On Wednesday, 2 February at 6:51pm, the campaign for a reformed voting system came one small step closer to fruition. After a marathon seventeen days of debate in the House of Lords, the bill for a referendum on the Alternate Vote system passed the first of three arcane stages required of the peers.
If this Bill passes the remaining stages, it will have huge implications for all parties and as such it has already inspired more debate on political reform than Westminster has witnessed in years.
Much of the controversy revolves around the attachment to the bill of a policy which will redraw constituency boundaries and reduce the number of MPs. This is where Labour and the Conservatives are divided. Labour supports the reform to the voting system which should create a more representative House of Commons but are opposed to the redrawing of constituency boundaries. This has been designed heavily in favour of the Conservatives, and was described by former Labour Foreign Secretary Jack Straw as ‘the worst kind of political skullduggery for narrow political advantage.’
Conservatives on the other hand are united in their opposition to the Alternate Vote system, which is likely to reduce their chances of forming a strong majority government, despite many being brought round by the idea of redrawing constituency boundaries and reducing the number of MPs. They claim that Parliament is too large as it now stands as the largest in Europe. Opponents have responded by pointing out that the number of MP’s has risen by only 4 per cent in the last 60 years, during which time the electorate has grown by 25 per cent.
The party for whom this bill is most significant is the Liberal Democrats. After eight months of falling popularity over Coalition compromises and broken campaign promises this is one proposal which many feel they must keep to – or risk rebellion of Lib Dem MPs and the breaking of the Coalition.
Electoral Reform has long been at the forefront of their policies and if it is passed, they stand to gain a great deal – despite winning 23 per cent of the vote in last May’s general election, Liberal Democrat MPs make up only nine per cent of the House of Commons; under an Alternative Vote system they hope to gain a more proportionate share of power.
The bill has already passed through the House of Commons after the Lib Dems were joined in their support for it by most Labour MPs, despite the fact Labour stand to gain little from it and the potential damage a ‘no’ vote could have done to the coalition. The question now is whether the bill will pass through the two final stages of the House of Lords before the February the 14th deadline. If so the Alternate Vote system will be put to the public in a referendum vote on the 5th of May. If the bill fails to make it through the final stages in time it will have to be amended and the process started again.
This could therefore be a make or break moment for the coalition. In the event of a referendum on May 5 being confirmed, the next few months will be dominated by an intensification of the campaign in which David Cameron and Nick Clegg are in opposition. If the bill fails it will be seen as another agreement between the parties reneged upon and another promise to the public broken, calling into question the future of the coalition.