past-the-post simply favours the Labour Party or the Conservative Party. My argument today is a very simple one; that it should be for the voters to decide which system gives most power to the voters, irrespective of party interests.
I think that when the wider public read the noble Lord’s comments, they will agree with my interpretation of his views. My noble friend Lady Liddell of Coatdyke brought to the debate her very valued experience of how the law of unintended consequences applies in the case of AV in Australia. It was her contribution at Second Reading which took me down the Thrasher and Rallings route, because I suddenly realised the implications of perverse systems and how they apply in Australia.
I welcome the supportive comments of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and his expression of concern over the failure of the Government to consider options. I hope that he will join some of his noble friends on the Cross Benches in the Lobby.
I am very grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton for very clearly setting out what this amendment means in language everyone can understand and, I hope, support.
Finally, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that he completely misreads my amendment. He read his comments from a brief, so I presume that civil servants wrote those comments. It seems to me that civil servants do not understand what my amendment is all about. As for the question of delay, I accept there will be delay, but we can agree a timetable on an inquiry and I feel quite sure that that can be agreed between the Benches. It would mean that any referendum would probably be in 2012, when at least the question on the ballot paper would be one which had been properly considered by those who have a responsibility to consider these matters.
In the light of the debate, I wish to test the opinion of the Committee.
2: Clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out “A” and insert “An indicative”
My Lords, unlike the debate we have just had, this is a very narrow, targeted debate. My basic submission is that a binding referendum on virtually any issue, let alone an issue without consultation, is not the British way of doing things. We do not do it. I was told that there has been one case of a binding referendum. An indicative or consultative referendum is the normal way we operate in the UK and frankly it fits the bill in this case. There are many people who would take that view. It will preserve parliamentary sovereignty in a formal way, whereas the way the Bill is drafted it certainly does not. I think that is important. It allows for some thought on the result and the turnout. In my view, it would obviate the need for thresholds. I have not looked at the complete list of amendments. I do not know whether there are amendments about turnout or majority thresholds. With an indicative referendum you would not need to put into the Bill anything to do with thresholds because it would allow time for reflection afterwards and Parliament would decide, having listened to and taken the views of the people. I think the processes and consequences are important.
There has been an example—it is important to give examples—of where the processes have been used. When New Zealand changed its voting system from first past the post in 1992 it had a consultative referendum. That resulted a year later in a binding referendum so everyone was absolutely clear. However, initially Parliament was able to take a view about what the public had actually decided.
As the Bill stands—I stand to be corrected by the Ministers who know more about the detail—it does not matter what the turnout is or what the level of a yes majority vote is. The change will happen. That is set out, I think, in Clause 8. So what are we saying? I am not going to give high-falutin’ examples. Let us say that we get a respectable turnout—50 to 60 per cent. I think it would be a very respectable turnout, a general election turnout. That is tens of millions of people voting. Let us say that the majority of the yes votes over the no votes is 1,000. Do we really then proceed with such a major change, without let or hindrance, because that is what the legislation actually says? It could be 10,000 but we are talking of something like 30 million people participating in the vote.
Let us think about what we are doing. We are binding ourselves before we start. Parliament has never done that and we should not do it on this occasion. I do not need to speculate. Frankly, my amendment is a lifeboat for both the coalition and Parliament. It does not alter the rest of the Bill. I would almost settle for this amendment and almost not bother with the rest of them because I think that would be so important in constitutional terms. It would be a lifeboat for Parliament and certainly a lifeboat for the coalition. Without such a lifeboat it is inevitable that we will have debates about thresholds on the turnout and the majority in order to trigger the operation of Clause 8. Why should we do that? It may come as a surprise, but for the vast majority of people in this country, voting is the only political activity they ever do. We are all anoraks. Some of us have been in the other place, but we are all here for a reason. For the vast majority of people their only action is voting. To make a change of such importance and significance we have to have the demonstrable consent of the public to a change of the status quo. That is absolutely clear. First we have to listen to the public and then Parliament can take a decision.
This is not some executive decision such as the level of taxation or the granting of a planning application. This is a major fundamental change in the way we elect our Parliament. It is of supreme voter and constitutional significance and it should be embedded for a goodly amount of time. It will not be if the scenario I have just given as an example comes about. We will end up with chaos unless we are prepared to say that we will listen to the public, fight the referendum and Parliament will then decide the way forward having listened and consulted. By and large, Parliament has taken a view on consultation in the past. It would be a lot easier to decide in principle and practice to have an indicative referendum than try to decide thresholds. It would be a nightmare to get involved in threshold debates. I have thought about it. It would be an absolute nightmare. It is so unpredictable, so personal and subjective. To say we will have an indicative referendum to consult will be pretty important.
I am going to pray in aid only one Member of the House. Earlier today we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I think we will all read his speech tomorrow. He gave several examples of what had been said before the election as a reason for doing it after the election. I disagreed with my own side on AV and made my position absolutely clear on 24 March, but that is not the issue now. I just want the referendum to be indicative so that Parliament has the final decision. It would be on the same date with the same question, the lot, but it would be consultative. As I said, I made my position clear on 24 March and I am saying the same things on this side of the House as I said on the other side. My challenge is for others to do the same. I quote from Hansard:
“On the other hand, a consultative referendum early in the next Parliament would assist rather than hinder deliberations and would not fall foul of the strictures from the Select Committee that we are producing change without scrutiny”.—[Official Report, 24/3/10; col. 971.]
Those are the words of the noble Lord, Lord McNally. I rest my case.
The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, very kindly referred to me in the previous debate and challenged me to contribute to the debate on this amendment. I certainly intend to do so, though I hope very briefly.
Frankly, I am mystified. I totally understand where the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is coming from. What I do not yet understand is whether he is going to be supported from his own Front Bench because of course his party—I know he was a rebel on this and I respect him for it—was absolutely explicit in putting its case to the country just a few months ago. In its manifesto his party said:
“To ensure that every MP is supported by the majority of their constituents voting at each election, we will hold a referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote for elections to the House of Commons”.
There is no mention of ifs and buts about consultative, confirmatory or indicative. It said “we will hold a referendum”. It may be that I misunderstood the Labour manifesto but that seems to be an absolutely clear commitment. Indeed, Mr Jack Straw, who is a very distinguished colleague of those on the other side who take a different view, set out in the debates on the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill just a few weeks before the election precisely where the Labour Party was and gave an opportunity for people in the country to understand where it was. This business that there has been no discussion about it is not true. There has been lots of discussion. Maybe it is only anoraks such as myself and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who were discussing the relative merits of these issues but the fact is that it was out in the open because Mr Straw said in the House of Commons that,
“all of us here must do all that we can to restore trust in politics … part of that process must involve consideration of which electoral system can best serve the people of this country and asking them to make a decision. Our response is to put in place a credible alternative that would go with the grain of what the British people value in our system, and allow them to express their clear view in a referendum”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/2/10; col. 799.]
That was a specific proposal—put before Parliament weeks before the election and as clear as anything ever is from a ministerial statement—to insert into that Bill the specific proposal that we are now debating. It is simply untrue that this has never previously come before Parliament. What is true—I have to say—is that the Labour Party was absolutely explicit that it would not be a consultative, indicative or confirmatory referendum. It would be a decisive referendum. I rest my case.
My Lords, when it comes to major constitutional change, there is some benefit in looking at what has happened in the past when Parliament has confronted the best way of proceeding—a way that enables Parliament clearly to have the decisive say but nevertheless has reference to the directly expressed will of the people.
I hope that the House will forgive my making reference to Scottish devolution. There were two attempts to establish Scottish devolution. The parliamentary processes of those two attempts were markedly different. In 1979 there was a Bill that was amended by Mr George Cunningham—in the Cunningham amendment. This is where we pick up the point made by my noble friend Lord Rooker. Because it was effectively a referendum to implement the Bill, the Cunningham amendment was a threshold amendment. The Secretary of State was required to move an order abandoning the whole project because the threshold was not met.
In 1997 the process was different and, I think, sounder. Then the party went to the electorate with a manifesto commitment. It then produced a White Paper and held an indicative referendum on the White Paper. Parliament then considered the Bill in the light of the referendum. That seemed to be the better way of doing things. It enabled a fully informed debate to take place on the basis of the proposals in the White Paper. There was a national debate on devolution in Scotland and Wales, which people could understand much more clearly and meaningfully from a White Paper than through the technicalities of a Bill. There was the clear expression of the people’s choice through a referendum. Parliament then proceeded in light of that to produce a Bill that satisfied both the manifesto commitment and the referendum outcome.
That is the best way forward. If the Government do not accept the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, they will face the problem of thresholds. Thresholds are difficult; they have an element of subjectivity and politics-playing comes into them. It would be much better, clearly, for this referendum to be indicative, with Parliament then making the final judgment on the basis of its outcome and the degree and strength of the views expressed by the people through it.
My Lords, it would be a good deal safer, and therefore wiser, for the referendum to be indicative rather than mandatory. One reason is the hasty and, frankly, slipshod manner in which the proposition in the Bill has been formulated, has been presented to Parliament and will be presented to the people. These are decisions that have been made in haste and without adequate consideration by all parties.
I confess that it was something of a surprise to me when the Labour Party adopted the alternative vote as party policy. I am not aware that there had been intensive internal consideration within the party. Perhaps I was not listening or was looking the wrong way; or perhaps people, rather wisely, decided not to ask my opinion on the matter. At all events, it was a hastily arrived-at policy shift. If it was hastily arrived at by the Labour Party, it was a good deal more hastily arrived at by the Conservative Party and, I dare say, by the Liberal Democrats. As we all know, the Liberal Democrats did not want AV and the Conservatives did not want AV, yet in this curious fashion they found themselves united in proposing that, after all, it would be a good way to reform the voting system of this country.
As the noble Lord, Lord Deben, said in the previous debate, you can hardly imagine a more momentous constitutional decision. It is important to think extremely deeply and carefully about how we alter our voting system. Few things could be more important to how we live and how we will be governed, yet self-evidently there has not been any careful pondering of this question. The haste of the timetable that is proposed in the Bill means that, just as Parliament and the political parties will not have thought about it with the care that it warrants, nor will the people have had the opportunity to do so. It is, therefore, all the more important that the referendum should be indicative, in that it would give Parliament the opportunity to think further about what it may be appropriate to do in the light of the advice given by the people.
That is more the case now that the House has not approved the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours. It would have been a wise device to enable the merits of alternative versions of alternative voting to be expertly and objectively considered, so that Parliament would have the opportunity to think more carefully than it so far has about which system of alternative voting—if it is to be the alternative vote—should be proposed to the people. If that process is not to go forward, that is another reason why it is important that all concerned should be able to deliberate on these matters for rather longer.
It seems to me also that if we have an indicative rather than mandatory referendum, it will preserve the rightful authority both of the people and of Parliament. I am not an enthusiast for referendums but an exception should be made where the question at issue is major constitutional change and, perhaps most importantly, how the electoral system might be altered. We are trustees of the constitution on behalf of the people who elect their representatives to the other place. In this House we have an important watching brief—a kind of trusteeship of the constitution—to ensure that things are not done recklessly, shoddily, hastily or, in so far as we can influence and determine this, unwisely. Therefore, I am not against a referendum on a major constitutional issue. The people who confer political authority on parliamentarians to act on their behalf should have the right to determine by what system they do so.
Equally, if we subject issues routinely to referendum, we undermine Parliament. I am not an enthusiast for referendums but it is appropriate in this case. If it is indicative rather than mandatory, not only do we give the people the opportunity to have their considered say but we uphold the authority of Parliament finally to determine these matters. For both those reasons I hope very much that the House will approve the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Rooker.
Like my noble friend Lord Deben, I too have great reservations about referenda because they undermine the sovereignty of Parliament. If the result of this referendum is absolutely overwhelmingly in favour of AV, then there is no way that Parliament could ignore the expressed wishes of the people. I do not quite know why my noble friend Lord Tyler is concerned about it being “indicative” rather than “mandatory”. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is right. If a very narrow vote completely changed our voting system, then Parliament should have the option of being able to think again to explore the issues because Parliament has a right and responsibility at that point to give its advice and to debate the issue rather more widely.
Let us face it—we have not had many opportunities to debate this form of voting and an awful lot of the people in this country do not really understand it at all. If this referendum happens, the turnout may conceivably be boosted if we hold it on the same day as the local elections. If it was held on any other day, the turnout would be very low indeed and it would be quite difficult to say that this was a seriously expressed wish of the people of this country. However, as I say, if there is a clear and overwhelming majority in favour of AV, Parliament could not in any way ignore that and the arrangement would have to go through. To be concerned and worried about the idea of this being “indicative” rather than “mandatory” shows a certain sort of paranoia on behalf of those people who believe in this referendum. I advise my noble friends not to be too concerned about it.
I am very pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, who was introduced into this House on the very same day as me. One of his introducers was the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, the former Prime Minister. She and I had an interesting conversation that day. I doubt she would be very enthusiastic about what we are doing today and the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton—I was going to call him “Archie”—represents her.
It is bizarre, is it not? This whole thing is bizarre. All these debates are unbelievable. This Clegg project—because that is what it is—is being pushed through. We know that all the Tories—all the Conservatives whom I know—do not believe in the alternative vote. They are nodding. I have yet to come across one who thinks that it is the right way for the people of Britain to vote in a referendum. Yet, they went through the Lobby just a few moments ago and will go through the Lobby again and again—today, next Monday and next Wednesday—pushing through something that they manifestly do not believe in. Then there are the Liberal Democrats. They do not really believe in the alternative vote; they want STV. Some of them, of course, see this as a Trojan horse—as a thin end of the wedge. The next Bill that will come up will be to move towards single transferable vote or something similar. However, no less a person than the Deputy Prime Minister described the alternative vote as “a miserable little compromise”. Imagine campaigning and people listening to the Churchillian tones over the loudspeaker: “Turn out and vote for our miserable little compromise!” That is why my noble friend Lord Rooker is right about the turnout. I cannot see that there will be any great enthusiasm. I will move an amendment later about the date, which is another very worrying issue.
So the Tories do not really support it. The Liberal Democrats are not really in favour of the alternative vote. Apart from my noble friend Lord Lipsey, who made an interesting speech at Second Reading in favour of it, there are not many people on this side who support it. Most of my colleagues are in favour of first past the post. We have heard my noble friend Lord Grocott expand on this eloquently—I was going to say ad infinitum… ad nauseam—on so many occasions. I am right behind him. There are some on this side who, I must admit, favour proportional representation but not alternative vote. We have had that discussion within the party.
So what are we doing? We have this Clegg project: this Bill must be pushed through. It has gone through the House of Commons without amendment. Now it must be pushed through the House of Lords without amendment using the coalition’s built-in majority. If they do not have the majority, they pack in more Peers to ensure that it goes through. So, by the next election, on 5 May, we will vote for a system that will help the Liberal Democrats a little bit on new boundaries, as we heard earlier, but the proposal will not be considered properly or in the democratic way that we have looked at boundary changes in the past; no one really wants that —certainly none of the Conservatives wants that, even though they will have pushed it through. It seems outrageous and bizarre that we are moving through with this.
As a number of noble Lords have said, this is a major constitutional change. In my 26 years in the House of Commons—and there are people here who I respect on the other side, like the noble Lord, Lord Howard, who spent years in the Commons as well—I never saw even the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, push through a constitutional change like this in such a fashion. It never seemed to happen and yet she was no shrinking violet, as we know. My noble friend Lord Rooker illustrated much more eloquently than I could the kind of result that might come out. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in an excellent speech at Second Reading, who pointed out that, if the turnout is relatively low—we will come to that threshold later—a handful could be voting in favour and a slightly smaller handful voting against. However, because there is no threshold and it will have been pushed through on the votes of the built-in majority, it will go through.
Members opposite should think about what they do. Cross Benchers should think about what they do. This is a major constitutional change. Do not vote for something that is so major that you will regret it when you wake up tomorrow morning.
I support my noble friend Lord Rooker and endorse largely what has been said by my noble friend Lord Hamilton. Can you imagine if a Labour Government produced the sort of constitutional changes that we debate this evening with all the other constitutional matters that this Government intend on forcing through this House as they have forced them through the other place? The British press would be outraged if a Labour Government tinkered—that is the wrong word—or smashed the constitution in the way that this Government propose to do. If we had proper parliamentary journalism, either in this House or the other place, you would see the same outrage about the proposal that is before your Lordships today. In reply to this debate, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, smiled at my introductory remarks when I spoke on Second Reading. I think that he accused me of a Max Miller-type performance. I had to ask some of my older noble friends who he was talking about because, of course, I had no idea who Max Miller was. I hope he will accept that I will not indulge in such a performance this evening. I am seriously concerned, as are many of my noble friends, about the proposals before your Lordships tonight.
The House ought to listen to my noble friend Lord Rooker. I have known him for over 40 years. Indeed, I was his Whip in the 1970s, which was no easy task. He has always been a man of independent thought, view and expression. I remember in the 1970s that he and another colleague managed to drive a coach and horses through Denis Healey’s budget, which caused me, as his Whip, a rather painful interview with the Chief Whip at the time. Those on either side of your Lordships' House who have ever worked in the Whips’ Office in either place will know just how painful such an interview could be. The House should listen to what my noble friend said earlier today. Is it really our intention, as my noble friend outlined, that no matter what the majority, or how many people participate, to pass legislation that will fundamentally change the way that Parliament—the House of Commons—is elected in this country? Surely it is incumbent on this House to stop this madness and say that an indicative referendum is the only acceptable option at present. Are we really saying that regardless of turnout, the argument and other matters being discussed by the British people, the result of the referendum will be binding on both Houses? As my noble friends have done, I appeal particularly to the Cross Benchers, who traditionally and understandably regard themselves as the guardians of the traditions of your Lordships’ House and of this country, to think very carefully about how they vote tonight. I appeal to them to support my noble friend and vote for what I believe is the only sensible course of action open to us.
I always tremble a little when I follow my noble friend Lord Snape, who was also my Whip during the 1970s. I shall follow the habit of a lifetime and agree with him on this matter. I was delighted that my noble friend Lord Foulkes was able to penetrate the weak thicket of my arguments and deduce that, on balance and weighing all things up, I am totally in favour of first past the post. I am pleased to be on exactly the same side of the argument in respect to this amendment as my noble friend Lord Rooker. That may surprise noble Lords given that, although we agree on most things, over the years we have not agreed on electoral reform. His argument about the need for this to be an indicative referendum was absolutely convincing.
Surely we can all agree that this is a very unusual amendment. I want to deal briefly—I hope this is the last time that I have to do so—with the argument put forward by the Lib Dems that somehow the Labour Party in opposition must be bound by every dot and comma of the manifesto on which it has just lost the election. The concept of a referendum on AV has already been road tested. The Conservatives and the Lib Dems opposed it before the election and are now bringing it in, presumably claiming that they have a mandate to do so. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord McNally, can tell us whether he thinks that there is a mandate to do that. I hate to keep repeating the fact that the one party that would have had a mandate lost the election. I do not like losing elections, even though I have lost an awful lot of them over the years. Therefore, we can put that issue to bed, but if anyone raises it again I give whoever does so, particularly the Lib Dems, a severe warning that I shall look through all their election manifestos covering the elections they have lost, which now covers a period of about 100 years, check on all the commitments that they made and start reading them out. If people are awake at the end of it full marks to them, but can we please put that argument behind us because it does not hold water?
This is, indeed, a very unusual referendum. Whatever we think of the merits of it, I think we can acknowledge that it is unusual. As a lifelong member of the Labour Party, I find myself agreeing in key respects with both the Conservative Prime Minister and the Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister. I agree with the Prime Minister’s opposition to AV, and whenever the referendum takes place—I hope that will not be for a while—I shall be voting the same way as him. However, I must say in passing that it must be the first time ever that a Government have called a referendum which they hope to lose. That is a constitutional first, if nothing else. I agree very strongly with the right honourable Nick Clegg’s description of the measure as a miserable little compromise, as my noble friend said. However, to put it mildly, that is not a strong basis on which to hold a referendum. In addition, the Government are committed to holding it on the same day as local elections, which means that it will be a legislative referendum. That is essentially what it is; it is not an indicative referendum but one which legislates. We know that there are massive differences in turnout in different parts of the country. That is not a good basis for any decision, but is a particularly bad one when we are effectively asking the electorate to legislate. As I have already said, for different reasons the two key members of the Government are not wholeheartedly committed to the referendum, so for that reason, if none other, it should be no more than an indicative referendum.
I conclude by asking the noble Lord, Lord McNally, a question which will need to be asked sooner or later as it is very important to the nature and integrity—if that is not too pompous a word—of the debate that is taking place. I cannot claim that I have read by any means all the various reports on this matter, but there seem to be very strong indications emanating from the Lib Dem negotiating team in the coalition building programme. This is a serious question and I hope that the noble Lord will give it a serious answer. The members of the team were very keen indeed for either the Labour Party or the Conservative Party to bring forward legislation to impose the alternative vote system on the British people—neither party having campaigned for it—and that it should be imposed without a referendum. Either that is a fact or it is not—I do not know as I was not part of either negotiating team and would not have expected to be. However, we need to know the answer to that question before we can proceed any further with this passionate commitment.
Rather like the previous Government, I think we shall leave to the memoirs what was or was not said during negotiations. However, what is on the record is the coalition agreement, which is the basis of this Bill. Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is dragging through this House an enormous red herring.
I had expected the noble Lord to tell me that I was a constitutional Conservative, or some other such epithet. I think that on the previous occasion he described me as a Neanderthal; now I am dragging red herrings. I asked a fairly simple question—but I think that the House feels that it is an important one—regarding the integrity of the passionate commitment to a legislative referendum which, as I understand it, his party was opposed to in the coalition agreement.
My Lords, during the past half hour I have felt as if I have strayed to the wrong end of the building as I see a lot of people who I still think of as Members of Parliament in the Commons making the same speeches as I have heard them make so many times in the House of Commons Chamber. They bear repetition and it has been a great pleasure to listen to them, but I doubt whether they will be the most effective at converting the Minister because he and his party are in favour of AV whereas recent speakers have made it very clear that they are not in favour of it, and they are perfectly entitled to hold that view. As a supporter of AV, I want to put the case for this amendment. However, I will not put the constitutional case, which the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has put very well.
The bit of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that convinced me—I came into this debate with an open mind—was that he saw this measure as an alternative to thresholds. The House will debate thresholds later. However, when I hear first past the posters advocating the enormous benefit of thresholds, when they are in favour of a system whereby it does not matter what the turnout is or however low the share of the vote a Member has—if he gets one vote more than another Member, he is elected—I do not take the case for thresholds from them terribly seriously. However, there is a political danger for those of us who believe in AV that that plausible argument for thresholds will come through and will be passed, even in this House, will go down to the other end and will be backed by the Tories. At the end of the day, we will be fixed with a threshold. I am long enough in the tooth to remember what happened with George Cunningham’s threshold and the devolution legislation of the 1960s.
It seems to me that the better approach to the genuine problems raised by those who seek a threshold—what happens if there is, for example, a 3 per cent turnout—would be better dealt with by this amendment and by making the referendum not absolutely binding. That would put aside the threshold issue and leave us to get on with the referendum on a basis which, I hope, all sides could accept.
My Lords, my name and that of my noble friend Lord Bach are also on this amendment. Clause 8 requires the Minister to make an order bringing into effect a new voting system if two conditions are satisfied—if there is a yes vote by a simple majority, with no threshold, in the referendum, and if an order has been introduced bringing in the first effects of a new review under the second part of the Bill. No further questions would be asked, once there is a yes vote and new constituency boundaries are introduced. This is not the way that any referendum has been carried out in this country, save in the 1979 referendums on Welsh and Scottish devolution.
Noble Lords around the House have pointed out that we supported a compulsory referendum last time and that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, supported a consultative referendum. On the basis of that, noble Lords will have to address this issue on its merits. Should the referendum be indicative or compulsory? I submit that there are two reasons why it should be indicative.
First, the point made by the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Hamilton, was that you do not need a threshold, but it is plain that there are certain levels of turnout and certain levels of yes vote that no one would regard as a sufficient mandate for the change. Those levels are best left to political judgment at the time. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, who said that the Liberal Democrats should have no fear if there is a clear majority on a reasonable turnout in favour. However, suppose there is a 51 per cent majority in favour of AV on a 20 per cent turnout. What then would be the view of noble Lords on whether there was a mandate? Let that be judged after the referendum, not before.
The second reason in favour of an indicative, rather than a mandatory, referendum is, as we discussed on the previous amendment, that the Bill contains one particular form of AV, when we know there are three respectable forms of it. Once the public have indicated a preference in a referendum for AV, the right course is for Parliament to debate properly the best system of AV to adopt—perhaps after some public consultation. This does not cost anyone any timetable, but makes it possible for there to be a proper debate on what the right system is.
No I do not, and what happened in the Scottish and Welsh referendums indicates that that is wrong. It is a question of being clear that the referendum is intended to be a precursor to legislative change, as it was in relation to the 1997 referendums in Scotland and Wales. The noble Lord is wrong.
For the two reasons that I have given—namely, that an indicative referendum avoids the need for thresholds and allows for a proper debate on AV—I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker.
My Lords, I am grateful to the House for this debate. Observers will see a pattern developing: reform, but not this reform; people did it to decide, but not on this particular date; and we want to help, but only on the basis of delay. I am afraid that most of the comments are based on that approach.
There is, in fact, very little pattern to constitutional reform in this country. The great Reform Bill was passed in the other place by a single vote. The Welsh Assembly referendum was carried by 50.3 per cent to 49.7 per cent. I remember it well. I was just about to go to bed and said to my wife, “I’ll watch this first Welsh result come in, and then I’ll be up to bed”. At about a quarter to six in the morning, the final result that tipped the balance came in. However, I do not see parties campaigning now to reverse that decision.
I remember the Cunningham amendment. The key issue was that George Cunningham was very much against devolution, and his amendment was there to try to prevent devolution and succeeded in delaying it for 20 years.
Does the noble Lord not agree that although it did, as he rightly said, delay devolution, we actually ended up with a much better scheme in the end? Paradoxically, although we all hated George Cunningham at the time, we may have something to be grateful to him for.
That is another one for the memoirs. If we wanted to continue in this way, the 1911 reform of this House was carried under the threat of creating a large number of Peers. The point is, as I have said before in this House, that constitutional change has come to us in a variety of ways. Perhaps I may say that my affection for the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is boundless, as he well knows. We have the occasional joust in this House and I know that his position is sincerely held, but I do not have the faintest idea about the question he asked. I do know what the final agreement was. It was drawn together by the two parties, and adopted by my party in a special conference, as the basis for the coalition. As I have said, that is the basis on which we bring the Bill before the House. Noble Lords asked: where is our mandate? Our mandate will come from the decision of the people in the referendum. Everyone is making points about whether the Conservatives are in favour of this, or whether the Liberal Democrats or the Labour Party are in favour. The whole structure of this is that there will be two campaigns that will take their cases to the people.
Of course I do, and I would not be at this Dispatch Box advocating them to the House if I did not. After all, for a while, I earned my living dredging up quotes from political opponents, sometimes out of context, for Lord Callaghan to use. I would not accuse the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, of using researchers—I know him too well. He probably did the research himself. Nevertheless, we go back to the central point recurring in this debate. The Opposition put forward various ideas, all of which have within them an element of delay.
I would suggest that you have the threshold debate on Clause 8. The threshold debate that I have just quoted, however, was in fact a device of an opponent of devolution to delay devolution. Let us not pretend that a threshold does not turn every abstention into a no vote. We will have that debate under Clause 8, and an interesting debate it will be. These three amendments seek to turn it into—
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I am sorry if I exasperate him by intervening. Perhaps I may return to the point that my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours put to him. I do so because I have experience of campaigning in referendum campaigns both in Scotland and in Wales and it is helpful to be equipped with the arguments on the doorstep. I have read every single word that has been said in these Houses of Parliament on this issue. I cannot find one explanation of why this form of voting is the best of the alternative forms of voting available. Will the Minister please point me to where I can find that qualitative assessment of this form of voting?
That is for the voters to judge. If you want this reform to fail, you do all the kind of things that the Opposition are putting forward. The coalition, on the basis of the coalition agreement, has put forward a simple proposition that we believe provides for fairer voting.
I can go on like this: we have all been in the House of Commons and seen the wind-up speeches. The last time there were 23 interventions, but I am okay—we’ve got many a long time. Of course you don’t like it, but the coalition agreement is for a fairer voting system based on fairer constituencies. We are willing to take our case to the country, and we have already had the approval of the House of Commons for that.
What the noble Lord is missing is that those of us who support electoral reform see what is happening now as our only window of opportunity, perhaps for a whole generation, to see through an electoral reform. So the system on offer has to be one that commands the support of the public. I cannot understand the Liberal Democratic view whereby they say it does not really matter what system we put forward as long as we get something through. They bear responsibility in history, in the event that this referendum fails, because they have not done their homework. They should be insisting on a system that is credible. They are not doing it, and nor is the Minister.
We keep on making these speeches. That is the opinion of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, but it is not the opinion of the Electoral Reform Society, which is just as committed to electoral reform as he is. We are putting our proposal to Parliament and our intention is to let the people decide. It is of course a difference between us, and if the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, wants to press his amendment, we will resist it.
On Saturday I was waiting with bated breath for the Blackpool result to come through. I flicked on my television and there were the final stages of that magnificent film “Waterloo”. It is absolutely marvellous because it is not digitally enhanced or anything—those were real people moving around. It showed you this depiction of the Battle of Waterloo with these two great armies ready to do battle. That is what I am hoping will happen on 5 May. There will be these two great armies ready to do battle and make their case to the people. I do not believe, and here I agree with my noble friend Lord Phillips, that we will get the engagement, the excitement, the involvement if we say to the people—
We have already seen the Labour Party retreat on AV. I will leave it at that for today. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has destroyed an absolutely breathtaking peroration. I will leave him to face the resentment of his colleagues, who were warming to my theme, and ask the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, at the beginning of the debate on the Bill—I do not mean this in a personal, patronising way—I have not been impressed with the two responses to the debates that we have had. This is serious work. I want reform, but this reform forces me into the first past the post camp. I led the Labour campaign for electoral reform for five years. I took the issue to the party conference four times to force a referendum on the voting system, which the Labour Party never delivered on. My commitment is there. When I moved from first past the post to PR, I began to engage with all kinds of people whom I had not talked much to before. I engaged at the time with a lot of Liberals and discovered that they did not know much about electoral systems, because they had been born into a party that went for STV and never discussed anything else, such as the minutiae of how you make a system work—because you can make any system do what you want and no one claims that there is a perfect system.
In my opening words, I said that this was a very narrow amendment. It does not destroy the Bill or the system. I almost implied that if the amendment were accepted, I would walk away from my other amendments, because this goes to the heart of what we are trying to do. It will be a lifeboat for the Government and for Parliament to say, “Let us make this consultative”. It will not diminish anything: the argument will still take place. All other referendums have been consultative and we can recognise a victory when we see one. I will never use the example of a low turnout: it undermines my case. I used the example of a 50 to 60 per cent turnout, which is respectable. I then used the example of a 1,000-vote majority for yes. Would anybody say that that was satisfactory for what we are attempting to do? I said that the only political thing that most people do is to vote.
I will make another personal point to the noble Lord, Lord McNally. All my notes and amendments are my own. I have no researcher. Half of my amendments will be opposed by my noble friends. I am doing this because the Bill could be better. I want reform: in that respect I am with the noble Lord. However, it would be better if we said to the people, “We want to hear what you say. We want to have a battle. We want to hear the arguments”. Let those who wish put the case for reform that will end up in the Bill, and let others put the case against, with all the toing and froing in which the media will take an interest. We will listen to what is said, and woe betide Parliament if we do not take cognisance of it. The scenario could be a very tight result. In those circumstances, Parliament should be allowed to look at the result and make dispositions accordingly. There may be nuances and changes, but why bind ourselves into a legal straitjacket when there is no need to do so? We could test the will of the Committee tonight and say that we will come back on Report, but this will not go away. This is a lifeboat. We should all get in it quickly in the Division Lobbies. I wish to test the opinion of the Committee.
Amendment 3 not moved.
4: Clause 1, page 1, line 6, after “must” insert “not”
My Lords, this is a simple and elegant amendment, because the sentence would now read:
“The referendum must not be held on 5 May 2011”.
That would give the Government thousands of options of when to hold it. It is just that it must not be held on the same day as the elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and local government elections in England.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde—he used to be a constituent of mine; I looked after him very diligently and looked after his interests around Mauchline very well—will know that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, on his first visit to Scotland after winning the election, spoke of the respect that he and his coalition Government had for the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government. He said there would be a mutual respect. I am sure that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, a former Acting First Minister as well as Deputy First Minister of the Scottish Executive, will know the importance of that and the way in which it was received in the Scottish Parliament.
That is why Members of the Scottish Parliament of many parties and members of the Scottish Government were deeply concerned when the coalition Government, without any consultation—indeed without any information whatever to either Members of the Scottish Parliament or the members of the Scottish Government—decided to have the referendum on the alternative vote on the same day as the election to the Scottish Parliament.
We had a debate in the Scottish Parliament on 18 November about this very subject; as noble Lords know, I am currently a Member of the Scottish Parliament representing the Lothians. The Minister speaking on behalf of the Scottish Government was Mr Jim Mather, who said in relation to the respect agenda David Cameron had spoken about on his visit to the Scottish Parliament—I quote from the Official Report of the Scottish Parliament for 18 November, column 30647—
“Mr Cameron needs to try harder on that agenda, because he is not delivering so far.
I am sad to say that, to make matters worse, neither Scottish ministers nor this Parliament were advised of the UK plans in advance”.
That is not the way to exhibit or give acknowledgement to this respect agenda. There was no consultation whatsoever—not even advising the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government of the fact that this referendum was to be held on the same day as the election.
It is going to create tremendous problems to have the referendum and the election on the same day. In the debate in the Scottish Parliament on 18 November, the Minister, Jim Mather, also made it clear that it was unwise and inconsistent of the coalition Government to hold the referendum on the same day as the election, because in order to avoid a clash of the general election and the Scottish Parliament elections in 2015, the coalition Government—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, and his colleagues, including Mr Michael Moore—have proposed that the Scottish Parliament elections be moved so as not to coincide with the UK Parliament elections.
These are elections on the same basis. They are not referendums. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, is shaking his head. They do not use the same voting system, but they are both elections and they could be held on the same date; wisely, however, the coalition Government are suggesting that they should be changed and that they should not be held on the same date to avoid confusion. It is to avoid confusion not only in the voting procedure—the two votes being taken together—but also in the campaigning. Campaigning for the general election and campaigning for the Scottish Parliament are two different things; the issues are different, the devolved subjects are different from the reserved subjects, and people might vote for the Scottish Parliament on the basis of what the UK Government were doing instead of what the Scottish Government were doing. There is a contamination—the right word, I think—of one campaign with the other. Indeed, that is exactly the same, as I intend to show in a moment, as what will happen if the election and the referendum are held on the same day.
Jim Mather went on in the debate to say that,
“the next Scottish Parliament election will not be given the space or prominence that it deserves”.
He is right. In order for the election to be treated properly, with the kind of respect that it deserves, it needs its own space and its own prominence. That is why it needs to be held separately from the UK election and separately from the referendum.
That brings me to the points that I made in the debate in the Scottish Parliament on 18 November. I will make them again here. There are two main reasons against having the elections on the same date. They are both concerned with confusion: confusion in campaigning and confusion in voting.
An election campaign is held on a party basis—party workers, working together and fighting other parties. It is tribal, if you like. Clearly, all the Labour people are in one campaign, with all the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Greens running their own campaigns for that election. However, for a referendum, there will be cross-party campaigns. If this goes ahead, I will be campaigning with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. He and I—he has already confessed this—will be against the alternative-vote system. We will go around Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley together, perhaps, and into the streets of Mauchline, saying “Vote no!”. But he will also be saying, “Vote for the Conservative candidate”, and I will be saying, “Vote for the Labour candidate” on the same day. That will confuse the electorate.
Yes, I thank my noble friend very much; I did not know that he was a fan of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde.
It is a very difficult campaigning concept. I was speaking earlier about the Liberal Democrats going campaigning and using loudspeakers to say, “Vote for our miserable little compromise”. It will be even more difficult if you have a loudspeaker car saying, “Vote Conservative. Vote No”. Wait a minute—do you want us to vote for you, or do you not? It confuses the electorate. They are two different things.
I am trying not to use my usual humorous manner, because it is a serious matter that will confuse people. I worked with David McLetchie, who was the Conservative leader in the Scottish Parliament, for the “Yes” campaign for the European referendum; I think my noble friend Lord McAvoy was on the other side of the argument on that occasion. The essence of referendum campaigning is cross-party campaigning and building up as strong a campaign as you can. That is very different from the tribalism of the party campaign. It will really confuse people.
The second area of confusion is voting. When the voter goes into the voting booth, there will already be two ballot papers: one for the constituency and one for the regional list. That is enough to comprehend; I am not saying that Scottish or Welsh voters are any less intelligent than English voters or any others. Then you get a third ballot paper for the referendum. That is okay as far as it goes, but the problem with putting a referendum in with a Scottish election is that the two franchises are substantially different. For the referendum it is the parliamentary franchise, and for the Scottish Parliament election it is the local government franchise. The difference is that Peers are currently on the local election franchise but not the parliamentary election franchise. This Bill takes account of that, but does not deal with the other differences. Overseas voters are on the parliamentary franchise but not on the local government franchise. Citizens of European countries living in the United Kingdom are on the local government franchise but not on the parliamentary franchise. Taking Scotland as an example, we will have all the Polish, German and French people—people from all European countries—living and working in Scotland going to the polling booth and being able to vote in the election but not in the referendum. That is confusion.
The Bill is one of the most complicated that I have ever seen, with its formulae and everything else. One of the particular complications is how the presiding officer records who has voted and how. The option is there for the polling officer to have one register or two. If there is one register, he or she must make a note next to the name of every voter of whether they got two or three ballot papers. On the other hand, if they have two registers, they must move from one to the other. That will take twice, maybe three or four times, as long as at present.
Most Members of the Committee will remember that, even during the general election, with one election under the simple system of first past the post, there were queues to vote in Sheffield, no less. Some people lost their vote because of those queues because they could not get into the polling place before 10 o’clock. Imagine how much more difficult it will be when you have three ballots—two for the Scottish Parliament and one for the referendum—and it is then being marked on two registers or one register. All of that complication will ensure that there is confusion at the polling place. Perhaps people will be denied their vote because they cannot get in due to the time that it has taken to carry out this complicated procedure.
Because of a lack of respect, the Scottish Parliament was not consulted. This is what would have happened if it had been consulted: in that debate on 19 November, the Scottish Parliament voted by 90 votes to 30 to petition this Parliament not to have the referendum on the same day as the election. If the coalition presses it through that it should be on the same date, it will be going against the clearly expressed view of the democratically elected Scottish Parliament, passed by a majority of 60, or 3:1. I am sure that the coalition would love to have that kind of overwhelming majority in the Lobbies here tonight or on any other occasion.
I plead with the Government to listen to the Scottish Parliament and its democratically expressed view that these two elections should not be held on the same day. If the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is replying to this debate, I am sure that he will understand the problems involved, and that this will be the first amendment that the coalition understandably accepts.
At about 2 pm I was given notice about degrouping part of this group. Amendment 5 is mine. I was advised that Amendments 5, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12, all of which contain specific dates, would be degrouped. They would come after Amendments 4, 6 and 13 which do not contain dates. I was advised to have the debate on that basis. I apologise for not being early enough in the day to give proper notice of that.
I hope my noble friend Lord Foulkes will forgive me because I am going to say something very shocking—I agree with every word of the speech he has just delivered, although from a different perspective on electoral systems.
There is one thing at least that everybody in this House can agree on. The decision that will be made in the referendum—whenever it comes—is extremely important for our country. It is a small change that will make a big difference, for better or for worse. That has very important implications for how that decision is taken. It is extremely important that the British people are thoroughly engaged and take their decision after due consideration of all the facts. This is important not just to those who agree with me that the system should be changed but also to those who do not want the system changed. If you have a mucky referendum result, the issue will not go away—it will come up year after year and the referendum will not have succeeded, as many of us hope it will, in resolving the issue.
Making electoral change in democracies is very hard. According to research from the politics department at the University of Reading, there have been only six major changes in electoral systems in all the established democracies of the world in the past 25 years. The number of countries involved is only four, since the French went one way and back and the Italians went one way and back. It is very rare that a country chooses to change its electoral system. Winning referendums to change electoral systems is not easy either. I am optimistic that the form I favour will win, but I would not be so if I consulted the international form book.
My amendment, which backs up the amendment of my noble friend Lord Foulkes by leaving it to the Government to put in another date to replace the one which he is trying to get removed, would mean that there would be time for a proper debate. It would remove the debate from, let us face it, a rather small inner circle of people who up to now have been interested in the electoral system, and take it to the people for them to make their considered and revered decision. Most of that is probably common ground.
My noble friend Lord Foulkes talks for Scotland; I will talk for Wales, where I live. This is the political prospect facing Wales in the run-up to this election. We have a referendum in March on the legislative powers of the Welsh Assembly, an issue of great importance to many people in Wales. On 6 May, there will be, simultaneously, the elections for the Welsh Assembly—extremely important elections, closely fought, four parties engaged in much of Wales—plus local elections and, at the same time, you will have the campaign about this issue.
I got a feel for what it was like last Saturday because I went to my local Brecon and Radnorshire constituency Labour Party and spoke for AV. I must have been in reasonable form because I felt that I got a pretty sympathetic reaction. There was only one person opposed. The question came, however, of what they were going to do about it. One lady said, “I am not campaigning with the Lib-Dems”. She hated the Lib-Dem council and she was not going on to the streets—however convincing my words—to campaign. Parties form an informative function in our democracies as well as bringing voters out. People learn from those they know and trust locally as well as from their national newspapers, thank God. This lady will not be giving her take—which I hope would have been the take I gave in my speech—because she is not prepared to be knocking on doors at the same time and on the same side as the local Liberal Democrats, who she hates, who are local representatives of the coalition, which she also hates. This is a recipe for a blurred referendum, an uninformed referendum, a referendum where the people’s verdict will not ring as loudly as it could.
I fail to grasp the arguments that are used in favour of this coincidence of dates. The only one I have heard repeated is about cost. The cost of the referendum is £80 million. The additional cost of having them on separate days is said to be £15 million. Perhaps the Minister will confirm those figures. You would not mock £15 million; it is tempting to say that you cannot put a price on democracy, except I am an economist so I can put a price on democracy and anything else you want. Honestly, £15 million will not run the National Health Service for an hour. To take a fundamental decision about a referendum of this importance, of such fundamental impact on our democracy, on the basis of £15 million sounds most peculiar.
I am not naturally a suspicious man, but I suspect that the Lib-Dems have persuaded themselves they are more likely to win a referendum if it takes place on that date. I have done some work on this. I have consulted some of the leading psephologists in the country. There is no evidence of any kind for that proposition; the evidence is rather the other way. There is, for example, the argument that more people will vote in Scotland because it is being held jointly with the Assembly elections, and that they will be more likely to vote for change. YouGov polls have shown that support for AV in a referendum in Scotland is at precisely the same level as that in the rest of the country. There is no evidence for this motivating belief at all. It is not more likely that AV will win in May; my own judgment is that it is somewhat more likely that it will lose.
I am left with a vacuum. Here is a clear case of a democratic abuse which I am sure those on the Cross Benches will be very quick to pick up. Here is an argument from the Government in favour of what they are doing which, even by the standards of the many Governments of all complexions I have known over the years, seems to me extraordinarily thin.
Tonight we have a chance to break this, and we will have other chances in later amendments to the Bill. I hope your Lordships will do so by voting in favour of the amendments in this group.
My Lords, I certainly support this amendment as a resident of Scotland. I would love to know if anybody in this House properly understands the AV voting system. Of those of us who are elected hereditary Peers—and we have had several over the past 10 years—none of us seems to understand it. Possibly the Clerk of the Parliaments is the only person who does. I think that what the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord Foulkes, have said bears very serious consideration, bearing in mind the terrible problem we have in Scotland of voter apathy. This is a very important point, in my view.
My Lords, that is precisely why I think the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is wrong. Let me take Wales, the area of the country which I know well and where I have strong connections, and think of the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. He says that it is sensible to have a referendum in March, another referendum on this subject and the elections, and that somehow that will be beneficial. It will be the opposite. People are not enthusiastic about voting. They do not say to themselves, “My goodness me, I’d love to have another chance to vote. I want some more opportunities”. That is not the situation.
I hesitate to disagree with the noble Lord in what he has said, but as I understood it he was lauding the fact that there would be a separate date for the referendum on the Assembly’s powers. He suggested that there should be another date for this referendum and there would of course be the date for the Welsh Assembly elections as well. Those are three dates.
As regards the comment about the unwillingness of people to go out to vote, if you have three opportunities to vote, you are likely to have low turnouts in all of them, which does not seem to be a very good idea. One has to face the fact that although we may be fascinated by this subject, it is not a subject which is the constant conversation at the Dog and Duck. I am afraid that it is not. I wish that it were. The noble Lord opposite suggested that we are in that sense anoraks. We are different because we find this all very interesting.
It hardly befits people who are in favour of AV. People will be asked a series of numbers to put down, As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said, there will be complicated discussions about where you are on, say, numbers 5 and 6. For one then to say that it is too complicated for people to be able to decide yes or no on a simple ballot paper is really not a sensible argument. If we are talking about complication, it is quite complicated to decide about a regional list and a constituency member. But we seem to think that people can manage that on one occasion. We are merely asking that they may also manage a simple choice as to whether they want AV or not. If we cannot believe that people can do that, there is no case for AV whatever because it is so complicated that no one could possibly manage it at all. We have to be a little less condescending to the electorate. The big difficulty is not complication. It is the willingness to take part and to make people feel that it is worth doing. They are more likely to feel that it is worth doing if there are a good number of things to do on the same occasion and they are not spread out over time.
Some people make the argument that the referendum should be on the date of another election because they think that there are advantages. I do not think that there are any advantages either to my side or the other. I would be totally unable to decide, so I think that I am being entirely independent. But I have to say that if the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, really thinks that £15 million is unimportant at a time when I am trying to justify very small amounts of money that have to be removed from people because of the situation we are in, I would not like to have to try to explain that in my former constituency of Suffolk Coastal or in any Welsh constituency. They would spend that £15 million somewhere else. I beg noble Lords not to accept what seems to be a superficial argument.
As to respect, what could be more respectful than saying to people when they vote for the excellent Scottish Parliament that they also have an opportunity to make a decision about the electoral system of the United Kingdom. That is very respectful. For the Scottish Parliament to believe that it is not respectful to ask two questions on the same day seems to be a definition of respect that has been surpassed in unsuitableness only by a former Member of the House of Commons creating a party after that name, which was also a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word.
In his comprehensive treatment of electoral systems, my noble friend Lord Foulkes missed out one system. As a consequence of the experience of multiple elections in Scotland, there have been two changes to the electoral system. In 2015, as my noble friend said, the elections for the Scottish Parliament will not take place on the same day as the elections for the UK Parliament. Equally, in May 2011, there should have been local government elections under the single transferable voting system on the same day as we would be having a Scottish Parliament election.
Much as I respect my old friend’s political acumen and his attractiveness to the electorate, the fact that he is a Member of the Scottish Parliament is down to only one thing—namely the low vote that the Labour Party received in the first past the post seats for the Scottish Parliament. One of the reasons why the Labour Party did not do as well in the 2007 elections was that people were being asked to participate in two elections using two different systems. Across the country there were incredible numbers of spoiled papers. In my former constituency, the majority of the successful nationalist candidate was less than the number of spoiled papers, which in our estimation tended to come from the areas which had been the traditional stalwarts of Labour support. That is the kind of confusion that seems to have escaped the attention of the previous speaker.
The confusion that arose may take a slightly different form in this election, but it has already been admitted by the desire to have two elections in different years, and two elections in the same year but at different times. Simply trying to get a bigger turnout seems to be the only argument. It could be that saving money is one of the arguments, but I suspect that that is a pretty feeble one because £15 million is a lot of money in one area, but it does not amount to a great deal across the country. Certainly, if we are to do this election properly, we will have to have more people in the polling stations than we had at the last election. We will require sufficient numbers to get the job done. If £15 million is a figure that would break the bank, I would be very worried about the staffing of the polling stations on election day.
I do not want to prolong my speech too long, but I want to make another point. There will be confusion. I have fought several referenda, and I think that I have won one and lost two. I lost the European one in 1975. I lost the Scottish one in 1979, but then went on to win my seat. My point is that the result of a referendum is often largely dependent on the popularity of the proposers. At present, Tory supporters, although they are wilting a wee bit, by and large are quite happy with what this right-wing Government are doing. But I cannot imagine that the proponents of AV—the pure and unalloyed, or the slightly alloyed, proponents in the Liberal Democrats—will be accorded the respect of the electorate, given the way in which they have failed to stem the right-wing tendencies of this Government.
It would be in the Liberal Democrats’ interests to have a referendum as far away from next May as they can—probably to have it a year and a half before the general election, if they are to have one at all. By that time they might be a wee bit less unpopular than they are at present. The university towns and cities of this country are the kind of areas where young people would be expected to turn out to vote for constitutional or electoral change, but the Liberal Democrats do not have a hope in hell of getting any support from them at present.
This is a confused, ill-constructed, badly thought-out proposition of which the date is only one part. It would be desirable for us to look afresh at the date. My noble friend Lord Rooker wants to give electoral reform legitimacy. If we are going to give the result legitimacy, we should hold the referendum at a time when it is not tainted by or confused with any form of political activity.
A referendum is an awkward political weapon which has to be used carefully. Let us face it, over the years there have been referenda across Europe which have resulted in outcomes that none of us would have liked. I do not think this is the same, but it lends itself to confusion in ways that this country could well do without at this time. That is because there are forces at work that are anti-democratic and who wish to use every opportunity to denigrate the democratic system. Having a referendum on the day suggested, when elections are being held in other parts of the country, and in the format decided upon, is foolhardy. No one will be a winner and democracy will be the loser.
My Lords, I rise briefly to support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Foulkes. I agree with him on some things, but not on others. First, I agree with the points he and my noble friend Lord O’Neill have made about the practicalities of holding a referendum on the same day as other elections. Secondly, there is a real constitutional point made by the House of Lords Constitution Committee, which is that it is not a good idea to have lots of referenda. I do not agree with having lots of referenda. But if you are going to have them, it is a very bad idea to hold them on the same day as other elections. So if we are going to have a referendum—which, generally speaking, I am not in favour of—it should be held on another day away from the elections.
The third point I want to make is that I speak in favour of delay as a supporter of electoral reform and as a supporter of the alternative vote in a referendum. What we need to do is put party politics aside and have a big debate about the nature of our politics in this country. Whereas first past the post was a perfectly legitimate system in the 1950s when 95 per cent of the electorate voted for the two main parties, it is not a legitimate system when only 65 per cent voted for the two main parties, as was the case at the last general election. Surely that makes the case for at least thinking about change. But if we are to have that great debate, it has to be clear of party politics.
I know that on my own side there are many genuine supporters of reform who believe that the most important task next May will be to fight the coalition by getting the biggest vote for Labour rather than making a principled argument in favour of change. If, therefore, we are to bring about a more pluralist system and create a genuinely progressive alliance for change, we should definitely not hold the referendum on the May date.
My Lords, I rise to support the amendments in this group and my noble friends Lord Foulkes and Lord Lipsey in their attempts to improve this legislation. I genuinely believe that and I will explain why. I am glad to adopt the arguments put by my noble friends Lord O’Neill and Lord Liddle, and indeed from the Cross Benches by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer. I am also grateful for the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Deben, because he cleared the decks for my contribution. I will not adopt any of those straw man arguments he set up and knocked down. I am speaking on the basis of my experience of campaigning in a number of elections in Scotland using a number of different systems, because that is what we have to do now in Scottish politics, and on the basis of my experience of campaigning in referenda.
I predict that what will happen in Scotland is that holding the Scottish Parliament elections on the same day as the referendum will do further damage to the reputation of politics in Scotland and to the relationship between politicians and the electorate. I say so for this reason. There is an argument for holding elections for different purposes on the same day if there is an analogy between them. That was partly why I and others both in this House and the other place supported attempts in 2007 to do just that. We thought that, despite the complexity of the ballot papers, we would not confuse the people of Scotland about what we were seeking to do. Essentially, we were asking them to vote for political parties that had analogous arguments to put forward in the elections to both the Scottish Parliament and local government seats. There is a clear synergy between what is done by local government in Scotland and what the Scottish Parliament does, so it was easy to do.
We embarked on that course. None of us had any doubt about the intellectual ability of the people we were asking to vote in that election, and we were confident in the infrastructure of the electoral system. All the way along the line we were assured that they could carry it off, just as they are assuring the coalition Government. I have to say, though, that there were some significant volte-faces, particularly in the case of the Electoral Commission, which I shall come back to in a moment. But we were assured that it could be done, and in turn we assured the people that it could be done. So we set out to hold local government elections and Scottish Parliament elections, and by the end of the process we had 147,000 spoiled ballot papers. I repeat: 147,000 spoiled ballot papers. That was not because the people of Scotland were inherently unable to understand what they were being asked to do, but because the infrastructure and the environment—the process—were incapable of delivering a way to guide them through it. The failures happened inside the process, in the polling stations and in how the ballot papers were handled thereafter. We failed.
As a consequence of that failure, as a nation we agreed that we would not do it again. There is now a universal view across the parties that we should not try to do it again because we failed to do it properly last time. Another set of elections in which the electorate is disfranchised, allowing the media to run amok with stories of how the political classes have let the people down, could have a destructive and perhaps terminal effect on the relationship between politics and the people of Scotland. Not only did we decide not to do it again, we also set up an independent inquiry to try to identify what we had done. That inquiry came back saying, “Don’t try to run two separate polls on the same day ever again”. We accepted that advice. All of us in all the parties have conditioned the people of Scotland to the view that it was a bad thing to do.
Not only have we conditioned the people of Scotland to that view, we have also encouraged our media to think that to do it at all is of itself the wrong thing. And now what are we about to do? It would appear that we are about to transgress that collective apologia and reconditioning by trying to do it again. Not only that, we will be trying to do it again using two electoral processes that are not analogous with each other. In fact, as my noble friend described it, they contradict each other. We will be giving the people of Scotland mixed messages. We will be saying, “For the purpose of the referendum, the four of us who represent these parties all agree with each other and are right, so you should support us. But for the purpose of the other thing being done that day, we entirely disagree with each other. This man’s judgment is not to be trusted. This woman’s judgment is not to be trusted. She is not to be trusted with making important decisions in your life—except, of course, for the way in which we decide to elect the House of Commons”.
The confusion does not lie in the electorate, because the electorate will respond to us in the way in which we deserve. The confusion lies in us, in seeking to do this when we still have clear in our memory the history of our ineptitude in doing it before. If we have not learned from that, I can tell you now that the media in Scotland and the people of Scotland will, throughout the whole course of this campaign, remind us every single day. The fact that we are trying to do this will dominate the early part of the elections in Scotland. That is my first point.
The second point is that we are a comparatively small part of the United Kingdom. The debate that will dominate in the United Kingdom in the period up to the election—to the extent that it can, and I will come back to that in a moment—will be about the referendum. We will relegate the issues of Scottish politics in a determination of who governs Scotland, for a substantial part of the things that matter to people, to an also-ran category. Politicians, of course, are above doing that, and we will not do that, but the media will; and the UK media, the London-centric media, dominates our media. Consequently, try as our politicians will, with their meagre resources, to fight against this and get some reasonable debate going about the issues that matter to the people of Scotland and about who should make decisions about health and education and other related issues that have been devolved, they will not be able to do it.
The great debates that will take place—and there will be televised debates about this that will be beamed into all of our houses—will be about the referendum. That is what those of us who argue about respect for the people of Scotland mean. We have no right, in my view, to do this to the people of Scotland, given our own experience of giving them a complicated choice before which we failed to manage properly.
I will make one further point. We will be doing this in an environment where, the fortnight before the date of the election, there will be four public holidays. That is where my experience of campaigning comes in. I know, as does everyone else in this House who has knocked on doors, that you cannot touch these issues over a holiday weekend—and we are going to have two of them. My noble friend says “and a royal wedding”. We will have two of these weekends now because of the royal wedding. Therefore, we are going to deny ourselves the opportunity, in campaigning terms, to find a space to get these issues up for the consideration of the electorate because of the date that has been chosen. We are going to do, in my view, significant and terminal damage to the relationship between the political parties and the people of Scotland, and we have an opportunity in these amendments not to do that. Never mind the arguments for the rest of the United Kingdom. Never mind the arguments about differential turnouts because we do not have concurrent elections in all parts of the United Kingdom. Never mind the fact that, when these issues were debated in the other place, the debate took four hours. There were, in those four hours, one and a half contributions in support of the Government’s position. In the Minister’s response, there was no answer to the comprehensive arguments that were put forward from academic sources, from political sources, from the Electoral Commission and from other sources as to why this was the wrong thing to do.
I warn the Liberal Democrats that, if this happens, and if the consequences that I predict ensue, then other political parties, including the coalition partners, will be very quick to tell the people of Scotland where the blame lies for us.
My Lords, I want to say briefly why I oppose this group of amendments suggesting that a date other than 6 May should be the date for the referendum. I will speak also to the next group of amendments suggesting other possible dates. Let me say first that I do so on the basis that, in all these discussions of electoral reform and electoral matters, I have always argued consistently from the position that what we should be considering is what is the maximum benefit for the voters, what gives most power to the voters and what most helps them, and not from the position of the politicians or the parties. It seems to me that 6 May for the referendum is actually the day that is of the greatest benefit to the voters for a number of reasons.
I believe it is 6 May. The first argument, which has been made several times, is by no means the strongest. In my mind it is a relatively weak argument. However, I think the arguments made about cost are relevant. I have seen figures suggesting that the cost between holding the referendum on the same day as the elections next May and on another day might be £15 million. I have also seen figures suggesting £30 million. Whether that is a big sum of money to pay for democracy is a relevant argument, but it is used very frequently by the opponents of reform. I regret the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is not in his place at the moment, because almost his main weapon for arguing against any measure of reform, moving our electoral system on from where it was nearly 140 years ago, is that it would cost too much to ask the people to have a vote on this issue. Since it would be used as an argument in the referendum, I believe that holding it on a day when it would be more cost-effective to do so is at least a relevant argument. Above all, I believe 6 May is a good day for the convenience of the voters—I should have said 5 May. I beg your pardon. The voters would be voting in 84 per cent of the country in elections on the same day—in local elections for most of England, and in all of Scotland and Wales. Being expected to turn out on this issue on another day would not, I think, be welcome. The next opportunity in the United Kingdom when there would be so many elections would not be until 2014, when we would be voting in the European Parliament elections. I believe that it would be less satisfactory to hold this referendum in 2014, a year before the general election. The voters should know, and we should know, for a longer period than that what voting system we will have.
As I said at Second Reading, having the referendum on the same day as a lot of other elections will, I think, strengthen the legitimacy of the vote. Legitimacy of the vote is argued by a number of people. I do notice that some noble Lords argue with inconsistency. They say that there needs to be a big turnout for these elections in order for there to be legitimacy but at the same time they argue that there should not be any other elections on the same day. I honestly wonder how many people would go along to the polling station if there were no other elections on the same day.
We have had arguments about confusion. Let us turn again to the Scottish Parliament elections of 2007. One of the most notable things about them was that when people had a complicated ballot paper for choosing their MSP for their constituency and their regional list MSPs they also had the opportunity to vote in a preference voting system—with choices one, two and three—in the local elections. In those local elections in Scotland in 2007, on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections, virtually none of the local election ballot papers was spoilt. People easily understood one, two and three on a ballot paper on the same day as they were also electing list MSPs and constituency MSPs. Therefore I believe that we are respecting the Scottish voters. I will give way briefly, although the noble Lord has spoken at some length already.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Can he explain to other noble Lords why, if it was as simple as he suggests, his party in the Scottish Parliament argued for and voted for the movement of those local government elections from the same date as the Scottish Parliament elections?
My Lords, the beauty of devolution, which this party has long supported more than any other party, is that different parliaments and assemblies in different parts of the country can have their own priorities. I am simply arguing now that we should be respecting Scottish voters and crediting them with intelligence, which they showed in 2007 by voting in the Scottish Parliament elections and in the local elections—and in the local elections, there were very few spoilt ballot papers. I do not believe that the voters in Scotland are any less intelligent than, for example, the voters in London in 2000 when they elected the borough councillors in London and they voted for the London Mayor and the London Assembly. I do not believe that they, or voters in any other part of the United Kingdom, are less intelligent, for example, than voters in the United States who, in many states, elect their senators, their congressmen and their president and vote on numerous initiatives on the same day.
Finally, while some people say that it is contrived for that day in May to induce the right result, I cannot understand how it could be seen that fewer than 4 million Scots and fewer than 2 million people in Wales would outvote more than 38 million people in England. On all these technical issues, the argument I have made since 2000, when we discussed the setting up of the Electoral Commission, is that when there is a dispute between parties as to what is and is not practical we should have an arbiter, independent of government and of any party, who could give guidance to Parliament. The Electoral Commission, in briefing Parliament on these issues, has been clear and specific. It is satisfied that it is possible successfully to deliver these different polls in May at the same time.
It is not at all inconsistent to argue that one should be able to hold the local elections and the Scottish Parliament elections at different times if that is the consensus in Scotland. I am simply saying that we should credit the intelligence of the voters in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England with being able to vote in the AV referendum—it is a simple yes or no choice—and to elect other representatives at the same time. That system applies in many other countries with no difficulty. Let us respect the voters.
My Lords, I am glad to have another opportunity to speak after the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, because, as someone who for most her life has had an intense involvement in Scottish politics, I find his arguments rather difficult to follow. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, and I have a history because in 1979 we were intensely involved in the Scottish Parliament referendum when we were both on the losing side. One of the reasons for that was the complexity of the debate at the time and the fact that there were very few people behind us—in the party that he then supported—who were in favour of what was going on. I suggest that if the noble Lord looks behind him at the moment he will find that the Benches are singularly empty as well.
There is a certain poignancy and irony in the fact that we are having this debate on St Andrew’s Day because the first point I wish to make is that the failure to consult on the date of the referendum did not show the Scottish Government any kind of respect. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, knows me well and knows that I hold no brief for the Scottish National Party Administration in the Scottish Parliament, but they still form that Administration and they should have been consulted.
In the midst of the excellent speech of my noble friend Lord Browne I had a light bulb moment. I think the Liberal Democrats have been comprehensively conned because holding both the referendum and the Scottish Parliament elections on the same day in Scotland will lead to the referendum being defeated. I say this for two reasons. First, I have many friends who are Liberal Democrats and I believe that they are on a hiding to nothing because the argument that will be used in Scotland—and we are hearing it already—is, “Cut out the middleman. If you want a Tory, just vote Tory”. That will have an impact on the Liberal Democrats. Secondly, I do not believe the Scottish people will respond positively to what looks like a fiddle being worked by putting the referendum and the Scottish Parliament elections on the same day.
My noble friend Lord Browne referred to public holidays. The fact that we will have the massive diversion of a royal wedding in the middle of it all will greatly complicate things. I have a background in newspapers as well as in politics and, frankly, referenda do not sell newspapers; royal weddings do. There is likely to be rather more about who is going to make Miss Middleton’s frock than about the nature of the constitutional debate on how this country should choose its leaders in the future.
I support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Foulkes. He makes a sensible point. I appeal to the Liberal Democrats to think seriously about the hole they are digging themselves into because, frankly, if this referendum is lost, it will be a generation before the issue of proportional representation can be raised again. I see smiles on the Conservative Benches when I say that. This legislation has been cobbled together and the Leader of the Liberal Democrats has it as his special project. It may turn out to be his epitaph.
I support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Foulkes. I wish to spend a couple of minutes on one of my favourite subjects—the behaviour of the Liberal Democrats. I can see one noble Lord covering his face in horror, but the best is yet to come.
In setting the background, I shall begin with the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, my good friend who expressed such affection for me last week. I am beginning to think that I would rather it was an affection that did not speak its name. The gist of the noble Lord’s contribution was, “If you do not let us put this Bill through, we will do this and that to you”, and he portrays our principled opposition to the Bill as being destructive. He portrays it as being aimed at nothing other than destroying the Bill, with nothing positive in it.
That was followed in even worse terms by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, whose contribution was designed to intimidate and bully anyone who opposes the Bill. Those who oppose the Bill would be portrayed as obstructing the House of Lords and ruining its conventions. In my short time here, I have seen more destruction of the conventions of the House coming from the Conservative Government, and yet they accuse us of destroying them. Both the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Strathclyde, have put forward a deliberate strategy that is designed to convince our colleagues on the Cross Benches that we are entirely negative about this. I see a Conservative Peer nodding in agreement. There has been not a word about principled opposition or the excellent points that have been made by my colleagues. They are far better points than I will make, but they have not been listened to. Their strategy is to portray us as obstructive and to destroy our democratic right to revise the legislation and to ask the Government to think again.
I do not look to defeat the elected House of Commons—I never have; at the end of the day, it must have its way. However, I recall that time and again the Conservatives and Liberals defeated the Labour Government on the basis that they asked them to think again. This House normally performs its traditional, conventional duty of revising legislation, suggesting improvements and asking the Government of the day to think again, but that is not happening here. We are not out to defeat the Government—I certainly am not and I do not think anyone else is—but we are asking them to think again, as we have a democratic right so to do. We should not be portrayed as destroying the conventions of the House.
My final comment concerns the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. He waxed lyrical—or not so lyrical—about how explicit the Labour Party was in promising a referendum on AV. If we are going to have a league table, or an exposé, on those who make explicit pledges and promises and then deny them, I do not think we could have a better example than Mr Clegg and every Liberal MP who was elected on a pledge to vote against tuition fees. We should have a bit less of that attitude.
Throughout the debate on the Bill, the perils of legislation such as this, especially on a constitutional matter, being railroaded through without any pre-legislative scrutiny of any kind, have been clear. It should not happen on constitutional matters, but what we have here is the fanatics of proportional representation selling their soul to the Conservatives for the sake of a referendum on AV. I am not personally any great lover of referendums. I seem to be the only one here tonight, among my noble friends, who regarded the referendum result in 1979 as a victory. I think that that was a victory in 1979, but I seem to stand alone on these Benches—there we are; nothing new in that.
My noble friend Lord Browne of Ladyton indicated the number of votes that were spoiled and quite rightly blamed the systems. I stood at gates throughout the constituency and time after time the staff were not able to do their work. It was a brand-new system to them, they found it confusing, they could not give the right advice or they gave the wrong advice, and people did not know what to do—not all our political activists were au fait with the system and able to give definitive advice and it ended up a mess.
That was compounded in the constituency of Rutherglen and Hamilton West when we had a by-election in the Cambusland East ward, due to the tragic death of the sitting SNP councillor, who had great respect in the ward. We all turned up for the count that night, stood around for two or three hours, things went wrong and we were told to go home and come back the following morning. We came back the following morning, nobody oversaw the count, the political parties did not oversee the count and we were just told by the chief executive of the council what the result was. That is what happens when change is rushed and people do not have any experience of it.
To have this referendum on the same day—and, as was the case with the Scottish Parliament elections, without consultation of any kind—is quite insulting. To go back to the failure that my noble friend Lord Browne of Ladyton, mentioned, I do not see any sign—and I am honestly willing to listen—of any education or training taking place to take account of and to deal with the mistakes and faults in that system come May and referendum day. I have not heard a single thing and if anyone, such as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, can come up with specific details of extra training schemes to take account of those lessons, that would be welcome.
What we have with the Bill is rushed legislation driven by the future National Liberal contingent in this Parliament—because they will be exposed as they were in the 1920s and 1930s and we will end up with National Liberals. Look at the Conservative Benches, by far the bigger part of that coalition team. Where are they? They are not here. The noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, is the sole representative. We have a mess here. It is being railroaded through. I am strongly opposed to that and I will continue to oppose it on the basis of revising, improving and asking the Government to think again.
Well, I am sorry if it has not been an interesting debate for the coalition, but I think it was a debate in the best traditions of this House, where we are discussing a matter of some importance. It may be that a number of noble Lords are offended by the fact that dinner has been delayed, or the fact that some of the speeches got up their noses, but these are important matters and we should make no apology, as Members of this House, for debating them.
We, on this Front Bench, are sympathetic to the two amendments, Amendment 4 which has been moved by my noble friend Lord Foulkes, and Amendment 13, which has been spoken to, in the name of my noble friend Lord Lipsey. I am going to speak to Amendment 6, in my name and that of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer. One of the more remarkable aspects of what is, by any stretch, a remarkable Bill is the insistence, the imperative, that the referendum on the alternative vote system must be held on Thursday 5 May 2011. The obvious question to ask the Leader of the House, who I think is responding, rather like the question of why 600 Members of Parliament—we will come to that, perhaps not later tonight, but some time in the future—is why that date? Why has that date been chosen?
One can think of the political-necessity argument for that date, think of discussions that took place—no doubt, quite rightly, behind closed doors—that led to the coalition agreement, the toing and froing and bargaining that took place, and the Conservative majority saying to themselves, well, we will settle for 5 May and the Liberal Democrats being satisfied with that. I can see that being a good reason for having 5 May. Frankly, we cannot see any other good reason as to why the alternative vote referendum has to be so soon.
This is a constitutional Bill of some importance; not perhaps of the most significance since 1832, as has been alleged, but still pretty important. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, made that point from the Cross Benches earlier today and other noble Lords have made it too. On a change from first past the post to the alternative vote, we in this country are normally fairly cautious about constitutional change and with good reason, because a change, if it is wrong, while it may not be for ever, is for a long, long time. So we need to think pretty carefully about what we are doing. That attitude, of course, will be music to the ears of the noble Lord the Leader of the House because of what he used to tell us when we were in government. Sometimes we may have fallen into sin slightly, but he does not want to fall into the same sins that he accuses us of. As a constitutional conservative, he will want to be careful indeed about constitutional change.
We on this side believe that the proposed referendum on changing the voting system for elections to the House of Commons should not take place on 5 May 2011. The Committee knows that we are not opposed in principle to holding the referendum; it should take place but, we say, not on the same day as another poll—that is patently ridiculous—and, especially, not as early as 5 May.
As the Deputy Prime Minister has reminded us, there are a large number of people who are eligible to vote on 5 May next year, but it is not 100 per cent and not around the country. Perhaps 80 per cent are able to vote. One of the fears about having the vote on that day is that no one will be voting in London, unless there is the odd by-election or two. If the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, is right; the differential in turnout that there may be between the areas where there are elections and London where there is none will be interesting to see, but it will not do much for the legitimacy of the result.
In a recent report on referendums, the cross-party Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House argued that there should be a presumption against holding referendums on the same day as ordinary elections. We on this side agree with that presumption; does the Minister who is speaking for the Government tonight? Until recently, as we have heard, that was the stated position of the Electoral Commission as well. We acknowledge that the commission has changed its mind in favour of judging each case on its merits, but the level of discontent over the timing of this proposed referendum makes this a case where there should not be elections on the same day. I also point out that there has been no consultation on the date and, in particular, no consultation with the devolved Assemblies.
Our Constitution Committee puts it like this at paragraph 20 of its recent report:
“The Scottish Executive have expressed the view that holding the referendum on 5 May 2011 ‘shows a lack of respect for the devolved administrations’, and that it ‘undermines the integrity of elections to the Scottish Parliament’. The Welsh Assembly Government is likewise opposed to holding the referendum on the same day as the Assembly elections”.
What does our respected Constitution Committee conclude? At paragraph 23 it says:
“We note the Government’s arguments in favour of combining the two polls. However, we regard it as regrettable that the Government should have failed to consult appropriately with the devolved institutions on the timing of the referendum”.
Does the noble Lord the Leader of the House agree with the committee’s conclusion?
Today we have heard graphically described by two distinguished ex-Secretaries of State for Scotland the problems that there have been in the past, one in the more distant past and one more recent, by linking elections together in Scotland. Indeed, that seems to have been appreciated to some extent by the Government: I understood that the Deputy Prime Minister had made it clear that the date of the elections to come after the ones in May in Scotland and Wales for their Parliament and Assembly will now not take place on the proposed date of the next general election, but that those elections will be moved forward by a number of months. Why, if it is so perfect to have all these elections on one day, has that decision been taken?
We argue in our amendment, and I will do this as briefly as I can, for a referendum within 18 months of Royal Assent. We believe that that allows adequate time to prepare for the vote but does not unduly delay the holding of the poll. This is not some attempt to ensure that there is no referendum that can be taken into account before the next general election. We think that there should be a referendum so that its results can be taken into account in that way. We think that up to 18 months—that does not necessarily mean a full 18 months—is not too long a period to wait to hold the poll. There is plenty of time for the next election to be held, if that is the wish of the electorate, on AV.
Indeed, that is what the manifesto said and—to quote my noble friend Lord Grocott—“We lost”. Yes, it was October—the noble Lord is right. It was not May though and it was not 5 May. It was October and we said six months; our amendment says between six months and 18 months, so October might well be the date but we think it is better to give more time because it provides a sensible window for an information campaign to be executed. I remind the Committee that when New Zealand changed its voting system in the early 1990s, there was a year-long information campaign. Surely it would be better to have a proper information campaign about the alternatives—the choices that are to be made—which lasts for some time and actually gets through to people, rather than to rush it through in May.
Consultation by the Electoral Commission on the referendum question revealed the extent of people’s limited knowledge of the two voting systems and how they work. That is not disparaging of the electorate. Of course it is not. As has been said in this debate, most people’s knowledge of politics is voting once a year, or less than that. If the Government are serious in their claim to seek to hand power back to people, surely it is correct that we enable the people to make informed choices. We have also to give officials and interested participants adequate time to provide this information. Our worry is that the timetable proposed by the Bill does not allow for this to happen.
I turn now to a further argument. Whether this referendum on AV is a referendum on a miserable little compromise or whether it is—as the more optimistic noble Lord, Lord McNally, insists—a battle between two great armies that will be lined up at either side of this fundamental debate, what my noble friend Lady Liddell said just now is well worth listening to. There will be public holidays and a royal wedding just on the eve of this referendum. It will be difficult enough to get people involved in the referendum even if there were no public holidays, or no royal wedding. Is it seriously thought that there will be the necessary and proper publicity before the referendum, if it is held on 5 May, with all the media interest and natural excitement about the royal wedding? It seems to us that that is further argument—though not enough on its own—to ask the Government just to think again. If they cannot give an explanation, which they have not up to now, as to why it has to be as soon as 5 May 2011 they should just reconsider. No one would criticise them if they reconsider, perhaps take a more sensible view and say that this referendum should take place after a longer period has elapsed.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, for the way that he moved his amendment. In fact, if he had stopped after about a minute he would have made some very compelling points because he said it was elegant and clear, and his amendment was. We then had a debate for nearly an hour and a half and we lost a lot of that initial clarity. He was my MP. He never bothered to canvass me, perhaps because he realised that I did not have a vote. If he and I, perhaps joined by the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, were to walk down Loudoun Street in Mauchline and perhaps slip into Poosie Nansie’s—three lairds together—those who were there would be extremely suspicious and they would smell a rat if they thought that we were all on the same side, although of course we are on many things.
We have had a series of amendments. I totally accept what the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said about degrouping his amendments—that is within the rules. He may find that my answers are not dramatically different but we shall come to his amendments in due course.
I want to reply to this debate by making the case for 5 May, rather than picking everybody else off. I will explain why we have chosen that date and think it is the most appropriate date, and why it will maximise the turnout and engage the people of Britain. It makes sense to hold the referendum on the same day as other polls. I was momentarily confused by the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Bach, about London not voting, compared to other parts of the country. I do not know whether he thought that was a good thing or a bad thing. The fact is that next 5 May around 84 per cent of the UK electorate will already have a reason to go to the polls. That is a substantial number of people who are already heading to the polling booths; why not ask them a relatively simple question? That was the point made by my noble friend Lord Rennard. This is designed to maximise the turnout. We had a debate earlier about maximising turnout. Those noble Lords who were in favour of that are now against 5 May.
Ensuring that a separate visit to the polling booth does not have to be made at another date is more convenient for voters and will save money. We believe it will save not £15 million but of the order of £30 million across all polls. Contrary to what some might say, I do not at all believe that combining polls in this way will be confusing to voters. Indeed, we need to be careful not to underestimate the voting public.
Could the noble Lord explain how the saving has suddenly doubled? Exactly what does that involve? Why will it save so much more? That is certainly not the figure that was given to the Scottish Government. He just pulled it out of a hat without any explanation. It would be helpful if he could explain.
It is well recorded that if you hold elections and a referendum on the same day there is the possibility of confusion. If by holding them on the same day there will a saving of £30 million, is the noble Lord prepared to use any of that money to ensure that the polling stations are properly staffed and a proper campaign of information is made available to the electorate, so that the confusion that was experienced in Scotland the last time this happened does not occur again across the whole of the UK?
My Lords, I will come to the question of confusion in the polling booths in 2007 in a moment. The point is that, in principle, I do not believe that people will be confused by virtue of having to vote on different issues at the same time. On top of that, the referendum question—
The noble Lord is about to move off the point, raised by my noble friend Lord Foulkes, that I want to follow up, so I am grateful to him for giving way. It is all very well to say that he got the figure of £30 million from his officials, but they previously gave a figure of £15 million. Therefore, could the noble Lord kindly put in the Library a full explanation of both figures and what they involve, so that the House can have a factual basis on which to make its judgments?
My Lords, I am happy to do whatever I can to bring clarity to this debate and I am happy to do what the noble Lord suggests. The saving has doubled because it is across all the polls on 5 May; £30 million is the net figure.
The referendum question is straightforward. It has been fully tested by the Electoral Commission and has been amended to incorporate its recommendations. The question will enable the electorate to understand the choice that they are being asked to make and to express their views clearly. Several noble Lords said that a national referendum will overshadow the devolved and local elections. However, having seen those elections, which noble Lords opposite experienced, I simply cannot imagine that that will be the case. There will be two different campaigns, run at different levels, over the run-up to 5 May. Given the important issues that are to be voted on at devolved and local levels, I do not see why those issues should be swept to one side simply because a national poll on a different issue will be held at the same time. I just do not believe it.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, says that there will be confusion but there is no evidence for that. There will be a national campaign and I believe that this will increase the turnout. As far as being confused on the franchise, which the noble Lord raised, the Electoral Commission will make voting eligibility utterly clear in the information that it distributes. Furthermore, polling cards will be sent to every voter saying which polls they can vote in.
On the issue of eligibility, can the noble Lord ensure that, prior to next week’s debate, we will actually have the registration figures for inner-city constituencies, an undertaking that I was given at the meeting that he attended with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the Bill team?
My Lords, if the figures can be produced, they will be produced for the noble Lord to see.
Furthermore on this question of confusion, the Electoral Commission—as my noble friend Lord Rennard pointed out—has advised that it is possible to successfully deliver these different polls on 5 May. The commission has issued briefing throughout the passage of this Bill in another place. It concluded that the Bill contains the necessary provisions for the combination of the referendum poll with the scheduled election, and says that it is satisfied that the technical issues it has identified with these provisions to date have been addressed by the Government.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne, went on to explain that the system failed in the Scottish elections in 2007. I say, slightly tangentially to this when it comes to confusion, that I now live in the former constituency of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for one election, I live in the former constituency of the noble Lord, Lord Browne, for another and I am in a third constituency for the European elections. We get used to this. It may not be ideal but, if there has ever been any confusion about different elections being voted on at different times with different systems, they are entirely decisions made by noble Lords opposite. We are not adding to the confusion.
As the noble Lord knows, there was an inquiry by Ron Gould, who at the time said that the problem in 2007 was that there were two votes on the same ballot paper. That is what confused so many people. That is not going to be the case here. Gould has, furthermore, said:
“I do not believe that the same factors which led to voter confusion and the large number of rejected ballots at the last Scottish … elections would arise if both the Parliamentary Election and the Referendum were held on the same date”.
That is an authoritative statement.
In the interests of fully reporting Mr Gould’s position, can the Leader of the House confirm that Gould confirmed his position in evidence to the Scottish Affairs Select Committee that he would not recommend the conduct of two ballots on the one date, given his experience in his investigation into what happened in Scotland? He has not changed his position from the recommendation. I accept that the noble Lord has quoted him but he should give the full context of what he said.
I refer the noble Lord to page 220 of the Bill:
“List of votes marked by presiding officer
32 (1) If the counting officer thinks fit, a single list of votes marked by the presiding officer may be used in respect of—
(a) votes marked on referendum ballot papers,
(b) votes marked on constituency ballot papers, and
(c) votes marked on regional ballot papers.
(2) Where a person’s entry in that list does not relate to all three kinds of ballot paper, the entry must identify each kind to which it relates”.
All of this has to be carried out during the voting process, marking on the list which ballot paper it relates to. That will take a large number of minutes for everyone who comes in, if only one list is used. Has the Leader of the House really considered this? Can he explain precisely how this will work?
My Lords, this whole process will involve negotiation, discussion and a debate which is taking place between the Electoral Commission and the various polling authorities right across the country to ensure that people can vote, have time to vote and understand the different elections in which they are voting. We do not believe—we stand by this fact—that there will be any confusion on this at all. Setting the date in legislation gives certainty to those involved in the planning and the campaigning. Moreover, if this amendment were carried, the Bill would say that there is going to be a referendum on a matter of—
My Lords, a decision was made on a national poll and to announce that to the House of Commons. That is what happened. Therefore, there was no time to have a great consultation with the Scottish Government. Mutual respect is a great idea and is something that we should always carry out, but if there was no reason not to have the referendum on 5 May, it was entirely right for the Government to make that decision and to make that announcement.
My Lords, I have no idea where the noble Baroness found that; of course, it is not true. I very much respect the House of Commons and think that it was entirely right and appropriate for that announcement to be made first in the House of Commons.
Other amendments are grouped with this one, including that spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, which proposes that this process should be spread between six and 18 months. However, I have to tell him and noble Lords opposite that holding this referendum is a government priority as it is time to give the people their say on how they should elect their parliamentary representatives. That goes to the heart of the Bill and to the heart of the decision to hold this poll on 5 May. I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am in a genuine dilemma about what to do. I know that many noble Lords would like to go to dinner. The Leader of the House and I do not need to go to dinner as, like camels, we can survive for weeks on the resources that we have accumulated over the years. However, this is a serious matter. This is the first time that the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has said that he agrees with every word that I have said. That in itself must be a powerful argument for pressing this to a vote. Astonishing revelations have been made in the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Deben, is not present; he does need his dinner. Given what he used to feed his daughter, it is probably a rather speedy repast. He said that savings of £15 million would be made. Within an hour, the figure escalated to £30 million. That is the most astonishing escalation, as my noble friend Lord Lipsey pointed out. I wish that the noble Lord, Lord Deben, were still here as I would point out to him that a great deal more could be saved by not having the referendum at all, which is probably what most of us in this House want, and probably most in another place as well.
My noble friend Lord O’Neill put forward a convincing argument. I had forgotten to say in my introduction that the Scottish Parliament cleared the way for the Scottish vote to be a stand-alone election by moving the local government elections to a year later. That is a powerful argument. He also reminded me of the argument of contamination and how people vote in a referendum. As my noble friend said, in 1979 we lost the referendum probably because the Government were unpopular, whereas in 1997 we won probably because the Government were very popular. Tony Blair was the most popular Prime Minister in our lifetime. Contamination takes place, and that contamination will be even worse when this referendum is held.
If the noble Lord had sat through all the debate—I know he was in for some of it—he would understand my dilemma. My noble friend Lord O’Neill argued strongly that I should press this amendment to a vote because we have such an overwhelming argument. My noble friend Lord Liddle mentioned the Yes to Europe referendum that he and I took part in. I see some of the Liberals opposite were on the same side as me in that campaign. I campaigned alongside Roy Jenkins and other great Europeans, and we got a wonderful yes vote, a good turnout and a fantastic result. As my noble friend said, it would be important for the great debate to be clear of party politics.
My noble friend Lord Browne then argued the case I tried to put earlier, far more eloquently and convincingly than me, and said that I should press this to a vote. He made the point that I had not made about four public holidays. During the coming campaign, we will have the Easter holidays, the May Day holiday, and now a separate holiday for the royal wedding. As my noble friend Lady Liddell pointed out, royal weddings hit the headlines rather more than referendums. From the point of view of the Liberal Democrats, it will not be very clever for this referendum, which they have put so much store by, to compete with a royal wedding.
I am keen to push this to a vote because the Liberal Democrats might come along with us, now that they realise the force of the argument on the problems of holding the referendum on that day. However the Liberals and the Tories are very strange on this. When my noble friend Lord Bach said that this had been a useful debate, there was cackling, even giggling, from the Liberal Benches. None of them stepped into the breach, with the noble exception of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who is brave. It reminded me of “Yes Minister”—the Minister was told, when he was going to do something foolish, “Yes, that’s a courageous decision, Minister”. Apart from him, the Liberals sat there listening to everything, like a jury waiting to give the verdict in the Division Lobbies.
It is not a modern jury. It is a more like a jury out of “Garrow’s Law”. The other astonishing thing about the debate is that, apart from the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, not one Conservative participated. Not one Conservative has got to their feet to defend the policy of this coalition Government. That is astonishing, and that is why I am encouraged to put my amendment to the vote. But—
But I am told that I will have another opportunity on Report to make these arguments again—more forcefully, more powerfully, with a better and bigger audience, and more people to convince to come into our Lobby. So I shall wait for that opportunity and not press my amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 4 withdrawn.