My Lords, I begin with a couple of personal declarations.
First, as of today, I am still a member of the Venice Commission’s Council for Democratic Elections—a body partly funded by the Council of Europe. I also have a long history—a lot of form, you might say—in this area. Some 45 years ago, I became the political secretary of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, which used proportional representation as a method of election. I saw its use bring many disparate groups into the same body to form the policies to carry the co-op forward; I did so very clearly because we used proportional representation, but the other big co-op in London—the London Co-operative Society—used first past the post. As a result, they spent nearly all their time fighting each other; we got together and managed to work our way forward. I should also declare an interest because, for many years—until circumstances intervened—I was a member of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, which I thank for slipping me some information to help with today’s debate. We still remain friends, if not in the same party.
My contention is that, in the last 15 to 20 years, we have seen a shift towards usage of various forms of proportional representation in the election of bodies in the United Kingdom that have legislative duties. My proposal is extremely modest. All it asks is that the Secretary of State brings forward a law that is very similar to, if not modelled on, the Welsh Government’s proposal. Earlier this year, the Welsh Government expressed their belief that,
“councils should be able to decide which voting system to use”.
Their consultation document said:
“As such, the Welsh Government proposes to make legislation which will allow Councils in Wales to decide which voting system best reflects the needs of their local people and communities”.
That is all the Bill attempts to do. It does not lay down a system. It does not even say that local authorities must change their system. It is a permissive Bill, with hurdles.
According to the Library briefing, in January 2016 in the House of Lords the noble Viscount, Lord Younger of Leckie, argued against PR. He said that,
“it is often a mish-mash of policies hammered out behind closed doors, which I argue is hardly democratic”.—[Official Report, 28/1/16; col. 1442.]
My experience of most democracy is of policy hammered out behind closed doors in a mish-mash. Whatever the political group, you tend to find that it covers a wide variety of opinions. Although on occasions, particularly during the last coalition Government, much play is made of the manifesto, throughout most of my political life the manifesto has not been the guiding light. If it has been, it is used with discretion by people who find bits of it that happen to justify whatever they want to do at any given time.
I saw that there was a debate in the House of Commons in October 2017. The Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office, Chris Skidmore, said that first past the post has an advantage because it is less complicated, takes less time and resources to administer, and is better understood by the electorate. If it is better understood, why is it that only 30% to 35% of people vote? Maybe what they understand is that in most places their vote is totally wasted. I am not sure that that level of understanding is a justification for keeping the system in place; it is a clear argument for changing the system.
My experience, both in the Venice Commission but also going back the 50 years that I have been around government, is that parties are strongly addicted to the system that helps them to win. I have been involved in a number of arguments in both of the parties I have belonged to that have boiled down to, “How can we get this through, because it benefits our party? Can we get this ward brought into the constituency, because it will probably vote one way or the other?”. People have seldom said, “How can we reflect the will of the electorate?”; they generally say, “How can we shape it so that we can win?”.
One of the ways we see this is in the way local government is put together. We have three-member wards. What on earth is the intellectual justification for the number three? Is it a magic Chinese number? I suggest, from all the evidence I have from talking to people, that the number three is big enough that any local campaign will find it very difficult to get elected. That is what happens in the area I live in, which is probably the most expensive postcode in the city of Cambridge—so, clearly, it is a safe Labour seat—but it does contain some quite poor areas. The paradox is that the Conservatives often get their votes from these more modest areas of the ward. There is no reason behind the wards in my own city; they make no sense whatever. They do not bring communities together, they bring numbers together. I do not think they make sense, and the Bill aims to leave local government to organise itself.
I will confess that on two occasions in the last 20 years I have voted for the Green Party. I voted as a Labour Party MEP for the Green Party because I was faced with an election in which the Labour Party put out material attacking the education policies, which were of course the responsibility of the Conservative county council, not the local council that the election was about, and the Liberal party put out leaflets attacking the Labour Party for health service cuts. The health service was also nothing to do with Cambridge City Council. The Conservatives did not put out any leaflets and when I asked why I had not had a leaflet from them, they said, “Oh, we have just put up a paper candidate”. The Green candidate put out a leaflet which was certainly the worst prepared—a reflection on their resources, not their intellectual ability—which said what they were going to do about cleaning the streets, emptying the bins, looking after the local services and shifting the bus stop. I thought, “This leaflet is actually talking about the things that matter to us”. Unfortunately, the Green candidate did not win, though they did come second, but I think that turning the electoral system in this way would help parties concentrate on what matters to them and what matters locally. It would give a real incentive. I have no hesitation in saying that I would not wish Cambridge City Council to be run by the Green Party, but I would certainly like to see it represented within the city council because the ideas it puts forward in Cambridge reflect the views, it is regularly shown, of around 15% to 20% of the population and they deserve a hearing in the council that makes the decisions. That is what is at the heart of the Bill.
There are two safeguards within it. First, 10% of the electors must request a referendum, so it cannot just be sprung on people. There has to be a demand, and in order for there to be a demand there would have to be an education campaign. If it were 1% or 2% it would be easy. If it were 10% the parties would have to go out and convince people that it was worth having the referendum. Secondly, the council would then have to ask for the referendum, so there would be a double hurdle to jump over. Also, in doing that, in order to get it through there would clearly have to be some consensus at local level and there would have to be local demand, through the papers and through a local campaign. So this is not something that is going to be sprung on people, nor does the Bill say what form of PR should be adopted. It gives local government the freedom to look at what suits the local area. Of course, it could decide that the local area is best suited by no change at all: it gives that freedom.
My personal preference has always been for the additional member system. We often forget that the additional member system was drawn up by the British Labour Government in the 1940s when it wrote what became the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany. Ashley Bramall—a name that will certainly be familiar to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter—was one of the drafters of that constitution. We have form when dealing with other people; what I am suggesting with the Bill is that maybe we should have a bit of form when dealing with ourselves. I am sure that we can have a lot of debate around systems: that is not the purpose of this very modest Bill. The purpose of the Bill is to advance us just as far as the Welsh Government have already got, to start a debate and to make it possible for change to be initiated at a local level. I thank noble Lords for listening, I look forward to listening to the debate and to responding in due course, and I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, on giving the House an opportunity to debate electoral reform, albeit only one aspect of it, by introducing this Bill. Some noble Lords will know that I have previous on this: for nearly a decade I chaired Make Votes Count, a group campaigning for electoral reform. We were scuppered in the end by Nick Clegg’s eccentric decision to hold the referendum on a date in 2011 which made it absolutely certain that the cause he purported to support would go down to defeat. Incidentally, had the AV system been in place for the 2017 election he would almost certainly have won his Sheffield Hallam seat with the aid of Tory second preferences—serves him right.
The referendum of 2011 temporarily took electoral reform off the national agenda but I doubt it has gone for ever. We now have two dominant great national parties: one divided to the point of fissure over Brexit; the other with a set of policies far more left-wing than at any time in its recent history and led by a man whom few see as prime ministerial material. Under first past the post at the next general election, people—noble Lords excepted, sadly—will be able to vote for the devil or the deep blue sea, but any other choice is likely to be a wasted vote.
The case for electoral reform in local government is even stronger than in national government. Partisan party governance is gradually going out in local government. In many places now we have elected mayors. In other places we have the executive model of local government, where the role of individual councillors is more to represent their constituents than to govern. Yet we retain first past the post, which, among its many flaws, means that councillors are effectively chosen by parties, not people. Turnout is low, not surprisingly in the circumstances, so councillors have the weakest of mandates.
Meanwhile, piecemeal, subnational administrations have increasingly not been elected by first past the post. Mayors are not; for example, London uses the supplementary vote. The Scottish Government and Welsh Assembly are not; they use the additional member system. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, STV is used for local elections, and the Welsh Assembly wants it to be used for council elections there, too. I do not think there are many voters who would want a return to first past the post—for example, for the London mayor—although, regrettably, a proposal to that effect was sneaked into the Tory election manifesto.
The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, would lead in time to a further extension of electoral reform into local government, and that is to the good. But I have a couple of concerns about it. The first is that it sets the bar rather high: 10% of local voters have to sign a petition to trigger a referendum, and even that is not enough. The council has to agree and of course councillors have a vested interest in retaining the system that led to them being councillors. I would love to see the country swept by a mass movement for fair votes but I shall not hold my breath.
My second concern is more fundamental. I am not a supporter of referendums. I believe in representative democracy—actually, with a slight leaning towards epistocracy, as represented by this House—but not in direct democracy. The last two referendums we have held—on electoral reform, with a low turnout and very little information seen by the public, and on Brexit, the consequences of which we are still grappling with—have not warmed me to the device. I doubt that local referendums on electoral reform would make many hearts beat faster, and I very much doubt that the majority of electors would choose to grapple with the issues involved. Turnout would be nugatory. Moreover, if citizens voted for reform, what reform—supplementary vote, alternative vote, STV, top-up lists? Would the top-up lists be closed or open? I will not even go into d’Hondt and the many varieties of largest-remainder systems. You cannot resolve a complex set of preferences by a single vote.
There is, however, a form of direct democracy towards which I am much warmer and which has promise as a way forward. That way forward is citizens’ juries. I am sure all Members of the House are familiar with what a citizens’ jury is: you get together a group that is reasonably representative of the population, and for a day or a weekend they sit together to debate the issues in front of them. These are exposed in dialogue with the key arguments by experts. The group deliberates and then decides. Often, as a result of the education process, people change their minds. I remember one citizens’ jury that started off by saying how dreadful the House of Lords was, because it was appointed, but ended up thinking that we were about right. That warmed my heart to this device.
The Constitution Unit at UCL recently staged a citizens’ jury on Europe and the results were released this week. They are fascinating. Initially, the citizens wanted free trade and less immigration—perhaps they should all have been given positions in this Government. But then the experts said, “No, you can’t have your cake and eat it”, so what then? A clear majority prioritised free trade over immigration controls, which came as a slight surprise to me.
I would like to see this Bill amended in Committee so that either councils could decide to hold such citizens’ juries or a given percentage of electors, perhaps 10% or less, could trigger the calling of one. If the citizens’ jury opted for reform, the law would bring it into being. My own firm belief is that in most cases, an informed and engaged group of citizens would want electoral reform but if not, that is their prerogative.
My Lords, I support the Bill and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, on bringing it before the House. As far as I am concerned, it is a tiny little brick that we might pull out of a colossal wall of indifference and bad democracy.
I am sympathetic to the view of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that a referendum is often not a way to settle a complex issue. I think we have understood that with the Brexit referendum. But at the same time, I am not sympathetic to his view that voters sometimes find things too complex or cannot be bothered. I would have thought that the voting in Alabama this week shows us that when a cause is just, voters will come alive and cast their vote to make a difference.
I am probably one of the few people here in your Lordships’ House to have been elected under PR but also under the first past the post system. It was difficult to get elected as a London Assembly member and equally difficult to get elected as a local councillor, but it was obviously a very rewarding experience on both counts. There is always a lively debate about proportional representation, with people often feeling strongly one way or the other. But most developments in Britain’s constitution have come about though compromise and negotiation, sometimes as an unusual add-on.
The noble Lord’s Bill offers a gentle compromise on allowing for proportional representation in a way that will have the support of voters. It would not force change from above and would allow local people to decide how they elect their local representatives, which is excellent. I would have thought that the Bill fits quite well with the Government’s declared devolution and localism agenda, because there is no good reason why local people should not be able to choose their own local election system. There is even less reason that the Government should force first past the post on a local authority if there is public and cross-party support to replace it.
It would be pretty hypocritical if the Government were to oppose referenda on the future of local democracy. Quite a lot is made of the will of the people at the moment; we hear of it constantly on both sides of the Chamber and in the other place. It seems that a lot is made of it when it suits people and then it is completely negated when it does not suit their arguments, which is very depressing. Even though I voted for leave, because I want to amend the Bill I am assumed to be a traitor and an enemy of the people, which I find very offensive. You cannot care about the will of the people when they want Brexit but not when they want a local election system to suit themselves. The will of the people is either sacred or it is not.
As a Green Party member, I care very deeply about proportional representation because I am well aware that our first past the post system in the past always produced a strong and stable Government, but that is clearly not the case anymore. It is clear that first past the post has outlived its usefulness. It has become infuriating to watch this minority Government in league with a very niche party which actually got half as many votes as the Green Party at the last election but got 10 times as many MPs. I would really like an answer from the Minister about how half the number of votes and 10 times the number of MPs is fair or democratic in any way.
Green Party policy is that we should have single transferable vote for local elections. It can be done in a way that maintains a constituency or ward link, whichever is more appropriate, while creating a much more proportional voting system. However, there is a variety of views about which system to use, and almost all of them are better than the current system. This Bill would allow local communities to decide for themselves.
It is possible for local authorities to be too strong and stable. A local authority that is totally dominated by one party can easily resist common-sense and reasonable views that are not its own. I could name quite a lot of councils: for example, Sheffield City Council has a supermajority and has denied debate by opposition councillors simply because it can. I do not think that is democratic in any sense.
Directly elected mayors have been a very interesting experiment. In London, the mayor has quite a lot of scrutiny because the London Assembly is a very competent group of elected politicians and the mayor can be held to account. In other places, it is not as easy and a lot of tweaking is needed with mayors of cities. The balance of power between councillors and the mayor was considered, to some extent, by the Court of Appeal in the Doncaster libraries case in 2013, but many questions were left unanswered. The general view is that councillors are massively weakened where there are directly elected mayors, so the mayors have a lot of leeway that they may perhaps not use to best effect. We need to shake up our political system to break up the safe seats, rotten boroughs and political monopolies. It is not healthy for democracy when we have those sorts of things.
Returning to the Bill, it is very sensible and moves forward on an important issue. We are told that people are tired of politicians and experts telling them what is best and that power is being wrested back from cosy elites. We are told that politicians must respect the will of the people. If we can trust the public on Brexit, then we can trust them on virtually anything, so let us try with this Bill to start a process of making our system more democratic.
Today, there were three Second Readings in which I would have liked to have spoken, but I do not want to hog lots of time, so I am speaking in this debate only. If I had some Green colleagues, noble Lords would not have to hear from me all the time. I would have thought that is a big enough incentive to get some more Green Peers in the House of Lords.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. It is particularly appropriate today because, as she mentioned, she and I were first elected to the London Assembly in 2000 in the first, I think, elections conducted in England under a proportional representation system. Before I forget, I should declare my interest, limited though it is, as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for introducing the Bill. It will come as no surprise that the Liberal Democrat Front Bench of course welcomes any debate on a system of proportional representation. I also have to agree with the noble Lord when he said—I think almost exactly this—that parties are all too often addicted to the system that enables them to win. That is undeniably true, but I want to show from personal experience that it is not always true.
I was a councillor in the London Borough of Sutton for 40 years, up until the last elections in 2014. For the last 32 years, Sutton Borough Council has been run by the Liberal Democrats. At only one council election since 1994 have the Liberal Democrats won less than 80% of the council seats—almost literally a one-party state, perhaps. Yet to my distress, suburban south London, particularly with a majority of people voting leave in the EU referendum, is not natural Liberal Democrat territory. I have to say I am still looking for such territory but, wherever it is, it is certainly not in the London Borough of Sutton.
Thirty-two continuous years of running the council, most of the time with an absurdly large majority, is a huge vote of confidence in the way Liberal Democrats have run that council over that period. Yet at only two elections in that time have the Liberal Democrats gained more than 50% of the votes—never mind anything like 80%—in the borough. That really is not fair to the minority of residents who would prefer to be represented by Conservative or Labour councillors—or even Green councillors. At the last London borough elections, in 2014, the Conservatives got 30% of the vote in Sutton but only nine of the 54 councillors—barely half what their vote, proportionately, would have entitled them to. Labour polled 15% of the votes, yet it has not had a single councillor in the London Borough of Sutton since 2002.
When the Labour Government were experimenting with various pilot schemes for increasing turnout, voter interest in elections and so on, I was leader of the council and proposed that Sutton would be willing to conduct the next London borough elections in Sutton under an STV system, provided that the London Borough of Newham—then and now I think 100% Labour —and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, then a Tory stronghold, although we will wait to see whether it still is, would do the same. I was not too surprised—this bears out the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe—that neither the then Labour Government nor those two councils were prepared to do that. But I hope that gives a small doubt to the noble Lord’s understandable assertion of addiction to the system that helps you win.
My concern is not so much that the first past the post system is unfair to the Conservative and Labour parties in Sutton—frankly, they are more than adequately compensated for that all over the rest of the country—but that it is unfair to citizens everywhere, who should always be our first concern in judging any electoral system. First past the post is notoriously unfair to the citizen, with some votes carrying vastly more weight than others, and indeed far too many votes carrying no weight at all. That is my first principle in considering this issue.
The second principle is that the system by which representatives are chosen in our democracy cannot be left simply to the whim of currently affected incumbents, who clearly have a very partisan interest in the outcome. That, I think, is the point being made by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and a weakness, if I might say so, in his Bill. Leaving aside the shortcomings of referendums and the difficulties of getting a required majority there, if the final choice is left to local authorities, as he himself has said, in most cases—but not all—they have the greatest vested interest of anyone in keeping the system that got them elected in the first place. Hence we would prefer to see a reform that does not in any way give a deciding voice to those already entrenched in local authorities. We believe that, if a reform of this significance is urgent, effective and popular for one group of citizens, it should be not discretionary but universal.
That brings me to a third principle: the basic building blocks of our representative democracy in the United Kingdom should be broadly the same, unless there are important local circumstances which make that undesirable in that particular place. The huge success of the introduction of effective proportional representation for local authority elections in Scotland is not just an irrefutable argument for the extension of STV to England and Wales but a strong case for uniformity. Scottish electors have a very much better chance of seeing the candidates they vote for being elected—on average 75% of such candidates, compared with around 50% in the English counties. If in Scotland they exercise further preferences, it rises to 90%. It may take a generation, but over time that will mean that many more people will vote for positive reasons because of what they want, rather than voting for negative reasons, against what they do not want. Too often these days, people go to the polling stations, if they go at all, inclined to prevent something happening rather than to encourage it to happen. That state of mind is not in the interests of healthy democracy.
Why should only some citizens of the UK have a far more democratic system of representation, giving many more voters there a direct influence on the result of elections? Just as we believe that the extension of the franchise in Scotland to 16 and 17 year-olds has been an unqualified success, so we believe that the benefits of electoral reform should be available to all citizens of the UK. English and Welsh voters deserve just as much to enjoy the benefits of a more representative democracy. The STV form of PR in Scottish local elections has been an excellent pilot for the rest of the UK and has been a huge success by any objective judgment. Northern Ireland has benefited from the advantages of STV for over 40 years and Wales is currently examining it. Why should England and English voters be left behind? I hope the Bill stimulates the Government into action, but I am not too optimistic.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, on securing a Second Reading for his Bill. I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the register of interests, in particular as a councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
The noble Lord made reference to the Co-op in his opening remarks. I have been a member of the Co-op for as long as I have been a member of the Labour Party—39 years last month. Along with my noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, I sit in this House as a Labour and Co-op Peer, and we form a group of 17 Members of your Lordships’ House.
The Bill focuses on referendums for local government electoral systems and is permissive in its aim. If it is passed into law, as we have heard, it would require the Government to introduce their own Bill to bring into effect the implied intention of this Bill. I am not particularly happy with that sort of procedure as it is fairly cumbersome and uses up parliamentary time unnecessarily—and, for reasons we are aware of, parliamentary time is not in plentiful supply at the moment. If the Bill did in fact become law, we might as well have done what it is requesting that the Government do in the first place. So procedurally it would be better to have a much sharper Bill than the one before us today.
Since 1997, Governments have introduced a variety of voting systems into elections in the United Kingdom. We have a closed list system for the election of Members to the European Parliament; the supplementary vote system for the election of mayors and police and crime commissioners; and additional member closed list systems to introduce an element of proportionality into the election of the London Assembly, Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. As has been said, the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition Government in the second Scottish Parliament introduced proportional representation for local government in Scotland. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, referred to the fact that we have proportional representation for local government elections in Northern Ireland.
So there are many systems and it could be argued that that itself is a problem. I would certainly favour cutting down the number of systems that are used to elect people to various offices in the United Kingdom. When I cast my vote for the Mayor of London and the London Assembly, I get three ballot papers and vote using three different systems, one for each election. I use supplementary vote for the Mayor of London; first past the post for the constituency member; and I vote for a closed party list for the London-wide members, which are allocated on a proportional basis when the count takes place.
I am aware that the Conservative party made a commitment in its manifesto to replace the supplementary vote system used for mayors and police and crime commissioners with the first past the post system. My own party’s manifesto at the general election was silent on the issue of voting systems, but there was a commitment to establish a constitutional convention—that would certainly have looked at the question of devolution in England outside London and where power is held and used at the present time. If there were to be changes to structures, consideration would have been given to the system of election used at different tiers of government.
As I said at the start of my remarks, the proposals in the Bill are a fairly cumbersome procedure. If we want to do what is implied in the Bill, I would be clearer and more direct and seek to bring about the change with the Bill before us today. There are a few issues with the Bill, some of which have been referred to by other noble Lords. In Clause 1(2), I am not sure whether another electoral system would be helpful in areas that are not unitary. As I said earlier, we need to reduce the number of systems. I would also prefer that, if we are going down this route, we should be clear about what system to introduce. An ever-expanding patchwork of different systems, with different systems side by side and at different levels in the same area, does not give us the clarity that is important.
In Clause 1(3)(a) the petition should not be coming to the Government or Parliament: it should be presented and checked by the local authority where the petition seeks to change the electoral system. That has happened for the election of mayors and also for referendums to abolish them. In Clause 1(3)(b) there is a double lock that requires the local government body to vote for the referendum by passing a resolution, having received a petition that meets the 10% threshold. That may or may not be right; it is certainly an effective blocking mechanism that could result in very few, if any, referendums taking place. The noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord Tope, both referred to this.
This Bill needs a day or two in Committee to see how it can be improved before making progress and leaving this House. As I always say when speaking on Private Members’ Bills on a Friday, this can be done very effectively in the Moses Room—but the Government insist on a commitment Motion to a Committee of the Whole House rather than a Grand Committee, effectively making it difficult for all but the few Private Members’ Bills which they support to make any meaningful progress. They are caught in a log-jam and that is a real shame. The Bills that do make progress often originate in the other place, sponsored by Back-Bench Conservative MPs and may well be from the off-the- shelf collection of Private Members’ Bills which the Government are happy to see passed into law but for which they do not want to, or cannot, provide government parliamentary time at the moment.
However, that is not to say that the noble Lord’s Bill does not highlight that, in some parts of the country, things have become polarised, resulting in a situation where effective opposition is no longer evident in many of our town halls. I firmly believe that it is important to have effective challenge and opposition at every level of government; and where that is not possible because of the result of an election, it can be a problem. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, referred to such situations in her remarks. Some local authorities have sought to make some provision for opposition by allowing sole opposition councillors to table motions without a seconder or by agreeing to always formally second motions from a sole opposition councillor to enable a debate to take place. That is welcome and I congratulate the councils that do it.
I would not like to see the direct link between councillors and the electorate broken because it is one of the benefits of the first past the post system. But perhaps a think tank or some other organisation should look at what can be done to address the issue of effective opposition and challenge in our town halls. Perhaps options such as an additional member list could be thought through. Such a system could be triggered if the combined number of all opposition members is less than 10% of the total, and used to bring the opposition parties up to at least 10% of the total membership of the council by providing additional members elected on an area-wide basis. That would allow motions to be voted on, alternative budgets to be proposed, actions of the majority party to be condemned as an outrage to local democracy, and all the other things that should happen in a local council meeting. That is just a thought, not a policy, but it might be useful to look at along with other ideas.
I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, that I will think carefully about his Bill and its proposals. It is very likely that I will table amendments to bring about what I see as improvements to the current Bill. This has been an interesting and useful debate, and it is surely about to get even better with the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham.
My Lords, I begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord Balfe on his success in the ballot and on introducing this interesting debate about alternative means of electing local councillors. He certainly sparked off a wide variety of ideas, which I will focus on in a moment.
We welcome the debate that my noble friend has initiated on democratic representation in local government and how best to choose our leaders in local authorities. It is a long time since I served on a local council. It is 46 years since I lost my seat on the London Borough of Lambeth, to which I was elected in 1968 alongside Councillor John Major and also, much to her surprise, Councillor Lady Young, who was a paper candidate in an unwinnable ward in Clapham which my party won. I agree with what has been said about the importance of local government and take this opportunity to pay tribute to councillors of all parties who have managed with reduced levels of grant over recent years but have none the less maintained, on the whole, good-quality services and, in some cases, actually increased public satisfaction.
Our debate today has been underpinned by a desire to ensure popular engagement with this important local democratic process and to protect the transparency and integrity of our electoral system at local level—principles which all who have spoken would support. This is clear across all parties: successive Labour and Conservative Administrations have introduced directly elected mayors for some local authorities and the combined authorities taking on the most significant devolved powers, as well as directly elected police and crime commissioners.
I take the point made by a number of speakers that the current system can lead to domination by one party, with few opposition members. However, I think that that argument has less force now than when I was on the local authority because we have had the introduction of overview and scrutiny committees which can challenge the executive in a way that was not possible with the old committee structure that I was familiar with. On top of that, we have audit committees and officers of the council who have responsibilities on legality and value for money.
I also think that the notion of safe seats or safe wards has less validity now than it used to given the volatility of the electorate. At parliamentary level, we have seen my party lose Tatton and Dr Taylor win Wyre Forest, so I think that the notion of safe seats and safe wards is less valid. I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, who mentioned Sheffield. Within my memory, Sheffield has been run by three different parties, so it is not the case that there are parts of the country that are the monopoly of any one party.
My noble friend Lord Balfe shared his background in the Co-operative movement, which shaped his views on electoral reform. He also mentioned Wales. One consequence of devolution of course is that different parts of the UK can go their own way, and it does not follow that because Wales has gone in a particular direction, England has to follow. He also mentioned ward boundaries. As I understand his Bill, there is nothing in it that would affect ward boundaries, so the particular issue that he raised would have to be dealt with in a different way. He mentioned his support for the Greens. The Greens have shown that they can win wards—and indeed local authorities—under the existing system, so I would not accept that the existing system is a barrier to what were initially small movements.
My noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, mentioned that they favoured the additional member system, if we were to go down this particular route. I think that the smaller the boundary, the more difficult it is to have additional member systems. There is already the allegation that they are “second-class citizens”. That argument has less validity if you are looking at a region or a country but, when you get down to individual wards, if you were to have additional members sitting for such a small geographical area, there would be real difficulties in persuading people of their credibility.
The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey—speaking, if I may say so, from an unusual position in the Chamber, but on a familiar theme—addressed some of the deficiencies in the Bill and made it clear that he was anti-referendums. He also made the point that some of the difficult decisions about the Bill had been subcontracted to the Secretary of State, who would have to introduce a Bill to address some of these problems. I was interested in what he said about citizens’ juries, but I think that his proposal would put a huge weight on an as yet untested system of such juries taking important decisions on local democracy.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked me to answer the question of why is it fair that the DUP should have so many seats and the Greens so few. The answer is that the country had a referendum and decided that it wanted to stay with first past the post, and it is first past the post that produced the outcome that the noble Baroness referred to. In her closing remarks, she said that we should trust the people. If we are going to trust the people then I think that we have to honour the result of that particular referendum.
The noble Lord, Lord Tope, argued generously for a system that would give my party more representation in the London Borough of Sutton. I have to say that, next May, we hope to do that on our own, without the benefit of his proposed system. But, like others, he identified some deficiencies in the Bill. On the question of turnout, one can argue it both ways. I think I am right in saying that, when we moved from first past the post to the regional list system for the European Parliament, turnout fell from what it had been under first past the post—so it is not always the case that changing the system drives up turnout.
My noble friend Lord Balfe was somewhat dismissive about manifestos, but I have to remind him that my—and his—party’s manifesto commits us to,
“retain the first past the post system of voting for parliamentary elections and extend this system to police and crime commissioner and mayoral elections”.
In his remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said that he wanted to reduce the number of different systems. That is exactly what my party’s election manifesto does: it proposes moving back to first past the post as the system for the elections to which I have just referred.
To return to my noble friend Lord Balfe’s speech, far from moving towards the system advocated by his Bill, subject to local referendum, there is the clear commitment in the party’s manifesto to move in the opposite direction, which means it is difficult for us to support this particular piece of legislation.
We want to ensure that the laws governing our local elections can be understood and applied with confidence. Under first past the post, electors select their preferred candidate or candidates for their ward, the system is well understood by the electorate and it is straightforward for electoral administrators to deliver election results accurately and quickly.
Opinion has been tested—I referred to this a moment ago—and appetite among the public for a move from first past the post is not evident. The referendum in 2011 on changing the system of parliamentary electoral representation from first past the post to alternative vote was 67.9% against to 32.1% for on a turnout of 42.2%. The Bill before us seeks to apply PR rather than the alternative vote, and to councils rather than Parliament. None the less, significant public support has recently been expressed for first past the post. The Government’s position is that local government is local. First past the post ensures a clear link between the councillor and their ward in a manner that systems of PR may not. Local government has a strong tradition of having as its essential component the local councillor. Between them, these councillors represent the spectrum of different political parties; a number of councillors represent no party and stand as independents. The current system of representation facilitates this.
Electoral systems used to achieve PR are often more complex than first past the post; systems such as the single transferable vote require ballots to be counted multiple times in order to allocate seats. First past the post entails a relatively simple count which usually need be conducted only once, minimising the pressure on the administrative process and the possibility of error.
Elections using first past the post produce lower numbers of rejected ballot papers compared with other systems, including PR systems. According to the Electoral Commission, the Scottish council elections using STV led to 37,492 ballot papers being rejected: as a proportion of total ballots cast, that is nearly six times higher than under first past the post in the general election. High numbers of incorrectly completed ballot papers place pressure on the administrative process at the count by requiring electoral administrators’ adjudication.
We have had a useful debate. I thank all those who have contributed. I expressed reservations about the provisions of the Bill, as have other contributors to our debate. We have clearly stated our intention not to move away from the tried and tested first-past-the-post system. We have no plans to enable the change to the voting system for elections to English local authorities that the Bill could provide for, nor indeed do the Government propose to introduce the legislation envisaged by my noble friend. I am sorry to have to close my speech with remarks that I know he will find disappointing.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I have obviously missed something regarding the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, who is sitting in a different position in the House. I do not know whether this is indicative of something wider, but I recall years ago arguing within the Labour—
That simplifies one thing. I was going to say that many years ago I remember arguing in the Labour campaign for electoral reform that it was a very good idea as it would enable us to get rid of some people. I seem to remember I mentioned a certain Jeremy Corbyn and I was told, “Don’t be silly, he will never get anywhere in our party”. But, of course, as a serious point, one of the advantages of proportional representation is that it sharpens up parties. You see this in the European Parliament, where I sat for 25 years: both the left and the right have effectively gone off into their own parties, where they have influence but seldom power. This has its down side, as we saw recently in the German election, where, to an extent, the parties come too far into the middle, but it also has its up side in that it gets rid of some people who, as you might say, you would not want to take home for tea with mother. However, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey.
I take all the points. You cannot draft a Bill like this that is perfect. That is why I drafted something very short which gives the Secretary of State the job of doing things. At the back of my mind I was mindful of the fact that since 1999, which is some way away, only 10 Private Members’ Bills introduced into this House have become law anyway, and none in the last two years. As I was drawn as number 15 in the ballot, I did not exactly think that I was storming towards legislative glory with the Bill. It was therefore drafted simply to initiate a debate.
I am pleased to hear the comments of my good friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. Overall, my view is that some form of proportional representation would be an advance on the present system. The reason for giving some choice in the Bill was because everybody falls out about what the best system would be. However, I find it difficult to believe that a series of one-party states is the best way to run local democracy—it is as simple as that. I accept that the Greens may have won in Brighton, but they have got nowhere in my city of Cambridge despite regularly getting well into double figures in the vote. They always get between 15% and 20% of the vote, and they deserve some seats. Incidentally, the Conservatives normally get about 25% of the votes, and they also have no seats on the council, which is at the moment divided between a resurgent Labour Party—it will not lose in Cambridge until Labour wins in government; then, of course, it will all start to swing back again—and the Liberal party, which used to control the city but has gradually slipped downward. But this is not local democracy—it is just a reflection of what happens nationally.
I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Tope. I am glad that his party has had 32 years in control of Sutton, but I am not sure that that will last much longer either.
We will see.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked for a sharper Bill. I think I have dealt with that issue. You can never be right; a sharper Bill would of course have missed a lot of things out. He mentioned being clear about the system. However, we use all sorts of systems. I vote in building society elections on one system, for my club election on another, and for the Royal Statistical Society executive on another. Ballots regularly drop through my door inviting me to vote by post for the various bodies I am in, and between them they use many different systems. Funnily enough, I manage to understand them, as do a lot of other people who vote using them. Therefore a lack of understanding is not the problem.
I listened with interest to what the Minister had to say. I appreciate that the Government take a very different position from mine—indeed, it has not escaped my notice that there is not a single Conservative speaker in support of this Bill. I recognise that it is a minority sport. It was a minority sport in the Labour Party and it is even more of a minority sport in the Conservative Party; none the less, it is an idea whose hour is coming. As we move forward, I think that we have to say, “Who has adopted first past the post recently? No one. Who has moved to systems of proportional representation? Quite a lot of people”. There is invariably a demand for that in new systems.
I thank noble Lords and conclude my speech by asking the House to give the Bill a Second Reading. I look forward to it being the law of the land, although probably not in my lifetime.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at 2.19 pm.