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Elections: Voting Systems

Volume 699: debated on Thursday 13 March 2008

rose to call attention to the Review of Voting Systems: The Experience of New Voting Systems in the United Kingdom since 1997; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have just been in a country where less than 2 per cent of those entitled to vote seem to decide which party forms a Government. As a result, this tiny elite has huge power, and special financial interests can exert disproportionate influence behind the scenes. Millions of voters, on the other hand, never have any impact at all on the outcome of parliamentary elections. Many of them, indeed, now recognise that and are frustrated by their lack of electoral influence. Naturally, the political parties, which are hardly national any more, concentrate all their campaign cash and effort on targeting this tiny group. As a result, fewer citizens, especially young ones, now bother to vote at any level of governance. The whole legitimacy of their democracy is called into question.

Members of your Lordships’ House will immediately recognise that I have not been in Russia or Kenya; I have been in the United Kingdom. That is now the situation. Estimates vary, but the consensus is that perhaps 8,000 people in a maximum of 80 marginal constituencies now decide which party wins most seats in the House of Commons and forms a Government. That is about 1.8 per cent of the registered electorate, or about 3 per cent of those who actually vote.

Worse still, this elite is totally unrepresentative of the country as a whole. It is likely that the Conservatives would have to gain 42 per cent of the total popular vote to obtain an overall majority in the other place, while Labour could probably do so on 35 per cent. Very few MPs can now claim to have the support of the majority of those voting in their constituencies. In 2005, only 34 per cent were elected with over half the vote, the lowest proportion in British history. And none, not a single Member of the other place, actually achieved a majority of the total electorate in their constituency. At both the national and local levels, therefore, the legitimacy of the outcome of a general election is bound to be challenged, and I believe it will be at the next election in particular.

The contrast between 1955, which was the first election I was interested in—as a schoolboy, of course—and that of 2005 is very instructive. Fifty years ago, the turnout even with what were then relatively difficult postal votes was 76.8 per cent, and just under a half, 49.6 per cent, supported the government that resulted. Fifty years later, in 2005, the turnout even with much easier postal voting had dropped to 61.4 per cent, while the Labour Government, with only a 35.2 per cent share of the poll—much less than a quarter of those registered to vote—gained a majority of 66 seats. There is an illusion, which may be shared by some noble Lords, that the Celts, the Scots, the Welsh or the Cornish caused the trouble, but that is not true. The distortion was most marked in England. In 2005, the Conservatives gained some 650,000 more English votes than Labour, but had 92 fewer English MPs. In short, first past the post worked in the bipolar situation of 1955, but was no longer fit for purpose in 2005 and is not now, as the well-researched government report we are debating today explains so well.

Why, then, did Ministers sit on its conclusions for a full month? Ministers here and in the other place told us that it would be completed and available before Christmas. It was ready on 17 December, but only published on 24 January. The only possible explanation is that the analysis was so uncomfortable for the Government that they had to spend a month spinning their way from that analysis. The report itself is remarkable for its freedom from partisan bias, but not so the ministerial spin. Mr Michael Wills, the Minister responsible, immediately rubbished reform by reinforcing the case for doing nothing. He then suggested that any attempt to make the Commons more democratic should await the parallel but very slow progress to reform your Lordships’ House. It is as though turkeys at either end of the building are curiously anxious to force those at the other end to face an early Christmas first.

Clearly, Lords and Commons reform should not be allowed to delay each other. I know that my noble friend Lord Goodhart, who is in his place, will examine more specifically appropriate electoral systems for a reformed second Chamber, but perhaps I may concentrate on the democratic legitimacy of MPs and Governments. Others, I hope, will look at the democratic deficit in relation to other levels of governance in the United Kingdom.

First, I shall give a little background history to the argument. In 1996, Mr Tony Blair published a book called, New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country, in which he said:

“The party I lead will carry out in government the programme we provide in our manifesto beforehand. Nothing more, nothing less, that is my word”.

In the same publication he committed any Government he led to,

“an end to hereditary peers sitting in the House of Lords, as a first step to a proper directly elected second chamber, and the chance for the people to decide after the election the system by which they elect the Government of the future”.

That was followed by the Cook-Maclennan agreement, led by Mr Robin Cook and my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart, who unfortunately cannot be with us today. Again, a firm statement was made in an agreement between the two parties in preparation for the 1997 election as follows:

“A commission on voting systems for the Westminster Parliament should be appointed early in the next Parliament to recommend the appropriate proportional alternative to the first past the post system … legislation to hold the referendum would then be proposed and the choice placed before the people”.

The manifesto commitment Labour then gave in that year was as follows:

“We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons”.

Part of that commitment was fulfilled when Lord Jenkins produced his 1998 report, but 10 years on there is no legislation. A promise unfulfilled or a promise broken?

There was renewed emphasis and hope among reformers when on 3 July 2007, in his first major speech in the House of Commons on becoming Prime Minister, Mr Gordon Brown said:

“The right of all the British people to have their voice heard is fundamental to our democracy”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/7/07; col. 818.]

High hopes. Sadly, when we come to the report before us, many of the myths about PR have been dispelled but there is no sign of any government action to fulfil those promises.

The first major myth is that somehow all PR systems destroy the connection between the constituent and the representative. Not so. The report says, at paragraph 6.113, that first past the post,

“has the simplest direct relationship between representative and constituent. STV also allows for a direct relationship”.

I illustrate that point with the example of my own county, Cornwall, which is now a Tory-free and Labour-free zone. It is entirely represented in the other place by Liberal Democrats. If you are a Labour or Conservative supporter in Cornwall, you have no direct representative who fulfils your requirement of representing your political views, because the system of first past the post simply does not provide them. STV, of course, would.

The second myth is that somehow PR always leads to instability. As the report says at paragraph 6.168:

“We do not find a difference between PR systems and FPTP in terms of delivering stable and effective governments”.

Indeed, the report goes on to say at paragraph 6.50 that it,

“found no significant differences except on unemployment and, in this one respect, it is the PR countries that actually have the better records”.

Another myth is that PR does not give people any better choice. The report says, at paragraph 6.169:

“One of the main benefits of PR, and in particular STV, is that voters have a greater degree of choice in elections and a greater chance of their vote counting in terms of who gets elected”.

Then there is the allegation that somehow voters cannot cope with the system’s simplicity. At report 6.170, the report says:

“We do not find, on balance, any evidence to suggest that voters find one voting system easier or more confusing than another voting system”.

Contrary to media belief, Scottish voters last year—I am sure other noble Lords will refer to this—had no real difficulty with STV. The problem lay with an oversimplified combined ballot paper for the Holyrood election. I hope my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood will make reference to his unique experience in Scotland.

On diversity, the report says at paragraph 6.172 that,

“the newly introduced voting systems have improved the situation of women”.

While it is important for all parties to improve the balance, especially among ethnic minorities, it is true that lists may not help—but STV certainly would.

The report says, at paragraph 7.92, that internationally the turnout under proportional systems is on average about 5 per cent higher than for majoritarian systems. That is logical; whenever your vote can be seen to count, there will be more interest, but where there is a foregone conclusion it is more likely that people simply will not bother. Let me take my own personal experience. When I was first elected in Cornwall in 1974, the electors there were very shrewd and knew it was going to be close. Indeed, I had a majority of just nine. They turned out in force: 83 per cent. In 2001, however, in the last election I stood in—unfortunately for them, or perhaps for me—it was seen to be more of a foregone conclusion as I had a majority of nearly 10,000, and only 63 per cent turned out. If you see that your vote is going to count, it is worth turning out.

Few Labour Members in the other place have been looking seriously at this but fortunately one Member of the Cabinet has: John Denham. In a recent publication, he talked about,

“the problem of simply focusing on a few key voters in the main marginal constituencies because it would at least be a system where votes, first or second preferences, counted”.

He says that PR is the only system to break that unfortunate situation. Elsewhere in the same report, his co-author demands a change from what he describes as the postcode lottery that is the voting system. Therefore, we have to move from the present system, which is effectively a tiny minority sport, to national public engagement.

That, of course, was the purpose and value of the Power inquiry, led by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. Others have been dismissive of its conclusions, but it was, I believe, a very successful attempt to get beyond the Westminster bubble and to listen to what people out there believe—the customers, if you like, of our democratic system. Not surprisingly, their response was that the current electoral swindle is explicit.

This week, we have been told that there might be oaths of loyalty to demonstrate how we take value from our citizens. The only way for our citizens to demonstrate that they have value is if all votes are equal. At the moment, all voters are equal, but some are more equal than others.

I do not subscribe to the magic-wand approach to electoral reform. All problems of effective governance are not soluble just like that—with one reform—certainly not. All public disenchantment and disillusion with our political institutions will not suddenly disappear when all votes count. However, ending the perpetual distortion of the public will is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for constitutional renewal.

Professor Anthony King told some of us on Tuesday that democracy is institutionalised disappointment. To misquote Churchill: lack of real democracy might be even more disappointing. One thing is for sure: we cannot go on like this. Our political system must let the people in, rather than shut them out. At the moment, they are shut out from public debate and we are devoid of public respect as a result. It is corroded by cynicism and we are damaged by our refusal to listen. The present electoral system badly serves our fellow citizens, as the report demonstrates so well. If the political class ignores the public, people can scarcely be blamed for turning their backs on the whole political system.

My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for introducing the debate. This is a very important subject, which the House should consider. However, he will not be that surprised to know that I am not going to follow him down the route of supporting PR systems. I use the word “systems” deliberately, because PR covers a multitude of sins, not just one particular system. I think that the Liberal Democrats agree, but it depends where they are on what exactly the system should be. It is always worth pointing out that when the Liberal Party was last in power—I accept that it was a long time ago, before the First World War—it opposed PR, whereas the small, struggling Labour Party was in favour. I think that it is quite clear why. Before moving on, let me say that I am looking forward to the speech of my noble friend Lord Grocott, as I believe that it will be his maiden speech from the Back Benches of this Chamber.

I support the first past the post system. It is not perfect by a long way but, as Churchill said about democracy, although it is a very poor system of government, it is better than any alternative. Of course, some PR systems may appear more democratic, but I do not believe that they always are. The first past the post system has served this country well and, although not perfect, it is better than anything else, as I said.

I make it clear that events in Scotland under the devolution settlement have not influenced my support for first past the post. As some noble Lords present may know, I opposed the introduction of PR during the constitutional convention from 1991 onwards; I have not been a convert to first past the post. My noble friend Lord Elder—if he were present—and the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, who served on the convention with me, will confirm that. At that time, we in the Labour Party reluctantly agreed to support PR because, to be honest, we thought that the 1997 election was going to be close and that we might require the support of the Liberal Democrats in order to achieve a Government. It is to the great honour of Donald Dewar and others in the party that, when we won a landslide victory, they stuck to that promise; it is to their honour but I think that it was not politically wise. It would have been much better simply to have said, “Sorry, we are going back to the first past the post system”.

Events in Scotland since 1997 have confirmed and reinforced my view that first past the post is better than any other system. We now have four electoral systems in Scotland—or five if you count two in the Scottish parliamentary elections. As a result, we now have a minority SNP Administration. We also have MEPs elected by the whole of Scotland—to be honest, even I, a political figure, have some difficulty naming them and they have some difficulty representing the people. In local government, increasing numbers of local authorities are run by some form of coalition of parties, which often have little in common except one major aim, which is to prevent some other party from having power—that is the whole purpose of it.

I turn to the reasons why I think that we should stick to first past the post. There are basically five reasons. First, the first past the post system is known, it is easy to understand and it is easy to use. That is not to underestimate the intelligence of the electorate, as some people might think. I believe that the electorate in the main are very intelligent in the way in which they use the electoral system. It just so happens that they understand the first past the post system and they know what it is about.

Secondly, there is the constituency link. I heard what the noble Lord said but I served 22 years as a Member of Parliament in the other place and I know how important that link between me and my constituency was. I was seen as someone who represented Cathcart in the House of Commons. It is interesting that the general public, who often condemn politicians—they use the word as a generic term for people whom they do not like—often give much respect to their own Member of Parliament. In Scotland, it is interesting how many Members who were elected to the Parliament on the list system are desperate to get a seat through the first past the post system. That includes the First Minister, who, although he put his name forward as a candidate for a constituency seat, made sure that he was on the list just in case somehow or other it all went wrong; he was determined that he would be in there.

Thirdly, the first past the post system gives us stable government. In a democracy it is of course important that people are represented and that there is full scope for people to express their views, but let us remember that at the end of the day we are electing not just a Parliament, an Assembly, a local government or whatever it might be, but an Administration—someone to govern a country. Despite what the noble Lord said, first past the post gives us more stable government and a greater ability for a Government to say, “These are our policies, this is what we were elected on and this is what we will do. If we fail to do it, it is the right of the electorate to turn us down and throw us out at the next election”.

The last two points that I want to make are linked. Despite the claims of PR’s supporters, its various systems can be—they are not always—profoundly undemocratic in two ways. In a lot of cases it means, as it did until the last election in Scotland, that there has to be a coalition between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. That meant that the views of the vast majority of Labour members, to be honest, tended to be ignored because the views of the Lib Dem members had to be taken more seriously. What is democratic about that? In system after system where there is PR, the minority rules. The governing or largest party might have only 35 or 40 per cent, but it is surely more democratic that its say holds power rather than that of the 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10 per cent represented by the party on which it relies for power. We have seen that in local government in Scotland as well. There is nothing democratic about a system that says that small minorities will be more important than others in the Administration, but clearly that is often the case.

The other undemocratic thing about PR is that, if I was standing in Scottish elections, I could not go to the electorate saying, “These are my policies and this is what I am standing on. If elected, I will fulfil these promises or make every effort to do so”. I have to say, “These are the things that I am promising—but, of course, once the election has been decided, I will have to decide with which party I am going into coalition”. I would then have to go into what used to be smoke-filled rooms—of course, we can no longer have those—and say, “Let us now decide what we are going to do in government”. In that situation, the electorate have no say on what policies we will have.

Ultimately, a democracy is not about choices between parties, or even individuals; it is about choices between policies and differences of opinion on what should be done to rule and govern the country. Surely we ought to be looking for that. As I said, first past the post is not perfect—it is a long way from that—but, in my view, it is considerably better than anything else.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, and I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on introducing this timely debate. It may come as no surprise that I shall disagree with many points that have been made; indeed, it may appear that we have been reading completely different documents.

The Review of Voting Systems provides, on the face of it, a balanced assessment of the different voting systems employed in the United Kingdom. I say “on the face of it” because the more one reads it, the more one appreciates the problems associated with the voting systems offered as alternatives to the first past the post method employed in elections to the House of Commons.

The review is a valuable corrective on two levels. First, it moves the debate away from discussing proportional representation as if it were an electoral system in its own right, rather than a generic term for several electoral systems. All too often—the noble Lord touched on this—the debate on electoral reform has been based on a false dichotomy between PR and the first past the post system. First past the post is a specific electoral system; PR is not. Secondly, the review identifies the problems with the alternatives and does so by ensuring that none is seen to be problem-free.

This review is not the only one to recognise problems with the additional member system; that point is well made in paragraph 6.135. Not only has AMS not got rid of adversarial politics, but it has managed to inject a new level of conflict between different types of members. The problems with the list system of election are clear, not least when a closed list is utilised. It vests power in the hands of parties and denies electors the opportunity to make a choice between candidates.

The single transferable vote system perhaps comes out least badly from the review, but that is a consequence of the way in which other systems operate. According to the review, STV has tended to be the more proportional system in the UK, but that is because of the way in which AMS has been used. AMS can produce greatest proportionality, but the balance between constituency and top-up seats in Scotland and Wales has prevented it from achieving proportionality. STV can produce, and has produced, situations where one can gain a majority of seats on a minority of votes. What the review does not say in its coverage of Ireland is that it has tended to encourage excessive localism. The review does, however, draw attention to what happens in Australia, where more than 90 per cent of voters opt for a single party—known as voting “above the line”—rather than utilising the power to express a preference between candidates. This, as is noted in paragraph 7.66, constitutes an example whereby STV can be engineered to operate like a list system. The alternative vote system, or variations of it, is not a proportional system; indeed, as is clear from the review and earlier studies, it has the capacity to be even more disproportionate than the existing system.

The strength of the review, then, is in identifying the limitations of systems that are variously held up as preferable to the first past the post method of election. They are not the glorious saviours that they are made out to be. There is little evidence that they will address the perceived malaise of contemporary politics, increase turnout significantly—certainly not in the UK—or engender a new attitude on the part of voters. The review thus serves a valuable purpose. The limitations of the various voting methods that the review identifies are even more apparent when one considers that it addresses only in part a particular problem with PR systems and does not address at all what arguably constitutes the principal benefit of the existing system.

Supporters of the present electoral system tend to stress output legitimacy; that is, the consequences of the system. Opinion poll data suggest that the electorate sympathise with that view. Opponents of the system stress input legitimacy—that is, the means by which the body is selected—arguing the need for fairness in the relationship between votes and seats. Survey data, as shown in paragraphs 6.65 and 6.66, show that electors have sympathy with this approach as well. In other words, electors see the need for a fairer electoral system but wish to preserve the consequences of the existing system.

Supporters of a move to a PR system have tended to enjoy a virtual monopoly in making the claim of fairness. I challenge the basis of that claim. The review touches on the basis for this challenge but does not develop it. As the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, outlined, the argument that the present electoral system is unfair rests on the fact that there is not a precise proportional relationship between seats and votes: 10 per cent of the votes won by a party do not necessarily translate into 10 per cent of the seats. That, however, misses out the last, fundamental part of the equation. One needs votes in order to gain seats, but what is the purpose of having seats in Parliament? It is to achieve a change in public policy.

This brings us to the problem. The term “proportional representation” refers only to the relationship of votes to seats. Negotiating power in the House of Commons is excluded. Under a PR system, 10 per cent of the votes may translate more or less into 10 per cent of the seats in Parliament but produce far more than 10 per cent of the negotiating power in the House of Commons. A third party may become what is known as a veto player and, in effect, exercise far more political weight than its electoral support justifies. That is not necessarily a fair system; it is certainly no fairer than the existing system.

The most important argument for the present electoral system is not developed in the review. It mentions it in opening as one of the arguments for the present system, but at paragraph 6.168 makes it clear that it is outside the scope of the study. The case for the existing system is that it delivers core accountability. As the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, mentioned, our system facilitates the return of a single party to government and, as a result, one body—the party in government—is answerable to electors at the next election. Election day, in Karl Popper’s words, is judgment day. As the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, said, electors can sweep a Government from office. Critics point out that the Government may be elected on a minority of the votes cast, but that applies also—and in many cases more so—to coalitions formed under a system of PR. Parties usually fight elections as free-standing bodies and, when no one party wins a majority of seats, they form coalitions. However, post-election coalitions enjoy no definitive electoral legitimacy, because not one voter has voted for that particular combination of parties.

The experience of other parts of the United Kingdom is instructive. In Wales, there is a coalition of Labour and Plaid Cymru. Not one voter had the opportunity to vote for that combination. If the parties stand as free-standing parties at the next election, there is no one body to hold to account. If there is a switch in coalition partners between now and the next election, that exacerbates the position. Furthermore, as the experience of Scotland demonstrates, when there is a minority Administration much depends on deals negotiated privately. There is no obvious transparency and no direct accountability.

In short, our current system is not as bad as critics make out and the alternatives are not as wonderful as they claim. No system is perfect, but putting the defects of the present system alongside those of the alternatives leads to the conclusion that the case for change is not made—indeed, the reverse is true. This review is extremely valuable in identifying many practical problems associated with the alternatives. It is most welcome.

I conclude with a few questions to the Minister. I suspect that on the broad question of electoral systems the noble Lord will be non-committal, emphasising the pros and cons of what we have. However, it will be valuable to have his response on three matters for which the Government are responsible and which are touched on in the review. First, as is clear from the review, there is little to justify the use, in any list system, of a closed as opposed to an open list, as that system denies voter choice. Given the problems associated with closed lists, could the Minister justify their continued employment?

Secondly, as was apparent in the debates at the time, there is little to justify the ban on dual candidacy. As the review explains, the Government introduced it in 2006 for Wales but the Arbuthnott commission recommended against it for Scotland. The Electoral Commission noted that only Ukraine had tried to ban dual candidacy, prior to the country’s 2002 elections. Other countries with AMS permit it. Could the Minister remind us why banning dual candidacy is correct for Wales but not correct for Scotland or the rest of the world?

Thirdly, paragraph 5.120 of the review records the Electoral Commission’s observation that individual registration in Northern Ireland has resulted in a much more accurate and robust electoral register. This again is something that we have discussed. Is it not time that we moved to individual registration in the rest of the United Kingdom? There are clear concerns surrounding the integrity of the electoral register and we need to address these as expeditiously as possible.

These are issues on which we should make progress. Let us focus on improving the systems that we now have and not on destroying the benefits of our existing system of electing the other place.

My Lords, it is my intention—at the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Tyler, to whom I am very grateful for introducing this debate—to speak mainly on the subject of what form of electoral system should be used if your Lordships’ House should become wholly or partly elected. However, before I do that, I would like to make a couple of brief comments on the previous two speeches.

First, I have to say that I was rather startled by the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, that having a Government elected by 35 per cent of the voters was somehow more democratic than a coalition Government elected jointly by something over 50 per cent of the voters. This point was taken up in a slightly different way by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. He said that having a coalition Government was not democratic, because not one voter had voted for the particular combination of policies adopted by the coalition. In a sense, that is true, but it is illogical because that really is a serious argument only if one can assume that everyone who voted for one party was thereby consciously supporting its every proposal. Many people vote for a party whose policy they like on balance; hardly any of them would personally adopt every single proposal that is made. It may well be, therefore, that the policy of a coalition Government may more accurately represent the views of those who voted for one or other of those parties than the policy of the party for which they voted on its own.

Let me address the question of what would be the best system for electing Members of your Lordships’ House, if and when it becomes wholly or mainly elected. I am not going to talk about whether we should become an elected House; we have debated that issue ad nauseam and no doubt we will continue to debate it on other occasions. There is a clear possibility that legislation may be passed in the next Parliament—plainly not in this one—to make your Lordships’ House a wholly or mainly elected House. It does not follow in any way that the system that is appropriate for electing Members of the House of Commons should also be the system for electing Members of your Lordships’ House. I am well aware, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, pointed out, that there is no such thing as an ideal electoral system.

I start from what seems to me a pretty obvious proposition—that the system for electing Members of your Lordships’ House should at least be different from the present system for electing Members of the House of Commons. That is because one of the main duties of your Lordships’ House is to act as a check on the abuse of power by the Government, which may have been elected, as the present Government were, by as little as 35 per cent of those who voted and, of course, by a much smaller proportion of those eligible to vote. Your Lordships’ House would be quite unable to exercise that duty of providing a check on the abuse of power effectively if a majority of elected Peers were members of the government party, as could well be the result if first past the post was chosen as the system for electing Members of your Lordships’ House. That would obviously be the case if your Lordships’ House was wholly elected, and it would be the consequence even if only, for example, 80 per cent were elected and a number of Cross-Benchers remained.

Therefore, it follows that if your Lordships’ House is to carry out its functions, at least so long as the House of Commons is elected by first past the post we cannot have the same system for election to your Lordships’ House. That applies also if the House of Commons was elected by the alternative vote, which can occasionally produce even more distorted results than first past the post, as happened in the French elections some years ago and as might well have happened in the United Kingdom in 2005, according to the table on page 130 of the report. Only if STV was accepted for election to the House of Commons would it be appropriate to have both Houses elected by the same system. I do not think that a list system would be appropriate for election to the House of Commons, because it is clear that there is strong popular support for having a local MP or MPs. Therefore, while STV does that in normally producing constituencies with between four and seven or eight Members, there would be very limited numbers. Of course, ordinary electors would have the advantage of having an MP who, although possibly a little less local than at present, would have the same political views as them, so they might feel happier about approaching them. We are getting a little closer if we have the first past the post plus a top-up system, as used for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, or a similar system recommended by the Jenkins commission, but if that were adopted for the House of Commons, it would not be appropriate for your Lordships' House.

What is left on the list for your Lordships' House is either the list system or STV, both of which would be acceptable. We have experience of both systems in the United Kingdom. The list system has been used for European elections since 1999. STV has been used in Northern Ireland since 1921 and was recently extended to local government elections in Scotland. STV has many advantages: it gives voters a chance to vote for individuals rather than parties if they wish to do so and to give successive preferences to people from different parties. Of course, it has drawbacks. Garret FitzGerald, the former Taoiseach of Ireland, once said in an article I read with interest that Members of the Dail tended to spend too little time in the Dail and too much in local pubs chatting up potential voters. With STV, to some extent, the real opponents of the candidates are not the other parties but the other candidates in their own party.

My Lords, if I am following the noble Lord’s argument and that of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, we would finish up with a House of Lords elected by STV, which is, in their terms, more representative than the House of Commons. Will the noble Lord address two subsequent points? What would that do in terms of the relative democratic legitimacy of the House of Commons and the House of Lords and what would be the implications for the supremacy of the House of Commons, which I understand the noble Lord supports?

My Lords, of course I support the democratic legitimacy of the House of Commons. That is why I would welcome the House of Commons moving either to STV or to the Scottish and Welsh system of first past the post plus top-ups or alternative vote plus top-ups. That would wholly preserve or indeed improve the democratic legitimacy of the House of Commons.

STV is ultimately a good system. It is likely to produce a membership of your Lordships' House that is proportional to the votes cast. The alternative to STV for your Lordships' House, although not for the House of Commons, would be the list system. One change to that, which is accepted by everyone as being needed, would be to change from a closed list to an open one, so that people could vote for the individual if they chose to do so, rather than voting simply for the party list in the order in which it appears on the ballot paper. That was the position taken by my party when the system was introduced, and that change would not be difficult to make.

It is also true that an STV system would give greater diversity to the membership of your Lordships' House as shown by the fact that UKIP and the Greens have MEPs but no Members of either House of Parliament—apart from two Members of UKIP and one of the Green Party in your Lordships' House, all of whom arrived here originally as members of other parties.

To sum up, I am convinced that for an elected House of Lords to carry out its duties, in particular its scrutiny of the work of the Government, first, no one party should have a majority of the elected Members of your Lordships’ House; secondly, to minimise the risk of that occurring, the system of elections to this House must be different to that for elections to the House of Commons, unless that is STV; and, thirdly, on the assumption that elections to the House of Commons will continue to be by first past the post or broadly similar systems, elections to your Lordships’ House should be by either STV or an open list system.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, not only for introducing this debate on electoral systems but for making mention of the Power commission’s work. As many of your Lordships know, I chaired the Power commission for the Rowntree trusts in 2006. We undertook an extensive research programme in order to understand why people were feeling increasingly alienated and detached from formal politics—not all politics, but formal politics. Crucially, we also undertook to arrive at a series of recommendations to help renew British democracy.

I regret to say that few aspects of the political system we investigated received more hostile comment than the main political parties. The expert and practitioner evidence, the public submissions and all the research projects we undertook revealed a widespread sense that the main parties were at best failing in the basic function of connecting governed and governors, and were at worst a serious obstacle to democratic engagement. Such hostility towards the parties inevitably feeds into alienation from the election processes. It was shocking to find such strength of feeling on the subject among the general public.

The attraction of voting is bound to be severely reduced if the main parties vying for the vote are widely regarded as not offering much choice generally in terms of what they stand for, or if they are regarded as unappealing. But that is how the situation was described to us. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, referred to Popper saying that voting day is judgment day, but in the last general election more people abstained than voted for my party, the party that won. We should be alarmed about that, and concerned about what it means.

Immediately after the 2005 general election we conducted a survey among those who had not voted. We found that approximately 45 per cent of them had not voted because they did not like what the main parties had to offer. I listen with great care to someone with the experience of my noble friend Lord Maxton; I respect that experience. However, we have to be careful not to sound arrogant by saying that the first past the post system has served us well, therefore we should not change it. Perhaps it did serve us well in the past, but I think that we have to listen well to the public and their concerns. I know that my noble friend Lord Maxton would be anxious to hear what the public feel about this. Of course it is absolutely right that opposition or small parties are always the ones that ask for an examination of the voting system; our party, the Labour Party, did so back in the days when it still was a small party. However, the fact that the issue is raised by small parties does not invalidate the argument about the need to create spaces where voices can be heard. It is important that we do that.

This alienation is compounded by the electoral system. In submissions we received from the public, the most common reason cited for their low turn-out was a belief that they had no chance of having an impact on the final outcome. They felt their votes did not count. They described the situation as follows: “I live in a constituency where the Conservatives always win, so what’s the point in my voting when I’m not going to vote for them?”; or “Why should I vote if the Liberals always win in my constituency?”; or “Labour always wins”.

People who vote for a party that has no chance of winning feel there is no point in going to the polls. Our survey of non-voters in the 2005 general election upheld that view. Nearly half of those not voting said they would be more likely to vote if they felt that their candidate had at least a chance of winning power or finding a place in governance. So not only are the main parties unappealing to many voters; the electoral system itself ensures that casting a vote for a preferred alternative is widely seen as a waste of energy. That should matter to us. The simple calculation made by millions of citizens is that the choice at election time is to vote either for a party that one dislikes or for one that stands no chance of parliamentary representation let alone a place in government.

We as a nation have changed. The public have changed. The old allegiances and bonds are changing, and have been for many years. We are a citizenry in transition. The old political allegiances are changing; they are less tribal. The public’s aspirations are changing, too. As active Labour Party members in the 1950s, my parents’ hope was that they would have decent housing, with bathrooms and hot water, a good education system for their children, and security in work. My parents had been through the depression and knew what it was like to be workless. In many ways, some of that has been secured. But the aspirations of our varied population are changing and shifting.

We have also seen a real decline in the old social and economic conditions, but a new political formulation has yet to be developed to effectively represent and shape the new interests and values emerging in our post-industrial society. Our political parties are of course seeking to reform, but they tend to do so by huddling round a central ground, seeking votes only in the marginal constituencies that we hear so much about. As a result, many people—even in the parties, and even in the Labour Party—feel very disillusioned about the party which they thought was theirs. The same is happening now in the Conservative Party, and I am sure it will happen also in the Liberal Democrat Party. Once people huddle round the same set of issues, they start feeling that the things that they have cared about are no longer of importance to their leadership.

It is very important that spaces are made for people’s voices to be heard, not only within parties but within the system. We have to deal with this disengagement, and the electoral system is one of the things that we have to look at. That is why I welcome this debate. The main parties are still the only serious contenders for power on offer to the electorate. However, we also have to give space for other possibilities to emerge. That is how we can draw the young back into our formal politics. That is how we can create new passions about how our world and society can be changed.

Let us consider this House, which, I regret to say, is increasingly more respected than the other place. One of the reasons is that, although it is unelected, none of the parties here has a majority; we have to struggle to assemble one. That is healthy for democracy. We should recognise the things that are necessary to re-energise our democratic system.

The electorate occasionally attempt to break the monopoly, when the rare opportunity presents itself. We have seen that in the sudden and often unexpected burst of support for an independent candidate, or for small parties that effectively engage sections of the public. It can be seen also in the rise of tactical voting, as sections of the electorate realise that, in some constituencies, they can at least vote meaningfully against something they do not like even if they cannot vote meaningfully for something they do like. But those are exceptional moments and they do little to bolster the health of electoral democracy. People will feel, “I’m voting tactically but I’d like to be voting for something and someone I believe in”. That is where the health of democracy lies.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is developing an interesting argument, but can she explain what in the review before us bears out her claims? Is there any evidence that citizens would be revitalised, or that the alternative electoral systems would deliver what she is detailing?

My Lords, I know that the noble Lord is familiar with the work of other academics. Many academics across the board, including Professor Patrick Dunleavy at the LSE and Professor Pippa Norris at Harvard, have found that fewer votes are wasted and turnout has declined less in countries that have proportional systems with a wider array of parties. This is not an answer to a maiden’s prayer, let me assure you. The Power inquiry did not recommend a particular system. Like others, I have deep reservations about any kind of list system because of power being vested too much in political parties rather than in people. The single transferable vote may be the one to look at. The decision on what should be done was left open for this sort of debate. Fairer voting and making votes count is but one way of re-energising people so that they feel that if they vote for someone, their vote will count in some way within the whole system.

The Power commission concluded that one way of reconnecting people with their political parties and hence with elections is to introduce greater flexibility into the monopoly of the present party system. An electoral arrangement is needed that is sufficiently responsive to the much more fluid and diverse identities and values of our contemporary electorate. Such a change is necessary to ensure that large numbers of citizens feel that there is something on offer to them at election time. It is time that we offered voters the same choice in politics that the main parties constantly tell those same voters they desire in public service provision. If choice is the mantra of the day, then choice should be more available in this area, too. The need to change our electoral system is critical and should be regarded as urgent. We have now reached a point in our political history where democracy is at risk because people are voting less and less. The argument for change is now as much about what is expedient for the future of democracy in Britain as it is a matter of principle.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness in that thoughtful and constructive speech. I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Tyler on introducing this debate. I hope it does not become too obvious in the next few minutes that I have been dragooned into speaking very much at the last minute, unlike other noble Lords with their carefully researched speeches. But I am the only one on these Benches who has had the actual experience of voting in all four of the different systems and who has been elected on two of them. That is my claim for participating in this event.

Many colleagues are constitutional and electoral system anoraks, which I have never claimed to be. During the 12 years that I was leader of the Liberal Party I was regularly chastised, with considerable justification, by the late Enid Lakeman for never making a speech on electoral reform and only making glancing references to it. I have to admit that that is true. I have only once in my life made a speech on electoral reform and that was in the safety of British Columbia during the referendum campaign, which was narrowly lost. It did not reach the 60 per cent threshold. One reason for hesitating was that when I was elected to the other place, I was the only Member in the House of Commons to represent three counties. I had a very large constituency and I always had doubts about the effect of multi-Member seats in creating even larger areas to be represented by the electorate.

The other reason for my hesitation was that during the by-election which I won in 1965, we had 53 public meetings, three a night, again because of the very large area. That meant finding other people to hold the first two meetings while the candidate was getting to the third one. I distinctly remember that out of all the meetings that I held, most of which were extremely successful, the one disaster was in Melrose. Two of my local stalwarts were holding the meeting and I was detained by the enthusiasm of the two previous meetings so I was an hour late. When I got there I could tell there was something quite wrong in the atmosphere. The two stalwarts had each delivered a half-hour lecture on the virtues of the single transferable vote. They were assisted in this by one of these roller blackboards in the schoolroom covered with hieroglyphics of the d’Hondt formula. The audience were stupefied by the time I arrived and I was never quite able to recover them. I was reminded of that when I read this quite mind-numbing document. I cannot honestly see the great British public rushing to the bookshops to spend £33.45 to read the review of electoral systems, but I admire the enthusiasm of everybody else for this subject.

I should like to pick up something the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, said when he talked about the constitutional convention in Scotland. It is quite true that the additional member system which we arrived at was a compromise between the two parties. But, with respect, I do not agree that the motivation for the compromise on the Labour side was out of deference to, or fear of, the Liberal Democrats. It was quite simply that we looked back to the failure of the referendum in the 1970s. This is an illustration of the fact that electoral systems can matter to the public. In 1970, one of the great fears that the electorate in Scotland had, which meant that the referendum did not carry, was that we were adding another tier of government. We had two tiers of local government at that point but by the 1990s it was reduced to one. Secondly, there was the anxiety that the first past the post system proposed in the 1970s would result in virtually permanent Labour majority rule in Scotland. That was a major factor, and when it was changed to offer the people of Scotland a proportional election system, there is no doubt in my mind that that was a significant factor in the enthusiasm with which the whole package was greeted in the referendum in 1997. It demonstrates that political systems can have an impact. Even if the public are not interested in the details which we are arguing here today, the principle of proportionality was, in my view, a major factor in the enthusiasm for the Scottish settlement.

The system that was agreed as a compromise between the two parties was the additional member system. I know that confession is good for the soul but I must admit that I very much welcomed that, for the reasons I have explained. I had doubts about the single transferable vote. Whereas most of my party regarded this as a slightly unhappy compromise, I was delighted. I have now to admit that I think I was wrong. I do not believe that the additional member system has proved a success in Scotland. Both this report and the Arbuthnott commission referred to the tensions between list members and constituency members. As Presiding Officer in the Parliament, I became very aware of the fact that we had two classes of Member. That is why I say to my noble friend Lord Goodhart that if the day ever comes that we have a vote on an elected system for the House of Lords—which I doubt—I will be in the Lobby voting for a wholly elected system and not one which has two classes of Members.

It is more than just the atmosphere within the Chamber I am talking about. At a constituency level, the present system is extremely destructive. Let me give the example of the constituency where I live. The Member elected to the Scottish Parliament is a former assistant of mine—as one would expect, a very talented, young man, well trained—and he is elected as a Liberal Democrat Member. At the previous election, two of his opponents—the Scottish Nationalist and the Conservative—failed to get elected, of course, but were elected on the list system. So they sit in the same Chamber and take great delight in criticising the Member who has been duly elected and interfere in his constituency. Why? Because they intend to stand again at the next election. Indeed, the Scottish Nationalist, has stood four or five times, with a distinct lack of success. Although she is written off by journalists in Scotland as being part of the batty tendency of the SNP, batty or not, she can be a real nuisance in the democratic system where there is an elected Member in the constituency and a regional list member meddling in constituency affairs with a view to increasing their vote at the next election. So it is not a happy system and I believe that the single transferable vote would have been a better choice for the Scottish Parliament.

Indeed, although my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno will tell us that the Welsh Assembly has to some extent overcome this problem by stopping people standing for both the list and in the constituency, that is a temporary compromise. The system itself is defective. I am more and more convinced of that by the experience of the introduction of the single transferable vote for local elections. Again, I am now represented in my area by several councillors of different political persuasions. The system has worked well and has been well received, and the atmosphere and co-operation between the councillors are good. There is a strong contrast on the ground between that and the additional member system as practised in Scotland. This will astonish my colleagues, but my support has come around to the single transferable vote. Even if—God rest Enid Lakeman’s soul—I never again speak on the subject, I am in favour of it.

My Lords, I too pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for initiating the debate. I should say at the outset that my remarks are likely to be minority remarks on these Benches, with the noble and notable exception of my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. I was slightly disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said that he felt that the first past the post system may have been appropriate in what he called the bipolar political atmosphere of the 1950s but that it is no longer appropriate. I agree with his conclusion but not with the means by which he gets there, because his argument seems to a great extent to pander to the accusations that the Liberal Democrats have self-interest at the heart of their arguments and that the fact that they are doing rather better than the Liberal Party in the mid-1950s is the reason for changing the electoral system. That in no way advances the noble Lord’s case.

None the less, I, like the noble Lord, Lord Steel, have had experience of two elected Parliaments as well as your Lordships’ House, and I have come around to the view, particularly after experiencing the Scottish Parliament, that a proportional system—or, rather, a more proportional system; there is no ideally proportional system, although the STV is probably the most proportional—has, despite the Government of Scotland at the moment, served the people of Scotland well. I say that without any question of party advantage in mind. The Government of Scotland have served the people of Scotland well because they have enabled them to say, “We want a change”. This is what happened in May 2007.

Other noble Lords have argued that first past the post is the only means of calling a government to account on election day, and if people do not like them collectively, they can force them out and bring in a government of another hue. The question is whether it should be a government of just one hue or two, or perhaps even a rainbow coalition of parties, but that is the will of the people and if the people say, “You’re all minorities. We are not willing to give power to any one of you. You get together in any way that you see fit and come to a majority position where you can find a means of running the country”, that is in the interests of the people and will not necessarily be, or be perceived to be, in the interests of one particular party.

Proportionality is not a new idea. The Jenkins commission in 1998 recommended changing from first past the post, although disappointingly only to AV+, which is a little like the French system, which is not proportional. The Power commission of my noble friend Lady Kennedy in 2004 said simply that we needed a more responsive electoral system. That was difficult, because it was not within the commission’s remit to go further than that, but the message was fairly clear.

I disagree fundamentally with my noble friend Lord Maxton—and he is a friend—who said that first past the post is better than any alternative. I do not agree—the noble Lord, Lord Steel, referred to this—that, following the Scottish Constitutional Convention, of which I was also a member, Donald Dewar, the then Secretary of State for Scotland, should have gone back on a commitment in the 1997 election manifesto for the Labour Party and resorted to a first past the post system for the Scottish Parliament. That would have been disastrous, and I must say to my noble friend that I do not think that that is something that Donald Dewar would have ever seriously considered, given the way in which he conducted politics. I understand why my noble friend said that, possibly in the light of events since then.

We are now in the third Session of the Scottish Parliament. The first two were Labour/Liberal Democrat coalitions, and the third is an SNP minority. The situation has been similar in Wales, with coalitions and minority Administrations. Neither Scotland nor Wales has ground to a halt in the past eight and a half years, despite the fact that no one party has been in power for that time. I know very little of Wales, but it seems that there has been a feeling that this is different from Westminster in that it is a different way of having a level of government. The question then is: if you accept that a more proportional system is appropriate at the local government level or the “regional” government level, is it appropriate at the national level as well? I would say that it is.

The noble Lord, Lord Steel, referred to the not unimportant issue in proportional systems, particularly those that use the additional member system, of the friction between the constituency Members and the list members. I encountered that as well. The noble Lord may recall from his days as Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament that he established a committee, of which I was a member, to look at how best we could finesse the emerging problems in the early days of the Scottish Parliament, whereby, as he suggested, unsuccessful candidates could appear across the Chamber from directly elected Members who had seen them off at the ballot box.

My view is clear; the Welsh have gone down the right road—you should not be able to stand in two categories. You make your choice wherever you think you have the best chance of being elected and you are stuck with it one way or the other. That gets over that problem. However, I did not encounter list members trying to take over the duties of the elected Member to any great extent. Nor did I find list members falling over themselves to take up constituency cases or campaigning particularly actively. One of the recommendations of the committee to which I referred and which the noble Lord, Lord Steel, chaired was that list members must demonstrate that they were active in more than one of the constituencies that formed the region which they represented. If that were to be followed through and firmed up, that would ensure that they represented a larger part than just one constituency, although that is very much for the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly to tackle. How those issues are approached is very much a question of practice. They are certainly not insuperable problems. There is no evidence in countries such as Germany or Spain that those issues have sustained for a number of years.

That leads to me a comment made by, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that first past the post was uniquely effective in changing a government. If you were a voter in recent years in Spain, Germany or Sweden, you would feel that you had pretty effectively changed your government fairly dramatically in general elections under proportional systems. I understand the noble Lord’s comments, but it is perfectly possible under proportional systems to have a fairly dramatic change of government, particularly in Sweden where the Social Democrats lost power after many years.

I shall say a little about proportional representation and the way in which it impacts on voters. I notice that the review found no voting system to be inherently more confusing than another for the voter in terms of casting votes correctly. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who said in his opening remarks that, despite a lot of reports in UK newspapers that the electoral system in Scotland confused voters to such an extent that there were many spoilt papers in Scotland in the May 2007 elections, that has been shown to be completely untrue. It was not the new system of the STV that confused people, as one might have thought it would the first time it ever applied in Scotland, but the system that Scotland had also used in 1999 and 2003. The problem was that the system had moved from two separate ballot papers to one ballot paper.

The independent Gould report, which looked into those issues, reported that there were two major ways in which confusion could be avoided. One was to have a much longer lead-in time to explain the changes to people. The second was not to combine local elections with the Scottish Parliament election on the same day. It is interesting that the Scottish Parliament has since legislated for that, and there will be no recurrence of it. That is an important aspect.

The link between a member and the constituency is important but can be overstated. Noble Lords have referred to the fact that often under first past the post a small number of voters decide the outcome for the whole UK election. Not only do a large number of people not have a say in the ultimate outcome of a general election in the UK under first past the post but also the three major political parties tailor their election manifestos to a small, narrow number of people—a clearly unrepresentative part of the electorate. Parts of the electorate get a disproportionate amount of attention when it comes to drawing up those manifestos. These key people—perhaps as few as 10,000, about 3 per cent of the electorate—have to be catered for because they are believed to hold the outcome of an election in their hands.

That is not particularly healthy for democracy. Better to be able to make a broader approach to different parts of the electorate in a more positive manner and hope that they will in turn vote positively because they can see that there is something in it for them. There is nothing wrong with the way the electorate votes being influenced to some extent by what will benefit them personally. They will also vote because it will actually influence the outcome of the election.

It is clear that we are some way yet from a change to the method by which the other place is elected. As far as this House is concerned, I would not like to say how long it will be—if at all—before change comes about. I echo the position of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, in that I voted a year ago for a fully elected House of Lords. That is the way forward. Yet what is to be decided in the other place is of greater urgency. It should hold primacy but, if you have two elected Houses, ultimately there has to be some means found of reconciling them. That will have to be done before we move towards thinking about what method of election is utilised.

It is often said that nothing stands still, which is not always true at all. Yet it is true much of the time in politics and political parties are constantly renewing themselves, their approach and polices. It seems illogical then that the way they are elected at UK level should not be capable of being renewed. It is instructive to note that while the other place has firmly maintained first past the post as the means of its election, electoral systems elsewhere in the world and other parts of the UK have moved on. They have done so significantly in the various parliaments and assemblies that noble Lords have referred to. It is hard to maintain why the two Houses here should not move on, too.

The question of renewing and reenergising democracy that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, raised with my noble friend Lady Kennedy is important. If people feel more involved they are more likely to think that voting is important. That is particularly true in young people. We know the way in which the level of voting in young people is going at the moment. Though it is not my own view, it is clear that first past the post will continue for the foreseeable future. Yet the sands will shift sooner rather than later and when they do they will shift decisively.

My Lords, many of us will remember the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, when folk had their first opportunity of casting a vote. I remember a television clip of a polling station in Soweto. The polling lasted at least three days because there were so many people waiting to vote. There was one old lady who had been there for two days. On the second evening, when she was just about to enter the polling station, it closed—it was the end of polling for the day. A television reporter asked her whether she did not feel sad that she had lost a chance to vote after two days in the queue. She said, “No, I’ve waited 60 years for the opportunity to vote. What is one more night? This lady represented so many people who had been disenfranchised over so many years. To her, having a vote was something to be treasured, something precious. Every vote deserves its recognition, to be given a value and the best opportunity possible to exercise some influence.

We speak sometimes of “strong government”. I have spoken to the Minister about this before. That lady in Soweto had experienced strong government. She had experienced the government of apartheid. The people of Germany experienced Adolf Hitler’s strong government. Mussolini, Franco, too, had strong governments. Is government just to be strong or is it to be representative? I suggest, particularly to those who have doubts about changing systems, that government must be representative of every person. That lady in Soweto and the people who were disenfranchised for so many years in Russia and other places now have the opportunity of making their views known.

When governments are elected on the present voting system, we know that 38 per cent of those who vote can return a government. Some 62 per cent of votes are then not of the same value. Those votes are largely dismissed. Strong government is said to be more important than representative government. I strongly argue that that must not be the case. When we speak of coalitions and so on, we must learn that we are living in a different generation where people must live, work and discuss together. That is a mature approach. Any voting system must be fair and give fair representation. There, first past the post is a failure.

When there were only two parties you could say that first past the post largely worked, though electorates in different constituencies meant that some people elected somebody with a larger number of votes than in another constituency. In the election of 1906, only two constituencies in Wales—Gower and Monmouth—had more than two candidates. It was a straight fight everywhere else. In the election of January 1910, there was only one three-cornered fight in Wales, in Swansea Town. In December 1910, there were only two three-cornered fights. Straight fights or unopposed returns were the norm.

Since then, of course, there has been the emergence of third and fourth parties. In 1910 there was one three-cornered fight. In 1918, with the emergence of the Labour Party in Wales, there were 11 three-cornered fights. Now you get elections in Wales with four candidates—Plaid, Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat. Under first past the post, a Member can be elected with less than 30 per cent of the vote. That happened in Scotland, in Inverness about 30 years ago, with a Member elected with just 26 per cent of the vote.

First past the post is the system of the dinosaur. It worked yesterday but does not work today. It is not representative today. This is true not only of individual consistencies but also of Wales as a whole. In 1997, Labour polled 43.2 per cent of the vote but elected 34 of the 40 Members of Parliament. That has been the same story since 1970—less than 40 per cent of the vote gave a majority of the Members. First past the post does not produce a representative result.

We have the top-up system for Wales, Scotland and the London Assembly. In Scotland, with 32 per cent of votes Labour won 37 constituency seats. The SNP, with one per cent more, 33 per cent, won 21 constituency seats. Is 37 to 21 a fair result? It was the introduction of the top-up system that changed that situation and the result was 47 seats for SNP and 46 for Labour. Otherwise the Government of Scotland under first past the post would have been very different from what we see today. At the most recent elections for the Welsh Assembly, the Labour Party had 32.2 per cent of the vote and won 24 out of the 40 seats. The system changed with top-up and now there is a different sort of government. The type of electoral system changes governments. In Scotland and Wales, it will be different.

Until now, we know that the Conservative Party and the Labour Party have supported the first past the post system. They merely say, “Over my dead body”. But the internal elections of those parties use a proportional system. If some sort of proportional system is not acceptable in the country at large, why is it used by the Labour Party and the Conservative Party for their internal elections? About two years ago, the Conservatives elected a new leader. The MPs had the first say on voting for a new leader. In the first round, David Davis got 62 votes and David Cameron got 56 votes. Under the first past the post system, David Davis would have been elected as leader of the Conservative Party. A few months ago, the Labour Party elected a deputy leader. In the first ballot, Jon Cruddas won 19.39 per cent of the vote and Harriet Harman got 18.9 per cent. So Jon Cruddas is the deputy leader: but, no, he is not, because what is right for the country is not accepted by the Labour Party itself. That is rank hypocrisy. Will the Minister explain why? I could go on, but I must not because I can get very passionate when I see injustices of this nature.

Referenda will become things of the past if you have a fair representation of the views of people. They must because, under a representative system, you will have the voices and opinions of people. Why do the Government not move after this substantial, in-depth review of a very unjust system?

My Lords, I, too, am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for giving us the opportunity to discuss electoral systems or, more specifically, to discuss this report. We also should congratulate the Government on setting up the report and for it being available as a textbook. I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Steel, that people will not flock to the bookstalls to buy a copy. In fact, I dare say that noble Lords taking part in this debate probably represent quite a significant proportion of those who have read the volume. None the less, it is of great advantage to have this document before us.

I speak as someone who has always supported the system of first past the post, and my support has grown. That perhaps is in denial of my own experience, because few people in this House have lost as many elections under the first past the post system as I have managed to do. I think that I could have been forgiven for embracing any other electoral system that might have put my name at the top of the results. But, no, I am a passionate supporter of the first past the post system and I shall spell out some of the reasons later.

I am keen on this document because, despite supporting the first past the post system, I have always historically felt at a disadvantage in this kind of discussion. It has always taken the form of one group of people saying that proportional representation is wonderful for all sorts of reasons. People like me have had the job of saying, “Well, the first past the post system—with which everyone is very familiar and therefore familiar, as I certainly am, with its disadvantages—is an aspiration against a reality”. That is the form of the debate.

The great joy of this document is that it gives us a wealth of evidence on the strengths and weaknesses of practical systems that have been adopted in this country for the past 11 years. We need no longer talk about the wonders of proportional representation; we can talk about the precise experience of how it is operated in a number of different systems. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, was frank, as usual, in acknowledging that other systems have their disadvantages as they have performed in practice in this country. As I expected, it is a joy to have this discussion now and not have to be on the defensive all the time; to be able to point out from this document, which I am sure we have all read, the failings as have been exhibited in a number of systems that have been tried. They were tried for good reasons, and I supported their introduction, as a supporter of the Government, but they now have serious weaknesses.

What are my conclusions about the practical experience, as evidenced by this report? Obviously, it demonstrates beyond any argument that all systems have clear weaknesses. That is unarguable. It is logically inevitable that the only person who can represent me or anyone else is me or anyone else. Any system which tries to reduce an electorate of 60 million, as in Britain, to—let us say for the sake of argument—600, is bound to have distortions between the one and the other. At least we can start with the clear agreement that all systems have faults.

We can also agree that far from solving or concluding the debate about the merits of different systems, the series of proportional systems that we have had in the past nine or 10 years has, if anything, extended the debate and created a greater uncertainty, assuming that there was an uncertainty before. The electoral systems I hear criticised most frequently—indeed, in this debate—are the system for electing the European Parliament—people have a lot of criticisms of that proportional system—and, as two or three noble Lords have mentioned, the dual system in Scotland and Wales. We hear endlessly about the discussions and debates between the people on the list and those who are elected directly. But I make a lateral comment about it: in Scotland and Wales you have the two sides of the argument within one electoral system. There are those like me, who favour individual Members representing individual constituencies, and those like many other speakers in this debate who prefer lists.

I put this question and I leave it in the air: is anyone suggesting that the people on the list in those systems are more legitimately representative than the people directly elected in the individual constituencies? I would say that the evidence is overwhelmingly the reverse. If we are talking about the legitimacy of elections and the legitimacy of people speaking on behalf of others, there is no doubt, in my view, that the people directly elected in an individual constituency are seen as the most legitimate and, I would guess, even by supporters of proportional representation. Obviously, there are better experts on Scotland and Wales than me here today, but, as I understand it, if there is any movement from an elected representative being chosen by one mechanism rather than the other, there is no movement whatever from people representing constituencies saying, “No, I want to abandon the constituency. I want to be on a list because that is more legitimate”. I have not heard that argument.

The other thing that we can learn from this document goes to the heart of a lot of the discussion. There is no evidence here that will encourage people to think that there is a magic solution on turnout and on engaging the electorate as a result of the methods of proportional representation used in this country. On the contrary: the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, quoted from the same paragraph that I am about to quote from, although he inadvertently did not complete the sentence. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, quoted from paragraph 23, on page 12. He quoted:

“International evidence suggests that proportional systems have around five percent higher turn-out”.

I shall complete the sentence which continues,

“but this has not been the experience of the new systems introduced in the UK”.

That is the evidence of the document.

In past debates, I have had a kind of inferiority complex about how to handle the argument—and it has been deployed in this debate—that there are lots of people itching to vote in safe seats for the other party who will be liberated if there is a proportional system so that all votes count. I seem to remember from the past that there is a phrase in there somewhere. There is no evidence whatever that that has happened in the European, the Scottish or the Welsh elections.

My Lords, I take the point that my noble friend is making, but would he accept that he is not comparing like with like? People vote for the Chamber—if I can use that term—that they feel is most important. Therefore local government is less so than a Parliament or Assembly, which in turn is less important than national Government. The comparison, if my noble friend wants to make it, should be with national Governments here and in other countries which perhaps use a proportional system.

My Lords, I disagree with my noble friend on that. I am pretty wary of making comparisons internationally. Similar systems operate differently in different countries. The best comparisons are those that exist in our own country. To complete one or two statistics on this, in the first European elections—and the first experiment under proportional representation—24 per cent turned out to vote. For the London Assembly elections, 32 per cent and 36 per cent turned out. The figure was a bit higher in Wales and Scotland, but there is no evidence to support the contention that a proportional system will make more people come to the polls.

These papers also demonstrate that it does not improve the involvement of the electorate with their Member of Parliament, elected by whatever mechanism. We knew that—or should have—from the earlier report on electoral systems, published in 2003. It said about the European elections:

“Few MEPs felt that their constituency workload had increased, despite the move to larger multi-member regions. The vast bulk of MEPs admitted that their constituency workload had not increased (a mere 8% claimed that it had); if anything, the amount of constituency work has declined”.

That is only one measure of the link between the elected representative and the electorate, but it is a pretty important one. It seems that first past the post is reflecting the truth accurately when it says that it provides a link with the electorate that other mechanisms do not.

Finally, I move to my own thoughts on the first past the post system, though I could have said that it is all in the report: there is no great public support for a change in the electoral system. The link between the Member and his or her constituents is at the heart of our democracy. I find it slightly paradoxical when I look at the Liberal Benches because they are always, quite rightly, very proud of their constituencies. Although I disagree with them on many things, I acknowledge freely that the majority work assiduously on behalf of their constituents. They get their sustenance from that. When I was doing constituency work, it was for my benefit as much as for the constituents. It is where you recharge your batteries and have your values reinforced. Breaking that link by having bigger constituencies, as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has said, would remove something precious. We should be extremely careful about that.

In conclusion, far from this report giving us evidence that might help us to make a decision to change the electoral system in the House of Commons, which was part of its remit, it has given an awful lot of evidence why we should not change the electoral system in the House of Commons. Although I would not recommend vast changes quickly, it raises serious questions about the claims made in the abstract for proportional representation in the various systems that have been tested and how they worked out in practice. They have almost completely, it seems to me, failed to live up to the dream. I hope that my noble friend can reassure me that no drastic changes down the other end will be proposed imminently.

My Lords, nearly 12 years ago, I was the joint secretary for the talks between the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties, looking at cross-party co-operation in the very likely event of the Conservatives losing the 1997 general election. The talks, which my noble friend Lord Tyler referred to, were jointly chaired by my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart and the late Robin Cook. Participants included my noble friend Lord McNally and, on the Labour side, significant figures such as Jack Straw, now the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. The joint secretary for those talks on the Labour side was Pat McFadden, then the constitutional affairs adviser to the then leader of the Opposition, Tony Blair. In that period, late 1996 to early 1997, we met with high hopes that there could soon be major progress in this country on a number of constitutional issues.

We felt, collectively, that progress had been blocked during a long period of Conservative Government that had little interest in constitutional reform. Much in those talks was agreed between the two parties and published prior to that general election. Many of the measures in our joint agreement were enacted fairly quickly after the 1997 election. These included the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, using systems of proportional representation. They also included the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law and the establishment of freedom of information legislation; and the creation of a London Assembly on the basis of proportional representation, and the election of a London mayor using a system of supplementary vote that, again, showed movement away from first past the post.

The system for electing Members of the European Parliament was changed to one of proportional representation, albeit one about which those on these Benches were exceedingly unhappy. Problems with that system have been referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Grocott. On the whole, in this period we felt that much was achieved to devolve power, enhance the rights of citizens and make many levels of government more representative of those people voting for them. Throughout this period, the concept of first past the post was abandoned in these cases. Subsequently, things have gone further as the Scottish Parliament has legislated to abolish first past the post in Scottish local elections and to hold these elections in future by the single transferable vote.

However, some important business that was agreed in this period remains unfinished, most notably the reform of this place and of the voting system in the other place. It has been suggested that consideration of reform of the voting system for MPs should await consideration of a voting system for reform of this place. There is no logical reason for this whatever. Reform of the Lords and reform of the electoral system were both under consideration at the time of the First World War. Surely 100 years should be long enough for consideration of all these issues.

The debates in this House on the first Speaker’s Conference, held in 1916, resulted in amendments being agreed in this House that would have resulted in general elections being conducted by a system of proportional representation, but the moment was lost at that point. We have continued since with a system fit for purpose only in a two-party system. We have now reached a point where over 30 per cent of the votes in a general election are not for the two biggest parties, and less than half of those eligible to vote are voting for those two parties.

Problems with the unfairness, the unrepresentative nature and the ineffectiveness of first past the post have been recognised by the Government since they were elected in 1997. New voting systems have been introduced at other levels in the UK. It must be appropriate now, in this report and our debate, to consider what we have learnt from these changes. We also know that there will not be a general election for more than a year and, in my view, probably not for more than two years. There is time now to consider what appropriate changes could be made in electing Members of the House of Commons. The Government review, published in January, could perhaps be the start of considering again the process of constitutional reform that was begun in 1997. It could, if the Government so wished, be a significant step towards improving the reputation of politics, giving more power to voters and making our political system more responsive to their desires.

Let us look again at some the problems of the present system for election to the House of Commons. For the past 25 years or so, I have been employed to organise election campaigns. Most of them have been under the first past the post system, and I think that I can claim some credit for helping my party to learn how better to cope with it than perhaps was the case previously. But other parties have now copied the targeting and campaigning skills of the Liberal Democrats and the result is that almost all attention is now paid by political parties to perhaps no more than a quarter of the seats that are deemed to be potentially marginal. No wonder that turnout, membership and interest in party politics declines when the system encourages parties to ignore three-quarters of the constituencies.

The situation is even worse than that. Increasingly, parties are simply targeting the swing voters in their target seats, at most a quarter of the voters within them. So much of the parties’ efforts are directed at a quarter of the voters in a quarter of the seats. The fact that parties are increasingly engaging with only 5 to 10 per cent of the electorate cannot be healthy for any democratic system. Moreover, as my noble friend Lord Tyler highlighted, the political parties are now becoming even more sophisticated, targeting perhaps no more than 80 constituencies and focusing on 8,000 voters within them—a mere 2 per cent of the electorate. This is not healthy.

A further unhealthy aspect of the system is that many voters are forced to vote tactically. Much of the effort aimed at the targeted voters is not about encouraging them to vote for what they believe in, but about persuading them to vote for their second choice party to keep out the party which they most dislike. So-called tactical voting has been one of my specialities in many elections. It is, for example, about persuading Labour voters in Eastbourne, Romsey or Winchester that they have to vote Liberal Democrat to make their vote count. I make no apology for advocating that they do this; it is simply a recognition that we have a voting system for Westminster elections that often discourages sensible people from voting for what they really believe in.

This problem could be addressed on its own relatively easily. We could simply change the system on existing boundaries and single-member constituencies so that electors could vote 1, 2, 3. The Labour Party, as my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno said, uses this system of alternative voting in its own elections. If first past the post had been used in the election for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party, Jon Cruddas would now be deputy leader. But the alternative vote system meant that transfers between other candidates resulted in Harriet Harman’s narrow victory over Alan Johnson. The transferred votes suggested that this was more representative of the wishes of Labour Members than the candidate who initially had the most votes. If that system is good enough for internal Labour Party elections, the question must be put as to why it might not be better to think about it for Westminster elections. It is the system used in Australia and its introduction was advocated two days ago by Kevin Maguire in the Daily Mirror.

My Lords, I assume that the noble Lord is not suggesting that the alternative vote system is somehow a proportional system. It is another system of first past the post, albeit slightly more sophisticated than the existing one. But that is all it is.

My Lords, I am not suggesting for a moment that it is a system of proportional representation, and that is why it is not advocated by my party. I am simply saying that introducing it would at least eliminate tactical voting problems and perhaps engage more people in the system. My view is that an election using the alternative vote might have fewer flaws than first past the post, but would still fall a long way short of the desired outcome, which should be to make the House of Commons properly representative of all voters.

We now have PR systems in many of the devolved assemblies, and I think that they are more representative of the people who vote for them as a result of not having the elections under first past the post. The instability which many people predicted with systems of PR has simply not occurred in those elections. The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, was referring to the situation that arose at the end of the First World War and suggested that the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties turned around at the time. That may be true, but what changed fundamentally was the fact that we moved eventually beyond a two-party system and thus made the system of first past the post completely inappropriate. He asked how a coalition of two parties could be democratic by working together, but a coalition of two parties with more than 50 per cent of the vote must be more democratic than one party governing on its own with only 35 per cent of the vote.

My Lords, the fact that 30 per cent of the voters vote for party A and 20 per cent for party B, and after the election parties A and B get together, does not mean that they have 50 per cent of popular support. They have zero per cent because not one person voted for the arrangement. Let us look at Wales in the previous National Assembly elections. There was a 43.5 per cent turnout and not one voter had the chance to vote for a Labour plus Plaid Cymru coalition.

My Lords, I think we should look at what happened in Scotland after 1999. The Labour Party had 33 per cent of the vote, while the Liberal Democrats secured 17 per cent, making 50 per cent. The people of Scotland wanted something different from what was done in Westminster, such as scrapping student tuition fees. The people of Scotland got more of what they wanted because of proportional representation. I believe that that was representative and fair. It was right that powers were devolved in a way that the voters could decide that. It is an illustration of the system delivering for the people in a more democratic way than is the case under first past the post.

So I hope that there will be further reform, although it could be in stages. I accept that the Government may want to see further progress before going all the way towards more proportional systems. If we had something like the alternative vote, it would address many of the concerns on the Labour Benches in the first place, but it would still be inadequate, and were we to have a general election under that system, the case would be made in the future that we need to move either to a top-up or, ideally, to the single transferable vote, which I think would be the best of all systems.

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for bringing this subject to our attention. I come at this question as one who thinks that we have messed around with our voting system too much already. I see nothing wrong with the well-tried and trusted system of going to a polling station, taking up that stubby pencil on a string and marking my cross. As the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, said, it makes voting tangible, physical and deeply meaningful. Voting should mean something. It should be special and it should be different.

I am horrified when people are apathetic, and I am horrified when I hear suggestions that voting should be reduced to some kind of electronic game like picking out the name in “Celebrity Big Brother”. I find it difficult to accept that we should make contrived gestures to those who cannot be bothered to go and vote at most once a year. In the past such gestures have done little to raise participation or increase respect for the democratic process. They have often spread confusion. Many of us found it deeply depressing that the systems of voting have become so complex and contradictory that in London in 2004, one vote in every 14 was spoiled and lost—that amounted to hundreds of thousands of votes. How shameful. Will the Minister say how the Government plan to tackle that problem?

I was profoundly disturbed to see that, having again ignored repeated warnings in your Lordships’ House, the Government went ahead with poorly devised and poorly administered systems of “make it easy” postal voting that brought to this country the spectre of large-scale electoral fraud. Whatever else may be said of this Government, their undermining of the old instinctive trust in the integrity of the ballot has been one of their bleakest legacies. It is shameful that it is now being seriously suggested that international observers should come to the United Kingdom to examine our elections. The creation of an Electoral Commission has been a mixed blessing. It bears the blame for some of the ill-considered events of recent years, and I wonder how satisfied Ministers really are with its performance.

What we need now is simplification and a return to some of the clearly understood, harder-to-defraud methods we had in the past. So my answer to the question, “Should we change the Westminster voting system?” is simple and familiar: no. And my answer to, “Do we want general election voting by text message and the internet?” is the same: no.

Since 1997, Her Majesty’s Government have piloted too many voting systems at European, regional, local and devolved level government. The results have not caused the ecstatic electoral wave that Her Majesty’s Government might have hoped for. Instead, the pilot schemes have highlighted the problems of different voting systems when applied to the British system, rather than any perceived benefits.

As the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, explained much better than I could, Scotland encapsulates the problem. The hotch-potch of new voting systems there has something bizarre about it: the additional member system for MSPs, first past the post for MPs, a party list for MEPs and a single transferable vote for the council—a different system for each level of government. Let us not kid ourselves that legitimacy enters into all this. Why have Her Majesty’s Government created all this confusion? If the answer was to stop the SNP, then a nice mess they made of that, and they still got stuck with the Liberal Democrats as well.

The purpose of this debate is to call attention to the Ministry of Justice review of voting systems that was published in January. My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth well explained the ways in which different PR systems operate. Like the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, he helped us to understand the problems of each and drew our attention to the undue influence such systems bring to political parties that have not earned the votes that justify that influence. My noble friend rightly pointed out that the great advantage of first past the post is accountability to voters. First past the post realises three major objectives: direct accountability of representatives to voters, stable government and ease of use by all—most importantly, the voter. Like the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, I say stick with it. Indeed, let us bring it back in some places where it has been lost. What really threatens our voting system is not the system itself but, as my noble friend Lord Norton said, those who abuse it. Again, that requires a bit of courage from the Government to stamp it out. I quote the words of the former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Sir Alistair Graham:

“We cannot continue to base our electoral process on trust alone when it appears that this trust is plainly abused and risks loss of public confidence in our democratic system”.

Why have Her Majesty’s Government done so little to combat that threat?

The Government objected to my party’s proposal to implement individual voter registration by national insurance number on the grounds that it would be too costly. But I wonder how many times the cost of testing and reviewing the many new voting systems, and of running farces such as the referendum in the north-east on a regional assembly that was wanted by no one except a single Minister, exceeded the cost of individual voter registration?

We all want to see a better turnout, and I am confident that we will see plenty of action at the polling stations when the day comes to turn out this Government. What matters in raising turnout is not the internet but meaningful, accountable, truthful politics. You can have a thousand Electoral Commission reports but, if parties like Labour and the Liberal Democrats make solemn promises to give the people of this country a referendum on something that profoundly affects their future and then break that promise, it is no wonder that cynicism about politics grows. I say to the Minister: stand up and tell us that the Government and their Liberal Democrat fellow backsliders will give us a referendum. Then he will have plenty of political enthusiasm. He might lose his job, mind you, but he would win more respect than the Prime Minister and Mr Clegg.

We all know the obsession that the Liberal Democrats have with PR. For me—I hope the Minister agrees with this—the letters PR stand not for “proportional representation” but for “permanent representation”—that is, permanent representation in office for the least popular major party. I understand why the least popular party wants that but, bitter though opposition is, I, like the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Maxton, and my noble friend Lord Norton, vastly prefer a good old first past the post system that delivers stable government, as here or in the United States, to the kind of PR that leaves politicians horsetrading behind closed doors, as in Italy.

My Lords, why did the Conservative Party, in choosing its own leader, not go for the first past the post system but go instead for a system of PR?

My Lords, the situation surrounding the election by members of a party of a leader of their party, where a single person is being selected rather than a party, is completely different from that for electing a party to government, where there is a need for accountability, stability and ease of use for voters.

If there is little else in the Government’s handling of voting that I welcome, it is what I take to be their conclusion on PR for Westminster: they will have no truck with it. I hope that the Minister and I at least can agree on that.

My Lords, we have heard some truly remarkable speeches in the debate, not least the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, in his winding up. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for allowing us to debate some fundamental questions about our democratic system.

I particularly welcome my noble friend Lord Grocott. Remarkably, as has been said, we believe that that was his maiden speech from the Back Benches. Having served with him, I can say that he was a truly magnificent friend and a wonderful Chief Whip. It is good to have him with us today. He managed to make one brief reference to the reform of your Lordships’ House. I suspect, alas, that that will be the first of many comments that he comes to make on that issue. He will find that there is never much distance between us and another debate on Lords reform; indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, who is in his place, knows that we are due to have yet another Second Reading tomorrow, this time of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, on that subject, when perhaps we can continue to have this really rather marvellous conversation.

While I welcome this debate—I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, made some interesting comments—I disagree fundamentally with his comments about the health of our democratic system as is. In doing so, I make it clear that I am not at all complacent. I take what my noble friend Lady Kennedy said about some of the challenges we face in a society that has changed so much from the old certainties over the past 50 years when, as we know, voter turnout has dropped steadily over those years. I do not underestimate the challenges that face all the established parties in terms of enthusiasm and engagement with members and the public, but nor do I think it is just a matter of voting systems. In fact I am doubtful whether voting systems in themselves have much of a part to play in developing the re-engagement of the public that we all wish to see.

The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, was critical of the Government’s approach to constitutional change and to the development of new voting systems in different parts of the country. I am very proud of what we have achieved in the programme of major constitutional change. It was right to devolve power from Westminster to Scotland and Wales, with the introduction of new voting systems, and the Northern Ireland Assembly. It was right to enshrine fundamental rights in the Human Rights Act. These are all significant advances.

Our constitutional arrangements have never been fixed; nor should they be. Surely a strength of the British approach to these matters is that we evolve to ensure that we continue to meet the needs of our democracy. That is why the first substantive paper issued by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister last summer was about the governance of Britain and about how we can renew and revitalise our democracy. These are critical matters. That is the context in which we ought to see the review of our voting systems.

I very much did not recognise the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, about political spinning. The review is a dispassionate piece of work and in their approach to its publication Ministers brought with them that same dispassionate approach. Those on all sides of the argument have welcomed the report. I pay tribute to officials in my department, who did such a good piece of work. The Electoral Reform Society described the review as a detailed and balanced piece of work. It is such a wonderful piece of work that, whatever view you take, ammunition and evidence can be found to support your case. That shows its value. While I cannot claim that it is well known among the residents of Kings Heath, it will influence political and academic thinking in the years ahead.

What is the outcome of the review? I do not want to repeat what other noble Lords have said in their interesting contributions to the debate. Equally, I do not take the rather, if I may say, complacent view of the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley that everything is right and nothing should be changed. However, we have to look seriously at the advantages of first past the post before making such a fundamental change to our voting system. We should not ignore the critical importance of Members of Parliament representing a smallish defined geographical area. We cannot underestimate the importance of that relationship, which my noble friend Lord Grocott described so well.

I am thinking about my own city of Birmingham. There is a difference between being part of a constituency of 70,000 voters and living in a city that might have 10 representatives—we have 10 MPs—but no direct relationship between my part of Birmingham and the person who represents me. One would have to think very carefully before moving towards that kind of system. Although there is a great deal of criticism about seats where the outcome is always the same, one should not ignore the advantage of a winner-takes-all system, which encourages major parties to maintain a broad appeal, or ignore the fact that the electorate can be decisive about who should be the party of Government.

It is remarkable how often the pundits say that at the next election there is likely to be a balance of power—everyone looks to the Liberal Democrats, as it may be their hour of glory—and how few times over the past 50 years that has turned out to be the case. I submit that the British public know what to do. The system allows them to make a very clear choice and Governments to have a working majority in Parliament. I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said about core accountability. Whatever the defects of first past the post—I acknowledge that there are defects—one should not underestimate the importance of that core accountability.

Of course, there are advantages to proportional systems. As we know, there are many different proportional systems, but as a general principle the outcomes are more proportionate at national level. Voters have more choice, as more parties inevitably have the chance of being elected. Government tends to be by coalition, which can mean that a wider range of interests are brought into and represented in the Government. My noble friend Lord Watson felt that the experience in Scotland had a proved the positive virtue of that.

The disadvantages seem to be pretty fundamental as well. The prevalence of party list systems, in whole or in part, makes the candidate and representative remote from the voter, particularly with the abomination, if I may say so, of the closed list system. My experience in Birmingham when the European elections were first brought in was that having a representative in Birmingham South was an altogether more rigorous system than having five MEPs representing the whole of the West Midlands region. I believe—it is a personal view—that we lost something in terms of lacking the direct connection.

We have heard about the problem of conflict between two types of representative in the UK in similar Parliaments—Scotland comes to mind. I know that my noble friend Lord Watson felt that it was not a particular problem, but the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and many others I have talked to, reflect on the real problem that can happen between the two different types of elected people within a Parliament. The tendency towards coalition or minority governance can have a negative effect. It can take a long time to form a Government. Governments may be indecisive, they may have weaker policy agendas, and they may be more subject to pressure-group influence because of a lowest-common-denominator approach to decision-making.

We should not ignore the problem of coalition being a weaker form of government. My noble friend Lord Maxton had good points to make about that. I pray in aid of Birmingham, where we are enjoying—if that is the word—nearly four years of coalition of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. My goodness, I could not describe a more visible sign of lowest-common-denominator decision-making. Frankly, over those four years I have seen Birmingham lose out time and time again to other major cities because of the indecisive leadership being given.

I recognise that proportionate systems have their merits. I am not going to ignore that at all. In putting forward the reasons for PR and for having a more proportionate system, noble Lords tend to ignore some of the outcomes for quality of governance and for direct accountability of a Government to the electorate.

I understand the strength of feeling that my noble friend Lady Kennedy spoke about. The main parties may not always be providing the choice that individuals want and the emergence of single issue or smaller parties can enhance the democratic process. However, it is not always one way and the emergence of smaller parties can also have a very negative influence on the quality of decision making in Government. As I said earlier, Government can become more susceptible to pressure group politics. We all engage with pressure groups, and they are a part of the country’s democratic health, but their influence needs to be kept in proportion and be balanced.

To be fair to noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches who have spoken about the need for proportional systems, there are different systems. Some would clearly not be suitable for the House of Commons. There seems to be general agreement about the iniquities of the closed list system and it is encouraging that there is such widespread political agreement across this Chamber and, I suspect, in the other place about its problems. These matters will be considered in any review of any voting system.

On where the Government are going with the review, we made it clear that it was a contribution to the ongoing debate, that the Government are not minded to propose any change to the voting system for the House of Commons and that we believe that the current first past the post voting system works well. We also recognise that there is a range of views on the issue of voting systems. We published the paper as a contribution to that debate.

My Lords, the Minister has not touched on one point that I raised. Does he agree that, given that the role of your Lordships’ House is to scrutinise what the Government do rather than to support them, the first past the post system would not be an appropriate method for electing Members of your Lordships’ House, should elections occur?

My Lords, I was going to come on to the House of Lords. I thought that if we started with it, we would never move on to any other issue. As noble Lords are aware, we need to look at voting systems for a reformed House of Lords. The noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Rennard, feel that the process has been slow but I am impressed by the spirit of co-operation within the cross-party working group on Lords reform—I say that tentatively, knowing that this excites great passion in your Lordships’ House. I hope that it will lead to as much consensus as possible among the political parties, to manifesto commitments and to legislation in the next Session of Parliament. I will not affirm in relation to the point of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, because it is very likely that there will be options on voting systems in the White Paper. It would be wrong for me to give a definitive view for the Government. I agree with him on the need for a different system from that of the House of Commons.

I was interested by the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Sewel. He asked whether having a much more proportionate electoral base for this place would make this place feel more legitimate than the other place. My noble friend Lord Grocott answered that very clearly by referring to the power of first past the post and the direct relationship between the Member of Parliament and constituents. I also point out, in relation to that very important question, that primacy rests on the Parliament Acts, that the Government need to have the confidence of the Commons, that the Commons need to deal with supply and that the Prime Minister and other senior Ministers will sit in the Commons. It is perfectly possible for a mostly or wholly elected second Chamber to sit comfortably with a House of Commons whose primacy is, and will continue to be, established.

The noble Lords, Lord Norton and Lord De Mauley, raised a number of questions about what is probably best described as election administration and individual registration. We discussed that in an Oral Question a few weeks ago. We introduced a range of new integrity measures in the May 2007 elections and all the indications are that they are working well. We are looking at individual voter registration. We must understand that some of the changes made in relation to postal voting, for example, were designed to encourage more people to vote. The signs are that that has paid off. We must be very careful not then to introduce measures that dissuade people from voting—that is the very concern that most noble Lords have for debating this matter.

This has been an excellent debate. I do not think any noble Lord who has spoken has ignored the challenges that our democracy faces at the moment, such as lower turnout, alienation and—perhaps—detachment of the public from formal parties. The review makes it clear that these matters cannot be solved overnight or by the wave of a magic wand to bring in a new voting system. The review makes it clear that this is not so much about one system being better than another; it depends what you want from a system. Some systems deliver some objectives better than others. The key is the legitimacy of the voting system, which must be believed widely by the public to produce a legitimate outcome.

I am satisfied that the first past the post system, whatever its faults, is believed to produce a legitimate outcome. But we—the parties—have to do very much more between us to encourage public engagement, confidence and involvement and to bring young people into the democratic process. These are all critical matters for us. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, deserves great credit for allowing us to debate these important matters. There is no complacency. I hope that we will be able to return to these matters over the next few months.

My Lords, before the Minister concludes, I want to ask one question. He said that the first past the post system produces a legitimate result. Why does the Labour Party—as well as the Conservative Party—avoid the system in its internal elections?

My Lords, that is very simple. Different situations call for different voting systems. So far as my beloved party is concerned, you vote for a particular office and a particular person. The advantage of first past the post is that you are producing a Government who rest on confidence in the Commons. That is where the first past the post system has its advantage.

My Lords, in the course of one or two minutes, I clearly cannot do justice to a very wide-ranging debate. I agreed very much with the Minister on one point: this has been a fascinating discussion. I hope that the other place will in due course also discuss these issues.

I thank all noble Lords who have contributed. I hope that I will be forgiven for especially thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, who broke from the otherwise rather conservative attitudes on the Labour Benches. At one point, I was wondering who would be more reactionary, but the Conservative Party’s Front Bench came back very well at the end. I am also extremely grateful to my noble friends Lord Goodhart, Lord Steel, Lord Roberts and Lord Rennard. I hope that we have been able to present a geographical spread of evidence to the House.

I was very impressed by the extent to which the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, in his inimitable fashion, was able to give us yet another tutorial but I was depressed by the extent to which other people seemed to follow him. There are quite different academic interpretations of the so-called disproportionate power theory. It is significant that we had the issue of disproportionate power under first past the post; it is not only under proportional representation systems that minorities can exert more influence than they perhaps should have. I am a relic of the 1974 Parliament, which was elected under first past the post and in which there was no majority. Do not let us fool ourselves about the only circumstances in which you might have a problem of minorities being powerful—it can happen under first past the post. As Professor Vernon Bogdanor of Oxford pointed out, the Ulster Unionists were thought to have disproportionate power between 1992 and 1997, when they had a fulcrum role in the House of Commons. However, because the Liberal Democrats were supporting the then Government over Europe—irony of all ironies—they could survive. Our Parliament is clearly not as incapable of dealing with those problems as we should imagine.

I want to make it absolutely clear that I and my colleagues believe that the best system for the House of Commons—and it may well also be for your Lordships’ House—is the single transferable vote in multimember constituencies, because that gives power back to the citizen. That is what I have found slightly depressing about this debate; all too often, people address these issues as if the only thing that matters is the view of the parties in the Westminster bubble. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said so clearly, people look at these issues quite differently outwith that bubble. We are all small parties now; that is the big change since the 1950s, as all parties have fewer members and less natural, automatic support. We must recognise that point of view.

This issue will not go away. All parties and all politicians have to address the disenchantment of the electorate and the extent to which that is due to distortion from our system, which is not working. For those who do not believe that this will be on the agenda in the next few months, I warmly recommend reading No Overall Control?, published by the Hansard Society just a couple of days ago. It points out, for example, that the betting odds—and sometimes the bookmakers are more accurate than the opinion pollsters—are showing that it is much more likely that there will be no overall control in the next Parliament than an overall Labour majority, and much more likely again than an overall Conservative majority. I suggest, then, that we all have to address these issues, as we are going to have a different Parliament in future.

This has been a very interesting and timely debate. I welcome the extent to which the Government are, clearly, going to take advantage of the useful work done by the report; I, too, give credit to its Civil Service authors for being reasonably dispassionate and balanced. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.