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9 Feb 2010 : Column 825

Mr. Hayes: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will put the answer to my question on the record once again, because he may have made a slip of the tongue, and I want to be fair to him-I am always fair, even to Liberal Democrats. Is he making it clear tonight that the critical thing for Liberal Democrats is that the system is preferential and that he is not so concerned about proportionality? We have heard from the Liberals for years about proportionality, but in the end, when push comes to shove, is proportionality less important to them than a preferential system?

David Howarth: The hon. Gentleman exaggerates the extent to which AV is disproportionate or worse than first past the post-sometimes it is, but not always. As I said a few moments ago, it is very difficult to predict the effects of AV, because first-preference votes will change. For us, it looks like progress, even if it is a small amount of progress, because it is precisely what the hon. Gentleman says: a preferential system. That is a small gain, but one worth having.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I note the hon. Gentleman's pain and his great concerns about voting with the Government for new clause 88. I share that pain-my party will also very reluctantly support the measure. In Scotland the hon. Gentleman's party is also reluctant to support a referendum on Scottish independence, even though that has majority support in Scotland. The proposed referendum on electoral reform has no public support whatever. Why is he against a referendum in Scotland and why will he not allow the Scottish people a choice, yet he is prepared to support a measure that nobody wants and a referendum in which no one has shown any interest in voting?

David Howarth: I fear, Sir Alan, that if I stray into that debate, I will be brought up short very quickly. The holding of a referendum is not in itself a particularly massive gain. I do not remember there being a referendum to bring in first past the post-it is the starting point simply because it is the status quo. There is a bias in favour of it simply because it is there.

I should like to mention one thing about the Prime Minister. I heard what the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield said about the Prime Minister's previous views on electoral reform and I agree with the former's position. That is another reason why I suspect the proposal is a manoeuvre. The hon. and learned Gentleman referred to the diaries of Lord Ashdown. I appear in those diaries, especially in volume 2, with a degree of accuracy for which I would not entirely vouch. Nevertheless, it was true at that time that the Prime Minister was seen as a fundamental block to reform. But, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) pointed out in the debate on the money resolution, the question before us is not whether the proposal comes from a cynical or a bad source, it is whether the idea itself is worth supporting.

7.30 pm

It is true, however-I fully concede this-that AV has a large number of disadvantages. It is not very proportionate. It can be less proportionate, but proportionality is, for us, an important measure. It does not seem to be an important measure for the Conservatives when they support first past the post, and I am glad to welcome them to the camp of those who believe that proportionality is an important aspect of fairness in an electoral system.

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It is true that very few seats proportionally would have changed hands under AV at the last election, if we make certain assumptions about whether people would have voted for their first preferences in the same way and what their second preferences would have been. In the end, however, there is one advantage to AV, which is that it ends tactical voting. The hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris) was of the view that Liberal Democrats are the main beneficiaries of tactical voting- [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that AV formalises tactical voting. What it does is end the need for tactical voting because people can vote in their real order of preference and do not have to guess about a situation in which they are voting for their fourth choice in order to keep out their fifth choice. That is an enormous advance for the legitimacy of the electoral system, because people are able to express their real political views in a way that they have not been able to for many decades.

Mr. Cash: The hon. Gentleman referred to the Paddy Ashdown diaries. To take forward my point about cynicism and tactical voting, would he be interested to know that from C. P. Scott's diaries it is clear that in his discussions with Lloyd George in 1931, the object of the exercise was a deal to create a Lib-Lab pact for two years from 1931?

David Howarth: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no such pact now.

The AV system is not proportionate, it does not allow a choice of candidates between members of the same party, and it still allows safe seats. Those, for us, are major disadvantages. STV, the system that we propose in amendment (b), solves all those problems. STV is simply AV in multi-member constituencies, but it is far more proportionate. The results overall from Northern Ireland, for example, show a very high degree of proportionality, even in seats with four or five members. The Scottish local government version is less proportionate. That is because it uses smaller seats with smaller numbers of members. In practice, across the whole country, if there were constituencies with between one and six members, the result would be a very high degree of proportionality.

What is the advantage of proportionality? That is at the heart of the debate about whether we should move to a proportional system, as opposed to AV, and at the heart of the problem of legitimacy. That is why the Secretary of State was right to mention legitimacy. It is not a peripheral issue. The real problem with our politics is that this place is politically unrepresentative. It is so unlike the politics of the country that people do not recognise it. People here do not think so, but they wouldn't, would they?

The situation is like that before the Reform Act of 1832. The Members in that Parliament thought they were perfectly representative and there was no reason for reform. But we cannot go on with a political system under which unpopular Governments are elected by a little more than a third of those voting and push through policies that two thirds of those voting have just voted against. The Governments of this country-all of them-are unpopular the day they are elected.

Mr. Winnick: The hon. Gentleman referred to the Great Reform Act, when there was great agitation to end the corruption that existed at the time. Although
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there can be endless debates about our system, which he considers to be illegitimate, where is that agitation in the country? I support the amendment proposed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but to compare the situation around 1830 to bring about change with the current situation is farcical. There is no overwhelming wish for a change among the electorate. They may wish it, but it has not expressed itself in any way, and it is doubtful whether many letters are received by the hon. Gentleman on that matter.

David Howarth: The sentiment is expressed through a disaffection with politics and a hatred of politicians. To see the effects of that, we must go back to what happened after the start of the Iraq war. Millions marched and then said, "But the politicians paid no attention to us." That is where the danger is for our politics as it is currently set up.

Mr. Jeremy Browne: Is not the crucial change that in the 1950s the combined Labour-Conservative vote rose as high as 97 or 98 per cent. of the electorate? In those circumstances, one can see that a system designed for two parties may give an outcome that broadly reflects public opinion. At the last general election, the combined Labour-Conservative vote fell below 70 per cent. for the first time since the second world war. In the European elections last year, admittedly on a different electoral system, the combined Labour-Conservative vote for the first time fell below 50 per cent. In other words, more people did not vote for what used to be called the main parties than did. Under those circumstances, it is becoming increasingly difficult for either Labour or Conservative MPs to make a compelling case for an electoral system that rewards with absolute power parties that can command the support of only about a third of the electorate.

David Howarth: That is a very good point.

Mark Lazarowicz: With respect, it is not a good point at all. The first-past-the-post system was not good at representing the view of the electorate. In 1951 the Labour party received the votes of a higher proportion of the electorate than it ever had, yet we lost the election to the Conservatives. The system was not fair even in those days.

David Howarth: The hon. Gentleman is right. First past the post did not work even in its own terms. The one thing that is said about it is that it allows electorates to throw Governments out. One often hears that argument, but even that is not true. In the last eight elections since October 1974, on six occasions the majority of those voting have voted to kick the Government out, yet found on the day after the election that the same Government were still in office. A proportional system cannot have a worse record than that.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): My hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that the first-past-the-post system does not work even in its own terms. I can give the example of February 1974, when Ted Heath went to the country and said, "Back me or sack me." Under the terms of the first-past-the-post system, more of the electorate voted for him than for any other party, but he still ended up sacked.

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David Howarth: So the argument works the other way round as well.

The Secretary of State made an important and serious point about the function of general elections. It is a point that I should deal with before concluding. He said that in elections for electing an Executive, it was important to have a decisive system, whereas in elections for a more representative body which was not involved in Executive decisions, a less decisive, more proportional system was appropriate. That is the heart of the problem-we cannot carry on with the myth that a general election is about electing a Government from parties competing on the basis of their manifestos and then claiming a mandate to govern. That is fine when the winning party has 45 or 50 per cent. of the vote, but it makes little sense to anyone when the winning party has 35 per cent. of the vote. That is even laying aside the fact-obvious to everyone in politics-that no one outside the political bubble reads manifestos. There is no mandate. The mandate to govern that the current Government claim, on the basis of their majority in this House, is illusory, and the public know that.

Mr. Tom Harris: Why is the current system so much less democratic than a proportional system in which, as soon as the polls close, the parties meet behind closed doors and start trading off the manifesto commitments on which their parties have just won the election?

David Howarth: The hon. Gentleman demonstrates the obvious fault that I mentioned-the parties did not win the support of the public on the basis of their manifestos, because no one reads the manifestos in the first place. It is a myth. What happens in countries with proportional systems is that, yes, the parties get together to try to create a Government with majority support-and that has some chance of having the moral authority to govern. We do not have Governments with that moral authority now.

Mr. Howard: In the light of what the hon. Gentleman says, will he give us an assurance that the Liberal Democrats will not produce a manifesto for the forthcoming general election?

David Howarth: I wish that I could give that assurance. Manifestos are mainly for internal consumption- [ Interruption. ] That is the reality that people do not seem to be willing to accept. Manifestos also lay out for the civil service the likely programme of a party. However, we must get away from these myths if we are to win back the trust of the public.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman's remarks, and agreeing with much of what he says, but is not the fundamental point that unless we decide what the electoral system is for-and different societies make it for different things-we will never agree on which form is right? If we want a rough and ready way to find a representative or to see a Government emerge, we will probably think that first past the post or an AV gloss is all right. If we think that its function is to match votes to representatives, we will prefer a proportional approach. Until we decide the fundamental question of what we want our electoral system to do, we will just go on reciting our favourite nostrums.

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David Howarth: That is the central point, and that is why the Secretary of State was right to raise the point about what we are elected to this House to do. I do not think that we are electing an Executive: we are electing a representative legislature. That is a fundamental point that divides people. However, even if we were electing an Executive, first past the post does that very badly in a multi-party system, and results in Governments who are so lacking in legitimacy that we should revise our opinions of first past the post even in that case.

7.45 pm

Daniel Kawczynski: The hon. Gentleman talks passionately about proportional representation, but he knows that we do not have a history of grand coalitions between the two major parties. If we had more proportional representation, the Liberal Democrats, with a relatively small number of votes, would always be in government.

David Howarth: I do not consider more than a fifth of the vote to be a small number of votes. It does not follow that a party in second or third place is automatically in government. The hon. Gentleman says that we do not have a tradition of grand coalitions, but that is because we have first past the post. Under a different system, we would have a grand coalition fairly often, because of the similarity of view on many subjects between the two parties.

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): Does my hon. Friend share my view about the parochial nature of much of the debate from the Conservatives and from many Labour Members? They imply that the world would fall in if we had an electoral system in which the votes cast actually resulted in proportional representation. Last year, I talked to Labour MPs from New Zealand, where they have switched from first past the post to STV, and they said that it worked fine. Denmark, Holland, Sweden, Norway and Germany are prosperous societies with successful Governments, and they all use proportional representation. What is the problem?

David Howarth: My hon. Friend is right that the debate here is often extraordinarily parochial. The idea that one can point to individual countries-Italy versus Germany, for example-to prove one way or the other that a system does not work is very simplistic. Looked at more broadly, no obvious objection to a more proportional system can be drawn from international comparisons. However, we need to look at the political situation in this country now, and how changing the electoral system could give our Governments more legitimacy than they have had for many years.

Mr. Wilshire: It is a myth that we do not have grand coalitions in this country. What a first-past-the-post system does is create the coalitions before an election. The Conservative party certainly has two wings, as has the Labour party, and the Liberal Democrats have the Liberals and the Social Democrats. Are not those coalitions?

David Howarth: The hon. Gentleman's argument is more on my side than on his. As we already have coalitions within parties, would it not be better to make that more explicit and have a political system in which the public can see the different political views that are being put into the formation of a Government?

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The amendments that we propose fall into two groups. Some are associated with amendment (a) and have to do with the date of the proposed referendum. The other set of amendments comes under the rubric of amendment (b), which is all about the topic that we have been discussing so far-whether the referendum should be between AV and first past the post or STV and first past the post. Amendment (b) proposes STV instead of AV. It is an argument for an STV referendum that those of us who are prepared to vote for an AV referendum tonight are not entirely enthusiastic about it. Would it not be better to have a referendum between first past the post, which has some enthusiasts here, and a different electoral system, which has many enthusiasts here? A referendum between two competing views that have enthusiasm behind them is likely to have a higher turnout and engage the public more than a referendum in which that is not the case.

The Government have to decide whether they really want to have this referendum or whether this is, as other hon. Members have implied, simply an exercise in gesture politics or even a case of setting up an opportunity to send out target letters. If the Government were really serious about the proposal, they would be setting it up so that an incoming Conservative Government could reverse the duty to have a referendum only by a full Act of Parliament. New clause 88 means that it will be possible for an incoming Government simply to propose the necessary statutory instrument and then defeat it using their majority. At that point, the entire duty to hold a referendum disappears.

By having the date of the referendum way into next year, it is possible to remove the duty to have a referendum by using the Parliament Act, without having a majority in both Houses. The effect of amendment (a) would be to change the date by which there must be a referendum to May next year, so that, because of how the Parliament Act works, inevitably it would be less than 13 months from the Second Reading of any repeal Bill. A repeal Bill could not, therefore, be forced through using the Parliament Act.

This is a test for the Government. I admit that on amendment (b), on which I would very much like to divide the Committee, there seems to be an obvious political difference about which electoral system to adopt and put into the referendum-AV or STV. There are clear differences of view on that. However, amendment (a) is about a different issue, on which I would also like to divide the Committee, if the opportunity arises. It is about whether the Government really are serious about this or just playing games. I very much hope that they are not playing games and that this is a serious proposal.

Martin Linton: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth). I shall be considerably briefer than him, even if it means taking fewer interventions.

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