By Jonathan Isaby
During last night's proceedings on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, Tory MP Bill Cash proposed an amendment that the AV referendum should be subject to a 40% turnout threshold.
He explained to the Commons:
"My amendment is very modest. It simply calls on the Government to agree that we should insert in the Bill that the result of the referendum will not pass if less than 40% vote in it. That is 40% of those who are eligible to cast a vote. It is about turnout, and 40% is not a large proportion. It is much less than what George Cunningham insisted on in the Scottish devolution proposals that led to the 1979 legislation on that; he insisted on having 40% for a yes vote, whereas I am calling here for only 40% of the electorate. It is a very modest proposal. Is it not a reasonable proposal? Is it not reasonable that the people of this country should be able to have the result of a referendum refused if less than 40% actually cast a vote in it?"
"The threshold question is very important and we were previously deprived of an opportunity to discuss it properly because of the programme motion and other activities that I regarded as rather disreputable. I believe the Bill is being severely vitiated, and I think it is very important that the people of this country know that threshold is a key issue. Indeed, threshold and the 40% figure are regarded by all commentators as having significance across the international scene as well as for the United Kingdom."
Eleanor Laing, meanwhile, had another proposal: to require 25% of those who are entitled to vote, to vote yes for the referendum to be binding.
In replying, Cabinet Office Minister Mark Harper did not accept their amendments. He said:
"The reason why we have not specified a threshold in the Bill is, as a number of hon. Members said, that we want to respect the will of the people who vote in the referendum, without any qualifications… People may choose to abstain, but the amendment would create an incentive for people who favour a no vote to abstain. So people would not campaign, as they rightly should, for only yes or no votes in the referendum. We would have people campaigning actively for voters not to participate. We debated this a little on Second Reading, and as I said in my speech then, I do not think that is right. We need to encourage participation in the referendum. We want people to take part, and putting in a rule that encourages at least one side to campaign actively for voters not to take part would do our democracy a disservice.
"I am not concerned as some colleagues are about what the turnout will be. As we have said in previous debates, both in Committee and in the House, there are elections for the devolved Administrations-for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly-but there are also elections scheduled next year for 81% of England. The percentage turnout in English local elections varies, but it is usually in the mid to high 30s at least. I am confident that with the additional publicity and the awareness of the referendum, and the fact that it is an important decision, we will indeed get a good turnout."
"Let me now focus on the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing). She is right to say that it proposes a completely different, outcome-specific threshold. It is worth saying to colleagues on the Government Benches who support the Government's proposals and respect the coalition agreement that my hon. Friend's amendment is not compatible with what we set out in the coalition agreement, which was a simple majority referendum, without an outcome-specific threshold. Colleagues who are reconciled to a referendum being held should bear that in mind if they are tempted to vote for my hon. Friend's amendment."
The voting saw 31 MPs favour thresholds with 549 voting against.
The 21 Conservatives backing the thresholds were:
It is odd to see Keith Simpson's name there since he is a PPS and would usually be expected to vote in line with the payroll. Those marked with an asterisk* are members of the 2010 intake.
Later last night the Bill then comfortably obtained its Third Reading by 321 votes to 264. With speculation at various points that the Government would struggle to get the Bill through as it wished – with MPs wanting to change the referendum date, impose those thresholds or be less prescriptive about the electorate quotas of the new constituencies – the whips will doubtless be quietly pleased about it attaining a majority of 57.
The following 15 Tories voted against the Third Reading: