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Electoral System: Party Lists

Volume 716: debated on Monday 11 January 2010

Question for Short Debate

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will assess and address the impact of party list electoral systems on voter turnout, voter alienation and the rise of extremist political groups.

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate tonight’s short debate, which focuses on the way in which party list systems have impacted on levels of voter turnout, voter alienation and the rise of extremist political groups. I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have decided to speak this evening. They bring a wealth of knowledge, experience and wisdom to our proceedings. In a few short remarks, I would like to make it clear why I implacably opposed the use of closed party lists in European elections, why that system should be replaced, and why we should carefully assess our experience of closed lists and other electoral systems as we consider making changes to Westminster elections.

In recent weeks, government Ministers have flagged up a damascene conversion to the cause of electoral reform, which makes this debate all the more topical. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether the proposed legislation will provide for a referendum on the voting system, and whether the Government intend to provide a timetable for when that referendum will occur. He might also take the opportunity of this evening’s debate to tell us what question or questions will be put to the electorate in that referendum. He will recall that that was the issue put forward at the “Vote for a Change” rally held last July, at Westminster Central Hall.

Twelve years ago, I entered your Lordships’ House as an independent Cross-Bencher and I speak from those Benches tonight. Before coming here, for 18 years in another place I had the honour to represent a Liverpool constituency; but I cut my political teeth much earlier than that. In my misspent youth in 1968, aged 17, one of my first duties as chairman of my town’s branch of young Liberals was to organise a talk by the indefatigable Miss Enid Lakeman of the Electoral Reform Society. She had been sent by Mr Grimond to tell us why we should support a change in the voting system. Born in 1903, she died in 1995 at the age of 91. Having served as a radar operator during the Second World War, in 1946 she began her lifelong campaign for the reform of the electoral system and, in particular, the introduction of the single transferable vote, or STV.

By 1960, she had been appointed as the director of the Electoral Reform Society and in the following years she addressed innumerable meetings, edited pamphlets, wrote submissions to official inquiries along with hundreds of letters to newspapers, and lobbied politicians and government departments. Her book How Democracies Vote continues to be a standard reference on the arcane subject of electoral systems. In 1968, I listened attentively to the compelling arguments which she advanced for STV and to her trenchant arguments opposing party list systems, to which I will return in a moment. Should STV ever be introduced in Westminster elections—as it has been in the Republic of Ireland, for Northern Ireland Assembly elections and for Scottish local government—perhaps it should be called the Lakeman system, because no one did more than that tireless and extraordinary woman to ensure that its virtues were fully understood. I am sure that she would have approved of the debate in your Lordships’ House tonight.

Politics is always about timing, and in the present political climate people are bound to question the motives of those who now argue that we should change the system. There is, at the fag-end of a Parliament, a great danger that the case for electoral reform could become contaminated by muddling the genuine arguments which can be made for reform with cynical or belated attempts to sustain the hegemony of particular politicians. Consequently, we could also end up with a worse system than the one we have at present. It is therefore vital to challenge the assumption that any change is preferable to our existing arrangements. That is why I opposed the party list system of proportional representation introduced for elections to the European Parliament. I opposed it on the grounds that it was bound to open the way to groups like the British National Party, and because it offends a fundamental principle of our parliamentary democracy: the right to vote for an individual candidate rather than for a party or its list.

Party lists destroy the constituency basis of representation, which is such a strength of our British system. When lists were introduced by the Government, they promised that they would review the impact the system made on issues such as turnout and political extremism. I hope that the Minister will tell us this evening whether such an evaluation has been undertaken, and what conclusions the Home Office has reached following the elections that have been carried out using party lists.

Turnouts in the 2009 election were dismal; 34.7 per cent of the population voted, down from 38.52 per cent in 2004. It is worth remarking that, by contrast, in Northern Ireland, where STV has always been used for European elections, the turnout was markedly higher at 42.4 per cent. Party lists are the most anonymous of voting systems; famously, a tiny fraction of voters are able to name their MEP. That encourages apathy and low turnouts, which, as supporters of the mainstream parties stay at home, in turn helps parties with relatively low support bases to win seats. It is not that electoral systems alone are responsible for voter turnout, but a political culture that increasingly revolves around party preferment rather than voter engagement and an overextended belief in campaigning by electronic remote control, rather than by intimate and participatory community politics, is bound to militate against voter engagement.

Beyond the swings and roundabouts of party politics lies the deeper issue of mass absenteeism that is becoming such a feature of our British elections. Anything we do to change our voting arrangements should weigh that factor with great care. We should, perhaps, reflect that in the post-war years whole families went to the polls together; they certainly did on the council estate where I lived and was brought up as a boy. Even in the 1970s, when I was elected as a student to Liverpool City Council, there was a tangible sense of excitement and a buzz on the streets on voting day—let alone the excitement generated at a by-election or general election. When elected, you felt you had a clear and substantial mandate from the people. Where does mass absenteeism leave the democratic mandate of those who have been elected?

Contemporary disillusionment and absenteeism feed into another equally disturbing development—the impact of the far right. It saw an increase in its share of the vote to almost 10 per cent in Yorkshire and the Humber. In addition to winning a seat there, taking 17 per cent of the vote in Barnsley, it won a seat in the north-west, with 8 per cent of the vote. It is worth recalling that in the Westminster elections of 2005 the BNP polled just 0.7 per cent, but by 2008 it had gained 5.2 per cent in the London elections and won a seat on the London Assembly. This has allowed it to build a presence and credibility. Closed party lists help extremism, compound voter alienation and encourage politicians to further detach themselves from direct community engagement.

However, first past the post hardly inspires. The last election gave the current Government 55 per cent of the seats with just 35.1 per cent of the votes. This was the flimsiest basis for a Commons majority in modern British electoral history. If the steady trend of increasing support for parties other than Labour and Conservative continues, such massive distortions will continue and potentially get even worse. People are also increasingly aware that their vote will probably make absolutely no difference to the result, especially if they live in so-called safe seats. The feeling of powerlessness and alienation that this creates is a major contributor to low turnout. In 2005 Labour was able to win power with the support of just 21.6 per cent of potential voters, thanks to the large number staying at home.

The Lord Chancellor and Justice Minister, Mr Jack Straw, has suggested that a good way to address these challenges would be through the introduction of AV—the alternative vote. But AV is no different to first past the post in denying voters a say in who will be the candidate for each party. It is true that by requiring majority support for a winning candidate, AV clearly improves on first past the post; and, unlike with list systems, there would be no loss of the constituency link. Its supporters will also argue that it would be much easier to implement since it could use existing first-past-the-post boundaries. Ultimately, support for the alternative vote may well be driven by crude calculation of narrow party advantage, rather than by empirical evidence.

By contrast with AV, single transferable votes give voters a choice of different candidates whom they can support within each party—a kind of built-in primary, without the extra expense. In parenthesis, it is worth observing that one of the few positives which has come out of the expenses debacle in another place has been the innovative open primaries held by the Official Opposition in such constituencies as Totnes and Gosport. STV would give this same opportunity to supporters of every party. Since each party has more than one candidate, there is wider voter choice and the power to eliminate the least suitable. There is also far more scope under STV to promote candidates from such underrepresented groups as women, ethnic minorities and so on, without quotas—a point highlighted this weekend by the Speaker, Mr Bercow. Paradoxically, AV has the potential to be even less proportional than first past the post and, obviously, in comparison with STV, AV would still allow parties with minority support to have large majorities in the Commons.

The dying days of a Parliament—and probably a Government—must be the worst possible time to alter the voting system. It will raise the spectre of gerrymandering and Tammany Hall-style politics. If there is to be a change to our voting system, let it be genuine reform, which is long overdue. Let it have as its first requirement that an MP will continue to represent a defined geographical area and that votes will be cast for people, not parties. Any move to single transferable votes or alternative votes would need to command widespread support and should not, under any circumstances—unlike the change to party lists for European elections—be steamrollered through as a last-gasp political fix or as part of a political deal. I beg to move.

My Lords, it is 27 years since I was proud to be the election agent for the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool. I became his agent when his first constituency of Edge Hill had been abolished by the Boundary Commission and the new constituency of Mossley Hill that he was to fight was very different and electorally challenging. Whatever my skills and those of the party machine that we helped to build up, I have no doubt that the noble Lord’s victory in 1983 was based almost entirely on his tremendous ability to fight for his constituents.

There was no doubt that many supporters of other parties joined those of the Liberal Party, for which he stood at the time, to back him in that election. They did so personally, but also for tactical reasons. The effect of the recent boundary reorganisation was unclear to many and the constituency campaign was dominated by arguments about the relative positions of the main parties within this new seat. While we were successful in our campaign, the experience of it highlighted to me the flaws of first past the post and why we have to look at alternatives.

The first flaw in the first-past-the-post-system is the need constantly to change constituency boundaries. That is not conducive to good representation, and the process of changing boundaries is often arbitrary and unfair. Secondly, the results in Liverpool were simply not representative of the voters. Five Labour MPs and one Liberal MP were elected, but not a single Conservative, even though the Conservative Party had polled 29 per cent of the vote across the city’s six constituencies. Thirdly, while we celebrated winning the Liverpool Mossley Hill seat that time, we won with only a fraction more than 40 per cent of the vote. A system in which any candidate, however good, wins with 60 per cent of the voters backing other candidates is not good for democracy.

List systems are an alternative, but the best solution to the problems that I have outlined would not be a list system but one in which, in that election, Liverpool could have been a single constituency with six MPs and with voting by the single transferable vote. The city’s representation would then have reflected the votes that were cast, the best individuals would have been elected and the distortion of the national result in 1983—when a party with 42 per cent of the vote won 61 per cent of the seats—would have been avoided.

Since 1997 no new Parliament or Assembly in the UK has been created on the basis of first past the post. List systems have been the general preference of the Labour Government, but they could have done better. First and foremost, they should have delivered on their 1997 pledge to allow a referendum on the Westminster voting system so that voters could choose between a proportional alternative and first past the post. They may yet make a new promise on electoral reform for Westminster, but another promise is no substitute for the action that they should have taken during these 13 years.

It is my understanding that the late Lord Jenkins of Hillhead would have liked to propose a system using STV in multimember constituencies covering our cities, with the alternative vote for single members in more rural seats that have very large areas to be represented. Instead of such a system, the PR methods for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the London Assembly and the European Parliament have been largely based on lists. The effect of the list systems on those various Parliaments and Assemblies has been to make them more representative of the voters than the discredited first-past-the-post-system would have been. However, they have also had unnecessary and adverse consequences that have confused the case for electoral reform.

The system of closed party lists puts too much power in the hands of the party machines—and I say that as a former chief executive. Those seeking election put all their efforts into selection by the party, rather than presenting a choice to the voters. People can show their disapproval of someone whom a party has put at the top of its list only by voting for another party list or by not voting at all. These are serious defects. However, to those who would say that these arguments against closed party lists mean that we should continue with first past the post, I would say simply that exactly the same defects apply to first past the post, with none of the ameliorating benefits. First past the post is simply a closed list of one.

Some of the disadvantages of closed lists may be removed by allowing the voters the power to vary the order of the list—the so-called open lists. In other countries, this power has been used to make sure, for example, that there is a fair gender balance among those elected. Another downside of party list PR has been the way in which relatively tiny levels of support have led to BNP members being elected to the European Parliament and the London Assembly, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned. The alternative proportional system of STV would allow those who wished their votes to count against the BNP to transfer their votes accordingly and thereby require a much higher threshold for election, which would keep out the BNP unless it had vastly more support. Sadly, I have to say that first past the post is already failing to prevent the BNP from winning some seats, although so far only at local council level. So let us not see the potential for the BNP winning seats used as an excuse for supporting either first past the post or opposing all systems of proportional representation.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who for many years sat on my committee of Make Votes Count, the voting forum umbrella organisation. I was also a member of the Jenkins commission, so I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for making tonight’s debate possible.

If from that long exposure I could offer one word of advice to the House it would be to avoid dogmatism in the field of electoral systems. This evening, for once, we have a majority of reformers in the House, although there are one or two exceptions. Dogmatism has been one of the biggest obstacles in the way of electoral reform, dividing electoral reformers when they should have been united against the inexcusable first-past-the post system.

Electoral systems are a single instrument that try to deliver multiple and often conflicting objectives. I take the most obvious example of proportionality to public opinion and stable government, which may conflict. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, they also have to deliver on maintaining voter turnout, reducing alienation and discouraging extremism. It is very difficult for one system to do all of these perfectly. I recall the wise words of Roy Jenkins from the introduction to our report, which stated that,

“none of us are electoral absolutists. We all of us believe that any system has defects as well as virtues. Some systems are nonetheless much better than others, and we have endeavoured to seek relative virtue in an imperfect world”.

I commend his advice to the House.

I was slightly surprised at the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, because, although his Question refers to party list electoral systems, he referred to only one form of list system—the closed list system. The variety of list systems is so great that to base your remarks on one version of them does not carry the argument forward very satisfactorily.

The first difference concerns closed lists, open lists and semi-open lists, as in the Belgian system. Liberal opinion has it that open lists are better than closed lists because they give voters more choice. I have my reservations about that because, when you have a closed list system, the party will try to find a selection of candidates who represent all aspects of the community. There is always the danger, if you have an open list, that some racist voters will look for the name Mohammed and shove it to the bottom of the list. However, it is well worth arguing the merits of closed lists versus semi-open lists versus open lists.

To take another example, what area are we talking about over which the list applies? There is a complete difference between those countries that run national list systems—I think that Israel is an example—those that run regional list systems, as we have done for European elections for a longish time, and those that run lists on a county scale, as the Jenkins commission recommended. These are completely different in their impact and effect on the results. Then we get into what can be regarded as cartoon country with some of the technical differences between list systems. Are we talking, for example, about largest remainder systems—the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will no doubt tell me—or highest average systems? For the former, the largest remainder, are we doing our calculations using the Droop, Hagenbach-Bischoff or Imperiali formulae, or, in the latter case, the Sainte-Lague or—I can see the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has been waiting for this all evening—the d’Hondt system, named after the world’s most famous ever Belgian? I would not like to be the government official charged with carrying out the assessment asked for by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, across such a variety of systems. I think that a common-sense approach is more satisfactory.

We on the Jenkins commission avoided getting drawn into such Byzantine complexities. We chose to propose that, on top of the alternative vote in single member constituencies, there should be a smallish number of county top-up seats—counties being areas where voters could be expected to get to know the individual candidates. We wanted to increase proportionality but we did not want total proportionality, which we thought would cut against stable government. We said that the county lists that we proposed should be open lists and not closed lists and, very importantly, we designed our system with great care so that it meant that extremist parties would not be represented unless they got very significant votes, certainly 10 per cent or more in county areas before they could expect to get a seat. Ours was a reform that used list systems—I am not ashamed of that in any way—but one that also delivered the results that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, wanted of reducing alienation, increasing turnout and discouraging extremism. However, we did all this without venturing into STV, which has the incalculable and to my mind fatal disadvantage of abolishing the single member constituency.

My Lords, I appreciate the references to Miss Enid Lakeman, because when I was elected chairman of the Union of University Liberal Societies she was my guest speaker at the inauguration meeting. I am proud to say that my younger daughter has taken over some of her duties that were there and is now with the Electoral Reform Society.

But what we are looking for here, I think, is a democracy which requires that each individual has a place and a voice that is as strong as possible in the community and in society. It is of the people, for the people. I do not claim that any one system meets all the requirements of those in this Chamber—it cannot do that—but we can look for the system which will allow the most electors to have the greatest influence possible in the way their lives are run. That is what I am looking for. Some will say—some are not here this evening—that what we need is strong government rather than representative government. They say that strong government is more important. Hitler and Stalin would have agreed with that, but we look into another direction. We have to espouse and promote the democratic ideal. Of course, it is more difficult to manage and is not as obedient and subservient as other methods. Of course, it needs a great deal of tolerance. However, at the end, the people have the strongest voice possible.

I mentioned in a debate not so long ago that when Britain had a two-party system, the Whigs and the Tories, and they had straight fights, at least 50 per cent of the folk would have MPs of their choice. I found an astonishing figure that showed that at the 1900 general election, 243 constituencies had unopposed returns. It was a totally different world from that in which we are living today. As the number of parties increased and we had four and five candidates in constituencies, and more in some cases, naturally you did not need the 50 per cent to win. You could win, as one or two of my colleagues did in the past, with about 26 per cent of the vote, but that means that the 74 per cent are unrepresented.

Governments have been elected, as has been mentioned, on 42 per cent of the vote. We had the poll tax, although the Conservative Government were elected on 42 per cent. Even wars have been entered into by Governments with minority support. That is a danger. When setting up devolved government in the United Kingdom, it was decided to have not just a first-past-the-post system, but a top-up system which ensured that parties had some measure of support reflected in their membership of the Parliament in Scotland, the Assembly in Wales, the London Assembly and so on.

I am surprised that tonight the Tory Benches look like the Marie Celeste, because if any party should be marching against the first-past-the-post system, it is the Conservative Party. If, when Scotland in 1999 voted for its first Parliament, there had been only a first-past-the-post system, there would have been not a solitary Conservative Member in that Parliament. The next election in 2003 was a little better for that party, because it won three seats, but it would have required another 15 Members from the top-up regional list for the party to be adequately represented in that Parliament. The Conservatives should take that to heart. They speak of reform when the next election comes, but my understanding is that the reform is to reduce the number of MPs in the House of Commons by 100 and to appoint 100 unelected Peers to boost their numbers here in the House of Lords.

The whole system is nonsensical until there is some form of proportional representation. I am not sure how the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats will do in the coming election. I know one thing: when there was a change of system for the European elections, although there were closed lists, that bit of PR, instead of providing my party, the Lib Dems, with a struggle to return two MEPs, provided us with the 11 MEPs we have today. That sort of system is not ideal by any means, especially as it is a closed-list system, but it at least acknowledges the fact that the present first-past-the-post system is unfair and unrepresentative.

It is easier to preach to a congregation and change their minds than it is to change the minds of some Members in this Chamber. We should ask ourselves the question: is it better and fairer not to have a top-up list for the devolved Assemblies whereby, possibly, no Tories will be represented in Scotland or Wales, or is it better to find a system that provides at least some representation for minority parties? If a top-up system is good for democracy, because it shows the weakness of a first-past-the-post system in Scotland and Wales, why do we not look at a PR system for Westminster? The best system is the single transferable vote, as my noble friend—I still call him my noble friend—Lord Alton said. My noble friend Lord Rennard agreed. If we look in that direction, we will achieve a far more representative society.

My Lords, I cannot say that it surprised me, because it is very much as I would have predicted, but one of the things that ought to be surprising is that we have heard a series of contributions which were made almost as if this had been an academic debate about theoretical systems of proportional representation, their merits, their demerits and all the disadvantages of first past the post that we have heard so often. What should not have happened, but has, is regarding the dogs that have not barked. We are not talking in academic terms. Various forms of PR have been in existence for the past 10 or 12 years. What I was waiting for—but still have not heard, although it may come later—was to hear from supporters of PR and the list system the benefits that have accrued to the country from adopting these various systems.

It may be uncomfortable for those noble Lords, but perhaps I should remind them of some of the predictions that they made about the benefits that would accrue from PR systems that, I fear, from their points of view, simply have not happened. The most common was to say that it would increase the engagement of the electoral procss on which we have mathematical evidence to present, which is the turnout at elections. We were told time and again that lots of Labour, and perhaps Liberal, voters in Sussex, Kent and the south-west, and lots of Conservative voters in the north-east were dying to get out to vote and would be liberated by PR because their votes would count. Was that not one of the many slogans—“make votes count”? That simply has not happened. The turnout at European elections has been abysmal—even more abysmal under PR than it was under first past the post. The first test was the last election under the first-past-the-post system in 1994, at which there was a 36.5 per cent turnout. In the first election under this wondrous new system of PR in 1999 the turnout was 24 per cent—a reduction of a third.

I have a slightly anorakish point which I, and I hope the House will, find intriguing. Under as near a scientific test bed as you could get in electoral systems, such as that in Scotland, with the two systems side by side—people voting for constituencies and for lists at the same polling stations on the same day—even then, the turnout for the first-past-the-post section of that election was higher than the turnout for the list section, despite the fact that in some constituencies there are no first-past-the-post candidates, but there are list candidates. There needs to be an answer to that from the people who frequently tell us that PR would increase voter participation.

We also know that PR in practice—not in theory—greatly increases the number of spoilt ballot papers. At the most recent general election in 2005, there were some 85,000 spoilt ballot papers under first past the post. In the most recent European election in 2009, there were 102,471 spoilt ballots, despite the fact that, as we all know, there is a far bigger turnout in a general election under first past the post than there is in a European election under a party list system. Thereby, on a much lower turnout, there are far more spoilt ballot papers. That is not exactly a ringing endorsement of PR in terms of involving more people.

Perhaps I may make a couple of smaller points, one of which is, however, very important to me. As soon as one introduces a list system, the system of parliamentary by-elections is ended. I am a great fan of parliamentary by-elections. I can think of nothing more undemocratic than a list system whereby you could be having a quiet pint in a pub one evening and someone rings you up and says, “By the way, you are a Member of the European Parliament”, which is of course what happens if you are next on the list after someone dies or retires. Parliamentary by-elections are exciting and engage the electorate. We should not freeze an election which PR and the list system do on the date of a general election. Whatever happens to political opinion in the country after that, can never be reflected. By chance, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, was the last person to speak before this debate. If anyone knows the significance of a parliamentary by-election, it is the noble Lord. We still remember that 40 years later. By-elections are of great significance—and we lose them.

Finally, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, made plain, we lose under list systems—and we have seen that. It is a cliché, but I shall use it because time is short. The jewel in the crown of the British electoral system is the link between the individual Member of Parliament and the electorate which he or she is privileged to represent. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, took great pride from that in his constituency, as did others who I can see in the Chamber. That is the lifeblood of a politician. It has been suggested that somehow by severing that we will renew, refresh and invigorate our democracy for the electorate, but the reality is the reverse and there is a fair bit of evidence to suggest that. What I am suggesting—I am sure that the whole House will agree with me—to my noble friend on the Front Bench, who will sum up in his inimitable way, is that we need post-legislative scrutiny of this. Let us see whether the introduction of PR for Europe has worked according to the principles and arguments that its proponents suggested at the time. We are all in favour of post-legislative scrutiny. Let us make this the first example.

My Lords, in view of the time, I do not propose to tackle in forensic detail the issues that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in his inimitable way, has addressed this evening. This is a very timely debate: we are all grateful for his topicality and congratulate him on it.

I will deal briefly with the context in which this discussion has taken place. There is a sudden interest in different electoral systems, notably among Ministers. Some people might think that it is a Pauline conversion—in his charitable way, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, suggested that—but it is more a death-bed repentance. In the 1997 manifesto, the Government said:

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

The 2001 and 2005 manifestos stated that a referendum remained the right way to agree any voting change for Westminster. I have no doubt that the Minister, for whom I have a great deal of respect, will give us all sorts of interesting insights into government thinking. I will not believe a word of what he says. A lorryload of salt to clear the lane from my house will give me no reassurance at all that he will give us something with which we can live.

Contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, we already have umpteen analyses of different electoral systems. We have the Government’s own analysis and the one from the Electoral Reform Society, which is excellent. What we have not had is the promised action. As a son of the manse, the Prime Minister should remember the biblical instruction, “By their fruits ye shall know them”. Where has the radical promise of the 2007 Brown constitutional reform agenda gone? Where has the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill gone—in which, we were told, there would be reference to the need for electoral reform and some mechanism for achieving it? My honourable friend David Heath in the other place described the Cabinet as moving with the alacrity of an arthritic slug on the way to its own funeral. This could apply equally to the Government’s attitude to this Bill. Where is it? Will it ever reach us? If it does, will there be anything in it of any value?

Just eight days ago, the Prime Minister had the nerve to suggest that the “Liberals”—he does not have the courtesy to use the right name, 20 years after our party changed—agree with him about the alternative vote and Lords reform. We agree with him that the issue must be put to the people. No one who has spoken in the debate wants us to go on as we are—apart from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who shares with the Conservative Front Bench the noble distinction of being one of the reactionary dinosaurs in the House on the issue. Everyone else believes that first past the post is the worst possible system to give us good governance representing the people as a whole.

It is a long time since I studied Latin, but when I look at the way in which the Cabinet, in the last dying days of its Government, is now offering yet another broken promise of advance after 13 wasted years, I am reminded of Virgil. I will not attempt the Latin, but it went something like, “I fear Greeks who proffer gifts” or, more freely interpreted, “I fear geeks who proffer shop-soiled gifts”.

I offer the Conservatives some food for thought. At the Council of Europe Forum in October on the Future of Democracy, which I attended on behalf of the Lord Speaker, I was reminded by a delegate from the former Soviet bloc that the most undemocratic party list is the one with just one name on it—which most of them have experienced over the years. That is precisely what we have, as my noble friend Lord Rennard said, with first past the post. Even if you try to improve it with primaries—as was the case in Totnes, near my constituency of yesteryear—the shortlist is selected by the central party leadership. It is not an open system, as the single transferable vote would be.

Both the other parties have shown themselves contemptuous of the right of our people to exercise real choice and to know that every vote, everywhere, has a chance of affecting the result. I share with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, the distinction of having represented a very interesting constituency in the other place and I have great pride in that. However, at no point in my career—I had a generous majority at the end—could I say that a majority of the people who were entitled to vote in that constituency had voted for me. This nonsense about the close connection between the constituency Member and his constituents is very limited.

I believe in real democracy. Therefore, I think that we should revert to the promise that was made in previous manifestos and then broken. Until that happens, I will treat all manifestos from this Government and from the Opposition with large amounts of salt.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, described the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and myself as dinosaurs. I take pride in that. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, likened my Benches to the Marie Celeste. I rise to refute him.

I start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on bringing in this timely debate on the effect that certain electoral systems, particularly list systems, have on voter turnout, alienation and the rise of extremist political groups. He is being ambitious in trying to squeeze such a thing into one hour. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, talked about the need for relative virtue in an imperfect world. To find that in a dinner hour debate on a Monday evening in snowy January is asking a bit too much; but we will listen with care to what the noble Lord, Lord Bach, says in due course when he answers and delivers his lorryload of salt to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler.

I will make clear the position of those of us on the Marie Celeste Benches to noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches. We do not support the use of party lists in an electoral system. We believe in first past the post and, like the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, we believe that first past the post ensures that each Member of the House of Commons represents a recognisable constituency with a single Member; and, more importantly, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and others who have been in the Commons will know, that the Member can be kicked out if they or their party fail to satisfy the electorate. Most systems of proportional representation, and in particular the party list system, fail that test. They completely fail to allow the electorate to kick out any individual and place excessive control in the hands of the party bosses—something to which the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, referred.

I was interested that some noble Lords referred to the whole selection process of first past the post. I was grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to the fact that in our party we had used open primaries for the selection process, and he referred to the one that took place in Totnes. I accept that one cannot use that process in every single constituency—it was a very expensive operation to mount—but variations on it can be used in others. In the constituency in which I live—Penrith and The Border—we recently selected a new candidate by means of an open primary. Anyone within the constituency who was a registered voter, for whatever party, could apply and come to the selection meeting. We had a very interesting experience and we believe that it was the first time that a candidate had been selected at a selection meeting held in the cattle mart in Penrith. It was not the most comfortable place to spend four, five or even six hours on a Sunday afternoon, but in the end we selected a candidate after a whole series of different votes until one candidate got a majority. I believe that that process showed that imaginative ways can be found to allow a much greater choice in the selection of a candidate than can ever be done by other means.

I shall say just a word or two about party lists and, in particular, about their weaknesses. In doing so, I pay tribute to my late noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. Many Members of the House who were here in 1998, or perhaps 1999, when we dealt with the European Parliamentary Elections Bill will remember the fight that Lord Mackay put up against the closed lists that the Government were proposing for those elections. They will remember that he tried to demand open lists for that process. We had many votes on the issue and it ping-ponged back and forth between the two Houses. In the end, we lost. It was regrettable that the Government would not give us the open lists that would at least marginally have improved the party list system that has been imposed on us for European elections since that day.

I end by taking up the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who said that this was possibly the time for some post-legislative scrutiny. We might look at the debates that took place between the late Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and whoever had the misfortune to speak for the Government on that occasion. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, can remember. It would be interesting to see what they said and what they predicted the effect of closed lists would be. I am sure that it would be a worthy exercise to conduct and it might lead us back to being the sort of country where, at the very least, we think about moving to open lists, if not reverting to first past the post, for European parliamentary elections.

I think that the noble Lord now has 12 minutes left in which to respond. We look forward to hearing him with his pinch or lorryload of salt or whatever it might be.

My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this debate. It is true that an hour is not long enough but we are grateful to him for giving us the chance to debate this matter at all. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. I was going to make an exception of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, but I have decided that I will not.

The debate this evening has centred on electoral systems and the methods by which representatives may be elected. Of particular concern to the noble Lord, but not only him, is the impact of party list electoral systems. These are important matters and must be debated.

Party list electoral systems are undoubtedly a form of proportional representation. Broadly, they are designed to ensure that the proportion of votes that each party receives at an election determines the number of seats that they win. Under party list systems, voters elect representatives to multi-member districts or regions.

As we have heard, there are variations in party list systems according to the degree of influence that a voter has on which of a party’s candidates is elected to a seat won by that party. Closed list system votes are cast for parties, and the order in which candidates on a party’s list fill the seats won by that party is normally decided by the party standing at the election.

As we have heard from experts, there are different types of open list system, but voters have at least an option to cast a vote for an individual candidate from a party. This perhaps gives voters a greater say in which of a party’s candidates are elected. Of course, party list electoral systems can also be used as part of mixed additional member systems to help to ensure that seats are filled in proportion to the votes cast. As noble Lords will, I am sure, agree, this Government have an excellent record in implementing constitutional reform, which has included electoral innovations. We have introduced new voting systems for the devolved Administrations, the European Parliament, the London Mayor and the Greater London Assembly. Some of these new systems include party list systems. The additional Member systems that we have introduced for the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales and for the Greater London Assembly involve a proportion of Members being returned from party lists.

With regard to elections for the European Parliament, of which we have heard a lot, MEPs in Great Britain were elected by the first past the post system. Under changes to European law in 2002, member states must now elect their MEPs using proportional voting systems. However, prior to these changes, we were already committed to introducing a more proportionate voting system for European elections in the UK. For the 1999 and subsequent European elections, we introduced a regional list system for electing our MEPs. I well remember the debates about which the noble Lord, Lord Henley, spoke. The reason why the Government favoured a closed list system was, in part, because under the alternative open list system that was under consideration at the time it might have been possible for a candidate low down on a party list to receive a significant number of personal votes yet still not be elected, while others higher up the list with fewer votes would be elected due to the weight of party votes. There was concern that that might undermine the legitimacy of some elected representatives. It is, of course, right that we continue to consider and debate whether this assessment remains the right one.

That brings me to the noble Lord’s request that we make an assessment of the impact of party list electoral systems. The changes that we have made to voting systems have involved significant constitutional change. In January 2008 we published a review of the evidence and the experience of the new voting systems. The review examined the strengths and weaknesses of the various systems in place. As has been said on all sides, there is no panacea. There are strongly held views about which electoral system is best. As we have heard in this brief debate, all systems have their advantages and disadvantages.

Perhaps the fundamental aim should be to ensure that the electoral system is appropriate for the institutional context. For European elections and the devolved Administrations, perhaps this means reflecting the particular characteristics of specific regions and devolution settlements, but for elections to the House of Commons, I strongly believe that the voting system needs to reflect that the constituency link is vital. I hope that the House will forgive me for giving a personal example of why a single-Member constituency works in the real world. On Saturday last I attended the funeral of David Taylor, the late Member for North-West Leicestershire, in Heather, a small village in the middle of the old Leicestershire coalfields. It was bitterly cold, well below freezing and snowing heavily. Yet, hundreds upon hundreds of his constituents made the effort to attend his funeral in a gesture of affection and respect for their late Member of Parliament. They had not all voted for David Taylor; people had voted for other parties or none, but they were in the churchyard and the road leading up to the small village church. Of course, he was an outstanding Member of Parliament, but I have to pose the question: if David Taylor had been just one of a number of Members of Parliament representing a much larger constituency, would they really have shown their affection and respect in the same manner? I think not.

Comments have been made about the impact of party-list electoral systems on voter turnout and voter alienation. Our review recognised that voter participation is often seen as a measure of confidence in democracy and the voting system in use. A number of points can be made in favour of party lists that might help to boost voter participation. As they produce proportional outcomes, voters may feel that their vote will count more and have greater weight, so are more likely to feel that they have a stake in the outcome of the election. It could be argued that electors under party-list systems have more choice as more parties have the chance of being elected. I could also say that party-list systems can help increase the representation of traditionally underrepresented groups. However, the review of voting systems noted perhaps the obvious—that turnout is a product of a complex set of factors which include voter knowledge, ease or difficulty of registering to vote, campaigning by political parties, and the impact of the news media. With regard to the European Parliament elections, turnout at each election in the UK during the period 1979 to 1994, held under the first past the post method, averaged at about 34.5 per cent.

Turnout initially fell at the 1999 European elections to 24 per cent, following the introduction of the new regional list voting system. However, turnout at the 2004 European elections rose to 38.5 per cent. This was the highest ever turnout at the European elections in the UK, and was due in part to these elections being combined with local government elections and all-postal pilots being held in certain regions. At the European elections in 2009, turnout in the UK fell slightly to 34.5 per cent.

The evidence suggests that, with the exception of the elections in 1999, turnout under the party list system for European elections in the UK does not compare unfavourably with previous elections held under the first past the post system. However, as I have explained, voter participation and turnout are influenced by a large range of factors and the available evidence suggests one sure thing: that one should exercise great caution in seeking to draw specific conclusions in respect of party list systems.

Concerns have been expressed that party list electoral systems can lead to the election of persons from extremist parties. I would say that, whatever one’s views may be on party list systems, it cannot be disputed that they guarantee a high degree of proportionality in the way that seats are allocated to parties at elections. It is true that this has led to the election of persons from parties outside the mainstream: at the 2008 London Assembly elections the BNP won a London-wide seat, while at the 2009 European Parliament elections the BNP won two seats. However, as our review of voting systems found, party list systems have been beneficial to other parties, in particular the Green Party, which has won seats at the European Parliament and on the London Assembly. The review found that at European elections, the new voting system has allowed national parties in Scotland and Wales to win and maintain seats.

The noble Lord will be aware that for the European elections held from 1979 to 1994, prior to the introduction of the party list system for these elections, the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors won only two MEP seats, despite securing a significant proportion of the vote at these elections.

It has been argued that if we had used the single transferable vote system for the European elections, rather than the closed list system, the BNP would not have won any seats at those elections. I would say that at the 2009 European elections, taking the seat that the BNP achieved in the north-west region, the BNP was the fifth biggest party in a region with eight seats. It is hard to argue that it is indisputably an invalid or unfair outcome for the BNP to have won that seat, whatever one’s view of that party’s politics.

In a democracy, we must expect that at times persons standing for election will put forward views that many others may find unpalatable. This is an unavoidable consequence of living in an open and free society. We think it is important that when looking at electoral systems, you do not design systems simply with particular political parties in mind. We have to take a principled approach and have systems that we believe to be proper and appropriate for the particular body or institution in question.

I know that my speech, like those of other noble Lords, has raised more questions than it has answered. However, I once again thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for raising this matter in this debate.