Committee (2nd Day)
Clause 1 : Referendum on the alternative vote system
5: Clause 1, page 1, line 6, leave out “on 5 May” and insert “before 31 October”
My Lords, this is my second offer of a lifeboat to the coalition. Last week, I offered one on the indicative aspect, and today I offer “before 31 October”. It does not alter the Bill in any way or force any change. The coalition can still meet their intention to have the referendum on 5 May, even if they accept my amendment. It is now 6 December. We are five months away from that date, or 20-odd weeks. Royal Assent is some time away. The Bill has to go back to the Commons in any event because there are government amendments to the Bill in your Lordships' House. They were in addition to the 286 government amendments put in the Bill in the other place, which doubled its length from 150 pages to 300 pages. Even then, they could not get it right, because they have come to this House and have already tabled amendments. It is all rush, rush, rush. They must ask themselves, “Can we do it?”. I have to say that it shows a level of faith in local government, the Electoral Commission, the weather and the parliamentary process which, in the words of “Yes Minister” is “brave”. There are 20 weeks to go, and we are on only the second day in Committee in your Lordships' House.
Do the Government have a risk analysis of this process? If not, they are not conducting public administration in the same way that most of the public bodies they are trying to abolish already do. On that assumption, I assume they have a risk analysis, and I ask them to share it with the House, perhaps in the speech that answers this amendment.
My amendment is a contingency measure. I will not argue about the referendum question; that is not the issue and we will come to that later. However, I want to make it clear, as I did last week, that this amendment does not stop the referendum taking place on 5 May. If all the things are in place, fine. The question we must ask is: what happens if they are not? What a disaster it will be if we get a bit close to the date and the Electoral Commission says: “Ten weeks to go and we have not quite got this ready”. We also have to ask ourselves about the administrative procedures that have to be gone through as issues are raised about some of the other processes of local government and the Electoral Commission. Let us leave all those aside for the minute: they are mechanical and administrative. What about the voters? How are the voters going to be dealt with at the last minute in this rush, rush, rush? There is never time to educate the public until such time as they are forced to make a decision. People want to get on with their lives—their work and their families—and they are not interested until the deadline comes. Then it will be: “Oh, I have not heard about this. What does all this mean? Does this mean that Parliament is going to change? What effect will it have? What about the misconceptions about the voting system?”. Time might well be needed by the Government to have a decent information campaign.
It is already known, following a series of YouGov polls commissioned by the Constitution Society a few months ago, that there are considerable problems about this idea. Most respondents do not understand AV. Its summary says that the yes and no votes are evenly balanced, but that exposure to information about AV increases the no votes. Perhaps that is the reason for the rush, rush, rush—because polling evidence indicates that the more people know about it, the more they are inclined to vote no. However, it has to be their choice and they must choose in a free way.
The polls also found that there are a number of widespread misconceptions about AV. Well, there are, and I think a few of those will be deployed in the coming days. The polls also indicated that the same arguments are commonly used to justify votes both for and against AV. In other words, I have only gone through half of the findings in summary form and it is clear that there is a hell of a job to do to explain to the public what all this is about. If it can not be done well before 5 May, that would be an absolute disgrace, because the Government could have plenty of opportunity to avoid having that problem if they accept my amendment.
Before 1997, some of us junior shadow Ministers were sent off to Templeton College, Oxford, for a bit of training. Needless to say, the generals did not go. Two things have always stuck in my mind from those sessions we had with ex-Ministers and ex-permanent secretaries. One was: “Always pilot a change”. That is something that would be well taken by everybody. The other one—and I cannot remember who said this without going back to my notes—was: “It is never too late to avoid making a bad decision”. I once said that to one of our Prime Ministers, by the way. The response I got across the table was: “This is not a bad decision”. The fact of the matter is that I was reminded about that. I am not saying that having a referendum is a bad decision, because if we are going to change the voting system, we have to have a referendum. I am not arguing about that. I am arguing here about the timing of it; 5 May is entrenched in the Bill. There is no get-out from that and we do not want a shambles. The Electoral Commission has already warned the other place and the Deputy Prime Minister has told a Select Committee there, though he did not give any details, about the factors that might cause a problem. However, it would be quite useful to have those teased out because we need to show the public, in case things do start to go wrong or even if it is a success, that these things were thought about beforehand.
Come the referendum, whatever the take of each side on this, that would not be any good. With the public’s misconceptions, there is evidence that we will need a decent education campaign because of what will be thrown on both sides of the argument. We cannot do that until the Bill has Royal Assent. After Second Reading, I realised that certain amounts of public expenditure can be used. Once the Government have secured a Second Reading, certain changes are triggered. But it is only after Royal Assent that the treasurers and accounting officers in local government and other institutions can say, “Hang on, this is really on”.
There is quite a bit of preparation for this in terms of the mechanics of even the private sector and industry. Notwithstanding that the Minister will say, “It is all in place for 5 May”, probably not every difficulty has been foreseen and it is too early for that now. I submit that with 20 weeks to go, a lot could go wrong. I do not want it to go wrong and to be a shambles. I am just giving the Government a get-out, so that the referendum could take place any time before 31 October. I freely admit that anything that causes a problem for 5 May could be dealt with well before 31 October. All the procedures, including administrative and mechanical, could be overcome.
Therefore, why do we have to tie ourselves down to an entrenched date, bearing in mind the rush and the shortness of time available for this momentous operation that will take place? All I am saying is that this is a lifeboat. You could jump into it. It would not affect the Bill or the planning for 5 May in any way. It could mean that we would need less debate on some of the other amendments. I would not bother. Provided that the referendum was before 31 October, I would not be interested in the date. The target is 5 May. If it were not on 5 May, it would be before 31 October. The public and Parliament would know that. I do not see a serious problem in accepting an amendment which is a contingency and a lifeboat. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, on this amendment, not because I am completely relaxed about whether this referendum on the alternative vote is held on 5 May or later, because I am not. I think that there will be enormous confusion if the referendum is held on the same day as local elections. As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has pointed out, this is an extremely complex matter, which is not well understood by the electorate. Therefore, we need a special day. I am not too worried when it is after the local elections on 5 May, but it should be on a separate day. I know that this would involve £15 million-worth of public expenditure at a time of austerity. But this is a very important change in our constitutional arrangements and it has to be properly debated. The people of this country have got to understand what is at stake.
If the referendum is to be wrapped up in local authority elections with certain, say, Labour campaigners saying, “Vote for your Labour candidate, but vote against the alternative vote in the referendum”—the Conservatives would be doing similar—that will be extremely confusing to the electorate. Therefore, it is important that the referendum is held on a separate day. This is a radical and important change in our electoral system, and it should not be allowed to be muddled up in the local elections. I do not think that it will be satisfactory for anyone, whatever the result of the referendum, if it goes through while the electorate do not understand what was going on. We need a separate date. We need to debate it properly and to make absolutely certain that the people of this country understand what is at stake and understand the issues involved in whether we have an alternative vote system or not. That is why it should be on a separate date and why I am pleased to support the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, in his amendment.
My Lords, it would seem from what Members were saying at great length last week in a debate lasting nearly two hours, and again from what has just been said, that as a Parliament we have never had to face the prospect of two big decisions on the same day. I remind your Lordships—and I shall be interested to hear from the opposition Front Bench in a moment—that the previous Administration pushed through the referendum on London government and mayoral and Assembly legislation, with the exact same collision of votes on 7 May 1998. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, may like to comment on the following extract from a speech by his colleague Mr Nick Raynsford, who was then the responsible Minister:
“We are holding the referendum on 7 May deliberately to gain the benefits from combining the poll with local government elections. That will result in a considerable saving in public expenditure, which I would have thought all hon. Members would welcome. Separating the referendum date from the local election day would probably result in additional public expenditure of some £2 million to £3 million and could reduce voter turnout. That is not in the interests of democracy or of economy, and the Government do not intend to propose that”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/11/1997; col. 380]
What was right for London is apparently not right for other parts of the country. Perhaps Members on the other side think that somehow the voters of Scotland and Wales are not capable of taking two quite distinct decisions on the same day but people in London are.
I never once referred to combined elections. That is not the issue as far as my amendment is concerned; I know that others in the group are concerned with this. My question is this: what were the relevant dates for that legislation? I know the referendum the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, refers to was for London only and not national, but how close to the referendum did the legislation start through the two Houses? That is the point that I am raising. I am not arguing against 5 May; I am just saying that if something goes wrong between now and then, my amendment is a lifeboat and we can still have the referendum.
I can answer the noble Lord, as it happens, because I have very good brief. That Bill started its progress through the House of Commons on 28 October 1997 and was not completed until well into 1998, so it is a very similar situation to the present one. I go a step further, which is why I hope we are going to get a contribution from the opposition Front Bench. Amendment 12 specifies that this referendum should take place on the same day as the mayoral and Assembly elections in London in 2012. What is right for the goose is surely right for the gander. How can we possibly argue, as Members opposite did for hours the other night—it seemed interminable—that somehow the Scots are not capable of taking this decision on the same day when London has done so in the past, and there is a proposal, which has been supported by at least some Members opposite, to do so again in 2012? I stand up for the Scots as a fellow Celt. I think they are quite capable of taking this decision on the same day, and I hope your Lordships’ House will take the same view.
My Lords, there is a fallacy in the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. There are certainly many arguments for holding these elections on the same day as elections in Scotland, Wales and England, and there are many arguments against. My point is limited to this issue. Why did Her Majesty’s Government think for a moment that it was right to come to a final determination on this matter without consulting the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly? It seems to me, looking at it either with naivety or with remorseless logic, that it was either a case of negligence or a studied discourtesy. Which was it?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has missed the point of my noble friend’s amendment, which is characteristically sensible and clever. It in no way prevents the Government from having the referendum when they want to have it. It simply gives them, as my noble friend has expressed very clearly, another lifeboat. It would have been so much simpler if we had had an indicative referendum, as has already been said, because huge chunks of this document would not have to be debated between now and 5 May, if that is when the Government want to hold the referendum. Those would be matters to consider after the indicative referendum, but the House has decided not to go ahead with that. As my noble friend said, the choice is still there for the Government to take.
I put this to the Government in as gentle a way as I can. Quite often you put documents together before an election, although on this occasion the coalition document was put together after the election. This would not be the first Government in history to find that it was not possible to enact some of their intentions. That would not be a first in British constitutional history.
My noble friend will have noticed the staunch support for Scottish wisdom given by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and I am sure that the nation is grateful for that, but if the noble Lord is actually looking at the wisdom of the Scots, will he look at the last time there was a dual election in Scotland, when there were local government elections, a referendum on first past the post for local government, Scottish parliamentary elections on the alternative vote and the criticisms afterwards? It was a shambles for which the Labour Government were rightly upbraided. That is precisely the point that is being made about the potential on this occasion.
I very much agree with my noble friend. We have so many different electoral systems—five already with one proposed implicitly in this legislation and another additionally proposed if and when we come to elect the House of Lords. Before long, one will need at least a first year’s study on the British constitution to understand the various electoral systems that are being simultaneously offered to the British public. That is something that requires serious attention.
We all understand the Government’s intention. Apart from financial reasons, I would like them to explain why it is so urgent to get this dealt with by 5 May. We recognise that all too often Governments do not get what they want. That is sometimes for very good reasons. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats know a little about this at the moment in respect of student fees. When that happens, the ideal position to be in is one of some flexibility, which my noble friend offers with this amendment.
I offer one thought. I had the honour of having the responsibility in this House of trying to schedule government business in a way that was, as far as humanly possible, acceptable to the four parties to the discussions—the three political parties operating independently and the Cross-Benchers. It is an extraordinarily difficult business to achieve satisfactorily. For the life of me I cannot see how this Bill, which has not had the pre-legislative scrutiny or proper consideration for a Bill of this size—which is actually two Bills because it will become the Act that delivers the referendum, should the vote go in favour of a change in the voting system—can be considered in the time available between now and next February. It is beyond me.
We are on page 1 and I will sit down soon lest I be accused of filibustering, which I am emphatically not going to do in considering this Bill. We have another 300 pages to go. We have three more Committee sittings before Christmas. We have a half-term break scheduled. There have to be two weeks between Committee and Report on the Bill, three days between Report and Third Reading and heaven knows how many exchanges of ping-pong between the two Houses. It is quite beyond me how that can be achieved. I have not done the maths but, even if we spent all the legislative days left between now and next February on this Bill—assuming we get through, let us say, five pages a day, which would be pretty good going at the rate we are going at present—I do not see how on earth this can be delivered.
If the Government are sensible, there will not need to be any vote. If there is any reason other than the alleged saving for having all these elections on the same day, please let us hear it. The only one that I have heard is the financial argument, which we must take seriously. Of course, the best financial argument of the lot would be the one that I would offer to the Government, which is not to hold the referendum at all. Perhaps we could have the figures on that just to show the probity with which I assessed these questions of public expenditure. If there is another explanation, let us have it, but in the mean time what is conceivably lost by having the flexibility that my noble friend is offering?
My Lords, I very much support what my noble friend Lord Tyler said. I think the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, gave away his game right in his last remark. I speak as a neighbour of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for goodness knows how many years in Birmingham. He is always unbelievably persuasive and I am quite often on his side, but not on this. We have here a bewildering number of dates, not just his: in addition, we have 30 June, 15 September, 6 October, 13 October and 3 May 2012.
I argue that there is a very positive reason for having it on 5 May, as proposed. I am a strong supporter of referendums, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, in what I take his view to be. Against the fashion I took the view that we would be much better served as a nation had we put the big European issues to the electorate right from the beginning in referendums. I said that in my first election manifesto of 1970, so I come to it as a supporter. Following that, however, I also believe that we should have the biggest possible turnout for such a referendum. The fact that 5 May coincides with other elections I see not as a disadvantage but as an advantage. Far more people are likely to produce a good turnout on that day than, say, for a separate election in September or October, let alone in 2012. It would obviously also be far more cost-effective; the extra cost of a separate election would be eliminated.
I cannot see the advantage of what is now being proposed. With all legislation the test should be what is in the interest of the user and the consumer. In this case the consumer is the elector, and I would have thought overwhelmingly that his interest would be very much to have it on the same day. He is much more likely to go out willingly on that day, and we will achieve a much bigger vote.
At this point it is worth remembering the evidence of the Electoral Commission to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. It is interesting because the committee specifically sought clarification of the commission’s position on the combination of a referendum with other polls. In 2002, the commission had stated that referendums on fundamental issues of national importance should be considered in isolation. Jenny Watson, the chairman, explained that the commission had reconsidered this view and had decided that the evidence was not conclusive enough to support its earlier position that a referendum should never be combined with another poll. According to the committee:
“Ms Watson said that the Commission had decided that on balance there were definite benefits from combining the AV referendum with other polls, especially because there would not be so much ‘voter fatigue, which would be the case if you didn’t combine,”.
That was the commission’s considered opinion against a background of scepticism on this position. I agree with that. I think it is a very strong case. The question is clear and the public are entirely capable of making up their minds on this issue, and it is a bit condescending to suggest otherwise.
The amendment is not about voting on the same day; it is about a contingency plan in the event of Parliament not being able to deliver in the timescale required to meet 5 May. I am in favour of a referendum, but it is very risky to move forward with the possibility that it could not be held because Parliament cannot deliver. Will the noble Lord address that issue?
The noble Lord has had to listen to the debate for only the short time in which we have been speaking to know that the attack is coming on several fronts at the same time. It is perfectly true that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, stuck to that particular argument, but that has not been the only argument adduced. My argument is, counter to that of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that all power and effort should be devoted to having the referendum on 5 May because that is to the advantage of the public and the whole system. That is how we will get the biggest possible vote, and it is for that reason that I support the 5 May date. We would be quite mistaken to turn our back on it.
Like many other noble Lords, I did not find it easy to get in here from where I live, in Wales, this morning. I regret that I did not see the groupings suggested for these amendments in advance, because we would have done better to separate the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, which would give us a contingency plan in case it was impossible to make 5 May, from the amendments that I and some other noble Lords have put forward, which suggest an alternative date. It is my view, which I shall argue again, that it is not right to have these referendums on the same day.
Before I come on to the aspect of that argument, I shall say a couple of words in response to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who is a great supporter of the alternative vote—and I am glad to have common ground with him. I did not take it terribly well when he said that the debate on this has already been interminable. It is a bit odd to say that a debate has been interminable as you jump to your feet to make a substantial contribution yourself. Leaving that to one side, I believe that this is a desperately important matter, particularly to the people of Scotland and Wales, who have some representatives on the Benches opposite. To say that we have had an interminable debate—I think that we had one of about an hour and a half the other day—suggests that this Government are uninterested in concluding debates in a civilised and thorough manner and merely want to push this Bill on to the statute book with a sort of droit de seigneur because they won the general election. So I thought that was sad.
I also did not find the noble Lord’s 1998 analogy terribly convincing. Yes, there were two separate polls in London in 1998, but they were both on local government matters—elections to the council and changes in the structure of government in London. People’s minds were on local government at that time, and it is not unreasonable to expect a combined vote on that. But here you are having local government elections at the same time as you debate what system should be used for national elections. I certainly do not underestimate voters’ intelligence; it is when Governments try to confuse them that voters get confused. There could not be any recipe more confusing to the voter than combining a referendum on what system should be used for general elections in future with one on who should run their local council tomorrow. That is a very sad combination and, on this side of the House, we have tried various ways to skin the cat and to avoid it.
The other topic that will come up on other amendments is cost; it is the only substantial argument put forward by most of the speakers for the Government for combining the two things. I except the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, from that charge. On this matter, I have just received a most helpful and polite note from the Leader of the House in response to the promise that he made last week to set out the cost in full. It sheds light on one confusion that arose last week, when nobody knew whether it would save £15 million, or whether £30 million would be saved, by having the two things on the same day. I shall paraphrase the noble Lord’s letter, and no doubt he will interrupt if I get him wrong; he said that it would save £15 million, because it would cost less to have the referendum on AV, and that it would save £15 million in addition because it would cost less to have local government elections if there was an AV referendum. My sense is that an official has sensibly not tried to get too sophisticated in the analysis and has attributed half the cost to one thing and half to the other.
That is a great clarification for which the House will be grateful. It enables us to concentrate on the wider figure. I am not going to have a discussion on whether £80 million, £50 million or £30 million is a very large sum of money. My experience is that many people do not distinguish the number of noughts on the end of a figure anyway. If I had £1 for every time the Guardian has said £1 billion when it means £1 million or £1 million when it means £1 billion, I should be rich enough to pay for the referendum out of my own back pocket.
There is a curiosity highlighted by this. If it is worth having such a referendum at a cost of around £80 million, surely it is right to pay an extra £15 million—less than 20 per cent of that—to have a referendum that really means something and settles the argument one way or the other once and for all. Penny-pinching to the tune of £15 million would not make great sense and is in danger of dumping us with an illegitimate referendum. The reality, as every Member of this House knows, is that it has nothing to do with cost. The Government want it on that day as part of a deal. The Lib Dems, wrongly in my view, think that they are more likely to win the referendum if it takes place on 5 May. It has nothing to do with cost, which is a convenient stick to beat opponents with.
So, do we think that combining referendums with local elections is a good thing? It saves money, which is a good thing. Why then, in Wales, is there to be a referendum in March and another in May? Why not combine those two? It would save money. That shows again the vacuity of the cost argument. It is not about cost. That is why the Government are prepared to pay for a referendum on Welsh legislative powers in March separate from the one in May. It is about the view of Lib Dem members of the coalition that they are more likely to win on 5 May and the Government’s view that the Lib Dems can have what they want, as long as they—the Government—get their boundary changes and a reduction in the number of MPs that will increase their advantage in the House of Commons as a result.
This is a crude political deal justified to this House as it was to the other place on arguments that have no substance. I hope that noble Lords will not back the Government in this attempt.
My Lords, first, I am a little seduced by the amendment, although I think it is a little sneaky and probably has an overtone. Secondly, I am provoked by my noble friend Lord Fowler, who said that he wishes there had been a referendum before we joined the EEC. I have to say that had there been such a referendum we would not have joined. Thirdly, I support the remarks of my noble friend Lord Hamilton. It is the importance of the occasion and the importance of the outcome that concern me. If there is any doubt at all that that there could be confusion—I am not being patronising about electors—as a result of holding both votes on the same date, I would regret that very much. At all times we should consider the correctness of the outcome. Whichever outcome we may want, it is a matter of what the electorate want.
I agree with the noble Baroness and wish to emphasise the fact that changing the system of election does away with a system that we have had for hundreds of years. The Bill proposes to sweep that all aside on the same day as holding local elections. It is an outrageous suggestion. Changing the electoral system is a one-off instrument that will change voting in this country forever. Yet we will be asked to have a discussion of this huge constitutional change in the midst of local elections.
I was a member of a county borough council for 18 years and leader of it for a number of years. We treated our elections seriously. We spent months preparing a manifesto for the elections and went out and fought the elections on the basis of the manifestos. We in the Labour Party, and in the Conservative Party, argued our case. We went around canvassing for our policies. We spoke through loudspeakers on corners of streets to convey our message to the electorate—although I do not think that they do that now. What will we do if, first of all, we have to convince electors that they should vote for our policies—whichever our party—and, at the same time, ask them to make a decision about a vital and profound alteration to our electoral system?
As I have said before, this is an outrageous proposal which treats the electorate with contempt. The electorate are being asked to change something that they have had for 100 years. They understand the system and have got used to it. In times gone by—certainly something has happened since—the electorate were producing electoral decisions based on a very high turnout, sometimes 75 or 80 per cent. Here we are asking them to change the system without a proper discussion. This system is complex—it is a change that people will not easily understand. People deserve to be informed of exactly what results will appertain from the change and be told exactly how it will work before they can make a decision. That cannot be mixed up with local elections.
I cannot understand why the coalition is bringing this forward. It has time to make a change. Although I do not agree with the AV system, it would probably do better if it had a separate referendum at a different time so that people could be asked to understand what is being proposed. If the Government are unable to change their mind on holding the referendum at the same time as other local and regional elections, they will regret it very much. I urge them to change their minds.
My Lords, I support my noble friend’s amendment. It gives me, and others, another chance to state yet again that, apart from the occasional speech, I do not find any great resistance among the Labour ranks to the actual fact of holding a referendum. There will be people who are very principled against it and I respect that. However, it has to be judged against the majority. I do not think that my noble friend’s amendment is a destructive or wrecking amendment, designed to defeat the Bill and bring the Government into chaos—although it would not take much, right enough. However, that is another story. The timing of the Bill in relation to other matters this week might split this collaboration Government. Supporting this amendment does not necessarily mean being against the referendum. I would look forward to a referendum and would participate strongly against AV. That is everybody’s right if and when it happens. I make it clear again, especially for the benefit of the Liberal Benches, that I am not against the referendum. Let the people speak and I will do my best to influence them.
Mention has been made of Scotland. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, yet again aggressively mentioned what happened in Scotland. Frankly, you would need to have been there to see the shambles. It has been indicated that this is a simple thing. There was a sly reference, suggesting that, by expressing doubt about the efficacy of the referendum, we are somehow casting aspersions on our own people. The Scots are pretty good at insulting other people; we are not too bad at insulting our own as well, but do not let anybody else insult us. One had to be there in May 2007. I spoke about this last week so I will not go into too much detail about it.
I find myself being tempted down the road of dealing with the Liberals again so I will spend just a minute on them. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, uses the word “internal” about this debate. My God, this is only a very early stage. Last week, when we discussed the first group of amendments, the only Liberal who spoke was the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. The Liberal Benches were otherwise silent. There was no participation, scrutiny or involvement and there were no interventions—nothing. Is that what this House is here for? There might have been an occasional intervention but they were so fleeting that I do not remember them. I see the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, indicating disagreement. I did not hear or see much involvement from the Liberal Benches last week. I think there was one intervention from the Conservative Benches from the only noble Lord who happened to be there at the time—the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton. If this House is a revising Chamber, as I strongly believe it is, where was the participation? The Liberal Peers should look to their own house on that.
There was no consultation with the devolved Assemblies on holding the referendum on the same day. Before I am accused of repetition, that cannot be said often enough or sincerely enough to get across to the Government just how insulting that is held to be in Scotland. There was no consideration, no consultation and no involvement. Scotland was somehow tagged on as though it was a type of poodle at the end of Westminster. I say that although I am no Scot nat. It has been badly handled and it indicates what has been disregarded in the rush.
The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, made some points; frankly, they could be telling. I do not dismiss in any way what he said. They are relevant matters, worth discussing. However, they are made inoperable in this sense. I have here the business and minutes of proceedings for this House. The forward business for Monday 20 December of this year—not next year—says that it is expected that the Committee stage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill will conclude. That is the rush to judgment, referred to by several of my noble friends, which we could all collectively regret, although I hope not. I do not want to cite the Dangerous Dogs Act, which many noble Lords will recall. However, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, the rush to judgment is dangerous and it should not continue.
My noble friend Lord Rooker has mentioned the lifeboat syndrome, and that is right, because this amendment would give the Government a chance to think again. I keep coming up against a brick wall in the sense that the logical, rational side of me cannot grasp why there is this rush to legislate—a 300-page Bill being rammed through the House of Lords in a matter of weeks. Then the politician in me asks, “Why? There’s got to be a reason”. And once again we come up against the reason: the reason is political expediency. The Conservative side of the collaboration Government are desperate to get their boundaries Bill, and the Liberal part of the collaboration Government are desperate to get a referendum Bill to save their party from destroying itself even more than it is going to do this week. That is political expediency and it is to be regretted. I hope there is a legitimate response to the amendment of my noble friend Lord Rooker.
My Lords, I would like briefly to follow up the wise words of the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, when she asked the question: how important is this? It seems to me that the time taken for debate is a reflection of how important we think this issue is—although I dare say she and I would have perhaps agreed a generation or two ago on behalf of the suffragettes, had our predecessors moved more quickly to give them the vote. It seems to me that, on this issue, we need a thorough discussion about systems of voting and a consideration of how important this is with regard, for example, to elected police commissioners. I am unsure exactly what—
I apologise if I have misunderstood, but it seemed to me that the word “important” was of great significance to this issue, which will have long-term consequences for the way the whole of our political system develops—probably much greater than, for example, elected police commissioners. As I was going to say, however, I would be interested to know what system they are to be elected under—maybe an additional system to add to the ones we have got.
The importance of this issue is greater than considerations of cost—not only because it is not a once-in-a-generation but a once-in-three-generations decision, but also because of the unintended consequences. The consequences might be desirable or they might be undesirable: how we as political parties—which is most of us in the House, although obviously not all— do our politics; how we organise; how we campaign; how we select candidates. All those sorts of issues have yet to be thought through. I was very against my own party’s decision—I am very sorry; I see that I have upset the Front Bench in front of me—to bring in a closed voting system for the European elections. I thought they were wrong, I told them they were wrong, I threatened that I would not vote Labour if they brought that system in. But the women who had called for the vote for women for so long would never forgive me if I did not vote, and I knew that my hand would drop off if I did not vote Labour, so eventually I did. But I thought that the system was wrong, and I maintain it was wrong. What is important, however, is how that has made a difference to how we do our politics. So even if I was wrong and the system chosen was the perfect one, it had consequences for the way that we campaign, for the way that we select and, indeed, for the power of the parties. I think that it gave far too much power to parties in the selection of candidates. We had not had time on that occasion to think through and talk about it. I believe that my party was wrong in doing it at that stage.
However, before we cast our votes in the referendum, I believe that we need a debate on how these different systems have worked. How have the Welsh and Scottish systems worked? How has it worked in Northern Ireland, where there has been a local government system for a long time? How is the European system working? We need that debate and therefore it seems to me important to give us time before we come to this decision. We need time to debate the matter in this House—although we are privileged and that is a luxury—but even more important is to make time for the electorate to consider this important question before we ask it to make such an important decision.
My Lords, I fear that a number of important issues are all too liable to become confused in the minds of electors on 5 May if the referendum is held on the same date as the local elections. The Government are understandably preoccupied with advancing their policy of a referendum in which the people of this country will be offered a choice as to the future system of elections to the House of Commons. It is a profoundly important issue. Also to be held on that day are local elections, which are profoundly important as well. We ought to keep the interests of local government in the forefront of our minds, as there is a question about respect for local government that we should consider very carefully. However, perhaps I may come back to that point in a second.
Whichever side of the argument we may be on—in favour or against the alternative vote system—and whichever side we are on in the argument about whether there should be some sort of change to the system of electing Members of Parliament, I think we all agree that this is a momentous issue of the utmost importance. It is also an issue that will be considered only on very rare occasions in our political life. I believe that there is a compelling case for keeping the nation’s deliberations on that issue distinct from the deliberations on other important issues that are to be put to the vote. Therefore, in the interests of clarity and wise decision-taking, and, as my noble friend Lord Rooker put it to us, in the interests of simply not rushing the process, there seems to be a very strong case for holding the referendum separately from, and later than, the local government elections.
The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, argued in favour of holding the two elections on the same day precisely on the basis that the referendum is extremely important and that it would be most unsatisfactory if it were to be determined on a low turnout. However, I put it to the noble Lord that there is a better and more reliable means of ensuring that there is an adequate turnout, which is to introduce a threshold requirement into this legislation. That is a debate for another day but I think we shall have that debate. Personally, I hope very much that Parliament will conclude that we should not change anything so fundamental in our constitution as our system of elections to the House of Commons on a derisory turnout, that we should insist on a requirement for a minimum percentage of those entitled to vote and that, if that minimum percentage is not reached, there will be no change to the system. I think that that is a better way to secure the entirely valid objective of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler.
Perhaps I may come back for a moment to the question of respect for local government. One sadness of my political life is that in all the years that I have been in one House of Parliament or another I have seen local government disparaged and demeaned, and, if I may say so, that has been all too characteristic of Parliament and of Governments of all parties over a long period. We are at risk of showing insufficient consideration and respect for the validity and importance of the local elections on 5 May next year. One understands why in the mid-1970s central government felt that they had to move to restrict some of the more exciting activities of local government. Indeed, one Secretary of State said that the party was over.
But the Treasury—above all, the Treasury, I believe—exploited that opportunity quite ruthlessly. Expenditure in this country and power in this country are, in a way, a zero-sum game, and the Treasury was deeply resentful of any fiscal independence on the part of local government and of any independent rights that local government might have to raise money. So we saw increasing restrictions. We saw capping. We saw limits on borrowing. We saw an increasing tendency of government to ring-fence the grant to local government through specific grants. All of this has been profoundly bad for our democratic culture in this country. If there is an alienation from our politics in this country then I believe that, in important measure, it stems from this source. Therefore I think that we should always think very carefully about the standing of local government, the dignity of local government and, indeed, the independence of local government to act as a check and a balance within our constitution and within the power structure of this country.
To muddle up the issues on 5 May next year could with some justification be interpreted as cynical and as far too characteristic of the habitual attitude of central government and, I fear, of Parliament to local government. For that reason also, therefore, it would be unfortunate if the two sets of elections were to be held on the same day next spring or early summer. However, the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Rooker is not prescriptive in this particular matter. It allows a margin of flexibility. It allows the Government to reflect carefully on whether it is wise to hold the referendum on the same day as the local elections. As my noble friend said, it also provides a contingency margin so that, if we do indeed find that the preparations cannot be advanced with sufficient speed and the conditions in which the referendum would be held would be unsatisfactory, the Government can with dignity adjust the date and we can still go ahead with the referendum on this extremely important issue, but we can do so in a sensible set of circumstances. So I hope that the House will be willing to support my noble friend Lord Rooker if he presses his amendment this afternoon.
My Lords, I rise with one intention only: to ask a specific question of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and ask him to deal with it in his response. In asking it I should declare an interest as one of the political panel drawn from all the political parties, from both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, who act as advisers and information givers to the Electoral Commission.
At the moment the Electoral Commission believes that it is possible to hold these elections on joint dates without problems. Along with everyone else, however, it acknowledges—I think this was the key point made by my noble friend Lord Rooker—that problems could arise; and if they do arise, that will have a major impact on how well the referendum—or indeed the elections, but particularly the referendum—is held.
If in the course of events the Electoral Commission decides that it is not able to conduct a referendum in a manner that is acceptable to both national and international standards, will the Government put off the referendum to another date? That is an important question and I hope the noble Lord will address it with some care.
My Lords, I want to follow that specific question. I am pleased that my noble friend was able to intervene before me. It is not just a question of whether the Electoral Commission would recommend that the date be changed; it is whether the Government for other reasons might wish to change the date of the referendum. I would remind the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that in 2001 a Government had to defer elections due to the foot and mouth crisis. All over the country, returning officers were arguing with their local authorities that it would be impractical, because of problems at polling stations, to carry out polling on that particular day. In addition to the question asked by my noble friend, I would therefore like to know what would happen in those circumstances.
In Clause 4(7) of the Bill there is reference to,
“Section 16 of the Representation of the People Act 1985 (postponement of poll at parish elections etc) does not apply to any polls taken together under subsection (1)”,
and subsection (1)(b) refers specifically to,
“a local referendum in England”.
So I think that we should have some assurance about what would happen in the emergency circumstances that might arise.
I had to leave the Chamber for personal reasons during the course of a couple of speeches, but I understand that reference was made to our alleged inconsistency in these matters. I would like to draw the House’s attention to the then Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill which was considered by Parliament earlier this year—a Bill produced by the then Labour Government. Under Clause 29 of that legislation we find my noble friend's amendment. Under “Referendum on voting systems”, it states:
“A referendum is to be held, no later than 31 October 2011, on the voting system for parliamentary elections”.
In other words, we showed in our Bill the flexibility that my noble friend seeks to establish in this Bill. Our position is perfectly consistent with the position that we took earlier this year.
I am very pleased to see a large number of Cross-Benchers in the Chamber today. The other day we debated an aspect of this Bill, when some of us were a little concerned that the Cross-Benchers had perhaps not been able to hear the debate. That is the insufficiency of consideration that has been given to the effectiveness of the electoral system proposed in this Bill. There is a lot of evidence out there to suggest that the optional multi-preference election system under the alternative vote system—which applies not in Australia generally in its federal Parliament arrangements, but only in one state, Queensland—is flawed. There has been a lot of academic work to prove that. In later stages of the Bill I will bring forward evidence, on the basis of international evidence which we have been able to collate, to dismantle systematically the case made for that system.
Even this morning I received a paper on STV which applies under the Scottish system for local elections. The interesting thing about STV in Scotland is that when a by-election takes place there it triggers an AV election. In other words, within the United Kingdom we have examples of AV operating which have not been fully considered by Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, drew my attention to that the other day—he nods his head. What happened in those 32 by-elections in Scotland will be of great interest to the House when we produce that information. This morning I received a document, whose authors are Professor David Denver of Lancaster University, Dr Alistair Clark of Belfast and Dr Lynn Bennie of Aberdeen, on the operation of the STV system in Scotland—not on AV as it applies in individual constituencies when there is a by-election.
More work needs to be done on the electrical system proposed in the Bill before Parliament finally decides what the system should be. Furthermore, in the event that we proceed with the system proposed in the Bill, there should be time for a full public debate before any referendum takes place within the United Kingdom.
The noble Lord seems to suggest again, as have a number of noble Lords, that there simply has not been sufficient time to consider the relative merits of electoral systems and in particular AV. Is the noble Lord aware that a royal commission recommended the adoption of the AV system in 1910; that an all-party Speaker’s Conference made the same recommendation in 1917; and that the House of Commons voted for the introduction of the alternative vote system in 1931? Does he consider that this is perhaps the only place where 100 years is deemed inadequate time for consultation before voters are allowed to say how their representatives should be chosen?
That is the intervention of someone who has not done all his homework. It is true that AV was considered, but not in the form that is proposed in the Bill. That is at the heart of my argument. It is a different system. There are three major systems available under the alternative vote and the historic debate in this country has taken place on the Australian system, where it is compulsory to vote. Indeed, if you do not exercise all your votes, under the Australian AV system, your vote is discounted, not even taken into account.
I am very grateful to my noble friend, who has certainly done his homework and research very carefully indeed. Have I been advised correctly that the type of AV system that the Government propose should be used for elections to our House of Commons is found elsewhere in the world only in Papua New Guinea and Fiji? Has my noble friend, in the course of his research, found any lessons of more general application from those two laboratory experiments, which may be useful for us to think about as we consider an appropriate system for use in this country in the future?
You bet your life we will.
I thank noble Lords who have come back to this issue of confusion. Can we knock on the head, once and for all, the suggestion that we are calling people stupid? People are not quite as obsessed by politics as we are and I always thought that it was the role of this House to look at legislation, to look at how it would work out in the country, in the community, in our experience, and bring back any concerns before legislation is passed. That is what we are doing. We are not, for a moment, calling anyone stupid. On Tuesday, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, thought that in changing his parliamentary constituency in Scotland, he had also changed his European parliamentary constituency. I would not, for a second, call him stupid just because he does not appreciate that Scotland has only one European constituency.
I take this opportunity to ask about the 12 cities that are holding a referendum for mayor. I understand that some might be put off until 2012, but will the Minister tell us exactly where we are on that and, indeed, when the localism Bill will enter the House? Before I move off this issue of confusion, I say only that, if we are not careful—this is a serious point—we could end up having more spoilt ballot papers than the majority of votes, either for or against, under the alternative vote referendum. Given the legality of the Bill, there will be deep problems.
Who are we expecting to convey the arguments on the doorstep, if we proceed with an election in May? I would like to see anyone here get together a group of councillors facing re-election. These people are now going through very difficult times, having to cut something like 30 per cent of their budgets over the next four years. There will be serious cuts in adult services, child services and street cleaning, and some people may be moving to fortnightly waste collections. Any idea that you are going to knock on the door and explain that to the public and then say, “By the way, let’s have a chat about the alternative vote referendum”, is not living in the real world. I would like to be a fly on the wall in a room when anybody here attempts to do that. Without people on the ground being active in campaigns, be they for referenda or elections, they are not democratic election.
It seems rather ironic to have a referendum on our democracy at a time when there are elections in some parts of the country and not in others. By that very fact, you will skew—
Would the noble Baroness like to turn to Amendment 12, which is in this group? As I understand it, she is proposing that this referendum should take place on the same day as the mayoral and London Assembly elections, so she is now arguing against her own amendment. Will she come to that amendment in due course?
I know the noble Baroness has been extremely influential in her party. Does she recall that on a number of occasions her Government decided to have a general election to the House of Commons on the same day as local elections? Were those not the circumstances that she is now criticising?
I thank the noble Lord. He is right, and I never have a problem saying when I am in the wrong. When I laid the amendment, I did so to give us more time to debate it. I think the noble Lord is quite right, and I am happy to withdraw that amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said that the fact that a number of us are tabling different amendments is causing confusion. If the Benches opposite want to join us and support either Amendment 5 or Amendment 6, I would be happy to withdraw all my amendments, and I thank the noble Lord for his intervention.
I think it is ironic to have a referendum on democracy on a day when we are having some elections and not others. Not having an election in London will depress the turnout, and there will be a variable result across the country. Therefore, I will support any amendment not to have a referendum on the same day as any other election, and I will appreciate answers to the questions I asked.
My Lords, I rise briefly to support my noble friend Lord Rooker in his amendment and to speak equally briefly to the amendment standing in my name and that of my noble friend Lady McDonagh. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on his great debating point. I thought he showed enormous courage by making it. Having just been blown out of the water by my noble friend Lord Lipsey, to bounce back so quickly indicates a degree of perhaps reckless courage, but courage nevertheless.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, intervened to tell us what took place about AV in 1911 and subsequently. I have watched the career of the noble Lord with some interest. He has been better at fixing by-elections than at participating in them in his time as chief executive of the Liberal Democrats, but let us bring him bang up to date so far as AV is concerned, and particularly as far as your Lordships' House is concerned. As recently as 1998, AV was denounced as “disturbingly unpredictable” by no less a personage than the late Roy Jenkins. I cannot claim any close association with Roy Jenkins, although I was his Whip in the 1970s, and a pretty tough job that was, but I appreciate that he commanded enormous respect in both Houses of Parliament.
I want to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. I know he is a notable personage in the Conservative Party, but his was the first Back-Bench speech I have heard in favour of this Bill. The Conservative Party normally sits mute during the passage of this legislation because it knows full well what it is about. I do not think I am betraying any secrets in saying that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler and I had a long and friendly parliamentary relationship in the other place. Now that we can both escape from the wrath of our respective activists, I can say that we were paired for some years in the other place. I never knew he was a secret referendum addict during that time—not that it would have made any difference, of course, but I thought that his speech was at least supportive of this Bill.
I do not want to delay the House unduly, or to repeat anything that I said in debates last week. However, on AV and its possible complications, I think the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who will reply to this debate, owes the House a detailed explanation as to how exactly voters—and particularly the Scots—will be able to differentiate between the various elections and look at AV as well. He shakes his head: as a Scot, I know he would be delighted to tell me.
Actually, I thought this debate would be replied to from the government Front Bench by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, so I have a proposition to put to him which I hope his noble friend will pass on. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, and I have one thing in common. He used to represent my hometown of Stockport in the Labour interest in those days, before apostasy became fashionable. If the noble Lord, Lord McNally, believes that the alternative vote system is a simple one, and that we are being condescending and patronising to the electorate by saying it deserves a proper and full debate and a date on its own to be voted on, let me issue this challenge. I invite him to walk with me through the streets of Stockport next Saturday morning and ask two questions of anybody we come across. First, are you in favour of the alternative vote system; and, secondly, could you tell me what it is? Perhaps we could ask a third question as well: would you mind accompanying us to watch Stockport County? That is where I will be heading.
I do not want to extend that same invitation to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, because I suspect he is not a round ball man. However, if he would pass the invitation on to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, I would be grateful. If he could tell your Lordships’ House—all of us, and particularly the Cross Benchers—how it is possible to make such a fundamental change to our electoral system on the same day as there are numerous other elections taking place, without causing massive confusion from one end of the United Kingdom to the other, I would be even more grateful.
My Lords, may I ask the Leader of the House a practical question? Having sat through the debate on Amendment 5, which has lasted now an hour and 20 minutes, and bearing in mind that there is a great deal more of this Committee stage, is it actually practical for the Government to have 5 May as the date for this referendum?
My Lords, I support the proposition of my noble friend Lord Rooker. When I came into this House a couple of months ago, I was told very quietly that this is a reflective Chamber, and we take our time here and mop up the mistakes made in the House of Commons by looking at Bills in a detailed way. If there ever is an opportunity to caw canny, as they say in Scotland, I think it is this amendment today. My noble friend Lord Rooker said it would not change anything; it would still give the Government freedom to decide when to have the referendum. When I participated as a very keen observer in the Scottish Parliament elections in 2007, in the constituency across the River Clyde from me there were 1,600 discarded and spoiled votes. The majority of our win was less than 100. The SNP then went on to govern Scotland as a result of a shambolic election. I spoke to the returning officers, and they said that it was done too quickly: that too many pressures were piled on them and that situation was the result. As my noble friend Lord McAlvoy has said, the debate here will end on 20 December until next year. All that administrative stuff has to be undertaken after the legislation has been passed. I fear that we could have another shambles as a result.
There is time for us to tell the Government that we can slow down. This is a radical Government in terms of the welfare reforms that they are implementing. A couple of months ago, the Chancellor stood in the House of Commons and pulled £17 billion from the hat. We do not know where those welfare reforms will hit. We know that there is a child benefit threshold for higher rate taxpayers. But last Thursday, the Treasury sneaked out a report stating that another 100,000 people will be taken into the higher rate tax threshold because it has been lowered by £1,400. As a former chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, I say that the problems are piling up for this Government and that they will be answered in perhaps a year or 15 months’ time.
It was the same in the House of Commons when the then Chancellor who went on to be Prime Minister abolished the 10 pence tax rate. I remember saying, “When you do anything in the tax system”, as noble Lords know, “there are always winners and there are always losers. Have you thought about the losers?”. At the time, the Government did not think about the losers. I suggest that there will be losers in the radical legislative proposals that this Government have put forward and that the questions will beg answers in one year or more.
Some problems are being played out at the moment; for example, tuition fees. I am a good friend of the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, but to say that he is standing on his head in terms of tuition fees is an understatement. My former friend Ann Widdecombe has shown us something on “Strictly Come Dancing” that Vince has not done on the tuition fees—simply because the problem has not been thought out.
My noble friend Lord Donoughue was in Downing Street with Jim Callaghan and has written an excellent book. He said that Jim Callaghan as Prime Minister had a “maybe man” in Downing Street. The Government might have had a policy, which they were going to implement, and the “maybe man” said, “Hold on. What are the implications of this?”. This is a “maybe man” moment in this Chamber, so that my noble friend Lord Rooker’s amendment gets the opportunity to be reflected on and the Government do not run headlong into a shambles of their own making.
My Lords, this is the sort of opportunity that the Government should take. My noble friend Lord Rooker’s amendment is modest and sensible. He is saying that it would be possible for the Government to have the referendum on any date between 5 May and 31 October 2011. He is not addressing the combination issue; nor is he addressing how long it would take to have proper debates. He is saying, “Give yourselves some flexibility”.
There are obviously two reasons for flexibility. The first is in relation to the administration of the election. In relation to the administration of the referendum, the Electoral Commission believes that,
“on balance … it should be possible to deliver the different polls proposed for 5 May 2011”.
I am quoting the chairman of the Electoral Commission when giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament. It is to be noted that that conclusion, she says, is expressly contingent upon “the key practical risks” being “properly managed”. The Electoral Commission has several times repeated that,
“the rules on how the referendum will be conducted must be clear from at least six months in advance”.
We are now less than six months in advance from the date of the referendum. It has added that,
“provided the Bill receives Royal Assent in time to allow a referendum period of at least 10 weeks, there will be adequate time for the Commission to register campaigners and designate lead campaigning organisations, and for campaigners to put the arguments to voters”.
Put neutrally, it is pretty obvious that there is a significant risk that the administration will not be ready by 5 May 2011. That should be looked at in the context of the Government not having consulted, before they chose 5 May 2011, either the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly. The Scottish Executive expressed the view that holding the referendum on 5 May 2011,
“shows a lack of respect for the devolved administrations”,
“undermines the integrity of elections to the Scottish Parliament”.
As everybody knows, the Welsh Assembly Government are likewise opposed to holding the referendum on the same day as the Assembly elections.
The Select Committee of this House published its seventh report of the Session 2010-11. It was printed on 10 November 2010 and its cross-party unanimous conclusion was:
“Given that the Bill was introduced in the House only six months before the proposed referendum date, there is a danger that these deadlines will not be met”.
The obvious and sensible conclusion for the Government is to give themselves leeway if they cannot meet the deadlines, either because of organisational issues or issues in relation to scrutiny. A Government who say no to that are a Government in their early days. If they were more sensible, they would say, “Yes, I see the force of the argument and we will agree to that”. If the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, pushes the matter to a vote, we will support it.
My Lords, we have had another series of interesting debates, largely on the same issue that we discussed the other night—the question of the date. Noble Lords who were there will have recognised that many of the issues that were raised last week were raised again today. I make no great criticism of that. It is inevitable in the early stages of discussing a Bill. The only surprise is that nobody, in an hour and a half of debate, mentioned a subject that was raised several times last week—that of the royal wedding. So as far as I can see, we have moved a great step forward over the course of the past week.
The debate really divided into three groups of speakers. First, there were those who were against the amendment and in favour of the Government’s proposal. Secondly, there were those like the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who sensed that the Government were doing the right thing in offering a referendum but that they have not thought through all the various contingencies and needed some help and support—the word “lifeboat” was used and that sort of language. And thirdly, there were those like the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, my noble friend Lord Hamilton, and one or two others, who were opposed to the referendum and opposed to AV, and they also would support the amendment.
Yes, there is a fourth group which supports a reform of the electoral system but not this reform. But this amendment is about the date, and all those who will support the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, if he presses it to a vote, have understood that by accepting this amendment, in practice the referendum cannot take place on 5 May. Amendment 5 does not specify an alternative appropriate day. Setting the date in the Bill, as we have done, gives certainty to those involved in the planning and campaigning. I could not help thinking during the course of the debate that if the Government had published a Bill with no date, noble Lords opposite would be the first to get up and say, “How outrageous this is. How can anybody campaign? This is the Government making it up as they go along”.
We decided on 5 May because it is the best date. It is when 84 per cent of the population will already be going to the polls. Or I should say that 84 per cent of the population will have the opportunity of going to the polls—the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is right to admonish me on that. I made the argument last week and I make it again: it will save us a great deal of money—something like £30 million—if we go ahead on the day that we have decided.
The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said that people will be confused. There is a lot of outrage in the House today about this sense of confusion. As my noble friend Lord Tyler said, people have no difficulty in voting in local elections and general elections on the same day. In this House, we are used to making lots of decisions every day, but the poor people outside are not so blessed with our brains and will find it much more difficult. I think not. People are well capable of deciding who should represent them in terms of local government, the Welsh Assembly or Scottish Parliament. They are able to decide on a simple yes or no whether they wish to have AV. I have no truck with these arguments about confusion.
The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, made a point that was echoed by one or two other noble Lords including the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, about whether it was negligence or discourtesy that we had not consulted the other parliaments and assemblies in the United Kingdom. The Government wanted to make an announcement on a national basis on a given day to Parliament. Even if it was a lack of respect, should we change the date just because of that lack of respect, if there is no other reason not to continue?
I am sure that it would have been all of those things, but none is a reason not to have the referendum on 5 May. That is the point.
The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, asked whether, if we carried on like this, there was any prospect of getting this legislation through not just by the end of January but by the end of January 2020. I have my doubts as well. Of course, that gives the lie to the accusation that we are not debating these issues thoroughly. We could not debate these issues more thoroughly than we have done over the past day and a half in Committee.
Before us is the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who offered us the date “before 31 October”. In the same group we are offered 30 June, 15 September, 6 October and 13 October, and the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, offered us 3 May 2012. It is a smorgasbord of opportunity. I am grateful to noble Lords such as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who have been constructive and helpful by saying that we should save ourselves with this lifeboat of an alternative. However, I am entirely satisfied that, with the evidence from the Electoral Commission and the debates within the Government, we are perfectly capable of holding this referendum on 5 May.
I have one other concern. The real unspoken reason why so many noble Lords opposite are against—
I apologise for interrupting, but the noble Lord appears to be moving on. The heart of the argument expressed by the Select Committee in this House is that there is a significant risk that the date will not be reached. If that is wrong, you can have your referendum on 5 May. Could the noble Lord possibly, out of respect to the committee, answer its point?
The noble Lord, Lord Soley, did indeed ask me a question. He asked—I wrote it down—“What happens if the Electoral Commission declares that the referendum cannot be held to an effective standard because of late changes to legislation?” The Electoral Commission has declared itself satisfied with progress so far. There is no reason why that progress should not continue. The conduct schedules to the Bill are based on tried-and-tested election rules. There is nothing new, nothing revolutionary, everything has been done before. It is on that basis that we do not accept that problems will arise.
The noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, was trying to get in but he has had a change of mind, for which I am very grateful. He does not have to intervene.
I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Has there been a change of heart in the Electoral Commission in this case? How recent is the evidence it has now given that in fact it is happy with the progress made on this? What happens if, in the weeks to come, it is no longer happy? Will there then be a case for the Government to change their mind about the date?
The Electoral Commission says:
“It is possible to successfully deliver these different polls on 5 May but only if the risks associated with doing so are properly managed”.
Upon that edifice does the non-round ball man, as he is described, rest his whole case.
The noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, asked whether the Electoral Commission was going to change its mind. I said that it is not going to change its mind because it is rock solid. It has made the assessments, done the research and taken a view. We have accepted that. None of the amendments so far would give us cause to change that view. All these issues were debated in the elected House—in another place. We have had substantial votes on the changing of the date and the different structures of different electoral systems.
What concerns me most is that many noble Lords, who are opposed to this Bill, oppose it because it is one of the political ideas that binds this coalition. In opposing this they see a valuable weapon in bringing down the coalition. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for his kind offer of a lifeboat; I hope he will take it in the spirit in which it is intended if I cannot accept it and very much hope he will withdraw his amendment.
Yes, my Lords, there will be local referendums on this day. There are a number of elections. It might be helpful to noble Lords if I read them out. With the voting systems referendum, there will be elections for the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Irish Assembly. There will be local elections in England, in 36 metropolitan boroughs and 49 unitary authorities; in some of these, one-third are up for election, and some are all up. Then there are the 194 second-tier districts in England. In other words, 279 local authorities will run elections in England. There will be local elections in Northern Ireland and mayoral elections—that was what the noble Baroness was after—in four local authorities in England: those of Bedford, Middlesbrough, Mansfield and Torbay. Then, of course, there will be parish elections in England.
That was not my question. My question was whether this May there will be any local referendums on whether an area has a mayoral election and a mayoral system. Twelve were due to take place in May in our largest cities, and the Government considered putting them off for a year. Some of that will be dealt with in the localism Bill, but no one knows when that Bill will enter the other House. The Government seem to be in a lot of confusion and to be having difficulties with their legislation at the moment. Will all or some of the 12 local city referendums take place in May, or will they be put back to 2012?
My Lords, I am glad for that clarification. I did not fully understand the noble Baroness’s question. The answer is yes—it is likely that there will also be some local, mayoral referendums in England on 5 May, which will be run on the same boundaries as the referendum and local authorities. We have included provision to allow for those polls to be combined with the referendum.
The noble Lord very kindly gave us a list of areas where there will be elections, but perhaps he could give us a list of the areas where there will not be elections. Clearly, London is omitted from that list. Is he suggesting that because of the capital’s enthusiasm for one side or another in this argument, Londoners will somehow troop gaily out to the polls when they have no other reason to do so?
My Lords, without being personal in any way, can I say that I am really looking forward to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, answering one of these debates? His name is on the Bill, but he has not really played much of a part as the leading member of the coalition here.
I really appreciate the fact that the Leader of the House is taking a detailed role in the passage of the Bill. That being so, he has more clout than the others and therefore could have asked for better briefing. Where is the list of risks? Do not tell me that there is no group of Ministers or civil servants assessing the risks of this measure. If there is not, there will be one hell of a row, because every other public body has a risk assessment of things that can go wrong. It is implicit that in the conduct of public administration there should be an assessment of the risks, but there is no mention of that. There is a fixation on certainty instead. I do not mind that; I am just offering the Government a degree of flexibility on the practicalities. I deliberately did not refer to any of the other amendments on the dates. I do not want to get involved in this debate about the combination of referendums, elections and other dates. I would settle for 5 May, no problem, but is it practical?
In paragraph 24 of the Constitution Committee report, to which my noble friend referred briefly, the Electoral Commission said:
“Provided the Bill receives Royal Assent in time to allow a referendum period of at least 10 weeks, there will be adequate time for the Commission to register campaigners and designate”,
My point is that until Royal Assent, not a lot of money can be spent, in the education process, to cover the problems that the public might have. That recent poll was not undertaken 100 years ago, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard said; it was undertaken by YouGov for the Constitution Society in only August/September this year. The issue is that 10 weeks before 5 May takes us to 24 February, and this House is in recess on that day. We rise on 16 February and are not back until 28 February, so we have lost even more. We are back after Christmas for fewer than six weeks until 16 February.
All I am saying is that we should consider the risk of uncertainties. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, mentioned foot-and-mouth disease, and I was involved in some of the meetings at which there were big debates about what to do about the general election. Everyone knew that local elections and general elections were supposed to happen but there were hot discussions in the Cabinet and with the Prime Minister about them. We had a degree of flexibility, but the fact is that no one had planned for foot and mouth. We did not plan for the one in 2007, which was completely self-inflicted. We could have a problem and all I am saying is that, leaving aside some of the issues raised by colleagues, we ought to build in flexibility.
I shall not go through all the debates, but I am grateful for the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes. It is not a sneaky amendment; it is seductive, if you like—I prefer seductive. If she wants sneaky, there is one much further on in the Bill; it came out of last week’s debate and I fully accept that it could be classed as sneaky. I am trying to give the Government the opportunity to have flexibility. All Governments want it; local government wants it. It was in my mind that 31 October had been referred to somewhere. I had forgotten that it was in the Constitutional Reform Bill. The previous Government introduced a Bill without a date—they said that it should be before 31 October.
I have not talked to anyone in the Electoral Commission, although I went to a meeting the other week at which it could not answer some of the questions put by noble Lords. However, this amendment could not possibly cause the Electoral Commission one iota of concern. The date of 5 May is still a runner. That is the Government’s intention, Parliament’s assumption and the assumption that we want everyone outside to make. There is a degree of certainty. No one will say that it is deliberate, but things can happen outside the control of local government, the private sector and central government. It does not really matter; one can think these things up, which is why I am sad to say that we have not had the list from the risk committee that has been discussed in government. I cannot believe that this has not been dealt with somewhere.
We have not had a good response. I have no intention of pushing this, as there are other issues that I want to talk about, but on this amendment I will test the opinion of the House.
Amendments 6 to 14 not moved.
15: Clause 1, page 1, line 6, at end insert—
“( ) The date of the referendum shall not coincide with any poll or polls for any parliamentary assembly or regularly held local government elections.”
My Lords, Amendment 15, which stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Bach, concerns the combination issue, which has been debated on a number of occasions.
The speed with which the Bill has been put together has been justly criticised. One consequence of the haste has been a lack of consultation on the date of the proposed referendum. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly were not consulted about the date, and during the debate on the previous amendment I read to noble Lords the view that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly took on that matter.
The poll, as proposed, will be on 5 May next year. On that date, elections are already scheduled for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, 279 local authorities in England and 26 local councils in Northern Ireland, as well as some mayoral elections. Thanks to the questions asked by my noble friend Lady McDonagh, who sadly is not in her place, we have learnt that, although the legislation has not yet been passed, there will in addition in certain places be a number of referendums on whether there should be mayors. Therefore, 5 May will be a busy electoral day for the vast majority of the British public, even without a referendum vote, and it will be made all the more busy if the poll on changing the electoral system goes ahead on 5 May as well.
We are not suggesting for one moment that voters will be unable to vote in more than one poll at once, but the potential for confusion and administrative complexity must be acknowledged. In its assessment of a combination of referendums and elections, the Electoral Commission pointed to risks arising from different regulatory regimes running concurrently. These regulations can refer to spending limits and also to the make-up of the electoral register. As my noble friend Lord Foulkes informed us in Committee last Monday, overseas voters, for example, are on the parliamentary franchise but not on the local government franchise, whereas citizens of European countries living in the United Kingdom are on the local government franchise but not on the parliamentary one.
Campaigning for the multitude of votes on 5 May 2011 will also cause a muddle. The election campaigns for the local and devolved assemblies will be held on a party basis but the campaign for the referendum will be cross-party. I may be of the same opinion as many noble Lords opposite when it comes to deciding whether we should adopt the alternative vote system for elections to the House of Commons but, should I meet the noble Lord the Leader of the House on the streets of London, I do not believe that we will be arguing for the same party candidate to be returned. On reflection, no party candidates will be returned in London because there will be no voting in London, so I shall be very confused if I am there.
The Gould report on the 2007 elections in Scotland identified the combination of polls as one of the most controversial aspects of the votes that took place on 3 May 2007. Gould concluded in his report:
“If local issues and the visibility of local government candidates are viewed as a primary objective, then separating the Scottish parliamentary from the local government elections is necessary in order to avoid the dominance of campaigns conducted for the Scottish parliamentary contests. In addition, separating the two elections would result in minimising the potential for voter confusion”.
The issues surrounding the local and devolved elections already scheduled deserve the space to be debated and aired without the distraction of totally different matters relating to the referendum. Similarly, if the arguments surrounding the merits or demerits of changing the voting system for the House of Commons are to be fully discussed and understood, they need their own time and space as well. Changing the voting system is a major and significant constitutional reform. It should not get lost among campaigns and arguments.
We believe that our argument for no combination of polls is strengthened given the circumstances in which the date of the referendum vote came about—five days of coalition negotiation and we are told that there is to be a vote on 5 May 2011. It is the sort of thing where it would be useful to consult more widely and then come to a sensible conclusion about the date. Despite knowing that the devolved Assemblies would be voting on this day, neither Scotland, Wales, as I have said, nor Northern Ireland has been consulted on the referendum date. Alex Salmond wrote to the Prime Minister in the following terms:
“I believe that your proposals to hold a referendum on the same day undermines the integrity of the elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These elections are of profound importance to our citizens and I believe they have the right to make their electoral choices for the respective devolved chambers without the distraction of a parallel referendum campaign on the UK voting system”.
The Welsh Assembly Government have been similarly scathing. The fear of distraction from other polls to be held on 5 May was the motivation behind the Welsh Assembly’s decision not to hold its own referendum on extending powers to the Assembly on the same day as Assembly elections.
The cross-party Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House has noted opposition to the combination of polls. It has quoted the matters I have identified from the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly and agrees with that sentiment.
There is a critical issue which all of those issues are but an expression of. Our Constitution Committee said that if you have an election on the same day as other elections, even assuming that you can get through the issue of confusion, there is evidence showing that the reform issue will be swamped by the issue of who you want to have as your elected representative, whether it be in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or the local authority. That is what the evidence shows.
I understand why those negotiating the coalition agreement five days after the election were unaware of that evidence. However, now that we know that the experts are saying that this is the position, and in view of the fact that we are dealing with an issue as important as a change in the electoral system, it is very difficult to see what damage, beyond the money that the extra poll would cost, would be caused by having it on a different date. I cannot believe that the Government honestly think that if we had to have them on different days we could not afford to have them. I cannot believe that they honestly think they could not get enough voters out to make it plausible. If they do think that then we should not have this referendum at all.
I ask the noble Lord the Leader of the House to focus on the issue. He wants a plausible referendum which people have confidence in. Listen to the evidence, and have it on a separate day from all of those other polls. I beg to move.
I am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord for introducing his amendment. As he laid out, it seeks to prevent the referendum from being combined with any other poll. I am aware of the concerns that have been expressed regarding combining polls next May: we had some of them in the previous debate, and last week. However, as I said earlier, 84 per cent of the electorate will already have a reason to go to the polls on 5 May 2011, and combining this with other polls on that day will save in the region of £30 million across all polls.
Combined polls are not unusual and I have every confidence that voters will be able to distinguish between the different polls taking place—in fact, it is increasingly strange to suggest otherwise. What does the Electoral Commission say? It advised that it is possible to successfully deliver these different polls on 5 May. The commission also issued briefings throughout the Bill’s passage through the Commons and has concluded that the Bill contains,
“the necessary provisions for the combination of the referendum poll with the scheduled elections. We are satisfied that the technical issues we have identified with these provisions to date have been addressed by the Government.”.
The commission went on to say:
“The Government has tabled a series of amendments … to reflect relevant changes to the election conduct rules made by the revised conduct Orders for the May 2011 elections to the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly and local councils in Northern Ireland, which have been laid before Parliament. We welcome these amendments which seek to ensure that the combination provisions are accurate and workable”.
The noble and learned Lord quoted the Gould report. I, too, have read what he said, and we can all quote selectively from it.
I cannot quote a combined national referendum and national election but that does not mean that you cannot have one now. In respect of the comparison with 2007, Ron Gould said:
“I do not believe that holding both on the same day would create the same degree of confusion and resultant rejected ballots especially if sufficient advance public information and guidance was provided to the voters”.
The rigorous testing carried out by the Electoral Commission should also reassure those worried about voter confusion. The new draft clearly enables the electorate to understand the choice they are being asked to make and to express their views. The Bill also gives the Electoral Commission a role in providing information about the referendum and how to vote in it, which will help to minimise confusion. For those reasons, I hope the noble and learned Lord will feel that we have covered all the questions that he posed.
The only election which comes to mind when there was a combined referendum was the one which the noble and learned Lord will remember so well in London in 1998.
Following that question from the noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, perhaps I can ask who decided that there should be no consultation with the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly. I accept that there was no obligation whatever on the Government to change their mind on the matter of 5 May but, nevertheless, the decision not to consult was deeply insulting not just to the Parliament and the Assembly concerned but to the nations concerned.
I accept the noble Lord’s point; he has made it before. Perhaps if we were doing it differently, it would be done in a different way. For reasons of confidentiality and of making a statement, and rather than allowing the rumour mill to flow, it was right to make the decision we did.
Can I tempt the Leader of the House to apologise on behalf of the Government to Members of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, as I think there has been discourtesy towards them? He was good enough to say just now that possibly, if the Government were doing this again, they would do it differently. Will he go a step further and make a handsome apology? They have been treated with discourtesy and disrespect.
Will my noble friend comment on the fact that there are many other legislatures where elections, referendums and plebiscites are held simultaneously and the people of those countries do not seem to be incorrigibly undermined in their decisions as a result? Secondly, will he comment on the fact that paragraphs 9 and 10 of the first schedule to the Bill set out a very stringent duty on the Electoral Commission and the various election officers to inform the public? As I understand it, the Electoral Commission intends to circulate to every household in the land a plain English guide to the issues about which the referendum is to be held.
Let me help. What happens is that people concentrate on the election of individuals and they do not focus on the change. As I am on my feet, perhaps I may also say that I was struck by the reference to confidentiality. Has the noble Lord been trying to keep secret from Scotland and Wales the fact that this referendum was going on?
The noble Lord brusquely spurned my offer of a meeting in Stockport this weekend, but perhaps I can further tempt him to put some flesh on the bones of this. Can he confirm that there will be no real problem about adding the alternative vote to all the other matters that will be taking place if the Government get their way and we all have to troop out to vote for various things on the same day? How many people has he come across who have actually advocated the AV system? In his experience, aside from the rather peculiar friends that we all keep in politics, who, among ordinary people, knows exactly how AV works or, in fact, does not work?
I cannot possibly answer the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Soley. If I am able to find out, I will drop him a line. The noble Lord, Lord Snape, introduces an interesting argument: if, as he believes, people do not understand some aspect of this, they should never be asked whether or not they agree with it. Apart from the fact that that shows a surprising degree of arrogance and is patronising to his former constituents, even if they do not understand it now, they will have plenty of opportunity to do so before the referendum takes place.
I hope I have shown no arrogance, nor have I patronised them. They are not my former constituents, in fact. I am talking about the fellow citizens of my home town—the town that the noble and, alas, absent noble Lord, Lord McNally, represented in the Labour interest in the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, the noble Lord cannot get away with that; it is not a plausible response. The fact is that for people who do not take a deep interest in politics, the letters AV make their eyes glaze over. All that we on these Benches are saying is that before such a momentous and dramatic change is put to the British people in a binding referendum, some explanation ought to be put before them as to why this particular system—denounced as it was for many years by the Conservatives’ new-found allies in the Liberal Democrats—is the one and only choice to be available to them on the ballot paper. As for the other point, about being patronising, the noble Lord will notice that I have an amendment down for debate later which gives people genuine choice between first past the post, which I support, and the AV system, which, as far as I am aware, has no great supporters other than those hoping to save their necks among his new-found allies.
How much will the mailing to every elector cost, compared with the £15 million extra for a separate referendum? I would also like to ask the noble Lord—I hope the Cross-Benchers will perhaps excuse me for a moment—a particularly party-organisational question. Those of us who have been involved for many years in elections know that an important part of canvassing and knocking-up—I am sorry about the expression, but it is the one that we use—is that last hour or two of getting known voters out. Earlier today I raised the impact of the proposals on campaigning. My difficulty, which I am sure will be shared with noble Lords opposite who have been involved in this, is knowing who to knock up on the night. You want them to vote for your own political party, but if you know they will not be voting the same way on the AV referendum, you might get a bit choosy. It will be quite difficult to get our normal political activity involved late at night. I am sorry for the Cross-Benchers—this is a party issue. However, it is undoubtedly one that, as we vote in the local government elections, will be uppermost in the minds of all our local organisers.
I add my voice to concerns about the lack of consultation of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. These bodies have been set up for over 10 years and the present Secretary of State makes a huge play of her wish to work with the Welsh Assembly in Wales. If this is a precursor of how the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament are to be treated in future; if this is the result of hurried legislation; if the Leader of the House sees that he has no duty to apologise, not personally but on behalf of the Government, it augurs pretty badly for the relationship in the future.
Perhaps I can add to that. I was not going to intervene in this debate but I was struck by the Leader of the House’s use of the word confidentiality. I have the privilege outside this House of chairing the board of a non-ministerial department—I give a new flavour to the coalition, in some ways, on a UK-wide body. We are responsible and accountable to the four separate Governments. The issue of confidentiality, lack of trust and not being able to be frank and open with Ministers—who are themselves very widely in coalition in the UK—has, in my experience, never arisen. The devolved Administrations are not the enemy. I am not certain but I have a feeling that some Ministers in Whitehall, or the infrastructure in Whitehall, are new to dealing with devolved Administrations who have genuine power—it was new to all of us—and they look on them as the enemy. But they are not.
I certainly do not think that they are the enemy either. The point I was making was that the correct announcement was to make a single national statement, which is precisely what we did. The noble Lord, Lord Snape, says that nobody understands what AV is. That, of course, will be up to the campaigns and the Electoral Commission to explain. As for the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and her issues about knocking-up, again, this is a campaigning issue and it will be up to the campaigns to decide how best to get people to vote yes or no during the course of the campaign.
This debate followed the pattern of the last debate: the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was incredibly attractive on the periphery of the debate but refused to answer the central issue—the swamping argument. Instead, he said that we were saying it was impossible to have the debate, which was very disappointing. He was arrogant in treating the request of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament for an apology. My noble and learned friend Lord Morris of Aberavon made it absolutely clear that he was expecting not a personal apology but an indication from the Government that this is a serious matter, and an apology—or token of acceptance—that this is not something to be laughed at. Perhaps one reason why the debate was quite frustrating was the dismal performance of Ministers in dealing with the heart of the issue. The only way that it is possible to make the Leader of the House concentrate on the issues is to keep putting them. I would therefore like to test the opinion of the House on the combination issue.
Before I call Amendment 16, I have to say that, if Amendment 16 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments 18 to 30 inclusive, because of pre-emption.
16: Clause 1, page 1, line 7, leave out subsections (3) and (4) and insert—
“(3) The question that is to appear on the ballot papers is—
At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. It is proposed that the system should be changed. Please rank the following options in order of preference.
Should the UK use:
(a) the first past the post system;(b) the alternative vote system;(c) a proportional vote system?(4) In Wales, a Welsh version of the question is also to appear on the ballot papers.
(5) Each voter will be asked to mark the ballot paper with—
(a) the number 1 next to the option that is the voter’s first preference (or, as the case may be, the only option for which the voter wishes to vote);(b) if the voter wishes, the number 2 next to the option that is the voter’s second preference, and so on.(6) The voter may mark as many preferences (up to the number of options) as the voter wishes.
(7) Votes shall be allocated to options in accordance with voters’ first preferences and, if one option has more votes than the other options put together, that option shall be deemed to have been selected.
(8) If not, the option with the fewest votes will be eliminated and that option’s votes shall be dealt with as follows—
(a) each vote cast by a voter who also ranked one or more of the remaining options shall be reallocated to that remaining option or (as the case may be) to the one that the voter ranked the highest.(b) any votes not reallocated shall play no further part in the counting.(9) After the reallocation of votes and recounting, the option with the most votes shall be deemed to have been selected.”
My Lords, it will not have escaped the notice of the House that I am not the noble Lord, Lord Owen. My noble friend had a minor operation last week, and has had to return to hospital, from which he is being discharged today. He asked me to move this amendment in his name, which I am very pleased to do.
This amendment is not about the date of the referendum, but about its substance. In Clause 1 of the Bill, line 7 on page 1 gives the voter the choice between retaining the first past the post system to elect MPs, and the alternative vote system. This amendment is designed to give voters, in addition, an opportunity to express a preference for proportional representation. By allowing voters to rank their preferences, this amendment is sure to result in a majority expressing their preference for one or other of the three nominated options. It is a very simple demonstration of the power of the alternative vote under certain conditions.
Originally, those who tabled the amendment had intended to put all the varieties of proportional representation—AV plus, the additional member system, STV and maybe others—on the ballot paper, but, after consulting, it was decided to add just one general extra option: general proportional representation. This would leave the House of Commons to decide which version to adopt should PR get a majority. That seems sensible. The advantage of putting all the PR options to the electorate is quite compelling in terms of democracy, but, against that, it would overcomplicate the question being asked, and a referendum should be about broad principles and not about details. That is our main argument against the amendments moved by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, and the group of amendments put down by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. I hope that on reflection they will feel willing to support the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Owen.
This amendment expresses our disappointment that the alternative vote is the only alternative to the status quo which the Government are willing to offer. Whereas party-political deals are an essential part of political life—we all know that—I doubt whether such a flagrant party-political deal should be the subject of a referendum. We know why it has happened—no one denies it: it was the price of the coalition. The Liberal Democrats wanted electoral reform without a referendum; the Conservatives, who favour retaining the first past the post system, would not concede that, and a referendum on AV was the compromise position.
We also know from many sources, but most recently from Anthony Seldon’s fascinating book, Brown at Ten, that, after the general election, Gordon Brown—who was still Prime Minister—offered the Liberal Democrats a multi-question referendum identical to the amendment I am now moving. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, will probably know more about this than I do, but anyway, that was the revelation. The former Prime Minister offered the Liberal Democrats a multi-question referendum identical to the amendment I am now moving.
I believe everything I read that Anthony Seldon writes.
There was also an offer to make it a vote of confidence to guarantee its passage through Parliament. That was the offer. I am not questioning the judgment of the Liberal Democrat negotiators in turning down that offer in favour of a much inferior alternative, from their point of view. As they say, there were other considerations, but it might be helpful for noble Lords on the Labour and Liberal Democrat Benches to be reminded of this little history—and I think it is authentic—in making up their mind about the value of this amendment.
In our view, narrowing the choice to only two alternatives represents an abuse of the referendum mechanism. Referenda are not part of our political tradition. We use them sparingly to decide on questions of great constitutional consequence. I do not agree with those noble Lords who said that AV represents a radical change in our constitutional system. It retains most of the features of the first past the post system. By providing for reallocation of votes according to preference rankings, it ensures that no constituency Member is returned with less than 50 per cent of the vote. That is a change—it is a majority rather than a plurality—but it does not ensure representation of the minority any more than the first past the post system.
Nor would the alternative vote make much difference in practice. It has been calculated, for example, that the 2010 general election held under the alternative vote system would have returned 281 Conservative, 262 Labour and 79 Liberal Democrat MPs, as opposed to 307 Conservative, 258 Labour and 57 Liberal Democrat MPs. With impending boundary changes, one would expect that gap to shrink even further as time went on.
Of course, these are changes, but they are at the margin. They are not big changes. In terms of the suffragette analogy put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, it is rather as if the Government of the day had offered votes to women more than 60 or 70 years old, which would have been regarded as a great change in the electoral system.
A referendum should be on a grand constitutional issue. A change in the voting system which radically changes the composition of the House of Commons would be a big constitutional change and would meet the standard for a referendum. PR does that and would therefore be worth having a referendum about.
Without debating the merits of a pure alternative vote system, it is a fact that it has been turned down by a number of recent inquires; notably, the Plant commission in 1990 and the Roy Jenkins committee in 1997, basically on the grounds that the game was not worth the candle. We believe that this is an additional argument for adding PR to the options offered by the referendum.
The Plant commission did not turn down AV. It said that it was a perfectly acceptable system, but that it just preferred another. That system was within the AV family of systems; namely, the supplementary vote. I know that the noble Lord has had to pick up the brief from others who unfortunately are not able to attend, but I am having difficulty in understanding why he does not accept the supplementary vote in his amendment. He alluded to it previously, but it was not clear to me exactly what he meant in his explanation. Will he tell us that before he sits down?
I think that those who tabled the amendment did not want to overcomplicate the choices being put to voters. When people get into the nitty-gritty of constitutional change, first, they can get obsessive about having their own preferred system and, secondly, it can become very complicated. In our view, it is simply a device to delay any changes. We thought that it would be a better idea to have three broad choices, one of which was proportional representation, leaving it to the House of Commons to decide, if that was the preferred option—that is, if more than 50 per cent of people support it—on which particular variety they would legislate. That was the logic behind it.
I urge this amendment on the Government and ask them to consider it seriously. Not to take advantage of the chance opened up by a promised referendum in order to offer the electorate a major choice about the future of the electoral system would be to miss a major opportunity to test their appetite for political reform. I beg to move.
Amendment 16A (to Amendment 16)
16A: Clause 1, line 8, leave out “the” and insert “an”
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 16A and 17, which are in this group. I wish to follow up on something to which the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, referred. He referred to “a proportional vote system”, which would be inserted under proposed subsection (3)(c) to be inserted into Clause 1 under Amendment 16. In other words, this referendum would not deal with only clear alternatives set out in the referendum question; it would pose the question, “Do you want a proportional vote system?”, which at this stage is not to be identified in the referendum question. By implication, there inevitably would have to be an inquiry arising out of a referendum which might choose new subsection (3)(c) as the option.
I am very interested in inquiries because last week we spent several hours arguing the case for an inquiry. What interested me about this amendment, and why I sought in my Amendment 17 to include the supplementary vote, is that that is precisely what I want to see. I want to see an alternative vote referendum based on the need for an inquiry in exactly the same way as is proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Owen, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn and the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, in their amendment.
In private conversation, I asked the noble Lord, Lord Owen, whether he might be prepared to accept this amendment. There may well be conditions in which some of us would like to divide the House on this. It raises very important issues. He gave me the same explanation; namely, that it is too complicated. But the reality is that, of all the electoral systems that confront the British electorate at the moment, apart from first past the post, the supplementary vote is the simplest system. It is used nationally in the mayoral elections. It has been supported by many millions of voters. Next year, when the mayoral elections finally take place in the new mayoralties—I think that there was reference to 12—I presume that they will also be fought on the supplementary vote. I cannot quite understand why introducing the simplest possible system should be regarded as a complication of the question.
In winding up, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, might offer to take back to those who have their names to this amendment the suggestion that before Report they might be prepared to include, if they were to retable their amendment, reference to the supplementary vote.
The content of Amendment 16A is the substance of an amendment that I shall move later and, again, it is about the principle of an inquiry. The referendum question at the moment refers specifically to “the” alternative vote—a specific system that has been identified, which I and many of my colleagues reject for different reasons. My amendment, which I would have slotted in as paragraph (d) of subsection (3) as proposed under Amendment 16, would enable the public to vote on a question which asked whether they were in favour of “an” alternative vote system. That would then beg the question of an inquiry to take place and a decision to be taken by Parliament or whoever wanted to make representations. Finally, a decision to be taken by government could be put to the House. I ask the noble Lord to take this back to his noble friends, because I regard the amendment that he has moved as one of the most important to be considered on this Bill.
My Lords, as always, the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, has made an attractive speech which was full of interesting references, although I think that this is a somewhat curious amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, made a powerful point, but it leads me rather in the opposite direction to the noble Lord and to think that one could not support this amendment.
It will not surprise anyone that I speak as someone who has been over time a strong supporter of our existing system. In the 1970s, I even wrote a pamphlet defending our system, called Electoral Reform No Reform. At least I stand by the title because it has always seemed to me that the advantages and disadvantages of electoral systems are more evenly balanced than people acknowledge. The word “reform” is tendentious and “change” would be a better word. I have to confess on reading my pamphlet written 40 years ago that not all the arguments have stood the test of time brilliantly. I accept that there is more of a case than it appeared then for something like the German mixed system.
Some of the criticisms, however, that are made of our system, including one made by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, are fallacious. The noble Lord referred to the first past the post system as one that depends on making the winner someone with a plurality rather than a majority of votes. The criticism is commonly made about our system producing over 50 per cent of the seats with people who have perhaps only 40 per cent of the votes and this is not a majority. The point is made that the Government do not reflect majority opinion under our electoral system. The fallacy in this argument is that there naturally exists in public opinion such a thing as a majority. It is true that if you take any single issue—like whether people are for or against the euro, whether they are for or against privatisation, whether they prefer public expenditure to lower taxes—you can get a majority for any single proposition. But elections are not fought on one proposition; they are fought on four or five issues. Opinion polls show that it is much more difficult to get a majority for four or five issues at once than it is for one issue. So it is a wrong argument to say that you have an electoral system that produces a majority when there is not in fact an underlying real majority.
What is the magic of a majority anyway? In a democracy, power, even by a majority, must be exercised with restraint and with respect towards one’s opponents. All electoral systems create a majority in an artificial way. The first past the post system does it by converting around 40 per cent of the votes into 50 per cent of the seats. The alternative vote system creates a majority artificially by taking the second preferences of the bottom candidate and allowing those to determine the outcome. But the second preferences of the second candidate do not count. The second preferences are given undue weight, which is why I was able to quote in Second Reading what Winston Churchill said about the system when he called it the least scientific in which the most worthless votes for the most worthless candidate determined the outcome. That is the artificiality of the AV system in creating a majority. With PR, equally, majorities are created rather artificially because people take two or three parties that may have fought the elections on completely different programmes, as we well know, and add them together and call it a majority, although nobody actually voted for the programme of the Government. So the artificiality of a majority is something that has to be recognised before one pours all this criticism on first past the post.
I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I will simply point out that the movers of this amendment are not advocating any particular electoral system. It is neutral between the three choices. It is simply advocating a referendum in which those choices are given. That is all. Your points may be completely valid but they are not the point of the amendment.
If I digressed, I apologise to the House and stand rebuked. Specifically on the amendment, its Achilles heel is the one the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, alighted on—namely, that it gives as an alternative this broad category of a proportional system. Proportional systems vary enormously. Some of them, like the German mixed system, are not so different from our system. They are different but they are not very different. And there is a world of difference between PR on a national list system, as it used to be at one time in Italy and as it is in Israel, and the German system. It is a huge variation, so much so that it would make the question, if it was put in this form in a referendum, completely nonsensical. I do not think one can follow the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, and say, “We will have a referendum in which two or three of the outcomes may be definite but if a rather vague outcome is voted for, then we will have another inquiry”. This seems to be a slightly unbalanced and rather strange way of proceeding.
The second objection that I have, which is the reason I called it a rather strange amendment, is this device of using AV in order to determine which electoral system we have. It would be extraordinary on something as important as our choice of electoral system, which could have profound effects on the way we run politics in this country, to say that again the result should be determined by the second preferences of the system that people least wanted. The arguments that I put forward against AV seem to apply equally strongly to a referendum. To revert to the point I made earlier, I do not think one could leave PR as a choice just defined as PR. If one tried to answer that, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, was suggesting, by putting the supplementary vote system, or STV, or any of the many different systems of PR, that would make the whole referendum meaningless. So I am afraid that, although the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, made a very interesting speech, I think this is a completely unworkable amendment and should be rejected.
My Lords, I am tempted by the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, not only because I always find him an exceptionally persuasive and erudite man but for two other reasons. One is that it uses AV to choose the winner of the contest. No electoral theoretician would think this was a good way of choosing between these preferences. You would need some sort of Condorcet system which ran off options to find the one that emerged as having the most support rather than a system that simply eliminates a better choice. It does not work terribly well for this kind of referendum. AV has the great advantage of simplicity, which is also the reason I, for one, favour it as our national electoral system.
The other reason I am quite tempted by this amendment is that I have no doubt that the result of the referendum, whether it was AV or first past the post, would certainly knock out PR for ever. The power of the arguments that would be placed against a PR system for Britain would be so enormous that nobody would be tempted. As a political observer I add this point. The only people who would be speaking up for PR in such a referendum would be the Liberal Democrats. Liberal Democrat advocacy of anything at the moment is a certainty for its unpopularity. This is the party that has lost more than half the votes that were cast for it at the General Election. The thought of these poor lambs bleating round the country for STV, or whichever system they choose, would make it a certain feature of the result of the referendum that it went down the plughole. So for those reasons, I am tempted by the noble Lord’s proposal, though not perhaps for the reasons that he put forward.
I go back to where I started on electoral reform, about which I did not know a huge amount at the time, which was with the Jenkins committee. That committee’s terms of reference were written, in many ways wisely, by the party of which I am a member. The terms of reference did not say, “Put forward a whole lot of possible options and discuss their merits as the electoral system for Britain”. Nor did they say, “Recommend an electoral system and we will have it”. They said, “Recommend the best possible alternative to first past the post to be put before the British people in a referendum”. I regret deeply that it was not put before the British people in a referendum at the time.
In the same way as the coalition is wise to put forward an alternative for the referendum, in writing the terms of reference widely in that way the Government were right about what a referendum can seriously manage to do. I think that I heard the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, correctly. He said that this was an abuse of a referendum. It is not. Let us face it: referendums have their strengths and limitations. They are quite good at resolving a simple question on which the political class is divided. The supreme example in my lifetime was Europe. The referendum of 1975 settled things, rightly or wrongly, for many years to come. There was no other way within our political system that it could have been settled because of the state of the Labour Party at the time and later the Conservative Party, which nearly blew itself apart over Europe. The voice of the British people came down clearly on a single alternative, which was to stay in, rightly or wrongly. That defused a bomb at the heart of the political system.
This is no disrespect to the British people, but I do not think it is reasonable to expect them to come to grips with the degree of complexity of choice such as is implied by this referendum, still less the choice that exists in real life. Imagine the kind of atmosphere that goes on during an election with claims and counter claims being made. Every time someone says, “This is more proportional”, the AV lot will say, “Ours isn’t more proportional”. You would have a cacophony, which even those who have been studying this subject for half their lives, such as me, would have difficulty disentangling. At least the option that we have before us would give the British people a clear choice to make and the arguments between AV and first past the post are not that complicated.
Moreover, as I said in an earlier debate on the Bill, in a number of years’ time people may think, “Well this has worked quite well. We would like to go further to a proportional system”. Or, they may say, “That was a big mistake. Let’s go back to first past the post”. They may say, like the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, “Never go back”, but that may show the inadequacy of the system that I thought he favoured. It is not a once-and-for-all choice. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, that there are other choices that could be made about our electoral system. They do not all have to be made in one jump at one time.
I now move on to the case made rather well by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont. The idea that there is something called a proportional system that has a unique set of features is completely without foundation. The differences between STV, the single transferable vote, between national list systems and between the additional member system as used in Germany and recommended in part by the Jenkins commission, are enormous. This calls for a proportional system but there is virtually no proportional system in the world. The only exception is Israel. I have talked to many people about electoral systems but I have yet to find a single person who thinks that the Israeli electoral system is ever other than a complete disaster. It allows for the representation of parties with only tiny members of votes who can then hold the polity to ransom in favour of their peculiar religious objectives. Israel is a disaster among democracies for that reason and, arguably, the current state of the Middle East is a result of that political system.
Other than the Israeli system, there is huge variety among more proportional systems as to how much proportionality. You can have a national list with thresholds, for example. It is a perfectly good system as long as you do not mind all MPs being chosen by their parties, the end of the constituency representative tradition in our country and the complete dominance of the party Whips over our politics forever more. You can have a national list system. STV is not designed to bring about proportionality at all, although it is a more proportional system. STV came out of the 19th century tradition where they wanted a greater emphasis on the character of individual Members of Parliament rather than on the party that they represented. If you look at the Irish STV system, what happens there is that the contest is not between parties but between individual members of those parties about who is the best representative of the people. You can make a case for that but it is not essentially the case for proportional representation, although it produces proportional outcomes. Additional member systems have a completely different set of characteristics again.
At this stage, one can hear the people crying, “Mercy, please. We pay you to sort some of these things out. Some of us think we pay you too much”.
Is the noble Lord not descending but ascending into discussing the strengths and weaknesses of different electoral systems? That is not the point of the amendment. The referendum will happen. The amendment is about adding another choice to the two being offered.
I see that that is what the amendment would do. However, it adds not one choice, but a plethora of choices without defining what they are, all with completely different characteristics one from the other and having very little in common except that they can, just about sometimes, be squeezed into the rubric of proportionality. That is why this is not a suggestion that should carry faith.
When the referendum campaign comes, I guess that what will happen in the last few weeks is that those who are against any change will say something like, “If you don't know, vote no”. They will try to capitalise on people’s ignorance. Even those in this Chamber—and there are many sitting around me—who favour first past the post would probably rather it was not decided on that basis. They would probably rather the people took a clear view of the virtues of the electoral system that we have and the virtues of the alternatives and made their verdict on that, which we would all accept as the way forward. This is a recipe for an extremely blurred choice of ill-defined alternatives which is hard to explain and unfair to ask people to grapple with. It is made even worse because unless the referendum date is moved as a result of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, which we passed earlier, they will be grappling with this choice at a time when they are dealing with local elections, new mayors and, in Scotland and Wales, with the all-important question of what their national governments should be. This is a seductive amendment, but it is profoundly misguided and I hope therefore that the House will not countenance it tonight.
My Lords, I support Amendment 16 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Owen. In the Committee debates that we have had so far, one thing has been left out to a large extent: the perspective of the public. The referendum should be about fairness and trust: being fair to the public and trusting the public. I support the amendment in the broad spirit in which I interpret it, which is that the public should be given a proper choice and not the restricted one that would currently be imposed on them.
I have heard people say quite a lot recently that the public are not very interested in voting systems. As an example, they are more interested in how the cuts will affect them today, tomorrow and the next day. Yes of course; most people are not going to be that exercised at present about something that is still fairly abstract and we are not even quite sure will actually happen, but when the public has confirmation of the date and the terms of the referendum, they will, with help from newspapers, TV and the internet, rapidly become experts in different voting systems.
However, there will be qualified interested only if the choice is between first past the post and AV: and no wonder, since a win for first past the post cannot possibly be interpreted as a ringing endorsement if AV is the only other option on the ballot paper. Likewise if AV wins, that too cannot possibly be seen as the system the public would most prefer if they have been denied other key voting systems.
We have an amendment both similar to and different from Amendment 16 in the next group today—Amendment 27 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. Clearly there are different ways to present the options. I bow to others’ much more in-depth knowledge of the various voting systems, particularly their history and development. However, the most important point is that both these amendments are infinitely better, in their own way, than the referendum that we have at the moment, which is incomplete.
The great advantage of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Owen, is that it seeks to be simple while at the same time covering the reasonable options. In a balanced way, it puts trust in both the public and in Parliament. First, the wording on the ballot paper should be as clear as possible. Secondly, it also needs to be transparent so the public know what they are voting for. Thirdly, it should cover all the reasonable options. If the will is here in Parliament to give the public a proper choice, the hammering out of these details should not be an insurmountable problem.
To those who say that people will not turn out for the referendum, I say that we are not doing our job. Our job is to open the doors of democracy and make it worthwhile for the public to come through. Give people power and they will engage. As Kevin Costner might have said, “Build it and they will come”.
My Lords, I wish to oppose the inclusion of Amendment 16 in the Bill and to do so as a strong supporter of electoral reform. I actually joined the Electoral Reform Society some 35 years ago at the age of 15. Unlike some supporters of the alternative vote, I remain strongly committed to the principles of proportional representation, and to the merits of the single transferable vote system in particular. However, I share the opposition to closed lists of noble Lords who propose this amendment, whether they be lists of 10 people or just one, as in the current first past the post system. Above all, I am committed to making progress that will allow the voters themselves to have a say in how their representatives are chosen.
I am sure we wish the noble Lord, Lord Owen, well in his recovery. I note from his recent correspondence with the Electoral Reform Society that he has been referring to the alliance commission in the early 1980s, which, on behalf of the Liberal Party and the SDP, looked at electoral systems. He notes that that commission found in favour of STV rather than the alternative vote system, but I ask him when he looks at his Hansard to consider that report again in some detail because it also said that in parts of the country where perhaps it was appropriate to have only a single member—such as in the far-flung rural parts of the country—it was appropriate to use the alternative vote system.
I also draw his attention, and that of some of his noble friends, to the system that operated for choosing single candidates within the SDP—of which he was a member between 1981 and 1988—and in the party that he led between 1988 and 1990. The system chosen for choosing a single person, be it a leader, a president or a candidate, was in fact the alternative vote system.
It was the system that is proposed in this Bill and which was proposed by the then Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill put forward earlier this year and voted for overwhelmingly by Members in another place. I ask those in your Lordships’ House who are members of the major parties, and who are considering tonight and on many other days the merits or otherwise of the alternative vote system, to consider how it is that within their own parties—the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives, and for that matter the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru or the Greens—when it comes to electing a single person, be it a leader, a president or a candidate, it is the alternative vote system, as generally known, that is always used.
In 1996-97, I was the joint secretary of the committee between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats that looked at proposals for constitutional reform in the event that the Conservative Party lost the 1997 general election. I served under the late Robin Cook and my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart. We had very high hopes then because it was agreed between the then main opposition parties that as and when there was a general election in 1997, and if the Conservative Party was defeated, there would be a referendum on an alternative proportional voting system. Over the 13 years in which that Government lasted, no such referendum was ever held.
Shortly after the general election of 1997, the late Lord Jenkins chaired the commission that looked at the alternatives; the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, was a member of it. I have noted how some of those in support of this amendment are quoting the fact that the Jenkins commission, as it became known in 1998, did not find in favour of AV but in favour of a system known as AV+. As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has confirmed in earlier debates, when it came to actually looking at this issue, the great—and I think very wise—Lord Jenkins, actually decided that the best system, in his opinion, was for AV for single-member constituencies in rural areas and for STV in the bigger city areas with multi-Member constituencies.
I note the words of my noble—he called me a little while ago his erstwhile—friend Lord Alton of Liverpool. He said that Lord Jenkins had in the end rejected the AV system. To all those who hold the memory of the late Lord Jenkins in some esteem—I hope there are many in this House—I would say that I know that it was to his great, great regret, in a very long and very distinguished career, that at that period in the late 1990s, when there was the opportunity to implement the AV system, he did not help to seize that opportunity. I believe that we must not let the opportunity of some form of electoral reform go away again.
The Electoral Reform Society, which was formerly known as the Proportional Representation Society, campaigned for PR for more than 100 years. It is urging rejection of these amendments in order to get some progress and to give voters some say on the issue as opposed to none at all. The alternative vote system may not be perfect, but it gives more power to the voter. It would mean, for example, that MPs who considered themselves unfairly deselected by their party could stand again without fear of splitting their party vote, thus giving more power to the voter. It would have meant, for example, that supporters of the noble Lord, Lord Owen, could have stood against the party that became the Liberal Democrats and avoided the split in votes that damaged his cause and split the vote of what had been the alliance in the 1980s. For these reasons, I would say that AV is at least a much more attractive proposition than first past the post, to say nothing of the greater power that it gives to the voter.
I have listened very carefully to the lucid contributions of my noble friend Lord Lipsey and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and I totally accept the sincerity of their points of view on their particular systems, but having heard the various explanations and all the rest of it I started to get a headache. Will the noble Lord care to comment on the fact that I served for 28 years as an elected representative and I do not recall a single occasion, at a public meeting or a surgery, on which the issue of so-called electoral reform, proportional representation or whatever name anyone cares to give it was raised? Surely, we are supposed to reflect the public. Where is the public demand for this?
There are many places in this country with very safe seats, where issues of electoral reform are rarely debated. I accept that people are far more interested in outcomes than they are in processes, but I believe the process by which MPs are chosen is rather important in determining the outcomes. In your Lordships’ House, reference has constantly been made during these debates to the words of the Deputy Prime Minister considering the alternative vote system. Shall we just deal with those words for a moment? The first point is that the alternative vote system that he is now advocating is a compromise. Yes, it is a compromise. If no one party wins a general election, there is a need for compromise. I believe that many people in this country think that compromising is sometimes a good principle, not a bad one.
My Lords, I thought that we had a very good compromise in 1997 agreed with the party of the noble Lord opposite but, after 13 years, that compromise was never delivered. I was quoting the Deputy Prime Minister rather more fully; I was going to talk about the word “little”, which he used. I believe that it is a little change, which preserves the single-Member constituencies, which Members in other parties hold very dearly. I happen not to. But since it preserves the single-Member constituency principle, I believe that it is a little change that will bring greater benefit.
There is also, of course, the word “miserable”. The only thing that would make me really miserable—and I say this in all sincerity to noble Lords who supported Amendment 16—would be if we failed to give people their say and made progress on a form of voting system that was effectively designed for the political circumstances in 1872, when Gladstone brought in the Secret Ballot Act.
Will the noble Lord clear up one crucial issue for me, at least, and I hope for the House, about the Liberal Democrats’ approach to this referendum? They constantly refer to it as a compromise—and whether it is miserable or not is for others to decide—while several are on record as saying that it is a step in the right direction. If there is a referendum next May and the result is in favour of the alternative vote, although I hope it is not, for how long do the Liberal Democrats consider that decision to be binding?
My own view is that since Gladstone introduced the current system in 1872 in the Secret Ballot Act, for 138 years noble Lords and Members in another place decided that that system was perfectly good without revision and without letting people have their say. It is a good precedent to let people have their say, and we will wait to see when there is public demand again to have any further say. But for 138 years we have kept the same system. One hundred years ago, a Royal Commission recommended the adoption of the alternative vote, and 93 years ago, a Speakers Conference recommended the use of preference voting. Seventy-nine years ago, the other place voted for the adoption of the alternative vote, which was blocked on five occasions by your Lordships’ House. It is 36 years since a minority Conservative Government offered another Speakers Conference on electoral reform and it is 13 years since a Labour Government with a large majority had a manifesto promise and were elected on the basis that there would be a referendum on the issue of proportional representation. So it is a significant achievement for all those committed to electoral reform that twice this year in the House of Commons, with different Governments in place, there have been substantial majorities for a referendum to be held on the alternative vote. I want to see progress on this issue and hope that we will not give Members in another place a further opportunity to deny the voters their say on this issue and leave us back where we were in 1872.
Why does not the noble Lord be more honest—although I am not accusing him of being dishonest, he could be more honest—about where we stand who are in favour of electoral reform? Is not the reality that this is simply the first building block and that, once we have changed the system to a single-Member constituency arrangement, it will then go on to the next stage and ask for more? Is not that what is actually being said? I openly admit it; that is why I am arguing about the building block. I am saying that the preferential system being selected by the Government is the wrong building block on which to build the later stages. I wish noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches would be more open and honest about that.
My Lords, I think that I have been remarkably open and honest all the time I have been in this House speaking on these issues. The noble Lord’s argument suggests that perhaps until the 25th century we should keep the political system exactly as it is and ignore centuries of progress. I do not think that that would be fair or democratic. Perhaps we should say that, given that 2,000 years ago in Athens people all turned up to vote on issues, we should have that sort of system now. I am not arguing that my system or my preference should be imposed on the British people. I am simply arguing that the British people themselves should have the democratic right to say for themselves how their representatives should be chosen. I do not understand how people who consider themselves democrats can resist that fundamental democratic principle.
All electoral processes and all elections are constant processes. However, if we kept things as simple as they were in 1872, it would be quite inappropriate. We no longer have a two-party system, as we had then, and which perhaps we had in 1950 or 1951. We are talking in these debates about respect for Scotland and Wales, and the same noble Lords who say that we should respect those countries, where there are four-party systems, at least, in operation, are still trying to perpetuate a voting system only appropriate to two parties. That does not respect people who support other options and, in particular, the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
This amendment is a helpful and important one. It certainly needs more work, and I do not think that it should be passed as it is at present drafted, but it points in the right direction. The political parties have been right to come to the view, and have somehow stumbled in the past 12 months or so into agreement on the notion, that it is now timely to offer the opportunity to the people of this country to revisit their electoral system and consider whether they want change.
It is too melodramatic to talk in terms of a crisis in our political culture, but it is realistic to acknowledge that there is a malaise and a widespread disaffection from our politics, and a widespread view that elections are determined by small numbers of voters in small numbers of constituencies, and therefore that large numbers of votes are wasted. That is wrong in principle and unsatisfactory in practice. It may be that the malaise would be dispelled were we to be blessed with good government. If we were to enjoy a period of government under which the people of this country came to the view that they were being wisely and benignly governed in the interests of all the people and that they could look forward to unlimited peace and prosperity, no doubt the demand for constitutional change, such as it is—it is not very well articulated, but I think that it is there—would abate.
Would my noble friend care to come with me to Scotland, where we have had a change in the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament for the past 10 years, and where he will certainly find that that malaise has not been dispelled? He is living in a fool’s paradise.
I absolutely recognise the force of what my noble friend says and would be happy to visit Scotland with him at any time. However, I disagree with my noble friends Lord McAvoy and Lord Grocott, who contend that there is simply no public interest in this question. While I accept that it is something of a preoccupation of the chattering classes and the professional political class, those of us in politics who believe that there is significant dissatisfaction in our political culture and that it has something important to do with the electoral system simply seek to understand the public mood and to see what ways there might be to improve on it.
It is right that we have a referendum on the future electoral system to be used in this country for elections to the House of Commons, but if we are going to do it we should do it properly. It seems quite absurd to have a great national debate and to go through all this palaver, expense and effort to resolve a timid and incomplete choice between first past the post and the alternative vote. If we are to have a referendum on the future electoral system of this country, a rare and very important event, then let us allow the people to have the choice between the range of plausible and significant systems. I support my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours in his view that the supplementary vote should be among the choices offered at a referendum. That means, if we are going to do it properly, we would have to take time over it and the debate would have to be much more extended.
It makes no sense at all to try to rush a debate of this complexity and importance through in the brief period between whatever date this Bill gains Royal Assent and 5 May. Let us have a sustained exercise of political education and debate, following which a decision shall be made. How that decision should be arrived at—the technicalities of the choice to be offered in the referendum—certainly needs more careful examination. I am worried that offering a choice between four major options —but that choice to be determined by AV, which is among the choices to be offered—might somehow bias the outcome. I do not know; I think these things need careful thought. But we should not fluff this opportunity. We should enable all the important choices to be fully considered. That must surely be right. From a personal point of view, I suspect that I would end up voting for first past the post. But it is right that everybody should have the freedom to decide between the major serious options. This amendment is not the occasion to rehearse the virtues or defects of any particular electoral system. The question is whether the full choice should be offered to the people, or the limited choice that it has suited the political parties to offer so far. I hope that it will be the wider choice.
My Lords, I would not go into the Lobby and support the noble Lord if he were to push this to a vote tonight, but I welcome proposed new subsection (4) which states:
“In Wales, a Welsh version of the question is also to appear on the ballot papers”.
I remind noble Lords that Wales is the only part of the Union where a substantial number of people speak two languages. Indeed, 20 per cent of people in Wales speak English and Welsh, so it is important that any ballot paper should contain information in both languages. Indeed, there are five parliamentary constituencies in Wales—Ynys Mon, Arfon, Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Ceredigion, and Carmarthen East and Dinefor where the majority of people speak Welsh as their first language. We will come to that when we come to the part of the Bill on boundaries. I hope that we will have support around the House when we try to ensure that those Welsh-speaking areas will not have their representation in the House of Commons diminished.
My noble friend may have overlooked an amendment that I have tabled suggesting that, if the referendum goes ahead, the question should be put in Gaelic in Scotland. We have constituencies in Scotland where Gaelic is the predominant language and I hope that that will be remembered.
The same argument applies to my noble friend’s point.
I have one point to leave with the Minister. As I said, there are five parliamentary constituencies in Wales where Welsh would be the first language. It is not spoken across Wales in any uniform pattern. In my former constituency, perhaps 2 to 4 per cent of people are bilingual. Therefore, it is important for the Government to consider that whatever goes on a ballot paper in a referendum, in those areas identified as being where a majority of people speak Welsh as their first language, the question should appear in Welsh first on the ballot paper. In areas where the majority of people do not speak Welsh as their first language, the question should be in English first. I am not suggesting in any way that people will be unable to understand all the ramifications of the vote, but having two languages on the ballot paper will be confusing for people who are not familiar with Welsh as their first language if the question is written first in Welsh. I ask the Minister to consider that when the Government decide what will be on the ballot paper.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, talked about compromise on this whole issue—compromise between his party and the Conservatives. I do not know whether he was in the Chamber last week when his noble friend Lord McNally said that he had switched over to see a rerun of the film on the battle of Waterloo. I saw it as well and saw that bit at the end when Napoleon sent a message to Paris saying, “The battle is won—no, no the war is won”. Then the Prussians appeared and we all know the outcome of the battle. I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that if the Conservatives are the Prussians they may not turn up on this occasion.
My Lords, first, let me say a word about the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. It was powerful and he argued his case very well. He said that he had been arguing it since he was 15. I must say that I did rather more interesting things when I was 15.
I am coming to that in a moment. I am perfectly honest about it and I want the noble Lord to be honest about it. He is pushing that system because manifestly it helps his party. He accepts the alternative vote as a compromise but he really wants the single transferrable vote. He is moving towards that and sees this referendum and this system as the thin end of the wedge.
I was coming to that in half an hour or so.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that in every case in Scotland—I shall argue a strong Scottish case—where he has won the argument and persuaded the Labour Party to move towards a system of PR, such as in the election for the Scottish Parliament and subsequently for the election to local government, it has been a manifest disaster—absolutely disastrous. I shall make that point at some length, I hope.
I shall start with a plea to noble Lords, in the way in which Robert Burns when he was in trouble used to make a sincere and urgent plea to the presbytery of Ayr. This is a plea on behalf of we Scots, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde and myself—though probably more appropriately on behalf of Lady Strathclyde and my dear wife, as they are allowed to vote in the elections for the House for Commons, which the noble Lord and I currently cannot do, sadly. I hope that some change may happen there.
Those of you who live in English constituencies are lucky people. Apart from the awful system for the European elections, which we all suffer, and which was introduced by my own Government—
There you are. A confession—good for the soul. It is an awful system, but those of you who live in England have first past the post for elections to the House of Commons and first past the post for local government. You know where you are and you know the system. People understand it. It is tried, tested and trusted.
We in Scotland suffer a wild plethora of electoral systems. We have an electoral system, that we share, for the European elections—the list system where there is no choice whatever. It is a great pity that we accepted that. Try to name your MEP. We were talking about going down the streets of Stockport earlier when my noble friend Lord Snape was speaking. Go down the street and ask people who is their MEP. They do not know who they are as they do not relate to local people or have the same kind of contact, accountability or responsibility of other elected Members.
Let us turn to the Scottish Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Lamont—I am pronouncing his name properly for a change—said that he liked the German system. The system for the Scottish Parliament elections is akin to the German electoral system. I warned him and others against the alternative member system. When he comes back up to Scotland, as I know he does from time to time, he will see a bastard of a system, if noble Lords will excuse the phrase.
We have 73 constituencies elected by first past the post in Scotland. We used to have 72 constituencies. Why are there 73? It is because Orkney and Shetland have a constituency each—another concession to the Liberals that was a dreadful mistake. The good bit is that 73 are elected by first past the post. However, on the basis of the regional vote, 56 members—seven members in each of eight constituencies—are added members according to the vote of each party in each constituency, which produces the most unexpected results. In 2007, in Lothian, I was unexpectedly elected by that very strange system. It produces coalitions, the first of which we had with the Liberal Democrats, in which we conceded—I think foolishly—single transferrable votes.
I want to make it clear that my noble friend is speaking for Scotland. I am an English person, who, by the way, would like the Scottish system. The only reason why he was elected for Lothian in the top-up system is because there were tens of thousands of Labour voters in that region without a constituency representative. That is the point. That is why he was elected. That this system did not leave hundreds of square miles with Labour voters without any direct representation is a bonus. It is a plus that my noble friend was elected to the Scottish Parliament, not a minus.
I am grateful for that endorsement and argument. My noble friend is a very powerful debater. He has made a good point. It is not all negative, but let me tell you some of the negative points. When we had a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, we were forced to concede STV for local government—I will come to that in a moment. Now we suffer from a minority SNP Government who have only one more seat than the Labour Party. They are so paralysed that they are unable to put any of their legislation through Parliament. That is why I said to my noble friend Lord Howarth that he should come up and see the stalemate that exists when we are not getting legislation properly dealt with.
I raised once before the system of Members retiring in the Scottish Parliament. If I were to retire tomorrow—and some people might like me to—the person who was second in the list would take over automatically without any election at all, with the people having no say whatever. Since my noble friend Lord McConnell represents a constituency—Motherwell and Wishaw—if he were to retire tomorrow, there would be a by-election and the people would have a say. However, if Margo MacDonald—who stood as an independent—were to retire tomorrow, there would be no filling of the vacancy whatever. I say to my noble friend Lord Rooker—a good friend—that this is just one of the many anomalies of the system that we have in the Scottish Parliament.
We ended up with STV. We had the European election system, the Scottish Parliament AMS system and the single transferrable vote in local government. Chaos has led to no overall control in so many authorities.
My noble friend is absolutely right. The noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, who was one of the architects of the system, has said that, if he had his time again, he would not support the system. I think that a lot of people who were involved would feel the same. So we have those three systems.
We should recognise that, if the coalition policy gets pushed through this House, we will have elections for the second Chamber—with another system of elections and another structure—as well as a change for the Commons. That is why I argue the case against having this referendum—indeed, against any changes for first past the post. I was sorry to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, did not agree with what he wrote 40 years ago because I am sure that it was right then and I am sure that it is right now.
I am grateful for that clarification and I apologise if I have misrepresented the noble Lord. I hope he will then agree with this practical argument. We should look towards first past the post continuing for the House of Commons. If we have elections to the House of Lords, that is where we should have some proportional system. If the Commons continues, as it will, to form the Government—in other words, once the Commons is elected that is where the Government come from—stability is important. Apart from the current aberration of the coalition, first past the post normally produces stability. It produces one party in power for a period of time—five, 10 or 15 years. That gives some stability, which, in government, is important.
Is it the case that under that arrangement what you would have in practice would be more instability? What you would have is a Lords with full democratic legitimacy, elected on proportional representation, which would feel able to overturn the decisions of the House of Commons. Therefore, you would not get stability by that system.
I remind the noble Lord of a speech he gave to the parliamentary Labour Party about four years ago, where he made precisely the point that is now being made. He said that in the event that we were elected here by proportional representation and they by first past the post we would claim legitimacy where they could not.
I remember it well. On that occasion, I said that, if senators were elected for Scotland, for example, or for Wales, Northern Ireland or England, to a second Chamber, which was a Senate, they would certainly claim some legitimacy or might even claim a greater legitimacy. However, if the Lords continues as a revising Chamber, I would argue the case for proportional representation for that revising Chamber.
I am grateful to my noble friend for rushing to my defence in a distinguished and helpful way—I was going to say gallant, but that is the wrong way round. What I was arguing, as my noble friend said, is that we need to take account of these things when we are looking at this amendment and any changes in the election to the House Commons, the first Chamber. If the Lords is the revising Chamber and is not forming the Government, there is an argument for it being elected by first past the post because then you have a different system balancing what the House of Commons and what the Government are putting to Parliament.
As the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky—or perhaps it was my noble friend—rightly said, this would mean that you would have to carefully define the powers of both the Commons and the Lords. That is why I believe that we are moving towards needing some kind of written constitution with devolved parliamentary assemblies and parliaments, with a separate Supreme Court and with the possibility and the proposal to elect the second Chamber. Everything needs to be much more clearly defined. That is why it would be madness—and this is where I come to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, which was moved on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Owen—to rush into this kind of referendum, or any kind of referendum, to change the system for the House of Commons. There are enough other changes taking place with the proposed reform of the House of Lords; we should learn from the changes that have taken place in Scotland, although it has not been a happy experience. We should not rush into something that has unexpected consequences just because the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, apparently puts a convincing case. Just because the noble Lord has spent 35 years arguing the case for proportional representation, we should not move in that direction. What is best for the Labour Party and the country is to stick to first past the post, which has provided election to the House of Commons with some degree of stability over a long period.
My Lords, I will make some practical points in saying why I am in favour of neither this amendment nor the one to be spoken to later by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, which is not dissimilar. Frankly, if one were dealing in the theory of referenda and the reform of electoral systems at this time, I would find a great deal to favour particularly in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. I will be frank—I have fought and lost five parliamentary elections. The first was for Labour in 1970. At that time, I confess, I did not think twice about electoral systems. I knew, as all Labour and Tory Members know, that the first past the post system was deeply in their favour. One of the problems of discussing reform here or in the other place is that we are all parti pris. We are all conflicted. Nobody can look at this complex but profound issue without party affiliation coming into play.
However, it is also fair to say—the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, expressed it very well—that, before and above that, we are concerned about Parliament: its respect in the country, its effectiveness and its health. I do not think anybody sitting here tonight believes that our Parliament, in 2010, is in good fettle. I do not for one second suggest that the lack of democratic adherence to it is, by any means, solely down to the electoral system. However, I maintain that it is one of the principal reasons why so many of our fellow countrymen do not even bother to vote—to use the precious vote that our forefathers fought so hard for. Four out of 10 do not vote and—I heard this statistic the other night—of those aged under 30, only around two out of six voted in the last election. One principal reason is that unless you are a Tory or Labour supporter your vote is apt to count for nothing. I think as much of the Greens and, indeed, UKIP as I do of the Liberal Democrat Party.
The other thing I know, which deeply affects my feeling about this amendment, is that we have been going round and round this mulberry bush my entire political life. There is always not just one but 10 reasons why we should not have reform now, and why we should wait until we have decided whether there is to be election to the House of Lords, and so on. There are always several reasons. My noble friend Lord Rennard gave, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, kindly admitted, an extremely clear and persuasive history of electoral reform—or rather the failure to have electoral reform—in this country. It is perfectly clear that many organisations and all the parties in this House use AV now. It has no deep defect. What is absolutely unavoidable is that the consequences of bringing in AV at this juncture will profoundly affect all parties in this country.
I come to my last point, which is to admit that the Liberal Democrats are plainly the party that is keenest on AV for electoral purposes. It is in our self-interest—of course it is. However, we also believe—I hope noble Lords will accept my sincerity—that it is also in the public interest, for the reasons I have briefly touched on, to give many more people a stake in government and a useful vote. Incidentally, if any non-Lib Dem was to go around with a Lib Dem on the doorsteps, my goodness, they would hear about electoral reform then. I am not surprised that you do not hear about it if you are a Conservative or Labour supporter.
Going along with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, that of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, or any of the comparable amendments would simply be to kill off this latest chance of some amelioration of the system we have. It would kill it stone dead. Why? Because the main party in the coalition—the Conservatives—will not have a PR system. It is as simple as that. It will go to the other end and they will chuck it back at us. The profound practical question tonight is about whether we give the people of this country the chance to choose whether they want a major—though not fundamental—reform of and improvement in the electoral system. I have spent much of my political life struggling to get some reform into the system. It is painful.
Noble Lords are now asking me a series of questions at large that need very detailed consideration to be commented on sensibly. All I will say is that I am convinced that, because in many constituencies a Liberal vote, a Green vote or a vote for anything but the prevailing party is a waste of time, common sense says that people will not be engaged with the election in that constituency in the way that they would if they had a vote that counted.
I certainly will not. I can speak of this country, where I have fought five parliamentary elections. I know how people in this country—those who are not of the dominant party in the constituency concerned—think about the voting system. It seems blazingly obvious that if you are not of the prevailing party, the tendency not to vote is very strong and has led to the present facts. Please take note of the declining turnout among young voters. They are increasingly disenchanted with the hegemony of our system.
Will noble Lords allow me quickly to conclude my speech? The noble Baroness has intervened twice already.
For us on these Benches, it is now or never. It is AV or nothing. We believe AV to be an improvement, and an improvement in the public interest. For those reasons I will not, I am afraid, be tempted to vote for either the amendment we are discussing or those that bear upon it.
My Lords, I was going to intervene briefly in any case, but the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, has given me so much material that I cannot guarantee that it will be as brief as I thought. His whole contribution was as though absolutely nothing had happened in the way of electoral reform during the last 15 years. A host of different electoral systems have been introduced. I have not as yet written my memoirs about the period of the Labour Government, but I can reveal to the House this little bit of information. Every time the word went round that we were suggesting there should be a change in the electoral system for Europe, local government, Scotland, Wales or wherever, I always did my best within government to try and prevent that happening. There is a chapter in my memoirs that I shall call “I told you so”. Before the European proportional representation system was introduced, people like the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, although I cannot speak for the noble Lord, and my noble friend Lord Rooker—for on this matter we have not always agreed—predicted with absolute confidence: “Look at all the wasted Labour votes in Surrey and Sussex. Look at all the wasted Conservative votes in the north-east. They will start flocking to the polls as soon as we have a proportional system and their votes won’t be wasted any longer”. It has not happened. That is not me in a seminar saying that. It has not happened.
Maybe this will help the noble Lord, Lord Phillips. Since devolution took place in Scotland, in 1998, the turnout for Westminster elections under first past the post has been the greatest of all; followed by the Scottish Parliament with proportional representation, which has been less; followed by the European elections, which has been even less. Can the noble Lord tell us why that is?
I will even try and trump my noble friend on my knowledge of Scottish elections. I agree entirely with what he said and the implication of what he said. However, is it not also true to say that in what was described as the laboratory of a Scottish election for the Scottish Parliament—where people have two votes, one for PR and one for first past the post; and that is as near a laboratory as you will ever get in an electoral system—in election after election, more people turn out for the first past the post option than they do for the PR option. With this kind of debate, the whole of the discussion takes place as if nothing has happened, A lot has happened. A lot of electoral systems have been tried. Those who were suggesting, insisting on, demanding reform—for there was a huge public demand for a change in the electoral system—have been proved conclusively and unarguably wrong in terms of the benefits they told us would accrue if their proposals were accepted.
I am very reluctant to join in the almost filibustering tactics of the Opposition and incur the wrath of my colleagues, but would the noble Lord not reject the idea of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, that a vote for someone who loses an election is a wasted vote? In a presidential election people lose, but that does not mean that their vote has been wasted. In case the Opposition have not noted it, people will lose under the alternative vote if they vote with their first preference for a losing candidate. Will that be a wasted vote as well? This whole idea of a wasted vote is complete bunkum.
I wholeheartedly agree with that, and I speak as someone who has lost nearly as many elections as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips—four, as a matter of fact, all for the Labour party. If anyone should be opposed to first past the post and want to change to any other electoral system, it probably ought to be me. I should add that I have also lost three county council elections and one or two parish elections as well. So it is a pretty abysmal electoral record. However, I have no doubt whatever that as far as local electors in local constituencies are concerned, first past the post is the fairest, best and most understood electoral system. But that is not what we are here to debate. I am not going to filibuster—I can assure the House of that. I am going to stick rigorously and briefly to the amendment that we are debating and try and say why I am opposed to it.
The amendment would give us a choice between first past the post, the alternative vote system and a proportional vote system. People like me used to be at a huge disadvantage—like the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, I have not changed my mind on this over decades—but I support, and always have done, first past the post. Historically, however, we were always at a huge disadvantage. We were asking people whenever we were in debate, “Judge the first past the post system, which you know and with which you are familiar, against these various alternative theoretical systems”, which were unspecified—and particularly, I say without undue criticism of the amendment, unspecified in the choices being put to the electorate here. As for the first past the post system, it is precise and exact. That is what we know. That is what we have lived through. It has its strengths and it has its weaknesses, and we are very familiar with its weaknesses.
As for the alternative vote system, as my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours has already conclusively argued, it is actually a series of possible options in itself. As for a proportional vote system, there are very nearly as many of those as one can imagine. Whenever I was in a debate with someone about first past the post versus proportional representation, they would always say to me, “Ah, but you’re arguing against that form of proportional representation, not the form of proportional representation that I am in favour of”. When you are choosing between what is known and what is unknown, a referendum of this sort is always difficult. But I am not therefore arguing that you can never put anything to the electorate because, taking that to its logical conclusion, you never could put anything to the electorate as you would always know what is familiar best. I am saying, in relation to this amendment, that if we are to have a referendum—I would prefer that we did not, but if we do—it needs to be as specific as it can be.
I find myself in a strange position. Probably for the first time in my life, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. I do not think that this amendment is helpful. It does not have the precision of the proposal currently on the table: it is first past the post versus the alternative vote system. That at least has the merit of clarity, although I would much prefer that we did not have either.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, helped the House—at least it was helpful to my line of argument—when he conceded, and he can correct me if I am wrong, that for him, and I would assume that it would apply to whatever referendum question went to the public, this would only be a short-term solution. This is a referendum about work in progress. I must say that that alarms me.
I think that I can probably help the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in his summing up. His Liberal Democrat colleagues rightly have been asked: “How long? Should this referendum result in a yes, for how long would it stand?”. The Liberal Democrats have already given us their answer, which is basically: “As short a period as possible. We want to move on rapidly to full PR or whatever”. I can guess what the answer of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, would be if he were asked: how soon after a yes or no vote should the matter be put to the public again in a referendum? I would guess that his answer would be, “We wouldn’t want to touch that with a barge pole”. I think that that would at least be a straightforward and honest response. But as far as this proposed amendment is concerned, it is not one that should be attractive to the House.
It is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Grocott. So far in this debate it has been the other way round. He will not be surprised to learn—I do not know how gratified he will be—that I agreed with every word that he has said, too. Like him, I am a fan of the first past the post system. Unlike him—purely coincidentally, I am sure—I have had a bit more success, which is probably the best argument against first past the post that either side of your Lordships’ House has come up with. Certainly I do not find much favour with the amendment due to the various alternatives that it provides. No one listening to this debate could doubt the sincerity of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, although I found some of his conclusions somewhat confusing, to say the least. We talk about young people and politics. There will be lots of young people interested in politics demonstrating outside this building this week, largely because politicians who make promises and then immediately break them do not greatly enamour themselves to those young people.
To suggest, as the noble Lord did, that those of us who spent time canvassing in elections for the other place talked only to our own supporters is somewhat bizarre. He said that if I followed him round and talked to Liberal Democrats, I would come across people desperate to embrace the principle of proportional representation. I have to tell the noble Lord that I have canvassed unsuccessfully for my own party in various by-elections in various Liberal Democrat strongholds. In places such as Eastbourne, people said to me, “I’m not voting for the Labour candidate; I’m voting for the Liberal candidate”, but when I asked them why, they could not normally tell me. Let us be honest about this. Many supporters of the Liberal Democrat party are diametrically opposed to many of that party’s policies. That is a fact, as all of us who have gone around knocking on doors will know. No one ever said to me, “I’m voting for the Liberal party because I’m in favour of proportional representation”. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, might argue that I mix with the wrong sort of people, and that may well be true, but that was certainly my experience and I suspect that it has been the experience of many noble Lords on both sides of the House who have canvassed in elections.
We heard a fascinating speech, as ever, from the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who said that he was in favour of the alternative vote system because it was a step along the road to PR. However, according to the late Roy Jenkins, it is actually a step away from PR. As I reminded the noble Lord earlier today, in 1998 Roy Jenkins said that the conclusion of the independent royal commission which he chaired was that AV was even less proportional than the current system. Therefore, what the noble Lord is proposing is a step away from what he wants—or at least it is according to Roy Jenkins.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, my noble friend Lord Howarth, who I am afraid is not in his place at the moment, bemoaned what he called the widespread disillusion about politics, and he felt that the acceptance of this amendment or a change in the electoral system might help to cure that widespread disillusion. I do not want to run again through the list of countries that have AV as their electoral system but Australia has been widely mentioned. I wonder whether my noble friend, who I am glad to see has rejoined us, has been to Australia. If he has, he will not have found the Australian people or their press speaking lyrically about their politics or their politicians, even though they are elected under the AV system. Indeed, if he travels a bit nearer to home—to Italy—he might find that, because of the system that they have there at present, a lot of people say, “If only we had a system like yours”. Therefore, to pretend that AV or any other proportional representation system is being widely demanded by people out there or that it will transform this nation into a happy band of brothers and sisters is, in my view, a complete aberration.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, accuses those of us who are in favour of first past the post of wanting to preserve, presumably in aspic, a political system that has been around for more than 100 years. However, it is the coalition that appears to be following the doctrine, “If it ain’t broke, break it”. I honestly cannot see how the Liberal Democrats can justify their stance on AV for any reason other than that it might favour them, and the noble Lord, Lord Phillips was honest enough to let the cat out of the bag on that. It might save them—or at least their colleagues in the other place—from electoral Armageddon at some point in the future. That is the only reason why they support it. It might shock the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, and his Cross-Bench colleagues that a member of the Liberal Democrat party in particular could be so blatantly political about these matters. However, it has to be recognised that the reason why the Liberal Democrats are in favour of this AV system, which they have long campaigned against, is that they hope it will preserve some of their colleagues down the Corridor at the next election. Therefore, I cannot bring myself to support the noble Lord’s amendment.
My noble friend is indeed being helpful and I am grateful. The fact is that we got it wrong. At least that is certainly the opinion that many of us hold, and we will continue to get it wrong if we continue to support it. I accept the sincerity of my noble friend and my noble friend Lord Rooker. I remember a conversation that I had with him in 1987 after the then—from the party’s point of view—unsuccessful election. I asked him why he was in favour of PR. I cannot imagine why we were discussing PR—we must have been stuck on a very long train journey. I hope that I am not betraying any confidences when I say that my noble friend was brutally honest and said, “Because we can’t win under the present system”. However, we did eventually win under that system. The Liberal Democrats argue that they cannot win under the present system because their votes are diffused throughout the United Kingdom. I understand why they campaign in favour of proportional representation and I would understand them supporting some parts of the amendment before your Lordships tonight. However, I wish that they would be a little more honest, as was the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, in their declared support for AV. It is totally in their interests, although it is against everything for which they have campaigned for over 100 years.
I feel that I almost have to ask permission of the Labour Party to participate in this debate. For the past hour and three-quarters, we on this side of the Committee have been privileged to attend a Labour Party seminar on electoral reform. It has been a fascinating experience and the advocacy from the other side for every possible system of voting has been heard in this Committee. I feel almost sympathy and sorrow for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer—not a sentiment that I often feel—because he is supposed to be representing Labour Party Front-Bench opinion. I do not know what threads he is going to draw out of what he has heard this evening. Do I see a conversion to first past the post for a Front-Bench speaker? That is not consistent with what his leader is saying. The leader of the Labour Party is totally opposed to most of the views that have been expressed on the Benches opposite. I do not want to intrude any further into private grief.
My Front Bench are wonderfully consistent. Their consistency consists of retaining power for as long as possible, and I look upon that as an essential political talent. Over the past hour and three-quarters we have seen the Labour Party approach constitutional reform with a spirit of confusion, illogicality, incoherence and low cunning. That is entirely consistent with the attitude that they showed in government, and it indicates why they should never be trusted with reform of the constitution of our country.
I was very tempted by the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, because I should like to see a wide-ranging debate about all forms of electoral reform in this country. I am very tempted indeed by the amendments of my noble friend Lord Rooker, which go for a two-party arrangement, first seeking the people’s opinion on whether in principle they want change and then asking them what system in particular they want. That is an amendment that deserves the support of many people on our side of the Chamber.
So far as concerns the general question of why we need a debate on this issue, I think that we should set aside questions of party advantage. I know that people will laugh at that but I think that we should do so and ask ourselves whether the present system has legitimacy. The first general election in which I canvassed and campaigned was the 1964 general election, when the Labour Party and the Conservative Party got more than 85 per cent of the votes cast. The two parties were overwhelmingly dominant in our politics. But when you look at the result of the last two general elections—2010 and 2005—you see that the two major parties won only about two-thirds, 65 per cent, of the votes cast. This is not legitimate. You cannot have a system, which is an alleged two-party system, in which the voice of 35 per cent of the electorate is not being effectively heard. That is why we have to have a big debate in our country about electoral reform.
There are many arguments made against electoral reform, such as that it will result in weak government because there have to be coalitions. However, although I do not agree with the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, I do not believe that it is a weak Government. I think it is quite a decisive Government who are getting on with doing a lot of things I do not particularly like. It blows a hole, however, in one of the arguments against proportional representation, which is that it would result in a coalition politics that would mean that nothing would ever get done.
There is a strong argument to be made for the sake of the country. The late Lord Jenkins, of whom I was a great admirer, attached a lot of importance to the belief, based on his experience in the 1980s, that it was a very bad situation indeed when there were no Conservatives in the county of Durham and no Labour people in the county of Surrey. What you got was a polarisation of the country when in fact what you want is a system of representation where there are Conservatives who have to represent the deprived areas of the north of England and there are Labour MPs who represent the more affluent districts. That would be good for the country and would produce a more legitimate system. That is why I support electoral reform; why I am tempted by the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, but am not going to support it; why I would definitely support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker; and why I very much support the principle of a referendum on some change.
My Lords, in a previous existence I used to teach something called social science research methods, which was basically reduced in large part to constructing questionnaires and getting undergraduates to go out and ask people in various ways which way they would vote if there was a general election tomorrow. There never was a general election tomorrow, so the results were always slightly erroneous and had no predictive basis whatsoever.
The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Owen, says:
“At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons”.
Then we get this wonderful sentence:
“It is proposed that the system should be changed”.
Let us note the two words “proposed” and “changed”. You are actually sensitising the respondent to the desired response, because everyone accepts on that basis that it is proposed, so it is a good thing: and “change”, as we know, is a very powerful word—think of Barack Obama. It is a false question in terms of equal balance because you are making clear the direction of the desired response just by using those two words: “proposed” and “changed”.
We then get on to the more substantive issue of linking the first past the post system, which is actually undefined, with the alternative vote system. The one thing that we have learnt during the debates and discussions on this is that we do not know whether there is “the” alternative vote system. Very different types of systems claim to be the alternative vote system, but there is not one “the” alternative vote system.
The game is given away in proposed new Clause 3(c), which says: “a proportional vote system”. What does that mean? Does it mean an absolutely strictly proportional system, such as the system used in Israel where every party’s representation on the Knesset is dependent quite rigorously on the application of a proportional system? This is one of the major reasons why Israel has not been able to move towards a broader Middle East settlement, particularly on the Palestinian issues. If you have a strictly proportional system you will inevitably finish up being in hock to a whole range of minor parties.
I am not sure whether that is what is meant by a proportional vote system, but if it is not it has to be specified in the amendment. Does it mean STV? Does it not mean STV? Does it mean strict proportionality? Does it not mean strict proportionality? This amendment as it stands deals totally inadequately with the issues that we face in possibly revising the voting system upon which the House of Commons is elected.
My Lords, that was a fantastically revealing debate. The noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, delivered an extremely good speech that was rational, reasonable and sensible. It basically said that, if we are going to have a debate about constitutional reform, let everyone have a reasonable choice. Unfortunately—this is no fault of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky—he has absolutely no understanding of what is going on in relation to the proposal for constitutional reform that is being advanced.
For the past 13, maybe 20, years, our approach to constitutional reform as a nation has been that this House has the role at least of producing as good a constitutional reform as we can. The work of the Cook-Maclennan report, which had lots of years behind it, was to produce the best constitutional reform. Extraordinarily, this constitutional reform, unlike any other constitutional reform I can remember, is being conducted without Parliament having a view on it. Individual parliamentarians like the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, who delivered an excellent speech, have a view on constitutional reform, but neither Parliament, nor indeed the Government, has a view on this reform. They had a view on devolution in 1997, and Parliament had a view on the Common Market in 1975, but this is a process, not support for constitutional reform.
The perfectly reasonable amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, therefore meets a car crash. The first part of the car crash is the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, who, with eyes popping with sincerity, tells us that he is strongly in favour of AV, having never supported AV before. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, then gets up and says that he has been talking about constitutional reform since he was 15—I rather agree with the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, when he says “poor Lord Rennard”, whom we greatly admire in this House—and he says that he supports the alternative vote system. This lot on the Liberal Democrat Benches are therefore standing on their heads. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, has the nerve to say that they are doing this to restore the people’s trust in our parliamentary representatives by adopting a system that the Liberal Democrats have opposed for so long and which, as has often been said, is described by Mr Nicholas Clegg as “a miserable little compromise”. The public think that they are doing this to get more seats, not because they are sincere, so they are eroding public support. Sensibly, the party opposite has remained completely silent throughout this debate in relation to whether there should be a change to the electoral system. Members opposite looked patronisingly on the Liberal Democrats for being so easily gulled into behaving in a way that brings the whole system into contempt.
The noble Lord, Lord Baker, in an embittered little speech, had the nerve to say, “I have been privileged to listen to a seminar on electoral reform from the Labour Party”. Yes he has, and he is lucky to have done so because no one else in the whole country appears to be debating what the right system is. Surely the least the public could expect is Parliament debating what the best system is, because no other debate is going on. In answer to the noble Lord’s question about how to bring all the strands together, I have great sympathy for the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky. There are problems with it. It is pretty eccentric to choose an electoral system on AV when you are asking the public to determine whether they like AV best. I understand why that is being done—it is a rational way of doing it—but I am afraid he is wasting his time because this constitutional reform is motivated not by what the best constitutional reform is but by a grubby deal that was done that had no reference to what was best for the public.
The noble and learned Lord has made a rather passionate attack on my position. I am not standing on my head and I have not argued anything other than that I believe that this referendum should be held on an AV system, and I have explained why.
I am extremely grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his kind references to the agreements arrived at between Robin Cook and me. He will also remember in the context of his suggestions that this is just a stitch-up: that the Labour Party in Government did not implement the Cook-Maclennan proposals on electoral reform, despite a manifesto commitment to give the public the opportunity. In those days the Labour Party was not in favour of PR; yet it committed itself to giving the public a choice. Where is the difference now?
The noble Lord is right. We did not implement Lord Jenkins’ proposals. We said that if we were going to implement a change, there would be a referendum. I fail to see how that justifies implementing a system of election which Lord Jenkins said would sometimes lead to greater disproportionality than the present system. As the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, has said, that leads to the second party’s second preference votes having no say in the answer. Although he is absolutely right to condemn us for that, I do not think that it allows the public to have sicked upon it a system that absolutely no one wants. My position on the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, is that I admire his logic in proposing it, but I would not support it because of the technical changes. In a sense, I think he is wasting his time.
If noble Lord, Lord Owen, had been here—like others I wish him well—I am sure that he would have been immensely proud of the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, moved his amendment. I expect he would also have been reminded of the reasons why he left the Labour Party in the first place.
The purpose of the amendment is to give people the choice of a proportional system along with the choice of first past the post and the alternative vote. As the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, explained, they had previously tabled an amendment giving a choice of AV+, AMS or STV but had subsequently changed their amendment, so it was not about specifically wanting to pose AV+, AMS or STV as options in their own right but to pose the principle of PR as an option.
We believe that on an issue as fundamental as voting reform, the public need to be given a clear choice that will produce an equally clear result. The key point is about the impact that this sort of approach will have on the result. I understand that the noble Lord wished to see a multiple choice of voting options, including some form of PR. However, for the sake of simplicity—this is the crucial point—it is better to present people with a simple yes/no alternative, exactly as set out in the Bill. Multiple choice questions go against the recommendations of the Lords Constitution Committee report on referendums, which concluded that the presumption should be in favour of questions posing only two options for voters. That is one of a number of many points on which we agree.
A referendum on AV replacing the existing system will give a clear choice to the electorate, with the ability for them to express a clear view. Offering more than one choice could lead to an indecisive result and confusion over the interpretation of the result. The watchwords that we need to stand by when holding any referendum are simplicity, clarity and decisiveness. We would risk disregarding each of those if we went down the road suggested by these amendments.
The question in the Bill as it currently stands reflects the recommendations of the Electoral Commission, which tested the question through focus groups and interviews with members of the public as well as through input from language experts. This amendment risks going against that independent advice from the Electoral Commission, which recommended that, unlike a question requiring a yes/no answer, this style of question has never been used in a UK-wide referendum, and, as such, fuller testing would need to be undertaken before recommending this style of question ahead of a more traditional yes/no question.
If during the referendum campaign the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is in a television studio and is asked why the public cannot decide on the system that they want—first past the post, a variant on the alternative vote system or a proportional system—how would he reply?
I would reply that this is the system passed by Parliament: that, in particular, the House of Commons agreed on the system, as we did—if that is what has happened—and that is why we have the choice of AV. As to why we have AV above the other systems, no doubt we will get to that in other debates. Of course, AV is the one that preserves best the link between elected Member and constituency.
Another issue is that the wording in the amendment could influence voters, as it says:
“It is proposed that the system should be changed”.
The Government are neutral on which voting system should be used, and that statement could be misleading.
In these amendments there is not even an indication of the kind of proportional voting system that the public would get if they voted for this option or of how this type of system would work. One attraction of the approach taken in the Bill is that for all the arguments there might be about how AV works, the Bill sets that out in Clause 9 and in Schedule 10. Any questions about how AV works can be resolved by looking at the Bill, which would not be the case with these amendments. The results might be a lack of clarity and voter confusion.
For the sake of completeness and comprehensiveness, would the noble Lord agree, given the weaknesses of the definitions under proposed new paragraphs (a), (b) and (c), that for the sake of completeness there ought to be mention of the additional Member system that has at least been tried and used in parts of the United Kingdom?
That is a matter for the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, and not for me. I hope that he will not press his amendment. I know that he wanted a short debate about these matters—he may have got more than he bargained for—and I hope that he will reflect carefully about what I and others have said. I urge him to withdraw the amendment.
I am grateful to all those who have taken part in the debate, particularly to the two Front-Bench spokesmen for the cogent and gracious way in which they summed up the issues that the amendment raised. I have four concise points to make. First, I very much appreciated the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont. He made a very powerful case against the alternative vote—he might even have persuaded me of its demerits—but I emphasise that the amendment was not about the merits and demerits of particular voting systems; it was designed to give people a choice.
Secondly, it was said that voting reform is not a subject of interest to the mass of the people; it is of interest only to the chattering classes. I think there are quite a large number of chattering classes in this country, and if you call them professional classes they may even constitute a majority. They are interested in subjects such as this, so that is simply wrong.
I am not convinced that ordinary people are incapable of understanding the principle of proportionality. I think that it is a very reasonable question to put and that people will know what you mean and how it differs from first past the post and the alternative vote.
Finally, no one addressed the issue I raised in my speech of whether a simple choice, of the kind that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, supported, is worth a referendum. Referenda ought to be preserved for grand issues of constitutional import, and a measure of this kind, which would make a marginal change in the voting system, is not worth a referendum. No one really addressed that.
Having said all that, I am very grateful. I do not propose to test the opinion of the House on this amendment, and I therefore ask leave to withdraw the amendment, but I give notice that I may return to it on Report. Thank you very much.
Amendment 16A (to Amendment 16) not moved.
Amendment 17 (to Amendment 6) not moved.
Amendment 16 withdrawn.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 9.02 pm.