Previous Section Index Home Page

9 Feb 2010 : Column 807

Mr. Grieve: I am extremely uncertain what the Justice Secretary is going on about. My view, particularly in the light of his remarks about the state into which the House has fallen, is that the electorate want the opportunity to express their views, and that if they happen to have a very adverse view of a Member of Parliament, they will want that Member to be removed. The last thing that they want is a situation in which the person against whom they have an adverse view comes second, but then magically comes first when the alternative votes are transferred.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Does my hon. and learned Friend remember that the assessment of what would have happened in 1983 and 1997 was not a party political assessment, but a cold, academic assessment? It said that the results in both cases would have been much less proportionate than what happened under the first-past-the-post system and would have meant substantial over-representation.

Mr. Grieve: I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend and I apologise if I did not do justice to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) made when I replied to his intervention. I accept entirely that the research that has been carried out on this matter shows clearly, as I have illustrated in terms of the electorate's will, that the system skews the results of elections in a way that is manifestly unfair.

David Howarth: I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way because he has just given away my party's whole case, which is that proportionality and fairness are the same thing. If he does not believe that, why does he care about the point that the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) made?

Mr. Grieve: I believe in the first-past-the-post system and that the Secretary of State, in terms of his adherence to the alternative vote, does too. That is what distinguishes my party from the Liberal Democrats, who have been clamouring for proportional representation for a long time because that is the only way in which they might wield any influence.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Grieve: Let me make some progress. I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but I believe that the first-past-the-post system delivers clear, clean results. That is why my party has consistently adhered to that system, whether it has been to the party's advantage or disadavantage to do so. That is more than can be said for the Government, as is clear from the inconsistencies in the way they are operating.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I remember the last time that the Justice Secretary came before the House to change an electoral system. That was some years ago, when we changed to the list system for European elections. I remember clearly the argument about changing behaviour, which was that turnout would go up when we got rid of the first-past-the-post system. In fact, the opposite happened, so changed behaviour can be bad rather than good.

Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend is quite right. The list system has effectively destroyed European elections for all practical purposes in the minds of the electorate, and is one of the great disasters that we have visited upon the country. That is reflected in low turnouts and the
9 Feb 2010 : Column 808
contempt that people feel about what is now a sort of Buggins' turn system that is dictated by the political parties.

Chris Huhne: While the hon. and learned Gentleman is extolling the virtues of the first-past-the-post system, will he answer the question that the Justice Secretary refused to answer? How low would the Government's share of the vote have to be for the hon. and learned Gentleman to regard the system as illegitimate? Would it have to be lower than 35 per cent., which is what the Government had?

Mr. Grieve: It seems to me that it is a legitimate system whatever the percentage, because the electorate are asked a perfectly straightforward question-who do they wish to represent them? It gives the majority view on a single person. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman cannot see that. The system is straightforward, simple and requires people to make sensible choices about who is likely to be elected and who they might therefore wish to support. For those reasons, I think that the system is extremely clear and commands widespread support.

In my constituency-I make this point also in the context of the Liberal Democrats-I get very few representations about changing the electoral system. I suspect that the same is true for many hon. Members. The more that people study proportional representation systems, including purist systems such as that in Israel, the more they must conclude that such systems saddle countries with impossible legislatures, that no proper governance can be carried out under them and that they bring inertia. For those reasons, PR does not commend itself to me.

Mr. Pelling: Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Grieve: In a moment. Let me make a tiny bit more progress.

I was just pointing out that when the first great reform went into the sands, it was the leader of the Liberal Democrats who pointed out that it was the then Chancellor, the current Prime Minister, who blocked it. The current Home Secretary has said that Labour

I fear that the Justice Secretary is moving towards that position again, because the only conclusion that one can reach from the incoherent proposals before us is that they are seen to have a narrow party political advantage for the Government. Many Government Back Benchers, however, can see that the proposals are seriously flawed.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Surely, if there was a bias in the elections that have been mentioned, it was not in the voting system but in the second preferences of Liberal Democrat voters. The answer to that for the hon. and learned Gentleman must be to broaden his party's appeal and not to deny voters a choice.

Hon. Members: Voters have a choice.

Mr. Grieve: I agree that voters have a choice. Frankly, I am singularly unconcerned about the Liberal Democrats' preferences or tendencies, or about where they will go for a second vote. I am by no means persuaded that the
9 Feb 2010 : Column 809
hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) is right. The evidence from my constituency is that it is most improbable that Liberal Democrat voters would exercise a second preference vote in favour of a Labour candidate, but things might be different in other places.

Bob Spink: Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Grieve: In a moment.

When the Prime Minister took office in 2007, he promised to publish a review. In 2005, Labour announced that it was conducting a review, and in 2007 he said that he was going to publish it. This is a key issue because he did not make any attempt to hide the fact that the report had already been written. In fact, it was effectively locked in the Justice Secretary's bottom drawer. There was a problem with the 2005 review because even though its terms of reference were to look at the voting systems that were used, someone, in conducting the review for the Labour party, seemed to have asked the team to look at the alternative vote as well. The conclusion that the review came to was that the AV was capable of producing even more disproportionate outcomes nationally than the first-past-the-post system.

Mr. Redwood: What is fair about a system that means that those who vote for the first or second-most popular parties only get to vote once whereas those who vote for the third or fourth-most popular parties get to vote twice? Why should they get to vote twice if the rest of us are not able to?

Mr. Grieve: I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. I was not going to quote Churchill, but it seems to me that that is a problem that he correctly identified in 1931-the disproportionate weighting that the system would give to the views of those who are idiotic or ridiculous.

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Grieve: In a moment.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): On that point, given what the hon. and learned Gentleman has just said, what is his position on the Conservative party's system for electing its leaders?

Mr. Grieve: I thought that we had sorted this out in interventions on the Secretary of State. We are talking there about electing a single person to an office, not about electing a Parliament. In any event, it is not an alternative vote system, as only two people go to the electorate. The electorate do not have a choice between more than two candidates in the first place.

Chris Huhne: Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Grieve: In a moment. [Hon. Members: "Frit!"] I am sure that there is a desire to interrupt an account of what happened in 2007, because it highlights the full extent to which the Government cut the ground from under their own arguments.

9 Feb 2010 : Column 810
6.30 pm

In January 2008, the Secretary of State published his review, from which the section on the alternative vote system had mysteriously and conveniently disappeared. However, anyone who bothered to read the detail would see that the review provides a snapshot of what would have happened at the 2005 general election, had it been run under a variety of voting systems. Helpfully for the Prime Minister, on page 130 it also provides a useful ready reckoner. It considers in depth the d'Hondt method, the least-squares proportionality system and Arrow's paradox, but what was plumped for was the only system that would have given Labour even more seats than first past the post at the 2005 election. I might add that the same system was the only one that would have given the Conservative party fewer seats than in 2005-even though, in England, we gained a majority of the votes cast.

Mr. Donohoe: Will the hon. and learned Gentleman address the anomalies north of the border, where there are four different voting systems? Is it Tory policy to have only one there-the first-past-the-post system?

Mr. Grieve: From the many debates that we have had on Scotland, the hon. Gentleman knows that we are respecters of the devolution settlement. I am happy to debate reform of the first-past-the-post system there, and indeed the Secretary of State has tried to debate that too, but our respect for devolution means that, notwithstanding our support for reform, we would not impose a new system. That is something that must be determined by the Scottish Government and electorate.

However, I do share the view of the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) in one respect. When I visit Scotland, the people to whom I speak are not, on the whole, Conservative party supporters. My experience is that there seems to be a great deal of dissatisfaction with the electoral system that has been foisted on the Scottish electorate, who appear to be deeply unhappy with it. For those reasons, I believe that the Scottish system is something that the House ought to heed, as it does not offer a good reason why we should go down the same road.

Chris Huhne: On that point, will the hon. and learned Gentleman say whether he regards the Conservative party's Scottish representation in Westminster as fair?

Mr. Grieve: Yes, it is fair. I have no difficulty with the first-past-the-post system for Westminster elections, as I have made clear. The fact that my party in Scotland has very poor representation in Scotland is a challenge that we must do something about. If we cannot, we will continue to have very poor levels of representation-simple as that.

Mr. Pelling Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Bob Spink Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Grieve: No.

Mr. Wills: Before the hon. and learned Gentleman moves on, he has made great play of the review of voting systems. I have the document here-

9 Feb 2010 : Column 811

Mr. Grieve: I do not.

Mr. Wills: Then he should not quote from documents with which he is not familiar. In the introduction to the scenario to which he has just referred it states:

That is precisely the point that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman accept that we cannot be so arrogant as to presume how voters will vote under a new system that is different from what has been in place in the past?

Mr. Grieve: I understood the Secretary of State to say that he assumed that people would vote differently. That is another piling-on of assumptions, and I do not think that this House should legislate on the basis of such assumptions. All I can do is point out what the report says, including the fact that it makes it clear that the alternative vote system would have delivered more seats than the first-past-the-post system for Labour in 2005, even though it only gained 36 per cent. of the popular vote. That seems to me to be a very poor starting-point for change in that direction.

Mr. Gummer: Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that it is very difficult to decide how people would have voted in any past election? However, is it not sensible to try to take the best estimate of that, rather than one that comes out of the air? The document makes it clear that, of all possible systems, the alternative vote system would have been more unfair than first past the post on every occasion.

Mr. Grieve: Yes, I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. I presume that the Minister of State was speaking on behalf of the Government, so it is astonishing that he should rise to his feet and say-suddenly and almost ex improviso-that the Committee should not follow that series of assumptions. We have to make a judgment, on the basis of what the evidence suggests.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Does my hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the Secretary of State once understood that himself? The unfairness described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) has to do with proportionality. When the previous Labour Prime Minister flirted with these matters, the Secretary of State said that first past the post, and similar systems, give

I wonder why he changed his mind about that.

Mr. Grieve: I have a soft spot for the Secretary of State, and I have to tell my hon. Friend that I wonder whether he really has changed his mind. The way that the new clause has been introduced, the length of time that it took to germinate, the internal debates that clearly took place at parliamentary Labour party meetings and the sounds that one could hear coming out of the Room where they took place-all of that rather strongly suggests that the Secretary of State was fighting a rearguard action against a Prime Minister who was both losing the plot and taking leave of his political senses in a desperate bid to stay in office.

9 Feb 2010 : Column 812

Sir Patrick Cormack: Is not the greatest absurdity of all the fact that the Secretary of State knows full well that there is no chance of this Bill becoming law? There is no time for Parliament to pass the legislation before the general election, so are we not merely going through a ridiculous charade?

Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. There is something somewhat unreal about this, and I shall return in a moment to considering why the Government have acted as they have.

Mr. Redwood: Labour and Liberal Democrat representatives seem keen to say that we use the alternative vote system for our internal party elections, but we do not. The system used for our leadership election is the progressive rounds model, under which one candidate drops out at each stage, with everyone being given a vote on the remaining candidates. That could not conceivably be adopted for general elections, as having six or seven candidates at the start would mean that the election would take about three months. The electorate would get bored, and the costs would be massive.

Mr. Grieve: I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend, but this is not the first time that we have had surreal proposals from Labour Members.

I want to return to what has happened recently. Last week, after 13 years in power, only weeks away from a general election and with the Secretary of State's party behind in the polls, the Prime Minister decides that he is going to break yet another promise. Whereas he previously said that he would put a commitment to a referendum on AV to the people at a general election, and notwithstanding his party's internal debates, he is now going to introduce the system in this Bill.

It is very difficult to take seriously a person who is dithering around for what is clearly nothing more than the shortest-term possible political advantage. Why did the Justice Secretary go along with this? Did the Welsh Secretary twist his arm? Did the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport pull rank on him? I find it incomprehensible why somebody with the common sense of the Secretary of State would decide to go down that road, and I feel truly sorry for him.

Bob Spink: Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Grieve: No, I really must make progress.

The Liberal Democrats have tabled amendment (d) to give the public a choice on the proportional representation system that the Liberal Democrats have long and consistently campaigned for. As I said a moment ago, that system would lead to weak, unstable government, to minority parties holding the balance of power on a tiny fraction of the vote, and to extensive parliamentary representation for madmen and extremists. The Liberal Democrats have supported PR for a very long time, but I long ago realised that in matters of rationality the Liberal Democrats do not surface very much.

Next Section Index Home Page