I want to put the case for proportional representation—a system by which parties are represented in Parliament in proportion to the votes that they get in the country—and for triennial Parliaments, to keep politics on a short leash and to give the people more control over Parliament through more regular elections. I urge that those issues, particularly proportional representation, be put to the people in a referendum, which will allow them—not us—to decide whether they want them. That would preferably be done when the vote is at its highest, on 6 May next year, when the general election occurs. That would remove all the preoccupations of a hung Parliament, which is likely to follow that election. If that is not possible, I urge an early referendum on proportional representation.
I want to emphasise that securing this debate is not political opportunism. I am not a member of the Cabinet—nor of the shadow Cabinet, yet—and there are only a few months to go. I must, therefore, be absolved from the sins of opportunism, which afflict people at a higher level. Opportunism is not a Back Bencher’s disease—it is certainly not mine. I want and urge proportional representation, because it is right and because it is a much fairer system than the one we have now.
To further rebut the charge of opportunism, I have been in favour of proportional representation ever since I was elected to the House 32 years ago, and that is a long time. When I was first elected, I joined the Labour campaign for electoral reform and—incredible though it now seems—the bulk of support for electoral reform at that time came from the Conservative party, which wanted proportional representation to keep out socialism and Tony Benn. There has been a volte-face since then. Parties have changed their opinions on the issue very much in common with how they have changed them on Europe and the European Union. My rise within the cause of proportional representation was rocket assisted; as soon as I joined the Labour campaign for electoral reform, all the other members left to join the Social Democratic party, and I rapidly became chair and sole member. Those are my credentials; I have always supported proportional representation.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s passion for proportional representation, but why is he raising the issue when so many other pressing matters face our country, not least the economic situation? He represents a coastal constituency, and it is almost as though he is talking about what colour he is going to paint the deck while the ship is going down.
That intervention is largely irrelevant. I am raising the issue because it clearly is topical and important, because if we have a hung Parliament after the next election it will play a part, and most of all because all the other issues that we have to decide need to be decided on a fair basis, and that can happen only if the House represents the party allegiances and political preferences of the electorate. That is why I secured the debate. The issue is pre-eminent, simply because we need to make the House more representative of the nation’s views.
I am going to get further confirmation now, I think.
I am not so sure. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, but perhaps he has not had the experience that we have had north of the border of how proportional representation affects us and the constituents that we represent. Had he had that experience, I do not think that he would be on his feet today.
I certainly would. I accept that Labour party members in Scotland feel a certain amount of grievance, but they have to remember that proportional representation was introduced in Scotland to stop the system being swamped by the overwhelming dominance of the Labour party there, both in seats and political preferences. It was introduced to make the system fairer and to give other parties representation, and it has produced a coalition Government. My hon. Friend will probably tell me that it was a system in which whatever Jim Wallace wanted, Jim Wallace got, but since the people have voted effectively for a coalition Government, what could be fairer?
I do not think that the views of Labour party members in Scotland are relevant to the decision on the national system of proportional representation that I am urging. I accept that it is difficult to sell the system to Members of Parliament, because they tend to believe that whatever system elected them must be the best in the world, and that has been responsible for a lot of hostility to proportional representation. Our current system is not the best in the world. We could have a fairer system in which Parliament was constituted how the people wanted, based on their votes, and in which they therefore had an investment and felt that it was their Parliament, rather than one imposed on them by the electoral system.
I concede straight away, and it could be argued in this debate—I see a number of opponents of proportional representation rallying to the cause—that first past the post gives strong government. Strong government is appropriate to an empire, to war and to a country that wants to go around invading smaller countries, but not to an age when the people want more say in and influence on Parliament, and want it to respond to their views.
People want to identify with a Parliament that they have voted for. It can be argued that first past the post is appropriate to a two-party system, but that system is now much weaker than it was. In 1951, 97 per cent. of the electorate voted for one of the two main parties, but in the last European elections that proportion was about 44 per cent. Party dominance is inevitably weakening, and first past the post gives strong government by disfranchising huge numbers of the people.
Am I right that the hon. Gentleman just said that 97 per cent. of the electorate voted for one or other of the two main parties? Does that not mean, therefore, that 97 per cent. of the electorate wanted our country to be governed by one or other of the two main parties, which it is? Is that not representative democracy?
It certainly meant that in 1951, but that is long ago. Since then, all that has changed. At the last European elections, as I said, only about 44 per cent. voted for one of the two main parties. What do we do in that situation with first past the post, which is bound to give an unclear result? First past the post gives strong government by effectively disfranchising large numbers of the people. It disfranchises a large number of people who vote for the third party, the Liberal Democrats; anybody who votes for a minority party, because they do not have the representation that their vote should entitle them to; and, in most constituencies, people who vote for the minor, or losing, party. No wonder people feel that the current system does not represent their wishes.
Surely the greatest statistic of the last European elections was that less than 50 per cent. of the people voted. If we were to address the situation differently, we would look at why people are not voting at all.
That is true. It is my contention that proportional representation would increase the vote. I am afraid that that has not be shown in this country, but it has been demonstrated in countries that have turned to proportional representation, such as New Zealand and West Germany. We need a fair system. We must accept that first past the post is wanted by the leadership of the parties and many MPs because it is the basis of elected dictatorship, which is the system of government that we are lumbered with. It is a system in which our Government effectively drive a steamroller over issues.
In career politics, people love to climb aboard a steamroller, but the Government are all-powerful in such a situation. It is a top-down system in which decisions are taken on the sofas of Downing street, the Cabinet are effectively a ratification machine for those decisions and MPs are treated like sheep as they are driven into the Lobby to vote for the decisions that are taken by that small minority in Downing street.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is going to defend such a system.
The hon. Gentleman has used the word “fairness” a great deal throughout his speech. He knows that the vast majority of seats in the United Kingdom are either Conservative or Labour. If we had the alternative voting system, Liberal Democrat voters would always get a second vote, so he would create two classes of voter. Labour and Conservative voters would have only one vote, but Liberal Democrats, coming third, would always have a chance to cast a second vote. It would be simply wrong and absolutely disgraceful for some citizens to have two votes when others had only one.
The hon. Gentleman is in favour of fox hunting, because at the moment he is shooting dead foxes. Such a situation would be the result of the alternative voting system where people listed candidates in order of preference. It might well be that the Liberal Democrats are everybody’s second preference, because they are such a nice, warm, cuddly party.
No, the Liberal Democrats are cuddly, but I do not want to cuddle them at the moment. In proportional representation, everyone has two votes—one for the constituency and one for the list. Everyone has that right, whether they vote for one of the minor parties or for a major party. This parliamentary despotism of the elected dictatorship has inflicted damage on public perceptions of Parliament. It is one reason why people are so hostile to, critical of and alienated from the current system. Such feelings have been exacerbated by The Daily Telegraph and will be further exacerbated by the lunacy of Legg and his decision to throw us to the lions retrospectively, but I do not want to go on about that.
Proportional representation is one of the few ways to remedy the situation and restore respect for Parliament, because it gives the people the Parliament they vote for, puts the parties on a short leash and abolishes the elected dictatorship. However, that could mean that we have coalitions, like Scotland. The system led to coalitions in New Zealand and West Germany, but not in Sweden, where there has been a long-term dominance by the Social Democrats.
What is wrong with coalitions if that is what the people vote for? As it is, the betrayals come before the election as major parties dilute everything they stand for to develop a catch-all appeal. With coalitions, the parties that the people elect have to compromise on policy to form a Government. That seems to be a perfectly sensible system that reflects the views of the people.
Given that a coalition or a minority Government need support from other parties on particular issues, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that that leads to decision making that has broader acceptance among the public?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because it is absolutely true. Experience in New Zealand suggests that those coalitions have to be formed and reformed on every piece of legislation. There is no one permanent coalition that imposes its views on the people, because a majority in Parliament has to be built up on each piece of legislation and coalitions have to be formed around that legislation. In other words, every piece of legislation is wanted and develops maximum support. That is a fairer system than steamrolling legislation through, as we now do, on the basis of the party majority that represents some of the views of the people and was elected five years previously. I am all in favour of coalitions, both around legislation and in general.
As for the point made by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), people would have two votes if we adopted the additional Member system—one for the list and one for their constituency. That would force the parties to stop concentrating most of their campaigning on a few marginal voters in a few marginal constituencies and ignoring the rest of the country, particularly the safe seats. Grimsby is no longer a safe seat, although that is not my achievement, but in the past it was largely immune from national campaigns, which allowed me, in previous elections, to formulate my own policies, put out my own manifesto and conduct my own campaign without interference from the central party.
The central parties ignore the so-called safe seats and concentrate everything on the marginals. Under the additional Member system, that would no longer be possible. Experience in New Zealand has shown that it is necessary to campaign everywhere, particularly in the safe seats, because the party majority is bigger there and it is essential to get all those votes out to affect the voting on the list side of the equation. Therefore, such a system makes campaigns genuinely national and for all the people.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way on that specific point. Is it not the case that under the current system, the hon. Gentleman, who is undoubtedly an individual, can go before his electorate in Great Grimsby and put himself forward as a person with a list of principles on which he stands to be elected? If he was not that individual but was someone on a party list under a proportional system, he could not exercise his own individuality. He would have to adopt what his party said on the party list. He is arguing against his own individuality, which brings great value to this place and to his constituents.
I am afraid that that point is also incorrect. I agree that it is very kind of the Grimsby Labour party to select a geriatric as its prospective parliamentary candidate; it is being kind to the aged, and I am eternally grateful for that. The point is that with the additional Member system, half or more of the seats are constituency seats, and the old rules apply. In other words, people would be elected on their own merits. It is essential for the parties to put forward the most attractive people on the list in the hope of winning votes, which is exactly what they do—whether they are independent or beautiful or whether they are Jordan or Katie Price.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is now being proportional in granting interventions as well. Does he agree that the system of proportional representation that allows the voter to make discerning choices between candidates is the single transferable vote?
I agree. I am coming on to that now. The candidate would appeal in his own way to his own constituency. However, that is a question of what system of proportional representation we would use. I do not want to get bogged down in an argument about which system is best; I have my own views. The most attractive system is the additional Member system, or MMP—the mixed Member proportional system—as it is called in New Zealand, in which half the MPs are elected on a constituency basis and half on a list basis, which would shrink the number of constituency seats. I notice that the Conservative party proposes to abolish a substantial proportion of our seats without any referendum or any consultation with the people or the electorates affected, so it cannot complain about the reduction necessary with MMP.
The additional Member system represents the current situation. Some among us are devoted constituency MPs, perhaps because we will not rise any further and have reached the limits of our prowess. That is not true in my case, but it is for many. However, for those who see themselves as ministrable—men or women of destiny who will rise to high office and cannot wait to get there—the seat is merely a stepping stone to power. Those are the two types of Member, and the additional Member system represents them by allowing the ministrables to appear on the party list.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I am sorry to have missed the first few minutes of his wonderful speech. Does he agree that the best way to deal with the accusation that an elected person on the list was just a party hack would be to ensure that only members of the party in a clear geographical area could choose the make-up of the list? That would get rid of the nonsense of people being imposed from the centre.
I agree absolutely that that is the way to do it. The weakness of the current system is the way candidates can be imposed on constituencies by moving somebody to the House of Lords—I have to tell this Chamber that I have not yet received an offer—or by bringing in young men and women of destiny, who have worked in Downing street or for Ministers or think-tanks, and who have had no contact with the real world and real people. My hon. Friend’s suggestion is therefore exactly right.
Another system is the single transferable vote, which is used in Ireland. It would mean larger constituencies, each with three or four Members. That is the preference of the Electoral Reform Society, although I am not sure whether it is the preference of the Liberal party. That is one alternative. The third possibility is that recommended in the Jenkins report, which is best described as the alternative vote plus. In other words, there would be a top-up of 15 to 20 per cent. of the constituency part of the vote, which would represent the majority—80 or 85 per cent.—to introduce greater proportionality.
Any of those systems would do, and any would be preferable to the current system. My preference is the New Zealand system. That is largely because I am an apprentice New Zealander, although the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) is a real one. That system has worked very well. It was initially opposed by Prime Minister Helen Clark and the Speaker, but both are now converted because the system works so well, ensuring that legislation is wanted and has the consent and support of the great majority of the House, and therefore of the electorate.
The New Zealand system was introduced after two referendums. Politicians there were so anxious to support first past the post that they erected two hurdles for the electorate to jump. However, the electorate were ready to jump those hurdles because they felt betrayed by both parties, as indeed they were. Similar feelings of antagonism to the political parties are building up here, and our electorate may well be prepared to jump. The system has worked well in New Zealand, and I believe it would work well here.
I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but so far he has failed to mention one important matter—the fact that all the systems he has spoken of would empower extremist parties and allow them into office. What is his view on that? He has not yet broached the subject.
That is just not so. Extremist or daft parties—from time to time, it seems that such descriptions could also be used of the majority parties—can be kept out by a threshold. They are not kept out in Israel, but should be. However, they are kept out in Germany; those who gain less than 5 per cent. of the vote have no representation. It is a simple expedient to keep out fascist or lunatic parties, which at the moment are perfectly free to stand and put their case before the people, and even to win seats in European elections.
I was praising the New Zealand system and saying that one system that I would not support is the alternative vote, which is used in Australia. It would not be acceptable here. That is not because it is Australian—some of my best friends are Australian—but because it is a daft system. It is a half-baked compromise, which has been espoused by a number of people, including Cabinet Ministers, who want to show themselves as being sympathetic to the growing demand for proportional representation but who are terrified to take the final step and introduce a system that is proportional. They therefore rally round the broken flag of the alternative vote. They show concern but will not do anything.
My beloved Prime Minister’s preference for a referendum on the alternative vote is daft. To put it simply, it would be a vote on nothing at all—a vote for those who do not want electoral reform or who do not want proportional representation. I would have to include my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor among that coterie, so determined is he not to have proportional representation. I do not know why he fears it, but when he was forced to introduce it for the European elections he brought in the worst possible system—the closed list. That was done deliberately, with the concurrence of the Liberal Democrats, to invalidate the case for electoral reform and proportional representation. He is now talking of giving us proportional representation for the House of Lords. That would make the Lords the more representative House, but he will not give us the alternative vote for the House of Commons. It would be a disaster.
I must come to a close, Mr. Benton, and I am sorry for having gone on a little too long. The conclusion is simply this: it is no use the advocates of first past the post, who are gathered here in huge number to put the case against me and destroy my argument, saying that their system is the best in the world and that we should keep it. That is not true.
Proportional representation is a much fairer and better system, and it would alleviate much of the discontent and alienation that are directed not so much against Parliament, but against the party system and the elected dictatorship, which are sustained by the first-past-the-post system.
This is not a question of us arguing about the types of system that would suit our purposes once the people have given their consent; such information is available from the Library. Today, I want to establish the case for putting the question to the people, and that is about democratic rights, and the nature and workings of producing a fairer system. It is the people’s decision, not ours.
Order. I propose commencing the winding-up speeches at 12 o’clock. A number of Members have indicated a wish to speak, so would right hon. and hon. Members bear that in mind?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) on securing this important debate.
I have worked closely with the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe). He is a good friend, although I hope that saying so will not get him into trouble. We are the joint chairmen of the all-party group on the continuation of first past the post, and we feel passionately about that voting system. Interestingly, Scottish Labour MPs make up the largest number of members of the all-party group and it is very important that the Minister takes note of that. Those MPs have seen at first hand the chaos and mayhem that the voting systems have brought about in Scotland and there has been deep confusion in previous elections because of the different voting systems that have been put in place. Our all-party group recently had a debate about these issues here in Parliament with the Electoral Reform Society.
I go back to what I said in my first intervention today. Given all the problems facing our country at the moment, including the economic crisis, I am deeply concerned that organisations such as the Electoral Reform Society, and hon. Members, should be pressing for this change in the voting system. That is such a distraction from all the things that we need to be addressing as parliamentarians.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He speaks with great passion on these issues. However, does the “chaos and mayhem” to which he has alluded extend to Wales? In Wales, we have had for 10 years an additional Member system and stable government, although at the moment the Government are not of my choosing; now we have a Labour-Plaid Cymru Administration, whereas previously there was a Liberal-Labour Administration. Above all else, in Wales we have had a clear programme of government negotiated by the parties in the full public gaze. That inspires confidence in the system rather than creating the “chaos and mayhem” to which the hon. Gentleman alluded.
I shall come to coalition Governments later in my speech. Ultimately, however, I do not know whether the coalition Government of Labour and Plaid Cymru are delivering for the people of Wales as the hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting.
Constituents come to see me in my surgery and I talk to them on their doorsteps. In nearly five years, not a single one of them—and there are 74,000 in all—has said to me, “You know, Mr. Kawczynski, I really want a change in the voting system; if there is one thing I want you to press for in the House of Commons, it is a change in the voting system.” What they do talk to me about is the Royal Shrewsbury hospital, funding for our schools and all the other things that affect them day to day. Not a single one of them has called for a change in the voting system. If a single constituent had written to me on the issue or had taken the time to come and talk to me about it, perhaps I would have a little more sympathy with it.
That is not my experience in Cambridge, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman might come and visit my constituency at some point to talk to some people who understand that politics and other issues are connected. We cannot separate the political system from the content of the politics that it delivers.
I am only giving the hon. Gentleman my own experience as a Member of Parliament in Shropshire.
I tested the feeling on this subject in my constituency, on the basis of having been elected to the parliamentary reform Committee. I wrote to all my constituents. I must say that there was a very narrow result, but I received more than 7,000 replies. People came down narrowly in favour of electoral reform. However, more than anything, I learned about how many people wanted a debate on the subject and more information about it. It is wrong for the parties just to shut this issue down. There is a yearning among people for at least a look at what would be involved if there was a proper debate on electoral reform.
As I said, I only want to give the Minister the benefit of my own experience from Shrewsbury.
At the moment, we have a crazy number of voting systems in the United Kingdom. Last week, I had a meeting with Mr. Wardle, the chief executive of the Electoral Commission, and I put to him some of these issues. He said to me that it is not for the Electoral Commission to decide which voting system we have and that he would feel uncomfortable in trying to come up with any system. He added that it is obviously the responsibility of Parliament to decide on the voting system and that the Electoral Commission would have to work under that system.
However, Mr. Wardle said something else that I found interesting. He admitted to me that there were far too many voting systems in the United Kingdom—that was the chief executive of the Electoral Commission speaking. He said that in no other country in the world are there so many different types of voting system. That is a very powerful thing for the Minister to take away from today’s debate; even somebody as senior as the chief executive of the Electoral Commission is concerned about the confusion and the complications that are arising from all the different voting systems put in place by the Labour Government in the past few years.
The first-past-the-post system has served us well. The constituency link is essential. When I go to my electorate in Shrewsbury, I put my case directly to them. What would happen under PR, one of the other systems? We would have to hide our views. What would happen if we had the alternative voting system, which, as has rightly been said, is the Prime Minister’s preferred option? One would have to be far more cynical and hide one’s views, because one would always know that neither the Labour party nor the Conservative party would win. It would always be down to Liberal voters to be the king-makers and decide which party would get enough votes to take it over 50 per cent. One would have to blunt one’s ideology, passion and beliefs to placate those Liberal Democrats and ensure their second vote. I feel passionately against the second vote; I will come to that in a moment.
In my constituency, the Conservative party came third in 2001 and 2005, so it is Conservative voters to whom I will be appealing to ensure that a non-Labour MP is elected in the next general election. On the point about secrecy, does the hon. Gentleman think that Angela Merkel hid her views from the German electorate?
I am not going to start talking about Angela Merkel. This debate is about our own voting system in the United Kingdom. Far more seats are Conservative-Labour battlegrounds than Conservative-Liberal Democrat battlegrounds.
Why should the Liberal Democrats get a second vote? That is the most important point that I want to make. We cannot have a system in which people who vote for the Liberal Democrats or other minority parties get a second crack of the whip or bite of the cherry. Every citizen in the United Kingdom must be treated equally, and everyone should have a single vote.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby suggested that we should have large seats with multiple Members. I cannot think of anything worse. If we did have such a situation, I certainly would not be prepared to be a Member of Parliament; I would have serious difficulties in continuing to be one. I feel passionately about my constituency of Shrewsbury. All that I care about is representing the people of Shrewsbury. I am accountable to them. They know how I vote and come to see me in my surgery. I am responsible. Being one of four, five or six Members across a large area would be completely meaningless and involve no accountability whatever.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that Conservative party policy is to reduce the number of seats, so his seat will be bigger anyway. He is concentrating on the constituency issue. Let me make it clear that I agree with all that he says about the joys of representing a place. Representing Grimsby is the chief joy of my life. It is wonderful. I love it, and I represent a community in a borough that would continue under the additional Member system. We would have somewhat bigger constituencies, as the Conservatives are proposing anyway, but we would still have the same constituency base.
The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that the Conservatives wish to reduce the number of seats by about 60, but that has nothing to do with the voting system; we would merely cut the number of seats. I disagree with him. He and I both represent communities of roughly 74,000 constituents. We just about do the job of representing those 74,000 constituents with the resources available, but I could not possibly have the same interaction and accountability if I were one of six Members of Parliament representing a much larger area.
I turn to the European Union elections. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire said that the elections had a poor voter turnout and asked why. It is a good question. It is simply because there is no accountability. I have said many times to the people of Shropshire, “I will give anybody in this room £100 if they can name me two Members of the European Parliament who represent us.” So far, in five years, I have not lost a penny. No one knows who those Members of the European Parliament are, because none of them lives, works, has offices or holds surgeries in Shropshire. Those MEPs have no accountability whatever to the people of Shropshire.
I must tell the hon. Member for Great Grimsby that the west midlands is larger in size and population than many EU countries, such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. How on earth can one be a coherent and accountable representative of an area of that size if one does not at least live in the community? I feel strongly that if one wants to represent the people of an area, one should at least live in that community and be part of it, because that way one will understand the local services and be part of the emotional drive for that community. The representatives in the European Parliament live hundreds of miles away with absolutely no accountability.
Is the issue not even simpler than that? People do not vote in those elections because they do not see the faintest relevance of the EU to their lives.
That is a completely separate matter that we will discuss another time.
I will end shortly, Mr. Benton, because you said that many hon. Members wished to speak. I will return briefly to the election of the two members of the British National party to the European Parliament. I do not know about the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, but I had shivers going down my spine when I found out that they had been elected. I am a democrat and believe that people should be allowed to stand as representatives no matter what their views are, but I am very concerned about any system that allows a party such as the BNP to get representation.
BNP members of local councils have been elected by the first-past-the-post system, so does what the hon. Gentleman has just said not apply equally to that system?
Being elected to local councils is very different from being elected to a national Parliament, or, in this case, the Parliament of the whole European Union.
As part of our duties as joint chairmen of the all-party group, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire and I visited the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh together and interacted with MSPs to hear at first hand some of the problems that they had faced as a result of PR. What was fascinating was that even the two Green party MSPs, the king-makers who at one stage prevented the Scottish National party budget from going ahead, said that they felt the current system was unsustainable.
Lastly, I have a point to make about the Liberal Democrats, and I have been looking forward to making it. No wonder they are here in such large numbers. I feel passionately that one must always put one’s country first, one’s constituency second and one’s party third, but the Liberal Democrats have always pushed the issue of PR on a purely party political basis to further their own cause. I think that it is such a shame that they are trying to force the issue through simply to get more Liberal Democrat MPs elected. That is absolutely unforgivable.
I hope that the Minister will take on board my concerns and that he has realised how passionately I feel about the issue. Never in the five years during which I have been a Member have I been so worried about a single thing going ahead under the Labour Government as I am about the possibility of their changing the voting system. We must safeguard the first-past-the-post system, which has nurtured our democracy and helped it thrive all this time. We must not endanger it.
Thank you, Mr. Benton, for allowing me to speak, although I will do so briefly because the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) has of course mentioned most of what I would have said—as joint chairmen of the all-party group on the continuation of first past the post, we speak as one. However, I will make some additional points.
I have the experience at first hand, along with the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason), of the Scottish situation, although I probably have a different point of view from his. Having been here longer than him, and seen the Scottish Parliament from its birth, the whole question of running it is a joke and not in the best interests of the people that we represent. I shall make a further point about that as I go through my speech. There is no doubt that what is imperative—and changing the voting systems has not made a jot of difference—is voter turnout. I have already made an intervention about that, on my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who secured the debate. However, unless and until we overcome that problem, democracy itself will be the loser.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the big advantages in Scotland has been that, where there was a safe seat, of whichever party, and a sleepy MP, MSP or whatever, such people have had to wake up and really work for the electorate, because they are competing with other politicians?
That does not apply in my case, as my vote keeps going up—but let us move on.
Voter turnout is the most important element that we should be addressing and doing something about, not changing systems. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby mentioned New Zealand, but I have seen that system at first hand, as I am sure other hon. Members have. It reminded me a bit of the trade unions in the ’60s, in which I played a fairly significant part, with all those smoke-filled rooms. All that I saw at first hand in New Zealand was the Speaker, who was of the Labour party, trading with all the minority parties in order to get any business through the House. The Prime Minister was his puppet. If someone tells me that that is a great system, I will tell them that I do not believe in it and that it does democracy no good.
Another interesting thing, which I have mentioned previously and which I thought the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham was going to mention when he addressed the Liberals, was that at one time the Liberals opposed proportional representation. Guess why? Because they were in Government. In 1921, they voted down proportional representation in this place. If we check the facts, we will find that to be the case, which goes back to the point of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham—self-interest. The Labour party must be the only party that has given away so much influence and power during its period in Government. For that to be the case is absolutely ridiculous.
Is the hon. Gentleman proud of all the decisions that the Labour party made in the 1920s?
I was not around in the 1920s, it may be a surprise to know. However, let us look more closely at the systems in operation in Scotland, which are confusing the public completely—I have seen women coming from polling stations crying because they did not understand the system and had not voted as a consequence.
In local government north of the border, what are we seeing today? Cuts. Why are we seeing cuts? Because the SNP Administration in Edinburgh is attempting to take back power. Devolution was supposed to do the opposite, but just this weekend we heard that if schools do not get into order, the Administration will take back the powers to Edinburgh. That is fundamentally wrong and against the whole spirit of devolution. Devolution is not a one-way process, but should be taken right down to the lowest level—if need be, to the parish council.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the reasons that we are short of money in Scotland is the Edinburgh tram system, which was supported by Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, thereby defeating the Scottish Government? Although I consider it a waste of money, it was a good thing in a sense, because the issue showed that the Government could be defeated.
I am not sure that I want to go down the road of transport in a debate with the hon. Gentleman. The whole question of what the SNP Administration have done to transport, in particular to the link with Glasgow airport, is not the strongest point that he might want to make.
I will try to make another couple of points before I close. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham again made the point about Europe. I re-emphasise that case: I cannot name or even number the Members of the European Parliament representing Scotland. I do not know where any of their offices are, what they get up to or whether they are doing anything at all, but I know one thing—in this place we have 70 per cent. of the legislation coming from Europe to look at, because it has not been looked at as it might be by the scrutiny committees in Europe. That is wrong.
My final point is on the Scottish added list system, which my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby mentioned. He tried to suggest that that system was likely to lead to no party hacks being elected. I do not suggest that my ex-hon. Friend George Foulkes is an honourable hack, but that is a classic example of somebody, who did not even think that he was going to be there, standing on the added list and being No. 1. He represents a swathe of Scotland and can sit there and twiddle his thumbs and be down here in the House of Lords.
I suggest that that is not a system that would or should be supported. I have always believed in this place and, before I came to it, that first past the post is the way forward. It is the best and most representative system as far as my constituents are concerned. Like the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, I have not had a single person in my constituency, other than the chattering class people, come to me and make any argument for me to change my point of view.
I shall be as quick as I can, Mr. Benton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) on securing this opportunity. When I saw that he was speaking, I had a funny feeling that he would refer to New Zealand and MMP, so—turning my accent up—I thought that I might just look at that a little.
Just before the referendum, I arrived in New Zealand and, as is New Zealand’s wont, I was shunted on to a radio station to do a three-hour talk-in, and of course the major thing being discussed was the impending referendum. Two things came out. The first was that the dislike of MPs at that stage in New Zealand was even greater than it is here at the moment, and the belief was that, in turning to MMP, it would have fewer MPs. Of course, that was wrong. Secondly, I became very aware that most of the people whom I spoke to on the streets and on that three-hour radio programme did not understand the system or what they were voting for and just wanted a change for the sake of change.
It did not work, of course. The first MMP Parliament in New Zealand increased the number of MPs from 99 to 120. Many New Zealanders were deluded by the idea of “fair votes” and were unaware until the results of that first election came through that they were virtually guaranteed a hung Parliament. That hung Parliament had the usual horse trading, and people slowly began to realise that they had a Government for whom not one single voter had voted—none of them voted for the Government they got.
The second thing that hit people was the proliferation of minor and often obscure parties, which ranged from the extreme left through to the extreme right. As ever with a hung Parliament, all those minorities had ambitions of being the controlling minority member of a minority Government—in other words, the tail that wagged the dog syndrome.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is bringing back a very biased report from New Zealand because, first, all the minority parties came into being before proportional representation was introduced. They were the result of party splits under the old first-past-the-post system. Secondly, the essence of his argument seems to be that New Zealanders were stupid, deluded or conned into voting for proportional representation. Surely he cannot be saying that.
The hon. Gentleman is right: I am not saying that. I am saying that the system was so complicated that it was extremely difficult for people to understand. The various arguments that were presented confused them, and some of them, particularly for the fairer votes system, were basically wrong.
For the first such election, in 1996, the New Zealand First party, led by a gentleman called Winston Peters, campaigned extremely vigorously against the Bolger National party or conservative party Government. The election results produced a hung Parliament. There were eight weeks of haggling, after which Winston Peters did an about-turn and agreed to join the National party in government, giving it a majority of one. Winston Peters was leader of New Zealand First and an elected Member, but he always had the security of knowing that if his electorate dispensed with him—which they eventually did—he could return as a list MP.
Subsequent elections resulted in further hung Parliaments, with a Labour Government led by Helen Clark that was supported by the Greens on the left and by Winston Peters, who had changed sides, and his party on the right. Every election resulted in a considerable period of haggling between the parties for the votes of those few seats controlled by the minority parties.
Until the last election, Winston Peters and New Zealand First showed the remarkable ability of political shoe-shuffling without so much as a blush, chopping and changing allegiances so as to be in government. Under the last Labour Government, which was led by Helen Clark, Winston Peters was rejected by his electorate, returned as a list MP and obtained power in the Labour Government as a Foreign Minister outside the Cabinet who did not take Cabinet responsibility. That was a ludicrous situation, but it happened under the system that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby believes works. The result at the very last election was a National party Government in coalition with minority representatives but not, fortunately, with New Zealand First.
As I have said, in the original referendum New Zealand voters were under the impression that, if they did not like MMP, they could have a second referendum. Unfortunately, the only promise made in that direction was a review by a select committee, and of course “turkeys at Christmas” came into effect. As part of its election manifesto, the current National party has promised a further referendum. However, it worries me that the complications of the electoral system will again not be fully understood. Nevertheless, the result will be interesting. I found on a visit to New Zealand shortly after MMP had appeared in its first election that it was exceptionally difficult to find anybody at all who would own up to having voted for it, because people disliked it so much.
Although this country does not have proportional representation, we have had recent cases of hung Parliaments; Parliaments where the Government have been stitched together with minority support. Both the Conservative party and the Labour party have been guilty of that. To my mind, none of those coalition Governments have been successful.
In these times in particular, I feel that we have to retain the first-past-the-post system and hopefully single-party Government. The economy in this country is dire and the situation in which a minority party wagged the dog and was unable to take difficult decisions would mean doom for this country.
I call John Mason. May I just point out to him, however, that we are hoping to start the winding-up speeches from 12 pm?
Thank you, Mr. Benton. I think that it was unfortunate that the first Back Bencher to speak in the debate took 15 minutes out of the allotted 30.
If I can be brief, however, I just wanted to speak very much in favour of proportional representation, from the Scottish and Glasgow experience. I have been elected five times since 1998, which I suspect is more times than Members here have been elected in the last 12 years. I have been elected four times under first past the post and once under single transferable vote, which was in a four-member ward. I remind Members here that, to be elected in a four-member ward, someone needs 20 per cent. of the vote under STV, which largely excludes smaller and minority parties. I would like to see five-member wards; I think that that is a better system. In a five-member ward, someone would still have to pass the hurdle of achieving 17 per cent. of the vote to be elected.
In January 1998, I was elected under the first-past-the-post system to Glasgow city council. I was the only non-Labour person at either council or Westminster level in the whole east end of the city, so the area was a bit of a one-party state. That is the danger of first past the post, that we end up with these one-party states. If someone has a good relationship with their councillor or their MP, that situation can be very good; if they have a bad relationship with them, the situation can be very bad and they have nowhere else to go.
In 1999 in Glasgow, there were elections for 79 councillors. Labour got approximately 50 per cent. of the vote, but took 74 of the 79 seats, giving them 93 per cent. of the seats on the council. Meanwhile, the Scottish National party, which got about 30 per cent. of the vote, took only two seats and was the second largest party on the council. Even Labour councillors would admit that that situation was not a success. There was no proper scrutiny in the council or in the committees, and my colleague—my fellow SNP councillor—and I ran around trying to look like a crowd.
We started to have proportional representation in Scotland in the Scottish Parliament elections in 1999; that was a form of PR. Alternative vote is such a tiny step that it is hardly worth looking at. The Scottish Parliament has this additional Member list system, whereby a city such as Glasgow has 10 constituency MSPs and seven list Members. That system is not ideal; it still favours the constituency MSPs and creates a bit of a two-tier system. However, it does mean that if someone’s constituency MSP is not working for them, they have the opportunity to go to a list Member.
What has happened in practice in the Scottish Parliament is that there are four larger parties, and so far we have had two coalitions and one minority Government. There is a tendency for decisions to be made with broader support in the Parliament, with two parties, such as Labour and the Liberal Democrats, or, now, with the SNP and whatever party would give support. Labour had to compromise to get Liberal Democrat support, most notably in introducing PR for Scottish local government elections.
[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]
The other argument has been that a small party could hold larger parties to ransom, but that has not been our experience in Scotland. It appeared to be the case, as has been mentioned, with the Greens, when two brought down the Scottish Budget, but they overplayed their hand, and when the Budget eventually went through with Labour support—and, I think, almost all-party support—the Greens were left nowhere, so a small party like that is taking a lot of risks in acting in that way.
There was a step forward in 2007 with the local government elections in Scotland. I thank the Liberal Democrats for that achievement. In Glasgow we had 79 councillors, but with 21 multi-member wards, and three or four members in each, there is a much better range of representation.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Amess. I thank the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) for obtaining the debate. He has been a supporter of proportional representation for a long time, and his enthusiasm is undimmed by the years. He put the case in terms of fairness, and there is definitely a case for PR on those grounds, but there is also a case based on confidence in politics. To come back to the point made by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), the current relevance of the debate lies in the fact that we are in a political crisis—a crisis of confidence in politics itself—and the existing electoral system is part of the crisis.
To deal first with fairness, hon. Members who support the first-past-the-post system are very fond of accusing parties that might benefit from a different system of arguing from their own interest. Of course, that also applies the other way around. Members who are here because of first past the post, but who would not be here under the proportional system are also arguing from their own interest. Fairness cannot be judged in that way. It must be judged by other means, and the obvious way to do that is to imagine, as a thought experiment, a situation in which we did not know how popular our views would be with the electorate and had to choose an electoral system knowing only our own views and no one else’s. In those circumstances, what system would be chosen: first past the post, or a proportional system?
Choosing first past the post means taking the risk of one’s political views being excluded for ever and of never having any representation in the legislature of the country. I cannot think of anyone who, faced by the question about fairness from behind the veil of ignorance, would choose first past the post. Perhaps some people might be so convinced that strong government is important that they would choose first past the post, despite the risk that their own views would never have any influence on the legislature, but it would be an extraordinary thing to do. People taking that view would probably take the view that democracy itself might be excluded.
The hon. Gentleman suggests that we were all taking our view for party political reasons, but that is not the case. In the past 12 years of Labour Governments, the Conservative party would have been much better off with a proportional voting system, yet despite that we want first past the post.
No. The Conservative party wants first past the post because that is the only way that it can form a majority Government with a minority of the vote. The idea that it is being generous about it is ridiculous. We need to get away from the idea that fairness can be judged from a partisan point of view, and think about it from a non-partisan point of view. I am sure that from a non-partisan view, taking into account all our interests, fair-minded people would never choose first past the post as their electoral system.
Surely, the hon. Gentleman was listening to what I said, which was that the Labour party in government gave away more power and influence, as a consequence of which we are now in the mire north of the border. In the party context, he would know, if he was listening to me, that the Liberals, for other reasons, were opposed to the concept of proportional representation in 1921.
It is also the case that the that Labour party was in favour of PR when it was founded and has since abandoned that view for national Government. Let us get away from the history and stick to the question of what is a fair system. I am sure that if we based our answer on a neutral point of view that got away from party interest and if people thought about it honestly, we would not conclude that first past the post was fair.
My second point is about confidence. It is a crucial point because we are in a crisis of confidence in the political system. We have to ask ourselves whether we can carry on with an electoral system in which Governments are very unpopular on the day that they are elected. The current Government were elected with 35 per cent. of the vote. Almost twice as many people voted against them as for them. It is not surprising that the Government were unpopular from the start. Most Governments in this country are unpopular. That unpopularity is part of the crisis of confidence in politics, as people do not see their political views represented in the way that politics works nationally.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby mentioned the 1950s. There was a sense then that the main purpose of the electoral system was simply to choose a Government from the two options available. It did not really matter how unrepresentative the Parliament was. However, the idea that the House of Commons is here simply to choose a Government cannot survive the massive reduction in support for the winning party. The electoral college notion of what the Commons is for cannot survive the present situation in which the winning party is so unpopular at the start.
We need to get away from the idea that the only purpose of the Commons is to act as an electoral college and that we all may as well go away once it has done that. We need to come round to the idea that the purpose of the House of Commons is to be a representative assembly. The first virtue of a representative assembly is that it represents the political views of the electorate. At present, it does not and it cannot regain any place in public confidence as long as that is the case.
The arguments against PR always come down to its not working in Israel or Italy and its helping extremists and damaging the constituency link, and a Conservative argument, which goes back to Mrs. Thatcher, is that consensus politics is a bad thing. None of those arguments works; for every Israel, there is a Germany, and for every Italy, there is a Scandinavia. There are many examples of successful, stable countries that use proportional systems. In any case, for Israel—a country that has been threatened existentially every moment since to came into existence—to have survived using PR is an example of PR’s success not its failure.
We have discussed the point that extremists get in at local level even with first past the post. As the percentage needed by the winning candidate drops, the chance of that happening increases. Moreover, if people feel excluded from a political system and unrepresented in Parliament, it breeds extremism. People have this the wrong way round: the failure to recognise the unrepresentative nature of this place breeds further extremism, and we must do something about it.
All the alternative systems put forward maintain the constituency link in some way or another, apart from the extraordinary system used in European parliamentary elections, which is the worst of all systems, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said. In the additional member system, half the seats are constituency seats. In STV, the constituencies are large, but because of the way that the system works, individual Members have to compete with one another in their constituencies to do their work better. If there is one disadvantage of STV, it is that it would make Members concentrate so much on their constituencies that the kind of ministerial candidates that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby mentioned might be put off. That is why national politicians in Ireland now and then suggest that STV should be abandoned. The people would not allow that to happen; they are convinced that STV is the best system for them, which is why it has won in all the referendums in Ireland on the electoral system.
The final point is one that always comes up from Conservative Members; it is always at the back of their minds: if we had had PR in the 1980s, Mrs. Thatcher would never have become Prime Minister, and all the radical reforms that she introduced would never have happened. I do not think that that is true; many of those reforms would have happened eventually, in a different way, with greater consensus and less social rupture than they did. We must ask ourselves whether we want further electoral coups d’état by minorities. Is that how to unify the country? Or given the crisis of confidence in politics that we face, do we need politics that is more consensual and based more on debate and agreement? We cannot have that under first past the post.
The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) forgets that we entirely applaud what Lady Thatcher did in the 1980s. A strong Government, however unpopular in some parts of the country, put this country back on its feet and made it possible for us to do what we do today as a country and an active participant on the world stage. But let us put that aside.
I applaud strong Government doing what is needed to get the country back on its feet after a difficult economic crisis. Does the hon. Lady applaud this Government for doing exactly that in response to the world economic crisis?
No, I do not applaud what the Government have done, but I applaud the fact that we have a strong Government, in electoral terms, and that those of us who are against them at least know what they are doing. We have certainty, and I applaud that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) on securing this debate. He is an individual, as I said earlier, and I mean that as a compliment. I congratulate him for adhering to his principles through the decades. This is an important debate; indeed, it is a perpetual one. For democracy to be vibrant, we must continually debate electoral reform. However, he based his argument on the fact, as he says, that we need a referendum on proportional representation on 6 May or on whatever date the general election might fall.
I put it to the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that we do not need a referendum. On whatever day we hold a general election, the people of the United Kingdom will know that one party—the Liberal Democrats—has made proportional representation one of the main planks of its manifesto promises. If more people throughout the United Kingdom vote in the general election for the party in favour of proportional representation than for all the parties against it, that party will become a Government and can introduce proportional representation at its leisure. That will be our referendum.
Is the hon. Lady saying that if the Liberal Democrats were to win the next election with 35 per cent. of the vote, we could change the electoral system without a referendum? I thank her in advance for her support.
Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right. If the Liberal Democrats have a majority of votes in the United Kingdom, or more votes than the parties against proportional representation—
No, I said more votes, but it does not matter which way one looks at it. If the Liberal Democrats get either more votes or more seats than all the other parties that are against proportional representation, they will be in a position to form a Government and go ahead with their plans.
Does the hon. Lady think that there should be a closer link between seats and votes?
Yes, of course there should. That is why it is Conservative policy to reduce the number of Members of Parliament and to equalise the size of constituencies. Votes in Scotland are not equal to votes in the rest of the United Kingdom, because of the differential size of the constituencies.
I must update the hon. Lady: Scotland now has the same numbers as the rest of the constituencies in the UK.
I appreciate that we have reduced the number of Scottish Members from 72 to 59. I agree with having done that. Nevertheless, throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, there is not parity of representation.
The hon. Lady is very generous in giving way. I will keep my remarks short and give way to her many times when I stand up to speak formally. Does she recognise that some, if not most, of the disparity between different constituencies is due to the deplorable lack of registration among a large number of voters—more than 3 million people, according to the Electoral Commission—who are eligible to vote but are not registered to do so? It is not possible to look at genuine parity until we have a universal registration of all those who are eligible to vote.
The Minister and I have had this conversation across the Dispatch Box on many occasions, and I agree that the comprehensiveness of the register is a sine qua non of having a fair and equal system. That is included in Conservative policy and outlook on this subject, too.
I will be brief now in my main remarks. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) on the eloquence with which they outlined the confusion in Scotland and quite rightly brought to our attention the problems that have occurred there because of the different types of voting system, which are sometimes all used on the same day, thereby causing confusion. I disagree with the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason), who, although he has fought and won many elections, still has not quite got the point that a fair system has to be a simple system.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) has very eloquently told us what he discovered in New Zealand, and I tend to believe him. He is our best link to New Zealand, and he is absolutely correct to say that, under its system, the people got a Government whom no one voted for, because they were a Government brought about by bargaining after the event, and the voters had no part in choosing them. To have a Government who are truly based on the three principles that government should be of the people, by the people and for the people, there must be three basic principles: those who are elected must be accountable to the electorate; the system must be certain and simple; and it must give power to the people and not to political parties.
First, on accountability, a voter must know when he or she goes into the polling booth not only how to elect a person but how to get rid of a person. It is a basic tenet of accountability that if we have a representative whom we do not want for reasons of ideology, personality or whatever, there must be a way of getting rid of that person. Under a proportional system with a list, that cannot be done by the voter. It can only be done by the party hacks. I, of course, love the party hacks, but that is another matter. They take power away from the voter. The unique link between the representative and those who are represented must remain. In parliamentary terms, it is the unique link between the Member of Parliament and the constituency. At other levels of government, that unique link must always be there because it gives us accountability. Only through accountability can we have a democracy that works and represents the people.
Secondly, I agree with the Minister that the system must be certain, and therefore simple. Much as I detest most of what the current Labour Government have done, I certainly accept that the people have spoken very definitely and certainly for the past 12 years. When the people have spoken, we know what they have said, although I hope that they will soon change their minds. Therefore, the Government, however wrong they might have been on many things they have done, have been absolutely legitimate. People have to know what the effect of casting their vote will be and also the effect of changing their minds—let us hope that they will do that in the near future.
Finally, a truly valuable system of democracy gives power to the people and not to political parties. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby is an individual, not a party hack. He is the perfect example of someone who is elected by first past the post, because of his ability to stand up for his constituents and his principles, regardless of his party—[Interruption.] Well, sometimes regardless of his party and to good effect, and regardless of what the Government at Westminster say. It is the individual in the House of Commons who makes this a great democracy, and that is possible only through a first-past-the-post, straight, simple and constituency-linked system. To tinker with that for the purposes of the current fashion, the prevailing wisdom in the press or the economy would be wrong. Our democracy is more valuable than any of those things, and we must protect it by protecting first past the post.
Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Amess. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell): as the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) just said, he is living proof that the current system of electing Members of Parliament produces not only the cloistered, faceless, apparatchiks he so derided, but thoughtful, passionate, principled individuals such as him. I congratulate him on securing this genuinely important debate.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) seemed to be facing two ways at once. On the one hand, he was deeply worried about the prospect of change in the electoral system, so he obviously thinks it an important part of our constitutional arrangements. On the other, however, he spent a lot of time saying that it was not important and that Members of Parliament ought to concentrate on the sorts of things that his constituents were raising with him. However, as the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) rightly said, those two things are not mutually exclusive, but part and parcel of the same issue.
The issue is so important, and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby is correct to bring it up at this point because we are facing a crisis in the legitimacy of our constitutional arrangements. All parties recognise that. Conservative Front-Bench Members clearly recognise it and are coming up with all sorts of ways to address the crisis, as indeed are other parties and the Government. One can look at a whole range of constitutional reforms, including the open primaries that the Conservative party has rightly pioneered. In my view, there is a lot of merit in what the Conservatives have done in that area.
However, to look at all those constitutional reform measures and then exclude any discussion of the system for electing Members of Parliament is bizarre. The system should be looked at as part of the constitutional crisis that we face. The system is so important because it is about how power is distributed, and how power is distributed makes possible the answers to all the questions that the constituents of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham raise with him weekly in his surgeries.
In my speech I was saying that I wanted to have the status quo left as it is, with a first-past-the-post system. According to the media, the Labour Government will not have a referendum on PR on the date of the next election, but will put it in their manifesto and have a referendum should they be re-elected. Will the Minister give me a pledge that he will try to change the voting system not at the fag end of a Parliament, but only when his party has a fresh mandate?
The Prime Minister has made it clear that we are pledged to bring forward a referendum on the system in the next Parliament; there is no question of having it on the date of the next general election. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby seems to think that that will be on 6 May, but I have no such advance knowledge. None the less, by the middle of next year, there will be a general election. It is simply not possible to have the referendum, or any referendum, on that date and nor should it be.
This should not be a matter of party political calculation and, more crucially, it should not be perceived as such. Such a subject is fundamentally important. It is about the wiring of our constitution, and should not be seen as—or actually be—the subject of partisan political manoeuvring. If we had the referendum on the same day as the election, there would be the risk that the two things would get muddled up, and that is not the right way of doing things. As a Government, it is our settled view that any change in the electoral system should be subject to a referendum by the British people. This is their voting system and their constitution. It is not for Members of Parliament alone to decide on the matter.
I agree entirely with the Minister, but will he also agree that as part of that debate, we should be considering voter turnout?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Such things must be considered together; we are looking at only one part of the picture. He is absolutely right in suggesting that participation is central. There are many views about why participation is declining, and we must consider the issue across the piece, as we are doing. We have already taken measures to increase turnout and we are continuing to look at different ways of voting. I will shortly publish an electoral strategy that looks in principle at different ways in which we can address that issue and many others.
We have had a lengthy debate. In the few minutes remaining, I want to pay tribute to the passionate speeches that we have heard from all parts of the Chamber, from the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham and his colleague in the all-party group, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe), and from the hon. Members for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), for Glasgow, East (John Mason), for Cambridge and for Epping Forest. The different points of view expressed reflect the importance of the subject. No doubt we will continue this debate in the months ahead.
In the time remaining, let me caution all hon. Members about the use of language in such a context. Terms such as “fairness” are not objective terms; they are relative. The hon. Member for Cambridge made much play of his notion of fairness, but I ask him to consider this point. What is so fair about a system in which a party that year after year, decade after decade, gets simply 5 per cent. of the vote—as happens in Germany, which he holds up as a model of the system—determines the complexion of the Government? That is axiomatically not fair.
The situation in Germany is not like that. The grand coalition, which has just ended, shows the other option. The hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) pointed out that small parties cannot get their way when the larger parties agree, but the Minister is assuming that larger parties never agree, which is an extraordinary thing to assume.
I ask the hon. Gentleman to look at the history of post-war Germany and see what percentage of the time has been occupied by a grand coalition in power. He will find that history proves my point rather than his. All I am saying is that we need to be extremely careful about using terms such as “fairness”. Personally, I prefer “legitimacy”, because in the end it is the legitimacy of the system—not our view but the British people’s view of legitimacy—that really counts.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that a system in which a Government can be elected with an absolute majority, with about 25 per cent. of the electorate supporting them, is not sustainable in the long term. It is a system that has persisted and is likely to persist after the next general election, whichever party wins. Unfortunately, part of the problem is the low turnout, as my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire rightly pointed out. We have to look at different ways in which we can inject greater legitimacy into the system.