Friday, 30 July 2010

Bill sets elephant trap for the Yes to AV campaign

A letter in the Guardian, co-signed with Will Straw of Left Foot Forward.


The problem of a headline "Labour to oppose vote reform bill" (28 July) is that it risks implying that Labour is ditching its manifesto support for a referendum on the electoral system, and that this is all that the coalition's parliamentary voting system and constituencies bill is about.

Yet Labour's amendment reaffirms its support for an AV referendum, while opposing the flawed proposals to rush through new boundaries by ditching the current non-partisan system.

A bill combining these different issues makes no sense, except as a backroom deal between the two governing parties.

The deal makes sense for those who want the boundaries to go through and the referendum to fail, but it is an elephant trap for the Lib Dems who want to win the referendum. The effect is to destabilise pro-electoral reform Labour forces, when there is no chance of winning a yes vote without mobilising Labour voters.

If Nick Clegg were to propose two separate bills, parliament could consider the merits of the separate issues. Labour would have to support a referendum bill, and the coalition could whip through its re-districting plans.

Sunder Katwala

General secretary, Fabian Society

Will Straw

Editor, Left Foot Forward


paul.thompson.ldn said...

So why exactly are the boundary changes bad? Take out the lack of consultation and the fact it takes away the inquiries into the changes. Why are the actual boundary changes themselves bad? Why is it so bad to have an equal number of constituents in every constituency?

Sunder Katwala said...


The British tradition is not to make boundaries an issue of political contention where possible. Many people would like to preserve that. Process matters., though the current processes are not perfect. Abolishing them on a partisan basis is very poor.

There is strong rhetorical support for strengthening the Commons' scrutiny role, including ahead of legislation. A Bill of this kind is a very obvious Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. The details of the Bill have been under-scrutinised to date. Will Straw has published a good post on many different issues about it. You may agree with some and not others.

- I am against the reduction to 600 seats. It is silly, as it has no rationale beyond a cheap headline, and will lose recent progress to gender and race equality. I am not sure the Coalition has noticed that, since it is meant to be finding ways to accelerate that. Again, lack of scrutiny. There is nothing in equal boundaries that leads to reduce the House.

- Broadly equal constituencies are a good idea. They are part of the current system. Some changes in Wales are needed. Whether we need a cookie-cutter approach (eg ignore the Cornwall/Devon county boundary) I doubt. Few people have noticed the geographical changes protect more Scottish seats than the two first named. There is a lot of back of the envelope devil in the detail in my view, which is why cutting out normal scrutiny is poor.

- One big question is about equal number of eligible citizens or registered voters, and whether there will be serious efforts to maximise the register before drawing the boundaries, and how long that takes.

- The Conservatives are simply mistaken about the current sources of electoral bias in the system. The bill is motivated by partisan goals, but is something of a botch job in this respect. And it is chutzpah for a pro-FPTP party to talk about votes having an "equal value" if you equalise constituency size in an electoral system where they do not.