[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered proportional representation in the House of Commons.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I begin by thanking the House of Commons digital engagement service for its work in preparation for this debate. It engages with voters on Facebook to great effect. Between 15 and 23 April, its Facebook post on proportional representation was seen by 29,448 accounts and had 7,936 clicks and 1,803 engagements. Of those engagements, 496 were Facebook users who wanted to comment on the issue, clearly demonstrating that there is a lot of interest—such is the interest that the debate is being streamed on the House of Commons Facebook page. I was impressed by the quality of insights made on the post and humbled by the number of them, and I thank all those who took the time to share their thoughts on proportional representation on Facebook.
In trying to do justice to the online discussion I can do no better than to begin by admitting that for many years I remained stubbornly resistant to the arguments for proportional representation, but no longer. Recent events have forced me to rethink my stance. In other words, I am happy to admit that I was wrong to defend first past the post for so long. My epiphany came in the wake of the 2017 election, when it became painfully obvious that the current electoral system is no longer fit for purpose. That was the third general election in a row in which our voting system failed to secure the strong, stable government that we all see as its key strength. It gave the Tories just under 50% of the seats available, with 42% of the vote. According to the Electoral Reform Society, 22 million voters had no impact on the result because they remained loyal to their tribe, despite knowing there was no chance whatsoever of securing victory for their candidates.
Many online respondents felt despondent and angry that living in a safe seat could mean that their vote counted for nothing. One respondent, Jamie, said:
“No one could possibly condone a system that essentially makes hundreds of thousands of voters redundant, and even worse reinforces the feeling of apathy that puts many people off from participating in the political process in the first place.”
On the other hand, 6.5 million voters decided to vote tactically in order to empower their choices, to give themselves a small but nevertheless important opportunity to help shape the outcome of the election. The situation was summarised beautifully by one of the contributors to the Facebook page, Adrienne, who said:
“I would like a proportional representation system so that I could vote for the party whose policies I agree with. At the moment my choice is either to vote tactically for a party I don’t want but whose policies I object to less, or to ‘waste’ my vote on the party I like—I live in a safe seat and can’t ever see my preferred party being successful. I think this question is more pertinent than ever following the political mess that has been Brexit. I have lost all faith that my voice will be heard in the current system.”
At this point, many hon. Members will be thinking, “Yes, we’ve always argued that the current voting system is unfair.” Quite fairly, they would accuse me of having remained willingly blind to its iniquities. I have believed throughout my adult life that first past the post is justifiable because it promises strong government and a democratic basis for the implementation of the winning party’s manifesto. However, as I conceded, the key defence of first past the post has crumbled and is no longer credible, leading to my road-to-Damascus moment.
Three elections in a row failed to deliver strong government. Why? What is going on? Let us begin with the deep and ongoing crisis afflicting the two biggest political parties. Brexit is seen by many as the cause, but I would contend that it is a symptom of a newly emboldened populist discourse that has fractured our politics. As a consequence, both the Tory party and the Labour party are struggling with widening ideological divides that threaten to become an existential threat. That development is important because in a two-party system, voters need to be sure that the party they support is capable of delivering the realistic, pragmatic politics vital to the effective governing of the country.
There is a strong sense that both major parties are failing to maintain an approach to policy making based on consensus within each party and with the electorate, because the broad churches they represent are evaporating in the face of a blistering assault from the far reaches of the right and the left. We face a serious and possibly terminal decline in the ability of the two major parties to process political options, sift them and present them as a meaningful choice at an election. It is no wonder that long-term trends in voting behaviour indicate that the case for reform of the voting system is getting stronger, not weaker.
The hon. Lady makes some powerful points, but the only time that the British National party has ever been elected was through the d’Hondt system of proportional representation in the last European elections.
I do not intend to go through the different PR models available, because I am establishing the principle, but I believe there are models of PR that prevent the accession of small extremist parties to a parliamentary system. Germany has such a system.
The recent British Social Attitudes survey found that only 8% of voters identify strongly with a political party. Polls regularly report not only diminishing support for the two parties, but a sense that “none of the above” is an increasingly attractive choice for British voters. That is best expressed by a gradually reducing turnout. In 1950, 84% of voters cast their preferences at the ballot box. In the 2017 election, turnout was 68%. There is other firm evidence that voters are losing confidence in our representative democracy. The report by the Institute for Public Policy Research on the 2015 election established that less than half of 18-24-year-olds voted, compared with nearly 80% of those aged 65 and over. That is a worrying trend.
The past 30 years have seen the emergence of a dramatic divide in how people vote, especially as far as the age demographic is concerned. The evidence is clear: voters increasingly demonstrate that they no longer trust the two main parties to manage the democratic process. Both Labour and the Tories have traditionally held a huge responsibility under first past the post. In an electoral process that offers only limited opportunities to change the political colour of a constituency, we have relied on the two major parties to provide candidates who are capable of taking on the coveted role of Member of Parliament, and to provide a well-thought-through programme for government that is realistic and promises to meet the needs of the country. Increasingly there is a feeling that both parties are failing to take those responsibilities seriously, to the extent that voters are no longer content to be managed by political parties. They increasingly seek plurality, so that they can sift for themselves the range of policy choices available in any given election. Voters no longer want to be patronised by the democratic process; they want to be empowered by it.
I commend the hon. Lady on her speech and on the candour and force with which she makes her points. What she says is true not just of national government but of local government. May I offer her the example of local government in Scotland where, since 2007, councils have been elected under the single transferable vote? We have seen the end of single-party monoliths across Scotland, and that has been absolutely rejuvenating for local democracy in Scotland.
I completely accept the right hon. Gentleman’s point. I restricted this debate to Westminster, but that does not mean that I believe these principles do not apply to local government—they do.
Our 19th-century voting system is unfit for the 21st century. As one respondent wrote on the Facebook page accompanying this debate, the system acts as a straitjacket, denying voters the multiplicity of choices they crave. Another respondent, Benny, commented that PR
“would make sure that every vote counts, enabling all voters to feel more involved in the democratic process.”
If we are serious about changing our politics, we must start with how we elect our Parliament. We need reform to ensure fairness and integrity in the electoral process, and that means acknowledging the case made by events in the past few years for a more pluralistic system that gives back control to voters.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Will she tell us which system she favours? There are a number of systems we could use, but it would be very interesting to know which appeals to her.
What I will say is that I do not favour a system that removes the constituency link. We must have a system that keeps the constituency link in place. One of the reasons the alternative vote referendum failed is that AV is not proper PR. We need proper PR, but we need the constituency link.
If we win approval in Parliament for implementing a new PR system, we should begin the process of establishing a proportional system by holding deliberative discussions—citizens’ assemblies—across the country to develop the right option for our country. That is the way we should do this. I am not going to say which system I want to see. That is not for me to decide. The country has to decide which system suits us best. That is the best way of approaching the implementation of a change in the voting system.
As I said, we need a more pluralistic system that gives back control to voters. That is what the democratic process is about. The days of patronising voters and managing their choices for them are over, and we need to recognise that. No longer can excuses be made to avoid change. Indeed, every new legislature created by this Parliament uses some form of PR. Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the London Assembly all use proportional systems. STV, Mr Evans, is even used to elect the Deputy Speakers of this House.
I am convinced that change is coming. It is overdue. I apologise for my tardiness in acknowledging the strength of the argument for PR, but better late than never. Let’s get on with it.
Order. Members can see how many people are standing. The wind-ups will start at half-past 5, so please show enormous constraint—just make your points and then allow others to get in. I call Vicky Ford.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I am one of the few parliamentarians to have been elected under both the first-past-the-post system, as a Member of this Parliament, and a proportional representation system—I was elected twice to the European Parliament.
Some people say proportional representation will lead to a more consensual approach to decision making. I have seen that consensus sometimes does occur more in the European Parliament than people occasionally perceive to be the case here, but in my experience from the past couple of years, there are many areas of Westminster in which decision making happens along consensus lines; I think especially of the work we do in Select Committees and on all-party parliamentary groups. On the other hand, I have seen fundamental flaws in the proportional representation system, and we should be very careful when thinking about adopting changes to our system.
Let me take Members back 10 years to 2009, when European elections were held at the height of the expenses scandal. The turnout was very low, which meant people could get elected with only a very small number of voters turning up to support them. Two members of the British National party were elected, with fewer than 3% of the voters supporting them. At the time, that party would not allow someone to join as a member unless their face was white. Those people were given seats in the European Parliament. They were given credibility and respectability.
Does the hon. Lady not accept that part of the problem with that election was the closed-list d’Hondt system, which discriminates? In certain regions it allows extremist parties to get through, but in other regions it requires parties to reach a much higher figure. Would it not be better to move to a national form of proportional representation for European elections, such as the one that the French use?
We could use the German system—a national system with a national list, which means that a candidate needs 0.7% of the vote to get a seat. My point is that, especially as turnout is low, a very small number of votes can give people with quite extreme views credibility, funding and access to support, so we should be very wary.
In my experience, proportional representation also really changes a Member’s relationship with their voters. Because there are multiple Members for each seat, there have to be wider constituencies, meaning that Members do not have the same close relationship with their voters. [Interruption.] I will not give way, I am afraid, because lots of people want to speak. Under proportional representation, Members do not have the same intimate relationship with their voters, in which the voters know, “That is my MP; I can hold that person responsible,” and the Member knows they are responsible to those people. Proportional representation breaks the link between the voter and the elected representative. I would be very wary of doing that to our democracy.
Democracy, as Winston Churchill said, is the worst form of government, apart from all the rest. Trust in our politics is very low, but I do not believe that changing our electoral system is a miracle cure or a silver bullet that will solve that problem.
I am extremely grateful for the hon. Lady’s brevity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. As I represent a Scottish constituency, I work alongside Members of the Scottish Parliament who were elected under both constituency-based and regional-based systems, as well as local councillors who were voted in under the STV system, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) mentioned. We come from a culture where there is reasonably fair cohabitation of proportional representation and majoritarian systems.
I am fairly open-minded about the idea of different electoral systems. The key thing is for us to agree that there needs to be a thorough constitutional convention. It is high time that every aspect of the entire structure of Westminster’s governance was reviewed. I am sure we have a litany of ideas about reform of the structure—not just the electoral system, but the second Chamber and the way Westminster interfaces—and that is certainly what the Labour party advocates.
There are certainly problems with the way the Scottish Parliament’s structure works. Combining regional lists and constituencies creates an imbalance between the different types of MSPs, which often leads to problems. When we talk about PR, we have to take cognisance of the fact that there are different methods of PR. The system can also lead to distortions. Even in the last Westminster election in 2017, Labour gained 27% of the vote in Scotland but only 11% of seats. That is a clear imbalance. The Scottish National party achieved, I think, 36% of the vote and won 59% of the seats. Those clear imbalances could be corrected within regions under a more proportional system.
I supported the alternative vote compromise, introduced as a condition of the coalition Government agreement. That would have maintained the benefits of the constituency link, which have been mentioned, while allowing at least a majority to be established in support of electing a Member of Parliament. That seemed a reasonably sensible staging post towards a further review, but it was a great disappointment that that was rejected in a referendum.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend did A-level politics as I did, but we were always taught that the current system delivers stable and clear results. However, two out of the last three general elections have shown that it does not. The current Government are the least satisfactory of all, with £1 billion given to the Democratic Unionist party; pulled votes; meaningful votes that were anything but; and indicative votes that were far from that. Does he not agree that all that points to first past the post being past it? The old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” does not hold. It is broken and it should be fixed.
I am sympathetic to that point. Indeed, who voted for first past the post? Was a referendum ever held on that? Why is it assumed that the burden of proof must lie with those who oppose the existing system? We need a thorough root-and-branch review of the entire structure of our politics as part of a constitutional convention and national conversation. Hopefully we can achieve some consensus among the parties about what needs to change. That could be delivered through a manifesto and a general election.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that we are in the midst of a constitutional crisis, and that a national debate, as he suggests, with a constitutional convention and citizens’ assembly, might help our broader understanding of how the country operates, and ensure greater democratic participation? The problems around low turnout were highlighted by the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford); surely changing the system, following a national debate, would raise turnout.
I thank my hon. Friend for that important point. This is the issue with referendums: they present simplistic answers to very complex questions, and binary referendums in particular often lead to contentious and unfortunately hostile arguments being made. A spirit of conflict rather than consensus envelops such contests. We must cut across those points and develop a much more consensual method.
In Ireland, the referendums on equal marriage and abortion rights, which were preceded by a constitutional convention and citizens’ assemblies, are widely thought to have delivered such decisive results because of the deliberative democracy that took place in advance. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that on this issue, a citizens’ assembly or constitutional convention preceding a final decision would be the best way forward?
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for that important point. It is critical that that spirit underpins any test in a plebiscite. Another example is, of course, the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, with the Scottish constitutional convention. She may say that the Scottish National party was not always supportive of that process, but in the end we arrived at consensus and an overwhelming result in the 1997 referendum, and we delivered a Scottish Parliament in 1999. It is a tried and tested model. That is in stark contrast to the rather more contentious referendum in Scotland in 2014 and across the UK in 2016.
We must think carefully about how referendums are framed, how they are delivered and how they are presented to the people for discussion. If they are unnecessarily contentious, we see no resolution and no popular consent; if we get a very narrow result, a large cohort of the population feels that it has been cheated.
I am open-minded about what we could arrive at in electoral system reform. The current system is clearly not fit for purpose, but I am not hung up on any one model. For example, there are problems with the Scottish Parliament system, which could be reformed and further enhanced. The combination of the list and the constituency link is not entirely coherent, and after 20 years of devolution, that question ought to be considered. The fundamental thing we must all agree on is an urgent need for a constitutional convention across the UK, to provide a root-and-branch review of our entire political system. Hopefully, through that, we can arrive at a system that is fit for this century.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I rise to speak in support of the motion. Undoubtedly, this country’s current voting arrangements do not adequately reflect the diversity of opinion that there now is among the electorate. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) for raising this issue for debate.
There are many different forms of proportional representation, some of which have been touched on briefly. We had a referendum on AV, in which AV was universally defeated—rightly so, because under that system the candidate who comes fourth could become the Member of Parliament if they were the least disliked. That may be an argument in favour of AV, but those who believe in a constituency link find it difficult to argue that the person who came third or fourth should eventually go on to become a Member of Parliament. We also have single transferable vote, and then we have proportional representation.
We have talked a little about the merits of first past the post. It was traditionally argued that that system tends to deliver strong government—arguably, that is not the case at the moment. It maintains a constituency link, but some forms of proportional representation also do that. It also—this is the strongest argument in its favour—tends to be a bulwark against the entryism of extremist minority parties. In the 2015 election, even though the UK Independence party received 13% or 14% of the vote, it gained only one seat, which to my mind shows at least some benefit, in that first past the post keeps some of those minority parties out.
Is not one of the issues that because UKIP got something like 4 million votes but did not get many Members elected to this House, tensions boiled up? We saw that, with a Member of Parliament having been murdered before the EU referendum. Is not the fact that we do not look at having a fair, proportional representation system part of the issue?
I do not entirely disagree. Certainly that 13% or 14% of the electorate may have felt disenfranchised by the result to some extent, but during that election I think we all recognised the extremist nature of some of the views held by that party and some of its candidates.
The hon. Gentleman is correct on the broader issue. We now have a much more fractured politics than we did half a century ago, when there was a stronger argument for first past the post, and many groups do not feel represented in their constituencies. For example, I received more than 60% of the vote in my constituency at the last election, but consistently about 15% to 20% of that electorate have voted for the Labour party. Indeed, in Suffolk as a whole in 2010 and 2015, 25% of the electorate voted for Labour and yet seven Conservative MPs were returned. That is not representative of the general feelings of Suffolk residents.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. Does he recognise that proportional representation is about more than electoral outcomes and that, actually, proportional systems change political culture in a way that delivers more effective social outcomes? Societies with PR are more likely to have lower income inequality, better developed welfare systems, higher social expenditure, better distribution of public goods and better environmental controls. It is a much wider issue.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Broadly, there is a strong case and good evidence that in countries with proportional representation, or a more proportional system, there tends to be more consensus government, which tends to recognise certain common goods. Today, there is an urgent question in the main Chamber on climate change. In many other countries in Europe, climate change’s importance in the legislative agenda is reinforced by that sort of consensus politics.
For example, the work done by the former leader of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), when he was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the latter part of the last decade, was broadly supported across the House, but if there had been a sudden lurch to a Government who perhaps did not believe in climate change, a lot of that work could have been undone under the British system. That is much harder to do under a proportional system, under which there has to be much more work through consensus between political parties. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to make that point about the sort of politics that many of us here would like to see.
I want to allow other hon. Members to speak, so I will be very quick. In my view, if we are to have a PR system that is effective, it has to maintain the constituency link. It also has to ensure that we deal with the issue of having a potential threshold, even under PR, for election, be it 5% of the electorate in a particular area or whatever. The best way of doing that, I believe, is by doing something broadly along the lines of what we have currently for the European elections—perhaps not on the basis of a large-scale region, but on a county basis or a city-regional basis. That would allow people in, for example, London, where boroughs identify together, to elect from those boroughs a proportional number of MPs from different parties, according to how those electors voted.
That strikes me, in comparison with our current political settlement, as a much fairer way of electing people. It certainly would have given a voice in 2010 and 2015 to the 25% of constituents in Suffolk who voted for the Labour party but did not have any MP to represent them. I hope that, going forward, it would also give rise to the more consensus-based politics on the big issues of the day, such as climate change, and other forms of policy making that all of us here, I hope, believe in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I start from the point of view that our electoral system is not one that I could, hand on heart, say is democratic perfection. It is clear that our winner-takes-all format means that millions of people feel that their vote does not count, and of course there is the unquantifiable number of people who vote for something other than their first choice because they see the vote in their area as a choice between the lesser of two evils, rather than as a positive vote for the party that they want to support. Proclaiming that I have won an election because I am the lesser of two evils has not yet made it into any of my acceptance speeches, but I have been called a lot worse, particularly recently.
As politics in this country is in crisis, it is not surprising that the news that a comedian has won the Ukrainian elections has been met by comments in this country that we had beaten them to it. Such is the contempt that people feel for us all now that it would not surprise me to see, if we had an election soon, more than a few of us being replaced by unlikely candidates: having no previous political experience is definitely a selling point right now. What I am talking about is not just a new name for old faces, but a new type of politician, an anti-politics politician, the likes of whom we have seen springing up all over the world in recent years.
It is evident at every election that millions of votes end up counting for nothing and some votes, depending on where they are, can literally be worth their weight in gold, so I want reform of the current system. However, I am sceptical about constitutional changes coming forward from the existing set of politicians, because there is almost always going to be some element of political calculation with such proposals.
Let us take the 2011 AV referendum. I voted in that referendum to change the system, but I was under no illusions: the only reason why it came forward was that it was politically expedient for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats at the time to hold a referendum to keep the coalition agreement going. I appreciate that AV is not the purest form of PR and that it is possible that in landslide years it can exaggerate the winning party’s dominance even more, but at least in that set-up everyone should be able to vote for their preferred choice, at least in the first instance.
However, the real attraction of AV for me is the retention of the constituency link. I believe that the best element of our current system is that each Member has to answer to his or her constituents at every election and that there is no hiding place for the decisions that they take. PR systems and lists remove that vital link and can lead to a lack of direct accountability between voters and those who represent them.
I wonder whether the 2016 referendum result would have been different if MEPs had individual constituencies to represent. Obviously, the factors behind that vote were many, and it would probably be stretching things too far to say that the outcome would have been different, but it is clear that one reason why leave won was that people did not think that the European Parliament was representing their interests. The lack of an identifiable local representative was part of that.
My hon. Friend is making a really important point about the constituency link. That is a critical thing that ought to be protected. Since the Scottish Parliament was created, the number of constituencies in Scotland represented from Westminster has been reduced, so the size of the constituencies has increased. My constituency takes in two Scottish Parliament constituencies, so there are two MSPs. Having to cover the same ground as the MSPs often means that it is very difficult to maintain the same degree of link with the geography. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a flaw in the system that needs to be looked at if we are proposing to move to a more proportional system?
Yes, I do agree. Of course, one weakness in the Government’s proposals to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 is that that would create very large constituencies that in some cases were unmanageable and did not have geographical communities of interests.
On the subject of MEPs, although we have some excellent hard-working Labour MEPs in the north-west, the track record of people sent by this country to represent us in the European Parliament is not a great advert for PR. Of the 73 MEPs elected in 2014, 25 are no longer in the party that they were in when first elected.
We have had a few defections in this place, but on nothing like the scale that we have seen in Europe. More than one third of all the UK MEPs no longer represent the party that they were elected to represent. Let us be clear: if one third of Members in this place swapped parties, that could easily lead to a change of Government. Any system that allows so many politicians to denude the voters of their voice needs to be seriously challenged. Of course, politicians can change party under first past the post—we have heard today from some Members who have done that—but at least they have to face their constituents when they do it. Under PR, those people who ride under one banner of convenience can easily find themselves on the list for their new party at the next election with no apparent consequences for their actions. That does not sound like a democratic system to me.
Whatever system we have, we also need to look at whether this place is truly representative of the people whom we wish to represent. According to the Sutton Trust, 29% of MPs were privately educated, compared with just 7% of the general population. That is an improvement on the 32% from the 2015 election, but there is still a long way to go.
In conclusion, we need a massive overhaul in how politics is conducted in this country. How our economy and society works has massively changed in the last decade. Any item that we desire can be ordered from the comfort of our own home and be on our doorstep the next day, but our political system, both in the way elections are held and in the way Parliament operates, is stuck in a time warp.
One of the most commonly used arguments in favour of first past the post is that it enables there to be “stable” majority government. In recent times, that theory has been tested to destruction. Every day that we spend here without making any progress on the big issues of the day is another day closer to a far more radical change to the way we do politics, which will come from outside, not from in here.
What will happen with all the excellent arguments that we are hearing in favour of different systems today? I will tell you, Mr Evans: nothing will happen. Nothing will change. Nothing is changing. Parliament seems incapable of changing anything, incapable of tackling the big issues that we face in this country. That is why we all need to wake up and fundamentally challenge the way our democracy works—not just how we vote but, more importantly, what we actually do once we are elected.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. I recognise that there is a need to look at our electoral system and to explore electoral system reform. Why do I believe that?
I first stood for election in 2009, in the midst of the expenses scandal. We cannot blame this system for the expenses scandal but, despite having never been in this place before, I knew what it was to face people who had completely lost trust in MPs and the system that elected them to this place. As a result, ever since I was elected, it has been important to me that we find ways to restore trust in politics. The problem is that that has not been very successful; since that time, we seem to have continued to erode trust in British politicians and the democratic system. We have a job to do and we need to look at whatever is necessary to restore trust in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with all our history and heritage and all that we stand for, for the future.
I say to my hon. Friend the Minister and the Government that they would do well not to ignore this issue. I have tried to raise it a few times and, although I do not want to be unfair, it is kind of dismissed because there are more important things to be doing. However, we exist at a time in this place when huge chunks of our constituents have almost given up on us and what we stand for. It is really important for the United Kingdom that we do something about that. I urge the Government not to ignore the issue and to look at what can be achieved.
As has already been said, it will not be for the main political parties to come up with the answer; that will not restore trust either. I recommend that the Minister and the Government find a completely independent means of looking at what answers, options and opportunities there are, and to consider them when the time arises. As we are in the middle of Brexit, I suggest that that time is not now.
I agree that votes should matter. Since I have been elected, an organisation called Make Votes Matter has sent representatives—in fairness, not a huge number. As they have spoken to me, I have recognised that they do not feel represented or that their voices are being heard. In Cornwall in 2017, sadly, many of the smaller parties, which did reasonably well in 2015, felt that there was no purpose in even putting forward candidates, so they refrained from even standing. That meant that the three main political parties shared about 98% of all the votes that were there to be had. It was a shame to me that people across Cornwall, including my constituents, felt there was no point in engaging in the 2017 election.
People must have the opportunity to feel that they have a stake in their democracy, as well as a voice. Once we are elected as MPs, we must work to make sure that people have a voice. I never use the word “Conservative” in constituency work—not because I am ashamed of it, but because I know full well that I represent every single person. I work hard to get that message across to people who might think I would have no interest in what they care about or what affects their lives. I work hard to make sure that I am approachable and accessible, and I want to make sure that my constituents’ voices are heard.
I met representatives of Make Votes Matter to under- stand what an alternative voting system could and would look like. I agree that serious consideration should be given to electoral system reform. When I discuss the subject with people, I make it clear—and it has been made clear here this afternoon—that we must retain the local constituency link. We could jump from a situation where people have lost trust in their politicians for whatever reason, but at least they still can go and see them on a Friday or Saturday, to a point where they no longer have access.
We have referred to MEPs this afternoon. Since the Brexit referendum, very few MEPs have been anywhere near Cornwall; when they have been, some—although not all—have taken part in anti-Brexit meetings. At the moment, we have lost access to some of our MEPs, which is a real shame. It is important that if we move to another system we maintain that constituency link and the ability for people to come and speak to us, and effect change.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is making a thoughtful speech. Has he considered the single transferable vote system? He rightly says that the constituency link is important. We use that system to elect local councillors in Scotland. The link is maintained, but there is also greater proportionality.
On the problems that the hon. Gentleman identifies, would he accept that the two-party dominance of the first-past-the-post system is being stretched to breaking point, with broad churches forming that are beyond having meaning? Part of the problem that we are seeing in our politics is down to the voting system itself.
In Cornwall, the Conservatives polled about 49% in 2017 and the other two parties each had about half of the remainder, so I agree with the hon. Lady. There could have been a different way of representing Cornwall, although I probably would not have been elected if that had been the case.
If there were a general election in a few weeks’ time, it would be interesting for us on both sides of the House to find out what we could agree on in a manifesto. When people say to me, “Do you think there will be a general election?” I say, “I hope so, because at the moment I don’t know what the manifesto would even look like.” The hon. Lady is right; we need to clarify again what we stand for and give people a reason to believe. I agree with her and I welcome her intervention.
It is important to maintain the constituency link, and I will give an example of that. As a Back-Bench Member, I was encouraged early on by one of my colleagues in Cornwall to get as many Back-Bench debates as I could, mainly in this Chamber. I have done that. Every single debate that I have sought to secure has been driven by a conversation with a constituent who has come to see me. It has been a privilege to meet someone 300 miles away and talk about an issue that matters to them, and then bring it to the Floor of this House.
I am talking about important issues: community pharmacy, which was raised by a pharmacist who told me about changes to funding that would affect rural areas and which became my first ever debate; the post office network, which is a big issue for rural communities; fuel poverty, which is a concern in my constituency; the environment, which as we know from the last couple of weeks is important to many people and about which I have recently secured a debate; horse and rider safety, which was raised with me early on because where I live people on horses take their lives in their hands when faced with cars coming around corners; and employment opportunities for people with disabilities. We need to maintain the opportunity for people to turn up and say, “Can you raise this on my behalf?” and for us to get on and do that.
Our system encourages conflict and aggression; people are shocked to see the adversarial nature of this place. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) that proportional representation or any type of electoral system reform will not be the silver bullet that some believe it would be. However, something must be done to secure a more constructive and productive, and less adversarial, Parliament. I would love that: as a Back-Bencher, I find that working with colleagues across the House, through Select Committees or all-party parliamentary groups, can be really constructive. The idea that we sit opposite each other, trying to pull the most curious faces that we can, seems peculiar to me.
As I have said, it is not for the main political parties to sort this out. I suggest to the Minister that the Government find an independent means to review our current system and see what opportunity exists to improve public trust and public engagement through electoral system reform. It is right that we look at this seriously, that we take voters seriously and that we listen to what they have to say. I believe there is a sea-change in Great Britain and a desire to find a different way of moving forward. The time is not now, but I imagine that in the near future we will be forced to look at doing things differently. It would be better for the Government and the main Opposition parties to be ahead of the curve.
There are four people wishing to speak, so if they all stick to about three minutes, we will get everybody in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans.
I confess right away that I am not a recent convert to PR; there has been no damascene conversion for me. One of the reasons why I joined the Liberal Democrats when I did was that it seemed obvious to me that the current system has a fatal flaw. That was obvious to me from a young age, because my parents lived in a safe seat, but did not vote for the party that won every single time for as long as that party existed, until 2015. I learned at an early age that first past the post does not represent everybody.
I am not one of the Members in this House who has been elected by proportional representation, although there are many. My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) was elected to the Scottish Parliament by proportional representation, as were many Government Members, yet this place remains the only national Parliament in the EU that uses first past the post. We often get caught up in talking about percentages, representation and types of PR, but if we look at first past the post, there is only one figure that really matters: 44% of the votes cast are meaningless. Those people are failed by a system that sets one party against another.
Living as I do in Scotland under a PR system at every level—except the Westminster level—I see the difference. I see the difference in a Scottish Parliament that has had, with one exception, minority Governments, and has been forced to find consensus and a way that suited the majority of the people represented in that Parliament. As was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who is just leaving, we also have PR at council level in Scotland, and a direct link between the voters and their representatives.
Next time we find ourselves in deadlock in Parliament, where one side cannot win over the other—I am sure it will not be long in the current political climate—we should think how different it would be if we had a proportional representation system, in which we all had constituencies and constituents watching what we were doing, but also had a way of being forced to find consensus, and had more than two big power brokers that had everything at stake and no reason to listen to anybody else.
Earlier, when I counted the Members standing, I did not notice that Chris Heaton-Harris was one of them. We will allow three minutes each for those who are standing, which will eat very slightly into the winding-up speeches.
I am sorry that I did not stand at the last point, Mr Evans; I thought there were more people behind me. I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on the way she introduced the subject, and I welcome the Minister to his seat in this room, and to his new post as a Minister in the Department. I wish him all the very best.
I stand to speak because, like my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), I was a Member of the European Parliament, so I was elected twice by proportional representation. I was also a student union politician and was elected once by single transferable vote—thank you very much indeed, Socialist Workers party, which managed to flip six votes into my pile at one point to get me elected. I want to raise some points of criticism—constructively, I hope—in this debate.
I understand that democracy has to evolve. It always will, and it absolutely should. I am slightly wary of raising this, but there is an elephant in the room: 52% of people voted in a referendum quite recently, and the democrats in this room are now ignoring it. I would say that is a bit of a problem. The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) talked about 44% of votes cast in the last general election being meaningless, but at this point, I think that 52% of people are feeling that way about their vote in the greatest expression of a democratic vote. As democrats, we should be looking to work out how we can represent people.
I am not in favour of proportional representation. I am in favour of more direct democracy. As a Member of the European Parliament, I saw how proportional representation of a type meant that Belgium could not find a coalition Government for more than a year, because it could not find the group of people who would sit with all the other groups of people in a room to form a proper Government. I sat in a European Parliament to which fascists had been elected because of the type of list system. I sat in a European Parliament where I knew that everyone in the place, including myself, was probably talking to their selectorate, rather than their electorate, because of the way people are selected for list systems under all types of proportional representation.
I fear for the constituency link that so many of us in this place prize. One of the reasons I desperately wanted to get into this place was to represent a community I lived in and truly love. There are other systems that can evolve democracy. I like direct democracy. I have no problem with referendums, though I think we have probably seen the last of them in my lifetime. I have no problem with the California system, or with the direct democracy that the Swiss have. There are other ways of evolving our democracy; proportional representation is not the only one.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on initiating this debate. I will try to make three quick points in the three minutes that I have.
First, while I do not want to repeat the points made in favour of proportional representation—hon. Members can take it as a given that I agree with them all—the big problem, which the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) mentioned, is that our system is a two-party system. It is essentially rigged in favour of two parties. That worked, one could argue, in a Britain of a different age, when our country was essentially divided between the interests of business and capital on the one hand, and the interests of labour on the other. We cannot divide up our country in that way in this day and age. I do not see how two political parties can possibly do justice to the modern tapestry that is Britain, and to the range of interests within it. Traditionally, the response to that argument has been that they are closed coalitions of interests in any event—that they are broad churches. They are not broad churches. I know, because I used to be a member of one. They are straining to keep those divisions and different interests in one place.
We therefore end up with the absurdity that on an issue as crucial as the national security of our country—“What would you do with the future of our nuclear deterrent?”—we have a whole group of people in the Labour party, which I know well, who are committed to retaining the nuclear deterrent, but a leadership and a potential Prime Minister saying that they will never use that nuclear deterrent. I use that simply to illustrate the unsustainability of the system, and how impossible it is for the two main parties in British politics to do the job in the way they used to.
Surely it is better and more honest to have open coalitions governing together. Perhaps each of the two main parties in this country should become two or even three parties. In practice they might govern together, but at least everybody would know where everybody stood and people would not have to pretend that they agreed with each other when they did not. It would make for an altogether more honest system of politics.
Secondly, the other problem with the system is that millions of people in this country vote for a party not because they want to, but because they think they have to in order to keep the other lot out, or because it is the least worst option. How can we go on with a system that forces people to make that kind of choice? If I am wrong about that and people do want to vote for those parties, why does poll after poll show that when we have the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister and “Don’t know” lined up as the options available to people, “Don’t know” scores much more highly than any other option? Thirdly—
Order. I am sorry, but your three minutes is up. In fact, you have gone over the limit.
Can I finish the sentence?
Go on, then.
I am very grateful. Thirdly, to address the point about extremism, we can get around that in any system of proportional representation—as they do in Germany, where they know those dangers all too well—by having a threshold that parties must exceed in order to be able to stand in an election. That is all I wanted to say; I am grateful for your indulgence, Mr Evans.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans.
I am a Lib Dem partly because I believe that we need extraordinary change in our political system. I am delighted by the damascene conversion that has happened, but as hon. Members have eloquently said, when someone is under the umbrella of a party that helps to deliver the safe seats, it is all too easy for them to forget that they are not necessarily representing everyone in the constituency. While I appreciate what some have said about ensuring that they as MPs are there for everyone, I think we all know of Members of this House who do not always behave that way, and who, because they are in a safe seat, choose instead to campaign to and speak to only the part of their electorate that they feel will deliver them the next election. Whatever proportional system we end up delivering, it must fundamentally challenge that situation.
I say that having won a marginal constituency at the last snap general election. We were nearly 10,000 votes behind the Conservatives in Oxford West and Abingdon. I will be perfectly honest: I did not think I would win. When I found out the election was happening, I called up a future employer, with whom I had taken a job as a deputy head—it was my first deputy headship, and I was really excited—and said, “If you want to make some money, put a bet against me. There’s no way I can make that up in one election.” I am sorry to say that they lost money, but I will go to their prize-giving in a few weeks’ time, so that is the quid pro quo.
The question is how we did it in Oxford West and Abingdon. Anyone who has ever campaigned will have seen Lib Dem election leaflets saying, “X can’t win here,” and that is what we did in my constituency. The Labour party vote came over. I was in a pub the other day, having a pint with some of the chaps who are often there, and one said, “I’m a member of the Labour party, and I can’t tell you I voted for you, because I’d get thrown out of the party.” He should not have had to make that confession. He should not have to hide that from people. The fact is that we won because of a broad church of voters. I appreciate and understand that I was not his top choice, but he was happy to say, “I’m proud to have voted for you anyway.” We had to get to the point where the Green party stood down in Oxford West and Abingdon to send that message, so that we could win. Yes, we made up that difference. I live in a marginal constituency, and am I happy about that.
What kind of system would I want? I advocate something like alternative vote plus. A lot of work was done on this a long time ago. We need a root-and-branch reform of the whole way that we do politics. That should cover not just proportional systems, but overseas electors and votes at 16. We need a proper look at the entire convention on how we do politics in this country—not just the x in the box, but everything, including how we campaign and how we represent people. That is why we need a more proportional system.
I will give two examples of proportional representation working and helping democracy in this country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) pointed out, I served in the Scottish Parliament. Both before and after I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I was a highland councillor. When I was first a highland councillor, I was a single member for a ward, and I had the ward discretionary fund—a pot of £40k or £50k—which I could dish out to good causes in my ward without really checking with anyone at all. It was like having the power of a medieval prince.
When I became a councillor again after having been in the Scottish Parliament, there was this thing called the single transferable vote, and I had to share the ward with two other members. Oh, horror! How difficult! My favourite charities did not necessarily get the money I wanted to give them; I had to argue it out with the other two members of the ward. To me, that is an improvement in democracy and in the representation of the people. I was more accountable under the wider PR system than before. That was my experience of local government.
In between those times, I was an MSP. I was an additional Member, elected under PR. I will give two slightly off-the-wall reasons why that system is good. First, anyone who knows about Scotland, and anyone who was in this place long enough ago, will remember one Margo MacDonald. She graced Westminster and Holyrood. She was a member of the Scottish National party, and also went independent. She was elected in Edinburgh through her own merits and her own character. Holyrood would have been a much poorer place without Margo. I have waited a long time to put that on the record. She was a splendid lady, and I feel greatly enriched to have known her.
Secondly—I will shut up in a second, to make it easier for you, Mr Evans—the 1997 election had a result that I am sure gratified many people, including people like me in Scotland, but did not gratify others: the Conservative party got precisely no seats north of the border. It was wiped out. That was bad news for those now on the Government Benches. However, in 1999, under PR, the Conservatives came back with 18 seats in Holyrood, which was a bit of a shock to me and others.
I will continue to argue to my dying day that although I do not approve of the good fortunes of the Conservative party—no offence to the Minister—PR rescued the Tories in Scotland, and that, for those who believe in plural democracy and the right of different sections of society to be heard, was a good thing. At the end of the day, that will be one of my concluding and strongest arguments as to why PR worked: I did not like the result, but it was good for democracy in Scotland that the Tories came back.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. Before I start, on behalf of the Scottish National party, I offer my warmest congratulations to English colleagues here, and wish them a happy St George’s day.
All of us in this room consider ourselves democrats, although we may have different interpretations of what that means. For me, two things stand out. First, the elected Parliament ought to, in the broadest possible terms, represent the people who take part in elections to it. Secondly, the country ought to be governed with the consent of a majority of its citizens. By any test, the current first-past-the-post system fails palpably on both counts.
I say that because I note that others who have spoken are from minority parties in the Chamber. They rightly feel aggrieved because they have been punished and penalised by the first-past-the-post system and are under-represented in the Chamber. I say that the system is wrong on behalf of a party that has probably been, in recent years, the greatest beneficiary of the distortions of first past the post. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) referenced the 2017 general election results, but remember what happened in 2015 when, with 50% of the vote, the SNP took 95% of the available seats in Scotland. I cannot defend that as a democratic system. My only defence is that we did not make the rules, and that we were playing by the rules that we were given. However, that is clearly not a sustainable system.
There are other drawbacks, as people have mentioned. First, many people living in a seat that might change hands—a swing seat—feel under a great deal of pressure to vote tactically, which means that they compromise their vote. They do not vote for the person or party who they think represents them, but for somebody who they agree with slightly more than the person they are trying to keep out. Those people do not, under this system, have the opportunity or right to express their political aspirations in an election. Of course, it is even worse in safe seats, where people feel that their vote is simply wasted—that there is no point to it. They could go out and vote for a lifetime—some do—and the party that they vote for will never represent them in this Parliament.
All that would be bad enough, but it cannot go on, because as more people see that this is not the natural order of things, and that people elsewhere in the world do things differently, it begins to fuel great disillusionment with our entire political process. In some parts, that results in people being apathetic and not taking part in the system. However, much more worrying is the building resentment that people feel about the futility of the system and the way in which it denies their democratic expression. That is why it is urgent that we begin to review, and to consider change.
I am pleased to note that, in comparison with many constitutional debates in Westminster Hall, this is a relatively well-attended discussion. It is also a thoughtful discussion, in that colleagues—I note, in particular, from the two major parties—have spoken about the need to consider change, and have said that things cannot continue as they are. Before we debate the practicalities of what system might replace the current one, we have to agree on the principles. I always find it strange that when we state the principle that a party’s representatives in Parliament ought to be in proportion to the votes cast for that party in the election, nobody disagrees; they tend to say that it is a noble idea, but that for various practical reasons, it will never work, so we should never bother doing it. If we believe that that principle is worth defending, it is incumbent on all of us, cross party, to begin at least looking at whether we could change the system in order to express that principle in our constitutional arrangements. I think that we could.
Some arguments about practicalities, when examined, are not the great hurdles that people pretend. People talk about a break in the constituency link, for example. There are proportional systems that explicitly maintain a direct link between a constituency and its representative. Indeed, we have that system—the additional member system—for the Scottish Parliament, and it works. One representative in the Scottish Parliament for the area where I live is Kezia Dugdale, an MSP for the Labour party. She is elected on a Lothian-wide list along with seven other people, but she has no hesitation in describing herself as the MP for Edinburgh, and in popping up everywhere, trying to represent and advocate on behalf of the city. That works with other parties as well. As the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) said, STV was a lifeline for the Scottish Conservative party, allowing it representation that it would not otherwise have had.
The argument is put about that PR leads to unstable government, but the last few years have shown that the current system does not do very well in that regard either.
I will be very brief, Mr Evans. The hon. Gentleman and I have long been on the same side on this issue, and I agree that it is heartening to see support growing for the case for reform. However, it is not only the last few years that have shown the fallacy of the strong government argument for first past the post. If we dip into history, there is the 1970s and the Lib-Lab pact, or the relationship between Sir John Major’s Government and the Ulster Unionist party. It has not been the case that first past the post has delivered stable Governments for the UK. Where it has been stable, it has not always been good government, when that majority has been artificially put in place.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point well, and I agree with him.
First past the post does not allow for political dialogue and discussion, but keeps it under wraps and prevents it. Compromises are made behind closed doors within major parties and are not expressed in public debate. That seems very unhealthy for our democracy. It is also unsustainable, given the 24-hour news cycle; people need only pick up their phone to find out what is happening in every aspect of their life, in great detail. Those arrangements might have been satisfactory for the 19th century, but they certainly are not for the 21st century. I think they have to change.
Let us get the political debate out in the open; that is what a proportional system would allow. There would be more parties, and they would have to form alliances in order to govern, but it would be transparent. People would see what deals were being made and what policies were being jettisoned in order to allow others to come through.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not, because I have only two minutes left.
Others have remarked that all these practical obstacles to PR suggest that nobody has ever tried it, but the truth is that we have proportional representation systems—not just in Scotland, but in Wales, in Northern Ireland and in this city, for the London Assembly. It does not lead to the catastrophe that many suggest; indeed, it works fairly well.
I want to suggest what we can do. I welcome this debate. I am sure that the Minister will take a good stab at defending the Government’s position, but I know what he will say, if I am honest. I am more interested in what the Opposition spokesperson will say. All the opposition parties in this Parliament of minorities need to begin a dialogue among themselves, because if the Government will not offer change, we need to prepare to see what a new election and a new Parliament might do. That dialogue needs to happen. In that regard, I commend the work of Make Votes Matter, which has begun to focus on not just particular systems, but the guiding principles behind the systems, so that we design a system to achieve our objectives. I hope that the Labour party will join the other minority parties in this Chamber in advocating those principles.
I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), to his new position, and wish the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) all the best on her maternity leave. I am sure that he will ably cover her post.
Before addressing proportional representation, I want to highlight the feeling, which has come up in the debate, that the current political system is in need of change. The Minister will be getting to grips with the brief, but he will be well aware that our electoral laws are out of date and need looking at as a matter of urgency. Millions of people are missing from the electoral roll, dark money is influencing politics and public trust is at an all-time low.
This debate is about proportional representation. It is important to acknowledge that, as with every electoral system, there are pros and cons to first past the post. Simplicity is the key benefit of first past the post, because it gives the electorate one vote for the candidate or party they support. The other great benefit is the constituency link. As Member of Parliament for Lancaster and Fleetwood, when I go out and speak to my constituents, as I did over Easter, many of them greet me by name—they know me. I do not think they have the same relationship with their MEPs, whom they probably could not name and would not recognise if they fell over them in the queue for the bus.
I have outlined the advantages, but there are cons to first past the post, which have been outlined by many speakers in this debate. The current voting system has been under growing scrutiny. A traditional argument in favour of first past the post was that it had a history of returning stable single-party Governments. That has been well and truly debunked since 2010. Analysis of the 2017 general election also demonstrates the limitations of our voting system. That election saw a rise in marginal seats: 11 seats were won by fewer than 100 votes. Analysis by the Electoral Reform Society found that less than 0.0017% of voters choosing differently would have given the Conservative party a majority.
Moving on to proportional voting systems, proportional representation has a number of good arguments in its favour. It is right for Parliament to reflect the political will of the people—who would not argue that a country should have a Parliament that looks like the politics of its people. I do not think that anyone can disagree with that principle. A proportional voting system would give voters the opportunity to vote for people they believe in, rather than voting tactically to stop the party that they like least.
I am sure that every political party taking part in this debate has at some point or another said to a voter, “Please support me, because if you don’t support me the other guy will get in.” As well as smaller parties standing aside in some seats at the last general election, the Electoral Reform Society estimates that 6.5 million people voted tactically. As I said, they were voting for parties that were not necessarily their first choice in order to stop the party that they perceived to be more likely to win in their area.
PR is of course well established in the UK. There are forms of it in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and here in London, for the Assembly elections. They all use proportional systems, which means that most voters in this country at some point have used more than one electoral system. In Scotland, where STV is used in local government elections, voters have demonstrated that they are capable of using more than one system and more complex systems than first past the post. Finally, all the UK-based proportional systems—except for the closed lists used in European elections—have the strong constituency basis that is incredibly important for any voting system.
Personally, I am on the record supporting PR. However, a major constitutional change such as this must have the support of the public. For example, in the 2011 AV referendum, to which I am sure the Minister will refer in his speech, 32% of voters supported AV, but the vast majority rejected it. AV is not, however, a form of proportional representation, and public opinion may well have changed since then. What has not changed is that our democracy is still fundamentally broken. I do not believe that changing our voting system alone is some magic wand that will fix the problems or mend the disconnect felt by so many voters in this country.
Millions of people across the UK feel that politics does not work for them, and it is not hard to see why. Communities are often affected by decisions over which they have no say or, even when they think they have a say, a Government can come in to override it, as in Lancashire in the case of fracking. Many people feel that what goes on in Westminster is a world away from the reality of their lives. Research published by the Hansard Society found that the UK public are increasingly disenchanted with the system of governing.
To move on to Labour’s position, Labour is committed to root-and-branch transformation of the archaic political structures and cultures of this country which work for the few and not the many. At the last general election, our manifesto committed to establishing a constitutional convention to examine and advise on reforming the way in which Britain works at a fundamental level. We will consult on the convention’s forms and terms of reference, and invite recommendations on extending democracy. The convention will bring together individuals and organisations from across civil society, and will act as the driving force behind our democratic agenda.
As well as looking at different voting systems, the convention will look at extending democracy locally, regionally and nationally, and will consider the option of a more federalised country. Of course, a constitutional convention could look at other issues to do with democratic accountability, including whether MPs who change parties and cross the Floor should face by-elections. This is about where power and sovereignty lie in politics, in the economy and in the justice system, as well as in our communities. The convention will build a popular mandate for the deep-seated political change that this country needs.
As I said, it is important that we look at different voting systems as part of a wider package of constitutional and electoral reforms, to address the growing democratic deficit across Britain. That is the change that we must see.
In welcoming the Minister to his place, I ask him to leave at least one minute for the proposer, Angela Smith.
Thank you, Mr Evans. I will make sure to follow your guidance and leave a minute at the end. I thank hon. Members, particularly the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) and the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), for their warm wishes for my first debate in this role.
The Government welcome this debate and the opportunity to address the important issues that have been raised by hon. Members, as well as the online engagement around the debate. Unsurprisingly, hon. Members have made their arguments eloquently, but given the time, I will not have a chance to analyse each individual point—not least given the myriad systems that have been suggested, which could take some time to explain. Ultimately, how we select our representatives in Parliament is of fundamental importance and hon. Members rightly have strong views. The voting system used by voters is central to that concern and goes to the heart of our democracy. The Government are committed to ensuring that the laws governing our elections are clear and accessible, and generate the greatest degree of confidence in the outcome of elections.
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 the Government, if they achieve the confidence of the House.
Does the Minister accept that people are often voting for someone who is not their preferred candidate? Under first past the post, they are voting for someone they like best and who they think can actually win, which leads to large numbers of people feeling as if they have been cheated of their first preference.
Everyone has a choice as to how they use their vote. Even under the alternative vote system, which the Liberal Democrats argued for in the referendum seven years ago, people would find themselves having to make a decision when they got to their second or third choice, and in fact, their vital choice might be the fourth or fifth one, which they did not believe would necessarily be the vital one.
People have a choice and they know the impact of their vote and how it might choose a Government. Under any voting system, people have a choice to make about how they wish to use their vote: do they wish to vote for a major party that may select and put forward the Prime Minister or for a minor party so that it can be represented in the House of Commons? I do not think that any voting system, particularly if we want to maintain the constituency link, which many hon. Members have said is important, or if we have single-Member constituencies and a Member of Parliament already secures more than 50% of the votes cast, will change the overall outcome.
The first-past-the-post system is a clear and robust way of electing Members of Parliament. It is well understood by the electorate, and they know how their representatives in Parliament are selected and the impact of their vote. Crucially, it ensures a clear link between elected representative and constituent in a manner that proportional representation systems do not. That ensures that MPs can represent the interests of their constituents when debating national issues. The Government therefore do not support proportional representation for parliamentary elections because they consider it to be more opaque and complicated without delivering the clear benefits of the first-past-the-post system.
I welcome the Minister to his place. One point that I do not think has been made is that first past the post gives a clear link between the elector and not only the individual, but the manifesto, so people can see whether that is delivered.
I agree that first past the post creates a clear link that sometimes proportional representation systems do not.
As we committed in our manifesto to retaining first past the post for parliamentary elections, we have no plans to change the voting system for elections to the House of Commons. As we have touched on, under first past the post, individual Members of Parliament represent electors in a defined constituency. The link between hon. Members and their constituents is a core feature of our parliamentary democracy.
Constituents have a distinct parliamentary representative who is directly accountable to them and can be clearly seen to represent them. The representation is less obvious when someone is elected under a proportional representation system where larger multi-Member constituencies are used. In such circumstances, smaller communities are likely to be subsumed into a larger area and there is a risk that their particular interests and concerns will not be fully taken into account.
[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]
Furthermore, proportional representation systems can still result in outcomes that many deem undesirable. A party that does not win the poll, and that potentially even loses seats, can still end up forming the Government, so voters have a Government that they did not vote for. Under proportional voting systems, voters may not really know what policies they end up voting for, as the successful parties will be those best able to negotiate a deal in a coalition after an election, rather than necessarily those that secure the most support from the electorate.
Crucially, given the party of the hon. Member who secured the debate, party list systems give parties and their leaders the most control over the make-up of lists of candidates, and ultimately, who will end up in this place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) said, that can result in elected representatives who are more focused on the selectorate than the electorate, compared with single-Member constituencies under first past the post.
First past the post provides for a clear and straightforward count that usually needs to be conducted only once, or repeated only if it is tight, and that produces a clear outcome on the evening. Electoral systems used to achieve a proportionally representative outcome are often more complex than the first past the post system, which makes the impact of one person’s vote less clear. Systems such as the single transferable vote require ballots to be counted multiple times to allocate seats, which potentially obscures the impact of each vote on the result.
The ability of the first-past-the-post system to produce an uncomplicated and accurate count means that a result is produced more quickly, normally during the night following the poll, with an overall result early the next day. A timely, clear and secure result is in the interest of all parties and the country as a whole. Given the significant advantages of a first-past-the-post system, there would need to be compelling policy reasons for the Government to embrace a system that is less clear for voters and more complicated, and that could see someone’s third, fourth or even fifth choice for their constituency being the crucial choice they make, as I have touched on.
The current closed-list voting system for European Parliament elections was first used in 1999 and the turnout at that poll was 24%. That was significantly lower than the turnout of 36.4% at the previous European Parliament election held under the first-past-the-post system. Although turnouts have increased in more recent European Parliament elections, that is because they have been combined with first-past-the-post local elections taking place on the same day. It is clear that just shifting to a new voting system does not necessarily boost turnout, despite the arguments in 1999 from people who stated that the system would do that.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not, given the time. I want to allow time for the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) who secured the debate.
The first-past-the-post system is well established in the United Kingdom. Consequently, elections using first past the post produce lower numbers of rejected ballot papers compared with other systems, including proportional representation systems. For those reasons, the Government support the continued use of the first-past-the-post system for the House of Commons.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not, given the time. I want to allow time for the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge who secured the debate to wind up.
In 2011, the United Kingdom conducted a referendum on whether the voting system to elect Members of Parliament should be changed from first past the post. The system on offer was the alternative vote system, which would allow electors to rank their candidates in order of preference, and if one candidate received more than half the votes, they would be elected. The point was made that it was very similar and would not affect seats where people already had more than 50% of the vote.
Electors voted overwhelmingly against changing the system. More than 13 million people—more than two-thirds of those who voted—voted in favour of retaining first past the post. It would be hard to justify ignoring the democratic verdict in the referendum, and equally hard to make a case for a further referendum on a more radical reform such as proportional representation, when that more modest AV proposal was defeated so resoundingly.
This has been an interesting debate and I thank hon. Members for their contributions. Hon. Members from all parties have talked about the importance of ensuring popular engagement, transparency and integrity in our electoral system. I take on board the comments of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood. There is work to be done to ensure that people feel engaged in our democratic system—that they feel they have a stake and a voice in it.
I tentatively say to hon. Members present that one of the times when people felt they had a direct say in the future of their country was when they voted in the June 2016 referendum and every vote in every part of the United Kingdom counted for exactly the same. Many feel that the way to restore and introduce trust to our electoral system is to deliver the result of that referendum.
For now, the Government have no plans to change the voting system for elections to the House of Commons. Although the debate has been of interest, the Government will focus their time on other areas to build wider democratic engagement and the faith in our democratic system that we all wish to see.
This has been a thoughtful and good-humoured debate, to which it is impossible to do justice in one minute. Various hon. Members have contributed and I have listened carefully to what has been said.
On the points about extremism and our electoral system, I will say just this. No electoral system can resist the power of ideas indefinitely. We can put thresholds in place, as in Germany, but in the end, nothing can stop it. With an open, honest approach, however, we can at least fight extremism at the ballot box, as my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna) pointed out.
What do we do if the two major parties in a two-party system are captured by the extremists? What does the voter do then? They are left powerless in the system that we have. That risk feels more real to me now than ever in my lifetime. It is time for change, and we need to deliver it now.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).