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Electoral Reform (Proportional Representation and Reduction of Voting Age)

Volume 613: debated on Wednesday 20 July 2016

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 Members of the House of Commons; to reduce the voting age to 16 in all UK elections and referendums; and for connected purposes.

I am introducing this Bill today because our electoral system is broken and we urgently need to address some of the reasons why. As a country, we pride ourselves on our strong commitment to democracy, yet the vast majority of votes cast up and down the land simply do not count. Power is held by a small minority, and the voting system upholds that status quo. We may be on the path to leaving the EU, but all those who were promised they would be given back “control” simply will not have it without meaningful electoral reform.

The current unrepresentative voting system is doing long-term pervasive damage, which manifests itself in phenomena such as a widespread lack of trust and faith in public servants, and the growth of what some have coined, with Orwellian overtones, “post-truth politics”. Far too many of our constituents are disillusioned, disaffected and disengaged, and continuing to deny them a voice in the decisions that affect us all only perpetuates the problems. Yet, that is exactly what happens under our first-past-the-post voting system. It is a system where votes are not all equal, because unless someone lives in one of the small number of heavily targeted marginal seats, their vote simply does not count. The Electoral Reform Society has described the 2015 general election as

“the most disproportionate in electoral history”,

with this Government elected on just 24% of the eligible vote.

First past the post has a long record of failing to deliver Governments who command genuine majority support. In 1997, Labour gained 43.2% of the total votes cast but won 63% of seats at Westminster. In that same election the combined number of votes for the Tories and Liberal Democrats represented 47.5% of the total votes, nearly 4% more than Labour, yet between them they got 32.1% of the seats available at Westminster. No Prime Minister since 1931 has won a majority of the vote to match his or her majority in the Commons—not Blair, not Thatcher, not Attlee.

Moreover, first past the post creates seats so safe that some incumbents are so relaxed as to be almost horizontal. This complacency in MPs is matched by disillusionment among voters. How does it engage people in the political process if large numbers are driven to vote tactically, rather than to vote for what they actually want, because, as so many campaign leaflets are always reminding us, “Party X can’t win in this area”? Interestingly, MPs in safe seats were twice as likely as those with the smallest majorities to be found abusing the expenses system.

In the 1950s, most people simply voted Labour or Conservative, but since then the proportion of people voting for the two main parties has fallen from 97% to 67%. Parties other than the big three received 10% of the votes at the 2005 and 2010 elections, but in 2015 that rose to a staggering 24.9%—nearly a quarter and the biggest share since 1945. In other words, people vote differently now, and we need a voting system that is updated to reflect that.

My Bill would introduce a proportional voting system. There are two main PR systems, but my preference is for the additional member system, because it retains the constituency link, which most MPs value enormously. But I have deliberately not specified which system should be introduced, because it is the principle that I am seeking to establish at this stage. All voting systems have advantages and drawbacks, but none are so mind-bending that the public cannot cope with their complexities, despite what many detractors of PR like to claim. They perhaps forget that voters already manage with a PR system used for the London Assembly and for the Scottish and Welsh Parliament Members, and of course we have the single transferable vote for European elections. That same attitude demonstrates the very lack of respect for voters that adherence to the disproportionate first-past-the-post system perpetuates. Voters are not stupid; they know when they are being spun a line or patronised. It is deeply insulting to be denying them a fair vote on the basis that they would not know how to use it. As an aside, let me say that the fact voters decisively rejected the alternative vote system in 2011 is irrelevant; AV is not PR.

Under PR there is a simple relationship of cause and effect for voters. If they vote for a candidate, they increase his or her chances of getting elected. If they vote for a party, they increase that party’s entitlement to seats. By doing this, they achieve more representation for their views. First past the post does not deliver seats that look like the votes cast, whereas PR does. A winner-takes-all system in which the Conservatives claim to have a mandate based on 37% of the vote and just 24% of the electorate is not sustainable, nor is one in which the Greens quadrupled their share of the vote nationally, to 1.1 million votes in 2015, and got one seat. The UK Independence party polled 3.8 million votes, and although I do not like its policies, it is still not right that it got just one seat. The Scottish National party, whose Members I am glad to call my hon. Friends, polled 1.4 million and won 56 seats. I know that even they would agree that that is a little disproportionate, which is why they are here in such force—I welcome that and am grateful to them. Of course, changing the voting system would not necessarily have changed the overall outcome, but that is not the central point here. The main reason for introducing PR is that making every vote count is a vital part of the process of reconnecting people and politics. I believe that encouraging more people to come out to vote because they know their vote matters would lead to an increased voter turnout.

Some people say that people are not interested in politics, but everyone is interested in the state of their local schools and in whether or not they have a local hospital. Those are political matters. Whatever someone’s take on the recent EU referendum, it demonstrated that if people are given a say, they can be very political indeed, in the best possible sense of the word—as citizens who feel they can be genuine agents for change. I would also anticipate that under PR we would return a Parliament that better reflects modern Britain. Only 29% of MPs are women and although that is more than ever before, it still not right when women make up just over half the country’s adult population. People of colour, disabled people, carers, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender—LGBT—people are still under-represented in Parliament. I think that would change under PR, because MPs would not be able just to rely on the votes of their tribe. To win the support of the majority of voters, they would be forced to reach out across the party divides to the wider electorate: to more women, to more black and minority ethnic—BME—communities and so forth. I hope that would mean traditionally excluded groups standing for election, too.

Above all, proportional representation is about fairness, which is why my Bill puts PR hand in hand with giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote. Sixteen-year-olds are considered old enough to enter into marriage and civil partnerships, pay income tax and national insurance, obtain welfare benefits in their own right, and join the armed forces, a political party or a trade union. Surely they should help elect the MPs who make decisions about those very things. About 64% of registered voters aged 18 to 24 went to the polls in the EU referendum, compared with an estimated 52% in the last general election. In other words, increased awareness of voter registration, combined with a vote that actually counts, means that young people come out in large numbers to voice their opinions.

The United Kingdom was one of the first countries in the world to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, but it is now trailing behind countries such as Brazil, Argentina, and Austria—unless, of course, you live in Scotland, which has blazed a trail with a more inclusive and equal political system, through giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote in the independence referendum. Those young people need a say, not just on the future of the Union, but on all the decisions that affect their future. We also need equality between 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland and those in the rest of the UK.

If democracy is about fairly representing the views of the people, our current democratic system is failing. In future, especially with the Government’s planned boundary changes, that could get even worse. PR would bring some much-needed fairness, as well as helping to tackle some of the reasons why people do not vote—the idea that their vote does not make a difference. Just under a month ago, people opted to take back control of our democracy, yet unless we reform the electoral system they will still have virtually no control over who runs the country or represents them in Parliament. Much has rightly been said about the importance of reversing the alienation and neglect felt in many parts of our country, which this EU referendum result laid bare. I believe that electoral reform and votes at 16 have a key role to play in healing the country and bringing it back together. They are a way of demonstrating to people that, yes, every vote they cast is important and, yes, their voice does matter and indeed has been heard.

As we have heard, this Bill would do two things. Reducing the voting age has been repeatedly discussed and rejected by sizeable margins in the Commons in the past 12 months. It was discussed, for example, in multiple stages of both the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill and the European Union Referendum Bill, so I will not rehash all the same arguments here.

The proposed Bill would also change the voting system. Although I acknowledge and respect the energetic commitment and zeal of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for this particular cause, I fear that this Bill may harm our democracy rather than help it—the exact opposite of what she intends to achieve—because we held a referendum on whether to change our voting system in 2011 and, collectively, we voted against change. We decided to keep our tried and trusted first past-the-post system by a hefty margin of more than two to one. Therefore, a proposed Bill that claims to be about improving our democracy starts with a proposal to ignore a very clear democratic decision. The people have spoken, and, by a majority of more than 6 million, they have decided that they want none of this. Some would argue—in fact the hon. Lady did—that the 2011 referendum result should not count; that it asked the wrong question about the alternative vote system, which is not technically a proportional system at all; and that if only they could be allowed to rerun the poll with a slightly different question somehow a completely different result could be achieved.

Order. There is no concept of giving way in respect of exchanges on ten-minute rule motions, a factor of which the right hon. Gentleman with his long experience ought to be aware.

I am happy to pick the matter up with the right hon. Gentleman in the Tea Room afterwards.

Let us ignore, for the moment, the unlikelihood of a 6 million vote majority being overturned by a small change in the question, and just consider for a second the dozens and dozens of different forms of proportional and alternative voting systems. It does not matter whether we are talking about open lists, zipped lists, the D’Hondt method, supplementary votes or transferrable votes, every different version has its own passionate and committed band of dedicated enthusiasts. Some of them are highly reputable organisations and others are lonely obsessives blogging furiously in the privacy of their parents’ spare bedrooms. No matter who they are, it is simply not possible to argue that we should ignore the AV referendum result just because it did not propose precisely their preferred flavour of new voting system. That fundamentally misses the point. Not only did voters reject changing our tried and trusted first-past-the-post system, but they will take a very dim view indeed of the prospect of many further referendums in future as dozens of other organisations queue up to argue that the last poll did not propose precisely their particular favourite voting system and to demand yet another rerun with a slightly different question.

Even worse, this Bill comes at a time when a large proportion of the population is far more concerned about the much more recent EU referendum where there was a narrower—although still decisive—majority verdict. I am not alone in getting hundreds of emails from people who do not like the result of the EU vote and are loudly demanding a rerun, a vote in Parliament, a lawsuit, anything in fact, to change the result. By telling people they can ignore the results of the even more decisive AV referendum in 2011, this Bill would implicitly encourage people to believe that they can ignore the result of the EU referendum too, telling them, in effect, that if they stick their fingers in their ears and sing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” loudly enough, Brexit may not actually mean Brexit after all.

Our democracy is already pretty fragile, with trust in politics and politicians, and election turnout, already worryingly low. I cannot think of anything more calculated to stoke the fires of anti-political anger than acting as if the will of the people, clearly expressed in not just one but two separate referendums on different issues, might not be democratically binding or sovereign after all.

So please, Mr Speaker, enough already. This Bill ignores the repeatedly expressed democratic will of Parliament, which has already rejected lowering the voting age many times over the past year, and it ignores a thumping referendum verdict against changing the voting system in 2011 as well. We are about to abolish an entire layer of proportionately elected representatives when we get rid of MEPs as we leave the EU. Now is not the time to replace them with something else. The people have spoken and even though I understand and respect the fact that the answer is not to the hon. Lady’s liking, I urge her please to respect its democratic power and to leave the issue alone for a long, long time.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23).