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Angus Robertson: Has the Conservative party made a tremendous U-turn? Is it now Conservative party policy that the electorate should be able to elect directly the President of the European Union?

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Mr. Redwood: Of course not, because my party does not want a more integrated Europe and it does not want those people to have all that power. I seek to explain to the House, for those who are integrationists and federalists and who will welcome the constitution that we intend to oppose, why the British public will think that it is thoroughly undemocratic and why the Bill is another missed opportunity. Ministers will discover that it does not matter how they invite people to vote in European elections if the people believe that those whom they elect have no influence over those with the power. Ministers wish to give them even more power, but we do not. The problem of voter interest will remain.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): I am following my right hon. Friend's thesis with interest, and I agree with it. If the Government show that they listen to the people, that will deliver increased turnout in elections much more effectively than changing the electoral system, whether to e-voting or postal voting. Does my right hon. Friend agree that by holding a referendum on the EU constitution, the Government could show that they listen to the people? Does he think that we should have a pilot referendum?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is being tempted down different paths, but I would be grateful if he could resist the temptation.

Mr. Redwood: I accept your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The lack of turnout in European elections is primarily motivated by the inability to vote on the people who have the power. I—and many of my colleagues—wish that they did not have those powers, but they are going to gain even more.

A second factor is the move from the first-past-the-post system to the closed list, which was another blow to turnout. The recent precipitate decline in turnout appears in part to have been linked to that change. It was not only that more people had discovered how powerless their MEPs were: many voters in the last election realised that they no longer had any power to influence who would be their MEP, because the political parties had pre-empted that. All voters could do was make a party choice. Many people might have wanted to make a personal choice, just as many do in national elections, because there are different swings in various places. Electors were not able to reward MEPs who had done an assiduous job for their constituency, nor were they able to penalise those candidates on the list who were unlikely to do a good job. Many people saw that as another reason to stay at home.

The general election also saw a sharp decline in turnout. On my thesis, that was for similar reasons. More and more powers are being taken away from this place by the development of power in Brussels and by the quangocracy. Under this Government, more and more decisions are made by quangos, so people ask why they should vote when Members of Parliament no longer have the same power.

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Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly): I, too, am following the right hon. Gentleman's thesis carefully. How much of the fall in turnout can be attributed to the fact that we have an ineffective Opposition? That is the main reason for the lack of interest in elections.

Mr. Redwood: The incompetence of the Government overwhelms anything that the hon. Gentleman may allege about the Opposition. If he looks at the differential turnout patterns in the last election, he will see that it was the turnout in the Labour vote that fell most sharply between 1997 and 2001, which speaks volumes about people's judgments on the Government.

Mr. Davidson: While it is true that turnout fell sharply in many Labour areas, it did so in my area because people assumed that we would win anyway because the Opposition were so useless. If the Opposition do not pull their weight, it diminishes the interest that people have in politics.

Mr. Redwood: I do not agree with that analysis. On that basis, Labour would have done better than it did in 2001, when it won on a tiny vote. I am describing a general problem with politics in Britain, and by 2001 people had become very cynical about the whole political process. They were most cynical about the European Parliament, by a big margin, but they are becoming more cynical about this place because it appears to have less and less power.

My electors—and I am sure many other Members will agree—engage more strongly with me and my work on free-vote issues. Then people can see that Members of Parliament can have a decisive impact. People engage less and less on the big issues that matter to them because they do not believe that any of us, including the Government, have the same control over those issues that we had before, because of the growth of the quangocracy. The poor turnout levels in local government tell a similar story. People have become more and more cynical about how much difference elected local officials can make. They sense that councillors are part-time and under a lot of pressure. More and more people need a full-time job and it is difficult to fit in the work of a councillor for someone of working age. The electorate are responding to the growing bureaucracy and professionalisation of councils, with more and more decisions taken by officers on the say-so, instruction or guidance of Whitehall. People are more reluctant to vote, because they think that it will not make any difference.

The Bill proposes a solution based on symptoms rather than causes. Experiments have shown that people are more likely to spend the few minutes required to cast a postal vote than the many more minutes required to go to the polling station in person. Despite what I and others have said about the growing unpopularity of voting, a one-off stimulus could occur in various places were there to be a compulsory postal ballot. That is the experience so far, and it may happen again in the future if the Bill is passed. If that can be done honestly and satisfactorily, I would be relaxed about it, but the Committee will have to look carefully at whether that can be achieved. The potential for fraud, personation and other difficulties must be overcome in a way that satisfies us. We want good, honest and open elections, and we would like to encourage far more participation.

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I hope that the Minister considers carefully the good points made about identification of voters. Perhaps we should go back to the system of the double envelope to avoid any suggestion that voters could be identified and their intentions made know to other parties. We may need a more stringent system for checking the outer envelope to ensure that an individual casts only one vote and to ensure that it is cast freely and without pressure. Other hon. Members have mentioned the problems for those who live in flats or care homes. We need to ensure that such people genuinely exercise their own choice and are not guided too much by those who might think that they are doing those in their care a favour but may not be truly representing their views. Some sensitive issues arise from that, and we need to consider them carefully.

We must also make sure that, where we go over to electronic voting, it is not possible for fraudsters to get hold of the series of numbers being used. In an election with a relatively low turnout, they could use those numbers to take advantage and develop a lottery approach, on the basis that they would probably get away with it and that no one would be any the wiser. That is a more serious danger than the one posed by people who turn up at polling stations pretending to be their own neighbours, and so on. In that instance, there is always a risk that, when they vote, those fraudsters could bump into the people who they are claiming to be. I hope that Ministers will be aware of the extra dangers that I have described.

It would give a very bad impression outside the House if this debate could be summed up as follows: Members of Parliament met, asked themselves why people did not vote very much, especially in European elections, and concluded that it was merely because people really could not be bothered unless a ballot was sent through the post to their individual addresses. If that were to be our conclusion, people would feel that we were living in a very unreal world. The style of voting is not nearly as important as the candidate one chooses, the issues one hopes to settle, and whether one feels that casting a ballot will make a genuine difference.

People voted in droves when power was more heavily concentrated in the House of Commons, and when Ministers answerable to the House were clearly able to make a difference in matters ranging from interest rates to environmental protection. There was no problem with turnout at general elections. Now that power has dissipated from elected hands—it has passed upwards to unelected European officials, downwards to unelected quangos in the UK and, in large measure, to unelected local government officials—people are becoming very cynical.

We in this House should worry a great deal about the way in which we are taking away power from those who are elected and giving it to the unelected. We then express surprise when people conclude that casting a vote is a waste of time. I hope that the Government will think again about their great constitutional settlement. They will understand that they cannot tackle the problem by means of this Bill alone, as it will make a very modest contribution to a problem that is much more deep rooted. If the Government drive ahead with constitutional changes that give away more and more

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power to unelected people, the disillusionment will grow much greater, and people will ask why they pay our salaries.


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