Peers stand firm over voting reform

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Peers defied MPs to insist a referendum on changing the voting system should only be binding if turnout is higher than 40 per cent

The Lords have refused to back down over measures which would make the proposed referendum on changing the voting system for Westminster elections binding only if turnout was higher than 40%.

A rebellion by 27 Conservative peers and one Liberal Democrat helped set up a showdown with the Commons over the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.

Peers voted by 277 to 215, majority 62, in favour of former Labour minister Lord Rooker’s move which would mean that the alternative vote (AV) system would not be automatically adopted in the event of a victory for the Yes campaign if turnout in the referendum falls below the 40% threshold.

The measure was backed in the Lords by just one vote when it was first debated last week, but Wednesday’s higher majority followed speeches in favour of Lord Rooker from Tories including former chancellors Lord Lawson of Blaby and Lord Lamont of Lerwick and former Cabinet minister Lord Forsyth of Drumlean.

MPs overturned the provision when the Commons debated it on Tuesday night, but the latest vote reinstating the threshold means the Bill will now return to the Commons.

A protracted session of parliamentary “ping pong” could now take place, with the Bill being passed between the two Houses until a final agreement is reached.

Ministers need to get the legislation on to the statute book before peers begin their February half-term recess in order to give the Electoral Commission time to plan for a referendum on the coalition’s preferred May 5 date.

Advocate General for Scotland Lord Wallace of Tankerness, speaking for the Government, said that having a threshold “seems to dilute the democratic will of the people”.

Along with prominent Conservatives who spoke in favour of Lord Rooker, the 27 Tory rebels also included ex-Cabinet ministers Lord Howe of Aberavon, Lord Tebbit and Lord Mawhinney. Viscount Falkland was the only Lib Dem who voted in favour of the threshold.

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