Thursday 29 July 2010

Growing support for the two bill solution on AV

There is growing support across a wide range of strands of political opinion for the Coalition to propose two separate Bills, so that Parliament could consider the merits of the separate issues in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. The Bill combines a referendum on the Alternative Vote with politically contested plans for a new system for redrawing boundaries.

Even if the single Bill passes, reformers are increasingly fearful that a long-running row will make it much more difficult to campaign successfully for a Yes vote in a referendum.

The Guardian editorial, which is critical of Labour's stance and supportive of the LibDems.

The bill as it stands is a trade-off within the coalition. Each of the partners has to stomach something it dislikes, in order to get the reform it wants. If one part falls, everything collapses. In Labour's eyes, the boundary changes are so odious that they outweigh any possible benefit from AV. It would have been better, and perhaps is still not too late, to separate the bill into two pieces of legislation.

David Blackburn on The Spectator Coffee House, while sympathising with some of the Tory rebel points.

Cameron has an easy option: split the opposition by re-writing the bill. Detach the boundaries changes clauses from the AV bill, and then re-introduce them in a separate bill.

Will Straw at Left Foot Forward who strongly backs electoral reform while offering a detailed critique of the boundary reforms:

This is a good idea as it would mean that Labour MPs could heartily support the AV bill while continuing a principled opposition to the proposed boundary changes. Reformers should encourage the Coalition to do just that.

I see no coherent reason not to do this - and it seems essential that those in the Coalition who want the referendum to pass rethink and get behind this.

The main counter-argument is that the Coalition partners have bound these different measures together in a form of survival pact, because they feared in May that they would not pass alone, since neither partner really wants one half of the Bill.

As The Guardian notes, that is low politics. But there is very little point in low politics if you get the Macchiavellan calculations wrong.

Yet the fear the Bills could not pass separately is simply wrong. After all, the low politics of a Coalition survival pact remain the same whether there is one Bill or two Once the Tories and LibDems have agreed the compromise, two Bills would be the same deal in terms of the Coalition manouvering and survival pact anyway, but without the risk that they've been too clever by half in messing the manouvering up. (The argument "We can't because we said we'd do it like this" is tautologous. If its the brilliant plan you thought it was, carry on and you'll be fine. If they do so, presumably its because the Coalition still has the votes for their backroom deal, knows the Tory backbenches are bluffing and can be faced down. In which case, ministers might as well quit the whingeing entitlement culture which bizarrely assumes that the Opposition must support any political deal the Coalition partners make).

Firstly, there would be no risk whatsoever to the AV referendum. The Labour party has to back it - as its own amendment makes clear. The Tory frontbench has to back it. Splitting the Bill gets a majority of 200 for something the Coalition feels it might risk losing now. So there is a big advantage there.

Secondly, it is very difficult to see any serious risk (regrettably) to the constituencies and boundaries process. The Coalition has a majority of 80. All that is needed is a clear pledge from the LibDems that their whips can control their MPs as part of a two Bill deal. But it would be a matter of confidence for the Coalition, and it would be an act of enormous bad faith - and very dangerous to their own interests - for Nick Clegg's party to collapse it right now. So they would troop through the lobbies for the boundary bill.

Two Bills would be carried.(The Coalition will probably have to persuade the House of Lords they are taking voter registration seriously. Surely these reforming democrats can do that? And they will have to do that for one Bill anyway).

The only difference is presentational for the LibDems: they would now have to vote for the boundary measures on their merits - but that has to be their public argument now anyway - and they could still privately tell their activists they were supping with a long spoon to get their referendum.

Would the Coalition lose face? But they have shown a willingness to back down - new politics? - having been pretty ill-informed about rape anonymity, for example. Perhaps more pertinently, the 55% rule was a behind closed doors stitch-up on which the existence of the Coalition was said to depend. The charge of a partisan motivation was said to be a slur - though negotiators freely admitted it in public. LibDems accused constructive critics of making partisan points which were not constructive - yet the Coalition u-turn then did exactly what sites like Left Foot Forward had constructively proposed.

Simon Hughes cited Parliamentary time on Newsnight. That should be turned on its head.

For there is a further major benefit to the two Bill solution - one of democratic scrutiny. It is very strange that this New Politics government would introduce major constitutional changes and cut out pre-legislative and committee scrutiny wherever possible. The Bills could both kick-off together and remain linked. But the proposed lack of scrutiny of the boundaries proposals can be avoided, while still completing its passage before the May referendum itself.


The other reason to avoid splitting the Bill is a Macchiavellian stitch-up by their Coalition partners. Excited commentariat talk about electoral pacts and mergers is good for a Tory centrist image. But it is entirely bad for the LibDems: the political Cabinet acknowledged they need help to promote a distinctive identity, yet Downing Street keeps on briefing the love-in which threatens it.

But all of the talk is clearly empty while they still intend to oppose AV.

Are the Conservatives playing the LibDems? They would be doing exactly this if they wanted to strangle at birth the prospects of a Yes vote in a referendum, with the bonus of helping the LibDems blame a Labour party ready to support AV (in two Bills, and in the country too) rather than a Tory party which will oppose it.

David Cameron will grant Nick Clegg a referendum - but refusing to split the Bill is simply to deny him any fair shot at winning it, for this may prove a decisive moment in influencing the referendum campaign and outcome many months from now, as Steve Richards (another commentator who wants Labour to remain committed to AV) notes in The Independent:

One of the country's most respected pollsters tells me he predicts the referendum will be lost by quite a wide margin. He suggests that the only way a big "No" victory could be prevented is if the next Labour leader threw his full force behind the campaign for AV.

That is a tough point for Simon Hughes. He might be vociferous in supporting the Coalition strategy and attacking Labour - but how is that going to do anything to deliver a referendum Yes, which many Labour people still want? Raising the temperature of the Lib-Lab argument may play well to both party galleries but they are very bad for the Yes campaign we need.

But they will certainly be chuckling in the Boot and Flogger.

New politics? Listening government? Split the Bill!


richard.blogger said...

I accept your points (however, I am luke warm about AV anyway) but I do not see what the actual *advantage* would be.

The combined bill will be opposed by Labour, but as you say the coalition has an 80 majority, so it is not in danger. The AV part of the bill will be opposed by some crusty Tories but the cuts in MPs will be enthusiastically supported by all Tories. So over all, the combined bill will be passed. What incentive have the Tories got for splitting it?

As you note, if the bill is split both parts will be passed since the Labour support for AV would counteract the crusty-Tory opposition to AV; and the cuts in MPs part will be carried by the 80 strong majority.

The only advantage I can see with a split bill is that Labour will not be tarnished with "opposing AV" when they are really opposing the cuts in MP numbers. For political geeks like you that might be important, but I don't think most people care.

Sunder Katwala said...


1. I care mostly about how we win the referendum. most things most people are saying this week - including people who campaign for a yes are making that more difficult, and we risk hardening into a position where we can doubt whether anybody is trying to win it, as opposed to manouvering to attribute blame for a shambles.

Look at the electoral challenge of the referendum, and the need to mobilise Labour votes and people who can reach them is very very clear. Who is trying to do this?

2. Both the LDs and the media seem to think the Labour opposition may scupper the Bill. Hence the Wesminster village/blogosphere excitement. The risk is exaggerated (for low political reasons), but can be removed entirely.

davidhenry said...

Interesting, you wrote this whole long article about "fixing" the totally flawed and undemocratic proposals to bring in so called 'electoral reform' and a fairer voting system, but... you didn't mention the words "PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION" once.

Sunder Katwala said...


The post was about how the government's bill and referendum.

If you type "proportional representation" into the search next left box, you will get 8 pages of search results discussing the theme in a whole range of ways.