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It has been said that we should not spend a one-off £80 million at a time of economic crisis. However, the country faced a profound existential crisis in 1917 when the first world war was going badly. At that time the Government sensibly decided that they needed to look to the future, and recommended a change in the system through a Speaker's Conference-which, I remind the Committee, Winston Churchill supported as a Liberal. As a consequence of those proposals, the alternative vote was put before the House. [Interruption.] A Conservative Member mentions the Speaker's Conference, but what it recommended was different from what the House decided, and, in the end, it is the House that decides. Again, however, thanks to the built-in Conservative majority in the other place, this House's decision to go
for the alternative vote was overturned, and instead the other place went not for first past the post, but for a system of proportional representation, and as a result the Bill fell.
Graham Stringer: Can my right hon. Friend not see that there is a flaw in his argument when he compares national elections with the electoral system within parties, where we decide on our candidates and leaders in such a way as to choose the least unpopular, rather than the most popular? Under the alternative vote system in national elections, it is likely that there would have been even more Conservative MPs after the 1983 general election and more Labour MPs after 1997. How is that fair, and how is that going to raise confidence among the electorate?
Mr. Straw: I would make two points in response to that. First, these so-called extrapolations cannot take into account how voter behaviour would change under a different system, but I profoundly believe it would do so-that must be the case. The late, excellent, noble Lord Alexander of Weedon made a good point in his dissenting note to the 1999 Jenkins report about what happened in '83 and '97. I have never believed that voters would react in the way that was proposed, however. Moreover, what we are debating now is not whether the House should decide on the alternative vote, but simply whether we give the British people an opportunity to have a debate about the matter.
My second point is about my hon. Friend's statement that there is a difference between elections of party leaders and elections of MPs. I do not accept what he says on that. The reason all major parties have an eliminating ballot system is so that the person who is elected leader has legitimacy and a broad consensus of support. I suggest, particularly to those of us who profoundly believe in single-Member constituencies, that that is of even more importance in constituencies than it is for party leaders.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Given that the objective of a general election is to determine a Parliament and a Government, does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that merely to get a 50 per cent. majority for each individual constituency does not result in a party having 50 per cent. of the seats in Parliament, and therefore we do not get the 50 per cent. majority implicit in the principles he is putting forward on behalf of the idea of individual MPs for individual constituencies?
Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab):
I think that AV would be fairer. Did my right hon. Friend hear the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) say on the radio this morning and "Newsnight" last night that seats such as mine that have been represented by Members of the same political party for decades-that has been the case in my constituency since the first world war, not the second-are more likely to be involved in the expenses scandal? When I came to the House this morning, I
checked on that, and I have to say that more than 30 per cent. of Liberal Democrat MPs have had to pay money back because of the Legg report. Has my right hon. Friend conducted any investigations into whether there is a causal link between seats such as mine and people claiming money they should not have?
Mr. Straw: Without being tempted down that path, I say to my right hon. Friend that I, too, felt rather gypped when I heard the hon. Member for Eastleigh suggesting that, somehow, those of us who are Members for seats that the same party has represented for the past 60 years are less worthy than those who represent more marginal seats. There is a reason why my constituency has been Labour since 1945. It is not because it is a "safe seat"; it is because there have been two successive Members of Parliament, of which I have the privilege to be one, who have sought to place the interests of their constituents first and above all else. That is also true of Members of other parties, of course.
Mr. Howard: I am most grateful to the Lord Chancellor for giving way. Since he has now mentioned his constituents and the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) has mentioned the expenses scandal, can he tell us how many people who were gathered around his soap box in Blackburn on the last occasion that he was on it told him that the answer to the expenses scandal was the introduction of the alternative vote?
Mr. Straw: I am holding a soap box session this Saturday in Blackburn town centre, and I invite the right hon. and learned Gentleman to come along and ask me a question. The serious answer, however, is that very few constituents have articulated proposals for dealing with the problem of trust in politics-those proposals include the setting up of the parliamentary standards authority and the Wright Committee recommendations. People sense, however, that we need to make changes. They sense the need for greater legitimacy in our system. Above all, they want a greater and more immediate say on the system, and that is what the measure being discussed would provide.
I am sure that we will hear of Winston Churchill's dismissal of the alternative vote in the Third Reading debate on the Representation of the People (No.2) Bill in June 1931. That was the third attempt in 21 years to get a change in that regard, but each of them was thwarted not by this House, but by the Conservative majority in the unelected House of Lords. Churchill said that a decision under AV
"is to be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates."-[ Official Report, 2 June 1931; Vol. 253, c. 106.]
However, those who pray Churchill in aid need to be careful. First, as ever with Winston Churchill, he changed his mind more than once-and he supported AV in 1917. Secondly, his first preference was not for first past the post, but for proportional representation, and his "next best method" was "the second ballot", which is simply a longer, more expensive form of AV.
Let me turn to a point raised by the hon. Members for Cambridge (David Howarth) and for Eastleigh. I do not dismiss the case for PR out of hand, and I know that it has some adherents on the Labour Benches. Where elections are to a body that has a representative, not an Executive, function, I have always accepted that the case for PR is much stronger. The truth is that every system has its advantages and disadvantages, but we are of the firm view that a majoritarian system is right for the Commons.
Let me now deal with the specific question of why we propose a referendum. As I have said, this is a matter of trust. Over most of the past 13 years, I have been the Secretary of State with responsibility for coming to the House with various pieces of constitutional change. Some of them have been controversial at the beginning, but on every occasion I and the Government have sought to reach a consensus across the Floor of the House, as we did in respect of the Human Rights Act 1998, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and the provisions on party funding in 2000 and 2009, and also in respect of devolution, when the proposals were put to a referendum. I believe it is essential that changes to our electoral system-big changes, such as to the number of MPs, which I shall come on to-must be the subject of some kind of cross-party endorsement or referendum, and cannot be seen as partisan tools in the hands of an individual party.
That is how we have approached these matters in the past. Between 1997 and 2005, we could have used our huge majorities as a battering ram to disable the Conservative Opposition, but we never did so, because of the care that we, and the Liberal Democrats, have for the way our constitution operates. I must also say that the Conservatives would be willing to take part in that approach. However, let us compare what we propose, which is to ask the British people whether they wish to change the electoral system, with the Conservative party's alternative for restoring trust, which is for a 10 per cent. cut in the number of Members of Parliament, without testing the will of the people in a referendum or any effort being made-
Cutting 65 to 80 seats by crudely equalising registered voters across constituencies would unjustifiably reduce the number of seats in urban areas when we already know, according to the Electoral Commission's independent
estimate, that most of the 3 million people who are eligible to vote but who are not registered are to be found in our inner urban areas- [ Interruption. ] It certainly would be gerrymandering. It would disadvantage Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It would hit every island community. Orkney and Shetland would be amalgamated with a large part of the highlands. The Isle of Wight would be amalgamated with a large part of Hampshire- [ Interruption. ] Oh yes, it would.
"Conservative proposals mean that most constituencies will pay less regard to what most voters think of as community and natural boundaries, and change more frequently, destabilising the link between MPs and constituents."
"has rigorous requirements for arithmetical equality of population in congressional districts, but the worst gerrymandering in the developed world. Equal sized constituencies cannot produce fair votes by themselves"-
The Conservative proposals are in stark contrast with the Government's proposals. We are seeking to legislate for a referendum to give the people a say. The Opposition's aim is to butcher scores of constituencies for sordid political ends, without recourse to any independent review or opportunity for public comment. As a friend of the Conservative party and somebody who has always been concerned about its health, I offer the following thought. It plans if elected-a receding prospect-to make this change within 18 months and with no proper consultation. Once it has made the change, guess what will happen? The majority of Conservatives in government would not be fighting the Opposition; they would be fighting each other-
The Secretary of State cannot have it both ways. He cannot, on the one hand, rightly highlight the fact that the pain of the change would be shared equally across both sides of the House and then, on the other hand, say that it has been put forward for party political advantage. May I gently point out to him that the United States has gerrymandering because the votes and the selection of the constituencies and their sizes are determined by the legislatures without intervention
from any independent boundary commission? As this decision will be in the hands of the boundary commissioners, I hope that the Secretary of State will now withdraw that ludicrous allegation.
Mr. Straw: I do not withdraw that allegation, because it happens to have the merit of being true. What is more, as the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, the proposal would disproportionately hit urban areas, where there are fewer Conservative Members-although there are still some-and more Labour and Liberal Democrat Members, because of the under-representation on the electoral register of millions of voters in those areas. The hon. and learned Gentleman also fails to take account of the need for natural communities to be represented in the House.
Another point makes the Conservative proposal completely bogus. There is a suggestion that the size of this House has somehow increased exponentially. That is not true. The size of this House has increased by 3 per cent.-21 Members-since 1950. The size of our constituencies has increased by 25 per cent. over that period. The work load from constituencies of Members of Parliament, even in the time that I have been in the House, has dramatically increased. The consequence of the Conservative proposals would be to gerrymander boundaries, detach Members of Parliament from their constituencies and, where Members of Parliament exist, add considerably to their work load. That can only mean that the level of service to constituents would be less good, at a time when we should be increasing it.
Let me briefly run through the amendments and new clauses. Amendment 136 provides for a number of provisions in the Bill to come into force when it receives Royal Assent. New clause 88 makes provision for the date of the referendum and the detail of the question to be set by secondary legislation after consultation with the Electoral Commission, defines the alternative vote system that would be the subject of the referendum and defines that it will be a binary choice. New clause 89 defines the franchise, new clause 90 defines the referendum period, new clause 91 relates to the role of the Electoral Commission, new clause 92 provides for funds to be made available, new clause 93 provides a mechanism for settling accounts for expenditure, new clause 94 relates to challenges to the referendum result and new clauses 95 and 96 make minor amendments to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Amendment 137 amends the long title of the Bill. Let me remind the House that the 2000 Act contains detailed regulation to ensure fair play, including fair money, for both sides of a referendum campaign. This is an important debate. Its subject is a fundamental plank of our democracy and it comes at a time when this House is held in dangerously low regard. The Government have tabled these new clauses after considerable study and consideration.
The debate about AV has been going on for 100 years. The alternative vote takes on the considerable strengths of our system and, I suggest, builds on them. We propose a referendum, however, because we believe that it is not for us to make the final decision. It is important that the people should have that choice in a referendum. If the Conservative Opposition feel so strongly about the merits of first past the post, why do they not have the courage of their convictions? They should back the
proposals and allow the people in their constituencies, as well as those in every other constituency across the country, to make that choice-a mature and balanced choice-after detailed debate some time before October 2011. That is what we propose and that is what I believe should be supported. I commend the new clauses to the House.
The best starting point would be for the Secretary of State to take a short absence from the Chamber to look at the excellent blog site run by his son, Will Straw, on which there has been extensive polling in left-of-centre areas of radicalism about these proposals. No more than 20 per cent., he has concluded, support the alternative vote proposed by the Government and 29 per cent. want no referendum at all. Perhaps we should not be surprised to learn, particularly from a left-of-centre blog, that the vast majority of the remainder want such disparate things that it is impossible to assess what they desire. I think that the Secretary of State would have done rather well to have considered that blog first.
The Government have tabled new clause 88 at this late stage of the proceedings-indeed, at this late stage of the life of new Labour-following the Prime Minister's belated conversion to the cause of electoral reform, which he has so successfully and personally obstructed for more than a decade. For the benefit of Liberal Democrat Members, I think that it is worth recapping the history of new Labour's conversion to the cause of electoral reform.
"those who say Labour cannot win and who seek refuge from Labour's mission ahead as a crusade for change in the technicalities of electoral manoeuvring and horse-trading".
In 1997, the Government were elected on a clear manifesto promise of a referendum on electoral reform. We all know that it was a device-we know what happens when the Prime Minister promises a referendum. The Government got Lord Jenkins to devise an alternative voting system. Let us remember what Lord Jenkins thought of AV, which the Liberal Democrats will support, I assume, if they cannot get their amendment through. He said that it is "even less proportional" than the first-past-the-post system, "disturbingly unpredictable", and "unfair" to the Conservative party-not that that has ever affected Liberal Democrat and Labour thinking very much. He proposed the proportional system, AV-plus, which he thought fairer. What happened to the promise of a referendum? At that point, the Government's commitment to it completely faded away.
Mr. Leigh: May we purse the point that the Justice Secretary made about whether voters would have changed their behaviour in 1983 so that there would not have been an even more disproportionate result? If my hon. and learned Friend's constituents in Beaconsfield had been voting under AV, how could they have worked out how to vote to avoid having a bigger Conservative majority in 1983 or a bigger Labour majority in 1997? I do not quite understand what the Justice Secretary is going on about.
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