Skip to main content

Electoral Reform

Volume 677: debated on Monday 8 June 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Leo Docherty.)

It seems that debates on potential electoral reform are a bit like buses: wait a long time for a chance to discuss it, and then, with the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill last week, two opportunities come along at once. I welcome the opportunity to engage with the Minister on this topic, as I indicated on Second Reading of the Bill last week. I believe that this is the first debate on positive reform to our electoral system in this Chamber since 2016. As we reflect on last year’s general election and the challenges that the UK faces in relation to the covid-19 pandemic, I believe that revisiting this topic and the impact that the current first-past-the-post system has on democracy is valid.

During that Second Reading debate last week, I mentioned a statistic: for every one vote it took to elect an SNP MP at the last election, it took 33 votes to elect a Green one. The Green party polled over 800,000 votes and ended up with only one Member of Parliament: the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). The Brexit Party, polling over 600,000 votes, got no MP at all. Its biggest impact as a party was in standing down in seats, effectively preventing those who wish to vote for it in those seats from being able to do so.

I do not want to drown Members in statistics—I know that the Government have been in trouble with the Office for National Statistics recently—but I do want to highlight the following. The Government have an 80-seat majority in this House, but they did not receive the majority of votes—far from it, in fact. They got 43.6% of the votes, but due to first past the post, they now hold 56% of the seats. I do not know what is more remarkable: the fact that the Government have a majority in Parliament, despite not having a majority of votes from this country, or the fact that we have grown so used to this disproportionality that we rarely comment on how remarkable it is.

If Government Members—were they here—to say, “Well, at least the largest party in the Commons is the one with the most votes,” I would agree. After all, in 1951 and 1974, the party with the most votes did not end up with the most seats. The electoral maths is very clear. First past the post does not do a good job at all of representing voters’ preferences or the will of the people, as some like to call it.

One of the arguments in support of first past the post is—to quote a previous Conservative general election slogan—that it provides strong and stable governance. The last 10 years have demonstrated that this is far from the case. We have a broken system. It is unfair, unrepresentative and undermines the legitimacy of our democracy and, indeed, the UK itself. We often take pride in the fact that this Parliament is the mother of Parliaments, but we should not let our pride in our heritage blind us to the areas in which it needs improvements. We should not uphold tradition at all costs, particularly when it prevents us from making the progressive changes that will have a positive impact on people’s lives, or prevents Members from properly representing their constituents. Every election that we hold under first past the post runs the risk that we end up with a Government who did not win a majority of votes, impacting on the legitimacy of our whole democratic process. This is a scenario that should worry anyone and that we should be acting pre-emptively to avoid.

Although I take pride in our heritage, the reality is that the vast majority of democratic countries have chosen not to follow our system. Exactly the scenario that I have been talking about—the party with the most votes not becoming the Government—happened in New Zealand in 1978 and again in 1981, and it set that country on the road to changing first past the post in 1997. It was abandoned in Ireland, Australia, Malta, South Africa and Cyprus. Across Europe, 40 out of 43 countries carry out elections using some form of proportional representation.

The Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, and the Northern Ireland Assembly, use forms of proportional representation in their elections to those bodies. When we have the chance to start from scratch, first past the post is never anyone’s first choice. Surely now, following two divisive referendums in the past decade—again resulting in winner takes all—and with the challenges facing us going forward, we require a different kind of politics from the adversarial two-party politics that is the natural result of first past the post. Last week, the Prime Minister criticised the Leader of the Opposition for not working in a constructive way, but this is exactly the way in which our system forces politicians to operate—across the Dispatch Box, two sword lengths apart.

As the Scottish National party’s vote is concentrated in the 59 Scottish seats, the situation that first past the post creates there is even more serious. In December, 45% of the vote for the SNP equated to 80% of the seats. The adversarial nature of things becomes even more stark when two parties each claim to be the voice of their people, and I am pleased that the SNP is in agreement with me that we need a more proportional system and we need it to be found soon.

As we seek to recover from the impact of covid-19, other challenges—most crucially, our response to the climate emergency—remain. Such challenges will not be solved by one side or way of thinking. They require co-operation, mutual trust, welcoming a diversity of thinking, and an ability to set aside our differences and work together for the common good.

Some commentators have observed that states with the perceived best response to coronavirus so far are those with women leaders. The underlying factor is that these are countries with proportional systems and a focus on pluralistic decision making, such as New Zealand and Germany. Every single country with more than 40% of female representatives in its legislature has a proportional system. The current system is inhibiting the progress that both the Government and the official Opposition say they want to make.

It is not only our governance that is weakened by first past the post. Our voting system results in the permanent disenfranchisement of millions of voters, creating persistent minorities, and a real and legitimate sense of anger alongside the harm to the regions and the devolved nations. How depressing is it that, for a great number of people in this country, being represented here in this place by someone they actually voted for feels like a treat?

In last week’s debate, many MPs spoke about how much they love their constituencies and the pride that they take in representing them. I have personally enjoyed the tradition of the maiden speech, referring to my constituency and its attractions as well as acknowledging the work of my predecessor. But as Members of Parliament, we do not actually represent our constituencies; we represent the people in it. In my constituency of North East Fife, the majority of people did not vote for me in December. Tactical voting probably played a part in the result, but my job now is to represent everyone in my constituency, and we must acknowledge that many feel unrepresented as a result of our system.

Surely we should all like to be elected on the basis of a positive voter choice, as opposed to being the least worst option on the ballot paper, as is often the case. Surely the proliferation of tactical voting websites and electoral pacts at the last general election suggests there is something fundamentally wrong with the way we elect people to this place. We talk about the collapse of Labour’s red wall without critically asking whether it is right for any party to believe it has the right to any seat or its electorate. We do however comment on the extra attention that these seats and their new Conservative representatives expect to get from the Government. That suggests that, as previously safe Labour seats, where the same party had won every election, people’s votes there were worth very little and the parties could therefore ignore them. Only when a seat becomes marginal does it seem to matter.

As I pointed out last week, it is strange that the Conservative manifesto recognised that votes mattering equally is a “cornerstone of democracy”, yet is blind to the huge disparities in our current system. It was pointed out to me by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) that she has more than 20,000 more electors in her constituency than I have in mine, but this unfairness is because our system is based on defining boundaries and areas for a single Member to represent under first past the post. Some of the criteria being set out in relation to boundary changes undermine the arguments for single-Member constituencies by diluting the identified community links that many argue are the main benefit of first past the post and risking further disenfranchisement in an already broken system.

One other promise in the Conservative manifesto was to have a constitution, democracy and rights commission in the first year of the Government. Will the Minister update us on the plans for that commission, including its scope and potential membership? Fair votes are just one spoke on the wheel of reforming our broken politics and there is lots more to be done; I have not touched on the House of Lords or the fact that England needs to follow the reforms of the other devolved nations, including Wales, where, from last week, 16 and 17-year-olds are now eligible to vote. I find it strange that only in England are 16 and 17-year-olds felt to be incapable of exercising their democratic rights.

My hon. Friend is giving an incredibly powerful speech, at an important time in our democracy. I used to be a teacher and I can say from experience that 16 and 17-year-olds are just as capable of understanding the complexities of the political landscape as anyone else and quite often ask very insightful questions. From her experience as a Scottish MP, does she agree that it is time England followed suit and gave 16 and 17-year-olds the vote?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and entirely agree with her. As I say, only one of our four nations seems to feel that its young people do not have that insight, and we should absolutely be giving them that opportunity.

Countries around the world are moving forward beyond fair votes, with democratic innovations such as citizens’ assemblies or participatory budgeting programmes. We need to look at participatory democracy better empowering local communities and groups. We have seen multiple marches and demonstrations in the past few years, including, most recently, this weekend. People protest when they feel they have no other option in terms of making their voices heard to demand change. It is tempting to be comfortable with the current system—after all, every Member here has benefited from first past the post—and I understand the reverence in which Members hold this place, but we best revere it when we acknowledge that its practices are letting down the very people who elected us to represent them. We should not let warm feelings get in the way of cold, hard reality.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we are creating a very divisive politics in this country, where we are persistently looking for argument, rather than consensus, and that that completely overshadows our political culture and we need to change it?

Again, I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend says; this has created our two-party politics and divisiveness, and, as a result, there is not the opportunity to work in consensus.

In my political career, I have been a councillor on Ards Borough Council, elected under a proportional representation system; I was also in the Northern Ireland Assembly, to which I was again elected under a PR system; and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to come here in 2010, under a straight first-past-the-post system. I understand the benefits of both systems, and why in Northern Ireland we needed an Assembly that could bring the parties together. There is a reason for using the proportional system where it is used, but does the hon. Lady agree that the first-past-the-post system sits here as well?

I cannot agree that first past the post has a place, because I believe that we can use other ways and methodologies to represent constituencies, such as the single transferrable vote, which would give us the same result but would be more representative of the way people voted. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

We should not let warm feelings get in the way of cold hard reality. I urge Members and the Government to reflect on whether there is an unfairness here. Will a change benefit people’s lives across the UK and the devolved nations? Indeed, would what we are talking about actually work better across the four nations, when three of our four nations, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, actually have some form of proportional representation in how they elect Members to their Parliaments and Assemblies? I believe there is only one answer. Now really is time that we should consider electoral reform.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to welcome the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) to her place as her party’s spokesperson on these issues. I look forward to working with her in that role, and as such, I thank her for raising these important issues in this Adjournment debate. I will take the time available to me to address as many of the issues she raised as I can. She clearly spent most of her time focusing on the method of counting votes in the first-past-the-post system, so that is what I will focus on in my remarks.

If I may, I will just set the scene with a few additional things that we are also focusing on in this Parliament that we think are important in stewarding our electoral system and our democracy. I certainly think that how people cast their vote goes to the heart of our democracy, and it is from that that the Government made an absolute priority in our manifesto, and through much of the action I take when I have the privilege to speak from this Dispatch Box, of protecting and upholding our democracy and our elections by means of electoral integrity. We are taking forward a programme of work that seeks to make our elections secure but also fit for the modern age. Importantly, one of those points is the need to bring our electoral laws up to date for the digital age, which I think the hon. Lady and I both agree is a necessary move. I want to help citizens to make informed decisions by increasing transparency in online political campaigning, and with that I also seek to make sure that rules on campaign donations and spending are effective.

I really look forward to working with the hon. Lady on the forthcoming policy of putting imprints on digital electoral material, which I think will help to strengthen trust and will help people to be informed about who is behind a campaign, so that they can choose and decide. She will be aware of my intention to introduce further measures to reduce fraud in elections, including by introducing identification requirements to vote and by tackling postal vote harvesting and potential proxy fraud.

The hon. Lady already mentioned updated and equal parliamentary boundaries, so I will not dwell on that—we will have plenty of time to do that in Committee sessions in the next while—but it is linked to tonight’s subject matter. It is important, because every voter needs to know that their vote carries equal weight, no matter where it is cast in the UK. I start at this point, because it came up in the debate last week on Second Reading. There is simply a difference of view here. She would say that, for example, an STV system or a PR system would be better than a fixed-term—[Interruption.] I have too many acronyms with F, T and P in them; I meant to say first past the post. She will support one; I will support the other. However, that said, it is possible for us both to agree that, whichever system is used, voters’ voices ought to have the greatest possible equality within that system. From the perspective of first past the post, I argue that, within that system, we should ensure that every vote has a chance for its voice to carry equal weight wherever it is cast.

Let me turn more specifically to the first-past-the-post electoral system. I understand the points raised by the hon. Lady. She gave a good run down of the principal arguments that are often given against the first-past-the-post system, and I suspect that underlines the point for other hon. Members—we are kept company tonight by a few, including, no less, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) who attends every Adjournment debate. As he, and others, will know, this debate is not perhaps new, so I will run through some of the principal arguments in favour of first past the post, to balance the discussion.

For me, the first point is always the constituency link. There is something important to be said about the politics of place, and it is harder to achieve that in some designs for a proportional representation system. The politics of place are important. For example, the hon. Member for North East Fife speaks for Fife; I speak for Norwich. The hon. Member for Strangford speaks for Strangford, and my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) speaks for parts of Walsall. All those places have different needs that can be well represented by a Member who speaks when grounded in those communities.

As a Scottish MP, like the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), I have experience of both systems. We both share constituencies with MSPs who are connected to the constituency. We have a separate top-up list. I do not think it fair always to depict proportional representation as removing the connection with the constituency. Sometimes, it is just as strong.

The hon. Lady is right. From the facts, I cannot argue with that point, and I would not seek to. My point about the politics of place is part of a set of points that, in my view, fit together. My second point, which I think gives voters a better result than the one just described is—

If the hon. Lady will allow me to make my second point, I will be happy to give way. The second important feature is accountability, which with first past the post is linked to place. It can be achieved in other ways, but with first past the post, we all get the kind of accountability that comes when an MP walks down the street and looks into the eyes of their constituents. It is important to seek a system that has that in its design, so that there is not some relatively difficult to understand method of apportioning the number of votes, but instead a clear method of who came first—the clue is in the name. That gives citizens, voters, a clear method of holding somebody to account. MPs can be thrown out as easily as they were voted in, and they are given the accountability to conduct that job, and to do so strictly by reporting to a place, and to people who use the same public services as they do in their constituencies. All that links the politics of place with accountability.

There are, of course, proportional systems that do both—they are proportional and they have clear links between a particular Member of Parliament and a place. Is the Minister not defending the indefensible simply because it delivers electoral success to a particular party, or the two big parties, rather than creating a better democracy? Are we not in this place to create a better democracy?

We are indeed in this place to improve our democracy. That is why I took the time when opening my remarks to set out some of the ways I am doing that. I am sorry to make a partisan point, but when the hon. Lady’s party was in government—it got there under a version of this system—it tried to improve the voting system, and the British people said no. That was to be my third point against making the move from the first-past-the-post system to what, in that case, was the alternative vote system. That was put fairly and squarely to people in a referendum and they declined it; they said, no, they did not want to make that change. It would not be fair to ask people that again in such short order, because it is rather an important principle that when you have a referendum you respect its results.

I thank the Minister. We were elected as the Members of Parliament for our constituencies in this House under first past the post. I know I have said this; I am sure the Minister has said it; and probably every other Member here has said it. As a member of the Democratic Unionist party, the fact of the matter is that I am everybody’s MP. Does she agree that everybody is the MP for their constituency, as everybody else is here, whether people agree with our political views or not?

Yes, that is a very wise summary to put into this debate. It puts me back in mind of some important principles that the hon. Member for North East Fife struck in her remarks. She was keen to see that people should not be left feeling disenfranchised in a certain constituency. She was keen to see a reduction in the adversarial nature that sometimes can creep into—dare I say?—all sorts of politics, but she identified it in our politics in this country. She was keen to explore how a Member of Parliament could represent everyone in their constituency, which I think connects to the point that the hon. Member for Strangford just made.

I feel very strongly on these matters as well. It has always been a point of some passion for me, actually, that I think we can do those things within the first-past-the-post system. That goes back to my point about the politics of place and the fact that we are accountable to that particular community and that particular group of people—a relatively small group of people, in fact, on some international comparisons. We have to strive to represent all of them. It is our duty to do so, however difficult that may sometimes seem when there are opposing views, naturally, within a body of people, and only one of us. We have to do that and we have to use our judgment to do it. That is, in my view, the very rewarding job that we seek to do. If we can do it right, that can, I hope, deliver some satisfaction to our constituents as well, with the ability to say no to us if they would rather it was not us in our place.

One of the acknowledged problems we have in modern democracy is the lack of engagement, particularly of young people. One of the things many of us hear on the doorstep is, “Why would I bother? My vote doesn’t count.” The beauty of proportional representation is that every vote counts, in the sense that people sometimes feel in a seat where there is a large majority for one party that there is no point in them voting as it will not count and they will not be represented. Would the hon. Lady accept that point—that PR gives everyone’s vote some weight?

I do understand that point. I personally would use a similar argument to apply to one’s vote getting rather lost in a national system that did not give accountability directly to a representative.

Allow me to pause in responding to the arguments about the voting system and turn to a couple of the other points that the hon. Member for North East Fife made. I will cover three manifesto commitments. First, in the Conservative manifesto, which was chosen and has been given the privilege of being turned into action, we committed to retain the first-past-the-post system. That concludes that section of my remarks.

Turning to votes at 16, and if I may, combining this with the points made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) about how very many young people want to be involved in politics, I am passionately in favour of young people being involved in politics. However, I do think there are many ways to do that—there is not only the question of the voting age; there are lots of ways to engage people in politics. As I have mentioned, the manifesto commitment from this Government was to retain the franchise at 18 years old, because of an argument of consistency within the other services and aspects of public citizenship. A person below the age of 18 is treated as a minor, for example, in both the foster care system and the criminal justice system. They cannot attend jury service, buy alcohol or be sent into action in the armed forces, and they cannot own property, gamble and so on. There is a wide range of life decisions for which Parliament has judged that 18 is the right age across the nation.

Surely there is an inconsistency, however, in the way that 16-year-olds are treated across the four nations. Can the Minister not see the inconsistency in that position?

I understand and recognise the argument, but this Parliament represents the UK parliamentary voting franchise, and it is that that I am speaking about. As it happens, I also fully support the ability of the devolved Administrations to make decisions within their remits for themselves.

I have one moment to finish off on the commission on the constitution, democracy and rights. As the hon. Member for North East Fife mentioned, it is there in the Queen’s Speech, it was there in our manifesto and we think it is very important to do so. I will be pleased to bring forward further details for the hon. Lady and for you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but at this point I think we adjourn.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.