The referendum on voting reform will take place on May 5 next summer after the Tory whips reined in scores of MPs who had threatened to vote for a delay to the poll. The plebiscite will now occur on the same day as the Holyrood, Welsh Assembly and English local elections, despite some concerns that voters may be left confused.
The Liberal Democrats will be campaigning hard for a “yes” vote, despite the proposed “alternative vote” falling far short of their preferred electoral reform to a full proportional representation (PR) system. Most Tories are set to oppose the change while senior Labour figures – while voting for a “yes” – may not actively campaign one way or another.
Bernard Jenkin, a leading Tory backbencher, had hoped for as many as 50 Tory MPs to support his amendment proposing that the referendum should be moved back to September next year. An early day motion by the MP had attracted 44 signatures from within his own party, holding out the possibility of a Parliamentary defeat for the government if Labour had also backed the amendment.
Yet only a fraction of these Tory MPs are set to defy the wishes of the coalition on Tuesday, according to Westminster sources. “Quite a few of them have been made PPSs, others have been picked off by the whips one way or another,” said one MP.
However, Mr Jenkin told FT Westminster he would still put forward the amendment, saying that it was wrong to have a referendum on a major constitutional matter on the same day as elections. He has also accused the Liberal Democrats of timing the referendum on the same day as the elections to maximise their supporters’ turnout – in a sop to backbench MPs unhappy about the impending spending cuts. “Nick Clegg is keen to have the referendum on that day to try and ensure Lib Dem supporters come out and vote,” he said. “It is wrong in principle that a referendum should be used to shore up electoral support.”
Holding the polls on separate dates would cost an extra £17m, according to figures from Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Reform Bill, which paves the way for the referendum, will also reduce the number of Parliamentary seats to 600.
Tory rebels had fought the plan for a simultaneous ballot because they thought this would inflate the turnout and – potentially – make a “yes” vote on AV more likely. However, Matthew Elliott, chair of the “no” campaign, recently told me in an interview that it would have little impact on the result. Evidence from New Zealand suggests that turnout is higher when referendums are held on the same day as elections – but the reverse is true according to evidence from the US.
Other Tory MPs are set to propose amendments on Tuesday suggesting that the referendum require a certain level of turnout – at 30 or 60 per cent – but these are not expected to be passed.
David Cameron reassured activists during the Tory annual conference by saying he did not want change to the electoral system and that the no campaigners “can win the argument” for keeping first-past-the-post.