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I shall not take up much more of the House's time, but I wanted to speak about Scotland as one of the trial areas. I hope that the Minister will remember that the Scottish region in Europe covers a vast area. It will make it a lot simpler for the electorate in that area to be able to vote by postal ballot. I hope that we continue to consider the different methods as we take the issue forward. From the days of John Logie Baird, Scotland has often been in the forefront of technological change, and I want it to be at the cutting edge once more.
It is important that we examine how to improve the voting system and ensure that people are not disfranchised. I will support the Bill. If I am fortunate enough to be on the Committee, I may propose a few tweaks, but I am sure we will find agreement.
Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): I take great pleasure in following the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson), who made a good case for Scotland being part of the postal ballot trials. However, I may give him a reality check in the few minutes for which I will detain the House. The Bill has some good and welcome provisions, and all hon. Members will welcome parts of it. I sympathise with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) about the timing of this Second Reading at this point in the Session, especially as legislation was already being considered with which this measure could appropriately have been linked. We have suspicions that the devil may be in the detail.
I am not opposed to all postal ballots in principle. I can assure the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland that there were far in excess of 600 postal ballots in my constituency at the last general election, and I am delighted to have received every one of those votes. I suggest to him that the devil is in the detail, and that we should consider the wider reasons for falling turnout.
The key aim is participation. That is what all hon. Members have focused on, and they are right to do so. The declining trend in voter participation at elections should be of concern to us all, both on the Government side and in the Opposition. In Scotland in 1999, the turnout in the European elections was 24.7 per cent., which can hardly have been seen as a ringing endorsement for the manner in which election campaigns on either side of the political barrier were conducted. It shows what little connection there was between the electorate and those seeking election. There was a decline of more than 13 per cent. in the five years after the elections in 1994, so it is a worsening trend.
The Scotland parliamentary elections in 2003 were only the second elections since the creation of the Scottish Parliament, for which we had waited some 300 yearssome with more expectation then others. Fewer than 50 per cent. of the electorate could be persuaded to attend the polling booths on that day. This is a wider problem than that of postal ballots.
It has always struck me as worrying that, if we cannot encourage a wider proportion of the public to attend a polling station once every five yearsor once every two years in Scotland, given the Scottish parliamentary electionswe have a bigger problem than perhaps we realise.
There is another side to this problem, which is that we have too many politicians in politics. I have consistently called for a reduction in the number of Members of the Scottish Parliament and the number of Members of Parliament from Scotland. That would contribute greatly to an enhancement of the role of elections and an enhanced role for politicians in general.
In Scotland, we have a complex political situation for elections. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland, among others, has alluded to the diverse nature of elections. Each elector in Scotland has to contend with a list system for European elections, first-past-the-post for Westminster elections, the additional member system for the Scottish Parliament, although that may change if the governing party decides that it is in its electoral interests to do so, and the first-past-the-post system for the council elections, which apparently will change to the single transferable vote system.
Mr. Davidson: Would it be much easier to harmonise elections if we ensured that elections to Westminster remained subject to the first-past-the-post system, the Scottish Parliament moved to a first-past-the-post system, and we retained a first-past-the-post system for Scottish local government elections? I support that position; does the hon. Gentleman?
Mr. Duncan: I shall give the hon. Gentleman a direct answer: yes, I do. He takes a principled position. I have always believed that the first-past-the-post system creates the best connection between the electorate and the elected Member. It creates a direct connection between those who filled in the ballot paper and those who were fortunate enough to receive more votes than anyone else. I speak as someone who received 74 more votes than my nearest competitor, which gives me a direct interest in first-past-the-post elections. I can see that direct connection at the sharpest end. Interest in elections is greatest when there is a close contest. It is interesting to note that in Galloway and Upper Nithsdale there was a comparatively high turnout at the last general election. There always has been, perhaps because there have historically been very close contests, although perhaps not for much longer.
Mr. Duncan: The hon. Gentleman will recall that I said as much in my remarks. It says much about all sides in politics. We are failing to excite the electorate, and we all need to do more. When in a glasshouse, do not throw stones. The Government have more to answer for than most, because they have disengaged with the electorate and left them bored with the electoral process.
In my view, the solution is simplicity and a direct relationship between the elected Member and his electorate. I was interested to note the reference to the report of the European Scrutiny Committee, of which the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) is a member. It advocated a return to a first-past-the-post system in European elections.
This argument is recognised across the political divide. I perused my copy of Public Finance of 26 April 2002, in which the chairman of the Labour party, now Secretary of State for Education and Skills, referred to electoral trials to increase turnout. He said:
I have particular concerns about the partial trial. The result of selecting only three regions across the United Kingdom may be differential turnout. I accept the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) that the evidence for postal ballots increasing turnout is not yet conclusive. If we accept the Government's view that postal ballots increase turnoutotherwise why would we be introducing them?we may increase turnout in three areas but not in others across the UK. That may skew the result. The UK is a diverse country: Scotland is different from the south-east of England, not just socially but politically.
A partial trial has the potential to influence the result. I was surprised, although perhaps I should not have been, that even the Scottish National party agreed with that. In the Edinburgh Evening News of 4 October, the SNP's wise Professor Neil McCormick MEPto whom I spoke only last week, along with the hon. Member for Moraysaid that if postal voting was to be introduced, it should be introduced everywhere; otherwise the campaign in Scotland would be out of synch with that in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Elections in my constituency, and in constituencies throughout Scotland, are conducted in a very rural way. In 1997, there were 5,090 polling stations in Scotland. That gives some idea of the nature of the beast. It will be very difficult to conduct a postal ballot in such areasalthough it may also be very rewarding, because rural voters often benefit most from postal ballots.