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20 July 2006 : Column 172WH—continued

20 July 2006 : Column 173WH

David Cairns: The hon. Lady is straying into giving ammunition to an argument of which she should really steer clear. She compares turnout of 45 per cent. in 1995 with the 32 per cent. of the most recent English local elections. However, I remember campaigning vigorously in the English local elections of 1995, and there was a very high turnout. One cannot compare one election with another that happened 10 years later.

While I am on my feet, may I ask whether the hon. Lady believes that it is axiomatic that the very fact of having an STV election will mean a higher turnout? If she does believe that, how does she explain the low turnout for the European elections under STV—I mean the proportional system?

Jo Swinson: The Minister makes my point; the European elections are not held under the STV system. I have pointed out that I do not think that the European election system is a great system of proportional representation, although it is better than the first-past-the-post system because it allows more proportionality.

Pete Wishart: Is the hon. Lady saying that people would turn out to vote if we replaced the d’Hondt system with an STV one? Does the d’Hondt system explain why an extra 100,000 or 200,000 people do not come out to vote? Is she saying that people are abstaining from casting a vote in a democratic election for a Member of the European Parliament because they do not like the d’Hondt system and prefer an STV one? Does she seriously expect us to believe that?

Jo Swinson: There are many reasons. People do not necessarily deliberately abstain in a European election; in 1999, the turnout was 24 per cent. or 25 per cent. For many reasons, such elections are not much covered by the media. However, as a general rule, the more people feel that their vote counts, the more likely they are to vote. In the same way, there is often a higher turnout in marginal constituencies because the parties campaign more vigorously and people see that their votes are more likely to make a difference.

Pete Wishart: Is the hon. Lady contending that there is a hierarchy, that under first past the post people do not feel that their votes count, that the d’Hondt system is more proportional so people will feel that their votes will count more and that STV is the better system, under which people’s votes absolutely count? If that were the case, one would expect turnout for Westminster elections to be lower, turnout in elections under the d’Hondt system to be higher and turnout in the STV local council elections next year to be the highest of all. May I wager with her that that will be the opposite of what will happen?

Jo Swinson: That is far too simplistic. There is a hierarchy, and STV brings about the best situation. However, I do not propose STV mainly as a way of increasing turnout, but for reasons to which I shall come in a second.

Pete Wishart: Glasgow, in which there are massive Labour majorities, has among the lowest turnouts in the first-past-the-post-system because people know and feel that their votes do not matter. There are
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massive Labour majorities, so what is the point in voting? Of course, there would be an increase under proportional representation in such constituencies.

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. There are issues with the European elections. Although a benefit of proportionality is introduced, there is the disbenefit of the parties still having a lot of control and voters not getting to choose individual candidates, although they like to make that choice. My solution would be to move to STV. Various arguments are made against that, among which is one that the Scottish people will be unable to work out the different systems if elections are held on the one day. However, the systems are fairly simple in respect of voting.

Obviously, as a Liberal Democrat, I am interested in constitutional affairs, voting systems and so on. However, I appreciate that I am not necessarily representative of the population. However, people do not need to understand exactly how quotas are calculated or how many excess votes will be transferred for candidates to meet their quota and be elected or to be eliminated, nor do they need to get down to 1.26 of a vote going one way or another. People do not need to know any of that to cast their vote under the single transferable vote system. They only need to be able to rank the candidates in order. We rank things in order all day, every day, filling in surveys and making choices as consumers.

David Mundell: Yes, but the hon. Lady is making a spurious argument. The point about ranking candidates on the same day is that on one ballot people are asked to place an X and on the other they are asked to write 1, 2 and 3. We have clear evidence from elections in Northern Ireland—I had the opportunity to see the count in the last Assembly elections—of large numbers of people who understood that they had more than one vote but who, despite 20-odd years of operating that system, put two Xs on the ballot paper, making it invalid. Even if we accept the argument for STV, which I do not, what can be the purpose of holding such an election on the same day if—as was again shown in the London mayoral elections—having two separate systems exposes us to the risk of a disproportionately large number of people spoiling their ballots?

Jo Swinson: Northern Ireland holds first-past-the-post elections and STV elections on the same day, but the number of spoiled ballots is not dramatically high, at 1.4 per cent., which is only slightly higher than the figure for the equivalent elections in Scotland. However, that is of course a good argument for having strong educational programmes and ensuring that the information is available. That issue is also an argument for another point—which the Arbuthnott report should have addressed—in relation to holding STV elections for the Scottish Parliament too, which would be a simpler and better solution. Many hon. Members have referred to that, which would clearly help the situation. Indeed, I welcomed the comments that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central made in opening the debate in support of STV for the Holyrood elections.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute outlined some of the advantages of that system, which I shall run through. It would give voters more choice, making the list open, so that they could choose which candidates they wanted, rather than that being decided by party hierarchies. Those who were elected would also be more representative of the population, because there would be a degree of proportionality, which would be an obvious advantage.

STV for the Scottish Parliament would also mean that a constituency link would be retained, even though the constituencies are larger. One of the arguments that is often made against proportional systems is that multi-member constituencies ensure that Members still have a responsibility to, and a link with, their constituencies. If voters have a problem, they can also decide which Member to go to. I am sure that all hon. Members in the Chamber are assiduous in dealing with their constituents’ concerns, but someone living in a constituency where the MP is a bit rubbish at dealing with concerns does not have much choice. As we all know, because of the protocols, if a constituent from another constituency asks us to help them, we are constrained from doing so. With multiple Members in a constituency, if one of them does not give help, somebody else can be approached for assistance.

Multi-member constituencies also give voters the chance to support different parties if they so choose. We all campaign in elections, telling people to use their votes for the Liberal Democrat, Conservative, Labour or nationalist candidates, depending on the individual concerned. However, some voters out there do not have such party loyalty—we are probably in the minority in that regard—and would perhaps like to support a particularly assiduous local councillor, even though they did not like their party, and express further preferences in support of different parties. Multi-Member constituencies would give voters more choice over the type of representatives that they end up with.

Multi-member constituencies would also encourage more diverse candidates, and therefore elected representatives. For argument’s sake, if a party fields three or four white male candidates in a constituency, it will be quite obvious that it fields candidates who are all the same. I am sure that we would all agree that there is not enough diversity in this place, of gender, ethnicity and so on.

David Mundell: I do not know whether the hon. Lady is aware of the evidence that was given to the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Transport Committee on the matter, which demonstrated that where proportional systems and the STV system had both been used, there was absolutely no impact on the gender balance within the Parliament concerned. Australia is a good example of that. Subsequently, those arguing the case, at least on that point, had to drop it, because the argument is totally spurious. As my party has recognised, a party’s internal procedures determine who goes forward on behalf of that party. The electorate do not use proportional systems to change that.

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman might have evidence that he can point to, but in my experiences of counts—particularly in multi-member wards in the
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recent local elections, in which not many female candidates stood—voters have clearly made that choice, perhaps voting for a woman from one of the parties, alongside other candidates. People do distinguish. Multi-member elections would also force parties not to put up slates of candidates who are very similar in their backgrounds, the way that they look and where they come from.

David Cairns: Will the hon. Lady not accept that that is precisely what her party does and what my party does not do? She has been railing against manipulation by party hierarchies, as an argument against the closed-list system, but she cannot produce any evidence to refute the point that was made by the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), who is actually half right in this instance. Is not the benefit of our system that parties can actively and positively promote gender balance in lists, by having male and female candidates, twining constituencies and so on? Those are all positive steps that the Labour party has taken, which is why we have a far better gender balance, both in the Scottish Parliament and here, whereas the hon. Lady’s party talks a good game and appeals to TheGuardian-reading classes in its rhetoric but, when it comes to making tough decisions on such matters in its internal party structures, it flunks it every time.

Jo Swinson: I refer the Minister to his party’s record in local government in Scotland, which, at 20 per cent., is appalling. All the other parties—even the Conservative party and the SNP—manage one quarter and my party manages about 30 per cent. The difference is that my party manages to do that through supporting and mentoring positive action measures, yet without resorting to positive discrimination. I accept that that might be the only way to achieve gender balance in the Labour party, but there are alternatives.

David Cairns: What is the hon. Lady going to do about it?

Jo Swinson: My party has structures in place and I am involved in those. One third of our new MPs in the previous election were women, which was a great step forward for our party. I agree that there is more to do, but what I am proposing could help us to do that.

Mr. Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. We are again moving off the subject. I recognise that the hon. Lady has given away a lot, but she has now spoken for nearly 29 minutes, which means that the other Front-Bench spokespeople will have less time than she has had, so it would be useful if she could try to bring her comments to a conclusion.

Jo Swinson: Thank you, Mr. Caton. I have outlined the arguments for the single transferable vote, particularly the fact that every vote counts. When we have disengagement from the political process, it is important that we encourage parties to campaign across the country and across constituencies, not only in those few marginal constituencies, to maximise their vote share. The STV system would engage people and ensure that more people went out to vote, which is what we all want.

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There has been some discussion in this debate about English votes for English MPs. That is not really the subject of the debate, but to respond briefly, the issue requires some discussion, although the suggestion from Conservative Members would not work. Apart from anything else, power is currently devolved to the Scottish Parliament, not ceded, which means that different constitutional difficulties would arise. Indeed, it would be unfair to impose a de facto English Government and English Parliament, meeting on Monday and Tuesday, as the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) suggested, without allowing the English people a democratic vote on that in a referendum. Obviously the nationalists have a consistent stance on the issue, with which I disagree.

The issue needs some discussion; in fact, my party suggests a constitutional convention, to see how devolution can evolve. Devolution is a process that has not come to an end, and we need to continue to work out how best to represent the needs of voters and put citizens first.

4.39 pm

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): I hope that you have found this an enlightening debate on matters Scottish, Mr. Caton. I have three things to declare. First, I was a witness to the Arbuthnott commission and therefore get a mention in the report in that, as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I proposed a Bill to split the local government and Scottish Parliament elections, for reasons that I will come to.

Secondly, I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament for the South of Scotland region. We have heard much talk about the roles and responsibilities of regional MSPs. I want to touch on that, but most of all I proudly wish to declare that I voted against the introduction of the single transferable vote in the Scottish Parliament—sadly, along with only two Labour MSPs—and in the coming months and next year, the logic of doing that will be clearer than ever. I am afraid that, during the contributions of the hon. Members for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) and for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), I was no more convinced of the case for the single transferable vote, particularly in the context of the contribution of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute. I recall Argyll and Bute council telling a Scottish Parliament Committee that it would be a disastrous system for Argyll and Bute, given the island communities and its geography, but it was not listened to.

Much of Sir John’s work would have been unnecessary if the Scottish Conservative party’s view had been followed and the provisions of the Scotland Act, which were argued for on the Labour Benches and which we favoured, had been upheld and the size of the Scottish Parliament had been reduced to 108 Members, in line with the changes proposed by the Boundary Commission. Although Government Members have suggested different numbers for the make-up of the Scottish Parliament, I hope that at least some of them will accept that 108 is a workable number. Indeed, some have suggested that, if there were fewer MSPs with more focus on their duties within the Scottish Parliament, Members might not perceive that they were interfering so much in their constituencies.

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If we had stuck with the original proposals, we would have had a workable solution. However, we are where we are. We heard no apology from the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire for what the Liberal Democrats brought upon us, particularly in relation to the STV local government elections. I deeply regret that Scottish Labour did not withstand that pressure and vote those proposals down.

Jo Swinson: I am certainly offering no apology. I am just delighted that the hon. Gentleman is giving us the credit for introducing fair votes for local government.

David Mundell: I am delighted to ensure that everybody in the Scottish borders, in particular—and in Argyll and Bute and rural Scotland generally—knows that it was the Liberal Democrats what done it, because they shall find that they are losing their community’s local councillor and, instead, going into some large, amorphous mass with another community. The hon. Lady will, perhaps, come to understand that community is important in rural Scotland.

As ever, I was interested in the contribution from the Chairman of the Scottish Affairs Committee, who is a thorn in the side of the Government. That is always an important role for the Chairman of such a Committee and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) said, he has the complete confidence of Committee members, because we know that he will not hold back in relation to his ministerial colleagues.

I am disappointed that some hon. Members have said that there are two classes of MSP, because that permeates and reinforces the impression that some parties have tried to create. It is bizarre that hon. Members can bandy words about two classes of Members of Parliament at Westminster and regard it in a “shock horror” way, and then blithely say that there are two classes of MSP in the Scottish Parliament. It is a fact of the additional member system that there are constituency and regional MSPs with different roles. That has advantages—everybody in Scotland has a Conservative MSP to represent them, which is a significant advantage—but there are disadvantages as well.

Mr. Sarwar: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind remarks and for those of the hon. Member for Broxbourne, but I am not sure whether they will be regarded as complimentary on this side of the Chamber or whether they will credit or discredit me here. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) has made a serious accusation that Labour Members are playing party politics. Let us consider the facts. If we had a first-past-the-post system in Scotland, we would have a two-thirds majority and the Conservatives would not have 18 Members of the Scottish Parliament—they would probably be lucky if they had two or three; the Scottish Green party currently has seven Members, but it would have none; the Scottish Socialist party has six Members, but it would have none; the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity party has one MSP, but it would have none; and the Scottish nationalists, who have 27 Members, would be lucky if they had 10. How can the Labour party be accused of playing party politics?

David Mundell: I accept that, although sometimes the tone of such statements is as though they are coming down from on high. The Labour party has
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accepted that it would have fewer representatives in the Scottish Parliament than if other schemes had been adopted, but that does not mean—as it has become clear in the debate—that there are not others in the Labour ranks who would like to change that.

I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) is not with us today; I understand that he is looking at voting systems in the Cayman Islands. His proposal would effectively give Labour a double majority and we would have a Ceausescu-type Parliament, with 100 or so Labour Members and half a dozen others. That is unacceptable to the people of Scotland.

The devolution settlement was voted on in the context of proportionality, which is why I disagree with the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) about the remit. It would be unfortunate to accuse the Minister and the First Minister of trying somehow to rig the outcome of the report. Proportionality is one of the founding principles in the initial period of the Scottish Parliament—however long we regard that as being.

Mr. Davidson: Let me clarify why the hon. Gentleman believes that the proportionality element of the devolution settlement was sacrosanct, yet the proposal embodied in the referendum scheme—that the number of seats should reduce for the Scottish Parliament in line with the Westminster reduction—was not given equal status and also maintained. Why did his party pick one and not the other?

David Mundell: I think that there is some confusion, because I supported the Scotland Act 1998 and think that the seat changes should have been followed through. It is clear that a significant number of people supported devolution in the referendum knowing that the Labour party would not be guaranteed to run the Scottish Parliament indefinitely.

I agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central about the single vote, which would simplify the system and be readily understandable. Rather than get involved in the debate that we touched on about whether the second vote is first or the first vote second—I think that you understand the complexities of that, Mr. Caton—and how the names should be arranged on the ballot paper, and whether they should be adjacent or whether the logo and box should be on one side, we could set all those arguments aside by having a single ballot paper. That would also help to avoid confusion about the second vote. There is no doubt that many people understand the second vote to be a second choice somehow and worth less than their original vote, so there is confusion.

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