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9 Feb 2010 : Column 795

Mr. Straw: What I have long been a supporter of is-[Hon. Members: "Answer!"]-I am going to answer: majoritarian systems. If the hon. Gentleman, who is very assiduous, had bothered to read a very fine pamphlet written in 1986 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), "Proportional misrepresentation: the case against PR in Britain", he would have seen that I gave support to the alternative vote. I am on record as having supported for getting on for a quarter of a century the alternative vote system for parliamentary elections. My passion is for majoritarian systems, as opposed to proportional representation, for all the reasons that are generally shared throughout the House. I must also tell the Committee that the new hardback copy of my right hon. Friend's important work is in such demand that, according to Amazon, a new copy will cost $600, although second-hand editions can still be had for four quid.

Mr. Grieve: I was a bit puzzled to hear the right hon. Gentleman praying in aid the Labour party's election system because, apart from the fact that the Prime Minister was not subjected to it, I seem to recollect that, under that system, one third of the vote is reserved for the union paymasters. I hope that the Justice Secretary is not about to offer that to the Committee as an example.

Mr. Straw: That shows how little the hon. and learned Gentleman knows about the Labour party's system, which provides an opportunity for millions of individual members of trade unions to vote in a postal ballot for the candidates of their choice. The idea that the system is in the hands of a few trade union paymasters is completely incorrect.

I should also like to remind Conservative Members of something that they learned only half an hour ago, and that might have come as a great surprise to them. The system of election for hereditary peers, which they are so passionate in supporting, and which they voted to continue just two weeks ago is-guess what-not a first-past-the-post system but an alternative vote system.

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): It is your system.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman says that it is our system, but, while the law provides that there has to be a system-this House agreed that-it was the other place that provided that system. Conservative peers could have objected to the use of the alternative vote at any stage over the past 10 years, but they have never done so. I therefore hope that we will hear no more about the idea that the alternative vote, or eliminating ballots, which are used by the Conservative party for the election of hereditary peers, have some fundamental flaw that is so dangerous that a choice between the alternative vote and first-past-the-post should not even be put to the electorate.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has suggested that his own preference is for AV, but the Government set up a royal commission to look into this matter, and I wonder why they are not proposing to put forward the recommendation of the Jenkins commission in the referendum. It would certainly not be tainted by any party political considerations.

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Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend will remember the debates that took place on the Jenkins commission when it reported to the House when I was Home Secretary, towards the end of 1999. It rapidly became clear that there was no consensus around it. What is more, with the passage of time, concern has been expressed about dual systems of membership, particularly in Scotland and Wales. Speaking personally, I happen to believe that the system of single-Member constituencies, in which one Member alone has the duty to represent everyone in that constituency or community, is fundamental to the workings of our democracy. That system gives a directness and authority to the relationship which does not exist in the same way under multi-Member constituency systems.

Furthermore, I support majoritarian systems because majority Governments are far preferable to the weaker minority and coalition Governments that are almost invariably the consequence of systems of proportional representation. I thought that before I first came into the House; I thought it throughout the 18 years I spent on the Opposition Benches; and nothing I have seen of other countries' systems of proportional representation has convinced me that they have better alternatives.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): Perhaps we could achieve consensus if we looked at the Scottish experience, where four different systems of voting are in place. Surely if we were to look at that and have a referendum, we could encompass those as part of the question, allowing people to choose the single system that they want for voting.

5.45 pm

Mr. Straw: I am glad that my hon. Friend acknowledges the importance of giving the British people a choice. We have to make a judgment about the alternatives to put before the British people-we have to make it; nobody else can, as it has to become law. My belief is that the best way to conduct a referendum is to confine it to a single institution-in this case, the Westminster Parliament. I understand my hon. Friend's concern; he and I have discussed on many occasions the dual-Member system in Scotland and the concerns expressed about it, but the fact that we are to have a referendum on this issue does not necessarily rule out the possibility in due course of having a referendum on the issue that my hon. Friend cares about.

Mr. Grieve: May I take the Secretary of State back to his reference to the Jenkins commission? On 2 June 1998, he said:

Where is the relatively independent body in these proposals?

Mr. Straw: I have already explained that the truth about the Jenkins proposals-it became clear as people digested them-is that there was no consensus coalition at all in respect of them. The hon. and learned Gentleman has been the Justice spokesman for his party for close to 18 months now, and never once has he suggested that there should be a referendum on the Jenkins proposals.

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David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): May I take the Secretary of State back to his statement about single-Member representation? Is he proposing to abolish multi-member wards in local government?

Mr. Straw: No, I am not. With great respect, the considerations that apply in local elections are different from those that apply to the dynamics of this House.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Straw: I give way to the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski).

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): Just a few short weeks ago in a Westminster Hall debate on proportional representation, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) gave me an assurance that this issue would not be debated in the House during this Session. May I ask what has happened since to make that promise no longer applicable? [Interruption.]

Mr. Straw: Well, my right hon. Friend says that he did not give that assurance and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to raise the matter again in his speech.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the recommendations of the Gould report, produced after the debacle of the May 2007 Scottish parliamentary elections, which were held on the same day as the local council elections. He will know that the strong recommendation made in that report was that two elections using different systems should not be held on the same day. Does he accept that if we move towards the AV system for the elections to this House, we can never again hold a general election on the same day as local authority elections?

Mr. Straw: I am afraid that I do not. I remember the Gould report and the circumstances that led up to it. I thought it made some important recommendations, but I do not believe that the fundamental problem that the Scottish system faced at that time was conducting two different elections on the same day. Within the whole of the UK, we regularly have two sets of elections using different systems. For example, European and local elections often take place on the same day and provided that those systems are properly explained to voters-this was the problem in Scotland when there were two sets of ballots on the same ballot paper-I believe that it is perfectly satisfactory to go ahead on the same day.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Straw: I give way to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), but then I want to make some progress.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): The Secretary of State will be aware that the Irish system proposed by the Liberal Democrats would deliver an overall majority on about 45 per cent. of the vote, as it has on many occasions in the Republic of Ireland since 1921. What share of the vote would he be prepared to regard as too low, either under first past the post or under the alternative vote when it came to first preferences? What percentage would mean that the Government were no longer legitimate-35, or even less?

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Mr. Straw: The fundamental problem that affects all voting systems is the fact that there is no way, mathematically, of translating votes cast and seats gained into power obtained.

I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said on the radio this morning about the merits of the Irish system. I have two comments. First, the Irish constituencies, per Member, are significantly smaller than ours. There are 21,000 electors per Member of the Dáil. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman seemed to be suggesting that the Irish system had avoided any scandals. Anyone with any knowledge of what has gone on in Ireland recently will recognise that we cannot really compete with the Irish when it comes to the continuation of scandals.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Straw: I will give way to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), but then I must make progress.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I agree with the Secretary of State about single-Member constituencies. As he wants change, however, he presumably thinks that Members here who did not secure 50 per cent. of the vote might have been better replaced by others. According to his research, how much would a Parliament elected under the proposed system differ from one elected under first past the post?

Mr. Straw: I know that Conservative Members have suggested that earlier elections could have produced this or that result. The answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question is that we should make this change-or, rather, put the opportunity for change before the British people, for it is not we who are making the change-as a matter of principle. It will be for the British people, in whom I suggest Conservative Members have a bit of faith, to listen to the argument over a 20-month period, and to listen particularly intensely during the last six months of a campaign. They will be able to make their own judgments in the privacy of the ballot box. They will reach their own conclusions.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Straw: I will give way in a moment, but I want to make some progress first. I have already given way a great deal.

I suggest that the case for making the change is to do with the fact that we have moved from a two-party arrangement in the House-which is what obtained, unusually in British politics, between 1945 and 1970-to the three or four-party system that has much more often been the default setting of British politics. The question of whether there should be a change is nothing new-as I shall make clear, it has been debated on a number of occasions-but of course some hon. Members will ask why we need to make the change now. The answer is that in the past 12 months, as everyone knows-it has affected hon. Members in all parts of the House in the same way-we have seen a crisis of confidence in our political system and our politicians on a scale that none of us has witnessed before in our political lifetime. Trust has been profoundly damaged. [Hon. Members: "That has nothing to do with it."] It has everything to do with it.

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Immediate action has already been taken to clear up the expenses system, with the passage of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 and with the clauses in this Bill to strengthen the new regime already approved by the House. We will shortly debate the recommendations of the Wright Committee on improvements to the way in which the House operates. Those are important initiatives, which show that we mean to put our own house in order in due course, but all of us here must do all that we can to restore trust in politics, and it is axiomatic that part of that process must involve consideration of which electoral system can best serve the people of this country and asking them to make a decision. Our response is to put in place a credible alternative that would go with the grain of what the British people value in our system, and allow them to express their clear view in a referendum.

Sensible constitutional change should enhance the effectiveness and legitimacy of our institutions, not undermine them. I suggest, and I will suggest to the British people if these new clauses are passed, that adopting the alternative vote system would achieve that. The alternative vote system builds on the strengths of our current system: direct accountability for individual Members, and the chance for voters to select or eject Governments. I believe that it would help to rebuild the trust and connection between electors and their representatives that is vital to restoring politics.

Mr. Tom Harris: Does my right hon. Friend attribute the stainless reputation of Italian politicians to the fact that the Italians have proportional representation?

Mr. Straw: I have never argued in favour of proportional representation-and this is not proportional representation-and I have certainly never argued in favour of the Italian system.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Straw: I will in a moment. I have already taken one intervention from the hon. Gentleman.

Sir Peter Tapsell: The Secretary of State would not answer the question that I asked then.

Mr. Straw: I did answer it, and I will answer it again. The answer is that, even under an alternative vote system, if there are only two candidates there will be no need for eliminating ballots. But, as I pointed out, the system that the Conservative party uses is a system of eliminating ballots. It is not first past the post.

Sir Peter Tapsell rose-

Mr. Straw: I have now answered the hon. Gentleman's question.

Sir Peter Tapsell rose-

Mr. Straw: By allowing the public to express- [Interruption.]

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The Chairman: Order. The Secretary of State's appetite for debating and responding to interjections is legendary, but we are reaching a stage at which it is perhaps disrupting progress, and I am anxious to make the debate as inclusive as it can possibly be. I simply suggest that Members on both sides of the Committee should bear that in mind if we are to make progress and allow other voices to be heard.

Mr. Straw: Thank you, Sir Alan. I will make a little progress now, but I will take more interventions later.

I suggest that, by allowing the public to express a range of preferences, the alternative vote would increase the electorate's stake in their representatives, encouraging candidates to appeal to the whole electorate. Under AV, MPs would, by definition, have to receive 50 per cent. plus one from those voting and exercising their preferences. That could only be good for the legitimacy of Members and for the House as a whole.

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Straw: I will in a second.

Between 1945 and 1970, the Labour and Conservative parties shared over 85 per cent. of the votes cast. For the three elections between 1951 and 1959 the share was over 90 per cent., and the share of the third party was less than 6 per cent. However, as I have said, that period was atypical of British politics in the 20th and 21st centuries. Every contest now involves at least three candidates; in Scotland and Northern Ireland there are at least four, and, given the involvement of newer parties, often more. It is telling that at the last election, in 2005, only about a third of MPs won 50 per cent. or more of the votes cast in their constituencies.

It may be suggested that this is a sudden idea, but that is untrue. The proposals for the alternative vote have been debated in the House and the other place for exactly 100 years.

Graham Stringer: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Straw: I will in a second.

It was 100 years ago this year that a royal commission unanimously recommended the adoption of the alternative vote. However, the recommendation became caught up in the constitutional crisis when the unelected Conservative majority in the House of Lords decided to disrupt Lloyd George's excellent "People's Budget".

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