After around two dozen days of debate and scrutiny, the AV Bill, or Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill to give it its proper title, finally became law late last night. So where does it leave us? And was it worth the ill temper and loss of sleep?
On the face of it the government got its way. There will be a referendum on a new voting system for the commons, using the Alternative Vote, on May 5th when 84% of the country will be voting any way. The Boundary Commission will come up with boundaries for new constituencies, with 50 fewer MPs as a result, in time for the next general election; and they will do the same every parliament. Constituencies will be of broadly equal size with a few exceptions.
The changes won through the trench warfare in the Lords appear to be at the margins despite some humiliating defeats for the government. There will be some right for the public to be heard at local hearings about their new constituencies. The Isle of Wight joins the Western Isles and Orkney & Shetland as an exception, in their case with two MPs. But the inflexibility and potential electoral damage to the Labour Party remains.
Looked at in isolation it looks like we won some battles but not the war.
What has it taught us?
It needed the government to pack the Lords with new peers to get it through. The Bill to get rid of 50 elected MPs needed 53 new political peers to come in during the passage of the Bill, of which only 10 were Labour.
It was clear yesterday that, even with a fairly determined effort from the cross benches combining with Labour, the government can win the big votes in the Lords. By just one vote they defeated the independent Lord Pannick because the Libdem and Tory whips got their numbers in. Despite a record Labour turnout and almost three times as many cross benchers with him than against, Pannick could not win.
This means that the revising nature of the Lords as a check on the government in the Commons is now very much weaker.
The government was defeated by 62 votes earlier, but that was thanks to 28 government rebels voting against the whip and others abstaining. It appears that on the big votes at the end of flagship bills that is the only way to win. Whilst many Tory grandees voted against their party for the first time, and will therefore find it easier to do so again, it is hard not to conclude very serious implications. The consequence is that, unlike when Labour was in power, the government doesn’t have to negotiate to get their legislation through. In turn that means a much weaker parliament, inferior legislation, and less reason to have a second chamber at all.
The government also seriously thought about time limits for debate. The cross benchers intervened to prevent it with Lord Pannick’s compromise. This allowed the marathon committee stage to finish on the basis of a perceived deal. What the leader of the Lords, Tom Strathclyde, promised the Lords as a package of concessions turn out to be next to nothing. The cross benches were let down and this may count against them when pushing through unpopular bills like the wounded Public Bodies Bill, the ill prepared Localism Bill, and the shocking Health & Social Care Bill.
Whilst we have shown what Labour peers can do, we must not think we can use the same tactics of talking through night again in a hurry. Having contemplated time limits the government will threaten the same again, and then the Lords will lose much that defines its difference from the commons. And Labour must hang on to our rebellious and cross bench friends not lose them.
For the government there will be other consequences.
The commons government whips now face a big challenge. The cuts are yet to really bite. Everyone expects the government’s popularity to decline further, especially as the u-turns continue to expose arrogant incompetence. Government MPs would in normal circumstances be wanting to spend more time away from parliament to nurse bruised constituents. Now they will also be away fighting each other for selection to a diminishing number of safe seats. The coalition compromises are already creating discipline problems that will now get a lot worse.
And then there are the consequences of the referendum result.
A No result will be popular with the Tories but a disaster for Clegg’s leadership. He will then have little to show his party activists as reward for fronting so many toxic decisions.
A Yes result will be very unpopular with Tory backbenchers who don’t like the price of coalition and feel taken for granted by David Cameron. They will want more policy from the Thatcher playbook and will not be persuaded that they need to allow Clegg some victories. It will be an interesting time for the whips on both sides.
So whilst it was a long battle in the trenches of the Lords, and whilst we didn’t get most of what we wanted, it still maybe that the Parliamentary Bill has consequences way beyond its significance as a piece of constitutional reform.