Nick Clegg shocked the House of Commons yesterday by the simple act of behaving like a grown up. The Deputy PM was making his statement on the legislation for the AV Referendum, fixed term Parliaments, equalisation of constituency sizes and the reduction of the number of MPs. I still think it's a relatively modest package of proposals, but it's still the most major reform of Westminster in my lifetime.
In summary, these proposals mean that:
A referendum on AV will take place on 5th May 2011. Yes it's the same day as other elections around the country, notably Scottish and Welsh elections, but, you know, I have a lot more confidence in people's ability to give their views on a straightforward question in addition to choosing their MSPs etc. In fact, in Scotland, where we only use First Past the Post for Westminster, we are all well used to different electoral systems. We didn't have a referendum for the Scottish Parliament constituency + top up list AMS system so it's kind of nice to be asked about this;
The next general election will be on 7th May 2015 and fixed term Parliaments of 5 years will be the norm unless 2/3 of House of Commons vote for earlier dissolution or a new Government is unable to be formed within 14 days of the passing of a vote of no confidence;
Reduction of MPs from 650 to 600; to put that into perspective, the US, which is almost 5 times bigger than us in terms of population, already has 115 fewer members of Congress (100 Senate and 435 House of Representatives). I have concerns about what a 10% increase in electorate will mean for constituency casework when the MPs' staffing allowances have been cut by 10% even under the current system. All Governments, and Councils, of whatever political hue balls things up from time to time. MPs have priority access into these departments to try to sort things out. This takes time because admissions that mistakes have been made are not often freely forthcoming and finding a satisfactory resolution can take some doing.
Equalisation of constituency boundaries with the exception, for obvious reasons, of Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles. If you have an issue with that, I suggest you ask Angus MacNeill and Alistair Carmichael for an example of their weekly diaries and ask if you seriously think they could take on a bit of the mainland as well.
You may remember that Labour went absolutely berserk about the Government's initial idea to have a 55% threshold. So the Government, with Nick Clegg in charge of this proposal, listened to the concerns and took them on board, increasing the threshold to 66%. This to me is mature, considered evolution of a proposal, not a U turn. Labour can't credibly oppose it either, given that this is exactly the same system they introduced for the Scottish Parliament.
Let's look at what happened when Labour faced knife edge votes in the House of Commons, on things like 42 days' detention, ID cards and the Gurkhas. Then Ministers refused to even enter into any sort of dialogue about their proposals until their whips told them that they didn't have the votes. Then there were unseemly behind the scenes deals and concessions in the hours before the vote. One of the things I've always found very uncomfortable about the Labour Party is their horribly macho way of doing things. It's their way or no way.
I rather like the new, mature grown up style of ministerial dialogue as practised by Nick Clegg - and other ministers too, to be fair. As the Opposition fractiously disintegrates into chaos, we're seeing sensible, sensitive behaviour from members of the Cabinet. I don't think that this would have happened in a Conservative Government either so I think it's another benefit of having Liberal Democrats in the coalition. The willingness of the executive to listen and take on board concerns can only be healthy for our democracy.