Labour front benches were very much doing this for opportunistic ends, Straw looked comfortable delivering the message but he didn't seem comfortable answering the accusations of his change of view on FPTP in such a short space of time. He flat out ignored questions that asked him how he would campaign come the referendum.
However, saying that, it was clear that there were back benchers in the Labour ranks that truly wanted AV. They argued with passion and conviction that is in my opinion rarely seen from the Labour party, and with a degree of humility to the situation that brings them to needing to consider this option. It was said more than a few times that it was a travesty that only a third of the house could currently claim to be supported by a majority of their constituents.
Lib Dems, far from being wound in knots, were the only party that stood with absolute conviction in it's stance. Not hard really since this has been one of their major points for god knows how long. Their stance was simple, they want PR but they'll take a fairer system that tackles tactical voting over FPTP if that's how it goes. Small steps in the right direction are preferable to staying in an awful situation.
But the Tories? The Tories really took the biscuit, like adolescents railing against an inevitability and doing everything they could to thrash out at the reality closing around them.
Firstly they argued that the £80m cost of running a referendum, which is in all terms a relatively tiny amount of money, shouldn't be spent on this. Apparently democracy isn't worth spending money on in a Tory world. Instead, for example, they said it could open rape crisis centers, which I suppose would certainly delivered under a Tory government given how keen their London Mayor is on Rape Crisis funding.
Then they moved on to the lack of appetite for electoral reform, which can only barely be backed up in part by a handful of polls that have come out. Completely mixing up the question of what is important for MPs to be doing right now, and whether they would welcome the opportunity to have their say was the order of the day. What is clear from the polls and less stated is that the public generally want to change the voting system, they seemingly understand that FPTP is in part to blame for some of the problems with safe seats and corrupt MPs as Mark Reckons went in to last year.
Yet if the Tories were able to they would try to sell you that FPTP isn't a problem with safe seats. See this exchange between a seemingly directionless Dominic Grieve and a more prepared Chris Huhne....
Mr. Grieve: There is no perfect system, although I am bound to say- [ Interruption. ] No, there is not: there is no perfect system, and I defy the Liberal Democrats to argue that there is. I do not put it past them to try to run such an argument, which I look forward to, but I am singularly unconvinced by it. First past the post delivers clarity; it is well established in this country; and it enables electorates to get rid of Members whom they do not want and express a clear choice. The alternative vote system, with which the Liberal Democrats are being seduced, skews the result towards far greater unfairness than anything that first past the post could ever achieve.
Chris Huhne: The hon. and learned Gentleman says that the existing system allows people to get rid of MPs whom they do not like, but they can do so only if they are prepared to change their party allegiance. Many people are not prepared to do so, and only the Irish system-the single transferable vote system-allows people to choose the party and the person. Indeed, one third of people who lose their seats in the Irish system lose it to members of their own party. That is discipline; that would get rid of safe seats; and that would ensure that voters' choice really did count.
Mr. Grieve: Voters can make up their own mind, and I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Voters are offered a clear series of choices to make, including whether they wish to vote tactically-something that Liberal Democrats specialise in. On the whole, that is not a major problem and, indeed, they benefit from tactical voting, as they readily admit. Their by-election literature is all about tactical voting. How often have I seen "Only the Liberal Democrats can win here" on election literature. The hon. Gentleman's argument therefore has no basis whatever.
This brief exchange exemplifies the reality of the debate throughout it's length, and is why Dale's view on who was talking sense or not is laughable. When talking about giving voters choice the Tories are happy to pretend that die hard Tories (or any other party members) would readily swap their vote to a different party just to dethrone their local MP. Rather than admit that real voter choice is about being able to keep your party allegiance but swap your representative, a practice that would clearly allow corrupt and entrenched lame duck MPs to be removed from the house, his response is that "voters can make up their own mind". Of course in a Tory rule what you'll be able to make your mind up on will be the same narrow field of options you've always had that have led to MP after MP abusing their position.
Where the Tories involved really tied themselves up was in their arguments about the reform options themselves. Clearly unable to simply argue that actually they like the status quo (this was only mentioned a couple of times) they instead attacked Labour for wanting to use AV because it was "less proportionate". There is, of course, no hard evidence that it WILL be less proportionate, but their argument was based on some highly presumptuous studies performed by Straw and his team at a time when Labour were trying to quash electoral reform.
Yet when the more proportional STV came up suddenly that was too proportional for them and would lead to chaos. They would have at least had some integrity if they'd have just came out and explicitly said they like FPTP because it's the one system that delivers them more seats than they should have above any other, instead they chose to attack the other parties in reverse, seemingly oblivious that any bashing of Labour or Lib Dem for wanting systems that give them more seats and Tories less means, in reverse, that they are supporting a system that gives them more seats and Lib Dem's and Labour less.
Fairness? Not in their vocabulary, even if it isn't in the other parties' either.
How they can be trusted on the issue of which system was best came under scrutiny anyway. Citing systems that are used in other countries that were neither AV or STV so they could promote FPTP, claiming in the most bizarre fashion that minority parties would be given more power under AV (something that is less possible than under FPTP), and also claiming that parties would continue to operate in the same fashion they currently do under STV, hence why it would fail, despite all evidence as to how parties in other countries operate in practice over delivering manifesto commitments. The bottom line is that the Tories arguments over electoral reform were all over the place, inconsistent, and even patently false.
But by and far, as perhaps shown by the new and distastefully false tombstone poster campaign, the tactic was to attack Gordon Brown, to attack him as an opportunist, and to attack him as a man without any real plans so needing to come up with "gimmicks" like this referendum. Quite as insulting as that insinuation is to those of us that believe it's time for our parliament to be made more accountable through our voting processes, it was even more insulting that the Tory party should use so much of their time intended to debate the idea of a referendum to attack the leader of their opposition.
Not that it was solely Gordon Brown that bore the abuse, they also made multiple digs at the Lib Dems, something that Labour managed to keep from doing in more than the "playful" manner you'd expect rather than pathetic point scoring manner that the Tories displayed. Even when the Lib Dem's approached the issue of why this was happening it was limited to a single paragraph of rather tame questioning about motives. Dignity and honour, it seems, is not something the Tories care about showing at this stage in an election campaign.
If that weren't enough, as if they hadn't worn themselves out flip flopping between differing arguments that were superfluous to their main point (that they like FPTP, and they don't like either of the alternatives that would rightly reduce their inflated share of seats), come the end it was up to Grieve to offer a point of order...
Mr. Grieve: On a point of order, Madam Chairman. The reality is that, without the debate having been long-winded, yet again we have failed to consider a large number of clauses, including on questions of mental illness of Members of Parliament, the role of the Attorney-General, war powers, code of conduct for publicly funded bodies, royal marriages and succession to the Crown, complaints to the parliamentary commissioner, and parliamentary constituencies and elections. Is it not making a mockery of the House that yet again we show ourselves utterly unable to consider and scrutinise legislation properly?
After hours of them using their time to attack Brown, to make false statements about AV and STV, to attack the Lib Dems, to attack Straw, to snub voter choice, to argue both against disproportionally and against proportionality simultaneously, to argue about whether the vote on allowing money to be spent on a referendum should come before or after the vote on having a referendum (like it even bloody matters) and to bring up references multiple times to Israel, a country that doesn't even use either of the systems that were being proposed to be put to the public through the referendum, all in a futile attempt to stop the pubic getting their say on this matter...after all that time wasted Grieve still had the audacity to stand up and claim that it was the whole house's fault, rather than just hot air filled, filibuster-esque Tories, that they didn't get to discuss their preferred parts of the bill?
Are these people really the ones we want in power to supposedly give us, the general population, more power and choice over our representatives...because on this evidence we'd be shooting ourselves in the foot if this is the "change" that the country would get. Indeed, when it comes to how our rights and powers over MPs, "we can't go on like this" with a Tory government standing in the way of reform and progress.