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1 Dec 2009 : Column 24WH—continued

Mr. Lammy: It would be premature to pre-empt the conclusions. The report will be with me shortly. Of course I shall publish it, and hon. Members will of
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course want to comment. I acknowledge that it is a serious issue, but I also acknowledge the work done by my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) on social mobility, to which we will be publishing our response. We have also published our response to the work of colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families on their information, advice and guidance strategy. I would ask hon. Members to read it, because much of what has been said about information, advice and guidance has been addressed there.

I turn to the duplicity that was displayed by the hon. Member for Bristol, West.

Mr. Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. I must point out to the Minister that it would be unwise to use the word "duplicity". It is an unparliamentary term.

Mr. Lammy: You are quite right, Mr. Benton. We have seen an inconsistency between what was said by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on these matters and what was confirmed this morning by the hon. Member for Bristol, West. He now suggests that he will not support even a 43 per cent. participation rate. Does he support a freeze on fees because he sees it as a way to cut student numbers? That is what we heard earlier, but his leader has said that he could not honestly place it at the forefront of his manifesto. He said:

The hon. Member for Bristol, West has to come clean with students.

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Proportional Representation

11 am

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I want to put the case for proportional representation-a system by which parties are represented in Parliament in proportion to the votes that they get in the country-and for triennial Parliaments, to keep politics on a short leash and to give the people more control over Parliament through more regular elections. I urge that those issues, particularly proportional representation, be put to the people in a referendum, which will allow them-not us-to decide whether they want them. That would preferably be done when the vote is at its highest, on 6 May next year, when the general election occurs. That would remove all the preoccupations of a hung Parliament, which is likely to follow that election. If that is not possible, I urge an early referendum on proportional representation.

I want to emphasise that securing this debate is not political opportunism. I am not a member of the Cabinet-nor of the shadow Cabinet, yet-and there are only a few months to go. I must, therefore, be absolved from the sins of opportunism, which afflict people at a higher level. Opportunism is not a Back Bencher's disease-it is certainly not mine. I want and urge proportional representation, because it is right and because it is a much fairer system than the one we have now.

To further rebut the charge of opportunism, I have been in favour of proportional representation ever since I was elected to the House 32 years ago, and that is a long time. When I was first elected, I joined the Labour campaign for electoral reform and-incredible though it now seems-the bulk of support for electoral reform at that time came from the Conservative party, which wanted proportional representation to keep out socialism and Tony Benn. There has been a volte-face since then. Parties have changed their opinions on the issue very much in common with how they have changed them on Europe and the European Union. My rise within the cause of proportional representation was rocket assisted; as soon as I joined the Labour campaign for electoral reform, all the other members left to join the Social Democratic party, and I rapidly became chair and sole member. Those are my credentials; I have always supported proportional representation.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I understand the hon. Gentleman's passion for proportional representation, but why is he raising the issue when so many other pressing matters face our country, not least the economic situation? He represents a coastal constituency, and it is almost as though he is talking about what colour he is going to paint the deck while the ship is going down.

Mr. Mitchell: That intervention is largely irrelevant. I am raising the issue because it clearly is topical and important, because if we have a hung Parliament after the next election it will play a part, and most of all because all the other issues that we have to decide need to be decided on a fair basis, and that can happen only if the House represents the party allegiances and political preferences of the electorate. That is why I secured the debate. The issue is pre-eminent, simply because we need to make the House more representative of the nation's views.

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Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab) rose-

Mr. Mitchell: I am going to get further confirmation now, I think.

Mr. Donohoe: I am not so sure. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, but perhaps he has not had the experience that we have had north of the border of how proportional representation affects us and the constituents that we represent. Had he had that experience, I do not think that he would be on his feet today.

Mr. Mitchell: I certainly would. I accept that Labour party members in Scotland feel a certain amount of grievance, but they have to remember that proportional representation was introduced in Scotland to stop the system being swamped by the overwhelming dominance of the Labour party there, both in seats and political preferences. It was introduced to make the system fairer and to give other parties representation, and it has produced a coalition Government. My hon. Friend will probably tell me that it was a system in which whatever Jim Wallace wanted, Jim Wallace got, but since the people have voted effectively for a coalition Government, what could be fairer?

I do not think that the views of Labour party members in Scotland are relevant to the decision on the national system of proportional representation that I am urging. I accept that it is difficult to sell the system to Members of Parliament, because they tend to believe that whatever system elected them must be the best in the world, and that has been responsible for a lot of hostility to proportional representation. Our current system is not the best in the world. We could have a fairer system in which Parliament was constituted how the people wanted, based on their votes, and in which they therefore had an investment and felt that it was their Parliament, rather than one imposed on them by the electoral system.

I concede straight away, and it could be argued in this debate-I see a number of opponents of proportional representation rallying to the cause-that first past the post gives strong government. Strong government is appropriate to an empire, to war and to a country that wants to go around invading smaller countries, but not to an age when the people want more say in and influence on Parliament, and want it to respond to their views.

People want to identify with a Parliament that they have voted for. It can be argued that first past the post is appropriate to a two-party system, but that system is now much weaker than it was. In 1951, 97 per cent. of the electorate voted for one of the two main parties, but in the last European elections that proportion was about 44 per cent. Party dominance is inevitably weakening, and first past the post gives strong government by disfranchising huge numbers of the people.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): Am I right that the hon. Gentleman just said that 97 per cent. of the electorate voted for one or other of the two main parties? Does that not mean, therefore, that 97 per cent. of the electorate wanted our country to be governed by one or other of the two main parties, which it is? Is that not representative democracy?

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Mr. Mitchell: It certainly meant that in 1951, but that is long ago. Since then, all that has changed. At the last European elections, as I said, only about 44 per cent. voted for one of the two main parties. What do we do in that situation with first past the post, which is bound to give an unclear result? First past the post gives strong government by effectively disfranchising large numbers of the people. It disfranchises a large number of people who vote for the third party, the Liberal Democrats; anybody who votes for a minority party, because they do not have the representation that their vote should entitle them to; and, in most constituencies, people who vote for the minor, or losing, party. No wonder people feel that the current system does not represent their wishes.

Mr. Donohoe: Surely the greatest statistic of the last European elections was that less than 50 per cent. of the people voted. If we were to address the situation differently, we would look at why people are not voting at all.

Mr. Mitchell: That is true. It is my contention that proportional representation would increase the vote. I am afraid that that has not be shown in this country, but it has been demonstrated in countries that have turned to proportional representation, such as New Zealand and West Germany. We need a fair system. We must accept that first past the post is wanted by the leadership of the parties and many MPs because it is the basis of elected dictatorship, which is the system of government that we are lumbered with. It is a system in which our Government effectively drive a steamroller over issues.

In career politics, people love to climb aboard a steamroller, but the Government are all-powerful in such a situation. It is a top-down system in which decisions are taken on the sofas of Downing street, the Cabinet are effectively a ratification machine for those decisions and MPs are treated like sheep as they are driven into the Lobby to vote for the decisions that are taken by that small minority in Downing street.

Daniel Kawczynski: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mitchell: I hope that the hon. Gentleman is going to defend such a system.

Daniel Kawczynski: The hon. Gentleman has used the word "fairness" a great deal throughout his speech. He knows that the vast majority of seats in the United Kingdom are either Conservative or Labour. If we had the alternative voting system, Liberal Democrat voters would always get a second vote, so he would create two classes of voter. Labour and Conservative voters would have only one vote, but Liberal Democrats, coming third, would always have a chance to cast a second vote. It would be simply wrong and absolutely disgraceful for some citizens to have two votes when others had only one.

Mr. Mitchell: The hon. Gentleman is in favour of fox hunting, because at the moment he is shooting dead foxes. Such a situation would be the result of the alternative voting system where people listed candidates in order of preference. It might well be that the Liberal Democrats are everybody's second preference, because they are such a nice, warm, cuddly party.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD) rose-

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David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD) rose-

Mr. Mitchell: No, the Liberal Democrats are cuddly, but I do not want to cuddle them at the moment. In proportional representation, everyone has two votes-one for the constituency and one for the list. Everyone has that right, whether they vote for one of the minor parties or for a major party. This parliamentary despotism of the elected dictatorship has inflicted damage on public perceptions of Parliament. It is one reason why people are so hostile to, critical of and alienated from the current system. Such feelings have been exacerbated by The Daily Telegraph and will be further exacerbated by the lunacy of Legg and his decision to throw us to the lions retrospectively, but I do not want to go on about that.

Proportional representation is one of the few ways to remedy the situation and restore respect for Parliament, because it gives the people the Parliament they vote for, puts the parties on a short leash and abolishes the elected dictatorship. However, that could mean that we have coalitions, like Scotland. The system led to coalitions in New Zealand and West Germany, but not in Sweden, where there has been a long-term dominance by the Social Democrats.

What is wrong with coalitions if that is what the people vote for? As it is, the betrayals come before the election as major parties dilute everything they stand for to develop a catch-all appeal. With coalitions, the parties that the people elect have to compromise on policy to form a Government. That seems to be a perfectly sensible system that reflects the views of the people.

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): Given that a coalition or a minority Government need support from other parties on particular issues, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that that leads to decision making that has broader acceptance among the public?

Mr. Mitchell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because it is absolutely true. Experience in New Zealand suggests that those coalitions have to be formed and reformed on every piece of legislation. There is no one permanent coalition that imposes its views on the people, because a majority in Parliament has to be built up on each piece of legislation and coalitions have to be formed around that legislation. In other words, every piece of legislation is wanted and develops maximum support. That is a fairer system than steamrolling legislation through, as we now do, on the basis of the party majority that represents some of the views of the people and was elected five years previously. I am all in favour of coalitions, both around legislation and in general.

As for the point made by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), people would have two votes if we adopted the additional Member system-one for the list and one for their constituency. That would force the parties to stop concentrating most of their campaigning on a few marginal voters in a few marginal constituencies and ignoring the rest of the country, particularly the safe seats. Grimsby is no longer a safe seat, although that is not my achievement, but in the past it was largely immune from national campaigns, which allowed me, in
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previous elections, to formulate my own policies, put out my own manifesto and conduct my own campaign without interference from the central party.

The central parties ignore the so-called safe seats and concentrate everything on the marginals. Under the additional Member system, that would no longer be possible. Experience in New Zealand has shown that it is necessary to campaign everywhere, particularly in the safe seats, because the party majority is bigger there and it is essential to get all those votes out to affect the voting on the list side of the equation. Therefore, such a system makes campaigns genuinely national and for all the people.

Mrs. Laing: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way on that specific point. Is it not the case that under the current system, the hon. Gentleman, who is undoubtedly an individual, can go before his electorate in Great Grimsby and put himself forward as a person with a list of principles on which he stands to be elected? If he was not that individual but was someone on a party list under a proportional system, he could not exercise his own individuality. He would have to adopt what his party said on the party list. He is arguing against his own individuality, which brings great value to this place and to his constituents.

Mr. Mitchell: I am afraid that that point is also incorrect. I agree that it is very kind of the Grimsby Labour party to select a geriatric as its prospective parliamentary candidate; it is being kind to the aged, and I am eternally grateful for that. The point is that with the additional Member system, half or more of the seats are constituency seats, and the old rules apply. In other words, people would be elected on their own merits. It is essential for the parties to put forward the most attractive people on the list in the hope of winning votes, which is exactly what they do-whether they are independent or beautiful or whether they are Jordan or Katie Price.

Stephen Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is now being proportional in granting interventions as well. Does he agree that the system of proportional representation that allows the voter to make discerning choices between candidates is the single transferable vote?

Mr. Mitchell: I agree. I am coming on to that now. The candidate would appeal in his own way to his own constituency. However, that is a question of what system of proportional representation we would use. I do not want to get bogged down in an argument about which system is best; I have my own views. The most attractive system is the additional Member system, or MMP-the mixed Member proportional system-as it is called in New Zealand, in which half the MPs are elected on a constituency basis and half on a list basis, which would shrink the number of constituency seats. I notice that the Conservative party proposes to abolish a substantial proportion of our seats without any referendum or any consultation with the people or the electorates affected, so it cannot complain about the reduction necessary with MMP.

The additional Member system represents the current situation. Some among us are devoted constituency MPs, perhaps because we will not rise any further and have reached the limits of our prowess. That is not true
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in my case, but it is for many. However, for those who see themselves as ministrable-men or women of destiny who will rise to high office and cannot wait to get there-the seat is merely a stepping stone to power. Those are the two types of Member, and the additional Member system represents them by allowing the ministrables to appear on the party list.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I am sorry to have missed the first few minutes of his wonderful speech. Does he agree that the best way to deal with the accusation that an elected person on the list was just a party hack would be to ensure that only members of the party in a clear geographical area could choose the make-up of the list? That would get rid of the nonsense of people being imposed from the centre.

Mr. Mitchell: I agree absolutely that that is the way to do it. The weakness of the current system is the way candidates can be imposed on constituencies by moving somebody to the House of Lords-I have to tell this Chamber that I have not yet received an offer-or by bringing in young men and women of destiny, who have worked in Downing street or for Ministers or think-tanks, and who have had no contact with the real world and real people. My hon. Friend's suggestion is therefore exactly right.

Another system is the single transferable vote, which is used in Ireland. It would mean larger constituencies, each with three or four Members. That is the preference of the Electoral Reform Society, although I am not sure whether it is the preference of the Liberal party. That is one alternative. The third possibility is that recommended in the Jenkins report, which is best described as the alternative vote plus. In other words, there would be a top-up of 15 to 20 per cent. of the constituency part of the vote, which would represent the majority-80 or 85 per cent.-to introduce greater proportionality.

Any of those systems would do, and any would be preferable to the current system. My preference is the New Zealand system. That is largely because I am an apprentice New Zealander, although the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) is a real one. That system has worked very well. It was initially opposed by Prime Minister Helen Clark and the Speaker, but both are now converted because the system works so well, ensuring that legislation is wanted and has the consent and support of the great majority of the House, and therefore of the electorate.

The New Zealand system was introduced after two referendums. Politicians there were so anxious to support first past the post that they erected two hurdles for the electorate to jump. However, the electorate were ready to jump those hurdles because they felt betrayed by both parties, as indeed they were. Similar feelings of antagonism to the political parties are building up here, and our electorate may well be prepared to jump. The system has worked well in New Zealand, and I believe it would work well here.

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