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1 Dec 2009 : Column 37WH—continued

Another interesting thing, which I have mentioned previously and which I thought the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham was going to mention when he addressed the Liberals, was that at one time the Liberals opposed proportional representation. Guess why? Because they were in Government. In 1921, they voted down
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proportional representation in this place. If we check the facts, we will find that to be the case, which goes back to the point of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham-self-interest. The Labour party must be the only party that has given away so much influence and power during its period in Government. For that to be the case is absolutely ridiculous.

Stephen Williams: Is the hon. Gentleman proud of all the decisions that the Labour party made in the 1920s?

Mr. Donohoe: I was not around in the 1920s, it may be a surprise to know. However, let us look more closely at the systems in operation in Scotland, which are confusing the public completely-I have seen women coming from polling stations crying because they did not understand the system and had not voted as a consequence.

In local government north of the border, what are we seeing today? Cuts. Why are we seeing cuts? Because the SNP Administration in Edinburgh is attempting to take back power. Devolution was supposed to do the opposite, but just this weekend we heard that if schools do not get into order, the Administration will take back the powers to Edinburgh. That is fundamentally wrong and against the whole spirit of devolution. Devolution is not a one-way process, but should be taken right down to the lowest level-if need be, to the parish council.

John Mason: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the reasons that we are short of money in Scotland is the Edinburgh tram system, which was supported by Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, thereby defeating the Scottish Government? Although I consider it a waste of money, it was a good thing in a sense, because the issue showed that the Government could be defeated.

Mr. Donohoe: I am not sure that I want to go down the road of transport in a debate with the hon. Gentleman. The whole question of what the SNP Administration have done to transport, in particular to the link with Glasgow airport, is not the strongest point that he might want to make.

I will try to make another couple of points before I close. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham again made the point about Europe. I re-emphasise that case: I cannot name or even number the Members of the European Parliament representing Scotland. I do not know where any of their offices are, what they get up to or whether they are doing anything at all, but I know one thing-in this place we have 70 per cent. of the legislation coming from Europe to look at, because it has not been looked at as it might be by the scrutiny committees in Europe. That is wrong.

My final point is on the Scottish added list system, which my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby mentioned. He tried to suggest that that system was likely to lead to no party hacks being elected. I do not suggest that my ex-hon. Friend George Foulkes is an honourable hack, but that is a classic example of somebody, who did not even think that he was going to be there, standing on the added list and being No. 1. He represents a swathe of Scotland and can sit there and twiddle his thumbs and be down here in the House of Lords.

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I suggest that that is not a system that would or should be supported. I have always believed in this place and, before I came to it, that first past the post is the way forward. It is the best and most representative system as far as my constituents are concerned. Like the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, I have not had a single person in my constituency, other than the chattering class people, come to me and make any argument for me to change my point of view.

11.51 am

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I shall be as quick as I can, Mr. Benton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) on securing this opportunity. When I saw that he was speaking, I had a funny feeling that he would refer to New Zealand and MMP, so-turning my accent up-I thought that I might just look at that a little.

Just before the referendum, I arrived in New Zealand and, as is New Zealand's wont, I was shunted on to a radio station to do a three-hour talk-in, and of course the major thing being discussed was the impending referendum. Two things came out. The first was that the dislike of MPs at that stage in New Zealand was even greater than it is here at the moment, and the belief was that, in turning to MMP, it would have fewer MPs. Of course, that was wrong. Secondly, I became very aware that most of the people whom I spoke to on the streets and on that three-hour radio programme did not understand the system or what they were voting for and just wanted a change for the sake of change.

It did not work, of course. The first MMP Parliament in New Zealand increased the number of MPs from 99 to 120. Many New Zealanders were deluded by the idea of "fair votes" and were unaware until the results of that first election came through that they were virtually guaranteed a hung Parliament. That hung Parliament had the usual horse trading, and people slowly began to realise that they had a Government for whom not one single voter had voted-none of them voted for the Government they got.

The second thing that hit people was the proliferation of minor and often obscure parties, which ranged from the extreme left through to the extreme right. As ever with a hung Parliament, all those minorities had ambitions of being the controlling minority member of a minority Government-in other words, the tail that wagged the dog syndrome.

Mr. Austin Mitchell: I think that the hon. Gentleman is bringing back a very biased report from New Zealand because, first, all the minority parties came into being before proportional representation was introduced. They were the result of party splits under the old first-past-the-post system. Secondly, the essence of his argument seems to be that New Zealanders were stupid, deluded or conned into voting for proportional representation. Surely he cannot be saying that.

Sir Paul Beresford: The hon. Gentleman is right: I am not saying that. I am saying that the system was so complicated that it was extremely difficult for people to understand. The various arguments that were presented confused them, and some of them, particularly for the fairer votes system, were basically wrong.

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For the first such election, in 1996, the New Zealand First party, led by a gentleman called Winston Peters, campaigned extremely vigorously against the Bolger National party or conservative party Government. The election results produced a hung Parliament. There were eight weeks of haggling, after which Winston Peters did an about-turn and agreed to join the National party in government, giving it a majority of one. Winston Peters was leader of New Zealand First and an elected Member, but he always had the security of knowing that if his electorate dispensed with him-which they eventually did-he could return as a list MP.

Subsequent elections resulted in further hung Parliaments, with a Labour Government led by Helen Clark that was supported by the Greens on the left and by Winston Peters, who had changed sides, and his party on the right. Every election resulted in a considerable period of haggling between the parties for the votes of those few seats controlled by the minority parties.

Until the last election, Winston Peters and New Zealand First showed the remarkable ability of political shoe-shuffling without so much as a blush, chopping and changing allegiances so as to be in government. Under the last Labour Government, which was led by Helen Clark, Winston Peters was rejected by his electorate, returned as a list MP and obtained power in the Labour Government as a Foreign Minister outside the Cabinet who did not take Cabinet responsibility. That was a ludicrous situation, but it happened under the system that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby believes works. The result at the very last election was a National party Government in coalition with minority representatives but not, fortunately, with New Zealand First.

As I have said, in the original referendum New Zealand voters were under the impression that, if they did not like MMP, they could have a second referendum. Unfortunately, the only promise made in that direction was a review by a select committee, and of course "turkeys at Christmas" came into effect. As part of its election manifesto, the current National party has promised a further referendum. However, it worries me that the complications of the electoral system will again not be fully understood. Nevertheless, the result will be interesting. I found on a visit to New Zealand shortly after MMP had appeared in its first election that it was exceptionally difficult to find anybody at all who would own up to having voted for it, because people disliked it so much.

Although this country does not have proportional representation, we have had recent cases of hung Parliaments; Parliaments where the Government have been stitched together with minority support. Both the Conservative party and the Labour party have been guilty of that. To my mind, none of those coalition Governments have been successful.

In these times in particular, I feel that we have to retain the first-past-the-post system and hopefully single-party Government. The economy in this country is dire and the situation in which a minority party wagged the dog and was unable to take difficult decisions would mean doom for this country.

Mr. Joe Benton (in the Chair): I call John Mason. May I just point out to him, however, that we are hoping to start the winding-up speeches from 12 pm?

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11.57 am

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): Thank you, Mr. Benton. I think that it was unfortunate that the first Back Bencher to speak in the debate took 15 minutes out of the allotted 30.

If I can be brief, however, I just wanted to speak very much in favour of proportional representation, from the Scottish and Glasgow experience. I have been elected five times since 1998, which I suspect is more times than Members here have been elected in the last 12 years. I have been elected four times under first past the post and once under single transferable vote, which was in a four-member ward. I remind Members here that, to be elected in a four-member ward, someone needs 20 per cent. of the vote under STV, which largely excludes smaller and minority parties. I would like to see five-member wards; I think that that is a better system. In a five-member ward, someone would still have to pass the hurdle of achieving 17 per cent. of the vote to be elected.

In January 1998, I was elected under the first-past-the-post system to Glasgow city council. I was the only non-Labour person at either council or Westminster level in the whole east end of the city, so the area was a bit of a one-party state. That is the danger of first past the post, that we end up with these one-party states. If someone has a good relationship with their councillor or their MP, that situation can be very good; if they have a bad relationship with them, the situation can be very bad and they have nowhere else to go.

In 1999 in Glasgow, there were elections for 79 councillors. Labour got approximately 50 per cent. of the vote, but took 74 of the 79 seats, giving them 93 per cent. of the seats on the council. Meanwhile, the Scottish National party, which got about 30 per cent. of the vote, took only two seats and was the second largest party on the council. Even Labour councillors would admit that that situation was not a success. There was no proper scrutiny in the council or in the committees, and my colleague-my fellow SNP councillor-and I ran around trying to look like a crowd.

We started to have proportional representation in Scotland in the Scottish Parliament elections in 1999; that was a form of PR. Alternative vote is such a tiny step that it is hardly worth looking at. The Scottish Parliament has this additional Member list system, whereby a city such as Glasgow has 10 constituency MSPs and seven list Members. That system is not ideal; it still favours the constituency MSPs and creates a bit of a two-tier system. However, it does mean that if someone's constituency MSP is not working for them, they have the opportunity to go to a list Member.

What has happened in practice in the Scottish Parliament is that there are four larger parties, and so far we have had two coalitions and one minority Government. There is a tendency for decisions to be made with broader support in the Parliament, with two parties, such as Labour and the Liberal Democrats, or, now, with the SNP and whatever party would give support. Labour had to compromise to get Liberal Democrat support, most notably in introducing PR for Scottish local government elections.

[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]

The other argument has been that a small party could hold larger parties to ransom, but that has not been our experience in Scotland. It appeared to be the case, as
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has been mentioned, with the Greens, when two brought down the Scottish Budget, but they overplayed their hand, and when the Budget eventually went through with Labour support-and, I think, almost all-party support-the Greens were left nowhere, so a small party like that is taking a lot of risks in acting in that way.

There was a step forward in 2007 with the local government elections in Scotland. I thank the Liberal Democrats for that achievement. In Glasgow we had 79 councillors, but with 21 multi-member wards, and three or four members in each, there is a much better range of representation.

12.1 pm

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Amess. I thank the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) for obtaining the debate. He has been a supporter of proportional representation for a long time, and his enthusiasm is undimmed by the years. He put the case in terms of fairness, and there is definitely a case for PR on those grounds, but there is also a case based on confidence in politics. To come back to the point made by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), the current relevance of the debate lies in the fact that we are in a political crisis-a crisis of confidence in politics itself-and the existing electoral system is part of the crisis.

To deal first with fairness, hon. Members who support the first-past-the-post system are very fond of accusing parties that might benefit from a different system of arguing from their own interest. Of course, that also applies the other way around. Members who are here because of first past the post, but who would not be here under the proportional system are also arguing from their own interest. Fairness cannot be judged in that way. It must be judged by other means, and the obvious way to do that is to imagine, as a thought experiment, a situation in which we did not know how popular our views would be with the electorate and had to choose an electoral system knowing only our own views and no one else's. In those circumstances, what system would be chosen: first past the post, or a proportional system?

Choosing first past the post means taking the risk of one's political views being excluded for ever and of never having any representation in the legislature of the country. I cannot think of anyone who, faced by the question about fairness from behind the veil of ignorance, would choose first past the post. Perhaps some people might be so convinced that strong government is important that they would choose first past the post, despite the risk that their own views would never have any influence on the legislature, but it would be an extraordinary thing to do. People taking that view would probably take the view that democracy itself might be excluded.

Daniel Kawczynski: The hon. Gentleman suggests that we were all taking our view for party political reasons, but that is not the case. In the past 12 years of Labour Governments, the Conservative party would have been much better off with a proportional voting system, yet despite that we want first past the post.

David Howarth: No. The Conservative party wants first past the post because that is the only way that it can form a majority Government with a minority of the
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vote. The idea that it is being generous about it is ridiculous. We need to get away from the idea that fairness can be judged from a partisan point of view, and think about it from a non-partisan point of view. I am sure that from a non-partisan view, taking into account all our interests, fair-minded people would never choose first past the post as their electoral system.

Mr. Donohoe: Surely, the hon. Gentleman was listening to what I said, which was that the Labour party in government gave away more power and influence, as a consequence of which we are now in the mire north of the border. In the party context, he would know, if he was listening to me, that the Liberals, for other reasons, were opposed to the concept of proportional representation in 1921.

David Howarth: It is also the case that the that Labour party was in favour of PR when it was founded and has since abandoned that view for national Government. Let us get away from the history and stick to the question of what is a fair system. I am sure that if we based our answer on a neutral point of view that got away from party interest and if people thought about it honestly, we would not conclude that first past the post was fair.

My second point is about confidence. It is a crucial point because we are in a crisis of confidence in the political system. We have to ask ourselves whether we can carry on with an electoral system in which Governments are very unpopular on the day that they are elected. The current Government were elected with 35 per cent. of the vote. Almost twice as many people voted against them as for them. It is not surprising that the Government were unpopular from the start. Most Governments in this country are unpopular. That unpopularity is part of the crisis of confidence in politics, as people do not see their political views represented in the way that politics works nationally.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby mentioned the 1950s. There was a sense then that the main purpose of the electoral system was simply to choose a Government from the two options available. It did not really matter how unrepresentative the Parliament was. However, the idea that the House of Commons is here simply to choose a Government cannot survive the massive reduction in support for the winning party. The electoral college notion of what the Commons is for cannot survive the present situation in which the winning party is so unpopular at the start.

We need to get away from the idea that the only purpose of the Commons is to act as an electoral college and that we all may as well go away once it has done that. We need to come round to the idea that the purpose of the House of Commons is to be a representative assembly. The first virtue of a representative assembly is that it represents the political views of the electorate. At present, it does not and it cannot regain any place in public confidence as long as that is the case.

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