The Liberal Democrats’ role in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act of 2011 is another sad example of the yawning gap between their rhetoric and their practice and their tactical incompetence.
In 2010 the Lib Dems’ Nick Clegg and David Cameron stitched up a deal on constitutional change. In return for reducing the number of seats to 600 and a new statutory requirement for all seats at every general election to be within 5% of the average (ensuring boundary changes between each election), there was to be a referendum on changing to an alternative vote system (as in Australia).
Before the 2010 general election Clegg had rejected a tentative suggestion of AV from Gordon Brown’s Labour Government as a ‘miserable little compromise’. Within a year, not even the alternative vote, but a referendum on the alternative vote was enough to get him to agree to Cameron’s equal-sized constituencies. This particular miserable little compromise was arrived at because AV would benefit the Lib Dems (as a ‘centrist’, second-best alternative for both Labour and Tory voters) and equal sized constituencies benefit the Tories by regularly culling relatively declining areas – traditionally inner-cities and the old industrial regions (i.e. Labour-voting seats).
While the referendum was inevitably lost, swept away by the opposition of the corporate media to change, distrust of Clegg and a lack of interest from a cynical electorate, the rest duly became law in late 2011. Unfortunately for Cornwall, equal-sized constituencies within regional boundaries drawn around a ‘south west’ planning region meant that we lost our entitlement to six seats but had too many voters for five. A cross-border devonwall constituency – subsequently identified by the Boundary Commission as Bideford, Bude and Launceston, was inevitably on the cards.
Cornish Lib Dem MPs had joined with Cornwall’s Tories to proclaim their opposition to a cross-border constituency. During the debate in the Commons on the bill, an amendment was introduced exempting Cornwall (and some other places) from it. While the Isle of Wight was deemed important enough to be a special case, Cornwall was not. Shamefully, while all six Cornish MPs (Lib Dem and Tory) voted for the amendment, the majority of Lib Dems (and all three Tories) voted against and effectively for a devonwall constituency.
At the final Reading of the bill two of Cornwall’s three Lib Dem MPs joined with their three Tory colleagues and voted for it, thereby knowingly voting for a cross-border constituency. Only Andrew George failed to support the devonwall constituency bill and even he only abstained. As the bill proceeded through the Lords, another attempt was made to amend it in order to exclude Cornwall from its provisions. This was moved by Lib Dem Lord Teverson, but the other Lib Dem lords and ladies refused to support him and overwhelmingly rejected Cornwall’s case by 63 to 11.
We had the unedifying spectacle of some Lib Dem MPs loudly proclaiming their opposition to the cross-border constituency. But when it came to the crunch and they had the chance to vote against the Bill, they meekly queued up to vote for it. Moreover, their own party effectively scuppered Cornwall’s claims to be regarded as a special treatment by voting down the amendments. To deserve to regain credibility, they must surely first hold their hands up and apologise for their role in allowing this first parliamentary breach of Cornwall’s borders since the House of Commons was first elected in the 13th century.