Committee (2nd Day) (Continued)
18: Clause 1, page 1, line 7, at end insert “in two parts”
My Lords, when I first tabled this little group of amendments, I included one that was along the lines of a side-title to it: “the people’s choice”. That is what this group is about. At the moment, nobody has asked the people. Nobody has asked anybody whether they want to change the voting system. This group of amendments splits the question into two parts. It is fairly self-explanatory, although it is not as easy to see when they are split up on the Marshalled List. The first question is in Amendment 21 and would ask people:
“Do you wish to change the voting system?”.
People are not being asked this. It was implied by Amendment 16. People were not asked whether they wanted change; it said that it had been agreed to change the voting system. I want to ask people whether they want to do so.
The second part, if there are yes and no answers to that first question, is in Amendment 27:
“If a majority vote for a change in the voting system, which of the alternatives”—
I call them families—
“would you prefer?”.
There are four there; it is a little package. I will not labour the point. I did not invent this. It is a replica, although not exactly, of what happened in New Zealand nearly 20 years ago. New Zealand had first past the post, a very modern democracy and votes for women 30 years before this country did, so we should not lecture anyone there about democracy and parliamentary systems. It had first past the post and there was pressure for change. I shall not deploy all the documentation and so on but a referendum was held in New Zealand in two parts. The people were asked, first, “Do you wish to change the system? Yes or no?”, and then below that on the paper was the second question, “If the yes vote wins, which one of the following do you want?”. The options given were in families—I use that term because of the debates that we have had—rather than in detail. Parliament took it away, worked on it to make it a practical reality and then a year later, in 1993, there was a second binding referendum between first past the post and the alternative, which won the vote and was turned into a practical system. It worked. I do not know how many times it has been used—probably at least four or five—but in New Zealand the people were asked before a change was made.
I regret to say that I have not brought my New Zealand file with me. I could not get away from the Chamber and my file is across the road, so I do not know. It was a hot issue and I have copies of the information that at the time was distributed to people by the equivalent of the Electoral Commission to explain the systems and what was going on, together with copies of the ballot papers.
I am not going to spend this debate deploying the whys and wherefores of the system. The principle is clear: first, we should ask the people, “Do you want to change the system?”. I can make the case for that but the change, when it occurs, has to be cemented, and that is my anxiety about what is being proposed. This is not intended to be a cemented change, because it is clear that, assuming it is carried, the Liberal Democrats will come back later for a move to PR. Were I in favour of PR, I would go straight to PR, but that is not the point that I am making here.
I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. As I understand his argument, he wants to have an initial decision on whether to change from first past the post. If there is a majority in favour of change, that becomes a trigger for a list of alternatives, which, according to the first decision, excludes the retention of first past the post. Would it not be possible to have, say, 45 per cent of the people voting for first past the post and then, when you come to the alternatives, to have any one of the alternatives securing less than 45 per cent of the support of the electorate? What would happen then?
Amendment 30 takes care of that. I know that I shall be criticised for Amendment 30 but, if you are going to have multi-choice answers, you have to be able to rank them so that there is a clear winner. What I have here are two questions that are intended to be on one ballot paper: “Do you want to change the system? Yes or no?”. If the yes vote wins, which will not be known until the papers are counted, then the second question comes in: “Which family would you choose?”. In New Zealand, there was a year’s gap between the two referendums. The first referendum was not binding but the second one was. It was do or die between one system or another. As the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, said, the second referendum required a yes or no answer and so was absolutely clear.
Yes it was. First past the post was mentioned in both referendums even though when people were asked in the first referendum, “Do you want to change from first past the post? Yes or no?”, the yes vote won. They then chose what I call, in shorthand, the additional member system as the preferred option from the family. A year later, there was a run-off between a detailed additional member system and the status quo, the first past the post. You could not complain if you were a first past the poster that you did not get a fair crack of the whip in New Zealand, because there were two opportunities. That is what cemented the change, because on two occasions first past the post lost. It lost on the indicative referendum to start with, when the choice came; and then it lost on the binding referendum. So, on the second referendum, first past the post was back. It was incredibly sophisticated, modern and democratic, and this was 1992-93. The system worked, and it is one on which I wanted to model this kind of operation.
They did it and it works, so there is somewhere in the world that we can point to—somewhere that is English-speaking, first past the post, democratic. We are scratching around because no one can find a place where the type of alternative vote proposed in the Bill actually works in reality. I was going to use Canada as an example, but it was not a national election when they used it there, when it all went dramatically wrong for lots of people. It was always in the provinces. If you google Canada and the alternative vote you will come up with a textbook of how to smash the alternative vote. It was not a national election, however, so I am not going to use it.
It was a two-stage question and a two-stage referendum, but my amendments do not cover the second stage. I just wanted to deploy the case and give at least a positive push—or a nudge, in the language—to the effect that it can work, because it did work and there is a classic example for it.
There are a couple of points I did not speak on in the last debate—I showed enormous restraint, as I said to the Leader of the House—because I have got nothing new to add to what I am not going to say now. One of the reasons that I never joined the Electoral Reform Society after I became a convert just over 20 years ago was this issue about STV. That is why I never joined. I have worked very happily with lots of people on joint platforms and would be happy to do so again, but I will never join because it has this thing whereby if you join, people will say, “Oh, he is in favour of STV”. It is the one system I do not like because it forces party people to fight against each other. I do not think that is a clever system. It was also dissected by the Plant commission, which I will come to in a moment, which was chaired by my noble friend Lord Plant back in the 1990s.
On AV, you have to ask yourself what you are trying to do. Are you trying to elect the most popular person for a constituency and then as a by-product get a popular Government, because it is slightly more proportionate? The question that should be asked on this referendum is: do you want a majoritarian system or a proportional system? That is the question to ask. First past the post and AV are both majoritarian systems; there is no argument about that. They are not remotely proportional, so they are in the majoritarian family. But if you want to elect the most popular person, AV will not do that.
The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, raised an issue which I have covered later in Amendment 52, so I will not go into it in detail now, about what you do with those preferences for the bottom candidates. It is unfair; there is no question about that. The sixth candidate gets chucked out. That second preference is worth exactly the same as the first vote for the first candidate or the second preference for the second candidate. It is very unfair that someone’s vote should have that value. Amendment 52 gets us round that. But there is not a system that will deliver the most popular candidate.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, gave us a seminar on the last election. I want to read a bit from page 66 of the Plant report, which was a long time ago, about how to get the most popular person elected. You certainly cannot do it by ranking and kicking people out; that does not work. For example, as I tried to explain in a previous debate, the supporters of the first three candidates in a list might all hate each other equally, but each of the supporters of the first three would vote for the fourth. That is what is known as the Condorcet winner—which is defined as the option that beats every other in an exhaustive series of pair-wise contests.
I raised this with some academics upstairs and they gave me a good example of someone who would have been a Condorcet winner, although it did not happen because of the system that was used. Noble Lords will remember the French election when Chirac ran up against Le Pen and Jospin came third. Jospin was the Condorcet winner because, in a run-off with Chirac, he would have beaten Chirac and in a run off with Le Pen, he would have beaten Le Pen, but because he was third he got knocked out. He would have been the Condorcet winner in that case, but he was not because of the way the system worked with the two-round ballot, so the most popular person did not win. That is a good example from recent history and we all know what happened in the French election.
The alternative vote system will not give you the most popular candidate. I did not want to interrupt the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, earlier—that would be far beyond my pay grade—but he repeated the canard about the winner securing 50 per cent plus of the votes. It is not true; it cannot happen under the system in this Bill. In order for it to happen every voter would have to use every single preference on the ballot paper and that will not happen because of what I said last week. I can guarantee that some Liberal Democrat candidates will go around the country saying to their supporters, “Don’t vote and use your second preference because they will work out what might happen if that second preference all goes wrong”. People will not be encouraged to use all their preferences.
There are some problems with the system. I digress because I wanted to point out that every system has its defects; nothing is perfect. You can make an electoral system do exactly what you want it to do. You can put constraints on turnout; you can put constraints on the additional Member system; and you could say to a party, “You cannot have a top-up candidate unless you have won at least one constituency”. I was accused of being antidemocratic when I said that. You do not need a percentage turnout. If you cannot win a constituency, you are not entitled to a top-up. They said, “All that is bad for the Greens”. I said, “Let them go and win a seat”, and they have done that now, so they would qualify. You can do all those things; it is all techie.
I refuse to let my eyes glaze over, but when I am faced with the situation presented in this Bill, it makes me so angry because, at the end of the day, I will have to vote for first past the post, which really sticks in my throat. I am being forced to vote for first past the post because of what is in the Bill: the preference system, the turnout and all the issues which we discussed last week on which we can go into detail when we come to other amendments. Those matters make the situation more perverse and worse than the present system. That is a change I am not prepared to vote for. I am not prepared to vote for something on the basis of, “Vote for this and if we get it right at the next election, we will come back and get a bit of PR, AV+”. Give me AV+ and I will vote for it.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, would vote for AV+ but he cannot get the person sitting next to him in the Cabinet to support him. That is a bit like the Labour Cabinet. We were presented with exactly the same in the Bill that came to the House in March. People were not asked if they wanted to change. It was put together by a Cabinet, most of whose members did not want change at any price; they just stuffed AV in and thought they could get away with it because it is so close to first past the post. There were the same problems and I made the same speech when sitting on the Bench opposite.
I am annoyed because, at the end of the day, unless there is a major change to the Bill, I will have to vote for first past the post, which I do not think is very good. Also I think people will be misled during the referendum. Perhaps I can give an example: somewhere in the world it worked in a mature democracy and I think it could work here if we asked the people. I wish we were brave enough to do that.
I realise this was all cobbled together in a rush in the six days after the election. I understand that the pressures to get a deal were enormous. I will support the fixed-term Parliament, although I think four years is better than five but I will settle for five years. I accept that the only deal in town was the deal I am looking at now, but that means we should be mature enough to say, “Look, if there is something intrinsically wrong with the system, let us put the case to the people and ask them if they want a change”.
Think of the mandate you would have from that Front Bench, if you could persuade people that, yes, there is demand for a change. The first-past-the-posters would be run out of town and we could get to work on getting a change that people would accept and it might last for the 132 years that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, keeps saying that first past the post has lasted for.
I freely admit that you can all go home because I do not intend to push any of this to a vote, but I wanted to put it on the record that there is an alternative way of doing this. I beg to move.
He’s gone. He’s done a runner.
I was sitting here confidently waiting for either the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, or the redoubtable noble Lord, Lord Rennard, the bravest of the Liberal Democrats, to get up and intervene, but since no one has, I shall say just a few words.
We are now down to the anoraks, the loyalists and the payroll vote. I am two out of three, by the way. I always hesitate to disagree with my noble friend Lord Rooker, because, just as he said that the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, fills him with awe, my noble friend fills many of us here with awe. He was one of the most effective Labour Ministers and he is an even more effective Back-Bencher and debater, so it is always with some hesitation that we get up to disagree. But I come from a fundamentally different point of view, in that I think that first past the post is, as I argued earlier, the best system, for a range of reasons.
I wonder, though, whether he is right in using the New Zealand example as a precedent for us, for two and maybe three reasons. First, New Zealand has a unicameral Parliament, so there is only one Chamber and only one election takes place. They do not have, as we do, two Chambers and—as I said in relation to the previous amendment—the possibility of having two different systems, one of which produces the Government and the other which produces the balancing force, or balancing Chamber. That is very important.
Also, as far as I remember—and I am sure that my noble friend Lord Rooker will get up and correct me if I am wrong—the example that he suggested was introduced by the Labour Government in New Zealand. They thought that it was right to change the electoral system. I visited New Zealand a few years later and spoke to a number of Labour Party members who were very strongly of the view that they had made a mistake in introducing it. I know that my noble friend Lady McDonagh was General Secretary of the Labour Party and has contacts with the New Zealand Labour Party. I was there on a CPA visit and met them and they were very regretful that they had moved in that direction. Despite his deep knowledge and the detail that my noble friend gave us from the Plant report and the system in New Zealand, he was not able to answer my noble friend’s question about the turnout, about how many people actually turned out to make these great changes in the two referenda that took place, and whether or not that could be justified.
That brings me to two final points. Someone suggested earlier that there was filibustering going on. There was actually a very good debate, which seems to me to be the purpose of these kinds of Chambers. I was pleased that quite a few Conservatives got involved in the debate.
The Liberal Democrats and some Labour people keep arguing that democracy is all about an arithmetical correlation between the number of votes and the number of seats, as exact a correlation as possible. That is democracy, they say—to get the nearest you can to the number of seats relating to the percentage of votes cast. I think there is another, perhaps even more important, aspect of democracy, which is accountability: that is the ability, first, of your party in the constituency and, secondly, of the electorate in the constituency to hold you to account. In my view, that can be done properly only by the first past the post system.
Earlier, the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, made a very strong argument about wasted votes. One aspect of that was dealt with by one of my noble friends. The argument was that there are safe seats that never change. Come up to Scotland and go to Edinburgh South, which was held by the Tories for generations and is now a Labour seat, or go to East Renfrewshire, which was held by the Tories for generations and is now a Labour seat. We used to think our votes were wasted, but we worked hard, we convinced people, we got people on to our side, they voted for us and we got a majority. Surely that is what democracy is about. It is about convincing people and changing people’s minds. It is Gilbertian to think that because someone was born a Tory, they will always be a Tory or because they were born a Labour person, they will always be a Labour person. You can change people, you can convince people. If you will excuse me saying so, I was talking to my noble friend Lord Maclennan—I still call him my noble friend—earlier on. He won the seat through his campaigning, his personality and the Labour Party in Caithness. We had never held it before. We can win these seats and can convince people to change their minds. Surely that is what democracy is about.
Although my noble friend Lord Rooker has very powerfully argued the case for his amendments, I do not find it totally convincing. I say to the Tories that I wish that more of them in this place would have the courage of what I know to be their convictions and would stand up as the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, did earlier today and say what they really believe: that first past the post is the best way of electing people to the House of Commons.
My Lords, I join my noble friend in calling upon the Conservative Benches to take a view because I do not know whether they really understand the danger that would arise in the event that an AV referendum was successful. It has huge implications for the Conservative Party. They sit there and say very little, apart from the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, and it leaves me quite bewildered.
I can now answer the question that I asked my noble friend about what happened in New Zealand because it is in Review of Voting Systems: the experience of new voting systems in the United Kingdom since 1997. On page 136, it sets out precisely what happened and it is very interesting, so I shall put it on the record:
“New Zealand provides a particularly interesting example because it has changed its electoral system from FPTP to the MMP”—
mixed member proportional—
“system (similar to AMS in the UK) in recent times. The first election to be held under MMP was in 1996, following referendums”—
which my noble friend referred to—
“in 1992 and 1993 which first rejected FPTP and then selected MMP from four proportional options. The 1993 referendum, which was binding, took place at the same time as the 1993 election where 84.5 per cent of voters favoured replacing FPTP and 70.3 per cent chose MMP”.
That shows that, when you ask the electorate what have been deemed in these debates to be complicated questions over the detail of various proportional systems, they actually understand what they are being asked and they are prepared to go out and vote and state a preference. The evidence is there in English-speaking New Zealand. It did it, and it shows the way forward. It is interesting to note, in the following pages in this section, that the turnout in New Zealand elections following the change in the electoral system in 1990 has consistently remained around the 80 per cent mark. That is almost as high as in my former constituency in one election, but it is vastly higher than the average within the United Kingdom. Again, we may have something to learn from New Zealand.
It is also worth noting what the review says is the impact of the system that New Zealand chose in this well-supported referendum.
“Since 1996, New Zealand has been governed by coalitions, usually with a minority of the seats in Parliament. Obviously this makes it more difficult for the leading party to achieve all of its policy aims but, arguably, policy decisions reflect the views of a wider coalition of voters. Tina Day, a Director of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust interviewed 21 MPs in the 2002-05 Parliament for her research. She argues in her 2005 paper Increasing the representativeness of parliament … that there has been a shift of power from the Executive to Parliament, with select committees (whose composition reflects the multi-party Parliament) assuming a very powerful role”.
That reservation, expressed during the course of that consultation, might well be the one to which my noble friend refers.
The review continues:
“There is also a greater representation of women (around 30 per cent of members), Maori and the Asian population in Parliament. She argues that this has increased the legitimacy and standing of Parliament (notwithstanding the early unpopularity of coalition government). It also means that divisions in opinion within the country are played out in Parliament to a greater extent”.
The point I am making is that if you trust the people and give them the information in a form that they can understand, and put realistic options on the paper, they may well surprise us and actually choose a system that—
I am grateful to my noble friend, my near neighbour, for giving way. Could he resolve this dilemma? He mentioned that there was the early unpopularity of coalition Governments at the same time as there was popularity for a change to a more proportional system. A more proportional system will more than likely—I put it no stronger than that—lead to coalition Governments. How does he square the circle of the popularity of the voting system with the unpopularity of the product it produces?
It is because it was only in the early days prior to coalition that public prejudice on the issue of coalitions led to this general view that coalitions cannot work; whereas following the referendum decision and the creation of the coalition, and a recognition by the public that the system did work, the coalition then gained in popularity. All I am saying to my noble friends is that I find this particular amendment very appealing because it offers the public the opportunity that many of us believe they should be given during the referendum.
That raises a fundamental point which my noble friend Lord Rooker puts very well; you have to be able to explain why AV has been chosen and the public are not being given a choice on anything else. I have to say again, rather distressingly, that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, did not deal with that at all in relation to the last amendment. He said that clarity was important. That is an answer, but it does not deal with why AV has been chosen. There is a profound sense in this House that there are a range of options. My noble friend Lord Rooker and the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, have pretty well destroyed the idea that AV is an effective choice.
If at all possible, I should like the coalition to explain why it has chosen AV as the only alternative proposition that it is putting to the electorate. If the answer is—I think that the Deputy Chief Whip is trying to tell me this—“Well, that is all we could agree with the Liberal Democrats”, that is fine, and I hope the electorate will treat that with the contempt that it deserves. Then the position is that we are not suggesting that it is the best alternative; we are saying that it is the only one on which we could reach agreement. I very much hope that the coalition is straightforward about that, because this is a serious debate about the constitution. Unless no answer is forthcoming, there is no other option but for this House to debate which are the better options. I know that that wearies the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord McNally, but if you cannot explain or debate the best alternative to first past the post, the position is that the merits of each of them have to be debated.
Perhaps it would help the House if the noble and learned Lord was able to explain why this was the only alternative to the first past the post system that his Government twice put before Parliament and the nation. The first time was in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, when this was very specifically the only alternative that was going to be put before Parliament and the people, as he well knows. The next was at the general election. It would help the House to have his explanation.
That was the step that the then Government proposed in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. That step was then proposed in the referendum, but it was rejected by the public because we lost the election. This is the team who won the election. Unless you are saying to us, “We adopt the position that the Labour Party adopted”, I am unable to understand why it is. I hear the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, saying “Come on” from a sedentary position. If the reason is that the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have adopted the miserable little compromise that they proposed because we adopted it, let them say so. The deafening silence, the lack of argument and the black hole at the centre of the argument—
This is absurd. Presumably, the noble and learned Lord and his very distinguished colleagues in the previous Administration had a thought process that brought them to the conclusion that it was the right choice to put before Parliament and subsequently at the general election to put before the public. They were not just jumping ahead and wondering what a putative coalition might attempt in the future. At the time, he was a distinguished member of that Government. Surely he had an input into that thought process. Can he not share that thinking with us?
He has and that is fine. He is not saying necessarily that that is what everyone else has got to do, but the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, is absolutely right in relation to that. What is the thinking of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler? I do not know, but perhaps it was that this would be enough to get the Liberal Democrats on side. Sure enough, it has proved to be the case as far as the Conservatives are concerned. But, ultimately, the problem which the Liberal Democrats say this is to try to resolve is a lack of trust on the part of the electorate in politicians.
One should consistently want to trust the electorate and give them that decision. I do not think the noble and learned Lord answered very well the points made by my noble friend Lord Tyler. We have heard some persuasive arguments this evening from noble Lords opposite in favour of a multi-option referendum on electoral reform. I just wish we had heard them over the past 13 years when noble Lords were in a position to do something about it. The logical position on these Benches is simply that we would rather trust the people with having some say on the issue than give them no say.
I am rather confused by this. This is another volte-face. My understanding is that the Liberal Democrats in the negotiations pressed for AV without a referendum, so I am not quite clear why the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, is saying, “Trust the electorate”. I imagine the Liberal Democrats were pressing the Conservatives to agree to no referendum on the basis that they could not trust the electorate to go with what they thought was the right answer.
That is absolutely not the case. There was no proposition from the Labour Party. It was always made clear that any change to the electoral system would require a referendum for the obvious reason that this is a fundamental change to the constitution of the country.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Adonis. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, was not in a position to deny the assertion that they were seeking AV without a referendum. So the Liberal Democrats trust the electorate but only on the basis that they give them the answer that they want.
Is there not a distinction between how this House would have handled the matter then as against now? Earlier in the year if every Member of the House had been voting for what they wanted, that would not have gone through. It is a distinct possibility that the Labour Government would have been defeated on the issue of AV in this House. Now it is going through on the basis of people being prepared to vote for something they do not believe in. Which is the most honourable and honest House in those conditions?
The head-turning going on is easily identified. The public, however, are interested in the merits of the argument. What I cannot understand at the moment, because no argument has been advanced, is why AV is the only alternative that has been given. That is the question posed by the amendments of the noble Lords, Lord Skidelsky and Lord Rooker. There must be an argument beyond simply saying, “We reached an agreement over the weekend and that seemed a sensible thing to do”.
My Lords, the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, would have the referendum pose not one but two questions and present the option of four different voting systems to the public—alternative vote, additional member system, single transferable vote and supplementary vote—rather than the simple choice between the current system and the alternative vote. We believe that on an issue as fundamental as voting reform, the public need to be given a clear choice which will produce an equally clear result, and there are a number of ways in which these amendments would stand in the way of that.
The noble and learned Lord asked why we are not giving another choice. That is the answer: to give clarity. He then asked why we chose AV. We might have assumed, given that the Labour Party had it in its manifesto, that it would support it. That is the first reason. How about this for a second reason? AV is the only system that allows a single constituency member to continue, which was an issue. AV+ includes additional members who do not represent constituencies. So AV maintains that link. And thirdly—
Let me explain the third reason. Noble Lords asked for a reason. I am not giving way to the noble and learned Lord until I have given all three reasons. Thirdly, out of all the systems that they voted on in the House of Commons, AV was the one they united on.
The question was this. Why did we propose a referendum on AV? It was not whether we supported AV or not, but whether we supported a referendum or not. The difference is that on this side of the House we can agree to disagree on whether we are in favour of AV, but what unites us is that we believe it should be the people's choice. The Labour Party denies that.
There are a number of ways in which the amendments proposed would get in the way of that clarity. Splitting the question in this way would risk making it unclear to people what they are really being asked to vote on. If someone was to vote no to the first question for example, why would they wish to answer the second question? Would their votes to the second question still count if they had said no to the first? As the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, pointed out, there is another disadvantage. The amendment allows for the possibility that people might vote yes to the first question but then not want any of the options presented in the second question, which would lead to uncertainty in interpreting the results as to what the voters really wanted.
Another drafting issue with the amendment is that it does not make it clear that it is a voting system for the UK parliamentary elections to the House of Commons. There is also no indication in these amendments about how any of the other voting systems would work. As I said earlier on, one attraction of the approach taken in our Bill is that, for all the arguments that might take place about how AV works, our Bill sets that out in Clause 9 and Schedule 10. Any questions about how AV works can be resolved by looking at the Bill.
In its report on the referendum question, the Electoral Commission noted that there was a great deal of uncertainty among the public about what the different voting systems were. The Electoral Commission will publish information on the different systems to address that. It is realistic to think that the commission will be able to address this sort of issue where there are two voting systems at stake. But in the context of the commission’s observations, it is not realistic to think the same where five proposed systems are referred to in the question.
A referendum on AV replacing the existing system will give a clear choice to the electorate with the ability for people to express a clear view. Offering more than one choice could lead to an indecisive result and confusion over the interpretation of the results. I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that reply. I freely admit that this amendment comes from the anorak side of me. This was the most difficult part when I went through the Bill. Contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, when I read the Bill looking for what I wanted to do, this was the one clause I had most difficulty with. I wanted to raise the issue, but I could not do that in a way that was clear and precise in terms of deploying the argument for a second referendum and how the people had a choice. I could not do that. For 11 years, all my amendments have been drafted for me and I admit to being slightly rusty, but I am learning fast. I then left it alone. All the rest of the stuff in my name is like the other two amendments—very precise and clear so that everybody knows exactly what the issue is. I hope that they were clear tonight. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 18 withdrawn.
Amendment 19 not moved.
20: Clause 1, page 1, leave out lines 8 to 11 and insert—
“Which electoral system would you prefer to use for electing your MP to the House of Commons? Either—
(a) the first past the post system; or(b) the alternative vote system?”
My Lords, my amendment would change the wording in the Bill, which asks:
“At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead?”,
“Which electoral system would you prefer to use for electing your MP to the House of Commons? Either—
(a) the first past the post system; or (b) the alternative vote system?”.
The reason for this, as any psychologist will tell you, is that yes/no is not neutral. Yes/no has values: yes being good, no being bad. It can also cause confusion depending on whether you ask the question in a positive or a negative way.
A second unintended consequence of the wording is that it gets the voter to fixate on one system which, in the way the sentence is constructed, forces them to focus on the alternative vote system. I believe we are not asking them to choose for or against the alternative vote. In the Bill and in the referendum, we are asking them to weigh up the strengths and weaknesses of the first past the post system as against the alternative vote system and then make a choice. For these reasons I think it is much more straightforward if we pose the question in the way it is in the amendment and get people to actually choose the system they would prefer. I beg to move.
I remind the Committee that if this amendment is agreed to I cannot call Amendments 21 to 27 for reasons of pre-emption.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for moving the amendment. I understand exactly the point she is trying to make—aiming to ensure that the best possible referendum question is posed to the public. I hope to reassure her that an options form of the question was considered and tested by the Electoral Commission when it carried out its assessment of the original question on the Bill. The commission’s report concluded that there are potential drawbacks to using the options style in this particular case. It went on to discuss it and concluded that, in the circumstances, it could not recommend the use of an options question in place of the more traditional yes/no question that meets our criteria for assessing a referendum question.
The commission’s report also noted that an options form of the question could quite significantly affect the nature of referendum campaigning as campaigns will not be straightforward yes and no campaigns but in favour of either option. The question in the Bill as it stands therefore reflects the recommendations of the Electoral Commission which tested the question through focus groups and interviews with members of the public, as well as input from language experts.
My Lords, it simply tested the options system as opposed to a yes/no. It concluded that yes/no was a better way than the options. It produced evidence to support that view. Therefore, to change the question in the way the noble Baroness has suggested risks going against the advice of the commission.
The evidence it had was that first it was alien to referendums that we have had in this country and therefore would need new, comprehensive testing. Additionally, proper assessment of such a question would need to take account of further feedback from interested parties, including political parties and other groups and for those reasons, it took the view that the options style was not as good as the yes/no style.
Thank you. I think the noble Lord was giving way to me earlier. Can I ask you to go back a little bit to the issue of the campaigns that you touched on? It would seem to me that the way I am proposing it would be much better for campaigns—all the subjects would get aired rather than what is going to happen. You mentioned in your remarks that it will be the case for and against AV that will be concentrated on, not the strengths of the individual systems. Can you go back to this point and expand on it?
I am sure that the noble Baroness believes that the option system is better, but the commission’s report noted that an options form of the question could quite significantly affect the nature of the referendum campaign, as campaigns will not be straightforward yes and no campaigns but in favour of either option. The commission believes that for the sake of clarity it is better to campaign on a yes or no basis.
It is not a matter of asking yes or no; it is a matter of asking what the substance is behind yes or no, which is either first past the post or the alternative vote system. That is the difficulty. If you are presenting content in the question that is being put, options are clearly the way of presenting that to the public. In other referendums, the question has been put more simply as do you want something or do you not want something. It is not a matter of wanting one or the other. That is what we are presenting to the people at this time.
I find the argument given by my noble friend Lady McDonagh much more convincing. With respect, she has been involved in a number of elections and referendums, as have a lot of us in this House. With no disrespect to the Electoral Commission, until recently it did not have anyone on it who had either been elected to anything or been involved actively in elections or referendums. It is only very recently, with a change in the law, that we have had people on the Electoral Commission who know what they are talking about in relation to elections and referendums. Surely the argument given by my noble friend is right. Yes is a positive argument and no is a negative argument. Therefore, yes is seen to be something far more attractive than no. If you are putting the option, you have to explain the option; you do not just go around sloganising. You have to explain in more detail what first past the post or the alternative vote is about. That is a much more sensible suggestion to put forward. I urge the Leader of the House to think carefully about that and not just to accept something because the Electoral Commission has said it. There is a tendency in both Houses for some people just accepting things because the commission says it. Now we have changed the commission’s composition and added to it some people who know what they are talking about with regard to elections and referendums. Its suggestions in future will be better informed. But will the Leader of the House listen to my noble friend on this?
I just want some clarity. The way in which the noble Lord put it when asked the question appeared to state an analytical conclusion by the Electoral Commission—that it thinks that the options route is alien to how it has been done in the past and would lead to a different sort of campaign. That all sounds like analysis. Did I understand the noble Lord to say that there had been focus groups and testing by the Electoral Commission? If there were such focus groups and testing, are the results of that published? If so, where can we find it—and if it is not, could he publish it?
I thank the noble Lord. I intend to withdraw my amendment at this stage. I agree that the referendum should be held, and I think that it is right to have this debate, but I shall think about his comments. If we are not careful, we will have a very one-sided debate in the referendum. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 20 withdrawn.
Amendment 21 not moved.
We have had no agreement to go beyond 10 o’clock this evening. It is now 10 o’clock, and it is the tradition of this House that we cease proceedings at 10 pm unless there is an agreement. I am more than happy to discuss these matters through the usual channels. I see two previous Chief Whips and am sure they would observe that that is the case.
House adjourned at 10.02 pm.