Before I call Mr Double to move the motion, I should say that a glance around the Chamber indicates to us all that this is a popular and important debate. I will, therefore, seek strict adherence to the rules and regulations regarding speaking time, including for interventions, although I am not setting a formal limit. We will try to have an extremely orderly debate, otherwise we will become a rabble. Debates are always orderly, but let us ensure that this one is.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 168657 relating to proportional representation.
It is a pleasure to open today’s debate on this important issue and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank those who organised the petition, which has gathered some 103,000 signatures, and their supporters. I wish to make clear from the start that I am opening the debate as a member of the Petitions Committee—the Committee that considers petitions once they have reached the threshold for debate. The fact that I am introducing the debate does not necessarily mean that I support the views expressed in the petition. Given the number of hon. Members here today, I am sure that we are going to have a lively and constructive debate.
It is probably just as well that the hon. Gentleman is not speaking in support, as about 70% of voters in Cornwall voted against this proposition, along with the vast majority of the rest of the country outside London and the university towns.
I am grateful for that intervention. The right hon. Gentleman has made a good point, which I will come to later.
The petition calls to “make votes matter” by adopting proportional representation for United Kingdom general elections. Although I may not agree with the views expressed in the petition, it is right that we begin by acknowledging the strong and sincerely held views of those who are frustrated with our democracy and voting system.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I would like to make a little progress, but then I will give way.
There are clearly weaknesses in our democracy as it stands today. Too many people feel disconnected, disenfranchised and like observers, rather than participants in our democratic process. I would venture to suggest, however, that a different voting system is not the silver bullet that would change that. In fact, there is every chance that proportional representation might actually make those things worse rather than better, by putting more power into the hands of parties—with more decisions taken in back-room deals—than in the hands of the voters.
I will give way first to the hon. Lady.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, as a fellow member of the Petitions Committee. It is right that we are debating this issue in Parliament and that people’s views are heard. A constituent of mine has conveyed to me the fact that she feels passionately that unless some kind of system is devised that truly represents voters’ opinions, our democracy will be even more broken that it is at the moment—she cited the example of the United States. We must ensure that people feel that their voices are heard here in Parliament.
I am grateful for that intervention and I agree wholeheartedly. I suspect that we might disagree on the answer to that challenge, but I absolutely agree that in our parliamentary democracy we have to understand that we are here to represent voters and make sure that their views and voices are heard.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the strongest arguments against proportional representation and in favour of first past the post is that first past the post guarantees a strong and stable Government—and does he think that argument still stands?
I am grateful for that intervention, one that I was wholeheartedly expecting and that is no surprise at all coming from the right hon. Gentleman. Historically, first past the post has delivered, the vast majority of the time, the strong and stable Government that the country needs to lead it.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will make more progress before taking further interventions.
The things that are wrong with our voting system are, in my view, more down to the manner in which political parties can operate and the way candidates are often selected—especially in what we might call “safe seats”—than the voting system itself. The petition sets out to make the case that proportional representation would make votes count, yet its opening statement says:
“The vast majority wants PR.”
I would like to challenge that view. As recently as 2011, a referendum was held in this country to consider changing the voting system.
I will finish my point before taking any more interventions. In that referendum, 13 million people voted by a majority of two to one to retain the current system.
I will not give way just yet. I know that it has become fashionable in this country to play down referendums and call for them to be rerun, but it seems a very odd and conflicted scenario that those who say that they seek a so-called fairer voting system are unable to accept the result of the last referendum on this very issue.
I will give way in a minute.
“Ah,” some people will cry, “that was about the alternative vote, AV. This is about proportional representation—a very different thing altogether.” The fact remains, however, that the referendum result was not only a rejection of AV, but a massive endorsement of our current voting system.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether he thinks that the 2011 alternative vote referendum gave people a choice between first past the post and proportional representation?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Clearly, it did not, but people argued at the time that it was a step towards proportional representation. It was a clear choice about changing our current system, and there was an overwhelming vote in favour of keeping the system that we have. If we want to make votes count, we surely have to respect the votes that were cast in that referendum.
Would it not be worthwhile to ask those who raise such doubts about the previous referendum whether any of those who supported proportional representation voted against the proposal and voted no?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point; that would be interesting to know. I am sure the answer would be no, because the argument was made very strongly that voting for AV was a step towards PR and part of that process. The country overwhelming rejected that.
I support proportional representation but voted against AV, because I thought that single transferable vote was a better system—so I am happy to say that, yes, someone here did.
I am grateful for that clarification.
A slight made against the first-past-the-post system is that votes are wasted. That misconceived notion would surely, if given any credence by the electorate, depress voter turnout, yet we have seen turnout increase in recent times. The wasted vote argument is a particularly pernicious accusation, used, I would venture, only to bolster the argument for change, and it feeds into an attempt to discredit the current voting system.
First past the post is clear and easy to understand. Everyone—by which I mean people who, I would suggest, are less interested in politics than those of us in the Chamber—can grasp the concept of a winner, announced shortly after the close of the ballot, who then represents all the people in the constituency, however they voted. Votes are counted and there is a winner.
I support PR, but I am a huge defender of the geographical link between an elected Member and their constituent, because of what has happened in local government in Scotland. Scotland has a good system of STV, but it has broken that link, and I think it has broken the democratic link between councils and the people they represent.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point.
Why is having special rules, including multiple voting, and then using some slide-rule technique hours after the voting has taken place considered a better system? That seems strange to me, as it risks over-complicating what should be a straightforward process of voting. That is before we get into the debate about which form of PR we should adopt if we were to go down that route. There is a veritable plethora of different systems on offer, each with its own complexities. One strength of our current first-past-the-post voting system is that it is simple and gives a quick and decisive result. Churchill liked it, and so did Tony Benn. They did not often agree with one another, but on this they did.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that first past the post is inherently an electoral system for a two-party political system? In England, there are at least five competitive parties, and in Wales and Scotland, which have national parties, there are six. How can first past the post possibly reflect that diversity of political parties?
It has served this country well over a number of years in elections in which we have had more than two parties standing, so I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point.
There is a broad consensus across the political spectrum that first past the post works well and is understood by all, and that its perceived flaws are less grievous than those of any of the alternatives. Another argument for first past the post is that it prevents extremist parties from gaining seats. It is interesting to note the outcome of the recent election in Germany. The media commentary the morning after the vote said:
“Angela Merkel will seek to form a government in the coming weeks.”
Weeks to form a Government! That is what we could get regularly with a proportional system. Angela Merkel will likely form a Government with parties diametrically opposed to one another, which caused another commentator to say:
“This difference shows how incoherent any such new government could be”.
Surely two out of the last three general elections in this country were followed by the words, “The leader of the Conservative party will seek to form a Government.” First past the post is no guarantor of a majority Government.
No one is pretending it is a guarantee, but it is far more likely to lead to a clear, decisive result and a stable Government than any other system. In the vast majority of elections it has delivered a decisive result.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. Does he not have any concerns about safe seats and the sense of a local monopoly if there is no competition for power? His party surely understands the concept that if one party has complete control in an area, we get bad government.
I concur. One weakness with first past the post is that perceived safe seats can lead to complacency, but there are a number of examples, even in recent history, of MPs in safe seats being overthrown because of a particular issue or because the voters in the constituency felt let down badly by them. The examples of Neil Hamilton and of Dr Taylor in 2001 show that sitting MPs in safe seats can be thrown out by local voters. Although the right hon. Gentleman raises a legitimate concern, the power is in the hands of the voters in the constituency. If they want a change of MP, they are perfectly able to deliver that.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. Does he agree that, in addition to bad government, first past the post leads to bad political debate? It polarises debate and does not lead to balanced debate among us all.
I do not agree. I think we have healthy debates in this country. The nature of our democracy lends itself far more to the first-past-the-post system, which enables us to exchange our strongly, passionately held views in the House. That is a strength, not a weakness, of our democracy.
First past the post has consistently produced majority Governments who can govern. Although it could be rightly argued that two of the last three elections in this country did not throw up a clear majority Government, they were rare in our history in so doing. First past the post means that political parties become broad churches in which a wide range of views are tolerated and debated. It avoids complex coalition Governments who may achieve little, yet, come election time, all the various parties claim any successes as their own and abandon the failures as someone else’s fault.
First, on the issue of coalition government, I cannot help but say the words, “Democratic Unionist party”. Majority government does not seem to have done very well under first past the post. Secondly, Churchill was actually pro-PR—let us make sure our facts are right. Thirdly, the Conservatives’ vote share in the north-east increased by 9.1% at the last election, but they made no gains in their number of seats. With 34% of the vote, they got 10% of the seats. Do the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues from the north-east think that is fair? Does he think that is fair?
I think I can confidently speak for my party when I say that we are absolutely committed to first past the post as the best system for this country.
With first past the post, there is a direct link between the MP and their constituency, which brings focus and creates a strong bond between the MP and their constituents. From having the names on the ballot paper —each party has one candidate—through polling day and beyond, a connection is made. The voter knows whom they are voting for and whom to hold to account if they do not deliver what the constituents want.
Most people know who their MP is, but I suggest that far fewer know who their MEP is, because MEPs are voted in under a PR system. There is a clear understanding in voters’ minds of the accepted truth that, whether they voted for the winning candidate or not, they can get the help, assistance and advice they need from their MP—their local representative. There is nowhere for the incumbent to hide, which I believe is a good thing. Come election time, with a simple cross on the ballot paper, the electorate can bring about change if they wish to do so.
The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling speech. I agree that it is vital that we MPs are held to account by our electorate, and I share his view that we should maintain the constituency link. Does he agree that there are other ways in which we can change our system to engage more voters—for example, by reducing the voting age to 16 to encourage more young people to get involved?
I admire the hon. Lady for shoehorning that into the debate, although it is not a view I share.
It is often said that one weakness of the first-past-the-post system is that candidates from certain parties often never have a chance of winning particular seats. Voters feel that their vote is wasted if they vote for their preferred party, and are therefore often forced to vote tactically against a party, rather than for a party. That has not prevented parties that promote PR from encouraging voters to vote tactically. Until recently, the Liberal Democrats built their campaign in Cornwall on the message, “Vote for us to keep the Tories out.” It is interesting that those who criticise tactical voting as one of the weaknesses of first past the post are happy to exploit it to their advantage.
First past the post does not prevent voters from being able to remove MPs when the tide has turned against them. Earlier, I cited the examples of Wyre Forest in 2001 and Neil Hamilton in 1997. In those safe Labour and Conservative seats, the voters turned against the MPs and removed them. It can happen.
Possibly the greatest argument for first past the post and against PR is that, more often than not, first past the post produces a clear, decisive result and a stable Government quickly. PR often results in no clear majority and days or weeks of back-room dealing to form a Government.
Will the hon. Gentleman explain his definition of democracy? I would have thought that democracy was about ensuring that the governing party or parties commanded a majority of support in the country. The truth is that that has not happened for some time.
Historically in our country, we have had the first-past-the-post-system, which has delivered decisive results and decisive Governments over many years, and that has served our country well. We are one of the greatest democracies on the planet, so I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s views.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I am going to make some progress. I am winding up my speech, because I want other Members to have an opportunity to speak.
Rather than a Government elected on a manifesto that they can be judged against, PR puts more power in the hands of party leaders and can allow parties off the hook as they can explain away their ability to deliver on the basis of having to negotiate a coalition. Let us be honest: the current system has its failings—no system is perfect—but first past the post works in Parliament and in the constituencies. It is favoured because it is understood.
There is no doubt we are living in interesting political times. The election result in June made that clear. While I acknowledge the frustration with our voting system that many feel, the answer to improving our democracy does not lie in changing that system. The onus is on politicians and political parties to do more not to take voters for granted, particularly in what are considered safe seats, and to hold on to the principle of the constituency Member of Parliament, where we are here first and foremost to represent our constituents and recognise them as our boss. The key is not in tinkering with our system, but in ensuring we value and treasure our democracy, which is respected across the globe, and in ensuring that we do all we can to make it work for everyone.
It is a pleasure to be able to follow a member of the Petitions Committee. I thank the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for opening the debate, although I am afraid that I disagree with him on nearly all the points he raised. I have always been a supporter of electoral reform. It has always seemed to me that the obvious starting point for any electoral system is that the number of votes that people cast for parties should be reflected in the composition of Parliament or whatever body is being elected.
Frankly, I find it absurd that on several occasions in British history we have had elections where a party with fewer votes than another has won the election and formed the Government. That happened as recently as 1974, and before that in 1951 and on several other occasions. People will cite other countries and perhaps compare the situation with the last presidential election in America, but America is different—America is a republic, not a democracy. It clearly has a system based on the representation of the electoral college and the states’ votes as part of that. It is an absurd comparison with this country.
The number of votes cast should be reflected in the composition of Parliament. That is the start and end of the debate for me, but it is not just about the technicalities of systems. In particular, I remember the deep sense of alienation growing up in the north-east of England in the 1980s, which was a time of huge change. The mines and shipyards were going and the social fabric of the area was being completely transformed. There was this sense of having no purchase, no say and no input into a Government who frankly did not care how the north-east voted. In places such as Sunderland and Durham, where I was from, there was this sense of having no ability to change the country’s direction when it was having such a big impact.
We have this argument about strong and weak government, but strong government to me means good government. It does not mean a Government with an artificial majority propelled into that majority by the system when the people have not voted for that majority. Whatever we think of things such as the Iraq war or the poll tax, they are examples of strong government, but I argue strongly that they are not examples of good government.
There is an interesting question—there will be different views about this in the Chamber—of whether our political culture has shaped our electoral system, or whether our electoral system has shaped our political culture, but I worry a lot about the direction of political culture and how we deal with political problems. We are going further and further down a route towards a deep, reductive tribalism that has forgotten the purpose of politics, which is to come together and solve problems. Instead of that, we are seeing a degree of the partisanship that the system is based on, but it is getting more and more absurd.
For instance, a series of interesting Budget proposals have been leaked from the Cabinet. All those proposals would breach the fiscal responsibility charter of the former Chancellor George Osborne, which many Conservatives would have voted for. It was obviously nonsense, but it was trapped in that two-party system that is propelled by the electoral system. We have seen people elected to this House who have expressed strong views that they will not even talk to people on the other side or be friendly with them. That is a completely false direction for this country to go in, and at the heart of it is an electoral system that ask people not to vote positively for things, but to vote against things. That is all that first past the post can do.
We all would find problems with any system—there is no perfect system—but there are clear examples in the rest of the world that have far better democratic systems. Scotland and Wales have better democratic systems than the one we use for general elections in the UK.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech and many valid points. He mentioned Wales. The Wales Act 2017 empowered the National Assembly to devise its own electoral system. Will he join me in calling on all political parties in the National Assembly to use Wales as an incubator to bring forward genuine electoral reform for the UK?
The devolved nations have led the way on a whole range of policy issues, simply because they have a more representative political culture.
The Scottish Parliament’s d’Hondt system involves a first-past-the-post connection and a proportional representation list. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is one of the best examples of a tried-and-tested PR system that keeps the constituency link that the petition advocates? At the last Scottish election, for example, the Scottish National party got 46.5% of the vote and 48.8% of the seats.
I absolutely agree with the hon. and learned Lady. When we look at the alternatives available to us, we see that no system will satisfy everyone, but the best way forward has to be a system that provides a constituency link—that is clearly such an important feature of our political system, and one that I support entirely—but also a representative election. Through that the whole range of political opinions cast in an election are reflected in the result and the system gives a majority, as the SNP had in the Scottish Parliament for some time, when the public have given their consent to that majority, but it does not give a majority based on this false notion that there should be some multiplier effect when the public are unwilling to give one party a majority.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Yes. My right hon. Friend and I have had this debate for many years, and we will continue to do so.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He cited with approval Scotland and Wales. Is it not the case that every area in Wales voted to reject change and stick with first past the post in the referendum? In Scotland every area apart from the university seats in Glasgow and Edinburgh voted to keep the current system.
We will come to that issue when I go through some of the commonly raised points that my right hon. Friend and I have discussed for some time.
The crucial point I want to make is that the additional member system used in Germany, Scotland and Wales avoids the vast electoral deserts where people in a part of a country, whether a county or a region, get no plurality of representation despite casting votes for a range of political parties. Front Benchers are called to respond to debates in Westminster Hall. I remember responding to a debate on travel in the south-west of England when I was shadow rail Minister. There were 20 Conservative MPs on the Government Benches and just me on the Opposition Benches to respond. Members would get up and say, “Only the Opposition Front Bencher is here,” but if we look at the election results, we see that even in the south-west more people voted against the Conservative party than for it. Clearly it was the biggest party, but the system delivered 100% representation for a party that was not even getting a majority of the vote in the region. That cannot be right.
It is an excellent system.
It is excellent if we view this simply as a partisan issue where the only thing that matters is our side winning, but as democrats we have to look at this from the point of view of what the public put forward, and we have to respond to that public demand. If we are not doing that, we have to ask ourselves what the purpose of elections is to begin with. It cannot just be about maximising individual party advantage and finding a system that gets us to that point. That is not good enough, and it is not what democratic systems are based on.
I will conclude, because we have such a strong turnout in the Chamber. I just want to go through some of the commonly held views, such as those shown in the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) and the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay. It is true that lists are suboptimal—there is no doubt about that—but what I find hypocritical is the fact that many of the people who cite lists as an example of undue party advantage know full well that first past the post is open to manipulation. It has always been the case in every party represented here that favoured sons and daughters have been parachuted into constituencies or selection processes have been manipulated. It is simply not true that that can be transferred to any system that has a list involved.
With regard to minority parties, I think that we should teach better history in schools. As the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay was speaking, I thought, “Well, right now things are dependent on the DUP.” We had the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition before that. John Major was dependent on the Ulster Unionists. We had the Callaghan Government’s Lib-Lab pact. We had minority Governments and coalitions before the war. We had the situation with the Irish nationalists. The history of this country is not one of first past the post delivering clear results. In fact, we have had a situation quite recently in which a proportional system has delivered a majority Government in Scotland while first past the post has delivered a hung Parliament in the United Kingdom, so we need to look more closely at the evidence.
Our party once stood on a manifesto of proportional representation in the 1920s. We invested a lot of time and effort in the Plant report, which subsequently was taken up by Jenkins. That was never followed through by the Labour party, which is very sad, because Jenkins gave us a way forward. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I absolutely agree. Labour could have seized the initiative many times in our history. Many times we have come close, but we have never followed it through. We must change that now. As has already been said in this debate, fundamentally we have an electoral system designed for two-party politics, which is no longer the case in this country. We will not go back to that. We saw a big increase in the vote share for the two big parties at the election, but that was a response to each other. When I talk to people, I do not find that all of a sudden we have stopped having a plurality of political views in this country and that everyone is happy simply voting Conservative or Labour.
With regard to the AV referendum, AV is not proportional representation. I and many people here voted for it simply because we knew that people such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley would cite the result as an endorsement of first past the post. The referendum was really about Nick Clegg and dissatisfaction with the decisions that led to the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government, but that cannot be the end of the debate. It would simply cheat people and ignore serious issues if we did not continue the discussion.
I will finish with the point that the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay often makes, which is that the result of the AV referendum shows that people do not want it, they are not asking us for it, and it is simply a political obsession. I ask everyone here today: when they are out in their constituencies or talking to anyone about what they do, how many people say, “You know what? I think British politics is spot on. There is nothing we should change. I am satisfied with British politics. Get back there and continue”? I do not think that is true. I think there is alienation and a huge amount of concern about how we are reducing our political culture so that it is no longer capable of solving the problems this country faces. There is no magic wand that we can wave to change everything, but if we want a better politics we have to start reflecting on how the people vote and what they want in the composition of our Parliament. That is why we must change to a system of fair votes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to follow the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds). I mention in passing to him that when I was knocking on doors on Saturday people might not have said what he has suggested, but they certainly did not say that what we need is a move to proportional representation. They tell me we have very important things to get on with, which needs strong government. I contend that that is what first past the post delivers.
Judging by the number of Opposition Members here, I suspect there is a cosy consensus emerging among them, so I am going to challenge that. I contend that their cosy consensus is not representative of Parliament. Indeed, I know that there are Members on both sides who propose the extension of first past the post to all elections in England, not its abolition. A Bill last year had Government and Opposition Members as sponsors. It is not only within this place that such a view is held; those that we represent across the country also agree.
In the referendum that has already been mentioned, the British people voted two to one to retain the status quo. Further, the Government who were elected only three months ago by almost 14 million voters stated clearly in their manifesto a policy to:
“retain the first past the post system of voting for parliamentary elections and extend this system to police and crime commissioner and mayoral elections.”
Later, perhaps, the Minister might set out his plan to deliver on that commitment, which I thoroughly endorse.
Today, as opposed to the views of 14 million voters, we are debating a petition with just over 100,000 signatures. Do those advocating the upending of the principle on which the British parliamentary system operates really believe that the views of 100,000 signatories somehow trumps 14 million voters? Is that their idea of proportional representation?
The hon. Gentleman seems to be repeating the mistakes of the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double). As the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) has already said, there are people in this room who are in favour of PR but voted against AV because it is simply not a good PR system. Plenty of other options are available. He should not take a vote against AV as a vote against PR.
I would welcome the hon. Lady’s remarks if she had listened to what I just said: 14 million voters in the general election backed first past the post. Perhaps the desire to overrule people’s votes is why in other systems, such as the alternative vote, the person who actually won the election often ends up losing when second preferences are announced.
I was pleased when Lord Fowler was elected Lord Speaker at the first time of asking under the alternative vote—a system on which, as the hon. Lady mentions, there was a referendum—but that was in effect an election by first past the post, and often that is not the case. We have talked about history and there are many historical examples. Let me provide another. In the 1990 Irish presidential election, the Labour candidate lost the first round by 80,000-plus votes, but then managed to pull ahead in the second ballot. That is not an isolated case. In the 2013 elections for the Australian House of Representatives, preferential voting meant that 15 members were elected despite being placed second on first preferences.
It is also important to look at the domestic situation. In the police and crime commissioner elections in England, we have seen that those with less support still win. Lord Prescott, not someone I would usually champion, was a candidate in the 2012 elections for police and crime commissioner. He won the first round, but he was beaten in the second. It has been suggested that this is a partisan argument in support of the Conservative party and that is why we might be in favour of first past the post, but, although I was delighted that a Conservative candidate was elected, I must argue that that was a day on which John Prescott should have been elected, and a day when democracy was thwarted.
The only purpose of other systems is to give candidates who were not popular enough to win a second chance to steal votes from those who did not want them to win. In all, eight police and crime commissioners were elected without the popular support of the people in the first round in 2012, including in my county of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Only where two candidates stood, such as in Staffordshire and North Yorkshire, did voters have confidence that, through first past the post by default, the candidate who won would definitely hold the elected office.
At the 2012 Scottish local government elections—we heard about Scotland a moment ago—68 candidates were elected under their system, despite in three member wards not even being in the top three by first preference, or in the top four in four member wards, and therefore 68 candidates who won a place in the top three or four then lost. Across the country we should expect the best candidates elected through the best system to give us the best representatives, but alternative systems of voting across our country have meant that some areas have been stripped of their right to choose who is best. Worse, the wishes of local people are being ignored by voting systems that allow candidates who lose to in fact win public office.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will in a moment, but I am very conscious that many people want to speak and therefore I do not wish to take too many interventions.
That issue would become ever more prevalent as powers were devolved to local authorities and elected Mayors, so the public would grow even more dissatisfied with that political system and would not forgive those who had taken away their power to have the clear, decisive and transparent voting that they have today.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be implying that the public would be deprived of the best candidates, rather than having faith in the public who, through their preferential voting, would give a richer idea of whom they actually want and sometimes, importantly, do not want to represent them. The person who gets a minority of first-preference votes and cannot command wider support through transfers might not be the best representative of the community.
I will challenge that in passing. We have proportional representation for the European Parliament—soon we will not, as we will not be part of the European Union—and people vote by party, so they do not get a say on whom their elected representative is. In fact, I contend that many people are not aware of who their Members of the European Parliament are. One person whose door I knocked on at the weekend said that one of their reasons for voting to leave the European Union was the fact that it had such a huge democratic deficit.
I will now turn to first past the post and some of its advantages, which have already been outlined but I wish to probe in further detail. First past the post, as former Prime Minister David Cameron said,
“can be summed up in one sentence: the candidate who gets the most votes wins”,
and everyone has one vote. It avoids unnecessary formulae to calculate the Droop or Hare quota threshold of votes needed to be elected, or to calculate the proportion of subsequent-preference votes transferred in each later round of vote stealing, and more. Is it any wonder that voters rejected a move away from such a clear, simple and transparent voting system as first past the post? Is it not also interesting that our international comparators agree with us?
A poll in Australia in 2016, for example, found that less than a third of people knew how to vote correctly in line with their complicated PR rules, and a quarter explicitly acknowledged they did not know how to vote properly in that system. That is hardly equal representation—I thought we were supposed to be encouraging people to vote. First past the post not only makes it easier for people to vote, but is simple and quick to count. It therefore does not unnecessarily burden the taxpayer with equipment or administration costs. Furthermore, the results are declared quickly, providing people with certainty.
It would be remiss of me at this moment not to reflect on certainty. Another way in which first past the post rather than PR provides certainty is in reducing the number of hung Parliaments—[Laughter.] Hon. Members may laugh, but they would then not be good students of history. If we look over recent events, we see that first past the post gives us stable majority Governments. We only need to look at some international examples to see the truth of that.
The UK has only had a handful of coalitions since 1852, but in the 67 years after 1945 Italy had 61 Governments because the coalitions were so weak and prone to splits. In fact, the Italian people recognise the disadvantages of the proportional representation system—in 1993 four fifths of voters chose to reject PR as the method of electing three quarters of their Senate. The consequences for Italy get even more farcical: in the 2013 general election, even the two main coalitions were unable to reach an outright majority.
Why does the hon. Gentleman think that after the second world war British constitutionalists recommended to Germany, for the introduction of the best government and democracy possible, not first past the post but a proportional system based on the additional member system? Will he explain why he thinks that it was not first past the post?
I am here to talk about first past the post in the United Kingdom and that is what I intend to continue to talk about—[Laughter.] I am pleased that Opposition Members are listening so intently to my remarks.
Let me reflect on the Liberal Democrats for a moment. They gained 1.8% of the seats in this year’s general election. In Poland, however, under a PR system, 29 seats were won by the Polish Beer-Lovers Party—3.5% of parliamentary seats. That is what PR can lead to: parties that do not reflect the will of the people win power. The tendency of PR systems to deliver coalitions means that power is taken away from the people and instead given to political parties which, in a back room, barter away manifesto promises made to their voters.
If preferential voting is such a rubbish system, why does the Conservative party elect its leaders in that way?
If the hon. Lady paid close attention, she would see that two candidates are put to Conservative party members in a first-past-the-post system.
Moving on, I would hope that the House agreed that it is the right of each free citizen to vote for the person with the best judgment to represent them. We might disagree on the system, but I would hope that we would all agree about that.
Under first past the post, voters know the candidate and that the candidate, once elected, will have to implement promises and face the test of the ballot box again in five years’ time. That brings me on to the constituency connection: the people of the country elect representatives and know who those representatives are up and down the land. The link that binds a Member of Parliament to his or her constituency is one of the most important in politics. Every person up and down the country knows that they have a single, consistent point of contact in this House, someone to champion the issues and challenges of their area. Unlike many things in our constitutional settlement, however, that link is not an accident; it is a product of our voting system. First past the post gives our constituents the certainty of knowing who their representative is.
Many in all parts of the House appreciate that first past the post has benefits, but that appreciation is not replicated throughout our country.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will let the hon. Lady intervene in a moment, but I first want to make a point about Scotland, which she may wish to reflect on too.
There are those who say that the effect of PR can be mitigated in terms of constituency connection through the additional member system used for the London Assembly, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. But I would argue that that creates two classes of Member: a class of Members who are known by their constituents and a class of Members who have the same powers and the same right to vote in the Assembly or Parliament but without that connection or accountability to their constituents.
The hon. Gentleman is right that I was going to draw his attention to the d’Hondt system, which has already been mentioned. I think perhaps he misunderstands it, because additional Members also have a link through the region to their constituents. Constituents know who their regional members are and who they can go to, and they can be assured that, if they voted for a party that did not win in the first-past-the-post system, there is still an elected Member who represents their views and the views that they voted for. It is a much fairer system.
All I will say is that that makes my point exactly—that system is a two-tier system with two classes of politicians, which is not what we should want in our country. We should want each of us to be elected on the same basis and with each of us accountable to our constituents and able to be thrown out by them if they disagree with us. We sit in the mother of all Parliaments, the home of parliamentary democracy, which has been exported around the world. More people use first past the post than any other system. It is an extraordinary system that has been championed across the world.
Is the hon. Gentleman’s argument not undermined somewhat by the introduction of English votes for English laws? Since the introduction of those changes to the Standing Orders, MPs from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland cannot vote in this place on such matters.
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, with so many matters devolved to the devolved institutions, EVEL allows English Members to vote on English matters.
I will make one further reference to the House of Lords. Lord Norton simplified the issues of PR and the ability of parties to form coalitions by saying that even though party A might have 40% of a vote and party B might have 20%, that does not mean that their joint manifesto has 60% of the vote. Without a secondary vote in agreement of the manifesto, the Government enjoy 0% support—it is a stitch-up done in a back room between parties. That is in stark contrast to a single-member Government produced by first past the post, who know for certain that they enjoy a large plurality of support and are far more legitimate than a coalition Government.
We sit in the mother of all Parliaments and we all are elected by our constituents. This is a place where the democratically elected representatives of the people come together to govern for the whole of the United Kingdom. It is a place in which the people should be able to have their say without having their vote stolen or bartered away. Some 14 million voted for a manifesto to keep first past the post after 13 million had already voted against scrapping it. Their voice should be heard.
I shall keep my remarks very brief, Mr Gray. I do not want to rehearse the arguments for and against electoral reform, because they are always well rehearsed in this place and outside. My position is well known and long standing. I suspect that I will not convince the hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), some other hon. Members or indeed many people outside who are against electoral reform, but my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) put the case incredibly well.
I want to give some constructive and friendly advice to the people outside who campaign on this issue, and who have helped ensure that we have today’s debate, about the tactics of winning this battle rather than rehearsing the old and sometimes stale arguments of the past. We will only get electoral reform in Britain if a major political party stands in a general election with a manifesto commitment to introduce it, or if a general election throws up a hung Parliament and one of the coalition parties is in favour of electoral reform and can deliver it. Recent experience shows that the auspices for the second option are not good. I do not want to rehearse all the reasons why the AV referendum was such a disaster but, as we have heard, the people who still argue for electoral reform often refer to it.
The best chance we have to achieve electoral reform, which I have fought for my whole political life—before I was in the Labour party and since then—is to elect a Labour Government who have committed to it in their manifesto. To misquote Nick Clegg, just as people who want to stop Brexit need to join the Labour party, people who want to reform our electoral system need to join the Labour party. I have some good news for those people: although there are relatively few Conservative Members of Parliament who support electoral reform—a small but growing number who tend to be shy—there is a growing number of Labour politicians, trade union leaders and others in the Labour movement who recognise the arguments in favour. I am told that even our shadow Chancellor is an electoral reformer, which even surprised me. That is very encouraging.
To all those extremely well meaning and right people out there who share our passion for a fairer and just electoral system, I say, “Come and join the Labour party in that fight.” It is possible to get that commitment through the grassroots of the Labour party putting pressure on the leadership, through our motions at conference and our policy formation process. Only the Labour party has delivered constitutional and electoral reform in this country, as hon. Friends have said. We did it under the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown Governments, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and for the European elections. We partially reformed the House of Lords. All the meaningful political and constitutional reforms in Britain have happened under a Labour Government. I am confident that we will have a radical manifesto for constitutional reform for the next election, so let us help to ensure that it contains a commitment to electoral reform.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for opening this debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. It is a great privilege to speak but I will be brief, because a large number of Members want to contribute, from a broad spectrum of political parties. It was my constituent Tim Ivorson who precipitated the debate by starting the petition, which garnered more than 103,000 signatures. I am grateful that he did that because it is important to have a discussion about electoral reform and, more broadly, constitutional reform.
I agree with many of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) on elections to the House of Commons, principally the important link between the constituency and the Member of Parliament. We serve in the House of Commons during the week until late at night, but at the end of the week we are in our constituencies. That is where we have the direct link with our constituents, whether in advice bureaus, being stopped in the street or out at events, when people tell us their views directly—they are not shy and that is a good thing. During the week, we come here and reflect on those views. There is a clear link between the Member of Parliament and their constituents and there is a defined community. I am very proud to represent my local community of Crawley.
The hon. Gentleman said that his constituent started the petition, so clearly Tim Ivorson is likely to be in favour of electoral reform. Is the hon. Gentleman not representing him but speaking in opposition to his point? If we had PR, his elected representative would speak in favour of his point. Is that not one of the arguments in favour? If we had multi-member constituencies elected through PR, his constituent would have someone to argue in favour of electoral reform in this debate.
We are here not as delegates but to exercise our judgment, and we are here only if our local electorate support us at election time. I have no illusions, because my constituent probably did not vote for me at the last election. Nevertheless, it is important that he brought forward this debate and that is why I am speaking.
I am not necessarily against proportional representation in all forms. It is not best for the House of Commons because of that clear link and the many other aspects that have been mentioned. I am also struck by earlier comments that elections to the European Parliament under the current UK system give political parties a lot of power to decide the candidates in those vast regional constituencies. One of the great things about the constituency link is that in a relatively small constituency of about 100,000 people, the local parties can decide the candidates and increasingly they are local residents, although there are exceptions of people being given preference by the central party. Under a proportional representation system with party lists, the party leaderships decide who goes on the lists and who is at the top, and therefore who gets elected to the assembly in question. That does not make for good representative governance.
I believe in reform, as I said earlier, and constitutional evolution. One of this country’s greatest strengths has been its ability over centuries to evolve its political systems. I favour a House of Lords that is directly elected by proportional representation, because a revising Chamber would do well to reflect the broad proportional position in this country. Individuals would not necessarily represent small constituencies under such a system, but having a constituency link in the House of Commons and a broader political reflection of the way the country voted in the revising Chamber—the House of Lords or, if it were renamed, the second Chamber—would perhaps go some way towards getting the best of both worlds.
The hon. Gentleman made a good point about the flaws of the party list system, which might create a structure in which there was cronyism or two classes of Member. Would he consider the single transferable vote? That is a multi-Member constituency model that allows for parity of status among all Members in a wider constituency but also plurality, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) mentioned. Would that be a more acceptable model for a second Chamber?
That model could be considered. We certainly have cronyism right now in our second Chamber, which is increasingly anathema in the 21st century. There are many models that one could look at when considering a proportional representation system for a second Chamber, and that is certainly one suggestion.
I was about to mention the opportunities of Brexit. I will not go into the controversies of whether we support the UK leaving the EU, but that is an opportunity for us to look at constitutional reform. That means not just greater devolution to the nations, regions, counties and cities of the country, but looking at the way that Westminster governance works. We will of course no longer have UK elections to the European Parliament, but the cycle for those elections could be adopted for elections to a reformed second Chamber. Either way, I am grateful to Members who have already made contributions and to my constituent for ensuring that the issue is discussed, and I look forward to contributions from the wide spectrum of parties that are represented under our current system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray.
If democracy is about fairly representing the views of the people, we are failing with first past the post. As a country, we pride ourselves on our strong commitment to democracy, yet the vast majority of votes stack up and simply do not make an impact on the overall result. No fewer than 68% of votes cast in June’s general election were, in effect, wasted—they made no difference at all to the outcome.
Yes, I have a vested interest. Some 1 million people voted Green in 2015. Under a proportional system, those votes would have translated into people being elected to fight for Green politics; it could have given us more than 20 MPs. However, I am also deeply worried about what our outdated, dysfunctional electoral system is doing to the legitimacy of our governance system—a system that not only fails the political parties and fails to deliver effective government, but fails the citizens of this country.
Some 33% of people do not think that voting for their preferred party will make a difference, and 44% do not feel that the UK Parliament is capable of understanding and effectively representing their concerns. That is a tragedy, and it is also a bit of an irony. We may well be on the path to leaving the EU, but all those who were promised that they would be given back control simply will not have it without meaningful electoral reform. PR would not just bring much-needed fairness, but go a considerable way towards tackling some of the reasons that people do not bother voting at all. In these times of voter volatility and diversity, it would be a system worthy of the name democracy.
The current unrepresentative voting system is doing long-term, pervasive damage, which manifests itself in phenomena such as the 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. Continuing to deny them a voice in decisions that affect us all only perpetuates that problem, yet that is exactly what is happening under first past the post—a system in which votes are not all equal. Unless someone lives in one of the small number of heavily targeted marginal seats, their vote simply does not count.
Is the hon. Lady not an example of how that is not the case? In her own constituency her party won less than 3% of the vote 20 years ago, but in the most recent general election it won 50%. Large numbers of votes can be moved in a relatively short time.
The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not agree that that felt like a relatively short time; it felt like a very long time. As I said, under PR, 1 million votes would have given the Greens more than 20 MPs in 2015. That is the bottom line. Yes, we occasionally find a way of bucking the system, but that does not give confidence to our constituents up and down the country, who simply want to know that their votes count. That does not seem a lot to ask. Interestingly, it has been estimated that between 20% and 30% of people voted tactically at the last election. In other words, people are trying the best they can to fix the system themselves, but they should not have to try to game the system; we should change it.
My constituency was marginal in 2015. I was returned with a larger majority this time, but I went door to door asking Liberal Democrat voters to lend me their vote, and there was no Green candidate because the Green party recognised that splitting the vote might allow a Conservative in. I was grateful to the local Green party for making that choice, which delivered a more progressive outcome.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. My Green colleagues were incredibly brave to make such selfless decisions for the good of the country rather than tribal political self-interest.
The Electoral Reform Society described the 2015 general election, in which a Government were elected on just 24% of the eligible vote, as “the most disproportionate” in electoral history. It further reported that in the election just gone more than 22 million votes —68%—were essentially wasted because first past the post takes no account of votes for the winning candidate over and above what they needed to win, or indeed of votes for losing candidates. In five constituencies 90% of votes made no difference to the outcome because they were cast for candidates who did not win, or cast for the winning candidate over and above what they needed to win. More than 90% of votes—a huge number.
Does the hon. Lady agree that democracy should be about outcomes, and that a fairer and just electoral system, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) talked about, would be more likely to deliver a fairer and just society, in which the forces of progress trump the forces of reaction? In my view, there is a majority in this country for progressive politics, but that is being frustrated by first past the post.
I absolutely agree. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman pre-empts a little of what I am about to say. Exactly as he describes, first past the post does not deliver the best governance. I say that as someone who has been a Member of the European Parliament—elections to the European Parliament obviously take place under a PR system—where collaboration and cross-party working is normal. It is encouraged and welcomed, and people do it, on the basis that no single party has a monopoly on wisdom.
A winner-takes-all approach to elections promotes adversarial politics. It encourages each of the major parties to seek to defeat their opposition unequivocally, negating the need for post-election co-operation, and essentially not to take any real account of what voters wanted when they cast their votes. It also means that policy is likely to change dramatically when Governments change, with greater extremes and a greater impact on economic and environmental policy and on social justice and inclusion. Research has found that countries with PR systems outperform those with first-past-the-post systems when it comes to issues that require a longer term view and policy continuity. Environmental policy is obviously a key candidate for that; countries with proportional systems score significantly higher on Yale University’s environmental performance index.
I want to quote the former Labour MP and Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. He observed that electoral reform is about not just functional outcomes—we have talked about that a lot—but values. PR is one way in which we can express our commitment to fairness, openness and equality in our society. Under PR, we would be more likely to encourage more people to get out there and vote. It is very hard to persuade people to vote when they live in so-called safe seats and know that their vote will not make a significant difference. There is evidence out there that suggests that those countries that have PR see a higher turnout than those with first past the post.
We would also improve the chances of electing a Parliament that better reflects modern Britain. One of the consequences of safe seats is that it is harder for different groups to get themselves into a position to be able to win those seats. We know that still only 32% of MPs are women. There are 208, compared with 191 in 2015, but that is still shockingly bad. Women MPs are still outnumbered two to one by male MPs, and the UK is now just about 40th in the world when it comes to women’s parliamentary representation.
People of colour, disabled people, carers, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are still under-represented in Parliament. PR would make a difference to that, because under PR MPs cannot rely on just the votes of their tribe. To win the support of the majority of voters, they are forced to reach out across the party divide to the wider electorate—women, black and minority ethnic communities and so on—which hopefully means that those traditionally excluded groups would end up standing for election, and with a better chance of being elected, too.
Finally, I want to say a few things about tactics. The right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) rightly said that getting PR into the Labour party manifesto is vital. He will not be surprised that I do not necessarily agree with his tactic for achieving that, but I certainly agree that we need to put pressure on the Labour party leadership. I am disappointed that we have not yet had a greater commitment to PR and voting reform from the Labour party leadership—perhaps this evening we will hear a change of mind—because we know that more than 200 Labour parliamentary candidates at the election backed PR, as well as a huge 76% of Labour voters, and indeed many Labour MPs in the Chamber have made incredibly powerful speeches.
What I want to say to the Labour leadership is this: it is selfish for them to continue championing a voting system just because it has traditionally handed them power. It is immoral when millions of people are disenfranchised as a result. No party can honestly claim to be for the many when it denies the many a meaningful vote. Robin Cook understood all of that when back in 2005 he said:
“Our objective, our slogan, should be to achieve an electoral system which puts our democracy in the hands of the many voters, not the few voters who happen to be key in marginal seats.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am a relatively new Member here and I come from a safe seat—it just happens to be a seat perceived to have been a safe Labour seat until I managed to gain it with the help of everyone who supported me in June. I accept that there are heartfelt and clear examples of why electoral systems are not perfect, and some of those have been outlined already. I recognise that many on the Opposition Benches have clear views about this issue.
I think we can all agree on the first point: no process is perfect. We will never find an electoral system that both reflects an absolute representation of those who have voted and ensures—to use the eponymous phrase—strong and stable government to the greatest extent where we can possibly get it. If we therefore start from the perspective that no system is perfect, we are then into a discussion about the least worst option—a system that is not as bad as it possibly could be.
My problem with PR is that it prioritises purity over practicality. It prioritises absolute representation over, in many cases, the general ability of a Government to function. If we extend the logical notion of purity, where does that end? If within a Parliament of 650 Members we had to represent the absolute number of votes cast, we would get ourselves into some difficult places with minor parties. If we were being pure about representation, those minor parties would have as much right to be in that Parliament as we would, as Members of parties represented here today.
We can extend that further into slightly more esoteric views. Should we represent those who choose not to vote? Should we represent those who are too young to vote? If there was to be a true reflection and representation of not just the electorate but society as a whole, a much wider group of people would need to be represented. That is where we get into a difficult place and illogical contortions about the arguments of those who propose PR.
I will quickly expand on the arguments against PR. We would end up with more or less permanent coalitions. We would end up with a licence to horse-trade between parties rather than with voters, and there would be the potential for greater instability. Members including the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) have highlighted clear examples over the past 50 years where the British electoral system has not thrown up a strong Government, but there are more examples in the past 70 years of where it has than has not. In 15 or so of the 20 elections we have had since 1945, we have had a majoritarian Government; in the other five we have not, but PR would pretty much guarantee that we never got a majoritarian single-party Government. It is likely that we would have larger constituencies, even if we retained the constituency link, and that would tend to mean Members starting to talk more to their own supporters in that larger constituency rather than to everybody, and then starting to appeal to narrow party bases, which I think most people in the Chamber would not support.
I will give a final example, one of where PR is working at the moment. Only last month, on 23 September, New Zealand held its eighth general election under a proportional representation system. To those who are pure about wanting to ensure that the representation in a Parliament is absolute, I worry about where we would head when I see the example of New Zealand.
Our friends in New Zealand made some clear choices. They supported the National party with 44% of the vote—the highest number of votes it has ever received in a general election—yet it lost power to a party that took 10 fewer seats and received 200,000 fewer votes, and that does not have a formal coalition but only a confidence and supply deal. The gentleman who made that decision, Mr Winston Peters of New Zealand First, lost his seat on the constituency side of the election. His party commanded only 7% of the vote, and for 20 days he refused to tell anybody who in his party was making a decision about which party he was to go into coalition with. Therefore, I hope that all those people who stand on the other side and argue that PR is necessarily more transparent, necessarily more representative and necessarily an improvement on first past the post will reflect on the New Zealand example. It demonstrates that no system is perfect and that PR has huge problems.
My brother and his family live in New Zealand and have done so for many years. They are happy with the PR system, instead of first past the post, which has given the country hope and a future. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is giving a little bit of something different?
I certainly know that what it has given differently to New Zealand is eight consecutive elections with no clear winner, whereas before the 1996 election there were clear winners in seven out of eight elections.
I accept the arguments made by many people so far—and those I am sure will come—with regard to PR. I understand why PR has some merit and some benefits, but on balance I am simply not convinced that changing our electoral system from first past the post to PR would be supported by the majority of people out there in the country or be good for our Parliament. Before I sit down, I ask this question: numerous Members have stood up and talked about how PR is more democratic and fair. More democratic to whom, and more fair to whom? I have seen no examples and nothing in the debate that convinces me—I certainly see nothing in the New Zealand example—that it is either fair or more democratic than the first-past-the-post-system.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to follow the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), who, though he did not persuade me, made a powerful speech.
I thank everyone who signed the petition for enabling us to have the debate, and I pay tribute to the range of organisations working in the field, many of which have done so for decades, including the Electoral Reform Society, Make Votes Matter—a younger organisation—and Unlock Democracy. In particular, I thank the members of Merseyside Unlock Democracy, with whom I have had the pleasure of working regularly, on this and other issues.
I agree with the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire that there is no such thing as an ideal electoral system. We all seek to balance competing criteria, to try to fashion the best system for the circumstances of our country. Having debated the issue over the years I am familiar with the fact that Italy is often cited as an example of a country using PR that has not been very successful. Those on our side of the argument counter with Germany as a great example, and one in which proportional voting has been part of the reason for the country’s success over the past 70 years. However, we should agree among ourselves that we are debating different criteria, one of which is fairness.
My answer to the very fair challenge with which the hon. Gentleman finished his speech—fairness and democracy for whom?—is that it is for the people. It is for the voters. The reason I favour a broadly proportional system—I am not a purist and do not want to adopt the Israeli system, which is near to being precisely proportional representation—is that in our political situation now the system does not work any more.
We have long heard during debates on the issue that one of the main arguments in support of first past the post is that it delivers a clear majority for the party that comes first, which enables it to govern. My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) reminded us of the anomalous elections when that was not the case—1951 and February 1974. However, there is a more powerful point: the fundamentals of voting in this country have changed. From 1945 to 1970 well over 90% of those who voted in every general election voted either Conservative or Labour. It really was a two-party system, but since 1974 the system has essentially been more diverse, pluralistic and fragmented, and it is therefore more volatile. It is relevant to say that two of the past three general elections have resulted in hung Parliaments. That might be an anomaly. It might turn out that, in future, we shall elect five majority Labour Governments in a row, which would be great by me, but I suspect that the pluralism and volatility of the previous few decades might well be with us to stay. Therefore, a system that might have been okay for the ’50s and ’60s, when a vast majority of people voted Labour or Conservative, is not right for the world we live in now.
I want briefly to respond to some points made in the debate. As to tactical voting and the reason that parties, despite decrying it, use it, I think that is just the reality of working in the system we have. I am delighted that a good friend—my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous)—is seated next to me. He and I campaigned together 20 years ago in Enfield, Southgate to win the seat for Labour for the first time. We said clearly to Liberal Democrat and Green voters, and others, “If you want to defeat Michael Portillo, only a Labour vote will count,”—and it worked, but we should not have a system in which it is necessary actively to encourage that, and to support that negative style of campaigning. I want a system in which Liberal Democrats in Enfield, Southgate can vote Liberal Democrat and Green supporters can vote Green, and in which Labour supporters in areas that are Liberal Democrat versus Conservative can vote Labour. That, for me, is one of the most powerful arguments for electoral reform—ensuring that voters, wherever they live, can cast a vote by conviction rather than tactically.
All parties target a relatively small number of seats and, within them, a relatively small number of voters, and all Members present will, in the recent general election, have spent time not only in their constituencies, but campaigning elsewhere—because a relatively small number of seats determine the outcome of an election. That is unhealthy for the voters in the non-target constituencies.
The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) made an important point, which is that proportional representation is not a silver bullet. Those of us who favour voting reform must be careful, sometimes, not to present it as a panacea for all the ills of our democracy, or even of society more widely. It is important to see the issue in the context of a broader set of social, economic and political challenges. It is important to have a package of democratic reforms that will address the democratic deficit we still have. I was delighted that the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) spoke about the need to elect the second Chamber, and mentioned that proportional representation could be used. I am also delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) has introduced a private Member’s Bill to reduce the voting age to 16; the Representation of the People (Young People’s Enfranchisement and Education) Bill is due to be debated on Second Reading on Friday. We need to go back to the question of citizenship education in schools, and what can be done to equip the voters of the future. The devolution settlement in England needs serious attention, because it is hugely variable around the country.
On the point about devolution, we have proportional representation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in London. It works very well. People understand it, and it delivers good government in all those regions.
I agree; I concur with those who have said in the debate that we can really learn lessons from the experience of those broadly proportional voting systems in Scotland, Wales and Greater London. There has been a suggestion that the system should be abandoned in England and that we should move to first past the post, but it is hugely helpful that there is a range of parties in the Greater London Assembly. Minority parties in London such as the Conservatives can have a voice in the Assembly. [Laughter.] I said that expecting to elicit a laugh, but there is a serious point: I think I am right to say that at the previous elections, if first past the post had been used—I think the Conservative manifesto position is that it should be—there would be a clear Labour majority in the London Assembly. Particularly when the Mayor is Labour, it is right that the other voices of London citizens and parties—the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Greens and others—are there to hold him to account.
There is a risk that we are today engaged in a Westminster bubble debate, in which Members of Parliament rehearse arguments that we have had over many years. We need to take the debate out into the country. I still think that the idea of some kind of democratic or citizens’ convention to consider the issues would be welcome. It played a productive role more than two decades ago in Scotland, as the devolution settlement was framed in the 1990s. Citizens need to have their say, which comes back to the question of the system. Rather than having a system that politicians dream up, let us engage citizens and see how they want to balance proportionality versus strong government, voter choice and all the different factors. I am confident that if we allowed citizens to do that, through a convention, they would come to a different system from the one we have now. They would not necessarily want to import one from another country; they would devise one suited to the history and traditions of democracy in this country.
I finish where I started, by thanking the more than 100,000 people who petitioned us and enabled this important issue to be discussed.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am grateful to the Electoral Reform Society for the information that it provided to all Members in advance of the debate, and particularly pleased to have received so many representations from my constituents. However, I do not think that Members should forget that we had a full test of public opinion on first past the post just six years ago. That was a national poll—[Interruption.] Let me continue. That national poll was held in 2011, on the same day as many local elections.
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
The turnout was just 42%, but in terms of local elections that was fairly respectable. Many would say, “Ah, but of course that was about AV, not about some system that is infinitely more complicated. If we presented that, we might have found the silver bullet. People would have voted for it.” We can rake over the coals of referendums and say, “What does this mean and what does that mean?”, but I think a two to one result said something very clearly: that no matter what our thoughts may be on the different forms of PR, first past the post was still the favoured means of electing Members to constituencies in this country.
I am keen to clarify something. The hon. Gentleman said that first past the post was the victor over the various forms of PR. Does he really believe that the 2011 referendum offered people a choice between first past the post and proportional representation? Does he actually believe that?
The choice, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, was between first past the post and an AV system. My point is that there was a choice to change what we have, which was rejected by two to one. I would take a lot of persuading to say that had some other, infinitely more academic, proper PR system been offered the result would have been much different. I will not say that first past the post is a system without flaws. Under various academic analyses, one can come up with a different alternative that might be better. However, I am minded of what Churchill once said about democracy: that it is the worst form of government, but it is better than all the others. That is probably true of first past the post as well. It has the benefit of being understandable and easily completed. It has a defined geographical area, which to me is the most powerful point: we maintain a clear link between those who elect and the elected representative.
First, several of us have pointed out that there are proportional systems that keep the constituency link. I wish we could get rid of that argument, because it is not relevant. Secondly, as the hon. Gentleman is talking about Churchill again, I will use this occasion to let him know that Churchill said that if we are to choose between AV, second ballot and PR,
“I have no doubt whatever that the last is incomparably the fairest …and…best in the public interest.”—[Official Report, 2 June 1931; Vol. 253, c. 102.]
The hon. Gentleman quotes Churchill with great alacrity; perhaps he would like to quote that too.
I am always grateful to the hon. Lady for her contributions. This is a wide-ranging debate, and I will come on to other forms of PR.
On the question of decisiveness, we generally have decisive outcomes from first-past-the-post systems. In my South Thanet constituency I was very fortunate to receive 50.8% of the vote, so under first past the post, AV or supplementary vote I would still have won. That is true of many Members. AV, the system that was wholly rejected, has a “one, two, three” system, as hon. Members will be aware. Supplementary vote is seen in police and crime commissioner and mayoral elections. I stood for police and crime commissioner in 2012. Even after educating the public about what the two columns meant—“Vote for one, vote for two, or don’t use the second column and just use the first”—the number of spoilt ballot papers was truly exceptional. That is still true today in London elections. I do not know hon. Members’ experiences in their own constituencies, but the number of spoilt ballot papers in first past the post is vanishingly small, and I was alarmed to see the number of spoilt papers in mayoral elections.
Why was there no attempt in the last Conservative manifesto, or the manifesto before that, to remove that form of election for police and crime commissioners? Why has the Conservative party never tried to remove the list system for European elections?
As the hon. Gentleman will be absolutely clear, the list system for European parliamentary elections has been foisted on us, and is not one that we would have chosen for ourselves.
I was just going through the various systems. With the single transferable vote system, we can have a transferable vote down from the winning candidate or a transferable vote up from the eliminated candidate. We can have the additional member system, with a constituency member and a party vote top-up. Last year, I was fortunate to go on a visit with an all-party parliamentary group to Hungary, which operates that system. We were warmly entertained by one of the Hungarian list MPs. I asked her about that experience. There are others in this room who are more familiar with these systems, particularly in Scotland. I asked, “Are you busy as a constituency MP?” She said, “No, I don’t get any post at all. I have nothing to do, because nobody knows I exist, because there is no link to my constituency.”
Does the hon. Gentleman not think it ironic that a number of his colleagues in the Scottish Parliament were elected on the regional list system, and therefore many of the comments he is making about list MPs now apply to him? Does he consider them to be second-class MPs?
I am talking about the system for this place, one that has served us well. I have a lot to say about what is wrong with any type of PR system, and I am no more in favour of the Scottish system now than I ever was. In Northern Ireland there is a slightly different system of a single transferable vote.
Moving on to the European parliamentary elections, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), I am not against the d’Hondt formula just because it was created by a Belgian mathematician from 1878. How many hon. Members have knocked on doors and dared to asked the elector: “Do you know who your MEPs are?” I am within this bubble in the south-east region, and I can only name four MEPs for the region. What chance do others have of getting a reply they want, when they send out their letters to that faceless 10?
Is it the hon. Gentleman’s assertion that when Members of the European Parliament were elected by first past the post, the country knew who they were?
That is a point well made, and that leads us to the state that we are in today. My point is that the constituency link is lost, but how can we have a region? When we have a pure system, a little like Israel or the regional system for European parliamentary elections, how on earth can we have a constituency link from Milton Keynes to the Isle of Wight and through to east Kent? How can people feel any familiarity with or knowledge of the people who represent them? To have a proper system in which those elected completely reflect the votes cast, the area has to get bigger and bigger, and that link is lost.
Even under the d’Hondt system we have closed and open lists. The worry with the closed list system is that hon. Members cannot say with any sincerity that it is the right system and that it puts the power in the hands of the electors. It puts the power in the hands of the party machines, electing people who are in favour with the party leadership of the time to be top or bottom of the list, or wherever in between.
It would be down to parties to choose how to decide the order of the lists. In the Labour party, members of the party have always decided on their candidates at a general election. There is no reason to think that, under a proportional or list system, members of the Labour party would not be involved in deciding both the candidates and the order of the list.
Again, it puts the power in the hands of the party rather than those of the elector. That is the key point. I see many constituencies where the person is elected because their views are more in tune with their public rather than with the party that people normally support. I certainly put the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion in that category. She has that appeal because it is her, and that is very important.
It is unfair to say that any of us, no matter how we were elected, treats any of our electors any differently. We do not say to them, “Did you vote for me? Then I will not help you. Oh, you did vote for me? Then I will.” That completely disappears once we are elected Members; so it should be and so it should stay. It comes down to a question of what is fair. My view of fairness will probably be different from other people’s, and that is the problem with the varieties of PR or alternative systems out there. I worry that perceptions of fairness change depending on the vote share and the outcome of the protagonist’s favoured party at the last outing. That is another argument against PR.
One final unfairness is last month’s vote in Germany. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party received just 33% of the vote. There is no clear Government even today.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am making a powerful point, and then I will give way. Angela Merkel received 33% of the vote and is unable to form a Government. How will that Government be formed? It will be formed in back rooms, not anywhere near the ballot box or the people who elected on that day. That has to be one of the most unfair systems for creating a Government.
I am very grateful that the hon. Gentleman has given way. I always love it when people talk with such conviction about areas that they do not necessarily know so much about. I challenge him that I know more about Germany than he does. A coalition Government is not an unfair Government—it is a coalition, in which two or several parties come together to form a Government, bringing several views together, rather than just the view of one party. That does not mean it is an unfair Government, or that people do not know what the result of that Government will be. It is a coming together of views that creates a better democracy and better governance.
I thank the hon. Lady for that view and perception, but she must realise that, in these back-room coalition deals, it can be the most small party, which has been rejected virtually nationally, that holds the balance of power. [Hon. Members: “Like the DUP?”] We do not need DUP Members to that extent, although we are grateful to have them. [Interruption.] May I just finish this point? In Germany, it is often the Greens that hold the balance. In this country, deals are generally done with parties of a similar persuasion, exactly as in our maintenance agreement with the DUP.
What is wrong with smaller parties having a say in government? It is sometimes very healthy and is a great sign of democracy.
I do not disagree with the hon. Lady’s point, but when parties completely different from the main parties hold the balance of power, that is a danger.
I will close my remarks; I am glad they have caused some excitement. If we had a 33% result in this country, we would have another general election. That does not happen in Germany and other places that have PR in prevalence. I want strong Government, and first past the post, despite its flaws, tends to give that result most of the time. Frankly, I think we should reject any other system.
My miserable maths suggest that, if a self-denying ordinance is imposed and Members confine themselves to five minutes’ speaking each, most if not all Members will get in. If Members are greedy, not everybody will get in.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Sir Roger; I will try to keep to time. In preparing for the debate, I texted my modern studies teacher from high school to ask quite how long I have been thinking about this particular issue. She reckons it is probably since the start of third year at high school. The organisations supporting the debate should have produced a bingo card for all the arguments raised; we would probably have had a full house about an hour ago.
There is a package of measures other than the electoral system—votes at 16, House of Lords reform and, most of all, our engagement with our constituents—that we need to have a better democracy. However, a good voting system that is fair, representative and allows a wide range of views to be heard and represented in Parliament is very much the most important. It seems that our system is increasingly discredited and increasingly does not represent a wide range of views.
We have experience of proportional representation in Scotland—not only in the Scottish Parliament, which has been talked about quite a lot, but in Scottish local government. I was lucky enough to be elected twice to Glasgow City Council under the single transferrable vote system. That system removed, at a stroke, the one-party state that Glasgow City Council had been for many years and brought a range of new voices on to the council, including Greens, Lib Dems and a Tory. That brought a huge range of views to the council, to the point where research by the Electoral Reform Society found a council officer saying, “It gave us our council back.” There was actually debate and discussion, which is something we should very much value. That was a positive experience.
Constituency size has been mentioned. I think Glasgow had three and four-member wards, which achieved all three or four members being a strong voice for the area and campaigning together in that area on local issues, such as the closure of the local sorting office. That amplified the issue. On the negative side, a constituent could be represented by a councillor who for years had done hee haw for them, but they then had somebody else they could go to who could help and be there for them. That was a positive for many of my constituents. While mine was a larger council ward, I certainly found that I had that link with people, and I still have that link with a lot of those constituents because it is in the same area as my parliamentary constituency. That has been a good and positive experience for those people. They had known nothing but Labour councillors until that point, but they now have the opportunity to be more widely represented, which is absolutely a positive and is more reflective of their views. Having politicians competing in an area for interest and votes can only be a good thing, because they will try to get their work done that bit better and faster.
The European Parliament list, which is a closed system, has its limitations, as has been raised. However, in the Scottish National party, as in the Labour party, the list is decided by party members. We have the second largest party membership in the UK, so that is quite a big pool to draw from when selecting representatives for that list. That is a good thing and should be encouraged.
One disadvantage of our current system is that it has so many things that are negative and skew it. As was mentioned, marginal seats are targeted, with parties throwing all kinds of money at them to try to win them back, whereas voters who do not live in a marginal seat are lucky to get a couple of leaflets through the door. That is not a good and representative system, and we need to think a bit better about how we get around and change those things. PR, under which all votes count a good deal more, would certainly be one way to change that, particularly when asking for second or third preferences from constituents, as happens in Ireland, which has a far more competitive system where people fight for those votes. Electors in that system want people fighting for their votes.
It is also important that we talk about how we set politics up. Constituency size is an issue, and the European Parliament constituencies are perhaps too large. That is a factor in people not knowing who their representative is, but some of it comes down to the representative and their ability to communicate and connect. It is a burden on those people to try to represent such huge constituencies. However, where there is a balance, as in Scotland with regional lists, it is a good and fair balance, and people can make those links, make that change and actually connect with their constituents. We need to do a lot more connecting, but we also need to look at the fundamental structures of the system, because it is not working at the moment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and also to follow such excellent speeches by Members from all parts of the House. I also thank my constituents who have written to me on this very important subject.
First past the post neither reflects voters’ wishes nor is any more likely to provide strong government than proportional representation. I will also quote the late Robin Cook, who said in 2005:
“Democracy is not just a means to an end. Democracy is a value in itself. And if we treasure that value, we need to provide a more democratic system for the centrepiece of our own political structure.”
I agree with the Electoral Reform Society that, under first past the post, people feel more like observers than participants in the democratic process. I have never been particularly wedded to first past the post, although I have been elected, first to Hounslow Council and then to the House, in more than nine elections through that system. I can beat the number of years the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) has been involved with PR. Some 35 years ago, I was elected to the National Union of Students national executive—so I share a political history with at least four Members here—for which the PR elections to that body were felt to be representative and fair.
Since the last Labour Government created the London Assembly, I have been involved in campaigning for elections in which the geographical link is maintained, contrary to the points repeatedly made by Members here who oppose a change. Furthermore, the London Assembly reflects the voting intentions of Londoners, as do all the new elected legislative bodies created by the last Labour Government in the years after 1997.
The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) mentioned the recent New Zealand general election, of which I have personal experience. When I visited my son in New Zealand in September, I played a small part on election day. They have multi-Member PR there. Notwithstanding the unorthodox way in which the leader of New Zealand First announced his choice of partners in the Green and Labour parties, in order to form a Labour-led Government, there is no groundswell of opinion in New Zealand to move away from the multi-Member system. I spent the day reminding voters in a strongly Labour voting area in South Auckland to go out to vote. Because of the PR system, those people were more likely to come out to vote than they might have been under first past the post, which would have made it a safe seat. No doubt because of those conversations they had on their doorstep with a middle-aged English MP, they now have a Labour-led Government. In New Zealand, the voter has two votes: one for the electoral district and one for the national list, thereby representing their geographical concerns and their national political perspective.
In the UK, because of first past the post, many people in safe seats say on the doorstep, “What’s the point of voting?” In highly marginal seats such as my own—it was highly marginal until June 2017, but seems to be a safe seat for the time being—people often vote not for their first party of choice, but the candidate most likely to defeat the candidate they least want. One person in five votes tactically, according to the Electoral Reform Society. The lack of representation in Parliament of small parties is abysmal, but as the co-leader of the Green party, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), said, those parties often represent millions of votes.
Going into the election in June this year, I had a majority of 465 in my seat of Brentford and Isleworth. The Green party—some of its members are here today—withdrew its candidate because it felt that I was more likely to further its priorities in Parliament than my Conservative opponent. I met many people on the doorstep who normally vote Green and said they would vote for me, but would have liked an influence on getting a Green MP elected to Parliament. I met many Liberal Democrats who were voting for me, but would have preferred the chance to vote Lib Dem. That is not democracy—it is not good democracy.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. We come to Westminster because we want to advance the politics that we care passionately about. Is it not right that our constituents also have the opportunity to advance the politics they are most passionate about by voting from the choices before them to have a more representative voice in this place?
In my view, PR is a way to have a more representative voice.
While no system is perfect, all systems have elements of complexity. All can bring instability, hung Parliaments and coalitions. PR brings proportionality, as people know that their vote will help towards the weighting of the party they want to see sitting in that legislature, and reflects the complex diversity of the UK now.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. As an abstract principle, tactical voting is nonsense, but there is one exception to that great rule, which is when people happen to vote in Clwyd South as they did in this year’s general election. It was quite magnificent, because as well as talking to those who were unsure how to vote, much of my time was spent talking to people who desperately did not want a Tory MP or one of those sheep who would come here to vote for a hard Brexit. I hope I have managed to provide them with good representation on that count.
Really and truly, most people—excluding certain Government Members—know that there is much wrong with our voting system. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) must be one of the most popular, decent and nice Members in this place. He is a great person and a thoroughly thoughtful parliamentarian, and I am delighted he is back here, but I am not sure he needed his majority of 39,883, which is 70.4% of all the voters in that seat.
Several Members have quoted the late great Robin Cook. I remember something he said; I will remember the version where he did not insult Lord Mandelson. [Laughter.] Other Members have heard it too. He said that under first past the post, if a floating voter was found in the Amazon, people would go over there and bring them back to make sure they could vote in a marginal seat. That raises the question, if we believe in democracy and claim to be pluralists—I appreciate that not everybody does—should we not have the guts to back a fairer system? The 1997 Labour Government did that for the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament, the London Mayor and the Greater London Authority. As a Welsh MP, I do not think it has been unbridled joy in Wales. In fact, sometimes it has been a right pain in the neck, but I do not believe that our National Assembly, of which I am passionately in favour, would have seriously developed the breadth of reach across society and the inclusivity had we not gone for that proportional system.
Many Members have said that under first past the post at least we get stable Governments. We have one now, do we not? I do not think many of us would say that that is true any more. The Government are weak and wobbly, to coin a phrase. I know that no voting system is perfect and that we need sensible thresholds. I also know that, across this country, most people are not that bothered about constitutional issues. Having been fairly interested in them when I came here several years ago, I am probably allergic to them now, but that is not the point in the debate about voting reform. We can be as concerned about bread-and-butter issues as we like, but if our vote does not actually matter because of where we live, what on earth is the point? Our voice is either likely to go totally unheard or, at best, be of marginal importance. Rather a lot of things have happened since the 2011 referendum, but that was not really about a proportional system. To say that is to decry what it was about. So much has changed.
It is high time that we had an honest, open debate. I have every confidence in my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) on the shadow Front Bench. She is a fair-minded person and a good pluralist, and I look forward to hearing what she has to say. There are members of the Minister’s party in Wales, such as Jonathan Evans, who advocate passionately for electoral reform. We have to look at this issue for the sake of not just my tactical voters in Clwyd South, some of whom said they like voting for me and would like to do so again, but people right around the country. If democracy matters, it has to matter for here.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I thank the Petitions Committee for enabling this debate. I rise to argue that the central purpose of the campaign for proportional representation must be to shine a light on the clear, strong and manifold causal links between the state of our broken politics and the state of our discredited voting system.
The simple fact is that the British people deserve an electoral system in which every vote counts. Why do the vast majority of developed nations use proportional representation, while our electorate are forced to accept second best? Why should our people be forced to accept the fundamentally flawed logic of a system whereby seats in Parliament do not reflect vote share? Why should we have to tolerate tactical voting? Polling found that on 8 June 20% to 30% of the electorate voted tactically. Why should we have to put up with a system whereby almost 7 million people felt that they had to hold their nose while voting?
What does it say about our democracy when millions of people are going to the ballot box to vote for the “least worst option,” as opposed to voting for the party or individual they feel will best represent their values, beliefs and interests in this place? Can we really sit here today, in the building that is sometimes referred to as the cradle of modern democracy, and defend a system that fails to pass the most basic principle of democracy—namely, the right of voters to vote for the party or candidate that they actually support? Perhaps most importantly of all, why should the British people have to accept a system that delivers the winner-takes-all political culture that is the root cause of the deeply divided, polarised and fragmented country that we have become?
Decades of research from around the world shows that proportional representation correlates with positive societal outcomes: greater income equality, less corporate control, better long-term planning and political stability, fairer representation of women and minorities, higher voter turnout, better environmental laws and a significantly lower likelihood of going to war. This is the real prize of electoral reform: building a better politics. It is the means of shaping a more inclusive society in which resources are allocated on the basis of real needs and opportunities rather than cynical swing-seat electoral calculations. It should therefore come as no surprise that polls consistently show that a majority of the public want PR. The latest poll shows that 67% want to make seats match votes, and those people are joined by a growing alliance of parties, MPs and public figures who want real democracy.
There are those who argue that the great advantage of first past the post is that it delivers “strong and stable” government—I think the less said about that, the better. We are also told that the great danger of PR is that it will mean back-room stitch-ups. What, like the £1 billion bung for the DUP?
On the point about back-room stitch-ups, does my hon. Friend also recognise that, under the present system, political parties are themselves coalitions? In the Conservative party we see the libertarian tradition and the patrician tradition. In the Liberal Democrats we see the social democrats and the “Orange Book” liberals. Of course, in the Labour party we agree on everything all the time. [Laughter.] Let us let the people in to some of those compromises, choices and trade-offs.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right; the transparency of a more coalition-based system whereby parties are able to self-identify clearly as parties in their own right is a far more healthy way of running a democracy.
The truth is that it is first past the post that increasingly leads to smoke-filled rooms, backstairs deals and pork barrel politics. I prefer the open politics of transparent coalition building, in which parties are clear about the trade-offs that they would make in a coalition, and the public clearly do too. They like to see their politicians putting the national interest ahead of narrow party political gain, because they can see that our entire political culture, underpinned and compounded by our winner-takes-all electoral system, is not geared to building broad-based political support right across the country. No, it is geared to focus on approximately 100 constituencies —the so-called battleground seats.
The hon. Gentleman talks about constituencies, but if he is talking about open politics and fairer politics, will he make it his policy—indeed, is it Labour party policy—to allow the redrawing of boundaries so that they are fairer in themselves?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I think that the equalisation of constituencies is, in principle, right, but it should be on the basis of 650 MPs, particularly in the light of Brexit and so many more responsibilities. As I am sure he will agree, we are taking back control in this Parliament.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely delighted by that development, but still, arguing for 600 seats does not really make sense.
The system is geared to focus on approximately 100 constituencies that always tip the balance when it comes to polling day, 100 constituencies that hold the future of our country in their hands, 100 constituencies that drive and define our politics, 100 constituencies that can give a party with 40% of the vote the powers of an elective dictatorship.
A proportional system, however, is genuinely representative. It forces parties to come together and build consensus around policies that advance our long-term national interest. What a refreshing change that would make, following the short-term, tactical party management that has driven so much decision making in Westminster for so long. That is why I am so keen to point out that the campaign for electoral reform is not, and must never be, about partisan interests. I favour electoral reform not because I think it will particularly benefit the Labour party, but because it is right for our country, our economy, our society, our people and our democracy; because the campaign for electoral reform is about showing people that this is their society, they have a voice and they can shape their future.
I shall finish in that spirit by calling on political parties to commit to including two things in their manifestos: first, an undertaking in principle to replace first past the post with a more proportional system; and secondly, a commitment to organising a constitutional convention, shortly after the next general election, to identify the best possible proportional system that we can implement for our country. True radicalism is about going to the root cause of a problem, identifying the solution and building consensus for change, so let us for once be truly radical. Let us accept that our politics is broken and that our utterly discredited first-past-the-post system is preventing us from building the new political culture that our country so urgently needs.
Sir Roger, I apologise for coming to the debate a little late—I had left my notes in the ladies’ toilet. I hope you see that as a sign of how excited I am to be in the debate. I thank everyone who has made it possible. I am also grateful for the good-natured debate that we have had so far.
I have been campaigning on electoral reform for many years. I am a council member of the Electoral Reform Society—that membership will run out in a few months’ time, because my parliamentary duties no longer allow me to fulfil that role properly—so I am very much involved with the issue. Electoral reform is not about electoral advantage for any particular party; it is simply the right thing to do. Many hon. Members have made it clear why first past the post is a rubbish voting system: it disenfranchises a large number of voters in so-called safe seats, encourages apathy and disinterest, drives the politics of division and polarisation and simply does not encourage a culture of grown-up political debate.
Electoral reform and a proportional voting system are about better democracy. That is really the headline for the Electoral Reform Society’s campaigning. I am sometimes very alarmed when I follow the Brexit debates that we are having currently, because our political culture simply does not understand what it means to be a participatory democracy, in which all people can participate and have a meaningful say, rather than two sides just shouting at each other. That is why it is so important that we find a political culture that can deal with the complex issues of the day, and changing our voting system would definitely be a step in the right direction.
The defenders of first past the post are clutching at straws. That people vote tactically in large numbers demonstrates not that this is a great system, but that we have to make do with something that is very inferior. I love this argument that we have already had a referendum. A referendum does not set an argument in stone once and for all. According to that argument, we had a referendum in 1975 to join the EU—and look where we are today. Certain issues do not go away, and electoral reform is one of them. Democracy is about healthy debating and continuous challenge. It is about fair representation of all people.
I have listened with great interest to what Labour Members have said about their manifesto. I know from being a council member of the Electoral Reform Society that we have been engaging over many months with the Labour party to see whether we can get a manifesto commitment from it. I am looking forward to that manifesto commitment, not least because it would mean that I would not have to join the Labour party.
I start by congratulating all those who have worked so hard to secure the signatures on the petition. I am sorry that it was so casually dismissed by at least one Government Member. I am proud that my constituents contributed, I think, the fourth highest number of signatures, and I think that it reflects a growing mood for change in the way we elect our Members of Parliament, and indeed in other parts of the system. At the moment we face huge challenges in our politics, and at these times it is so important that our politics commands the support of the people; that our democracy is held in high regard. It is here that our electoral system lets us down.
The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) made a fair attempt at defending first past the post, but as a system that might have worked in the past, rather than one that meets the challenges of today. Looking at some of the flaws of first past the post, there is a Member of this House—I do not want to name names—who was elected with 29% of the votes cast. In the last Parliament, a Member was elected with less than 25% of the votes cast, with more than three quarters of voters not wanting that person to be their representative. There has to be something wrong with a system that produces those sorts of results.
Reflecting on this debate, I am struck by the extraordinary absence of irony in the way Government Members have described PR as flawed because it leads to an election result in which there is no clear winner, and therefore a Government determined by backroom deals, giving disproportionate influence to small parties. I think irony is quite important in politics.
The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay also casually disregarded the argument about wasted votes, which I think is important. There is no more powerful indictment of our system than the way people feel disempowered by their votes being wasted. Not only do the votes going to losing candidates have no impact on the outcome of the election, but neither do the surplus votes for the winner over the finishing line. I say that as someone who, in sharp contrast with my result in 2010, has a majority just short of 28,000. That combination of wasted votes meant that between 68% and 74% of votes have been wasted in the last three general elections.
The hon. Gentleman also suggested that people are obviously happy with the system when he asked why they continued to participate in it, but they have found their own way of navigating this flawed system. Thankfully they did not walk away, as he suggested they might. Instead they tried to find their own ways of making votes count, increasingly turning to tactical voting and to vote trading websites. As many hon. Members have pointed out, political parties know how to navigate it too. It leads to that focus on key marginal seats and key voter segments within them, which is no way to run a democracy.
PR is not a silver bullet and those of us who are strong advocates for it do not pretend that it is. There are many other ways in which our democracy needs to be improved, but we should learn something from the fact that an increasing number of countries have turned away from first past the post and towards more proportional systems. Of the 35 nations in the OECD, more than 80% use some form of PR. Contrary to the lack of imagination that some Government Members have shown, it is possible to have systems in which there is a constituency link—most of those countries do—which retains that vital relationship that so many of us believe in, while also allowing for proper proportionality.
The impact of moving to PR goes beyond voting systems. As a number of hon. Members have alluded, it contributes to changing our political culture. My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) spoke of his concerns about the increasingly damaging way in which tribalism and a binary approach to politics is undermining what is a much more nuanced political debate in our country. PR would move us from a majoritarian culture to a more consensual approach to politics, which we should welcome. It is therefore no surprise that, as all the evidence demonstrates, societies with PR systems generally have lower income inequality, developed welfare systems, higher social expenditure, fairer distribution of public goods, better environmental controls, more effective action on climate change, less likelihood of armed conflict and, as one hon. Member pointed out, better long-term decision making. Given many of the big issues we face as a country, we should aspire to that.
The petition is timely, given that confidence in our democracy is not at its strongest. In this House we need to be open to change. Making votes count would make an enormous difference. I again thank those who have brought the petition to the House. They should recognise —as should we—that it has stimulated a large number of Members to get involved in the issue. Let us see this as a springboard from which we can build.
I am grateful to all the people who signed this petition. This is a hugely important matter, and one frequently raised with me on the doorstep and in public meetings. This petition and the question around it are indicative of a changing relationship between elected Members, the voting public and power. It would be helpful to look at one aspect that lies behind the petition and to share some of the experiences from Scotland, where we have PR for elections to the Scottish Parliament and councils, and also where 16-year-olds can vote and express their democratic views.
Does a voter in my constituency of East Lothian want a specific person to fulfil a role as their representative in Westminster? Do they see that role as lawmaking, or solving constituency problems? Do they want to know who I am, ask questions of me and demand representation on all issues? It is interesting that the evidence suggests that parliamentarians think the constituent wants them to be a lawmaker, but constituents rank solving constituents’ problems as the most important job. If we add to that a shared desire to promote the interests and improve the economy of the constituency, I would suggest that voters see a dual role in their parliamentarian.
At the time of a national election, with its national campaign, febrile press coverage, and umpteen polls and opinions, what is important to voters is who will form the next Government and control their future. After the election that view changes and a constituent wants a voice for the constituency: to sort out their problems, and to help build and develop the area they live in. That may suggest why by-elections are different beasts to general elections. East Lothian has always had a strong history of constituency MP Back Benchers who have contributed to the politic, but always put their constituency first. I believe this characteristic is shared in a lot of constituencies.
This petition refers to PR systems that keep the constituency link. In Scotland we have the additional member system—AMS—in which the first-past-the-post vote identifies a constituency MSP and then additional Members are added from a list. The list is party-based and adds Members for a particular party to one of eight area lists. We also have the single transferable vote—STV—in which constituents have multiple Members and rank as many candidates as they wish. STV improves the proportionality and retains a constituency link, and that is used in our council elections. I would, however, counsel from experience that voters sometimes find that system difficult, with people frequently voting for just one person, or sequencing their votes down the ballot paper, resulting in an alphabetic list of councillors, rather than the choice of a party or individual. Education is the key to solving this, as well as, possibly, randomised ranking on the ballot paper. However, with Westminster, are people up to having more MPs, or would we require larger constituencies, removing and eroding the historic link of an MP to an area? I am aware of other systems, such as party lists, regional or national, which again point to a party political choice, rather than an individual choice.
The question of electoral reform is loud and it is a massively important debate. Just because something is complex does not mean we should not address the question. We must listen to what is being said, but a question we need to ask ourselves before that is: what do we want from our MP? If we can answer that question, the system we use to vote for that MP might become clearer to everyone.
Ipswich borough consists of 16 wards, of which 13 comprise the parliamentary constituency of Ipswich and three are part of the Central Suffolk and North Ipswich constituency. That does what it says on the tin, consisting of a huge swathe of some of the most rural and prosperous parts of Suffolk, plus two council estates and some other dense housing in north-west Ipswich. Every time a resident of Ipswich contacts my office, my staff have to ask for their address to determine whether they are one of my constituents or a constituent of the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter). Many residents of north-west Ipswich assume that they are represented by the MP for Ipswich, and can become irritated when they discover that they have to approach someone else, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman is becoming a little weary of my constant messages to his office informing him of my intention to attend events that involve Ipswich-wide groups or campaigns but that happen to be taking place in his constituency—although we do try to work together for the good of Ipswich wherever appropriate.
Of course, if the boundary commission changes go through before the next election, one wards-worth of his constituents will not be allowed to vote on whether he has done a good job for them, because they will be transferred into my constituency. At the same time, it would be wrong for me to attempt to show the residents of that ward whether I am an effective MP until after the general election at which they can vote for me, or not.
I am lucky in that I have only one borough council with which I have to deal, and that borough council has only two MPs with which it has to deal. Just down the road in Essex, there are constituencies with boundaries that bear virtually no relationship to any recognisable geographical entities. Colchester, for instance, has suburbs such as Wivenhoe in the Harwich constituency and Stanway in the Witham constituency. Across the country MPs have to deal with one council for one part of their constituency and another council for another part. That has a seriously damaging effect on the level of democratic engagement.
We have a supposedly geographic system of representation —MPs are elected to represent geographic constituencies— but how can we use the importance of the geographic link between the MP and their residents as an argument for keeping the first-past-the-post system when half the residents of this country do not know which constituency they live in? If and when they do learn which constituency they live in, find out who their MP is and develop some sort of relationship with them, the Boundary Commission is likely to come along and ship them over into some other constituency, so they cannot vote for that MP anyway.
We are not here to propose a specific alternative electoral system, but rather to debate whether there might be any merit in looking at any alternatives. It is entirely possible to devise a system of geographic representation that enables meaningful and fixed constituencies of varying sizes coupled with a proportional top-up to ensure that the overall result is fair. It is not necessary that that top-up should be done with a list system. I was never a great fan of the system proposed at the last referendum on the voting system, and I do not propose that we revisit it. My perception of the AV referendum was that it was a referendum on the popularity of Nick Clegg. The vast majority of people had no idea how the system they were voting for or against was supposed to work, and I have to say that any hon. Members in this place who believed that it was a proportional system were among them.
Surely this debate is about whether the current system is fit for purpose, and I suggest that given we elect people to represent geographic entities that mean nothing to the voters, and change their boundaries on a regular basis, it is about time we looked at something more meaningful, which would actually accord with the expectations of our voters.
Thank you for your courtesy and your restraint. We have accommodated all the Back Benchers who wished to speak. Well done.
May I begin, as others have, by congratulating those who organised this petition—Make Votes Matter and other organisations? It is no mean feat to get 100,000 signatures on a petition to this place, and I very much hope that this is the start of the next phase of a push for reform of our voting system in this country. As the events of the next few years unravel and we go through Brexit, we will see constitutional upheaval anyway. In the midst of that, we can seize the opportunity to try to improve our democratic system.
The Scottish National party supports the petitioners. Indeed, we have long argued for proportional representation. We have tried to give it effect in our own national Parliament, and for as long as we are represented in a Union Parliament we will press the case for reform here as well. Ironically, we do that even though we are probably the greatest beneficiaries of the current system’s distortion. We had what now looks like a freak result in 2015 when we achieved 95% of the seats on 50% of the vote. That is not a good system; I know that, and we know it as a party. If the price of having a fair voting system in this country is that I and some of my colleagues do not get to return to this place, to my mind that is a price worth paying. I think that all of us should discuss this from the point of view of political principle rather than of what is good for our individual party.
The simple proposition we are debating is whether the parties in Westminster should be represented in proportion to the votes they receive at an election. That is such an overwhelmingly reasonable and correct proposition, it is difficult to argue against it. No wonder, therefore, that in opinion polling a vast majority of people say that they agree with that proposition. That is also why those who disagree with the proposition do not argue its opposite. I have not heard anyone say, “We think that political parties in Westminster should not have representation in line with the votes that were cast for them in the election.” Instead of that we get treated to, “Well, nothing’s really perfect. We know you mean well, but here is a whole series of technical obfuscations that takes us away from the debate in principle and get into a situation that confuses the electorate.” We need to return to principle and try to ensure that we focus on that debate.
I want to deal briefly with three of the arguments that have been put against this idea. The first is the proposition that proportional representation somehow does not lead to stable government, and that first past the post does. I do not want to repeat the arguments that have been made about the experience of recent elections, but I do want to say that there is a confusion between the majority Government of one party and majority Government. A coalition Government are a majority Government in that they have to have a majority of Members of Parliament supporting them in order to get anything through. In fact, despite many of the criticisms I would have of them, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government from 2010 to 2015 were remarkably stable and were able to put their programme through. People are confused, and to argue that the important thing about the system is that it should deliver a majority for one party, rather than a Government that have the majority of the electorate behind them, seems a misguided and indefensible position.
There has also been a suggestion that PR will lead to a system where electors actually lose power because it will be handed to political managers in the parties and deals will be done in smoke-filled rooms, or whatever their 21st-century equivalent is. That is not really the case either, is it? The truth is that if there is a proportional system people will be obliged to form Governments and will only be able to do so only if they have the support of the majority of people who took part in the election. That seems absolutely fundamentally democratic, rather than the current system where the Conservative party and its junior coalition partner formed a Government with just 43% of the vote.
The third and final point I want to address is this idea that proportional representation somehow weakens the constituency link. That is nonsense. Government Members have said, “We all, as MPs, try to represent people without fear or favour. It doesn’t matter whether they voted for us or not.” Of course that is true and I genuinely believe we all do that, but I do not think that the electors who come to our door believe that that is the case. In many ways, I think they would rather have someone who they believed would be more empathetic to their case because that person might agree with the difficulty that they are in. For example, if someone has an immigration problem, are they likely to seek support from an elected representative who has made public statements about the need for tighter immigration controls and crackdowns? Perhaps that would put them off. However, if, say, in Edinburgh, we had an STV system in which five MPs were elected but where each represented the whole city on an STV basis, an elector would have the opportunity to go to any one of them with a particular case. That would enhance and widen the constituency link, because people would be more likely to seek help from their Member of Parliament.
Fourteen million people did not vote on 8 June this year, and we all need to be aware of that and more concerned about it than we appear to be. I believe that one reason why people did not vote was our electoral system; let me illustrate that with an example. Suspend disbelief and imagine that I am Conservative supporter in Newcastle upon Tyne. I am 58 years old—which I am—and all my life, I have argued in support of the Conservative party, and I have gone out and voted Conservative. I have participated in 10 general elections and have never once been able to vote for someone who would be elected to represent my views. What is worse, the party that I support has said that they are not at all concerned and has offered compensation by saying, “Well, at the other end of the country it happens in reverse, so don’t worry.” But I am not sure that a barrister or a banker in the home counties will have the Conservative approach to the north-east that I am arguing for. An activist might put up with that level of frustration, but many of our fellow citizens have just given up on the process.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not because I am very short of time. People simply do not see the point of voting in elections and decline to do so, so we have to see changing the electoral system as part of a process of democratic renewal in the governance of these islands that will address people being alienated from the system. If we do not do that, I really fear for the future of these institutions in which we all participate.
For a final minute, let me address the issue of the 2011 referendum. Twice I asked those who talked about it today to confirm whether they thought it was a referendum on PR and at least they had the good grace to concede that it was not. We have never had a referendum on proportional representation in this country. I do not know what went on in the coalition talks or why the Liberal Democrats got themselves into the position of agreeing to the referendum on AV. It was a policy that they did not agree with and it blocked the debate for that rest of that Parliament, and probably until now, but that is history. It is certainly not the case that the 2011 referendum should be taken as an endorsement of anything. I make the observation that many of the biggest changes in our franchise and in our democratic voting system have not been because of referendums. We did not have a referendum on giving women the vote or on lowering the age of majority to 21 and then to 18. Parliament decided that it was the right thing to do, so there is not even any need for a referendum.
The experience of operating PR in Scotland is very positive, not just for local government, but for our national Parliament. There is wide support among people in Scotland for the Scottish Parliament’s existence—even the Conservative party has come around to being an advocate for it. There is much more support for the Scottish Parliament now than there was when it was set up. That is partly because of some things it has done and partly because people feel that the body genuinely represents the plurality of opinion in Scotland. That gives it a safety net and the credibility that it needs to get on and act on their behalf, and we could do with that safety net and that big dose of credibility in this Parliament as well.
I congratulate the more than 100,000 members of the public who supported the e-petition to secure today’s debate. This truly is their debate on proportional representation. Given that the petition reached the required number of signatures by March, I also thank them for their patience. The debate was slightly delayed by the June general election, and despite the shared disappointment on both sides of the House that, even with our first-past-the-post system, neither party was able to secure a majority at the general election, I am sure that we all welcome the huge increase we saw in political participation, particularly among young people. Two million young people registered to vote after the election was called and we witnessed the highest youth turnout since 1992. We must continue to build on that high level of engagement, and the petition process plays a powerful role in doing just that.
The debate focuses on the important subject of our voting system and, in particular, proportional representation. I stress that we in the Opposition are committed to taking radical steps to ensure that all eligible voters are registered and can use their vote, and we therefore welcome the opportunity to have a much needed discussion on the wider issue of electoral reform.
As has been said, all voting systems have strengths and weaknesses. On first past the post, although the 2017 general election did not produce a strong majority Government, some have argued that first past the post has a history of returning single-party Governments and of retaining the constituency link, both of which I agree are important benefits to any electoral system. The constituency link is a vital part of British political life. As the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood, I represent the people of my local area and am directly accountable to them. However, as has been said, moving to a proportional system does not necessarily rule that out.
I am also aware of the argument in favour of proportional representation. The recent election resulted in a minority Government. The Conservative party and the Democratic Unionist party received just 43% of the votes between them but hold a majority of seats in this House. In Scotland, the Labour and Conservative parties received a similar vote share, on 27% and 28% respectively, but the Tories won twice as many seats as Labour. Supporters of PR argue that seats in Parliament should reflect the vote and that a system of PR will give voters the opportunity to vote for what they believe in, rather than having to vote tactically.
The question that must be answered—and the answer is somewhat unclear—is this: what do the British public want? Much has been said about the 2011 AV referendum. The former Labour leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), supported the yes campaign because he believed that it was good for democracy and accountability, and fairer than the current situation. However, the UK voted overwhelmingly to reject changing the system, with just 32% of voters supporting AV. Indeed, public opinion may have changed since 2011. Supporters of PR highlight recent polling by ICM that found that 67% of people believe that seats should match votes, while 61% say that they would support replacing first past the post with PR. It is therefore important to continue to look at different voting systems, which is why today’s debate is so important. However, changing the voting system alone will not fix the disconnect that some voters feel regarding our political process. We need wide-ranging transformation of all the political structures that are in place to help build a vibrant and active democracy in which vested interests and big money do not have all the power.
Labour’s 2017 manifesto committed to establishing a constitutional convention to examine and advise on reforming how Britain works at a fundamental level. As well as having the option to look at different voting systems, the convention would look at extending democracy locally, regionally and nationally, starting by ending the hereditary principle and reducing the size of the other place. That should be part of a wider package of constitutional reform to address the growing democratic deficit across Britain. This is about where power and sovereignty lie—in politics, the economy, the justice system and our communities.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not, because most of the people who have taken part in the debate want to hear from the Minister and I want to maximise the time that he has.
A recent study by Demos found that only 37% of young adults in the UK feel that British politics today reflects the issues that matter to them. If we are to build a democracy that works for everyone, what are the Government doing to increase democratic engagement and ensure that voters have their say on decision making, both during and outside election time? As we approach 100 years since the start of women’s suffrage, it is important to reflect on the ways in which more people can participate in our democracy. Many Members mentioned this in their contributions, but extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds, as is the case in Scotland for local elections, would make our constitution clearer across the whole United Kingdom. At the moment, there is a discrepancy, because 16 and 17-year-olds can vote in local elections in some parts of the United Kingdom but they are not entitled to vote in a general election.
May I ask one important question? In its manifesto, the Labour party talked about a convention. Can we establish that if any reforms were to be made under a Labour Government, they would be subject to a referendum? That is important for our constitution, and for public good will.
Order. The hon. Lady courteously gave way, so the hon. Gentleman has the right to the floor, but I make the point from the Chair that it is customary for Members to come and listen to the debate before intervening.
If the hon. Gentleman had been here for the debate, he might have found that that question was answered earlier.
What is the Government’s position on votes at 16? The First Secretary of State and Minister for the Cabinet Office said in a recent report that
“it is important for Conservatives to demonstrate to young people…that we take their opinions seriously. Supporting a reduction in the voting age would be a dramatic way of doing that”.
Is it the Government’s position to support votes at 16 or not? There is support for it across the House, and I hope that Members in favour of it will support the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), which will be debated this Friday.
When it comes to electoral reform, it is important that people are entitled and registered to vote. We have a particular problem with fair registration for people who move house often because they rent privately. Students and young people are also less likely to vote. What are the Government doing to ensure that mobile and transient groups, such as students and those in private rented accommodation, do not fall off the electoral register every year? It is hard for people to check whether they are on the electoral roll. I highlight the work done in the London borough of Hackney, the first council in which people can check online to see whether they are registered to vote in the borough. Would the Government consider rolling that out nationally?
Finally, there is no point making radical changes to our electoral system if we do not have the staff to manage them. Many people assume that there is a big machine behind the delivery of elections. In fact, the delivery of electoral services is generally administered by small, often relatively junior teams. The Association of Electoral Administrators describes the industry as
“pushed to the absolute limit”
by this Government’s funding cuts and the rushed move to individual electoral registration. Staff are stressed, there are very few experienced electoral administrators left and the number of people leaving the profession has almost doubled since 2015. What are the Government doing to ensure that our elections are properly staffed, and what will they do to protect the mental health and wellbeing of electoral administrators?
It is important that we look at different voting systems as part of a wider package of constitutional and electoral reform to address the growing democratic deficit across Britain. We must see some action on the issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. The Government welcome this debate on the merits and drawbacks of adopting proportional representation and the opportunity to address the important issues raised by hon. Members. It is fantastic to see such a strong turnout in Westminster Hall for this three-hour debate.
Members have made their arguments eloquently, and we have had a good-natured and high-quality debate that has shown us at our best. Clearly, how we select our representatives in Parliament is of fundamental importance, and Members rightly have strong views on the merits and disadvantages of various voting systems that have sometimes, as we have seen, gone beyond the traditional confines of party politics. The choice of voting system is central to our democracy, which is why such debates are important. I thank the 103,000 petitioners who triggered the debate, as well as the Petitions Committee and its representative, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for giving us the opportunity to have it.
The Government are committed above all to ensuring that the laws governing our elections are clear and generate the greatest degree of confidence. Under the first-past-the-post system, electors select their preferred candidate for their constituency. The candidate with the largest number of votes wins, and the party with the largest number of elected candidates may form a Government. The electorate understand well how their representatives in Parliament are selected under the first-past-the-post system, and it makes it easier for electoral administrators to deliver an election accurately and quickly. The Government therefore do not support proportional representation, as we consider it to be more complicated without delivering the same benefits as first past the post.
The Minister might not be aware that using the single transferable vote system for local government in Scotland allows us to use electronic counting. Has he attended any electronic counts in Scotland to see how simple and well-operated they are?
Devolved legislatures have the ability to choose various voting systems; the Government provided those freedoms in the past. I have not attended an electronic count, but I understand that there have been a number of difficulties running them in Scotland. I also understand that we have given Wales the freedom to consider electronic voting in future, and I look forward to seeing what comes from the pilots there.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) mentioned, we committed in our manifesto not only to retain first past the post for parliamentary elections but to extend it to elections for police and crime commissioners and Mayors. In line with that, the Government have no plans to change the voting system for elections to the House of Commons. We will seek to legislate on that matter—
The Conservative party did not win a majority, so one could turn the argument round and say that therefore, the majority do not support continuing with first past the post and what the Conservatives propose in their manifesto.
We have a system of representative democracy. The largest party that forms a Government can then implement its manifesto. That is clearly in line with historical precedent. We will seek to legislate on the matter and meet our manifesto commitments when legislative time allows.
I turn to the specifics of why the Government believe that retaining first past the post is the best system for the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) mentioned the administration of elections and the burdens on staff. Electoral systems used to achieve proportional representation are often more complex than a first-past-the-post system. Systems such as the single transferable vote require ballots to be counted multiple times in order to allocate seats, which lengthens the duration of the count and therefore the time and effort taken to determine a result.
Conversely, first past the post entails a relatively simple count that, hopefully, need only be conducted once, except where the margin between candidates is slim, which minimises the pressure on the administrative process and the possibility of error. Furthermore, the simplicity of the count means that a result is produced much more quickly, normally during the night following the poll, with an overall result early the next day; long may the election night count and the declaration of results continue. A timely result is in the interests of all parties and the country as a whole.
The first-past-the-post system is well established in the United Kingdom and easy for the electorate to understand. Consequently, elections using first past the post produce fewer rejected ballot papers than other systems, including proportional representation systems such as STV. According to the Electoral Commission, the use of the single transferable vote in the Scottish council elections led to 37,492 ballots being rejected, or 1.95%, a proportion of total ballots cast nearly six times higher than under first past the post in the 2015 general election, in which only 0.33% of ballots were rejected. In the 2016 election of the police and crime commissioner for England and Wales, a remarkable 311,000 ballots were rejected, out of a turnout of 8.8 million. That is 3.4%. In the same year, there were just 25,000 spoiled ballot papers in the EU referendum.
Is that not an argument for more funding for education, rather than for changing the system?
No. I believe that the simplest system—putting a cross in a box and having one Member and one vote—is the first-past-the-post system. That is why the Government want to legislate to return to that system, so that we have a simple system that is well understood across all elections. The Government have serious concerns that proportional representation voting systems are less likely to be understood and followed correctly by members of the public, increasing the likelihood that ballot papers will be completed incorrectly.
Does the Minister really think that the population of Britain is significantly less intelligent than the population of Germany, France, Denmark and Finland—all the countries that use proportional representation? Is he saying that, with education, people could not work out how to use that system? That is a pretty big indictment.
I am not saying that at all. If there is any indictment, it is on a system that leads to a large number of rejected ballot papers. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood mentioned the issue of voter engagement and ensuring that people vote. There is a massive discrepancy between the systems when it comes to turnout and people filling out a correct ballot. The first-past-the-post system works, so why do we need to change it? Proportional representation disenfranchises people who participate and then find out that their ballots were rejected—or they do not even find out. The system works against them and their democratic right.
The Minister makes the point that the elections for the police and crime commissioners had a higher proportion of spoilt ballot papers than a general election. If that is the case, perhaps the public are sending a message that they do not want to elect police and crime commissioners in the first place?
That may be the hon. Lady’s view, but the Government’s view is that 311,000 spoilt ballot papers are a problem—we are looking at how the transfer of votes took place and a misnumbering in that system. The Electoral Commission also recognises that problem.
High numbers of incorrectly completed ballot papers put pressure on the administrative process at the count. If a voter’s preference is unclear, administrators must adjudicate on whether the ballot paper can be assigned to a candidate or rejected. That increases the burden on administrators by prolonging the count and requiring some ballots to be counted twice, or multiple times. For those reasons, the Government support the continued use of the first-past-the-post system because it retains the confidence of the electorate, results in the lowest level of errors in ballot paper completion and reduces pressure on the administrative process of adjudicating unclear ballots.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) mentioned the crucial constituency link, which my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) also reflected on, along with other hon. Members with varying views. I personally believe that that link with individual Members of Parliament who represent electors in a defined constituency is a core feature of our parliamentary democracy with the first-past-the-post system. Constituents have a distinct parliamentary representative who is directly accountable to them. The manner of that representation may be less obvious when someone is elected under a proportional representation system or a list system that uses larger multi-Member constituencies. Although hon. Members have different views, that was brought up countless times on the doorstep at the AV referendum.
In the United Kingdom, the Government conducted a referendum on whether the voting system to elect Members of Parliament should be changed from first past the post.
I am bemused by the Minister’s argument. The AV system would retain single Member constituencies represented by a single Member of Parliament. What is the relevance of the argument about the constituency link?
In contrast to AV or other proportional forms, the constituency link with first past the post is that a clearly defined person in that constituency has won with the plurality of votes—actually, the same number of votes.
I well remember a cross-party debate on this subject with the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), as he is now, and Billy Bragg in Bristol City Council’s Council House. The result of the AV referendum was that 13 million people—more than two-thirds of people who voted—voted in favour of retaining first past the post. The Government believe it would be hard to justify ignoring that democratic verdict in the referendum or to make the case for a further referendum on more ambitious reform such as PR when the more modest alternative vote proposal was defeated so resoundingly.
The referendum was an overwhelming vote for the status quo of first past the post. The Government are committed to first past the post and the clear, overriding principle of one person, one vote. When it comes to the vote, why should one person’s vote be worth three, four, five or six times more than another person’s? Every vote is equal, so every vote should be counted equally. That is why we believe in the first-past-the-post system as the fairest and clearest mechanism by which to elect this democratically elected Chamber.
I thank all those who initiated and signed the petition that has enabled us to have this debate. I am sure we all agree that it has been very lively and that some passionately held views have been expressed. Clearly the debate is ongoing; I do not think for a minute that this is the end of the matter.
Good points have been made on both sides. The one thing we can agree on, across the House, is that no system is perfect; every system for holding elections has its strengths and weaknesses.
Some are better than others.
Indeed they are, and we probably disagree about which, but we all understand that there is no silver bullet. Simply changing our system of voting will not change the concerns that we all share about engaging voters and ensuring that they feel a valued part of the system.
I am still of the opinion that the strengths of first past the post outweigh its weaknesses, and I am not convinced that changing to a PR system would address those weaknesses. However, I am sure that we will go on having this debate. The one thing we can all agree on is that we value our democracy—the freedom we have in this nation to vote to elect our representatives. Whatever debates we have about how we vote, we will continue to value that freedom very highly.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 168657 relating to proportional representation.