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This is the issue: amendment (d) will be put to the vote later and defeated. I forgive myself for turning to a role of prophecy, but I think that I can say with some certainty that the amendment is going absolutely nowhere. What then are those hon. Gentlemen from the Liberal Democrats going to do? How on earth are they going to
justify voting for a system that is less proportionate than first past the post? I heard the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), their Home Affairs spokesman, say earlier today that they would support the alternative vote system in the referendum because it represented "baby steps" towards proportional representation. It is no wonder the Prime Minister thinks that the Liberal Democrats were born yesterday.
Time after time, the Liberal Democrats are succoured by broken promises of electoral reform, but there may be another reason for their support. Again, if we turn to the ready-reckoner in the Ministry's review, which the Minister has, we find that, although the alternative vote system is less proportionate overall, it would significantly benefit just one other political party apart from Labour. [Hon. Members: "Who?"] It would benefit-surprisingly-the Liberal Democrats, giving them more seats. So they must think that we were born yesterday if they think that we are going to support such a proposal.
Mr. Jeremy Browne: The hon. and learned Gentleman has spent his entire speech arguing for the merits of a system that is disproportionate and gives one-party government, and arguing against AV because it is more disproportionate than first past the post. Should he not have spent more time preparing his speech?
Mr. Grieve: There is no perfect system, although I am bound to say- [ Interruption. ] No, there is not: there is no perfect system, and I defy the Liberal Democrats to argue that there is. I do not put it past them to try to run such an argument, which I look forward to, but I am singularly unconvinced by it. First past the post delivers clarity; it is well established in this country; and it enables electorates to get rid of Members whom they do not want and express a clear choice. The alternative vote system, with which the Liberal Democrats are being seduced, skews the result towards far greater unfairness than anything that first past the post could ever achieve.
Chris Huhne: The hon. and learned Gentleman says that the existing system allows people to get rid of MPs whom they do not like, but they can do so only if they are prepared to change their party allegiance. Many people are not prepared to do so, and only the Irish system-the single transferable vote system-allows people to choose the party and the person. Indeed, one third of people who lose their seats in the Irish system lose it to members of their own party. That is discipline; that would get rid of safe seats; and that would ensure that voters' choice really did count.
Mr. Grieve: Voters can make up their own mind, and I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Voters are offered a clear series of choices to make, including whether they wish to vote tactically-something that Liberal Democrats specialise in. On the whole, that is not a major problem and, indeed, they benefit from tactical voting, as they readily admit. Their by-election literature is all about tactical voting. How often have I seen "Only the Liberal Democrats can win here" on election literature. The hon. Gentleman's argument therefore has no basis whatever.
The new clauses before the Committee would not impose the alternative vote system on the British people, but give them a choice. As far as I can tell, the hon. and learned Gentleman has not used one
word of his speech to oppose those clauses, so, if he is so confident of his opinions, why is he scared of putting them to the British people?
Mr. Grieve: I refer the Secretary of State to his son's blog. [ Interruption. ] Yes, I do. I commend it to the right hon. Gentleman, because it highlights the fact that the Government have not chosen to give the electorate any viable choice in this bogus referendum. The only choice is between an established system and a system that is so manifestly flawed-except for the possible short-term advantage that it delivers-that it is not worthy of consideration. I have some sympathy with the Liberal Democrats, because, if the Government wanted to offer a constitutional convention-style approach to the electorate, with a multiplicity of choices, the Secretary of State's argument might have some force. At the moment, however, it has none, because what is being offered is a short-term gimmick.
"you know the best way of electing a Labour government? Not through messy, sordid little deals with the minor parties, but by winning more votes than the Tories. That's how they stayed in power for most of the last century-by beating us in elections; by offering the electorate policies that were more popular than ours."
"we simply reinforce the notion...that we have nothing to offer the voters but electoral calculations."
"the ERS analysis assumed that in the 2005 election relatively few voters who principally favoured another party would have put them"-
"as second choice."
Mr. Grieve: I have not the slightest idea. The Minister is now getting bogged down- [ Interruption. ] But he is. He wishes to embrace that document, so why have the Government come to the House to say that there should be a referendum on moving from the first-past-the-post system only to an alternative vote system? The Minister cannot escape that issue, and it highlights the way in which the Government have conducted the whole debate. That is why I shall ask my colleagues, and, indeed, every Member who wants any sensible debate about electoral reform, to reject the proposals before us.
Mr. Wilshire: On my hon. and learned Friend's point about why only one alternative voting system would be offered, does he not think that if AV were such a good idea the Government would come forward with a list of opportunities and, using AV, tell the electorate to put them in some kind of order?
Mr. Grieve: Yes, my hon. Friend makes a good point. The evidence of the Government's motivation is overwhelming, and it comes from their own supporters. Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, a founder member of Charter 88, said:
"It smacks of the usual scheming and calculation-just what political reform should be designed to end."
"Many people like myself who have long fought for a truly representative voting system will be left with no alternative but to support first-past-the-post because the AV alternative is even worse...Those voters who have backed one of the two strongest candidates in a constituency get no further say in the process, whereas those who have voted for minor parties and crank candidates then get a second vote to determine the outcome between the two leading parties."
"First past the post is the only sensible system"-[ Official Report, 16 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 156.]
"the alternative vote system...can be even more disproportionate in its effects than the first-past-the-post system"-[ Official Report, 16 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 155.]
As I said at the beginning, this proposal is guff. As was rightly highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), the straightforward point is that the Government know very well that this debate is going nowhere. We are now on the sixth day of the Committee stage of a major constitutional Bill. The House is about to break for 10 days. There will have to be Report and Third Reading, and there is not the slightest prospect of this legislation's reaching the House of Lords before the very end of the month or early March for Second Reading. On all the evidence, this House will finally have died into Dissolution by the end of March or early April.
All the posturing that the Government have fed us this evening, all their insistence on the importance of party loyalty from their own Back Benchers-many of whose views I respect and many of whom are clearly unhappy with the proposals-are for the shortest-term political advantage. With spin, a bit of media management and some smoke and mirrors, the Government try to make out that this is something new in new Labour. In fact, as far as I can see, it is the dying jerks of a Government who have run out of ideas. That makes it all a bit miserable, but the fact that the Liberal Democrats are prepared to sign up makes it a complete charade. We will oppose the proposals.
The Chairman: Order. This is not the moment to move amendments; we have to dispose of new clause 88 first. The right hon. Gentleman can, of course, speak to the new clauses and amendments in this group.
I want to pick up the theme on which the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) ended and which the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) noted earlier. I hope that whoever is in the control box allowing what we say today to go out on the network has already pulled the plug in that it must be worrying for our constituents to watch us seriously debating a measure that we know will not affect legislation, the election result or whether we have a referendum.
In tabling my amendments, which I cannot yet move, Sir Alan, I hoped to turn this debate into a general discussion of parliamentary reform. One theme unites many of us on both sides of the House-the uncomfortable fact that a large number of us are returned to the House with only minority support. What we do about that is the beginning of the debate, not the end of it.
What worries me about the proposals that we are debating is that it is not difficult to imagine some of our colleagues initially being clear winners against three or four other candidates, but, through a process of elimination, losing their seats because the votes eventually go to the runner-up. There is a terrible illogicality in having a system in which a candidate can have a clear lead in the first-preference votes, but in which the second or third-preference votes become equal to the first-preference votes in further stages of the counting. Clearly, those other votes are not equal to the first-preference votes; if they had been, people would have voted differently in the first place.
Mr. Hayes: The point that the right hon. Gentleman has made is disturbing enough when it involves the extra power that would be gained by those whom we deride on the Liberal Democrat Benches. It is chilling, however, when one considers that it would also give extra power to those whom we detest in small, extreme parties that I shall not honour by naming.
Should the plug in the control box not have been pulled and should our constituents be watching this debate, they will think how old-fashioned it is that the only way in which we are talking about election is in respect of the old parliamentary system. There has been a big debate in the country about how we select candidates. Some people have an objection to safe seats; the answer, surely, is to consider seriously-not necessarily embrace-paying some attention to the mechanisms by which we select candidates.
My own seat of Birkenhead is quite safe-it was at the last election, at least. The real fight is about who will be the Labour candidate. I would welcome our having an open primary, in which there was a real contest for the Labour candidature; everybody would know that the person who won that would also win the seat. The
quid pro quo would probably be that we would move back to seeing uncontested returns in "safe seats" where open primaries were held.
Mrs. Laing: As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is well aware, the Conservative party has held several open primaries to select candidates. They have been very successful and produced excellent candidates, who will be excellent MPs.
Mr. Field: We hope that they will be excellent candidates and MPs. Having been selected in that way, they will certainly have a different authority from that of the rest of us. That is why I wish that we had embraced that system. I wrote to the Labour party campaign, asking whether it was going to have an open primary. I was told that it would love to, but that it would cost £50,000. I asked whether it was possible to find that money, but I was told that the campaign was in the business not of raising money, but of issuing press releases. That did not take us much further.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): I support what the right hon. Gentleman has said about open primaries. Does he agree that, particularly at a time when participation in politics and political life is at an all-time low, anything that brings more people into the political process is devoutly to be welcomed?
Mr. Field: It is. One of the constraints on our current debate has been our use of an old-fashioned set of spectacles, always looking at engagement as being only one-way, rather than looking at where the voters might be. The selection of candidates, as the hon. Gentleman has affirmed, is one key way of addressing that.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): My right hon. Friend has already accepted the dangers of the costs of an open-primary system. Does he not also accept that, in logic, a primary system is essentially a process of electoral elimination, whereby weaker candidates fall away and those who support them end up helping to decide who finally wins? That very logic has been criticised in the alternative vote system. Surely the real issue is about how we get to a point at which every Member can truly say that they have a measure of mandate from a majority of their constituents. That gives us the alternative vote.
If what used to be called safe seats adopted a method of open primaries that were followed by uncontested results at the general election, the overall cost to the electoral system might not be that much greater. In other words, we would be using some of the money
currently used in a general election to extend- [Interruption.] It is very good, is it not, that we now see where the Liberal Democrats stand on this issue? They are laughing at the idea of people trying to grapple with how we make it easier for our electorates to make their views sovereign in the process rather than ours.
Graham Stringer: My right hon. Friend has obviously thought very deeply about we can address the disillusion with politics. However, is not this a particularly difficult time to go to the electorate and say that we want more money for the internal political process? Even in a seat like Birkenhead, if a Labour candidate is selected by an open primary, we cannot guarantee that there will not be a succeeding election and therefore an extra call on money from the public purse.
Mr. Field: I agree with that. However, given my earlier suggestion that we should use this debate not seriously to undertake a major constitutional measure but to open up how we make our system more representative, no cost would be involved at this stage.
Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): I think that there are dangers with open primaries. Supporters of the Opposition parties may turn up and vote for the weakest candidate, or there may be a candidate with a particular interest-for example, a pro-life candidate-who floods the place with their supporters. This could end up being very undemocratic.
The Chairman: Order. The right hon. Gentleman has a reputation for bringing new angles to our debates, but I think that this one might be stretching outside this group of amendments and new clauses, which, heaven knows, raises wide enough issues.
Mr. Field: I hope, Sir Alan, that you will nevertheless allow me to conclude this part of my speech. During the open primary in Totnes, the Liberal Democrats set out to try to get the person they considered to be the weakest candidate elected, and thanks to their campaign the weakest candidate came bottom of the poll. We must not underestimate the common sense of our voters.
The amendments try to address the central weakness of the proposal that the Government wish us to carry tonight-that a system of voting whereby second, third and fourth preference votes in constituencies where there is no majority winner then become, in a progressive movement, first preference votes. I do not believe that one can support that system.
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