Vote referendum plan clears hurdle
Controversial plans for a referendum on changing the Westminster voting system have comfortably cleared their first hurdle in the House of Commons.
But although legislation paving the way for a referendum on May 5 next year was passed with a majority of 59 on Monday night, there were signs of the tensions to come between the coalition partners.
Tory backbenchers lined up to speak against changing the first-past-the-post system, with one claiming the referendum was the "high price we have to pay" for the alliance with the Liberal Democrats - who have long demanded electoral reform.
Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, who opened the debate on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, insisted the legislation would restore faith in the way MPs were elected.
He conceded there were "different views" in the coalition over the arrangements for the referendum, and what outcome it should deliver. However, he said "where we emphatically agree is that the final decision should be taken not by us but by the British people".
Conservative backbencher Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) said she would support the Bill because it was a "matter of honour" to fulfil the coalition agreement. Having a referendum was the condition for a stable government "but what a high price we have to pay" in both political and financial terms.
Tory former minister David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) said: "What I fear is that we will have a circumstance where maybe 30% of the population will turn out, maybe 15% or 16% will vote for this system and on that basis we will have the biggest change in our constitutional history for half a century."
Even though Labour supports moving to Alternative Vote, the party has opposed the Bill because it will also reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and equalise constituency sizes.
Shadow justice secretary Jack Straw challenged the timing of the plebiscite, claiming the chances of a yes vote will be diminished by the "deep unpopularity" of the Government by May. And he condemned the changes to the number and size of parliamentary constituencies as the "worst kind of political skulduggery".
But the attempt to derail the legislation failed when it was given a second reading by 328 votes to 269, Government majority 59.