Previous Section Index Home Page

Martin Linton: I know that my right hon. Friend has 65 per cent. of the first preference votes in Birkenhead, and I compliment him on that. Does he recognise that there are already millions of voters in hundreds of constituencies who know that their first preference does not have a chance and therefore vote for their second preference? We already live in a system where millions
9 Feb 2010 : Column 819
of people use the alternative vote, but they have to guess who the top two are going to be. Does he recognise that in the majority of constituencies the situation that he has described does not obtain, and that we need a solution to tactical voting, which is the alternative vote system?

Mr. Field: If that is my hon. Friend's thinking, I hope that I will persuade him of the merits of my amendment. I do not want anyone to think that I am not concerned about the fact that votes are not equal between constituencies. If we go back in history, one of the demands-it was not just a radical plea of the Chartists, but one that was picked up on the other side-was to have single votes and equal votes. It is clearly very different if we look at the numbers by which Labour Members and Conservative Members are elected. Unfairest of all is how many votes the Liberal Democrats have to receive to get a single Member of Parliament.

In my amendment, I propose the French system, whereby people have a vote whereby they are free to nominate any number of candidates that they wish, and they have a first preference vote. In constituencies where the candidate gets 50 per cent. plus one, they are declared elected. In all the other constituencies where a majority of the voters who turn out have not elected a member, during the following week the top two candidates are put back on to the ballot paper. In those circumstances, there is no need to guess, because everybody has first preference votes again. It is true, of course, that that system might be more expensive, but given what we spend money on now, might not the electorate prefer it? Interestingly, it is consistently the case in France that turnout on the second day of polling is significantly higher than on the first day.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I am following my right hon. Friend's remarks with care. I wonder whether he has studied some of the analysis by the Electoral Reform Society. When it conducted a survey of different sorts of preferential voting systems a couple of years ago and looked at the French experience, particularly in the presidential election, it found that there was precisely the kind of tactical voting that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) has mentioned. In particular, supporters of Chirac lent their votes to Le Pen to ensure that the run-off was between Le Pen and Chirac. That was a rather strange situation that did not really represent what was going on elsewhere. There is evidence of similar things happening in the presidential elections in Cyprus. Why does my right hon. Friend think that that would not happen here?

Mr. Field: I am not putting this proposal forward as the silver bullet to solve all the problems. I welcome the fact that the Government, even late in the day, are opening up the whole debate on parliamentary reform. It is crucial that we constantly strive to improve the form of representation that we have in this country. I do not think for one moment that it would guarantee that we did not get such results, although such voting is dominant mainly in elections of the French Parliament, not the French President. Given those circumstances, I hope that we will look seriously not only at the one option that is being put forward today but at a series of alternatives in the form of a debate rather than moving to a resolution this evening.

9 Feb 2010 : Column 820

Bob Spink rose-

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op) rose-

Mr. Field: As the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) has been jumping up a lot, I will give way to him and then to my hon. Friend.

Bob Spink: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. If he presses his amendment with the three alternatives to the vote, I will vote with him. On the AV system, does he accept that voters will not easily switch their allegiance between the main political parties, so the real political advantage will go to independents? Does he think that that might be a good thing, and that people might want to have more independents in this House in order to break the grip of the Whips from the main political parties?

Mr. Field: It is always good to have a disinterested contribution made here.

Mr. Drew: Much as I have difficulty with this proposal, because it is based on the French system, does my right hon. Friend agree that we would need to take the whole package? French national politicians also have local representative roles, and I have always felt that one of the weaknesses of the UK system is that we have to throw away our local power base to get elected as an MP. That is a weakness, is it not?

Mr. Field: I will not go too far down that path, except to say that I have been in the House for 30 years, and it is interesting how the role of an MP has changed. Although we may not formally have the role that my hon. Friend has mentioned, my role as Back-Bench Member of Parliament representing a moderately safe seat-as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) was kind enough to point out-has changed out of all recognition in those 30 years. We do not have formal clout, and we are not elected to positions, but I am involved at a local level to a degree that would have been unimaginable when I first came into the House.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): That is true of all of us.

Mr. Field: Indeed, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for saying so.

I want to bring my remarks to conclusion, if I may. I welcome the Government's opening up this debate. It is not for us to put our sticky fingers into the soul of the Justice Secretary to try to work out what his motives are; we are all accountable for our own motives. In any event, good will come from our having a debate about how we can make this place more representative.

I do not believe for a moment that this is a serious legislative contribution, because even if we complete it in time, a deal will be done between the parties in the other place so that it does not see the light of day, and certainly so that it does not come back to us before the election. What we ought to take from today's debate is the extraordinary enthusiasm for the matter. In which other debates do we get such a number of Members in the Chamber, even at Committee stage? We are interested in this issue, and I say to the Justice Secretary that today is the start of it, but sadly not the conclusion.

9 Feb 2010 : Column 821

David Howarth: I am sorry that I do not agree with either of the points that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) made. That is unusual for me, because usually I agree with his points. The first was that under preferential voting systems, people effectively have more than one vote. That is not the case, because as the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) pointed out, they have one vote but are effectively asked what they would do with it if their first-preference candidate were not standing. That is called tactical voting, which happens all over the country in every general election, but in a preferential voting system it is done more formally and rationally, and people do not have to guess.

The right hon. Gentleman's second point was in favour of the French system. I am sorry that I cannot follow him on that either, even though, unlike the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), I am generally a great admirer of all things French. The electoral system in France has had an unfortunate effect not just on its politics but on its culture and way of life, because it has split the whole country into two large camps of left and right. France suffers constantly from that, and we should not go down that route. It would have the effect-perhaps many Members would welcome this-of taking us back to a bipolar system that is very difficult to break into. It is very difficult for new views to come through in such a system.

It seemed to me that the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) had only one argument, which defeated his own case. It was that he was against AV because it could be less proportional than first past the post, which is true. If he accepts that argument, he should therefore accept that as the single transferrable vote system, for example, is more proportional than first past the post, it is better and fairer according to his own argument. The Conservative case therefore seems self-contradictory.

Mr. Gummer: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that many of us believe that despite its disproportionate drawbacks, the advantages of the first-past-the-post system are so great that it is better than any proportional system? It is perfectly possible to argue that proportionality is the only reason why one might want a change, and that this is the one disproportionate way of changing the system. It is therefore utterly barmy. To have a choice between first past the post and some sensible, proportional system, so that people could make a reasonable decision as to whether the advantages of one system outweighed its disadvantages, would be perfectly reasonable. However, to choose between one disproportionate-

The Chairman: Order. I know that there are complex arguments to be put in Committee, but I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that that is an extraordinarily long intervention and may deprive himself and others of the time that they will need later.

David Howarth: I am trying to remember the start of the intervention. It seems to me that one cannot argue that first past the post balances the disadvantages of disproportionality and the advantages of decisiveness in such a well-calibrated way that any movement either way is obviously wrong. That does not make any sense, especially as everyone admits that we cannot tell precisely the degree to which AV would make a difference. We
9 Feb 2010 : Column 822
cannot answer that question, because preferential voting is like tactical voting but carried on in a different, more organised way. If tactical voting is unwound and people start to vote for their first preference, they will be voting in a way that they do not now. That is why it is perfectly reasonable to say that we do not know what the effect of the AV system would be.

Lynne Jones: Those of us who feel that we ought to move to a more proportional system cannot support the Liberal Democrat proposal, because it would break the link between the Member and the constituency. I would find it absolutely onerous to be a Member of Parliament representing the whole of Birmingham, for example, along with other Members. Why are the Liberal Democrats not supporting the proposal put forward by the royal commission, which is well thought out? It would move towards proportionality but by and large keep the link between even the additional Members and their constituents.

7.15 pm

David Howarth: There are two points to consider in the hon. Lady's question. The first is whether the single transferrable vote would break the constituency link, which it would not. It would just mean that there were more Members per constituency. It would break the one Member, one constituency link. For 17 years I was a local councillor and there were three members in my ward, but I did not feel that that meant I represented the people in my ward less. In fact, when a member of another party represented the ward for a few years, it increased competition between the parties in the ward and made us all better representatives.

The hon. Lady's second point was about the Jenkins commission's proposal, which was a political compromise but not one that we have to stay with for ever. It has a great number of disadvantages. First, it would set up two entirely different sorts of Member-the constituency Member and the list Member. There would be an overlap of responsibility between the two, but they would have very different mandates, which would lead to difficulties. Secondly, because the county seats would be so small-the lists would not be national; they would relate to very small regions by the standards of most regional list systems-the proposal would create the most extraordinary conflict of interest between AV-elected Members and county list Members. It would be in the interests of a list Member if his or her party colleagues lost in the constituency seat, which does not seem particularly sensible from the point of view of political parties or coherent government.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): The situation that the hon. Gentleman describes applies under the additional Member system in both Scotland and Wales, and the most reasonable commentators do not see any difficulty with that system. If it works well in Scotland and Wales, why cannot it operate at UK level for this Parliament?

David Howarth: I concede that it is a better system than first past the post, but a lot of the problems are about how big or small the electoral regions are. The larger they are, the less problem there is with the overlap between the jobs of the two sorts of Member, and the less it is in the interests of list Members that people on their own side are defeated in the constituency elections.

9 Feb 2010 : Column 823

Mr. Cash: Does the hon. Gentleman accept a point that I have addressed to him and the Secretary of State, that advocating proportional representation is an attempt to obtain more seats? In a way one can understand the Liberal Democrats taking that view-there is a sort of cynicism there, but it is an understandable one. Does he also accept that in the heady days long ago when Lloyd George had a big majority, he said that proportional representation was

Then in 1931, Lloyd George changed his position, and in an electoral reform Bill proposed the alternative vote. Does the hon. Gentleman not see a little cynicism in all this?

David Howarth: It comes as no great surprise that my great leader Mr. Lloyd George was accused of cynicism on occasions, but nevertheless there is equal cynicism in the Conservative party, which argues for first past the post solely because it gains such a disproportionate advantage from it.

Mr. Tom Harris: The hon. Gentleman said earlier that the STV system does away with the single-Member, single-constituency link, but that is not quite true. The Liberal Democrats have tabled new schedule 3, which proposes new multi-Member constituencies. For instance, under that proposal, my seat would be subsumed into a seven-Member Glasgow seat with an electorate of 500,000. Some of those Members would, of course, be from minority parties. However, Argyll and Bute, with an electorate of 68,000, would remain a single-Member constituency, as would Orkney and Shetland, with an electorate of 35,000. Can he tell the House to which party the current Members for those constituencies belong?

David Howarth: Our proposal would do the same for the Western Isles, which is held by the Scottish National party. In any circumstances, there are certain geographical limits to the size of a seat. That is why, in any preferential system, there must be a range in the sizes of constituencies. One can have bigger seats in urban areas while retaining a sense of representing a geographical area than one can in rural areas, especially the thinly populated marine areas of the sort the hon. Gentleman mentioned. On the whole, the proportionality of the STV system comes from urban areas, because there are larger numbers of Members in those seats. That has always been the case. The proposal in 1916 was precisely that there should be STV in the cities and AV in the countryside, so it is not new.

Daniel Kawczynski rose-

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab) rose-

David Howarth: I will give way to the hon. Gentlemen later, but I want to make some progress-I have not even started my speech yet.

Although new clause 88 is far from perfect, for reasons that I will seek to explain, and although we will seek to amend it radically, we will support it in the Lobby, at least so that it is read a Second time. According to the rather peculiar procedures of this Committee-compared, for example, with local government-the only way one can press an amendment to the new clause to a Division is if the new clause is read a Second time.

9 Feb 2010 : Column 824

Why are the Government proposing a referendum between AV and first past the post, and not between the latter and a more proportional system? To that extent, I agree with what Conservative Members have been saying.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con) Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

David Howarth: In a second. Why have the Government come to propose such reform so late in the day? It looks like a manoeuvre to me-a death-bed conversion. In Cambridge in 1997, I was obviously identified by the Labour party as a Lib Dem voter-I was a Lib Dem councillor, so I suppose I was rather easy to spot. I received a targeted letter from the Labour candidate-all parties send them-who expressed her undying support for a referendum on electoral reform. She asked me to vote tactically for her on the ground that a Labour Government would deliver electoral reform, or at least a referendum on it.

Mr. Frank Field: What did you do?

David Howarth: I did not believe her, and given that 13 years later, no referendum has happened, I am inclined to the view that I was right not to do so. I suspect that the reason why the Prime Minister has come round to promoting a referendum again is precisely so that Labour candidates can send out more of the same kind of letters. This time, I suspect I will not be the only one not to believe them.

Mr. Heald: After all these years of going on "Question Time" and other programmes saying that the Liberal Democrats want proportional representation, does it not feel a bit odd to the hon. Gentleman to be arguing for disproportional representation? Why are the Liberal Democrats going to vote for something that Lord Jenkins and so many other commentators have described as unfair and disproportionate?

David Howarth: We will vote for amendment (b) to Government new clause 88 so that the referendum is between first past the post and a proportional system. What will we do if that is defeated? Although the new clause is a very small step in the right direction, there are two truths. First, changing the electoral system is on the political agenda, which is a big and important point for us. Secondly, AV is a preferential system, which we are in favour of. The system we support-STV-is a preferential system, but it just happens to be proportional as well.

Daniel Kawczynski: In my discussions with the Electoral Commission, it has stated that it is possible to argue that we already have so many different types of voting systems that it causes confusion for certain people. In addition, we have not sorted some of the concerns about postal ballots. Is it not better to sort out and rationalise some of those problems before we get on to the subject of voting systems?

David Howarth: No. We should just get on with doing the right thing, which is to move to a fairer electoral system that is proportionate and preferential.

Next Section Index Home Page