Voting reform poll to coincide with devolved elections


THE LIBERAL Democrats have secured a major concession from Conservative prime minister David Cameron to hold a referendum next May on voting reform on the same day as elections for the Scottish and Welsh parliaments.

The referendum on the introduction of the Alternative Vote (AV), which allows voters preference votes in single-seat constituencies, is fiercely disliked by many Conservative MPs.

The announcement that the referendum is to be held on May 5th next – earlier in the life of the parliament than many had anticipated – is expected to be made next week, according to sources close to deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg.

Labour’s three leading leadership candidates, David and Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, support AV, but another, former health secretary Andy Burnham, seeking to capitalise on the dislike many Labour MPs have of AV, said reform was a peripheral issue.

“It is not my party’s job to prop up the Liberal Democrats by helping them win a referendum that is important to them,” said Mr Burnham, who is given little chance in the leadership race.

Labour’s support for the legislation necessary to hold the referendum could be put in jeopardy also by plans to cut the number of MPs and make all constituencies of equal, or near-equal, size – a long-held demand of the Conservatives.

Shadow justice secretary Jack Straw expressed concern that the Government was trying to tie voting rules to “wholly partisan” measures that, he said, were intended to discriminate against Labour, which dominates northern England constituencies.

Opinion polls so far put the campaign supporting AV in the lead, but falling more recently. In March, a ComRes poll put the Yes campaign 27 points ahead, but YouGov scored it as an eight-point lead last week.

Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, a long-standing opponent of AV, said he believed most of his colleagues would vote for the referendum to be held, but they were vehemently opposed to it happening on May 5th.

“I am astonished to hear that they are thinking of putting this referendum on the same date as the elections in the Scottish and Welsh parliament, because that’s going to lead to differential turnouts in the referendum in different parts of the country,” he said.

“It’s clearly an attempt to stoke the turnout in areas of the country that already have different voting systems, where I presume they think there will be less resistance.”

Mr Jenkin complained Scottish and Welsh voters were already accustomed to PR voting – a truly proportional voting system, unlike AV – but they were much more likely to support its introduction in national elections than, perhaps, voters in England.

The parties’ positions on AV are riddled with inconsistencies.

Conservatives oppose AV, even though they no longer do as well as they did under the first-past-the-post system, since they now need a double-digit lead to get a bare majority.

Labour, who can achieve the same with a much smaller voter share under first-past-the-post, so far favours AV’s introduction – but its acceptance by voters could guarantee the survival of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat alliance for a full five-year term.

Meanwhile, the plan to hold the poll on the same day as the Welsh and Scottish elections, and local elections in many parts of England, appears to conflict with electoral commission guidelines, though it has so far not expressed an opinion.

Last night, there was some private House of Commons discussion that the result should only be allowed to stand if a real majority of voters backed it, with some MPs warning it could otherwise get a bare majority in a vote of just a quarter of all those registered.