Wednesday News Review

Lords settle in for more long nights

The House of Lords has something of a Mad Hatters’ tea party about it this week. Everyone is agitated. Everyone is angry. Everyone is in a hurry. No one knows what is going on. Flustered peers are threatening to stay up all night, and perhaps for several nights to come, as they debate government plans to hold a referendum on the alternative vote and reshape constituency boundaries. If nothing else, this is a bad way to make a good constitution. The standoff involves one of those dilemmas in which there is merit in the arguments from both sides, but over which neither wants to compromise. The government is doing what it promised in the coalition agreement, passing legislation to hold an early referendum on electoral change and reduce the number of MPs (though the cut is smaller than either the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives offered in their manifestos). The opposition makes the reasonable point that these changes have huge consequences, were barely debated in the Commons, and do not – apart from reasons of internal coalition balance – have to be in the same bill. – the Guardian

The party argues that the coalition is trying to hinder its chances at future elections, but ministers say the changes to seats are needed to make the system fairer and cheaper. Opening the peers’ debate on Monday, Lords leader Lord Strathclyde said the bill had already spent too long going through Parliament, having first been introduced to the Lords last November. He said: “The opposition have dragged their feet. They’ve had their fun.” He added: “The situation has become urgent because the Labour Party has decided to go on a marathon go-slow since we started the committee [to consider the bill].” But Labour’s Lord Falconer said: “This bill is motivated by party politics… It has been introduced without public consultation or pre-legislative scrutiny.” He added: “The bill runs to over 300 pages… It’s unlikely in the extreme that, uniquely among bills, it cannot be improved further by this house.”- the BBC

Labour is still insisting that it wants to split the two halves of the bill (AV and boundary changes) and would then wave through the AV element. Ultimately though it seems likely to compromise if it is offered two things. 1] An independent and public system of arbitration over decisions on constituency boundaries and 2] Allowing MPs seats to vary in size by up to 10 per cent, instead of the 5 per cent proposed. Neither of these seem like the kind of issues over which Lord Strathclyde (pictured, Tory leader in the Lords)would die in the ditch over. For now, at least, the government is playing hardball. A Downing St source tells me that the referendum will proceed on May 5 or Labour will take the blame for the extra £17m cost. (It’s cheaper to have it on the same day as local elections). “There is no appetite for striking up a deal,” he insists. But expect a more nuanced position, or even a deal, by the weekend. – the FT

Unlikely couple Straw and Davis team up for prisons debate

Labour’s Jack Straw and Conservative David Davis have succeeded in their bid to secure a Commons debate on plans to give thousands of prisoners the vote. The former home secretary and shadow home secretary convinced a new Commons committee to grant a vote. The pair want the government to defy a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Ministers say if they do not change the law they will face compensation claims from prisoners costing well over £100m. They plan to give any prisoner serving less than four years a vote in Westminster and European elections. Mr Straw and Mr Davis, whose pitch was to the new Commons Backbench Business Committee, will have their debate before the half-term recess in February, the BBC understands. – the BBC

David Davis and Jack Straw are the hard men of their respective parties. Have-a-go hero types, separated mainly by their different views of civil liberties. But on one issue they are fully in agreement: the wrong-headedness of giving prisoners the vote in Britain. As we speak, the pair are teaming up at the Backbench Business Committee in a bid to force a Parliamentary vote on the prisoner franchise issue. The PM has famously said that it makes him “physically ill” to have to give the vote to those in jail, but he has decided that it is too expensive and distracting to fight the likely legal cases in the wake of the European Court of Human Rights decision last year. Davis knows that plenty of his colleagues are dead against caving in on this (I’m told that just two Tories, including Peter Bottomley, are in favour). Labour too have made the rare step of trying to outflank the coalition from the Right. – Paul Waugh

How accurate is polling on Lib Dem position?

The latest polls indicate that if another general election were to be held tomorrow Labour would sweep back to power with a majority (assuming uniform swing) of 46 over all other parties. The Conservatives would lose 45 seats, despite maintaining their 2010 share of the vote. The Liberal Democrats meanwhile would lose 41 of their 57 MPs, leaving them representing a paltry 16 Constituencies. In 7 short months since the 2010 election, 6 in every 10 Liberal Democrat supporters would have defected elsewhere; they would be back to levels of support last seen in the 1970s under Jeremy Thorpe. To believe this you have to trust the polls. And why not; since the polling debacle of 1992 pollsters have had a pretty good run, and their record of accuracy in the last two general elections has been among the best on record. It is possible to argue that the polls are right about the collapse in LibDem support, but it is also quite easy to find reasons to worry that the polls are telling porkies. – PoliticalBetting

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