MPs approve reform referendum

The debate dragged on well into the night
The debate dragged on well into the night

By Ian Dunt

MPs have agreed to hold a referendum on reforming the electoral system.

Should Labour win the general election, a referendum will now be held on whether Britain should adopt the 'alternative vote' system on October 31st 2011.

MPs agreed the measure by 365 to 187, giving the government a majority of 178.

A more radical Lib Dem amendment, which would have seen the implementation of the single transferable vote system and the referendum brought forward to May 30th 2011, was defeated by 476 votes to 69.

The vote came late in the evening after a marathon debate which saw MP after MP stand to make their case.

Towards the end of the evening, George Galloway was reduced to telling the deputy Speaker: "I almost lost the will to live when we approached the 50th minute of the honourable member for Cambridge's [Lib Dem justice spokesman David Howarth] speech.

"I've sat here for six and a half hours shaking my head at the complacency on view from both sides."

The amendment is unlikely to reach the statute book given the shortage of parliamentary time available.

That fact may paradoxically have played into Mr Brown's hands, with potentially rebellious Labour MPs lacking the motivation to vote against a amendment which was so unlikely to become law.

Early in the debate Tory MPs accused justice secretary Jack Straw, who led the session, of wasting money on a gimmick during tough economic times.

"This is an important debate. This subject is a fundamental plank of our democracy and it comes at a time when this House is held in dangerously low regard," Mr Straw responded.

"The alternative vote takes on the considerable strengths of our system and I suggest, builds on it. We propose a referendum because we believe it is not for us to decide, but it is important the people should have that choice."

Dominic Grieve, shadow justice secretary, replied: "I happen to believe the first-past-the-post system delivers clean, clear results."

He then went on to question whether Mr Straw actually believed in the amendment.

"I have a soft spot for the secretary of state and something tells me... that [he] was fighting a rearguard action against a prime minister who was losing the plot and taking leave of his political sense in a desperate bid to retain office," he said.

Under the 'alternative vote' system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate gains 50 per cent of the vote, the second choices of those candidates dropped from the final tally are then added to the remaining candidates until they hit the mark.

The system has the benefit of ensuring that everyone voted into parliament holds majority support in the constituency, but it would do nothing to alleviate many of the complaints from those who call for wider reforms of British politics.

For instance, it would continue to discriminate against those parties with wide geographical support.

Parties like the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, who usually fail to return many seats because their supporters are spread out around the country, prefer proportional representation.

Any system that retains the constituency link will usually give such parties far less weight in parliament than they achieve at the ballot box, because second place results in no representation, no matter the level of support in the country at large.

But supporters of the current first-past-the-post system and of alternative vote stress that this concern is overruled by the preservation of the constituency MP - traditionally considered the foundation stone of British democratic representation.

The alternative vote system "offers a system where the British people can, if they so choose, be more confident that their MP truly represents them, while at the same time remaining directly accountable to them," Gordon Brown said last week.

Voters appeared split on the issue when polled by PoliticsHome. Fifty-three per cent of those who said they would vote and held a definite view said they would oppose the system suggested by Mr Brown, while 47% supported it.

But the issue of electoral reform won very little attention as a live political topic.

Only 20% saw it as one of the more important issues facing the country, while 74% saw it as one of the less important issues facing the country.

Voters were also suspicious of Mr Brown's motivation, with 70% saying he changed his mind on the matter due to political calculation and just eight per cent saying he was genuinely convinced of the merits of reform.

Labour hopes the Tories will appear resistant to parliamentary reform through their opposition to the proposals.

The constitutional reform and governance bill would also allow parties to elect their own members of select committees in a secret ballot; for select committee chairs to be elected by a ballot of the whole house; and for non-government business to be managed by members of parliament, not the executive.

Constituents will be granted a power of recall over their MP in cases of serious financial impropriety -an idea originally touted by the Liberal Democrats.

An amendment ensuring election votes are counted within four hours of polls closing at general elections also passed, without a vote.


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