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Parliamentary Elections (Compulsory Voting And Public Holiday) Bill

Volume 115: debated on Tuesday 5 May 1987

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4.2 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make voting at Parliamentary Elections compulsory and to establish a public holiday in the area for any Parliamentary election.

I realise that it is rather late to be introducing new Bills into what has now become a Parliament of the politically undead, but it is certainly an appropriate time to raise this issue. Within a week or so we will all be involved in a general election campaign which will culminate on a polling day when, if we are lucky, about 75 per cent. of the electorate will vote. I remind hon. Members that in 1983 only 72·7 per cent. of the electorate voted. For a variety of reasons, one in four, 25 per cent. or 10 million of our citizens are likely not to record a vote at the coming general election. Many will have good reasons for that. Some people, such as those who are homeless, in hostels or in bed and breakfast accommodation, effectively have been disfranchised by Government policies. A significant number will deliberately abstain. But I believe that the great majority who fail to vote do so out of sheer apathy.

It was once said of Stanley Baldwin during an election campaign that he went around the country whipping up apathy. Perhaps that was so, but it is facile and misleading to blame politicians and political parties for low turnouts at elections. Representative parliamentary democracy does not exist to serve political parties and politicians. Equally, electors do not do political parties a favour by voting. Voting is not a favour to confer; it is, or should be, a duty to be exercised by all of us.

Our system of parliamentary democracy has been achieved through struggle and still remains a guardian of our liberties. But in turn, as a system, it needs constant nurturing and protection, particularly against those who would seek to undermine and ultimately destroy it. There was the example from my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) of the conspiracies within the British establishment to undermine a democratically elected Labour Government.

Our parliamentary system is imperfect. It is still too easily manipulated. At this moment the entire country is waiting for one person, whose party enjoys an overall parliamentary majority of 138 Members elected by 42·4 per cent. of those who voted, or 30·8 per cent. of those eligible to vote, in 1983, to decide when will be the best moment for her to call a general election.

In February this year I introduced a Bill to ensure fixed-term parliaments, which would have meant everybody now knowing when the election will be held. With the Government's majority, that should not be until June 1988. The power of the Prime Minister alone to determine the date of the election and the constant and futile speculation in the press over it is bad for democracy. But equally bad for democracy is having a Government with a massive majority elected by about only 31 per cent. of the electorate. Those 10 million or so people who failed to vote in 1983 have a great deal to answer for to those of us who did vote.

If a Government are going to be genuinely representative and speak with genuine authority, they must be the product of a system which maximises their claim to govern. If a system is considered stronger because a greater percentage of the electorate voted, we should aim to achieve the closest we can get to a 100 per cent. turn out. If the act of voting is considered essential to the health of parliamentary democracy, it is too important to be left as an option for individuals.

Already we consider certain activities in our society too important for the common good to be left as options. We cannot legitimately opt out of paying taxes, national insurance or rates, or opt out of being educated, however hard Government Members have tried. We pass laws which have to be obeyed, on pain of certain penalties. The authority for all that is parliamentary government, yet the act of electing, through the ballot box, that Government is still a permissive rather than a mandatory activity.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Douglas Hogg)

:That is freedom.

The Minister talks about freedom. I do not think that Australia, Belgium, Greece, Luxembourg and Italy, where voting is compulsory, are countries that are not free. But in all those countries the turnout is appreciably greater than in the United Kingdom. In most cases, it averages over 90 per cent. Therefore, the compulsory voting provision in the Bill will lead to a dramatic increase in the turnout at our general elections.

The second part of my Bill would allow for a public holiday on polling day. This is the slight sweetener because of the compulsory voting provision. We seem to positively delight in making our electoral practices as difficult as possible for people. We vote on a Thursday, a normal working day, which is a tradition that goes back only to 1935. In all those countries where voting is compulsory, they have rest day voting on Saturdays or Sundays. In many other countries where rest day voting is the normal practice, with the exception of Japan and Switzerland, the percentage turnout is again significantly greater than that in the United Kingdom.

Democracy is not strengthened by putting obstacles in the way. Voting on a working day is an obstacle that should be removed. We should perhaps keep Thursday, because any proposal for weekend voting would produce a host of objections from a wide variety of religious groups. But at least we can make general election day a holiday.

If voting is compulsory, there will have to be some penalty for failing to vote. For those without a legitimate reason, a fine of about £50 would seem appropriate. However, this is mere detail. I am concerned today with principles only. Those who wish to go into the polling booths and write something discourteous about the Prime Minister or about the Labour party candidate for Newham, North-West, would still be at liberty to do so. Provided that their ballot paper ends up in the ballot box, there are any number of unpleasant things that the disenchanted may choose to do, but at least they will have been required to make the effort.

The way in which we operate the mechanics of our electoral practice is not beyond change. Changes are badly needed. I believe that we need fixed-term Parliaments and a more equitable way in which the national vote is translated into parliamentary seats. I believe that that means a system of proportional representation. My Bill would be a useful contribution to the process of change, which is necessary to keep our democracy healthy. The consequences of an election are far too important for all of us to allow any of us to opt out without good rreason. That being so, I ask the House to accept the Bill.

4.11 pm

Yes.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) for introducing this important subject. However, at some stages during his speech I wondered whether he was introducing a new form of community service with just a little idea that it might be needed ultimately for his own party's political rescue.

There are several issues on which, I hope, there is no disagreement among those who are progressive thinkers, as opposed to stale thinkers. As the hon. Member for Newham, North-West said, it is ridiculous to have the Prime Minister of the day deciding at which moment she should choose to go to the country. That is something upon which the hon. Gentleman was given leave to introduce a Bill a short time ago. It was supported not just by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West but has been supported by the Lord Chancellor and others over many years.

We would agree with the hon. Gentleman's proposition that the current system is clearly unfair. I think that he revealed that the tide is moving, in his party as in others, towards recognition of the fact that in at least a three-party democracy——

I said "at least" three.

In such a democracy one cannot sustain a system that is so open to distortion if the parties have about one third of the votes each. However, the hon. Gentleman is wrong in the remedy. He chooses the old Labour party remedy of compulsion—if people do not do something freely, consider compulsion. That is certainly worth considering. The hon. Gentleman made the point that five countries have chosen that route, but there are other much more likely remedies that may produce the right result.

The civic duty to vote is, like many other civic and moral duties, imposed upon us with the right to opt out. The number of people who opt out reflects the commitment of people and their belief as to how well they are served by the current system. The hon. Gentleman should realise that the quicker and better remedy, which the Government have long refused to acknowledge, is that we should have a fair electoral system.

We have to have a system that gives everybody a chance to exercise a vote that will have an equal influence upon the result. When the votes that people cast have a different result in the House from what the country has said through the ballot box, genuine representativeness and belief in a majority government will not be achieved. The hon. Gentleman, calling for a Government who represent the majority view, should realise that it was the current electoral sytem that prevented that being achieved in 1979, 1983 and all the other elections since the war. That can be distorted even more when the party with the largest number of votes does not get the largest number of seats.

The figures are well known. I choose those of my own party and my colleagues because at the moment they are the most extreme. However, that need not necessarily always be the case. It is ludicrous for people to pretend that we are in a democracy when, with 25·5 per cent. of the votes, which is what alliance candidates got in 1983, it achieved 3·5 per cent. of the seats. It is ludicrous that in 1983 in London, Conservative candidates got 44 per cent. of the votes and 56 seats, Labour candidates got 30 per cent. of the votes and 26 seats and that only my splendid colleague the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) was left to represent our alliance colleagues in London, although the alliance got 25 per cent. of the votes.

Is it surprising that a recent British Youth Council survey showed that only 34 per cent. of people between the ages of 18 and 25 said that they would vote for any party at the coming general election? Two thirds of our young people say that they will not vote at all. Is it surprising that at by-elections such as that in Peckham, which adjoins my constituency, when the present hon. Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman) was elected in the autumn of 1982, only 38 per cent. of the electorate voted? That happens because of massive disillusionment with the system and with our achievement.

It may well be worth considering having a holiday. I am not against having a holiday for voting on a Thursday or any other day. I do not know whether that would increase the number of people who chose to vote as opposed to those who chose to go in the other direction from the polling booths—such as to the seaside or other places. I am happy to have elections on a Thursday. Probably about one in every seven of us was born on a Thursday. There are other good reasons for choosing a day that does not conflict with any likely religious festival. However, to suggest that we should penalise with a £50 fine those who do not turn up to vote smacks of the ridiculous. The likelihood of achieving anything other than providing a bit more money for distribution through the usual channels to political parties does not seem to be a good reason for adding a fine to the penalty.

We should change the voting system first. Let us see how many people would vote in a fair voting system. If, after several attempts with a system that reflects the view of the country fairly, people do not respond by voting in massively increased numbers, let us consider making it compulsory. Not voting now reflects people's view that we have neither a fair system nor one that reflects their wishes properly in the House. I ask the House to reject the Bill.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and Nominations of Select Committees at Commencement of Public Business):—

The House divided: Ayes 41, Noes 24.

Division No. 151]

[4.15 pm

AYES

Banks, Tony (Newham NW)Bidwell, Sydney
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh)Boyes, Roland

Buchan, NormanMcKelvey, William
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)McNamara, Kevin
Canavan, DennisMcTaggart, Robert
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)Marek, Dr John
Clarke, ThomasMarshall, David (Shettleston)
Clay, RobertMaxton, John
Clwyd, Mrs AnnMaynard, Miss Joan
Cook, Frank (Stockton North)Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Corbyn, JeremyO'Neill, Martin
Dixon, DonaldPowell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Eadie, AlexRedmond, Martin
Hamilton, James (M'well N)Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)
Hamilton, W. W. (Fife Central)Sedgemore, Brian
Haynes, FrankSkinner, Dennis
Home Robertson, JohnThompson, J. (Wansbeck)
Hoyle, DouglasWhitfield, John
Hughes, Roy (Newport East)
Lamond, JamesTellers for the Ayes:
Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)Mr. Kevin Barron and Mr. Ernie Ross.
Lewis, Terence (Worsley)
McCartney, Hugh

NOES

Alton, DavidLloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H.Maclennan, Robert
Barnes, Mrs RosemaryMeadowcroft, Michael
Beith, A. J.Proctor, K. Harvey
Benyon, WilliamShields, Mrs Elizabeth
Bonsor, Sir NicholasSpeller, Tony
Cartwright, JohnSteel, Rt Hon David
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S)Stern, Michael
Farr, Sir JohnTaylor, Matthew
Fletcher, Sir AlexanderWainwright, R.
Gower, Sir Raymond
Harris, DavidTellers for the Noes:
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)Mr. Simon Hughes and Mr. Clement Freud.
Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Tony Banks, Mr. Ernie Ross and Mr. Kevin Barron.

Parliamentary Elections (Compulsory Votingand Public Holiday)

Mr. Tony Banks accordingly presented a Bill to make voting at Parliamentary Elections compulsory and to establish a public holiday in the area for any Parliamentary election: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon 11 June and to be printed. [Bill 148.]

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, it should be recorded that the House has just introduced a Bill which seeks to introduce compulsory voting, because only approximately 72·3 per cent. of the electorate turn out to vote at a general election; yet the Bill has been passed with only 20 per cent. of the vote, so that the Labour party has proved the point.

The House has decided whether leave should be given to bring in the Bill. It has not been passed as such.