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I would like to give an unreserved welcome to Government new clause 88. Some months earlier, I tabled new clause 32, with the support of my hon. Friends the Members for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) and for Reading, West (Martin Salter), and 25 other hon. Members, and I think that we are entitled to say that we prompted and prodded the Government to table their new clause 88. That is not to say that the two
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new clauses are identical-ours, I think, is superior in a couple of respects-but if either is passed tonight, we will be content.

New clause 32 calls for a shift to AV. It recognises that that represents only a small change from a system of x-voting to 1-2-3 voting, but I do not underestimate the difficulty of getting even that small change agreed. After all, there has not been a change in the voting system for more than 100 years. Like a tractor stuck in the mud, it requires a huge effort to move it just a few inches, because we have to overcome the forces of inertia, which we have heard plenty of tonight. I therefore thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), and the Prime Minister for tabling the new clause.

I shall address the arguments and comments of the official Opposition. Often when I hear them barracking Labour Members, I know that they do not have any rational arguments. Their motto seems to be, "When in doubt, shout." The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), who has left his seat, has tabled an amendment entitled, "Simple majority voting". First past the post might sometimes be called the majoritarian system, but it is the system that we are now trying to introduce-the AV system-that is the true majoritarian system, under which the winner must have majority support. What can be wrong with that?

First past the post is like tossing a coin, in that it only really works when there are just two candidates. That is why it usually works for presidential elections in the States, where there are rules that make it very hard to have a third candidate on the ballot paper. Arguably, it worked reasonably well in this country until about 100 years ago, when there were usually two candidates per seat, but the moment there are three candidates, it becomes a lottery. We need only look at a classic example in Northern Ireland that I was discussing with my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). In seats where the Unionists and nationalists are evenly divided, if two Unionists and one nationalist stand, the nationalist is elected, and if two nationalists and one Unionist stand, the Unionist gets in. It is not how people vote, but who stands, that decides the result.

Mr. Cash: Will the hon. Gentleman, who is advancing his case for AV, recall that I made the following point to the Justice Secretary, which he did not seem to understand? Under the AV system, where a majority of 50 per cent. is the criterion for deciding whether a person gets a seat, it does not necessarily follow, as all the constitutional authorities state, that it will translate into an overall majority in the House of Commons. The crucial point about changing the electoral system is that, if the 50 per cent. rule were to apply, it should apply not only to seats, but to Parliament and therefore Government. That at least would make some kind of sense.

Martin Linton: I am enjoying listening to Conservative Members preaching proportionality to the rest of the Committee. As I understand it, they do not believe in proportionality. What the hon. Gentleman says is perfectly true: AV is perfectly fair in constituencies, but does not guarantee that the same will be true across the nation.
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However, it is a more proportional system than first past the post. There have been elections in which it has been less proportional, but all the studies have shown that overall it is more proportional. Most of all, however, proportionality is the wrong yardstick, because AV does not claim to be proportional to people's first preference; it claims to be proportional to people's first, second and other preferences. As an expression of what people want, it is far more accurate than first past the post.

I was talking about the system in Northern Ireland where results depend so much on which candidates stand for election. I do not know whether there is any truth in the apocryphal story of candidates being kneecapped on their way to present their nomination papers, but it makes sense, because of the distortion that first past the post brings to the system. Of course, that happens in Britain too. We have often heard the Conservatives blaming the UK Independence party for splitting their vote, and of course I believe that Labour would have been in power for most of the previous century if it had not been for the Liberals splitting the progressive vote.[Hon. Members: "You split our vote!"] I was expecting that retort.

We can agree, however, that that has created a massive amount of tactical voting in the system-people know that their first choice has no chance, so they vote for their second choice. People are already using their own alternative vote, therefore, only they have to do it by guesswork. The Leader of the official Opposition reacted to our proposals with what, to my mind, was sheer bluster. He called AV a crazy and ridiculous system, omitting to mention that it was the system that his party used to elect him, the system that every party uses to elect their leaders, candidates and committees, the system that elected Boris Johnson Mayor of London-with the minor difference that voters had only a first and second choice-and the system used to elect every other mayor. We have never heard any complaints about it before. It is also the system used in Australia and France, although there, of course, they do it over two rounds, and as the newly elected Glasgow MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-East (Mr. Bain), pointed out, the system is used in precisely this form in Scottish council by-elections.

Mr. Wilshire: The hon. Gentleman mentioned Australia, and I am fairly certain that it was there that somebody managed, under an AV system, to get 6 per cent. of first preference votes and get elected. Is that a system that commends itself to him?

Martin Linton: Of course, that could also be true under first past the post, but with one difference. I can think of a first-past-the-post election, although not in this country, in which somebody was elected with less than 6 per cent. The difference is that, if that freak result happened under the AV system, the result would depend on the second choices given to the other candidates, so somebody would not be elected simply with 6 per cent. of the vote.

Mr. Wilshire: Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Martin Linton: I must resist that, because I fear that we are going to go down a side issue.

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Mr. Wilshire: I am puzzled by what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Martin Linton: I give way.

Mr. Wilshire: I am most grateful. The hon. Gentleman claimed that under the first-past-the-post system, someone who gets 6 per cent. of the vote can be elected. I am puzzled. Could he explain how, with just 6 per cent. of the vote, under the first-past-the-post system, someone could win?

8 pm

Martin Linton: I am more than happy to explain for the hon. Gentleman's sake. We have never had any MP elected on 6 per cent. in this country, but plenty of Members of the current House of Commons were elected on less than a third of the vote, and one was elected not so long ago on just over a quarter. Why are we frightened of the simple majoritarian principle that MPs should have majority support?

Some of my colleagues in Scotland complain about the systems used in the Scottish Parliament and Scottish council elections, but AV has nothing to do with those systems. AV is not proportional representation; it is just 1-2-3 voting. It keeps the constituency link, it is no more likely to lead to hung Parliaments and it makes it even more difficult for extreme parties to get elected, because they need majority support. AV is also proportional to what voters want, because it looks at their first and second choices, and it does not lead to the danger of having MPs elected with only a third or a quarter of the vote.

I would invite any colleague to find a voter who objects to being given a second choice. On the contrary, the public seem to love it. For instance, "The X Factor" is a long, drawn-out version, over several weeks and several rounds, of a preferential system. Indeed, if "The X Factor" had been run on first past the post, the Jedward twins would have won, because they came top in the first round, albeit admittedly with only 10 per cent. That would have been a travesty-not only a musical travesty, but a democratic travesty, because they got only 10 per cent. of the vote.

The reason we are frightened of a system that gives us simple majoritarian rule is that we are all transfixed by calculations of party advantage. We are not just asking, "Will AV be good for the voter or fairer?"; we are asking, "Will AV help me?" I should point out that there are two very different ways of calculating what would happen under a different voting system. First, there is the static analysis, whereby past elections are rerun, assuming that people would vote the same way, even with a different system of toting up their votes. I am sure that we have all seen those analyses. However, I shall not rehearse them here, because they do not help us at all.

Then there are the dynamic analyses, where we look at what happens under different systems or in different elections in different countries. I have spent a fair amount of time writing about elections-mainly in newspapers, but sometimes in books-and I would caution hon. Members very much against believing the static analysis of what would happen. AV is a different ball game, and how people would vote would change quite a bit. Candidates with a strong tactical vote could find their first-choice vote unravelling, because there is no point in voting tactically under AV.

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Simply putting someone's results at the last election through an algorithm does not tell us what will happen. What we should look at is the dynamic analysis. Let us look at the elections held under AV-mayoral elections, Australian or French elections, or Scottish council by-elections. In all those elections, it is impossible to see any particular advantage to any party. The only clear advantage is to the voter, who gets a clearer choice. What happens in AV elections is that candidates and parties act in a slightly different way, paying more attention to other people's second choices, and that is surely no bad thing. Under AV, it is no good being a Marmite candidate-one whom the minority loves, but the majority hates. Candidates need more of a rainbow appeal. Frankly, when we look at the history of British elections over the past 20 years, is that not the lesson that we should learn from our electoral system?

Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman said that the only people who had an advantage under an AV system were the voters. That is not strictly true, is it? The other advantage is felt by very small and often quite extreme political parties, which are peculiarly disadvantaged by the first-past-the-post system. [ Interruption. ] It is true. The first-past-the-post system is not entirely fair to those parties, and that is one of its virtues, not one of its vices.

Martin Linton: If that is a virtue of the first-past-the-post system, it must be an even greater virtue of the alternative vote system, because small, extreme parties would need to have the support of a majority of a constituency-albeit on second or third preferences-which would make it more difficult for them to be elected. However, the result would be closer to what people actually want.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): The other people who would benefit from AV are all the Members of this House. Everyone would then be able to say, "I have the conditional or actual support of more than 50 per cent. of my electorate, and that gives me greater authority." In my three elections, that has happened to me only once, and unfortunately only one in three Members can say that it happened to them at the last election.

Martin Linton: Indeed. As they were speaking earlier, I looked up many of the Members taking part in this evening's debate, and I found that, with some notable exceptions, very few of them have more than 50 per cent. However, new clause 88 is important not just because a 2015 election might be fought on AV, but because the 2010 election might be fought at least partly on that issue. I want to be able to tell the voters who support change in the voting system-there are a lot in my constituency, even if there are not many in those of some other Members present-that I will vote for a referendum, and that I will vote for change in that referendum.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I have listened to my hon. Friend's analysis of AV carefully. Would he also care to reflect on one of the other advantages of AV, which is that, under such a system, the battle in any election does not necessarily coalesce around 70 or 80 key seats? People's votes count for a lot more, and therefore the contest is much more widespread, particularly under the dynamic analysis that he has presented. That means that a party wanting to put large amounts of money into a small number of seats might
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be disadvantaged. That would be a much fairer result for the British electorate, rather than having people using large amounts of money to buy the votes of a small number of people in a small number of seats.

Martin Linton: That is true. Although it would not have the same effect as a totally proportional system, AV would push elections in the direction of being more sensitive not just to the core voters of a particular party, but to the electorate in each constituency. That would focus politicians' minds on winning over the second preferences from other parties. That is a good discipline, and one that, at this moment in Parliament's history, would not go amiss.

I want AV to be an issue at the next election, so that I can make it clear to people in my constituency who want change that I will support it, and so that the referendum will happen. That will expose the shallowness of the Conservative commitment to change. There is little in this country in such obvious need of change as the voting system, and if the Conservatives oppose change, they will lose any credibility as a party of change. What is wrong with giving voters a choice in a referendum? What is wrong with expecting MPs to be backed by a majority of their voters? What is wrong with allowing voters to express a second preference? What is wrong with putting a bit more choice in the hands of the voter? The Opposition do not have answers to any of those questions.

What we are debating is a small step, but frankly we owe it to the voters. Whether we are personally involved in the expenses scandal or not, this Parliament has shaken the voters' faith in us. We have been shown up to be acting in our own interests, rather than in the interests of our constituents. Here is a classic case where we can improve the voting system-from the voters' point of view, not from ours. That is the very least that we can do to help to restore the voters' trust in the democratic system.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I will not attempt to follow the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) in detail. I want to make a brief speech, because I know that many colleagues wish to take part in the debate.

I want to make just a few points. First, I regret the fact that time is being spent on this proposal, because there is absolutely no chance of its reaching the statute book. We all know that, and that includes the Government. We are wasting parliamentary time, as this Parliament ebbs out to a rather inglorious close. Those who would like us to be properly debating the subject of this afternoon's statement-after-hours doctors services-or the issue of higher education cuts will see this as yet another example of parliamentary navel gazing. There is no public demand for this change. We are debating it for one reason only. That is that the Prime Minister feels that there is likely to be a hung Parliament-I am not saying that I agree with him-and he is offering an olive branch to another party, which he thinks might help to sustain him in office. It is cynical and as simple as that.

I shall not be contesting the next general election. I shall miss this place greatly. I have always had the great advantage of being returned with over 50 per cent. of the vote, and I believe that those of us who have always
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been in that position have a case to answer. However, the answer is most certainly not AV. If I go to vote-I dare say that this applies to most people in the Chamber tonight-I do not wish to vote for a second preference candidate. I know whom I want to vote for, and if that person and that party were eliminated, I should want time to reflect.

That is why the only other system that I would contemplate-although I am very happy with the status quo-is the one that was advanced in a brief but telling speech by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). The two-round election is a simple system, and it has a degree of fairness about it. If a Conservative voter went to the polls and found that the Conservative candidate was not in the first two, there would be time for that voter to reflect on the track record of those who remained, on their affinity with the local community, and on their views on issues that were perhaps not political but moral in nature. The voter could weigh up all those factors and cast their vote accordingly for one of the two candidates and, at the end of the day, one candidate would emerge with over 50 per cent. of the vote. I know that, under that system, there can very occasionally be a tie, but the right hon. Gentleman looks after that eventuality in his amendment.

Chris Huhne: I fail to see the advantage of the system that the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) are proposing, compared with the alternative vote. After all, under the alternative vote system, all the factors that the hon. Gentleman has just described are available to the voter in the run-up to an election. He was telling us earlier how important it is to save public money, yet he now seems to be suggesting doubling the cost of general elections by having two rounds.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I was very careful to say that I preferred the status quo, but if there were to be a change, this is the one system that would commend itself to many people. I have said this over many years in the House, in articles and elsewhere, so there is no question of my changing my mind.

My greatest objection to the AV system is that the voter has to state preferences when they really want to vote for a particular individual and, often, a particular party. They do not want to be asked for a second preference after they have cast their vote. I also find compelling the argument that there is a real danger of giving disproportionate power and influence to those who vote for fringe candidates. In his intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) was either too sensitive or, unkind people might say, too mealy-mouthed to mention the British National party, but AV has the potential to give influence to those who vote for zany parties, for silly minority parties and for downright evil minority parties. That is something that we have to take into account.

Mr. Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Patrick Cormack: I will, but I am anxious that everyone should get in, and I am conscious of the time.

Mr. Godsiff: The hon. Gentleman said that the AV system forced people to cast their votes in order of preference. With great respect, that is not true. Under
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AV, a voter may cast a single vote for one candidate. Their vote would not be invalid if they did not mark the rest of their ballot paper with second, third, fourth or fifth preferences.

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