[Relevant documents: Report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, Session 2007-08, HC 551-I and–II, and the Government response, Cm 7690. Tenth Report from the Public Administration Select Committee, Session 2007-08, on Constitutional Renewal: Draft Bill and White Paper, HC 499, and the Government response, Cm 7688. Fourth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 2009-10, on Legislative Scrutiny: Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill; Video Recordings Bill, HC 249. The Scottish Parliament has passed a Legislative Consent Resolution in respect of this Bill. Copies of the Resolution are available in the Vote Office.]
[6th Allocated Day]
Further considered in Committee
Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]
New Clause 88
Referendum on voting systems
‘(1) A referendum is to be held, no later than 31 October 2011, on the voting system for parliamentary elections.
(2) The Secretary of State must—
(a) present to Parliament a Command Paper describing an alternative-vote system for consideration by voters in the referendum;
(b) by order made by statutory instrument specify the question to be asked in the referendum (and any statement that is to precede the question) and fix the date of the poll.
(3) The question specified under subsection (2)(b) must ask voters whether they would prefer the alternative-vote system described in the Command Paper to be used for parliamentary elections instead of the existing voting system (commonly referred to as “first past the post”).
Any form of words to that effect may be used.
(4) In this section “alternative-vote system” means a system under which, for each constituency—
(a) one candidate is elected;
(b) voters must indicate their first-choice candidate and may also rank any or all of the other candidates in order of preference;
(c) votes are allocated to candidates in accordance with voters’ first choices and, if one candidate has more votes than the other candidates put together, that candidate is elected;
(d) if not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and that candidate’s votes are dealt with as follows—
(i) each vote cast by a voter who also ranked one or more of the remaining candidates is reallocated to that remaining candidate or (as the case may be) to the one that the voter ranked highest;
(ii) any votes not reallocated play no further part in the counting;
(e) if one candidate now has more votes than the other remaining candidates put together, that candidate is elected;
(f) if not, the process mentioned in paragraph (d) is repeated as many times as necessary until one candidate has more votes than the other remaining candidates put together, and so is elected.
(5) The reference in subsection (4)(d) to the candidate with the fewest votes, in a case where there are two or more candidates with fewer votes than the others but an equal number to each other, is a reference to the candidate eliminated in accordance with whatever provision is made for that case.
(6) The reference in subsection (4)(f) to the candidate with more votes than the other remaining candidates put together, in a case where there are only two remaining candidates and they have an equal number of votes, is a reference to the candidate elected in accordance with whatever provision is made for that case.
(7) A statutory instrument specifying the question to be asked in the referendum or fixing the date of the poll may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.
(8) Subsection (1) and sections [Entitlement to vote] to [Restriction on legal challenge to referendum result] do not apply (and no further duty arises under subsection (2)(b)) if either House of Parliament, on a motion to approve a draft laid under subsection (7), decides not to approve it (unless the Secretary of State decides to lay the draft again under subsection (7), or to lay a revised draft under that subsection, and the re-laid or revised draft is approved by a resolution of each House).’.—(Mr. Straw.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment (a), leave out “31 October” and insert “30 May”.
Amendment (b), leave out “an alternative-vote” in subsection (2)(a) and insert “a single transferable vote”.
Amendment (c), leave out “the alternative-vote” in subsection (3) and insert “a single transferable vote”.
Amendment (j), leave out “describing an alternative-vote system” and insert
“setting out the mechanism, and the advantages and disadvantages, of
(a) an alternative-vote system,
(b) a two-round runoff system,
(c) the existing voting system (commonly referred to as “first past the post”).”.
Amendment (k), leave out from ‘voters’ to end of line 15 and insert
“to select one of three options set out in the Command Paper.”.
Amendment (l), at end insert—
“(6A) In this section “two-round runoff system” means a system under which, for each constituency—
(a) one candidate is elected;
(b) a second ballot may be held if a candidate is not elected on the first ballot;
(c) for a candidate to be elected they must secure more than fifty per cent. of the votes cast on either the first or second ballot;
(d) on the first ballot voters must nominate a single candidate;
(e) on the first ballot there is no limit to the number of candidates which may stand;
(f) votes are allocated to candidates and, if one candidate has more than fifty per cent. of the votes cast, that candidate is elected;
(g) if not, the two candidates with the most votes on the first ballot enter a second ballot to be dealt with as follows—
(i) the second ballot must be held one week after the first ballot;
(ii) voters must nominate a single candidate;
(iii) no new candidate may enter the second ballot;
(iv) votes are allocated to candidates and the candidate with the most votes is elected;
(h) if in the second ballot it appears that there is an equality of votes between both candidates, the returning officer shall decide between them by lot and proceed as if the candidate on whom the lot then falls had received an additional vote.”.
Amendment (e), leave out subsection (8).
Government new clause 89—Entitlement to vote.
Government new clause 90—Referendum period.
Government new clause 91—Role of Electoral Commission.
Government new clause 92—Payments to counting officers.
Government new clause 93—Taxation of counting officer’s account.
Government new clause 94—Restriction on legal challenge to referendum result.
Government new clause 95—Referendums: person may not be “responsible person” for more than one permitted participant.
Government new clause 96—Referendums: expenses incurred by persons acting in concert.
New clause 32—Referendum on electoral reform—
“(1) The Secretary of State shall be under a duty to ensure that a referendum on reforming the electoral system for the House of Commons is held before 28 October 2010.
(2) The referendum must offer a choice between the existing method of voting and a preferential system.
(3) If the result of the referendum is in favour of changing the electoral system for the House of Commons, the Secretary of State shall be under a duty to lay implementing measures before Parliament within three months of the date of the referendum.
(4) In this section—
“implementing measures” means measures designed to and likely to implement the result of the referendum before the general election next following the referendum, and includes bills and statutory instruments;
“preferential voting system” means a system of voting in which electors may express their support for individual candidates in order of preference and in which they are not restricted to expressing a fixed number of preferences.”.
Government amendment 136.
Amendment 135, in clause 62, page 33, line 38, after “Part”, insert
“and section [Referendum on electoral reform]”.
Government amendment 137.
Sir Alan, I apologise profusely.
It might be convenient if I give the Committee notice—I have already given the Table Office and the official Opposition notice—in respect of new clause 98, in the names of the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) and several of her hon. Friends and my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith). It proposes that the counting of votes at the general election should take place within four hours of the close of the poll unless there are exceptional reasons. There was a discussion about that during Justice questions about an hour and a half ago, and I propose to attach my name to the new clause, so that it can be the subject of a vote.
I say to my hon. Friends that my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip is proposing that there be a free vote on the Labour Benches. I would like to add a caveat. As is often the case, the wording of the new clause may need to be revised, but it was the view of the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) and myself that, rather than leaving the matter entirely open until Report, it would be better for there to be a clear text in the Bill that could be amended later if necessary, and that a clear message went out to electoral registration officers now about the intent on both sides of the House.
May I congratulate the Lord Chancellor on his courage in adding his name and that of his right hon. Friend to our amendment? It has support on both sides of the House, and many people will be delighted at what he has done this afternoon. We accept entirely that the wording may have to be altered, and we will give him every support in doing so.
If we are putting through new clauses without debate, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the programming for the next stage makes time to debate any necessary amendments to tidy up that new clause?
What I can undertake to do is ensure that my name is attached to any amendments, so that they would have to be the subject of a vote. What I cannot guarantee absolutely is how much time would be available. However, I should have said to the Committee that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will share the draft text of any proposed amendments with all the other main parties represented in the Committee in advance of their being tabled.
And the House would be a great deal better off if Members were independent. On the point about overnight counting, I won by 75 votes when I stood as a Conservative candidate, and there were three recounts. Does the right hon. Gentleman not understand that it is not right in a parliamentary democracy that the people who have to do the counting should do so when they are half awake? Surely whether counts take place in the morning or overnight is not such a great issue.
New clause 98 provides for the counts beginning within four hours of the close of the poll. Everybody accepts that, when there is a requirement for a recount, the counting can be suspended until the following day, as is often the case. However, concern has been expressed in all parts of the House about a growing trend among returning officers to defer until the following day—for their own convenience and nobody else’s—the counting of most of the constituencies which in the past have always been counted on the night of the election.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I should like to make some progress on the clauses before the Committee; I look forward to similar agreement across the Chamber in respect of those clauses.
New clause 88 provides for a referendum on our voting system for the Westminster Parliament to be held by October 2011.
I will give way, but I need to make some progress first.
That referendum will allow the British people to choose whether they wish to retain the present system of first past the post, or move to the alternative vote, which, as I think the Committee knows, is a system by which candidates are ranked in order of preference by voters. If on the first count no candidate has achieved 50 per cent. plus one of the votes cast, the candidates with the fewest first preferences are eliminated, with the second preferences counted, and so on. That is the same system, in conception, as eliminating ballots. However, I do not really need to spell that out to the Committee, because Members belonging to every party represented here will have direct experience of systems of eliminating ballots, whether they take place at a single moment or over an extended moment.
In one second.
All the major parties represented here have at the heart of the election of their leaders an electoral system that involves the progressive elimination of candidates. Sometimes elimination rounds are used. The Conservative party conducts sequential votes when there are more than two candidates, until the final two candidates are put to the membership. The Liberal Democrats use the single transferable vote, which amounts to the alternative vote when there is only a single post to be filled. The Labour party has long used the alternative vote for the election of its leader and deputy leader. It used to have lengthy eliminating ballots for local selections, but has now generally moved to the alternative vote system.
What I have long been a supporter of is—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”]—I am going to answer: majoritarian systems. If the hon. Gentleman, who is very assiduous, had bothered to read a very fine pamphlet written in 1986 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), “Proportional misrepresentation: the case against PR in Britain”, he would have seen that I gave support to the alternative vote. I am on record as having supported for getting on for a quarter of a century the alternative vote system for parliamentary elections. My passion is for majoritarian systems, as opposed to proportional representation, for all the reasons that are generally shared throughout the House. I must also tell the Committee that the new hardback copy of my right hon. Friend’s important work is in such demand that, according to Amazon, a new copy will cost $600, although second-hand editions can still be had for four quid.
I was a bit puzzled to hear the right hon. Gentleman praying in aid the Labour party’s election system because, apart from the fact that the Prime Minister was not subjected to it, I seem to recollect that, under that system, one third of the vote is reserved for the union paymasters. I hope that the Justice Secretary is not about to offer that to the Committee as an example.
That shows how little the hon. and learned Gentleman knows about the Labour party’s system, which provides an opportunity for millions of individual members of trade unions to vote in a postal ballot for the candidates of their choice. The idea that the system is in the hands of a few trade union paymasters is completely incorrect.
I should also like to remind Conservative Members of something that they learned only half an hour ago, and that might have come as a great surprise to them. The system of election for hereditary peers, which they are so passionate in supporting, and which they voted to continue just two weeks ago is—guess what—not a first-past-the-post system but an alternative vote system.
The hon. Gentleman says that it is our system, but, while the law provides that there has to be a system—this House agreed that—it was the other place that provided that system. Conservative peers could have objected to the use of the alternative vote at any stage over the past 10 years, but they have never done so. I therefore hope that we will hear no more about the idea that the alternative vote, or eliminating ballots, which are used by the Conservative party for the election of hereditary peers, have some fundamental flaw that is so dangerous that a choice between the alternative vote and first-past-the-post should not even be put to the electorate.
My right hon. Friend has suggested that his own preference is for AV, but the Government set up a royal commission to look into this matter, and I wonder why they are not proposing to put forward the recommendation of the Jenkins commission in the referendum. It would certainly not be tainted by any party political considerations.
My hon. Friend will remember the debates that took place on the Jenkins commission when it reported to the House when I was Home Secretary, towards the end of 1999. It rapidly became clear that there was no consensus around it. What is more, with the passage of time, concern has been expressed about dual systems of membership, particularly in Scotland and Wales. Speaking personally, I happen to believe that the system of single-Member constituencies, in which one Member alone has the duty to represent everyone in that constituency or community, is fundamental to the workings of our democracy. That system gives a directness and authority to the relationship which does not exist in the same way under multi-Member constituency systems.
Furthermore, I support majoritarian systems because majority Governments are far preferable to the weaker minority and coalition Governments that are almost invariably the consequence of systems of proportional representation. I thought that before I first came into the House; I thought it throughout the 18 years I spent on the Opposition Benches; and nothing I have seen of other countries’ systems of proportional representation has convinced me that they have better alternatives.
Perhaps we could achieve consensus if we looked at the Scottish experience, where four different systems of voting are in place. Surely if we were to look at that and have a referendum, we could encompass those as part of the question, allowing people to choose the single system that they want for voting.
I am glad that my hon. Friend acknowledges the importance of giving the British people a choice. We have to make a judgment about the alternatives to put before the British people—we have to make it; nobody else can, as it has to become law. My belief is that the best way to conduct a referendum is to confine it to a single institution—in this case, the Westminster Parliament. I understand my hon. Friend’s concern; he and I have discussed on many occasions the dual-Member system in Scotland and the concerns expressed about it, but the fact that we are to have a referendum on this issue does not necessarily rule out the possibility in due course of having a referendum on the issue that my hon. Friend cares about.
May I take the Secretary of State back to his reference to the Jenkins commission? On 2 June 1998, he said:
“The Liberal Democrats and Labour agreed that the only fair way to put a choice to the British people was to give them a choice between two equals: between the first-past-the-post system—it would be absurd to suggest leaving it out—and another system carefully worked out by a relatively independent body.”—[Official Report, 2 June 1998; Vol. 313, c. 188.]
Where is the relatively independent body in these proposals?
I have already explained that the truth about the Jenkins proposals—it became clear as people digested them—is that there was no consensus coalition at all in respect of them. The hon. and learned Gentleman has been the Justice spokesman for his party for close to 18 months now, and never once has he suggested that there should be a referendum on the Jenkins proposals.
Just a few short weeks ago in a Westminster Hall debate on proportional representation, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) gave me an assurance that this issue would not be debated in the House during this Session. May I ask what has happened since to make that promise no longer applicable? [Interruption.]
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the recommendations of the Gould report, produced after the debacle of the May 2007 Scottish parliamentary elections, which were held on the same day as the local council elections. He will know that the strong recommendation made in that report was that two elections using different systems should not be held on the same day. Does he accept that if we move towards the AV system for the elections to this House, we can never again hold a general election on the same day as local authority elections?
I am afraid that I do not. I remember the Gould report and the circumstances that led up to it. I thought it made some important recommendations, but I do not believe that the fundamental problem that the Scottish system faced at that time was conducting two different elections on the same day. Within the whole of the UK, we regularly have two sets of elections using different systems. For example, European and local elections often take place on the same day and provided that those systems are properly explained to voters—this was the problem in Scotland when there were two sets of ballots on the same ballot paper—I believe that it is perfectly satisfactory to go ahead on the same day.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the Irish system proposed by the Liberal Democrats would deliver an overall majority on about 45 per cent. of the vote, as it has on many occasions in the Republic of Ireland since 1921. What share of the vote would he be prepared to regard as too low, either under first past the post or under the alternative vote when it came to first preferences? What percentage would mean that the Government were no longer legitimate—35, or even less?
The fundamental problem that affects all voting systems is the fact that there is no way, mathematically, of translating votes cast and seats gained into power obtained.
I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said on the radio this morning about the merits of the Irish system. I have two comments. First, the Irish constituencies, per Member, are significantly smaller than ours. There are 21,000 electors per Member of the Dáil. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman seemed to be suggesting that the Irish system had avoided any scandals. Anyone with any knowledge of what has gone on in Ireland recently will recognise that we cannot really compete with the Irish when it comes to the continuation of scandals.
I agree with the Secretary of State about single-Member constituencies. As he wants change, however, he presumably thinks that Members here who did not secure 50 per cent. of the vote might have been better replaced by others. According to his research, how much would a Parliament elected under the proposed system differ from one elected under first past the post?
I know that Conservative Members have suggested that earlier elections could have produced this or that result. The answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question is that we should make this change—or, rather, put the opportunity for change before the British people, for it is not we who are making the change—as a matter of principle. It will be for the British people, in whom I suggest Conservative Members have a bit of faith, to listen to the argument over a 20-month period, and to listen particularly intensely during the last six months of a campaign. They will be able to make their own judgments in the privacy of the ballot box. They will reach their own conclusions.
I will give way in a moment, but I want to make some progress first. I have already given way a great deal.
I suggest that the case for making the change is to do with the fact that we have moved from a two-party arrangement in the House—which is what obtained, unusually in British politics, between 1945 and 1970—to the three or four-party system that has much more often been the default setting of British politics. The question of whether there should be a change is nothing new—as I shall make clear, it has been debated on a number of occasions—but of course some hon. Members will ask why we need to make the change now. The answer is that in the past 12 months, as everyone knows—it has affected hon. Members in all parts of the House in the same way—we have seen a crisis of confidence in our political system and our politicians on a scale that none of us has witnessed before in our political lifetime. Trust has been profoundly damaged. [Hon. Members: “That has nothing to do with it.”] It has everything to do with it.
Immediate action has already been taken to clear up the expenses system, with the passage of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 and with the clauses in this Bill to strengthen the new regime already approved by the House. We will shortly debate the recommendations of the Wright Committee on improvements to the way in which the House operates. Those are important initiatives, which show that we mean to put our own house in order in due course, but all of us here must do all that we can to restore trust in politics, and it is axiomatic that part of that process must involve consideration of which electoral system can best serve the people of this country and asking them to make a decision. Our response is to put in place a credible alternative that would go with the grain of what the British people value in our system, and allow them to express their clear view in a referendum.
Sensible constitutional change should enhance the effectiveness and legitimacy of our institutions, not undermine them. I suggest, and I will suggest to the British people if these new clauses are passed, that adopting the alternative vote system would achieve that. The alternative vote system builds on the strengths of our current system: direct accountability for individual Members, and the chance for voters to select or eject Governments. I believe that it would help to rebuild the trust and connection between electors and their representatives that is vital to restoring politics.
I did answer it, and I will answer it again. The answer is that, even under an alternative vote system, if there are only two candidates there will be no need for eliminating ballots. But, as I pointed out, the system that the Conservative party uses is a system of eliminating ballots. It is not first past the post.
Order. The Secretary of State’s appetite for debating and responding to interjections is legendary, but we are reaching a stage at which it is perhaps disrupting progress, and I am anxious to make the debate as inclusive as it can possibly be. I simply suggest that Members on both sides of the Committee should bear that in mind if we are to make progress and allow other voices to be heard.
Thank you, Sir Alan. I will make a little progress now, but I will take more interventions later.
I suggest that, by allowing the public to express a range of preferences, the alternative vote would increase the electorate’s stake in their representatives, encouraging candidates to appeal to the whole electorate. Under AV, MPs would, by definition, have to receive 50 per cent. plus one from those voting and exercising their preferences. That could only be good for the legitimacy of Members and for the House as a whole.
I will in a second.
Between 1945 and 1970, the Labour and Conservative parties shared over 85 per cent. of the votes cast. For the three elections between 1951 and 1959 the share was over 90 per cent., and the share of the third party was less than 6 per cent. However, as I have said, that period was atypical of British politics in the 20th and 21st centuries. Every contest now involves at least three candidates; in Scotland and Northern Ireland there are at least four, and, given the involvement of newer parties, often more. It is telling that at the last election, in 2005, only about a third of MPs won 50 per cent. or more of the votes cast in their constituencies.
It may be suggested that this is a sudden idea, but that is untrue. The proposals for the alternative vote have been debated in the House and the other place for exactly 100 years.
I will in a second.
It was 100 years ago this year that a royal commission unanimously recommended the adoption of the alternative vote. However, the recommendation became caught up in the constitutional crisis when the unelected Conservative majority in the House of Lords decided to disrupt Lloyd George’s excellent “People’s Budget”.
It has been said that we should not spend a one-off £80 million at a time of economic crisis. However, the country faced a profound existential crisis in 1917 when the first world war was going badly. At that time the Government sensibly decided that they needed to look to the future, and recommended a change in the system through a Speaker’s Conference—which, I remind the Committee, Winston Churchill supported as a Liberal. As a consequence of those proposals, the alternative vote was put before the House. [Interruption.] A Conservative Member mentions the Speaker’s Conference, but what it recommended was different from what the House decided, and, in the end, it is the House that decides. Again, however, thanks to the built-in Conservative majority in the other place, this House’s decision to go for the alternative vote was overturned, and instead the other place went not for first past the post, but for a system of proportional representation, and as a result the Bill fell.
Can my right hon. Friend not see that there is a flaw in his argument when he compares national elections with the electoral system within parties, where we decide on our candidates and leaders in such a way as to choose the least unpopular, rather than the most popular? Under the alternative vote system in national elections, it is likely that there would have been even more Conservative MPs after the 1983 general election and more Labour MPs after 1997. How is that fair, and how is that going to raise confidence among the electorate?
I would make two points in response to that. First, these so-called extrapolations cannot take into account how voter behaviour would change under a different system, but I profoundly believe it would do so—that must be the case. The late, excellent, noble Lord Alexander of Weedon made a good point in his dissenting note to the 1999 Jenkins report about what happened in ’83 and ’97. I have never believed that voters would react in the way that was proposed, however. Moreover, what we are debating now is not whether the House should decide on the alternative vote, but simply whether we give the British people an opportunity to have a debate about the matter.
My second point is about my hon. Friend’s statement that there is a difference between elections of party leaders and elections of MPs. I do not accept what he says on that. The reason all major parties have an eliminating ballot system is so that the person who is elected leader has legitimacy and a broad consensus of support. I suggest, particularly to those of us who profoundly believe in single-Member constituencies, that that is of even more importance in constituencies than it is for party leaders.
Given that the objective of a general election is to determine a Parliament and a Government, does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that merely to get a 50 per cent. majority for each individual constituency does not result in a party having 50 per cent. of the seats in Parliament, and therefore we do not get the 50 per cent. majority implicit in the principles he is putting forward on behalf of the idea of individual MPs for individual constituencies?
I think that AV would be fairer. Did my right hon. Friend hear the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) say on the radio this morning and “Newsnight” last night that seats such as mine that have been represented by Members of the same political party for decades—that has been the case in my constituency since the first world war, not the second—are more likely to be involved in the expenses scandal? When I came to the House this morning, I checked on that, and I have to say that more than 30 per cent. of Liberal Democrat MPs have had to pay money back because of the Legg report. Has my right hon. Friend conducted any investigations into whether there is a causal link between seats such as mine and people claiming money they should not have?
Without being tempted down that path, I say to my right hon. Friend that I, too, felt rather gypped when I heard the hon. Member for Eastleigh suggesting that, somehow, those of us who are Members for seats that the same party has represented for the past 60 years are less worthy than those who represent more marginal seats. There is a reason why my constituency has been Labour since 1945. It is not because it is a “safe seat”; it is because there have been two successive Members of Parliament, of which I have the privilege to be one, who have sought to place the interests of their constituents first and above all else. That is also true of Members of other parties, of course.
I am most grateful to the Lord Chancellor for giving way. Since he has now mentioned his constituents and the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) has mentioned the expenses scandal, can he tell us how many people who were gathered around his soap box in Blackburn on the last occasion that he was on it told him that the answer to the expenses scandal was the introduction of the alternative vote?
I am holding a soap box session this Saturday in Blackburn town centre, and I invite the right hon. and learned Gentleman to come along and ask me a question. The serious answer, however, is that very few constituents have articulated proposals for dealing with the problem of trust in politics—those proposals include the setting up of the parliamentary standards authority and the Wright Committee recommendations. People sense, however, that we need to make changes. They sense the need for greater legitimacy in our system. Above all, they want a greater and more immediate say on the system, and that is what the measure being discussed would provide.
I have taken a lot of interventions, and I am now going to make some progress.
I am sure that we will hear of Winston Churchill’s dismissal of the alternative vote in the Third Reading debate on the Representation of the People (No.2) Bill in June 1931. That was the third attempt in 21 years to get a change in that regard, but each of them was thwarted not by this House, but by the Conservative majority in the unelected House of Lords. Churchill said that a decision under AV
“is to be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates.”—[Official Report, 2 June 1931; Vol. 253, c. 106.]
However, those who pray Churchill in aid need to be careful. First, as ever with Winston Churchill, he changed his mind more than once—and he supported AV in 1917. Secondly, his first preference was not for first past the post, but for proportional representation, and his “next best method” was “the second ballot”, which is simply a longer, more expensive form of AV.
Let me turn to a point raised by the hon. Members for Cambridge (David Howarth) and for Eastleigh. I do not dismiss the case for PR out of hand, and I know that it has some adherents on the Labour Benches. Where elections are to a body that has a representative, not an Executive, function, I have always accepted that the case for PR is much stronger. The truth is that every system has its advantages and disadvantages, but we are of the firm view that a majoritarian system is right for the Commons.
Let me now deal with the specific question of why we propose a referendum. As I have said, this is a matter of trust. Over most of the past 13 years, I have been the Secretary of State with responsibility for coming to the House with various pieces of constitutional change. Some of them have been controversial at the beginning, but on every occasion I and the Government have sought to reach a consensus across the Floor of the House, as we did in respect of the Human Rights Act 1998, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and the provisions on party funding in 2000 and 2009, and also in respect of devolution, when the proposals were put to a referendum. I believe it is essential that changes to our electoral system—big changes, such as to the number of MPs, which I shall come on to—must be the subject of some kind of cross-party endorsement or referendum, and cannot be seen as partisan tools in the hands of an individual party.
No, I am going to make some progress.
That is how we have approached these matters in the past. Between 1997 and 2005, we could have used our huge majorities as a battering ram to disable the Conservative Opposition, but we never did so, because of the care that we, and the Liberal Democrats, have for the way our constitution operates. I must also say that the Conservatives would be willing to take part in that approach. However, let us compare what we propose, which is to ask the British people whether they wish to change the electoral system, with the Conservative party’s alternative for restoring trust, which is for a 10 per cent. cut in the number of Members of Parliament, without testing the will of the people in a referendum or any effort being made—
No, I am going to make progress. The hon. and learned Gentleman has a speech to make, too. The Conservatives will not make any effort to seek any kind of cross-party consensus.
Cutting 65 to 80 seats by crudely equalising registered voters across constituencies would unjustifiably reduce the number of seats in urban areas when we already know, according to the Electoral Commission’s independent estimate, that most of the 3 million people who are eligible to vote but who are not registered are to be found in our inner urban areas—[Interruption.] It certainly would be gerrymandering. It would disadvantage Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It would hit every island community. Orkney and Shetland would be amalgamated with a large part of the highlands. The Isle of Wight would be amalgamated with a large part of Hampshire—[Interruption.] Oh yes, it would.
It might assist the Committee if I set out the views of the Electoral Reform Society, which states:
“Conservative proposals mean that most constituencies will pay less regard to what most voters think of as community and natural boundaries, and change more frequently, destabilising the link between MPs and constituents.”
It went on to say that the
the Conservatives have obviously picked this idea up from the United States—
“has rigorous requirements for arithmetical equality of population in congressional districts, but the worst gerrymandering in the developed world. Equal sized constituencies cannot produce fair votes by themselves”—
I have given way to the hon. and learned Gentleman three times.
The Conservative proposals are in stark contrast with the Government’s proposals. We are seeking to legislate for a referendum to give the people a say. The Opposition’s aim is to butcher scores of constituencies for sordid political ends, without recourse to any independent review or opportunity for public comment. As a friend of the Conservative party and somebody who has always been concerned about its health, I offer the following thought. It plans if elected—a receding prospect—to make this change within 18 months and with no proper consultation. Once it has made the change, guess what will happen? The majority of Conservatives in government would not be fighting the Opposition; they would be fighting each other—
The Secretary of State cannot have it both ways. He cannot, on the one hand, rightly highlight the fact that the pain of the change would be shared equally across both sides of the House and then, on the other hand, say that it has been put forward for party political advantage. May I gently point out to him that the United States has gerrymandering because the votes and the selection of the constituencies and their sizes are determined by the legislatures without intervention from any independent boundary commission? As this decision will be in the hands of the boundary commissioners, I hope that the Secretary of State will now withdraw that ludicrous allegation.
I do not withdraw that allegation, because it happens to have the merit of being true. What is more, as the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, the proposal would disproportionately hit urban areas, where there are fewer Conservative Members—although there are still some—and more Labour and Liberal Democrat Members, because of the under-representation on the electoral register of millions of voters in those areas. The hon. and learned Gentleman also fails to take account of the need for natural communities to be represented in the House.
Another point makes the Conservative proposal completely bogus. There is a suggestion that the size of this House has somehow increased exponentially. That is not true. The size of this House has increased by 3 per cent.—21 Members—since 1950. The size of our constituencies has increased by 25 per cent. over that period. The work load from constituencies of Members of Parliament, even in the time that I have been in the House, has dramatically increased. The consequence of the Conservative proposals would be to gerrymander boundaries, detach Members of Parliament from their constituencies and, where Members of Parliament exist, add considerably to their work load. That can only mean that the level of service to constituents would be less good, at a time when we should be increasing it.
Let me briefly run through the amendments and new clauses. Amendment 136 provides for a number of provisions in the Bill to come into force when it receives Royal Assent. New clause 88 makes provision for the date of the referendum and the detail of the question to be set by secondary legislation after consultation with the Electoral Commission, defines the alternative vote system that would be the subject of the referendum and defines that it will be a binary choice. New clause 89 defines the franchise, new clause 90 defines the referendum period, new clause 91 relates to the role of the Electoral Commission, new clause 92 provides for funds to be made available, new clause 93 provides a mechanism for settling accounts for expenditure, new clause 94 relates to challenges to the referendum result and new clauses 95 and 96 make minor amendments to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Amendment 137 amends the long title of the Bill. Let me remind the House that the 2000 Act contains detailed regulation to ensure fair play, including fair money, for both sides of a referendum campaign. This is an important debate. Its subject is a fundamental plank of our democracy and it comes at a time when this House is held in dangerously low regard. The Government have tabled these new clauses after considerable study and consideration.
The debate about AV has been going on for 100 years. The alternative vote takes on the considerable strengths of our system and, I suggest, builds on them. We propose a referendum, however, because we believe that it is not for us to make the final decision. It is important that the people should have that choice in a referendum. If the Conservative Opposition feel so strongly about the merits of first past the post, why do they not have the courage of their convictions? They should back the proposals and allow the people in their constituencies, as well as those in every other constituency across the country, to make that choice—a mature and balanced choice—after detailed debate some time before October 2011. That is what we propose and that is what I believe should be supported. I commend the new clauses to the House.
I am truly sorry to see the Secretary of State being obliged to be associated with this guff.
The best starting point would be for the Secretary of State to take a short absence from the Chamber to look at the excellent blog site run by his son, Will Straw, on which there has been extensive polling in left-of-centre areas of radicalism about these proposals. No more than 20 per cent., he has concluded, support the alternative vote proposed by the Government and 29 per cent. want no referendum at all. Perhaps we should not be surprised to learn, particularly from a left-of-centre blog, that the vast majority of the remainder want such disparate things that it is impossible to assess what they desire. I think that the Secretary of State would have done rather well to have considered that blog first.
The Government have tabled new clause 88 at this late stage of the proceedings—indeed, at this late stage of the life of new Labour—following the Prime Minister’s belated conversion to the cause of electoral reform, which he has so successfully and personally obstructed for more than a decade. For the benefit of Liberal Democrat Members, I think that it is worth recapping the history of new Labour’s conversion to the cause of electoral reform.
In 1990, Labour set up the Plant commission, which recommended something that was basically the alternative vote. What was the view of the Prime Minister? He said that it was “defeatism” and attacked
“those who say Labour cannot win and who seek refuge from Labour’s mission ahead as a crusade for change in the technicalities of electoral manoeuvring and horse-trading”.
How the mighty are fallen.
In 1997, the Government were elected on a clear manifesto promise of a referendum on electoral reform. We all know that it was a device—we know what happens when the Prime Minister promises a referendum. The Government got Lord Jenkins to devise an alternative voting system. Let us remember what Lord Jenkins thought of AV, which the Liberal Democrats will support, I assume, if they cannot get their amendment through. He said that it is “even less proportional” than the first-past-the-post system, “disturbingly unpredictable”, and “unfair” to the Conservative party—not that that has ever affected Liberal Democrat and Labour thinking very much. He proposed the proportional system, AV-plus, which he thought fairer. What happened to the promise of a referendum? At that point, the Government’s commitment to it completely faded away.
May we purse the point that the Justice Secretary made about whether voters would have changed their behaviour in 1983 so that there would not have been an even more disproportionate result? If my hon. and learned Friend’s constituents in Beaconsfield had been voting under AV, how could they have worked out how to vote to avoid having a bigger Conservative majority in 1983 or a bigger Labour majority in 1997? I do not quite understand what the Justice Secretary is going on about.
I am extremely uncertain what the Justice Secretary is going on about. My view, particularly in the light of his remarks about the state into which the House has fallen, is that the electorate want the opportunity to express their views, and that if they happen to have a very adverse view of a Member of Parliament, they will want that Member to be removed. The last thing that they want is a situation in which the person against whom they have an adverse view comes second, but then magically comes first when the alternative votes are transferred.
Does my hon. and learned Friend remember that the assessment of what would have happened in 1983 and 1997 was not a party political assessment, but a cold, academic assessment? It said that the results in both cases would have been much less proportionate than what happened under the first-past-the-post system and would have meant substantial over-representation.
I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend and I apologise if I did not do justice to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) made when I replied to his intervention. I accept entirely that the research that has been carried out on this matter shows clearly, as I have illustrated in terms of the electorate’s will, that the system skews the results of elections in a way that is manifestly unfair.
I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way because he has just given away my party’s whole case, which is that proportionality and fairness are the same thing. If he does not believe that, why does he care about the point that the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) made?
I believe in the first-past-the-post system and that the Secretary of State, in terms of his adherence to the alternative vote, does too. That is what distinguishes my party from the Liberal Democrats, who have been clamouring for proportional representation for a long time because that is the only way in which they might wield any influence.
Let me make some progress. I fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I believe that the first-past-the-post system delivers clear, clean results. That is why my party has consistently adhered to that system, whether it has been to the party’s advantage or disadavantage to do so. That is more than can be said for the Government, as is clear from the inconsistencies in the way they are operating.
I remember the last time that the Justice Secretary came before the House to change an electoral system. That was some years ago, when we changed to the list system for European elections. I remember clearly the argument about changing behaviour, which was that turnout would go up when we got rid of the first-past-the-post system. In fact, the opposite happened, so changed behaviour can be bad rather than good.
My hon. Friend is quite right. The list system has effectively destroyed European elections for all practical purposes in the minds of the electorate, and is one of the great disasters that we have visited upon the country. That is reflected in low turnouts and the contempt that people feel about what is now a sort of Buggins’ turn system that is dictated by the political parties.
While the hon. and learned Gentleman is extolling the virtues of the first-past-the-post system, will he answer the question that the Justice Secretary refused to answer? How low would the Government’s share of the vote have to be for the hon. and learned Gentleman to regard the system as illegitimate? Would it have to be lower than 35 per cent., which is what the Government had?
It seems to me that it is a legitimate system whatever the percentage, because the electorate are asked a perfectly straightforward question—who do they wish to represent them? It gives the majority view on a single person. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman cannot see that. The system is straightforward, simple and requires people to make sensible choices about who is likely to be elected and who they might therefore wish to support. For those reasons, I think that the system is extremely clear and commands widespread support.
In my constituency—I make this point also in the context of the Liberal Democrats—I get very few representations about changing the electoral system. I suspect that the same is true for many hon. Members. The more that people study proportional representation systems, including purist systems such as that in Israel, the more they must conclude that such systems saddle countries with impossible legislatures, that no proper governance can be carried out under them and that they bring inertia. For those reasons, PR does not commend itself to me.
In a moment. Let me make a tiny bit more progress.
I was just pointing out that when the first great reform went into the sands, it was the leader of the Liberal Democrats who pointed out that it was the then Chancellor, the current Prime Minister, who blocked it. The current Home Secretary has said that Labour
“lost the will to carry it through…when narrow party political advantage dominated our internal debate in the Labour Party.”
I fear that the Justice Secretary is moving towards that position again, because the only conclusion that one can reach from the incoherent proposals before us is that they are seen to have a narrow party political advantage for the Government. Many Government Back Benchers, however, can see that the proposals are seriously flawed.
Surely, if there was a bias in the elections that have been mentioned, it was not in the voting system but in the second preferences of Liberal Democrat voters. The answer to that for the hon. and learned Gentleman must be to broaden his party’s appeal and not to deny voters a choice.
Voters have a choice.
I agree that voters have a choice. Frankly, I am singularly unconcerned about the Liberal Democrats’ preferences or tendencies, or about where they will go for a second vote. I am by no means persuaded that the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) is right. The evidence from my constituency is that it is most improbable that Liberal Democrat voters would exercise a second preference vote in favour of a Labour candidate, but things might be different in other places.
In a moment.
When the Prime Minister took office in 2007, he promised to publish a review. In 2005, Labour announced that it was conducting a review, and in 2007 he said that he was going to publish it. This is a key issue because he did not make any attempt to hide the fact that the report had already been written. In fact, it was effectively locked in the Justice Secretary’s bottom drawer. There was a problem with the 2005 review because even though its terms of reference were to look at the voting systems that were used, someone, in conducting the review for the Labour party, seemed to have asked the team to look at the alternative vote as well. The conclusion that the review came to was that the AV was capable of producing even more disproportionate outcomes nationally than the first-past-the-post system.
What is fair about a system that means that those who vote for the first or second-most popular parties only get to vote once whereas those who vote for the third or fourth-most popular parties get to vote twice? Why should they get to vote twice if the rest of us are not able to?
I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. I was not going to quote Churchill, but it seems to me that that is a problem that he correctly identified in 1931—the disproportionate weighting that the system would give to the views of those who are idiotic or ridiculous.
On that point, given what the hon. and learned Gentleman has just said, what is his position on the Conservative party’s system for electing its leaders?
I thought that we had sorted this out in interventions on the Secretary of State. We are talking there about electing a single person to an office, not about electing a Parliament. In any event, it is not an alternative vote system, as only two people go to the electorate. The electorate do not have a choice between more than two candidates in the first place.
In January 2008, the Secretary of State published his review, from which the section on the alternative vote system had mysteriously and conveniently disappeared. However, anyone who bothered to read the detail would see that the review provides a snapshot of what would have happened at the 2005 general election, had it been run under a variety of voting systems. Helpfully for the Prime Minister, on page 130 it also provides a useful ready reckoner. It considers in depth the d’Hondt method, the least-squares proportionality system and Arrow’s paradox, but what was plumped for was the only system that would have given Labour even more seats than first past the post at the 2005 election. I might add that the same system was the only one that would have given the Conservative party fewer seats than in 2005—even though, in England, we gained a majority of the votes cast.
From the many debates that we have had on Scotland, the hon. Gentleman knows that we are respecters of the devolution settlement. I am happy to debate reform of the first-past-the-post system there, and indeed the Secretary of State has tried to debate that too, but our respect for devolution means that, notwithstanding our support for reform, we would not impose a new system. That is something that must be determined by the Scottish Government and electorate.
However, I do share the view of the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) in one respect. When I visit Scotland, the people to whom I speak are not, on the whole, Conservative party supporters. My experience is that there seems to be a great deal of dissatisfaction with the electoral system that has been foisted on the Scottish electorate, who appear to be deeply unhappy with it. For those reasons, I believe that the Scottish system is something that the House ought to heed, as it does not offer a good reason why we should go down the same road.
Yes, it is fair. I have no difficulty with the first-past-the-post system for Westminster elections, as I have made clear. The fact that my party in Scotland has very poor representation in Scotland is a challenge that we must do something about. If we cannot, we will continue to have very poor levels of representation—simple as that.
Before the hon. and learned Gentleman moves on, he has made great play of the review of voting systems. I have the document here—
Then he should not quote from documents with which he is not familiar. In the introduction to the scenario to which he has just referred it states:
“A large number of assumptions have to be made”.
That is precisely the point that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman accept that we cannot be so arrogant as to presume how voters will vote under a new system that is different from what has been in place in the past?
I understood the Secretary of State to say that he assumed that people would vote differently. That is another piling-on of assumptions, and I do not think that this House should legislate on the basis of such assumptions. All I can do is point out what the report says, including the fact that it makes it clear that the alternative vote system would have delivered more seats than the first-past-the-post system for Labour in 2005, even though it only gained 36 per cent. of the popular vote. That seems to me to be a very poor starting-point for change in that direction.
Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that it is very difficult to decide how people would have voted in any past election? However, is it not sensible to try to take the best estimate of that, rather than one that comes out of the air? The document makes it clear that, of all possible systems, the alternative vote system would have been more unfair than first past the post on every occasion.
Yes, I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. I presume that the Minister of State was speaking on behalf of the Government, so it is astonishing that he should rise to his feet and say—suddenly and almost ex improviso—that the Committee should not follow that series of assumptions. We have to make a judgment, on the basis of what the evidence suggests.
Does my hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the Secretary of State once understood that himself? The unfairness described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) has to do with proportionality. When the previous Labour Prime Minister flirted with these matters, the Secretary of State said that first past the post, and similar systems, give
“power to the largest plurality and so help secure a system where the proportionality, not between votes and seats, but between votes and power, may be the greater.”—[Official Report, 25 November 1997; Vol. 301, c. 804.]
I wonder why he changed his mind about that.
I have a soft spot for the Secretary of State, and I have to tell my hon. Friend that I wonder whether he really has changed his mind. The way that the new clause has been introduced, the length of time that it took to germinate, the internal debates that clearly took place at parliamentary Labour party meetings and the sounds that one could hear coming out of the Room where they took place—all of that rather strongly suggests that the Secretary of State was fighting a rearguard action against a Prime Minister who was both losing the plot and taking leave of his political senses in a desperate bid to stay in office.
Is not the greatest absurdity of all the fact that the Secretary of State knows full well that there is no chance of this Bill becoming law? There is no time for Parliament to pass the legislation before the general election, so are we not merely going through a ridiculous charade?
Labour and Liberal Democrat representatives seem keen to say that we use the alternative vote system for our internal party elections, but we do not. The system used for our leadership election is the progressive rounds model, under which one candidate drops out at each stage, with everyone being given a vote on the remaining candidates. That could not conceivably be adopted for general elections, as having six or seven candidates at the start would mean that the election would take about three months. The electorate would get bored, and the costs would be massive.
I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend, but this is not the first time that we have had surreal proposals from Labour Members.
I want to return to what has happened recently. Last week, after 13 years in power, only weeks away from a general election and with the Secretary of State’s party behind in the polls, the Prime Minister decides that he is going to break yet another promise. Whereas he previously said that he would put a commitment to a referendum on AV to the people at a general election, and notwithstanding his party’s internal debates, he is now going to introduce the system in this Bill.
It is very difficult to take seriously a person who is dithering around for what is clearly nothing more than the shortest-term possible political advantage. Why did the Justice Secretary go along with this? Did the Welsh Secretary twist his arm? Did the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport pull rank on him? I find it incomprehensible why somebody with the common sense of the Secretary of State would decide to go down that road, and I feel truly sorry for him.
No, I really must make progress.
The Liberal Democrats have tabled amendment (d) to give the public a choice on the proportional representation system that the Liberal Democrats have long and consistently campaigned for. As I said a moment ago, that system would lead to weak, unstable government, to minority parties holding the balance of power on a tiny fraction of the vote, and to extensive parliamentary representation for madmen and extremists. The Liberal Democrats have supported PR for a very long time, but I long ago realised that in matters of rationality the Liberal Democrats do not surface very much.
This is the issue: amendment (d) will be put to the vote later and defeated. I forgive myself for turning to a role of prophecy, but I think that I can say with some certainty that the amendment is going absolutely nowhere. What then are those hon. Gentlemen from the Liberal Democrats going to do? How on earth are they going to justify voting for a system that is less proportionate than first past the post? I heard the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), their Home Affairs spokesman, say earlier today that they would support the alternative vote system in the referendum because it represented “baby steps” towards proportional representation. It is no wonder the Prime Minister thinks that the Liberal Democrats were born yesterday.
Time after time, the Liberal Democrats are succoured by broken promises of electoral reform, but there may be another reason for their support. Again, if we turn to the ready-reckoner in the Ministry’s review, which the Minister has, we find that, although the alternative vote system is less proportionate overall, it would significantly benefit just one other political party apart from Labour. [Hon. Members: “Who?”] It would benefit—surprisingly—the Liberal Democrats, giving them more seats. So they must think that we were born yesterday if they think that we are going to support such a proposal.
The hon. and learned Gentleman has spent his entire speech arguing for the merits of a system that is disproportionate and gives one-party government, and arguing against AV because it is more disproportionate than first past the post. Should he not have spent more time preparing his speech?
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.
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.
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.
The new clauses before the Committee would not impose the alternative vote system on the British people, but give them a choice. As far as I can tell, the hon. and learned Gentleman has not used one word of his speech to oppose those clauses, so, if he is so confident of his opinions, why is he scared of putting them to the British people?
I refer the Secretary of State to his son’s blog. [Interruption.] Yes, I do. I commend it to the right hon. Gentleman, because it highlights the fact that the Government have not chosen to give the electorate any viable choice in this bogus referendum. The only choice is between an established system and a system that is so manifestly flawed—except for the possible short-term advantage that it delivers—that it is not worthy of consideration. I have some sympathy with the Liberal Democrats, because, if the Government wanted to offer a constitutional convention-style approach to the electorate, with a multiplicity of choices, the Secretary of State’s argument might have some force. At the moment, however, it has none, because what is being offered is a short-term gimmick.
May I commend to the Secretary of State the words of his hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris)? On his blog of 19 November, he said,
“you know the best way of electing a Labour government? Not through messy, sordid little deals with the minor parties, but by winning more votes than the Tories. That’s how they stayed in power for most of the last century—by beating us in elections; by offering the electorate policies that were more popular than ours.”
Clearly, the Prime Minister has given up on that strategy, but we should not be too surprised. The hon. Gentleman went on to say that
“we simply reinforce the notion…that we have nothing to offer the voters but electoral calculations.”
The hon. and learned Gentleman has quoted at great length from the review of voting systems, but on the spreadsheet that he has cited so often the review says that
“the ERS analysis assumed that in the 2005 election relatively few voters who principally favoured another party would have put them”—
the Conservative party—
“as second choice.”
Why does he think that is?
I have not the slightest idea. The Minister is now getting bogged down—[Interruption.] But he is. He wishes to embrace that document, so why have the Government come to the House to say that there should be a referendum on moving from the first-past-the-post system only to an alternative vote system? The Minister cannot escape that issue, and it highlights the way in which the Government have conducted the whole debate. That is why I shall ask my colleagues, and, indeed, every Member who wants any sensible debate about electoral reform, to reject the proposals before us.
On my hon. and learned Friend’s point about why only one alternative voting system would be offered, does he not think that if AV were such a good idea the Government would come forward with a list of opportunities and, using AV, tell the electorate to put them in some kind of order?
Yes, my hon. Friend makes a good point. The evidence of the Government’s motivation is overwhelming, and it comes from their own supporters. Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, a founder member of Charter 88, said:
“It smacks of the usual scheming and calculation—just what political reform should be designed to end.”
Labour’s former Mayor of London said:
“Many people like myself who have long fought for a truly representative voting system will be left with no alternative but to support first-past-the-post because the AV alternative is even worse...Those voters who have backed one of the two strongest candidates in a constituency get no further say in the process, whereas those who have voted for minor parties and crank candidates then get a second vote to determine the outcome between the two leading parties.”
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) says:
“First past the post is the only sensible system”—[Official Report, 16 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 156.]
while the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) says that
“the alternative vote system…can be even more disproportionate in its effects than the first-past-the-post system”—[Official Report, 16 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 155.]
As I said at the beginning, this proposal is guff. As was rightly highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), the straightforward point is that the Government know very well that this debate is going nowhere. We are now on the sixth day of the Committee stage of a major constitutional Bill. The House is about to break for 10 days. There will have to be Report and Third Reading, and there is not the slightest prospect of this legislation’s reaching the House of Lords before the very end of the month or early March for Second Reading. On all the evidence, this House will finally have died into Dissolution by the end of March or early April.
All the posturing that the Government have fed us this evening, all their insistence on the importance of party loyalty from their own Back Benchers—many of whose views I respect and many of whom are clearly unhappy with the proposals—are for the shortest-term political advantage. With spin, a bit of media management and some smoke and mirrors, the Government try to make out that this is something new in new Labour. In fact, as far as I can see, it is the dying jerks of a Government who have run out of ideas. That makes it all a bit miserable, but the fact that the Liberal Democrats are prepared to sign up makes it a complete charade. We will oppose the proposals.
After that happy start, I rise again to speak to new clause 88; in passing, I shall obviously want to speak to the amendments tabled in my name on the amendment paper.
I want to pick up the theme on which the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) ended and which the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) noted earlier. I hope that whoever is in the control box allowing what we say today to go out on the network has already pulled the plug in that it must be worrying for our constituents to watch us seriously debating a measure that we know will not affect legislation, the election result or whether we have a referendum.
In tabling my amendments, which I cannot yet move, Sir Alan, I hoped to turn this debate into a general discussion of parliamentary reform. One theme unites many of us on both sides of the House—the uncomfortable fact that a large number of us are returned to the House with only minority support. What we do about that is the beginning of the debate, not the end of it.
What worries me about the proposals that we are debating is that it is not difficult to imagine some of our colleagues initially being clear winners against three or four other candidates, but, through a process of elimination, losing their seats because the votes eventually go to the runner-up. There is a terrible illogicality in having a system in which a candidate can have a clear lead in the first-preference votes, but in which the second or third-preference votes become equal to the first-preference votes in further stages of the counting. Clearly, those other votes are not equal to the first-preference votes; if they had been, people would have voted differently in the first place.
The point that the right hon. Gentleman has made is disturbing enough when it involves the extra power that would be gained by those whom we deride on the Liberal Democrat Benches. It is chilling, however, when one considers that it would also give extra power to those whom we detest in small, extreme parties that I shall not honour by naming.
I totally agree, but I do not want to go down that particular route; I want to try to move on the debate a little.
Should the plug in the control box not have been pulled and should our constituents be watching this debate, they will think how old-fashioned it is that the only way in which we are talking about election is in respect of the old parliamentary system. There has been a big debate in the country about how we select candidates. Some people have an objection to safe seats; the answer, surely, is to consider seriously—not necessarily embrace—paying some attention to the mechanisms by which we select candidates.
My own seat of Birkenhead is quite safe—it was at the last election, at least. The real fight is about who will be the Labour candidate. I would welcome our having an open primary, in which there was a real contest for the Labour candidature; everybody would know that the person who won that would also win the seat. The quid pro quo would probably be that we would move back to seeing uncontested returns in “safe seats” where open primaries were held.
We hope that they will be excellent candidates and MPs. Having been selected in that way, they will certainly have a different authority from that of the rest of us. That is why I wish that we had embraced that system. I wrote to the Labour party campaign, asking whether it was going to have an open primary. I was told that it would love to, but that it would cost £50,000. I asked whether it was possible to find that money, but I was told that the campaign was in the business not of raising money, but of issuing press releases. That did not take us much further.
I support what the right hon. Gentleman has said about open primaries. Does he agree that, particularly at a time when participation in politics and political life is at an all-time low, anything that brings more people into the political process is devoutly to be welcomed?
It is. One of the constraints on our current debate has been our use of an old-fashioned set of spectacles, always looking at engagement as being only one-way, rather than looking at where the voters might be. The selection of candidates, as the hon. Gentleman has affirmed, is one key way of addressing that.
My right hon. Friend has already accepted the dangers of the costs of an open-primary system. Does he not also accept that, in logic, a primary system is essentially a process of electoral elimination, whereby weaker candidates fall away and those who support them end up helping to decide who finally wins? That very logic has been criticised in the alternative vote system. Surely the real issue is about how we get to a point at which every Member can truly say that they have a measure of mandate from a majority of their constituents. That gives us the alternative vote.
I am grateful for that, but I shall not go down that route; the Chairman might suggest that I should be speaking to the main new clause and not that issue.
If what used to be called safe seats adopted a method of open primaries that were followed by uncontested results at the general election, the overall cost to the electoral system might not be that much greater. In other words, we would be using some of the money currently used in a general election to extend—[Interruption.] It is very good, is it not, that we now see where the Liberal Democrats stand on this issue? They are laughing at the idea of people trying to grapple with how we make it easier for our electorates to make their views sovereign in the process rather than ours.
My right hon. Friend has obviously thought very deeply about we can address the disillusion with politics. However, is not this a particularly difficult time to go to the electorate and say that we want more money for the internal political process? Even in a seat like Birkenhead, if a Labour candidate is selected by an open primary, we cannot guarantee that there will not be a succeeding election and therefore an extra call on money from the public purse.
I think that there are dangers with open primaries. Supporters of the Opposition parties may turn up and vote for the weakest candidate, or there may be a candidate with a particular interest—for example, a pro-life candidate—who floods the place with their supporters. This could end up being very undemocratic.
I hope, Sir Alan, that you will nevertheless allow me to conclude this part of my speech. During the open primary in Totnes, the Liberal Democrats set out to try to get the person they considered to be the weakest candidate elected, and thanks to their campaign the weakest candidate came bottom of the poll. We must not underestimate the common sense of our voters.
No, I am going to make a small amount of progress, because you, Sir Alan, were kind enough to say that I could mention, at least in passing, the amendments that I have tabled.
The amendments try to address the central weakness of the proposal that the Government wish us to carry tonight—that a system of voting whereby second, third and fourth preference votes in constituencies where there is no majority winner then become, in a progressive movement, first preference votes. I do not believe that one can support that system.
I know that my right hon. Friend has 65 per cent. of the first preference votes in Birkenhead, and I compliment him on that. Does he recognise that there are already millions of voters in hundreds of constituencies who know that their first preference does not have a chance and therefore vote for their second preference? We already live in a system where millions of people use the alternative vote, but they have to guess who the top two are going to be. Does he recognise that in the majority of constituencies the situation that he has described does not obtain, and that we need a solution to tactical voting, which is the alternative vote system?
If that is my hon. Friend’s thinking, I hope that I will persuade him of the merits of my amendment. I do not want anyone to think that I am not concerned about the fact that votes are not equal between constituencies. If we go back in history, one of the demands—it was not just a radical plea of the Chartists, but one that was picked up on the other side—was to have single votes and equal votes. It is clearly very different if we look at the numbers by which Labour Members and Conservative Members are elected. Unfairest of all is how many votes the Liberal Democrats have to receive to get a single Member of Parliament.
In my amendment, I propose the French system, whereby people have a vote whereby they are free to nominate any number of candidates that they wish, and they have a first preference vote. In constituencies where the candidate gets 50 per cent. plus one, they are declared elected. In all the other constituencies where a majority of the voters who turn out have not elected a member, during the following week the top two candidates are put back on to the ballot paper. In those circumstances, there is no need to guess, because everybody has first preference votes again. It is true, of course, that that system might be more expensive, but given what we spend money on now, might not the electorate prefer it? Interestingly, it is consistently the case in France that turnout on the second day of polling is significantly higher than on the first day.
I am following my right hon. Friend’s remarks with care. I wonder whether he has studied some of the analysis by the Electoral Reform Society. When it conducted a survey of different sorts of preferential voting systems a couple of years ago and looked at the French experience, particularly in the presidential election, it found that there was precisely the kind of tactical voting that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) has mentioned. In particular, supporters of Chirac lent their votes to Le Pen to ensure that the run-off was between Le Pen and Chirac. That was a rather strange situation that did not really represent what was going on elsewhere. There is evidence of similar things happening in the presidential elections in Cyprus. Why does my right hon. Friend think that that would not happen here?
I am not putting this proposal forward as the silver bullet to solve all the problems. I welcome the fact that the Government, even late in the day, are opening up the whole debate on parliamentary reform. It is crucial that we constantly strive to improve the form of representation that we have in this country. I do not think for one moment that it would guarantee that we did not get such results, although such voting is dominant mainly in elections of the French Parliament, not the French President. Given those circumstances, I hope that we will look seriously not only at the one option that is being put forward today but at a series of alternatives in the form of a debate rather than moving to a resolution this evening.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. If he presses his amendment with the three alternatives to the vote, I will vote with him. On the AV system, does he accept that voters will not easily switch their allegiance between the main political parties, so the real political advantage will go to independents? Does he think that that might be a good thing, and that people might want to have more independents in this House in order to break the grip of the Whips from the main political parties?
Much as I have difficulty with this proposal, because it is based on the French system, does my right hon. Friend agree that we would need to take the whole package? French national politicians also have local representative roles, and I have always felt that one of the weaknesses of the UK system is that we have to throw away our local power base to get elected as an MP. That is a weakness, is it not?
I will not go too far down that path, except to say that I have been in the House for 30 years, and it is interesting how the role of an MP has changed. Although we may not formally have the role that my hon. Friend has mentioned, my role as Back-Bench Member of Parliament representing a moderately safe seat—as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) was kind enough to point out—has changed out of all recognition in those 30 years. We do not have formal clout, and we are not elected to positions, but I am involved at a local level to a degree that would have been unimaginable when I first came into the House.
Indeed, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for saying so.
I want to bring my remarks to conclusion, if I may. I welcome the Government’s opening up this debate. It is not for us to put our sticky fingers into the soul of the Justice Secretary to try to work out what his motives are; we are all accountable for our own motives. In any event, good will come from our having a debate about how we can make this place more representative.
I do not believe for a moment that this is a serious legislative contribution, because even if we complete it in time, a deal will be done between the parties in the other place so that it does not see the light of day, and certainly so that it does not come back to us before the election. What we ought to take from today’s debate is the extraordinary enthusiasm for the matter. In which other debates do we get such a number of Members in the Chamber, even at Committee stage? We are interested in this issue, and I say to the Justice Secretary that today is the start of it, but sadly not the conclusion.
I am sorry that I do not agree with either of the points that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) made. That is unusual for me, because usually I agree with his points. The first was that under preferential voting systems, people effectively have more than one vote. That is not the case, because as the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) pointed out, they have one vote but are effectively asked what they would do with it if their first-preference candidate were not standing. That is called tactical voting, which happens all over the country in every general election, but in a preferential voting system it is done more formally and rationally, and people do not have to guess.
The right hon. Gentleman’s second point was in favour of the French system. I am sorry that I cannot follow him on that either, even though, unlike the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), I am generally a great admirer of all things French. The electoral system in France has had an unfortunate effect not just on its politics but on its culture and way of life, because it has split the whole country into two large camps of left and right. France suffers constantly from that, and we should not go down that route. It would have the effect—perhaps many Members would welcome this—of taking us back to a bipolar system that is very difficult to break into. It is very difficult for new views to come through in such a system.
It seemed to me that the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) had only one argument, which defeated his own case. It was that he was against AV because it could be less proportional than first past the post, which is true. If he accepts that argument, he should therefore accept that as the single transferrable vote system, for example, is more proportional than first past the post, it is better and fairer according to his own argument. The Conservative case therefore seems self-contradictory.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that many of us believe that despite its disproportionate drawbacks, the advantages of the first-past-the-post system are so great that it is better than any proportional system? It is perfectly possible to argue that proportionality is the only reason why one might want a change, and that this is the one disproportionate way of changing the system. It is therefore utterly barmy. To have a choice between first past the post and some sensible, proportional system, so that people could make a reasonable decision as to whether the advantages of one system outweighed its disadvantages, would be perfectly reasonable. However, to choose between one disproportionate—
I am trying to remember the start of the intervention. It seems to me that one cannot argue that first past the post balances the disadvantages of disproportionality and the advantages of decisiveness in such a well-calibrated way that any movement either way is obviously wrong. That does not make any sense, especially as everyone admits that we cannot tell precisely the degree to which AV would make a difference. We cannot answer that question, because preferential voting is like tactical voting but carried on in a different, more organised way. If tactical voting is unwound and people start to vote for their first preference, they will be voting in a way that they do not now. That is why it is perfectly reasonable to say that we do not know what the effect of the AV system would be.
Those of us who feel that we ought to move to a more proportional system cannot support the Liberal Democrat proposal, because it would break the link between the Member and the constituency. I would find it absolutely onerous to be a Member of Parliament representing the whole of Birmingham, for example, along with other Members. Why are the Liberal Democrats not supporting the proposal put forward by the royal commission, which is well thought out? It would move towards proportionality but by and large keep the link between even the additional Members and their constituents.
There are two points to consider in the hon. Lady’s question. The first is whether the single transferrable vote would break the constituency link, which it would not. It would just mean that there were more Members per constituency. It would break the one Member, one constituency link. For 17 years I was a local councillor and there were three members in my ward, but I did not feel that that meant I represented the people in my ward less. In fact, when a member of another party represented the ward for a few years, it increased competition between the parties in the ward and made us all better representatives.
The hon. Lady’s second point was about the Jenkins commission’s proposal, which was a political compromise but not one that we have to stay with for ever. It has a great number of disadvantages. First, it would set up two entirely different sorts of Member—the constituency Member and the list Member. There would be an overlap of responsibility between the two, but they would have very different mandates, which would lead to difficulties. Secondly, because the county seats would be so small—the lists would not be national; they would relate to very small regions by the standards of most regional list systems—the proposal would create the most extraordinary conflict of interest between AV-elected Members and county list Members. It would be in the interests of a list Member if his or her party colleagues lost in the constituency seat, which does not seem particularly sensible from the point of view of political parties or coherent government.
The situation that the hon. Gentleman describes applies under the additional Member system in both Scotland and Wales, and the most reasonable commentators do not see any difficulty with that system. If it works well in Scotland and Wales, why cannot it operate at UK level for this Parliament?
I concede that it is a better system than first past the post, but a lot of the problems are about how big or small the electoral regions are. The larger they are, the less problem there is with the overlap between the jobs of the two sorts of Member, and the less it is in the interests of list Members that people on their own side are defeated in the constituency elections.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept a point that I have addressed to him and the Secretary of State, that advocating proportional representation is an attempt to obtain more seats? In a way one can understand the Liberal Democrats taking that view—there is a sort of cynicism there, but it is an understandable one. Does he also accept that in the heady days long ago when Lloyd George had a big majority, he said that proportional representation was
“a device for defeating democracy…bringing faddists of all kinds into Parliament and…disintegrating parties”?
Then in 1931, Lloyd George changed his position, and in an electoral reform Bill proposed the alternative vote. Does the hon. Gentleman not see a little cynicism in all this?
It comes as no great surprise that my great leader Mr. Lloyd George was accused of cynicism on occasions, but nevertheless there is equal cynicism in the Conservative party, which argues for first past the post solely because it gains such a disproportionate advantage from it.
The hon. Gentleman said earlier that the STV system does away with the single-Member, single-constituency link, but that is not quite true. The Liberal Democrats have tabled new schedule 3, which proposes new multi-Member constituencies. For instance, under that proposal, my seat would be subsumed into a seven-Member Glasgow seat with an electorate of 500,000. Some of those Members would, of course, be from minority parties. However, Argyll and Bute, with an electorate of 68,000, would remain a single-Member constituency, as would Orkney and Shetland, with an electorate of 35,000. Can he tell the House to which party the current Members for those constituencies belong?
Our proposal would do the same for the Western Isles, which is held by the Scottish National party. In any circumstances, there are certain geographical limits to the size of a seat. That is why, in any preferential system, there must be a range in the sizes of constituencies. One can have bigger seats in urban areas while retaining a sense of representing a geographical area than one can in rural areas, especially the thinly populated marine areas of the sort the hon. Gentleman mentioned. On the whole, the proportionality of the STV system comes from urban areas, because there are larger numbers of Members in those seats. That has always been the case. The proposal in 1916 was precisely that there should be STV in the cities and AV in the countryside, so it is not new.
I will give way to the hon. Gentlemen later, but I want to make some progress—I have not even started my speech yet.
Although new clause 88 is far from perfect, for reasons that I will seek to explain, and although we will seek to amend it radically, we will support it in the Lobby, at least so that it is read a Second time. According to the rather peculiar procedures of this Committee—compared, for example, with local government—the only way one can press an amendment to the new clause to a Division is if the new clause is read a Second time.
Why are the Government proposing a referendum between AV and first past the post, and not between the latter and a more proportional system? To that extent, I agree with what Conservative Members have been saying.
In a second. Why have the Government come to propose such reform so late in the day? It looks like a manoeuvre to me—a death-bed conversion. In Cambridge in 1997, I was obviously identified by the Labour party as a Lib Dem voter—I was a Lib Dem councillor, so I suppose I was rather easy to spot. I received a targeted letter from the Labour candidate—all parties send them—who expressed her undying support for a referendum on electoral reform. She asked me to vote tactically for her on the ground that a Labour Government would deliver electoral reform, or at least a referendum on it.
I did not believe her, and given that 13 years later, no referendum has happened, I am inclined to the view that I was right not to do so. I suspect that the reason why the Prime Minister has come round to promoting a referendum again is precisely so that Labour candidates can send out more of the same kind of letters. This time, I suspect I will not be the only one not to believe them.
After all these years of going on “Question Time” and other programmes saying that the Liberal Democrats want proportional representation, does it not feel a bit odd to the hon. Gentleman to be arguing for disproportional representation? Why are the Liberal Democrats going to vote for something that Lord Jenkins and so many other commentators have described as unfair and disproportionate?
We will vote for amendment (b) to Government new clause 88 so that the referendum is between first past the post and a proportional system. What will we do if that is defeated? Although the new clause is a very small step in the right direction, there are two truths. First, changing the electoral system is on the political agenda, which is a big and important point for us. Secondly, AV is a preferential system, which we are in favour of. The system we support—STV—is a preferential system, but it just happens to be proportional as well.
In my discussions with the Electoral Commission, it has stated that it is possible to argue that we already have so many different types of voting systems that it causes confusion for certain people. In addition, we have not sorted some of the concerns about postal ballots. Is it not better to sort out and rationalise some of those problems before we get on to the subject of voting systems?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will put the answer to my question on the record once again, because he may have made a slip of the tongue, and I want to be fair to him—I am always fair, even to Liberal Democrats. Is he making it clear tonight that the critical thing for Liberal Democrats is that the system is preferential and that he is not so concerned about proportionality? We have heard from the Liberals for years about proportionality, but in the end, when push comes to shove, is proportionality less important to them than a preferential system?
The hon. Gentleman exaggerates the extent to which AV is disproportionate or worse than first past the post—sometimes it is, but not always. As I said a few moments ago, it is very difficult to predict the effects of AV, because first-preference votes will change. For us, it looks like progress, even if it is a small amount of progress, because it is precisely what the hon. Gentleman says: a preferential system. That is a small gain, but one worth having.