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Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): The Prime Minister revelled in his third victory. My colleagues congratulate him on his victory, but the language he must use and the tone he must strike should be different from triumphalist language.
When we consider the results of the general election, each of the three parties with more than 10 Members of Parliament can say that it did well. Labour can say it did well because it won the election even though it lost many seats. The Lib Dems can say they did well because they have learned how to move left of the Labour party and have started to take seats from Labour in urban areas. The Conservatives can say that we did well because we won more seats than any other party. We showed that we were effective challengers for power. We took more of the popular vote in England than the Labour Government.
We all know, however, that each party also did badly by comparison with its ambitions. I am sure that the Labour party would far rather have a strong mandate throughout England as well as in Scotland and Wales. It would like to feel that it had the endorsement of many more people. Perhaps the most shocking statistic from the election, which provides the backdrop to the Gracious Speech, is that four in 10 voters thought it better to vote for nobody at all, because we, collectively, had not interested them, and that only just over one in five thought it worth while voting for either the Labour party or the principal alternative, the Conservative party.
Labour must feel worried that it is only by a quirk of the distribution of constituency boundaries in the electoral system that it is in such a strong position in the House of Commons, with an overall majority and possible support from some of the leftward-inclined parties on a number of crucial issues. We know that Labour owes a lot to the fact that several Labour constituencies have few constituents, so it was much easier for a Labour candidate to be elected than it was for a Conservative or a Liberal Democrat. Labour knows, too, that the forthcoming boundary review will go some way to righting the gross injustice in the current electoral system whereby the average Labour Member of Parliament represents several thousand fewer voters than the average Conservative Member.
For the next four or five years, the Labour Government will have to govern not just against the welcome pressure of questioning and scepticism from their own Back Benchesat last Government Back Benchers are beginning to take the role that has been traditional on both sides of the House, whoever was in powerbut against the background of knowing that it
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will be easy for them to lose their overall majority at the next general election and that the Boundary Commission is already making important decisions. Even if Labour took the same percentage of the vote, such decisions mean that it could come close to losing the election, if those conditions were recreated.
It is extraordinary that a Government with a good majority could have achieved that on only 36 per cent. of the vote, and that that in turn was based on a low turnout of around only 60 per cent. So when I was listening to the Prime Minister I was looking for a little more understanding. He told us that he had learned lessons from the election, but when I went through what he was saying and the contents of the Gracious Speech, I wondered whether that was true.
What were the electors trying to tell us all? Well, first they were trying to tell us that they do not like the political show very much any more, conducted by any of us. The audience are leaving the theatre. We can see that today, when we have a small, very welcome and, I am sure, very distinguished audience in the Public Gallery, but it has not been full even for the first day of the Queen's Speech debate. We see the same thing when talking to journalists; the attention span of the media for what politicians have to say is getting narrower and narrower, their interest in controversy and extreme language greater and greater. They do not seem, as they interpret their audiences, to be willing to engage in a more rounded debate that some of us would like to conduct inside the House and out, so that people could understand politics better.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend give any credence to what a small business man said to me at the weekend, when talking about the election? He regretted that there had not been a Conservative victory, but he said, "There really was not much difference between you all, was there?" Does my right hon. Friend agree that one difficulty for voters, which may have contributed to their reluctance to participate, as he has highlighted, is that they simply did not see sufficient substantial or convincing differences, at least between the two major parties, to be bothered to make a choice?
There is some truth in that. The way I would put it is that as Conservatives identified important issues that did matter a lot to the public, such as choice in public services, or the problems of immigration control, or the problems of how to police and whether we needed more police, we saw the Labour party counter, because it used similar polling and similar research and decided that that research was good, so it crafted soundbites and possible policies for the Labour Government during the pre-election and election period, and that seemed to be going on to our territory. One of the reasons why the public feel so let down by the last eight years, or perhaps a little longer than that in truth, and why they are becoming extremely sceptical about politicians' claims, is that they see clever people at the top of the Labour party crafting language that has some Conservative elements in it, but then they discover that the Government do not deliver on it, because that
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language does not agree with the instincts and genuine worries and concerns of many Labour Members of Parliament.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I have followed many of the right hon. Gentleman's arguments and have been impressed by his intellectual approach, while never necessarily supporting his conclusions. Is not the problem that in this analysis, as in many other analyses, he is revealing that he is part of a very small political class? When pundits become the people who are questioned, and pop stars make the front pageswhen, for example, this morning, Kylie Minogue's illness was the first item on the BBC news, although I hear that she is a very good singer and has many fansit may be that what we are about in this place has little relevance for many young people and others. We should think about how to reach those people by other means.
Mr. Redwood: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The media may well be very faithful to the interests of the people that they are serving. I would not want to criticise that news judgment. It shows that we all have a very big task: to make the political theatre more interesting again, and to do so in a way that can inform the public better.
I found in Wokingham that an intelligent audience for the election were actually engaged and interested in the issues, and they were extremely frustrated by what was coming across on the national news media. They felt that a tabloid election was being served up in rather unpleasant tones, and conducted in that way as a result of all the parties combined with the media, in the way that that mêlée sometimes works. I made very slow progress around the streets talking to people, because they wanted so much information. They wanted to make an informed choice about the policies and ideas on offer, and that information simply was not available through the debate that we had been able to conduct and the way that it had been presented through the media.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I am listening to the right hon. Gentleman with great interest, as ever, and I am enjoying his analysis. Is not an alternative interpretation of what is going on that the people are disillusioned not with British politics, but with two-party politics? Given that, as he says, there is an evident convergence between the Conservatives and the Labour party, what would spice up politics in the way that he describes is a serious recognition of the fact that we now live in a three-party environment, where two parties got a third of the vote each and the Liberal Democrats got a quarter. Is he therefore willing to entertain the prospect that the answer to his own conundrum is the fact that we should now recognise that we are living in a three-party society?
The Liberal Democrat party is ill-advised to draw me on that subject. In every race that I have seen around the country, they always try to make out that it is a two-horse race, however incredible that may be given their position, and some of the most mendacious leaflets that I have seen come from those who want to make it a two-horse race, when only one of them is a serious runner. If the Liberal Democrats really
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want to be part of this analysis, it would help a great deal if they would stand by the policies and ideas that they put on to the public record through their Liberal Democrat policy documents and their comments in Hansard.
One of the extraordinary features of the general election was that, when some of us decided that we would like to talk about Liberal Democrat policy to inform our electors of what they were up to, it was the Liberal Democrats who immediately wanted to close down any debate about that and came up with a strange doctrine that anything that a Liberal Democrat spokesman had said or written throughout the four years of the last Parliament did not countthe magic wordsunless it was part of their very slim manifesto document. They would never let us get away with that. Everything that we or the Labour party say and do is regarded as relevant, yet the Liberal Democrats think that they have special dispensation to be out of the normal debate. If that is the Liberal Democrats' approach, it will make debate in the House very easy because we can ignore anything that they say for four years and tell them that we are waiting for their manifesto, as that will tell us what they intend to defend.
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