The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill passed its Second Reading (approval in principle) stage in the Commons late last night. It will now be considered in detail over 7 days in October.
I hope this will lead to a replacement of our current First Past the Post voting system, with us since 1885 and now so past its sell by date that it produces rotten electoral results.
The “debate” yesterday was all pretty low politics. Jack Straw, enjoying his swan song at the despatch box, accused the government of “skullduggery” and “gerrymandering”. The first was a bit silly and the second shows he doesn’t know what the word means! But I was encouraged by the fact that he confirmed that he and the Labour leadership still supported a Yes vote in the Alternative Vote referendum. I will want to work with like minded Labour members in Bristol and the West of England to achieve this major change.
He was followed by a collective howl from the Jurassic era of politics, led off by Margaret Beckett, who can see no wrong with first past the post. Most of the fluster and bluster was about the date of the referendum and of the scale of the boundary changes.
Apparently quite a few Tory, Labour and SNP MPs think their constituents are incapable of voting in a referendum and council or devolved assembly elections on the same day. That’s odd. Most MPs are fascinated by American politics. People there seem to manage to vote for the US President and their state’s Senator and local District’s member of the House of Representatives. Then there’s the State Governor, a host of state wide offices. Then there’s the local mayor and council, sheriff, etc. And finally they have Propositions on a huge variety of issues from property taxes to gay marriage. Do some of my colleagues think the British are more stupid than the citizens of California or Texas?
The boundaries issue saw quite a lot of spurious special pleading about preserving seats with small electorates. As a born and bred Valleys boy my favourite was a south Wales MP saying each valley needed its own MP – a situation many of them don’t have now!
But I think the Bill does need to be amended to take account of a limited number geographical and cultural considerations. Currently the Orkney & Shetland constituency (LD held) and Na h-Eileanan an Iar (the outer Hebrides archipelago held by the SNP) are protected. I can see a case for adding in special treatment for the Isle of Wight, which should not be joined to Hampshire. Cornwall can claim to be more than just an English county.
Next week will see the second big constitutional measure – the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill. This morning my Select Committee took evidence on that from the Clerk to the House of Commons. The Bill provides for a fixed term of 5 years, removing the right of the Prime Minister to call an election when he chooses. The exception will be an early dissolution after a two thirds majority vote of all MPs. Not as simple as it stands – I asked the Clerk whether this was 433 out of 650 or some other figure, given that Sinn Feinn MPs don’t attend, MPs could be ill or may not get into the Lobby in 8 minutes. More amendments needed I think!