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8.15 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack: I concede that point. One does not have to express further preferences.

My other point is still valid, however. The Government have introduced this measure for rather shabby reasons, which were brilliantly exposed by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) in his very entertaining opening speech. I do not believe that the hearts of the Lord High Chancellor and the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills)-an effective and agreeable Minister who, sadly, is not standing again-are in this. They are going through the motions because they feel obliged to do so. They are doing this with a reasonable degree of compliance because they know that, at the end of the day, these measures are not going to become law. The timetable makes that impossible. We were originally going to have four days in which to discuss the Bill; we are now on the sixth, and there will be at least one more. Then, it will have to go to another place, and because certain parts of the Bill have not been debated at all in this place, there will be a need for further thorough scrutiny and debate.

This is therefore a cynical exercise, which is taking Parliament's eye off the ball on which it should be focused-namely, the great national and international affairs of the day. As I said when we debated the money resolution earlier, this is another example of the Government treating this place with contempt and pretending to be the servant of democracy. They are not. There is no perfect system, but the one that we have at the moment is infinitely better than the one that is being proposed. The only other system worthy of consideration is the one that is the subject of the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead.

Mr. Godsiff: Although this is hardly the dominant issue on the doorstep or in the pubs and clubs, I welcome the Government's commitment to holding a referendum on the alternative vote system. I have no problem with the concept of referendums. We had one on EU membership in the 1970s, one in Scotland on the setting up of the Scottish Parliament, and one in Wales on the setting up of the Welsh Assembly. We should also have had one on the Lisbon treaty, and I voted for such a referendum in the House, unlike my friends on the Liberal Benches who were split three ways: some were for, some were against, and some did not know.

I am not in favour of the concept of proportional representation, because it results in minority parties being able to determine who will govern, and extracting their price accordingly. We have only to look at the most purist example of PR-the Israeli Parliament-to see the consequences of purist PR. I have always supported the alternative vote system because it is not PR but an improved version of the first-past-the-post system. I am somewhat surprised that those who argue strongly for the first-past-the-post system-of which I am also a supporter-cannot see that AV represents an improvement on it while retaining the constituency link.

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The essence of the alternative vote system is that the winning candidate has to get 50 per cent. plus one vote. As a number of Members have said, what can be wrong with that, when only a third of right hon. and hon. Members were elected by more than 50 per cent. of the electors in their constituencies? It also means that electors who support minority parties, particularly in so-called safe seats, can exercise their choice without feeling that their votes are wasted. As I said to my good friend, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), it allows them to have a second, third or fourth choice-depending on how many candidates there are on the ballot paper. What it does not do is force people to vote more than once. If people wish to cast only one vote for one candidate, they can do so and their vote is not invalidated. If they choose to vote for a minority candidate-as some would say, to vote with their hearts first of all-they will also have a second choice to vote with their heads afterwards.

Mr. Hayes: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged that point, which was rejected in my earlier intervention. He is right that black-hearted supporters of small parties would have at least greater influence, if not greater power. Surely, he would recognise that that is a bad thing, not a good thing, for our democracy.

Mr. Godsiff: Somebody once said that democracy is a very bad form of government, but all the others are so much worse. Democracy means that the elector has the right to choose whatever candidate they want to vote for. The party they vote for is their choice. In a democratic society, unless a party is not proscribed from standing, candidates belonging to that party are entitled to have their names on the ballot paper so that people can vote for them. That is called democracy.

Pete Wishart: Will the hon. Gentleman concede that AV actually works against smaller parties? It is almost impossible for a UKIP or, say, a Green candidate to secure 50 per cent. of the vote in an individual constituency, but they might just sneak in with 27 or 28 per cent. in a normal first-past-the-post election. AV is not going to help smaller parties to get parliamentary representation in any way.

Mr. Godsiff: I did not suggest that it did. I was arguing for the virtues of an alternative vote system as an improved version of first past the post. My good friend is arguing for a totally different system, which he is perfectly entitled to do, that he feels is more favourable to smaller parties. I understand his argument, but I am arguing for the alternative vote system because I believe it embodies the best aspects of first past the post, but also builds on and improves it. That is why I intend to support what I believe will be a sensible change.

Let me start to conclude by responding to some of the comments made about the Jenkins report. It has been said tonight in rather reverential terms, as though the departed Lord Jenkins was a totally unbiased and disinterested individual with no vested interests whatever in the single transferable vote top-up system that he proposed. It needs to be put on the record that Lord Jenkins was an outstanding and distinguished parliamentarian: he was Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1960s Labour Government; he was Home Secretary in the 1974 Labour Government; he was the Labour
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nominee for President of the European Union; and he was a founder member of the Social Democratic party, which was set up, in his own words, to "break the mould" of politics and destroy the Labour party. He was elected to this place as an SDP Member; he then became a distinguished member of the Liberal-SDP pact.

Mark Lazarowicz: Before my hon. Friend goes too far in suggesting that the Jenkins commission was a personal exercise by Lord Jenkins who put forward nothing but his own interest, I am sure that he would accept that it was a commission of all parties, including Baroness Gould, who was a Labour party organiser herself. I do not think that one should suggest that this was a Jenkins-only commission; it was a broad-based commission receiving broad support, as reflected in the submissions made to it.

Mr. Godsiff: I hear what my hon. Friend says, but the fact of the matter is that this is always cited as "the Jenkins report" and Lord Jenkins was the father of it as chairman of the commission. It is therefore right to point out, as I had started to do, that although he was a great and distinguished parliamentarian, he was hardly disinterested in the system that was proposed.

As many other Members have said, there is no perfect electoral system: all have their flaws; all have their benefits. I really believe, however, that the first-past-the-post system, as improved by AV, is a good system. It is one that the Australians use and it has served that country well. It has reflected the majority viewpoint of the Australian electorate ever since it was introduced. I very much welcome the Government's proposal this evening, which will at least allow the people of this country to pass judgment on whether they think it is a good or a bad thing.

Mr. Howard: Last week, Lord Turnbull, who knows the Prime Minister particularly well, having served as his permanent secretary at the Treasury for four years, delivered his verdict on the Personal Care at Home Bill. He said in the other place that it was

That was a devastating indictment of the Prime Minister from a former Cabinet Secretary who did not choose those words lightly. Exactly the same verdict applies to the measure before us this evening.

At Prime Minister's questions last week, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition brilliantly exposed the cynicism of the Prime Minister's deathbed conversion to electoral reform. According to the previous Prime Minister, whenever a previous attempt was made when he was in office to reach agreement with the Liberal Democrats in order to introduce electoral reform, the present Prime Minister was what Mr. Blair described as the "primary block".

Later last week, the Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee that it was not possible to introduce reform in 1998 because there was no consensus, but the reason why there was no consensus at that time was that the Prime Minister himself blocked it. No one should be under any misapprehension about the Prime Minister's motives in bringing forward this measure today. As
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Lord Turnbull said, it has nothing to do with the "merits" of the case as its only purpose is to "set a trap" for the Opposition.

Let me turn to the merits. When it comes to electoral systems, a clear choice is available. On the one hand, we can choose a system that conforms to some abstract notion of "fairness"-a concept that should perhaps be placed in inverted commas in this context, because of its many disadvantages. On the other hand, we can choose a system that is likely to deliver effective government provided by a single majority party. We cannot have both and we cannot have perfection.

It is possible to have a system that is perfectly proportional-a system that gives parties a proportion of seats in Parliament that corresponds exactly to the proportion of votes that they obtained at the preceding election. Thirty per cent. of the votes will give a party 30 per cent. of the seats; 5 per cent. of the votes will give it 5 per cent. of the seats, and so on. That is the system that is closest to the abstract notion of fairness that I described earlier, and it is the system that corresponds most closely to the needs of proportionality, which the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) has said is at the heart of the debate.

Here are some of the disadvantages of that system. First, it is completely inconsistent with any kind of constituency link-it is impossible to combine a constituency link with perfect proportional representation. Secondly, every Member elected under such a system must be elected on the basis of a party nomination, so the influence of the party at the expense of the individual Member of Parliament is immeasurably increased. That is not a consequence that would necessarily gain unanimous or even majority support in the House of Commons or beyond.

Thirdly, when such a system is in force, it tends to give wholly disproportionate influence to small, often extremist parties. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) has pointed out, the state of Israel has exactly that system. Its Government, throughout its existence, have been bedevilled by the influence of small and extremist parties, and I do not think it an example that we should follow.

Chris Huhne rose-

David Howarth rose-

Mr. Howard: I will give way. The hon. Gentlemen had better decide between them who should go first.

David Howarth: I will go first.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has said that it is difficult, or even impossible, for independent Members to be elected under proportional systems. That is entirely untrue of the single transferable vote. The Irish experience has been that it is quite straightforward for independent Members to be elected, even independent Members who have rebelled against their parties.

8.30 pm

Mr. Howard: The single transferable vote is not perfectly proportional. I am talking about a system which exists in other countries, and which represents exactly the concept of fairness and proportionality on which the Liberal Democrats place so much emphasis. I shall say more about that shortly.

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The fourth disadvantage of such a system is that the formation of a Government under it is almost always a protracted process involving backroom deals behind closed doors. During those negotiations, manifesto promises made by parties are jettisoned-as we have just heard, the Liberal Democrats do not think that that matters at all-so that it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, to identify anything resembling a covenant between the voters and the Government whom they elect.

Mark Lazarowicz: The right hon. and learned Gentleman has ably described the disadvantages of a pure proportional representation system. Does he accept that no Member today has suggested such a pure PR system? May I also point out that the PR system in Germany has given that country very stable government for some 50 years?

Mr. Howard: I accept that no one is, for the moment, proposing a system of that kind, but that is the only system that provides perfect fairness and perfect proportionality. It must be recognised that those who do not want a system with those disadvantages cannot have a perfectly proportional system. It is not possible to have a system that complies with the abstract notion of fairness, of which we hear so much from the Liberal Democrats and which is so beloved by advocates of electoral reform.

Mr. Gummer: I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will not avoid answering the question posed by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) about the system in Germany. Because of that system, the smallest party achieving sufficient numbers has had the Foreign Secretary for most of the period since the war, and the Free Democrats are always over-represented.

Mr. Howard: My right hon. Friend is, of course, absolutely right.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The right hon. and learned Gentleman has rightly pointed out that all the arguments in favour of AV, or moving from AV to proportional representation, are about fairness. However, we in Northern Ireland know that when such a system is used not only for electing people but subsequently for forming a Government, we are left with a Government who are divided and indecisive. Rather than enhancing the standing of the legislature in the eyes of the people, that indecision reduces their confidence in the system. That is the fundamental weakness of what is being proposed here tonight.

Mr. Howard: In fact, the hon. Gentleman exemplifies the unpredictability of the system that is being proposed here tonight.

The principal alternative to proportional representation is, of course, first past the post, whose great merit is that, much more often than not, it delivers a Parliament in which one party has an overall majority. That creates at least the possibility-although not the certainty, as we have seen in the past 13 years-of firm and effective government. It preserves the constituency link; it gives Members of Parliament an individual mandate; the formation of a Government normally takes place immediately after the election; and it makes it more difficult for extremist parties to gain power. Now, it
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does not, of course, comply with the abstract notion of fairness that I have previously described. Indeed, it can be very unfair. At the last general election, for example, although the Conservative party obtained more votes than Labour in England, we got 92 fewer seats in England. That extreme unfairness would be remedied to some extent by the proposals in new clause 99, which I welcome, but those proposals would not extinguish that unfairness completely. I believe, however, that that is the price that has to be paid in order to obtain the advantages of first past the post.

The Government's proposal seeks to find a compromise between these two models and, like most such proposals, it falls between two stools. It delivers neither fairness nor the advantages of first past the post. It gives wholly disproportionate power and influence to those whose first preference is for the least popular and least representative option before them. I do not believe that we should introduce a system that gives disproportionate influence and power to people who have those views. They are perfectly entitled to have those views, and they are perfectly entitled to vote for parties that represent those views, but I do not see any reason why we should give them disproportionate influence and power by giving them the opportunity to vote again and again and to have, perhaps, the decisive influence in the decision as to which candidate should represent their constituency. The Government option gives us the worst of all worlds, therefore.

Mr. Wills: I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is aware that this system is used in London, although with slight variation, but does he accept that the nightmare he is conjuring up did not take place in London?

Mr. Howard: No, it did not, and it will not happen every time; of course, there will be many occasions when AV will not actually produce that dangerous outcome, but the potential of its being produced is inherent in the system, and it is maximised in an election of Members of Parliament and a potential Government.

Under the system the Government propose, instead of coming to this place as the first choice of their constituents, Members of Parliament would be sent here as their second, or even third, choice. It is a recipe for a second or third-best Parliament, and a second or third-best Government. That is the last thing our country needs, faced, as we are, with our greatest challenge for a generation or more. For those reasons, I hope this misguided, misconceived and mistimed proposal is decisively rejected by the Committee this evening.

Mark Lazarowicz: My starting point for this discussion is as somebody who has supported proportional representation for more than 20 years. I support it simply because it is a fairer, more democratic system. It is neither fair nor democratic for us to have a system under which a party with a relatively small minority of votes can be rewarded with a clear majority of seats. That is unfair for both the parties involved and the electorate, whose wishes are therefore not accurately reflected in the make-up of Parliament. No system is perfect or perfectly fair, but I have long believed that we should move to a fairer and more democratic system. That is what we should be seeking to do.

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