Deal eases path of UK voting reform referendum


FEARS THAT a referendum in Britain on electoral reform could be delayed have eased following a deal between Labour and the Conservatives.

Faced with filibustering by Labour peers on the legislation, which must be passed by February 15th if the referendum is to be held, prime minister David Cameron had threatened to guillotine the House of Lords debate – the first time this would have happened.

Labour has delayed the legislation at every turn because it is unhappy with the Conservative/ Lib Dem coalition’s plans to redraw House of Commons constituency boundaries. The new boundaries would ensure all MPs are elected by a roughly equal number of voters – a change that would disadvantage Labour.

Now, however, Labour has been offered concessions which would guarantee inquiries into boundary changes, but only if such inquiries are limited to six months and only if they would not delay the introduction of the boundary changes and a 10 per cent cut in the number of MPs in time for the next election.

The compromise has been put forward by Baroness D’Souza, one of the 181 independent “cross-bencher” peers who hold the balance of power in the upper house and who do not take the Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat whip.

Warning that a deal was not yet nailed down, Lord Falconer, who has led Labour’s opposition in the Lords, said he was “content” with the compromises on offer, but he made clear that a full agreement on the exact terms of the inquiries into the number of seats and into the variations in constituency size that would be permitted had still to be finalised.

The cross-benchers have been angered by the government’s attempts to limit debate on the legislation and by the threat of a guillotine, but, equally, they have taken a poor view of the filibustering that has led to one all-night debate so far.

Last week, Baroness D’Souza, who acts as convenor of the crossbench peers, criticised Labour’s delaying tactics, warning they brought the Lords into disrepute and could even mark the “beginning of the dissolution” of the upper chamber. Under other plans being worked on by the coalition, the upper chamber is to be altered radically once places there are open for election.

“Why would the public, let alone the Commons, choose to support a chamber which is seen to be deeply unserious in undertaking the role of revision and scrutiny?

“We are at a very dangerous crossroads,” said Baroness D’Souza.