The dates for the next two Holyrood elections are causing controversy already. Well it's not the Scottish Parliament elections as such but the prospect of holding other events alongside them. There's been a lot of hot air over the last 48 hours, particularly from a certain Mr A Salmond of Bute House (quelle surprise) but I think we should just all calm down and look at this sensibly.
Let's take 2011 first. The UK Government intends to hold a referendum on the Alternative Vote system, as outlined in the Coalition Agreement. Now, it could have chosen a stand alone date for that vote to ensure that people's minds were focused on that question alone with all the expense that entailed. From shutting schools, to arranging counts to printing ballot papers to staffing polling stations, democracy doesn't come cheap. Is it necessary to do so, though. This is hardly a complex issue, so why not hold the referendum on the same day as the Scottish and Welsh Parliament elections and local elections in England? You'll get more people voting, which can't be a bad thing. You would have to have a very dim view of people to suggest that it's too much for them to cast their votes for Holyrood and Wales or their Council as well as answer a simple question about the voting system. You can also bet your life that had Nick Clegg announced a different day for the Referendum, perhaps in Autumn 2011, Labour would have been wailing about the extra expense of a separate date and saying that the votes should have been held on the same day as the May elections.
I guess the potential for problems lies within the referendum campaigns themselves. There are people in all parties who favour a change to the voting system and they could naturally be expected to work together on the "yes" campaign. It certainly makes it more difficult to do that within the febrile atmosphere of an election campaign. Difficult, but not impossible. I guess everyone needs to remember that voters are being asked whether MPs should have the support of 50% of their electorate. Think carefully before you argue against that one! To a certain extent, a lot of the referendum campaigning can be done from now on with the arguments being made before the May election campaign proper starts.
It's more complicated with 2015. Fixed term Parliaments, removing the power of the Prime Minister to call an election at a politically convenient time for their party, is a really good reform. The length of that fixed term is quite important. If it was 4 years, a Westminster election would clash with the same set of local elections every single time. If you make the term 5 years (which is the maximum term of a Government now anyway), that clash doesn't happen. There have been 5 year terms 3 times in the last 35 years. Thing is, 7 May 2015 is the date of the next but one devolved parliament elections. I have no doubt that people are intelligent enough to cope with 2 elections for different parliaments on the same day but these 2 institutions are important and complex enough to merit their own campaigns to themselves. Apart from that, there are logistical campaigning issues, name recognition for candidates in seats with similar boundaries. In this case it's probably worth looking at holding the elections on two different days.
To that end, Michael Moore, the Secretary of State for Scotland has written to the Scottish Parliament and Government to ask them for their input and to suggest ways of avoiding a clash if that is deemed appropriate. His approach is calm and sensible - you will never get anything else from Mike, to be honest. It's not like he's leaving it to the last minute - he's asking these questions within 2 months of the Government taking office. There is plenty time to both have the discussion and find ways of avoiding the clash if the consensus is that that should happen.
The Scotland Act gives the Presiding Officer at Holyrood the powers to vary the date of Holyrood elections by one month. That may not be sufficient. It's fair to say that Westminster and Holyrood elections are, for activists, the most wearing and debilitating. To go straight from one full on campaign into another a month later would be inhumane if nothing else. I think that there is a strong case for there being 6 months' leeway either way for the Holyrood elections in these circumstances. With Westminster on a 5 year cycle and Holyrood on a 4 year cycle, this scenario will occur every 20 years so we need to give the flexibility to deal with it.
Is it really asking too much for people from all parties to behave like grown ups, speak to each other and find a consensual solution? I'm glad that Mike Moore has kicked off that process in a dignified manner. Let's hope that the others can stop whinging and step up and behave responsibly. It's in everyone's interests that they do so.