CABINET OFFICE – THE AV REFERENDUM – 12 October 2010

[Mr Bernard Jenkin: ... I appreciate that, following the heated discussion about this issue during the summer, we are less likely to win this vote. Early-day motion 613 attracted a large number of signatures, including those of some 40 or 45 Conservative Members, some of whom have been made Parliamentary Private Secretaries, with one being given the deputy chairmanship of the Conservative Party. Other promises have no doubt been made and career-ending threats have certainly been delivered. I wonder what would happen to the date of this referendum if there was a free vote, but that is clearly not going to happen.]

Dr Julian Lewis: May I express extreme disappointment that, as one of the people who signed the early-day motion, no offers have been made to me whatsoever?

[Mr Jenkin: My hon. Friend should call that freedom.]

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Dr Lewis: Those of us who do not want AV under any circumstances are actually rather heartened by the fact that, apart from Liberal Democrat Front-Bench Members, who perhaps have to be here, there are only two Liberal Democrat Members – albeit very distinguished ones – favouring this stage of the debate with their presence.

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[Mr Edward Leigh: ...  For better or worse, this country has had a first-past-the-post system for many generations, and it has ensured that we are the only country in Europe that has never been a police state or had a police state imposed on us. It has ensured that this has generally been a freedom-loving and democratic nation, yet we are changing all that. The issue is so important that, irrespective of whether people are for or against AV or proportional representation, the arguments must be properly aired.]

Dr Lewis: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I wonder whether he noticed the curious item in yesterday's The Times, which suggested that certain Conservative Members were no longer going to support amendments such as his, because calculations had been done by the chief executive of the NO2AV campaign that having the referendum on the same day might actually assist the no vote. I assure whoever made those calculations that I would be just as determined to vote against having the referendum on the same day if I believed that it would advantage the no campaign as I would if I thought that it would advantage the yes campaign.

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[Nick Boles: ... Why different forms of identification are necessary for different elections is beyond me. I was in the Select Committee when we interviewed the head of the Electoral Commission, and she confirmed that while those are challenges, they are manageable challenges and that there is therefore no objection.]

Dr Lewis:  My hon. Friend is not only charming, but courteous in giving way so graciously. May I ask him to address the specific objections put forward in the debate, not least one that is completely unaffected by his point about whether people make up their minds quickly or whether they need a long period of time to decide on these issues? Will he address the matter of differential turnout caused by different types of elections being held or not held on the same day?

Even if I accepted his point that people will make up their minds in exactly the same way with a long period of consultation or a short period of consultation, the fact is that what matters is whether they will go to the polls and cast their votes. By holding the referendum on the day when there are important elections in some parts of the country, less important elections in others and no elections in still others, we will get differential, unfair and skewed results.

[Mr Boles: I am surprised that my hon. Friend has made that argument, because he is a doughty defender of freedom and democratic rights. Everybody in this country – in all the countries that make up this country – will have an identical democratic right to cast their vote in the referendum or not. We should not judge whether they want to or whether the campaigns will motivate them to. We already have differential turnout across general elections. So long as people have an identical right, it is all that matters. ]

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Dr Lewis: Is my hon. Friend [The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper)] seriously suggesting to the House that there will be no difference in turnout in different parts of the country, when there are Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and other comparable elections going on in some parts, local elections of some form going on in others, and no elections going on at all in others? The fact is that some people will vote in the referendum if they are at the poll, but might not have gone to the poll if it were not for those other elections. We need a level playing field to get a representative result.

[The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): I simply do not accept my hon. Friend's argument. If we look at the general election this year and turnouts across the country, we see that there were some constituencies where the turnout percentage was in the 70s or perhaps even in the 80s, and constituencies where it was in the 50s. Every voter had the same opportunity to vote, but turnout across the country varied. That will inevitably be the case in the referendum, and I do not think that there is anything sinister in that at all.]

[NOTE: For Julian's speech in this Debate, click here]