By Tim Montgomerie
Yesterday the Commons returned much earlier than it did under Labour governments for the beginning of a two week September session. MPs passed rejected Labour's reasoned amendment opposing the Second Reading of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill by 347 to 254 votes. Ten MPs voted against for the reasoned amendment:
- Brian Binley (Northampton South)
- Peter Bone (Wellingborough)
- Bill Cash (Stone)
- Christopher Chope (Christchurch)
- Philip Davies (Shipley)
- Philip Hollobone (Kettering)
- David Nuttall (Bury North)
- Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)
- Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)
- Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight).
(The Second Reading was then passed by 328 votes to 269)
In future votes the Coalition won't have it so easy as backbench Tory MPs may join with Labour to seek a different date for the AV referendum and also the kind of approval threshold recommended yesterday by Paul Goodman.
Pasted below are key extracts from Tory MPs' contributions to the debate.
Greg Hands hopes that by holding a referendum the Coalition is setting a precedent for referenda to decide future constitutional issues: "I want to say a couple of quick words on the alternative vote, which I do not support. I will campaign for a no vote on AV, and if I had a free choice I would not put it to a referendum. However, it is clearly a constitutional matter, and it is important that such proposals should be put to referendums. I welcome the coalition Government's commitment that such questions, including a proposal to change the voting system, should be put to a referendum. As it currently stands, and as I believe the Labour party offered to the Liberal Democrats in the abortive coalition negotiations in May, any Government can come along and arbitrarily decide to change the system through legislation without having a referendum. I therefore commend the Government for seeing that the matter needs a referendum, which will set an important precedent."
Gary Streeter complained about the cost of the referendum: "At a time of stringent austerity when every public body is being asked to prune spending and when public spending is being slashed, we are going to spend between £80 million and £100 million on a referendum that nobody wants. That money could be spent on a whole range of other things. Everyone will have their own pet project, but I know that a number of my constituents have been upset over recent weeks and months by the ending of free swimming for under-fives and over-65s. That has been subsidised at a rate of about £48 million a year. I would rather continue with free swimming for another two years than have a referendum that nobody wants."
David Davis defends first-past-the-post: "We are measuring that system against a first-past-the-post system that has been very effective throughout history. It has been decisive, radically and ruthlessly so when it needed to be. When it brought in the Attlee Government after the second world war and the Thatcher Government in 1979, it recognised times of crisis and responded to them. At other times of crisis, when it decided that none of the major parties had all the answers, it created a coalition, and that is what it has done this time. That is what it did in the 1930s and the 1970s. That system actually works well and it has done so without creating the gap between the electorate and the ruling elite that we have seen in countries with proportional systems. The system has delivered outcomes that are in the tenor of the times and that have given an answer to the problems of the times."
Anne Main says she will not be treated like "lobby fodder" by government whips: "Rebellion is a serious thing. If someone rebels at every single thing, then no one takes them seriously when they mean it. I am not a serial rebel, but I have had it up to here with this, as I am sure that many of my hon. Friends have. In trying to support my Government, I hope that they respect the fact that some of us are not just Lobby fodder but are trying to do our best by a coalition Government for this country-that we will swallow some of this, but only so much. There should be greater recognition of the fact that some of us believe that AV is probably the least sensible and least palatable solution-a solution that not even my Liberal Democrat opponents in St Albans were encouraging people to think of on the doorstep. I am surprised that the Liberal Democrats who are in coalition with us are supportive of this measure. It delivers the worst of all options, and I am deeply unhappy about it."
Bernard Jenkin notes that AV does NOT abolish 'safe seats': "Nor would the alternative vote abolish safe seats. I keep hearing that myth, but in Australia something like 43% of seats are considered safe. In 2005, some 371 seats were won by more than a 15 percentage point margin, and they are likely to remain safe. AV does not get rid of safe seats; it institutionalises tactical voting."
Eleanor Laing calls for the AV vote to be held on a different date and subject to a threshold: "I support the Bill, but it is the duty of the House to try to improve measures before it, and I will seek to improve this one in two ways. First, the result of the referendum will command far greater respect if it is held on a different day from the national elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as many colleagues have said. The inevitable differential in turnout in different parts of the United Kingdom would leave the authenticity of the referendum open to question. The second improvement that the Bill needs is in relation to the thresholds. Is it right to bring about constitutional change if only about 15% of the electorate vote for it? The status quo is the status quo because it is the status quo, and changing it should require far more than 15%. That would be wrong. The result of the referendum and the consequent constitutional change will not command respect unless a significant proportion of the electorate support it. It is our duty to improve this Bill, and although I will vote for it this evening, I look forward to seeing a very different Bill on Third Reading."
Charles Walker warns against cutting the number of MPs in order to save £15m: "The arguments for reducing the size of the House of Commons by 50 are nothing more than very flimsy. We are told that cutting 50 Members of Parliament will save £12 million. Well, colleagues, that is what 350 years of settled parliamentary democracy adds up to-we are going to save £12 million. Why stop there? Let us get rid of 300 Members of Parliament and save £72 million. There may be many good reasons for reducing the size of the House of Commons, but saving £12 million is not one of them. We trot out this ridiculous figure to appease the headline writers in the Daily Mail and the tabloid press, and those journalists who work for The Daily Telegraph, which is just a tabloid in a bow tie."
George Eustice reminded fellow MPs that AV is not proportional: "The AV system is not even a more proportional system. It is just a second-rate version of the first-past-the-post system. It does nothing for smaller parties. The message to smaller parties is that people can vote and then try again and again, until in the end they vote for one of the big two parties in any given constituency. That is not more proportional."