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Representation of the People (Proportional Representation) (House of Commons)

Volume 603: debated on Wednesday 16 December 2015

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Representation of the People Acts to provide for the introduction of proportional representation as a method for electing a certain number of Members of the House of Commons; to make provision about changing existing constituencies and reducing their number; and for connected purposes.

It is said that in 1830, the Duke of Wellington, as Prime Minister, declared himself opposed to any reform of Parliament on the basis that the state of the representation of the people had been designed by providence and therefore “cannot be improved”. He was of course deeply wrong, as just two years later the Great Reform Act of 1832 was passed. However, that attitude—that the means of representing the people at Westminster cannot be improved—is one that has lived on and remains strong to this day. Indeed, many Members of the House can find no reason to question a system that has had the infinite wisdom to elect each and every one of us who sits in the House today.

I put it to the House that the means of electing the House of Commons—namely, the first-past-the-post electoral system—is no longer fit for purpose. It has led to a narrow and unrepresentative politics, increasingly poor decision making, poorly conducted elections and, at times, poor government. Moreover, it now threatens the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom and the cohesion of the constituent nations of the UK, by failing to produce representation that truly reflects the diversity of political views contained therein.

My Bill, which is modestly entitled a representation of the people Bill, seeks to correct these failings by introducing for the House of Commons the same electoral system used in Scotland and Wales, and in Germany—the additional member system. I believe that that system delivers the best of both worlds: a local MP with a constituency link, and a representative election that successfully reflects the intentions of the electorate. There would still be constituency MPs, but there would also be representative elections. There would still be strong one-party Governments if the public wanted them, but not if they did not.

I will set out why I believe the change to be so desirable. I believe our current voting system is bad for politics in the UK. It forces the major parties to devote their resources overwhelmingly to just a handful of constituencies that they regard as swing or marginal seats. That fails to treat voters equally, regardless of where they live, which creates a two-tier system of political engagement. As we all know, in some parts of the country the opposition parties put up nothing more than a token effort at election time. Most worryingly, it creates false electoral deserts, where whole regions of the country are dominated by one party despite its opponents recording substantial numbers of votes.

First past the post has been a huge contributing factor in how remote people feel from politics. As vote share for the major two parties has declined, it is a fact that our general elections have become less and less representative. If winning an argument with the British public becomes a different task from that of winning the votes required to form a Government, something has gone terribly wrong. It should be a source of national concern that there have been three general elections in history in which the party with the most votes has actually lost the general election. If that were to happen in the modern day, we would legitimately face a constitutional crisis.

I wish to stress that none of this is a means to dispute the formation of the new Conservative Government. No electoral system would have produced a Labour Government in 2015, because people simply did not trust Labour sufficiently. However, the result of the last election should concern anyone with an interest in democracy, or simply a desire for national unity. In the south-east, the Tories got 51% of the vote, but took 93% of the seats. In the south-west, they got 47% of the vote, but took 94% of the seats. In the north-east, the situation was reversed: Labour took 47% of the vote, but won 90% of the MPs. In Scotland, the SNP won an impressive 50% of the vote, but a thoroughly disproportionate 95% of the seats. The Lib Dems actually got 1 million more votes than the SNP, but are treated as though they got less. Four million people voted for the UK Independence party to get just one MP. That is simply not conducive to a representative Parliament.

As much as I wish the whole country would simply elect Labour MPs like me, if they do not do so, they should—as best we can deliver—get the MPs they did vote for. Moreover, the electoral system should not write off large parts of the country to one party or another, because that forces those parties to behave rationally and devote their scarce resources to areas where they are competitive. That then creates a perpetual cycle of disengagement, rather than the challenging and robust competition of views on which democracy thrives.

Because of the unrepresentative nature of modern elections, the Governments that are formed after them are prone to make poor decisions or to govern inequitably. At times, the British people have given a clear, decisive mandate for change—1905, 1945, 1979 and 1997—but that has not been their verdict at other times, when they have been unwilling or reluctant to hand one party exclusive access to Downing Street. If that is the British people’s verdict, there should be coalition or minority Governments. Using the electoral system to create an artificial mandate for one-party rule is not conducive to good government. The argument that proportional voting unfairly empowers smaller parties does not stand up when one considers that exactly the same charge could be levelled at the recent functioning of first past the post, be that the coalition Government in the last Parliament, the Lib-Lab pact in the 1970s, Sir John Major’s deal with the Democratic Unionist party, or the historical example of the Irish nationalists. The status quo does of course produce absurdities. During the last Parliament, a coalition Government in Westminster were elected under first past the post, and a one-party majority Government were elected in Holyrood under the proportional system that I am proposing we introduce via this Bill.

I know that some people will say to me that they do not wish to change the voting system for fear of seeing more UKIP or other minority parties elected. I share their disdain for some of those parties, but I would say to them that if people vote for those parties, that is surely what they should get. Parties defeat their political opponents by debate and campaigning, not by rigging the rules in their favour. Ultimately, the alienation caused by rigging the rules in their favour will create the resentment that means those minority parties actually win under first past the post, as we saw just over a decade ago when the British National party won substantial numbers of council seats in the north-west.

I may be this Parliament’s pre-eminent Jonny, but I am no Jonny-come-lately to this cause. In fact, I am prepared to admit to the House that, as a young man, I travelled the long journey from Sunderland all the way to Newcastle to hear the late Roy Jenkins address a public meeting as part of his Jenkins commission. However, I believe that the issue has now assumed a much greater urgency. That has been produced not just by the declining vote share of the two major parties, but by the consequences of further constitutional change in Scotland, be it in the form of independence, as the SNP would like, or the much greater devolution that the Unionist parties favour. Such developments have profound implications for the rest of the Union.

I do not believe that the cohesion of England can be maintained by retaining the first-past-the-post electoral system. In all honesty, Labour Members ignored the consequences of devolution for England for far too long, simply because we did not want to admit that, under first past the post, Labour has historically rarely won a majority in England alone. A fairer and more competitive system would be better for everyone, because it would render such narrow calculations redundant and create a one nation political system for a country that sorely needs it.

I am extremely grateful for the cross-party support I have achieved for the Bill, which includes support from hon. Members from political parties, such as the Greens and the Lib Dems, that have positions in favour of a different type of electoral reform, such as the single transferable vote. However, we are as one on the need for change. If there is one thing that my time as a Member of this House has genuinely taught me, it is that the stereotypes of different political parties and the people who represent them in this place are unhelpful and unfair. The basis exists for us all to work together in the national interest and it would be better if we were part of a political system that placed on us an obligation to do so. Therefore, I make a plea today for not just a proportional voting system, but a patriotic voting system, in which all parts of the country and all shades of opinion are treated equally and fairly, and the functioning of which brings the whole country together. I commend the Bill to the House.

I am slightly surprised to be congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds)—and he is a friend—on his honesty in admitting that he once sat at the feet of Roy Jenkins. That is not something to which people are normally prepared to admit.

I find it astonishing that, in a month when the Front National in France has made considerable advances, someone in this House should argue for changing the electoral system. I do not want to detain the House for too long, so I will not go into detail about how damaging this proposal would be to effective government; how it would transfer power away from constituents and local parties to party leaders, kitchen Cabinets and bureaucrats; how it would empower fringe parties at the expense of parties that are fit for government; how it would damage the direct link between many MPs and a constituency; and how, interestingly enough, countries that have such systems always have to amend them as those problems start to come through.

Germany has changed the system. It has introduced thresholds and it regularly changes the thresholds to deal with exactly the problems I am describing.

The proposal flies in the face of British public opinion, which was made absolutely clear in the referendum by more than two to one. In fact, 68% of people voted no and 32% voted yes. Of the 440 counting areas, only 10 recorded yes votes: the inner-London boroughs of Lambeth, Southwark, Camden, Hackney, Haringey and Islington—all those boroughs that used to feature in national headlines in the days of the loony left councils; Oxford, which has a great university and was described once as the city of lost causes; Cambridge; and Edinburgh Central and Glasgow Kelvin, which I think—SNP colleagues will correct me if I am wrong—are the seats of the universities in those two cities. Interestingly, in the seat of my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde, the borough of Tameside voted more than two to one against, with 72% against and 28% for. To my chagrin, that was a bigger margin than in my borough of Sandwell, which managed a mere 71% against to 29% for.

I merely ask those who are considering voting for this proposition a simple question: what part of “no” is it that you don’t understand?

Question put (Standing Order No. 23).

I have now to announce the result of the deferred Division on the question relating to petroleum. The Ayes were 298 and the Noes were 261, so the Question was agreed to.

[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]

Armed Forces Bill (Programme) (No. 2)


That the Order of 15 October 2015 (Armed Forces Bill (Programme)) be varied as follows:

(1) Paragraphs (4), (5) and (6) of the Order shall be omitted.

(2) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House on re-committal shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion, at today’s sitting, three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion for this Order.

(3) Any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall be taken in one day in accordance with the following provisions of this Order.

(4) Any proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after their commencement on that day.

(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Bill on that day.—(Mark Lancaster.)