Previous Section Index Home Page

1 Dec 2009 : Column 31WH—continued

Daniel Kawczynski: I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman's speech, but so far he has failed to mention one important matter-the fact that all the systems he has spoken of
1 Dec 2009 : Column 32WH
would empower extremist parties and allow them into office. What is his view on that? He has not yet broached the subject.

Mr. Mitchell: That is just not so. Extremist or daft parties-from time to time, it seems that such descriptions could also be used of the majority parties-can be kept out by a threshold. They are not kept out in Israel, but should be. However, they are kept out in Germany; those who gain less than 5 per cent. of the vote have no representation. It is a simple expedient to keep out fascist or lunatic parties, which at the moment are perfectly free to stand and put their case before the people, and even to win seats in European elections.

I was praising the New Zealand system and saying that one system that I would not support is the alternative vote, which is used in Australia. It would not be acceptable here. That is not because it is Australian-some of my best friends are Australian-but because it is a daft system. It is a half-baked compromise, which has been espoused by a number of people, including Cabinet Ministers, who want to show themselves as being sympathetic to the growing demand for proportional representation but who are terrified to take the final step and introduce a system that is proportional. They therefore rally round the broken flag of the alternative vote. They show concern but will not do anything.

My beloved Prime Minister's preference for a referendum on the alternative vote is daft. To put it simply, it would be a vote on nothing at all-a vote for those who do not want electoral reform or who do not want proportional representation. I would have to include my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor among that coterie, so determined is he not to have proportional representation. I do not know why he fears it, but when he was forced to introduce it for the European elections he brought in the worst possible system-the closed list. That was done deliberately, with the concurrence of the Liberal Democrats, to invalidate the case for electoral reform and proportional representation. He is now talking of giving us proportional representation for the House of Lords. That would make the Lords the more representative House, but he will not give us the alternative vote for the House of Commons. It would be a disaster.

I must come to a close, Mr. Benton, and I am sorry for having gone on a little too long. The conclusion is simply this: it is no use the advocates of first past the post, who are gathered here in huge number to put the case against me and destroy my argument, saying that their system is the best in the world and that we should keep it. That is not true.

Proportional representation is a much fairer and better system, and it would alleviate much of the discontent and alienation that are directed not so much against Parliament, but against the party system and the elected dictatorship, which are sustained by the first-past-the-post system.

This is not a question of us arguing about the types of system that would suit our purposes once the people have given their consent; such information is available from the Library. Today, I want to establish the case for putting the question to the people, and that is about democratic rights, and the nature and workings of producing a fairer system. It is the people's decision, not ours.

1 Dec 2009 : Column 33WH

Several hon. Members rose-

Mr. Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. I propose commencing the winding-up speeches at 12 o'clock. A number of Members have indicated a wish to speak, so would right hon. and hon. Members bear that in mind?

11.29 am

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) on securing this important debate.

I have worked closely with the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe). He is a good friend, although I hope that saying so will not get him into trouble. We are the joint chairmen of the all-party group on the continuation of first past the post, and we feel passionately about that voting system. Interestingly, Scottish Labour MPs make up the largest number of members of the all-party group and it is very important that the Minister takes note of that. Those MPs have seen at first hand the chaos and mayhem that the voting systems have brought about in Scotland and there has been deep confusion in previous elections because of the different voting systems that have been put in place. Our all-party group recently had a debate about these issues here in Parliament with the Electoral Reform Society.

I go back to what I said in my first intervention today. Given all the problems facing our country at the moment, including the economic crisis, I am deeply concerned that organisations such as the Electoral Reform Society, and hon. Members, should be pressing for this change in the voting system. That is such a distraction from all the things that we need to be addressing as parliamentarians.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He speaks with great passion on these issues. However, does the "chaos and mayhem" to which he has alluded extend to Wales? In Wales, we have had for 10 years an additional Member system and stable government, although at the moment the Government are not of my choosing; now we have a Labour-Plaid Cymru Administration, whereas previously there was a Liberal-Labour Administration. Above all else, in Wales we have had a clear programme of government negotiated by the parties in the full public gaze. That inspires confidence in the system rather than creating the "chaos and mayhem" to which the hon. Gentleman alluded.

Daniel Kawczynski: I shall come to coalition Governments later in my speech. Ultimately, however, I do not know whether the coalition Government of Labour and Plaid Cymru are delivering for the people of Wales as the hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting.

Constituents come to see me in my surgery and I talk to them on their doorsteps. In nearly five years, not a single one of them-and there are 74,000 in all-has said to me, "You know, Mr. Kawczynski, I really want a change in the voting system; if there is one thing I want you to press for in the House of Commons, it is a change in the voting system." What they do talk to me about is the Royal Shrewsbury hospital, funding for our schools and all the other things that affect them day to day. Not a single one of them has called for a change in the voting system. If a single constituent had written to
1 Dec 2009 : Column 34WH
me on the issue or had taken the time to come and talk to me about it, perhaps I would have a little more sympathy with it.

David Howarth: That is not my experience in Cambridge, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman might come and visit my constituency at some point to talk to some people who understand that politics and other issues are connected. We cannot separate the political system from the content of the politics that it delivers.

Daniel Kawczynski: I am only giving the hon. Gentleman my own experience as a Member of Parliament in Shropshire.

Mr. Drew: I tested the feeling on this subject in my constituency, on the basis of having been elected to the parliamentary reform Committee. I wrote to all my constituents. I must say that there was a very narrow result, but I received more than 7,000 replies. People came down narrowly in favour of electoral reform. However, more than anything, I learned about how many people wanted a debate on the subject and more information about it. It is wrong for the parties just to shut this issue down. There is a yearning among people for at least a look at what would be involved if there was a proper debate on electoral reform.

Daniel Kawczynski: As I said, I only want to give the Minister the benefit of my own experience from Shrewsbury.

At the moment, we have a crazy number of voting systems in the United Kingdom. Last week, I had a meeting with Mr. Wardle, the chief executive of the Electoral Commission, and I put to him some of these issues. He said to me that it is not for the Electoral Commission to decide which voting system we have and that he would feel uncomfortable in trying to come up with any system. He added that it is obviously the responsibility of Parliament to decide on the voting system and that the Electoral Commission would have to work under that system.

However, Mr. Wardle said something else that I found interesting. He admitted to me that there were far too many voting systems in the United Kingdom-that was the chief executive of the Electoral Commission speaking. He said that in no other country in the world are there so many different types of voting system. That is a very powerful thing for the Minister to take away from today's debate; even somebody as senior as the chief executive of the Electoral Commission is concerned about the confusion and the complications that are arising from all the different voting systems put in place by the Labour Government in the past few years.

The first-past-the-post system has served us well. The constituency link is essential. When I go to my electorate in Shrewsbury, I put my case directly to them. What would happen under PR, one of the other systems? We would have to hide our views. What would happen if we had the alternative voting system, which, as has rightly been said, is the Prime Minister's preferred option? One would have to be far more cynical and hide one's views, because one would always know that neither the Labour party nor the Conservative party would win. It would always be down to Liberal voters to be the king-makers and decide which party would get enough votes to take it over 50 per cent. One would have to blunt one's
1 Dec 2009 : Column 35WH
ideology, passion and beliefs to placate those Liberal Democrats and ensure their second vote. I feel passionately against the second vote; I will come to that in a moment.

Stephen Williams: In my constituency, the Conservative party came third in 2001 and 2005, so it is Conservative voters to whom I will be appealing to ensure that a non-Labour MP is elected in the next general election. On the point about secrecy, does the hon. Gentleman think that Angela Merkel hid her views from the German electorate?

Daniel Kawczynski: I am not going to start talking about Angela Merkel. This debate is about our own voting system in the United Kingdom. Far more seats are Conservative-Labour battlegrounds than Conservative-Liberal Democrat battlegrounds.

Why should the Liberal Democrats get a second vote? That is the most important point that I want to make. We cannot have a system in which people who vote for the Liberal Democrats or other minority parties get a second crack of the whip or bite of the cherry. Every citizen in the United Kingdom must be treated equally, and everyone should have a single vote.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby suggested that we should have large seats with multiple Members. I cannot think of anything worse. If we did have such a situation, I certainly would not be prepared to be a Member of Parliament; I would have serious difficulties in continuing to be one. I feel passionately about my constituency of Shrewsbury. All that I care about is representing the people of Shrewsbury. I am accountable to them. They know how I vote and come to see me in my surgery. I am responsible. Being one of four, five or six Members across a large area would be completely meaningless and involve no accountability whatever.

Mr. Austin Mitchell: I remind the hon. Gentleman that Conservative party policy is to reduce the number of seats, so his seat will be bigger anyway. He is concentrating on the constituency issue. Let me make it clear that I agree with all that he says about the joys of representing a place. Representing Grimsby is the chief joy of my life. It is wonderful. I love it, and I represent a community in a borough that would continue under the additional Member system. We would have somewhat bigger constituencies, as the Conservatives are proposing anyway, but we would still have the same constituency base.

Daniel Kawczynski: The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that the Conservatives wish to reduce the number of seats by about 60, but that has nothing to do with the voting system; we would merely cut the number of seats. I disagree with him. He and I both represent communities of roughly 74,000 constituents. We just about do the job of representing those 74,000 constituents with the resources available, but I could not possibly have the same interaction and accountability if I were one of six Members of Parliament representing a much larger area.

I turn to the European Union elections. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire said that the elections had a poor voter turnout and asked why. It is a good question. It is simply because there is no accountability.
1 Dec 2009 : Column 36WH
I have said many times to the people of Shropshire, "I will give anybody in this room £100 if they can name me two Members of the European Parliament who represent us." So far, in five years, I have not lost a penny. No one knows who those Members of the European Parliament are, because none of them lives, works, has offices or holds surgeries in Shropshire. Those MEPs have no accountability whatever to the people of Shropshire.

I must tell the hon. Member for Great Grimsby that the west midlands is larger in size and population than many EU countries, such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. How on earth can one be a coherent and accountable representative of an area of that size if one does not at least live in the community? I feel strongly that if one wants to represent the people of an area, one should at least live in that community and be part of it, because that way one will understand the local services and be part of the emotional drive for that community. The representatives in the European Parliament live hundreds of miles away with absolutely no accountability.

Mr. Drew: Is the issue not even simpler than that? People do not vote in those elections because they do not see the faintest relevance of the EU to their lives.

Daniel Kawczynski: That is a completely separate matter that we will discuss another time.

I will end shortly, Mr. Benton, because you said that many hon. Members wished to speak. I will return briefly to the election of the two members of the British National party to the European Parliament. I do not know about the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, but I had shivers going down my spine when I found out that they had been elected. I am a democrat and believe that people should be allowed to stand as representatives no matter what their views are, but I am very concerned about any system that allows a party such as the BNP to get representation.

David Howarth: BNP members of local councils have been elected by the first-past-the-post system, so does what the hon. Gentleman has just said not apply equally to that system?

Daniel Kawczynski: Being elected to local councils is very different from being elected to a national Parliament, or, in this case, the Parliament of the whole European Union.

As part of our duties as joint chairmen of the all-party group, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire and I visited the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh together and interacted with MSPs to hear at first hand some of the problems that they had faced as a result of PR. What was fascinating was that even the two Green party MSPs, the king-makers who at one stage prevented the Scottish National party budget from going ahead, said that they felt the current system was unsustainable.

Lastly, I have a point to make about the Liberal Democrats, and I have been looking forward to making it. No wonder they are here in such large numbers. I feel passionately that one must always put one's country first, one's constituency second and one's party third, but the Liberal Democrats have always pushed the issue of PR on a purely party political basis to further their own cause. I think that it is such a shame that they are
1 Dec 2009 : Column 37WH
trying to force the issue through simply to get more Liberal Democrat MPs elected. That is absolutely unforgivable.

I hope that the Minister will take on board my concerns and that he has realised how passionately I feel about the issue. Never in the five years during which I have been a Member have I been so worried about a single thing going ahead under the Labour Government as I am about the possibility of their changing the voting system. We must safeguard the first-past-the-post system, which has nurtured our democracy and helped it thrive all this time. We must not endanger it.

11.44 am

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Benton, for allowing me to speak, although I will do so briefly because the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) has of course mentioned most of what I would have said-as joint chairmen of the all-party group on the continuation of first past the post, we speak as one. However, I will make some additional points.

I have the experience at first hand, along with the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason), of the Scottish situation, although I probably have a different point of view from his. Having been here longer than him, and seen the Scottish Parliament from its birth, the whole question of running it is a joke and not in the best interests of the people that we represent. I shall make a further point about that as I go through my speech. There is no doubt that what is imperative-and changing the voting systems has not made a jot of difference-is voter turnout. I have already made an intervention about that, on my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who secured the debate. However, unless and until we overcome that problem, democracy itself will be the loser.

John Mason: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the big advantages in Scotland has been that, where there was a safe seat, of whichever party, and a sleepy MP, MSP or whatever, such people have had to wake up and really work for the electorate, because they are competing with other politicians?

Mr. Donohoe: That does not apply in my case, as my vote keeps going up-but let us move on.

Voter turnout is the most important element that we should be addressing and doing something about, not changing systems. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby mentioned New Zealand, but I have seen that system at first hand, as I am sure other hon. Members have. It reminded me a bit of the trade unions in the '60s, in which I played a fairly significant part, with all those smoke-filled rooms. All that I saw at first hand in New Zealand was the Speaker, who was of the Labour party, trading with all the minority parties in order to get any business through the House. The Prime Minister was his puppet. If someone tells me that that is a great system, I will tell them that I do not believe in it and that it does democracy no good.

Next Section Index Home Page