The Guardian’s story that Labour is planning to vote against the AV bill as it currently stands is an important development in the passage of electoral reform. But Labour won’t be able to block the bill. What is really worrying pro-reform campaigners is the growing movement to change the date of the referendum. The FT revealed this morning that Labour is close to agreeing with Tory rebels to vote for an amendment for such a change.
The “yes” movement calculates the bill will get through the Commons – rebel Tories will be whipped into submission on that point by party bosses who know that without it the coalition is likely to crumble.
But if those rebels team up with Labour to force a change of date (something on which Tory whips might give them more leeway), Lib Dems and other AV campaigners know the chances of a “yes” vote are significantly reduced. At the moment, the referendum is scheduled for May 5, when there are regional elections in Wales and Scotland. That should boost the turnout in those places, where support for AV is strongest.
So what chance the government suffering its first Commons defeat on the issue of the date?
Labour is close to deciding to vote for such an amendment. Who will join them? Six Scots Nats MPs are likely to do so, as they are furious that holding an AV referendum on the same date as Holyrood elections will cloud the issue (and, one might interpret, damage the SNP vote). Plaid Cymru have similar concerns, which could pit another three MPs against the government.
That leaves the unknowns – one Green, one independent and 14 Northern Ireland MPs. Let’s say for argument’s sake they split evenly between the two camps (which is generous to the government – the SNP think the Northern Irish parties generally agree with them).
Thos figures now go as follows: government 371, opposition 275. It would therefore take 48 Tory rebels to force a change of date. 44 signed yesterday’s early day motion calling for such a change. That’s how close we are.
It should be said that if the government decide to clamp down hard against a change of date, their whips can probably force many of those 44 to change their minds by the time it gets to the actual vote. But if those on the Tory side calculate a change of date could help their chances of defeating a “yes” vote without breaking the coalition, 44 could easily become 48, or even more.
One final point – the other thing worrying those in favour of reform is the Lords. They say the last attempt at voting reform, by Ramsay MacDonald, died the death of a thousand amendments in the Lords. This time again, it is the amendments that are key.