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Voting reform referendum: A waste of time?

Submitted by on 30 Nov 2010 – 11:57

The Coalition has announced that a referendum on electoral reform is to be held next May.

By Sir Harold Atcherley, a former businessman and public figure

Evidence so far suggests that the Coalition stands some chance of improving the standard of government in this country, if only because it has been able to appoint a greater number of talented people to serve on the executive than a single party can ever hope to do. The real test, however, is yet to come when measures to reduce expenditure begin to bite. One can only wish them well.

There is, in the meantime, one major area of policy on which the Coalition will receive no support from the electorate. Constitutional reform looms large on the horizon and is one on which all three parties have yet again announced their plans. These show nothing new and give little hope that either the present or any future government will ever introduce the improvements in the way we are governed, so earnestly desired by the electorate.

The Coalition has announced that a referendum on electoral reform is to be held next May, with no sign that they have the slightest intention of explaining to the electorate what is really involved. Unless voters are fully informed about all the possible voting systems, something that no government has ever done, as opposed to being presented with a ‘Yes or No’ answer to whatever system is preferred by the government, we shall be back in square one.

Both government and opposition talk constantly about the importance of “Serving the Nation”. They are doing nothing of the sort in the context of parliamentary reform. They are motivated entirely by party political interests. This is nowhere better illustrated by the lack of informed discussion in the House of Lords, where in recent debates the party leaders have done nothing more than repeat ad nauseam, like parrots, their support for an all-elected upper chamber because this would be more ‘democratic’ or ‘legitimate’.

There is rarely any serious discussion because party leaders remain stone deaf to the views expressed by the many members, who are true experts and better informed on Constitutional matters than they will ever be. In the course of the last debate on Lords Reform held on 29th June, Baroness Royall said that: “I think that we can claim that it is never knowingly under-debated.” By this she can only have been referring to the constant bandying of words such as ‘legitimacy’ and ‘democratic’ without knowing what they mean in different context and without any attempt to stimulate serious discussion.

Lord Richard remarked that: “There is a strong sense of déjà vu about this debate. We go round and round and round and round again ….it is an eternal roundabout”. Hardly surprising when party political members of the House do little more than regurgitate slogans which are only too well known. The views of those more knowledgeable, are completely ignored as though they were beneath contempt.

Lord Grenfell made a particularly powerful and well informed speech, saying that: “I have to confess that I am somewhat irritated by the fact that we are invited to take note of the case for reform of the House of Lords, as though that was on the Coalition’s agenda. It is not. What is on the agenda is the abolition of the House and its replacement with something entirely different. That is quite an innovation, but as Edmund Burke taught us, innovation is not reform.

“We have got nowhere because the posture of the previous government, and now, alas, of this Government, has been founded on….a grand illusion. That illusion is that you can invest this House with the legitimacy that we are told it lacks with reforms that do not upset the balance of power between the two Houses. My Lords, you cannot. This government and the previous government are and were hell-bent on creating a wholly or predominately elected senate whose powers would be neither more nor less than those enjoyed by the House of Lords today.”

Further evidence of what the parties are really up to is provided by the recent decision of the Government to exclude from the Drafting Committee, which has just been set up, any representatives from the Cross Benchers or Back Benchers. This is a disgrace, exacerbated by the fact that these groups include among their ranks the very experts who the leaders of all parties publicly recognise as constituting the main strength of the House of Lords.

If a referendum on electoral reform is to make any sense at all, a truly Independent Commission, excluding party politicians, should be set up on behalf of the electorate, charged with explaining fully and objectively all the possible alternative voting systems, the pros and cons of each, and a recommendation as to which system they believe would best suit the electorate – not politicians. Independence is essential since politicians will always be driven by party interest alone. Membership of such a commission ought certainly to include those members of the House of Lords, who are the country’s leading experts on Constitutional affairs.

Nothing would provide the Coalition with a better opportunity to show that they really are serious about ‘serving the nation’ and not the party. With the way things are going at present, however, the outlook is bleak.