The AV referendum bill should stand alone – not shoehorned in with boundary changes

If Nick Clegg genuinely wants this referendum to be broad based, cross party and wants this coalition period to usher in more plural politics - he must split the bill.

Our guest writer is Andy May, national coordinator of Take Back Parliament

With the referendum nine months away some may see arguments over the composition of a parliamentary bill as quibbling over formality and an unwelcome distraction. Unfortunately it’s more important than many people seem to realise – there is plenty of urgent work that needs doing to prepare the ‘Yes’ campaign.

But however much practical preparation on the ground is done the key thing is popular – and cross party – support for change. The Liberal Democrats must recognise that this bill is too important to be hamstrung by their Conservative coalition partner’s insistence that it must be combined with boundary changes.

The problem with the referendum bill as it stands is that it is married to the boundary review, a piece of legislation which is important enough to be a wholly separate entity. Splitting the bill would ensure that the bill is passed with the support and consent of the whole electoral reform movement – not just the Lib Dem contingent of it. By including hurried but far reaching boundary change legislation the Lib Dem leadership risks jeopardising the goodwill of Labour and Welsh and Scots nationalist electoral reformers.

John Denham, the well respected chair of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform has already laid out his case for the reformists within the Labour party for opposing the AV referendum bill whilst supporting a referendum.

As he states there are some legitimate concerns around the way this bill is being presented. Although I don’t think it’s fair to call it outright gerrymandering he makes some good points. More work needs to be done to ensure individual voter registration is effectively and rapidly implemented.

And crucially any new boundary review based on the electoral roll and reducing constituency size risks skewing the electoral map by ignoring the 3.5 million unregistered voters residing mainly in less affluent urban areas. Stuart Wilks Heeg outlines these problems comprehensively in his Open Democracy piece.

The bottom line is that this is a controversy of the coalition’s own making – or rather a concession to the Tory part of it. The boundary legislation is extremely divisive, messy and an unwelcome distraction from what should be a clear timetable for a referendum on electoral reform presented in one bill. Given this area of reform is being billed by Nick Clegg as one of the most important compromises granted to the Lib Dems as a condition of coalition the passage of the bill should be conducted under their terms.

However much Nick Clegg may feel that Labour are being unfair to call it gerrymandering he should also recognise that it was a mistake to give in to Tory demands to combine the legislation. That mistake should be rectified by a separate vote on the referendum and boundary changes.

If he genuinely wants this referendum to be broad based, cross party and wants this coalition period to usher in more plural politics – he must split the bill.

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