Tina Stowell Associates

Wrong to give people a chance to decide, but to not really mean it

February 16th, 2011 | Posted in Uncategorized

This morning in the House of Lords we have been considering ‘Commons amendments and reasons’ on our amendments to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill (aka the AV Bill). (Stick with me on this….)

There were three amendments for our consideration, other Lords amendments having been accepted by the Commons. (Fyi – I’ve been a member now for a whole 5 weeks and if one of my Noble Friends happens to read this post, forgive me if at any point I haven’t used the right lingo, but I’m still learning…)

The Government was defeated by a majority of 62 votes on one of those amendments and the Bill has now gone back to the Commons. This is what is called ping-pong (or wiff-waff maybe?!)

I won’t go into all the detail (check out the BBC website if you need more info), but basically Lord Rooker won an amendment which introduces a 40% threshold on turnout for the referendum on AV. In other words, if less than 40% of the electorate turn out to vote, their decision (yes or no) is not binding, but becomes indicative and then Parliament gets to decide whether or not to change the voting system used to elect MPs.

The debate on this one amendment alone lasted over an hour and all the speeches were very compelling. Even so, I voted against the amendment.

As I’m not yet confident enough to wade in to debates in the Chamber when the likes of Lords Lamont, Lawson and Forsyth are in full flow (God, they were good), never mind those on the other side, I thought I’d do a post here instead to explain why.

So here goes:

The principle behind my objection to Lord Rooker’s amendment is that I believe it is wrong to give people a chance to decide something, but to not really mean it…

Let me be clear: I am not in favour of changing our electoral voting system. Furthermore, I do not believe that changing our voting system per se will restore the public’s confidence in our system of politics; which is what some politicians (Labour as well as LibDems) have argued.

But I nonetheless accept the Coalition’s decision to put this to a referendum.

And, having done so, I believe the way in which this matter is put to the public is very important if we are not to reinforce their negative view of our political system.  Indeed a genuine referendum, where we give people the chance to decide whether to retain our tried-and-tested electoral system or to change it, might even be a first step to restoring public confidence: a goal which unites us all.

I believe acheiving that goal – by whichever means different parties or politicians might believe best – is only possible if we keep in mind that public opinion is influenced not just by what we say, but by what we do and how we do it. Or to be blunt, for us to be taken seriously and for confidence to be restored, we must not say one thing and do another.

Therefore, and quite simply in my mind, if we are to offer a referendum on the voting system we must be genuine in providing the public the opportunity to decide.

Introducing a threshold so Parliament has a ‘get-out card’ and can reject the will of those who bother to turn out and vote is not a genuine offer.

A genuine offer is politicians accepting responsibility – whether in the No or Yes camps – for making a compelling case, for encouraging people to vote and to making sure they understand it really is up to the public to decide. And then providing them the opportunity to do so.

As I write, the amendment has gone back to the Commons and – if they reject it – it will be back with us again in the Lords sometime after 10pm tonight.

If the the same amendment is put to another vote, my position will remain unchanged.