The coalition government’s plan for a referendum on the voting system for general elections has proven controversial. And now Scottish Secretary Michael Moore has entered the fray with his plans to change the rules for Scottish elections.
The proposed move to the Alternative Vote system is a fudge in itself. The Conservatives don’t want to change from the current first past the post system, while the Liberal Democrats have long seen AV as a poor relation to more proportional systems. But the two parties compromised on a system that no one really wants.
There are two other elements to the bill that Nick Clegg will try to pilot through parliament after the summer recess.
The first is a reduction in the total number of MPs. While this in itself is no bad thing, the government plans to redraw constituency boundaries in a way that benefits only the Tories – and there will be no public inquiries allowed as they want them in place for the next general election.
The second is the proposed date of the election: 5 May 2011, which is the date of the Scottish and Welsh elections.
A total of 44 backbench Tory MPs signed a Commons motion calling for a change of date for the referendum. If all, or even most, of these MPs vote against the government it will be defeated when the bill goes to the vote next month.
And officials have now discovered that current Parliamentary rules would rule out holding the referendum on the same day as the Scottish election.
Michael Moore, the Liberal Democrat who became Scottish Secretary after Danny Alexander’s promotion when David Laws resigned, has the answer. He has revealed he intends to pass new legislation at Westminster so that his government can hold a combined poll next May.
If the rules don’t suit, change them.
The Scottish Government opposes the combined vote plans, fearing that the Scottish election will not receive the media attention it deserves with a UK wide referendum at the same time. And it has, rightly, accused the Westminster government of disrespecting Scotland.
Alex Salmond plans to ensure that the issue is raised with the Joint Ministerial Committee, a body where disagreements between the UK and Scottish administrations are supposed to be resolved. If an easy resolution cannot be reached, as would seem likely, the matter will be referred to a full session of the Committee – which is not scheduled to take place until next summer.
David Cameron talks of listening and respect. This is his opportunity to demonstrate it is more than empty rhetoric by finding a new date for the referendum
If the government does not listen, Michael Moore will find himself in hot water when he introduces his planned rule change to the House of Commons. A defeat for the government is a real possibility.