There is an exclusive club in the Lords which has just added another member to its illustrious roll call: former Labour party general secretaries. Ray Collins will be a welcome addition to Larry Whitty, Tom Sawyer, David Triesman and Margaret McDonagh (who themselves are shadowed by former directors of organisation Joyce Gould and Roy Kennedy, former chief women’s officer Betty Lockwood, and former Welsh and Scottish general secretaries Anita Gale and Helen Liddell). This expertise will be invaluable as we embark on the parliamentary voting systems and constituencies bill (in fact, two bills Sellotaped together to ensure the Tories vote for part one – the referendum on AV – while the Liberal Democrats vote for part two – chopping 50 seats from the Commons). It is undoubtedly part two that troubles the party – and democrats in general. By insisting on numerical near-equivalence of constituencies (overriding natural geographic, travel-to-work, catchment areas, historic or local government boundaries), the bill undermines the ability of MPs to represent the interests of all their constituents, denies the Boundary Commission the right to reflect the under-registration of particular groups and ends the long-held right of residents to a public enquiry by the Commission, reducing the input to mere paper submissions.
The first part of the bill – for a referendum on AV on 5 May 2011 – has managed to upset almost everyone: pro-AVers (who don’t want it on local election day as they’d have to fight other parties that day and so can hardly campaign with them for AV), the Scots and Welsh (who don’t want it on the same day as their parliament and assembly elections); and the pro-proper PRers (who see AV as a miserable little compromise). The only happy ones seem to be first past the posters, as they reckon its timing will ensure a hefty ‘no’ vote.
For my part, I want it to be a legitimate exercise if it is to take place, and therefore require a threshold of at least 25 per cent turnout, and with a majority needed in all four countries (so that, for example, a No vote in Wales is not overriden by a Yes vote in England). Furthermore, as the new system would operate for the 2015 general election, those first-time voters (18 by then) should be able to participate in the referendum to decide on the voting system they will use, so I want 16 year olds to have the vote in the 2011 referendum. Needless to say, the government’s steamroller of votes in the Lords will oppose all such amendments, so certain are they of their right to determine the future democratic system of our country. Arrogance? Too small a word for the approach of this ConDem coalition.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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