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20 July 2006 : Column 160WH—continued

3.37 pm

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): It is with some pleasure that I follow the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) who gave us the very interesting notion that if you vote Tory, you get midges. At the last election, we said that if you vote Liberal you would get Tories, but that is a further variation on that theme.

It is also very interesting that the hon. Gentleman drew to our attention the fact that he loves Scotland more than his wife. I am not sure whether he loves Scotland more than his wife loves Scotland, or he loves Scotland more than he loves his wife. Perhaps he should clarify that before he goes home this evening.

Mr. Walker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I love my wife very much; I love Scotland a great deal and I probably love being in Scotland more than she loves being in Scotland, although she, too, likes Scotland very much.

Mr. Davidson: Possibly on a future occasion we will hear the hon. Gentleman’s wife’s view of midges.

I am speaking in an Adjournment debate on the last Thursday of the Session, which the Government gave us as an alternative to a meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee. I am not sure that that option has been as successful as it might have been. Resurrecting the Scottish Grand Committee in order to have more regular debates on Scottish issues in Westminster is perhaps something that should be considered further.

I want to consider the question of Arbuthnott in the context of the points that I made earlier about it having been a fix from the very beginning. The results were determined by the make up of the commission, but in particular by the remit which ruled out any re-examination of proportional representation for the Scottish Parliament. If, during consideration of how to harmonise voting systems, one system cannot be
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considered, matters will be skewed towards a proportional bent. I regret that, and the way in which consideration was undertaken without proper debate early in the process. I worry that some people deliberately seek to drive a wedge between Westminster and Holyrood, accentuating not only disagreements but differences.

On boundaries, there would have been more opportunities to work with our Scottish Parliament colleagues had we shared the same or contiguous boundaries. Whether there were two Westminster Members to four Scottish Parliament Members, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) suggested, or one Westminster constituency with two Members of the Scottish Parliament and a smaller number of top-ups, as others have suggested, we would work more closely than we do now in our devolved and disparate state. We must consider whose interests are served by driving that wedge between us.

I do not support the first-past-the-post system, but Professor Arbuthnott and his commission did not adequately address two issues that arise from the two-ballot system. First, that system creates two classes of MSP: the first-class MSPs from the constituency section, and the top-up MSPs, who regard themselves as second-class, because they spend so much time trying to become first-class MSPs.

I represented the parliamentary constituency of Glasgow Pollok until last year’s general election, and I still represent a large chunk of it. Back then, it was noticeable that Johann Lamont, the Labour and Co-operative party MSP for that constituency, was frequently pursued by two list MSPs. One, Tommy Sheridan, was elected for the Scottish Socialist party. [Interruption.] It is noticeable that the very mention of his name brings laughter from all parties in this Chamber.

I should clarify “pursued”. Mr. Sheridan sought regularly to attend the same meetings as Johann Lamont, and he presented himself as the MSP for Glasgow Pollok. Kenny Gibson, a list MSP for the Scottish National party and a councillor in part of the Glasgow Pollok constituency, also attended many meetings in the area, similarly presenting himself as the MSP for Glasgow Pollok. Mr. Sheridan and Mr. Gibson stood for Glasgow Pollok in the subsequent Scottish Parliament elections. I am glad to say that they were roundly defeated. However, they spent a long period trying to persuade the electorate that they were MSPs for that area. Few if any MSPs elected by first-past-the-post seek to become list MSPs, which indicates their priorities.

David Mundell: I do not understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, which others make, too, because the Scottish Parliament has a corporate body on which the Labour party is represented. That body has made rules about how MSPs may act, but despite such concerns, it has not moved forward and the hon. Gentleman’s Labour colleagues in the Scottish Parliament have not brought any pressure on the correct forum, the corporate body, to make clearer the rules about the roles of regional and constituency MSPs. Even without the Arbuthnott commission, if the Scottish Parliament were sitting, that could be done tomorrow.

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Mr. Davidson: I understand that many of my Holyrood colleagues have made that point but have been unable to attain the satisfaction about the make-up and structure of the Scottish Parliament that they desire.

My second point about the two-ballot structure, which no one has touched on, is that in Glasgow, Labour votes in the second ballot are wasted. Labour is successful in the first-past-the-post section, winning 10 out of 10 seats last time, but it means that unless we get 135 per cent. of the votes in the second ballot, we cannot have anyone elected in the top-up section. If one knows that one’s vote for one’s first choice in the second ballot is not likely to succeed, the second ballot becomes second choice. That is ridiculous and anomalous and it ought to be addressed.

That situation does not apply in all parts of Scotland, however. I said that a Labour vote was effectively wasted in Glasgow, and some bad thinkers presumed that I meant that nobody should vote Labour in other parts of Scotland in the second ballot. My point does not apply in those circumstances, and I look forward to seeing Labour Scottish parliamentary candidates elected on the list in several areas. However, it undoubtedly applies in Glasgow. Any solution that fails to address that will fail to address one of the main issues.

Many of my constituents who vote Labour in the general election, the first ballots for the Scottish Parliament and the local authority elections have to opt for their second choice in the second Scottish ballot. They go in various directions. I regret that the issue has not been considered.

Pete Wishart: I hope that it will not be such a big issue in the next elections, as I predict that a number of Labour seats will fall in Glasgow during the great wipe-out that we expect next year. However, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the new ballot paper is helpful? It will specify the second vote first, and then the constituency candidate. Will not that assuage his fears about the second vote?

Mr. Davidson: If the hon. Gentleman assumes that the second vote will be first and the first vote second, will he clarify how it will make any difference to people casting their votes? They will regard the vote that they cast for the first-past-the-post seat, the first-class seat, as the most important. They will still have to choose where to cast their second vote, even though it might be first on the ballot paper. They will know, because we will tell them, that in Glasgow, there is no point voting Labour in the second ballot, so if they want their vote to count, they will have to identify someone else to vote for.

It is widely known that I was always in favour of the Co-operative party standing in the second ballot in parts of Scotland where it would have been beneficial. I am a Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament at Westminster. It makes sense in such circumstances for the parties to run joint candidates. It would make equal sense in Glasgow to run separate candidates next time, with the Labour party not standing in the second ballot. The strategy might apply elsewhere, too. My main regret is that the issue has not been addressed.

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Arbuthnott ought to have considered other issues, too, such as the discrepancy in constituency sizes. The Liberals have an MSP elected for Orkney. Had the same number of votes been cast in East Kilbride for that Liberal candidate, he would have come not first, second, third or fourth, but fifth. It seems unfair that constituency sizes are skewed in favour of some areas rather than others. Arbuthnott ought to have examined the issue more carefully.

Jo Swinson: Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that in island communities such as Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles, there are such different circumstances that it makes sense to create specific representation solutions not only for the Scottish Parliament, but for Westminster, where such solutions have existed for a long time, even if on the Scottish mainland there is greater parity?

Mr. Davidson: There are undoubtedly difficulties in those areas. I am not entirely sure how best they ought to be addressed, as two conflicting issues have to be dealt with at the same time. One is sparsity, rurality and so on, and the other is the question of equal votes of equal value. The two are clearly incompatible and the fact that Arbuthnott did not consider the issue at all seems to be a noticeable omission.

I recognise that those who represent scattered and widespread constituencies, if they were given equal numbers of electors, would certainly require additional resources to ensure that they could provide a decent service to their constituents. When the European Parliament was elected on a first-past-the-post basis, Dr. Ewing, who represented Argyll and the Highlands, if I remember correctly, was given a large amount of additional resources to allow her to travel though her constituency and to employ additional staff to serve that widespread area. I am not sure what exactly the balance ought to be, but it is undoubtedly an issue and it is to be regretted that the Arbuthnott commission did not examine it in any way whatsoever.

David Mundell: I am a little confused by what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The Arbuthnott commission addressed the issue of the number of representatives to geographical area. That was one of the reasons he gave in his evidence and in the report for not recommending the introduction of the single transferable vote across Scotland. The highlands and islands would have seen a reduction in the number of Members and Arbuthnott said in his evidence to the Committee that he thought that the geographical area that would have to be covered by those who were elected to represent the highlands and islands would have been too great. Although he did not consider the specific issue raised by the hon. Gentleman, he did touch on the issue when it came to suggesting a balance between geography and the number of elected representatives.

Mr. Davidson: Arbuthnott gave much more information on those issues when he met the Select Committee than he did in his report. It is noticeable that the issue is not pursued by the Liberals because they benefit from it. They constantly raise the issue of equal votes of equal value when it suits them, but they decline to do so when it does not. I see the hon.
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Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) is leaving; I would hate to think that I was driving her from the field by raising this issue, but I am sure that she will think about it and come back at some point.

It is regrettable that there are not more Members in the Chamber to debate the subject. I know that the issues have long been considered by many of my colleagues and the Minister might want to reflect on whether an Adjournment debate on the last sitting of Westminster Hall before the recess rather than a Scottish Grand Committee is the best way in which to deal with such matters.

3.52 pm

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr. Caton. I apologise that I was not in the Chamber earlier, but I was serving in a Standing Committee that has only just finished. I am sorry that I missed the opening remarks.

I was certainly interested to hear the remarks of the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson); I agree with some and disagree with others. I was extremely interested by one of his remarks, which was his forecast that Labour would win seats on a large number of the regional lists next year. The only way in which that can happen is if the Labour party does extremely badly in the constituencies and will therefore—

Mr. Davidson: Can I point out to the hon. Gentleman that that is not true? We could win a large number of seats on the list for the south of Scotland, the north-east of Scotland or the north of Scotland through there being a swing to Labour in those areas. As well as holding on to the first-past-the-post seats that we have, we could gain seats by gaining more votes. It is entirely possible for us to gain more votes without losing first-past-the-post seats. I accept the hon. Gentleman’s apology.

Mr. Reid: The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the Labour vote will be on the way down next year. I notice, for example, that Lord Foulkes has put his name forward to top the Labour list in Lothian. He clearly wishes to be elected to the Scottish Parliament, and I think that even he would accept that the huge, astronomical swing to Labour that would be needed to win a seat on the Lothian list without losing any first-past-the-post seats would be simply incredible. The much more likely scenario is that the Labour party will lose several seats in Lothian, and that its vote will therefore fall so low that Lord Foulkes will be elected. Both the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West and Lord Foulkes seem to be thinking along the same lines.

Mr. Walker: Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the vagaries of the Scottish election system baffle, bore or simply amaze the electorate in Scotland? It sounds incredibly complicated and pretty uninteresting to all but the few people present. That is a concern.

Mr. Reid: I suspect that it probably does all three. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, as the system is extremely complex. It is fairly straightforward to operate, as it is simply a case of putting a cross on two separate ballot papers. We believe the Scotland Office plan to make it one ballot paper next time and it would simply be two crosses on one ballot paper.

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Mr. Davidson: It is two crosses, then?

Mr. Reid: Yes, that is right. It is simple for the elector to use but to explain the effect of their vote is actually quite complex. Basically, it is impossible to predict the outcome of their vote as party A might lose a constituency seat to party B, which could mean that party C would receive an extra seat through the list. The effects of the system are simply bizarre. In the west of Scotland region, for example, the Labour party won all the constituency seats in 1999 and lost one in 2003. If Labour were to lose more constituency seats, it would not gain corresponding seats on the list. However, the party that gained the corresponding seats on the list might be entirely different from the one that gained the constituency seats. The knock-on effects of parties losing constituency seats are impossible to predict.

Mr. Davidson: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that makes the system, not only in Glasgow but in the west of Scotland, clearly absurd for Labour voters? It would be much better if, for example, the Labour party did not stand and the Co-operative party stood with its co-operation.

Mr. Reid: The hon. Gentleman is putting forward an interesting argument. Of course, because Labour wins eight out of the nine seats in the west of Scotland and has a low share of the vote, a lot of those seats are marginal. He might find that if he gave that advice to electors, the Labour party could lose a lot of the first-past-the-post seats and might need some of the votes on the list. It is impossible to predict what will happen. Advising people not to vote for a party on the list because it is bound to win too many constituency seats is a dangerous argument.

Mr. Walker: Is it therefore the case that people do not really understand the consequences of their actions when casting votes? If that is the case, surely it means that the system is fundamentally flawed because people cannot make an informed decision on how they cast their vote.

Mr. Reid: People certainly can make an informed decision about the effects of casting their vote as far as their constituency representative is concerned, but it is impossible for anybody to predict the effect of that vote on the regional list. Without knowing the outcome of every constituency seat in advance, it is simply impossible to work out the effect that their constituency vote will have on the top-up list.

Mr. Davidson: And the hon. Gentleman is in favour of that?

Mr. Reid: The hon. Gentleman has pre-empted the next part of my speech. I do not think that this is a sensible system. It has the advantage that it is close to being proportional, but I stress the “close to” because in both 2003 and 1999—in 1999, in particular—it gave the Labour party far more seats than it deserved according to its share of the vote. It got so many first-past-the-post seats that it received far more seats than it would have been entitled to by the number of votes on the regional list. It is not a proportional
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system and, although it is close and certainly a great improvement on first past the post, it has several defects. The first is that it is not proportional. Another is that it is impossible to predict the knock-on effect of casting a constituency vote. A third, as the hon. Gentleman described in his speech, is that although a small number of regional list MSPs carry out their duties conscientiously throughout their regional list area, it is my experience that the majority of them concentrate on one constituency and seek to become the constituency MSP for that area. Sometimes they try to become the MP for the constituency, as did Jamie McGrigor MSP, the regional list MSP who tried to become the MP for Argyll and Bute. However, I am pleased to inform the House that he failed miserably; in fact, his vote went backwards.

The fact that both Jamie McGrigor MSP for the Conservatives and Jim Mather MSP for the Scottish National party were both adopted by their parties to stand again in the Argyll and Bute Scottish parliamentary constituency shows the defects of the system. That means that they are concentrating all their efforts on that constituency. A failed Tory candidate, Mary Scanlon, former MSP, was supposedly a representative of Argyll and Bute but no one there had a clue who she was and we never saw her. Rob Gibson MSP is also supposed to be a list MSP but again not a single person in Argyll and Bute has had sound or sight of him. Put simply, list MSPs do not represent the whole of their list areas.

David Mundell: I see that Mr. Nicol Stephen is to top the north-east Scotland list, and that Mr. Mike Rumbles is second on that list. It would help the House and voters in the Scotland if the hon. Gentleman were to give a categoric undertaking that, if they are elected to the list, they will not focus their efforts on an individual constituency or area within the north-east of Scotland?

Mr. Reid: I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that, in the unlikely event of Nicol Stephen MSP and Mike Rumbles MSP losing their constituency seats and being elected from the list, they will cover the whole area. However, I am sure that that hypothesis will not be tested.

The Arbuthnott inquiry was set up partly as a result of the fact that there would be non-coterminosity—a bulky word—in parliamentary constituency boundaries after the latest boundary review of Westminster seats. We have had non-coterminosity for a year, and it has not been a problem. Having MPs and MSPs representing constituencies with different boundaries has not caused a problem.

Arbuthnott decided that it would be best to align Scottish parliamentary constituency boundaries with local authority boundaries. It came up with the idea that the lists would make the Parliament proportional, and therefore it came to the conclusion—I believe it was flawed—that there was no need for constituencies to be of equal size. It therefore concluded that constituencies should be wholly contained within one local authority area, and came up with the strange formula of allocating constituency seats.

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