By Jonathan Isaby
During the second day of the Committee Stage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill in the House of Lords, peers backed a move which could delay the AV referendum until next autumn.
Peers passed an amendment proposed by Labour peer Lord Rooker by a majority of just four votes to allow the referendum to take place before October 31st rather than on May 5th as specified by the Bill at present – a "contingency measure", as Lord Rooker put it, since Royal Assent is some time away and there may not be time for the necessary preparations to be made for a spring poll.
"I support the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, on this amendment, not because I am completely relaxed about whether this referendum on the alternative vote is held on 5 May or later, because I am not. I think that there will be enormous confusion if the referendum is held on the same day as local elections. As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has pointed out, this is an extremely complex matter, which is not well understood by the electorate. Therefore, we need a special day. I am not too worried when it is after the local elections on 5 May, but it should be on a separate day. I know that this would involve £15 million-worth of public expenditure at a time of austerity. But this is a very important change in our constitutional arrangements and it has to be properly debated. The people of this country have got to understand what is at stake.
"If the referendum is to be wrapped up in local authority elections with certain, say, Labour campaigners saying, "Vote for your Labour candidate, but vote against the alternative vote in the referendum"-the Conservatives would be doing similar-that will be extremely confusing to the electorate. Therefore, it is important that the referendum is held on a separate day. This is a radical and important change in our electoral system, and it should not be allowed to be muddled up in the local elections. I do not think that it will be satisfactory for anyone, whatever the result of the referendum, if it goes through while the electorate do not understand what was going on. We need a separate date. We need to debate it properly and to make absolutely certain that the people of this country understand what is at stake and understand the issues involved in whether we have an alternative vote system or not. That is why it should be on a separate date and why I am pleased to support the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, in his amendment."
But the Leader of the Lords, Lord Strathclyde, was having none of it:
"Setting the date in the Bill, as we have done, gives certainty to those involved in the planning and campaigning. I could not help thinking during the course of the debate that if the Government had published a Bill with no date, noble Lords opposite would be the first to get up and say, "How outrageous this is. How can anybody campaign? This is the Government making it up as they go along".
"We decided on 5 May because it is the best date. It is when 84 per cent of the population will already be going to the polls. Or I should say that 84 per cent of the population will have the opportunity of going to the polls… I made the argument last week and I make it again: it will save us a great deal of money-something like £30 million-if we go ahead on the day that we have decided.
"The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said that people will be confused. There is a lot of outrage in the House today about this sense of confusion. As my noble friend Lord Tyler said, people have no difficulty in voting in local elections and general elections on the same day. In this House, we are used to making lots of decisions every day, but the poor people outside are not so blessed with our brains and will find it much more difficult. I think not. People are well capable of deciding who should represent them in terms of local government, the Welsh Assembly or Scottish Parliament. They are able to decide on a simple yes or no whether or not they wish to have AV. I have no truck with these arguments about confusion."
The Rooker amendment was passed by 199 to 195 – a defeat for the Government – although it is virtually certain to be reversed when the Bill returns to the Commons.