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9 Feb 2010 : Column 843

The alternative vote system is not a proportional system, of course, but although it can in some circumstances distort results more than a first-past-the-post system, it also has some advantages. As my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) has pointed out, under it every MP could say that they had the positive support of half the electorate in their constituency, which most MPs cannot say at present. Also, although it is not a proportional system, when electoral support is evenly balanced between parties, the AV system is likely to stop one party having an overall majority when the votes do not justify that. I accept that when one party is particularly popular or unpopular, it can exaggerate the effect, but overall I would argue that the alternative vote system is more likely to lead to a result that reflects voters' wishes. That is certainly the case when the parties are more evenly balanced. It also has the advantage of keeping the constituency link, which I think is important, and, as has been said, it takes away the need for people to vote tactically. They can vote as they want to in a particular constituency for a particular election.

As I have said, the alternative vote system is not a proportional system. That is why I support some form of additional member system, such as those used in Germany, Scotland and Wales and that recommended in the Jenkins commission's report. That is why I tabled an amendment in those terms that, unfortunately, will not be voted on tonight.

As some form of additional member system is not on the agenda tonight, I am happy to support the Government's proposal for a referendum on the alternative vote system. As it is moved prior to the election, it might become law by the end of this Parliament. There is an assumption that it will not become law, but it will not become law only if there is obstruction to the proposal by the other place, if it passes through this House. I hope that all parties will see the benefit, if this House so decides, of supporting the opportunity of giving voters a choice in a referendum.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House where the demand for this electoral change is coming from? Why are we dealing with it at a time when the life of this Parliament is running out? Why is it urgent now?

Mark Lazarowicz: A referendum would of course take place at some stage before 2011. My position is clear-I support a move to a fair electoral system. I would have liked it to have been proposed earlier, but better late than never. I certainly would like to see it go forward at this stage.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I am finding intellectual inconsistency in what the hon. Gentleman is proposing. From his point of view, I can see the merit, as shown by his amendment, in moving from AV to a top-up system, but given that we will not be voting on that and that he has said that he will support the Government, it seems to me that the alternative vote does not fulfil any of the requirements that he has just set out about being more proportional or fairer. I am at a loss to understand why he will still support it.

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Mark Lazarowicz: I sought to express-perhaps not clearly enough for the hon. Gentleman-that I think that the proposal has some advantages. I also believe that overall it would be more likely to lead to a fairer result. It means, as I have said, that MPs would have a stronger mandate in their constituencies, which is important. I also support a move towards an AV system, because, bluntly, I feel that if we move towards that system, we will in due course move further. I think that we will move to an AV-plus system once we have opened the door and had the debate. I believe that we will move in due course to a more genuinely proportional system, which I would welcome and would like to see introduced.

Of course, another amendment will be voted on, which is that proposed by the Liberal Democrats. It would introduce a single transferable vote system. That is a position that has some attractions for those who want to move towards a proportional system, if AV-plus is not on the agenda. However, my experience of the way in which STV has worked in local government in Scotland leads me to believe that it would have many drawbacks as a system, if it were to apply here in the UK. It does not lead to the rather idyllic picture that we have of voters choosing between the candidates of different parties-voting in a primary, as it were.

The Scottish situation shows us that in most cases in local government, one of two things has happened. First, when one party is able to get more than two members elected under the STV system in a local government ward, the strongest argument in a candidate's favour is not how they behave as a member but whether they are called Anderson or Young. In 90 per cent. of the cases in which two members were put up by the same party but only one was elected, it was the one whose name began with the letter that came earlier in the alphabet who was elected rather than the one whose name came lower down the alphabet.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that also happens in multi-member first-past-the-post council elections? I have seen it happen many times that someone whose name is earlier in the alphabet gets elected, while their colleague further down the list does not.

Mark Lazarowicz: Indeed, but the effects would be much smaller in a first-past-the-post, or first two-past-the-post, system than in an STV system, as I think the hon. Gentleman would accept if he examined the way in which that system works.

Another situation applies in Scotland that is relevant with a three-party system, which we have in most parts of the country, and with a four, five or even six-party system, which we have in some places. Instead of putting forward two candidates to give voters a choice, political parties put forward only one because they know that they will get only one in, and they do not want to risk neither candidate getting in because of some accident in the voting system. As a result, most members' seats are safer under the STV system than under the previous system. Let me give an example. My local government ward in Edinburgh has four councillors-in order of votes, a Labour member, a Scottish National party member, a Liberal Democrat and a Green. If either the Conservatives or Labour were doing particularly well, they might displace the Green and get the last seat, but
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three out of those four seats will almost certainly be held by Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats for ever, because whatever those members do, they will not lose their seats as long as they keep with their party.

The argument about the STV and giving voters a choice between candidates in the same party might well apply when there are large numbers of candidates for particular seats, or where there are not two, three, four or five-party systems, but I urge the Liberal Democrats and any Labour Members who support the STV system to look at how it works in Scotland. They will find that it does not bring the democratic advantages that they think it does. For that reason, I will not support the proposal for an STV system today. I hope that the proposal for AV goes forward today and that it will be a move towards a fairer and genuinely democratic system-a true system of proportional representation for election to this House.

8.45 pm

Pete Wishart: I rise not to support this modest measure, but to mock and disparage it. Of all the electoral reforms that this Government could have brought forward, these are about as modest and timorous as any Government could propose. Let me be clear: as we have heard in many fine contributions to the debate tonight, the proposals would do nothing to improve proportionality and would not bring us any closer to delivering or securing fairer votes. As I said in my intervention on the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff), who is no longer present, the proposals would instead act against smaller parties. There is very little chance of smaller parties such as the Greens or the UK Independence party securing anything like 50 per cent. of the vote, so an AV system would not be in their interests, but they might sneak into a constituency at the next general election with 25 or 26 per cent. of the vote in a first-past-the-post system. There is no way that they will get more than 50 per cent. of the vote, so AV will in no way practically assist smaller parties.

However, we will support the measure, even though it is one of the most modest and timorous electoral reforms that the Government could have proposed, because it will give individual electors in our constituencies greater choice. It will empower them that little bit more and will allow them to make positive choices about how they vote, and we will support them in all of that. We will also support the measure because it gives the-perhaps misguided-impression that this is one of the first steps along a road of greater electoral reform. I note that some Labour Back Benchers-not many have contributed to the debate, although many have commented in the press-have said that they believe this change to be a start on the slippery slope to full PR and constitutional reform. It is worth supporting solely on that basis.

As a number of Members-most notably the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz)-have said, we in Scotland have got used to electoral reform. We have had full electoral reform: we have the additional Member system for the Scottish Parliament and an STV system in local authority elections. Both of those systems deliver fair votes and are totally proportionate. As the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said, a lot of guff has been spoken here tonight about Scotland. There have been no complaints about our system of PR in elections to
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the Scottish Parliament, except perhaps from Labour Back Benchers from Scotland who lament the fact that they are losing their presence-their vast, incredible Labour majorities on a minority of the vote. They lament the fact that proportional representation has come to Scotland, and they continue to deride and decry our system of proportional representation in the Scottish Parliament.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith was obviously right to mention some of the shortcomings and shortfalls of STV in local authority elections, but he would have to concede that local councils in Scotland now reflect how votes are cast. People from Edinburgh to Shetland see local authorities that represent how they have voted. That is a vast improvement in the town halls, which were dominated by Labour members who won an absolute minority of the votes.

Daniel Kawczynski: The hon. Gentleman speaks in favour of proportional representation, so does that mean that he was happy for the Scottish minority Government's budget to be held up by just two Green MSPs?

Pete Wishart: With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, it was not held up by just two Green MSPs. It was held up by the Labour party, the Liberal party and two Green MSPs.

One of the benefits of the proportional representation system in the Scottish Parliament is that it has given the Conservative party influence in Scotland. It has been able to say-consistently and probably with some justification-that it can influence some of the Scottish Government's actions and decisions. That is how minority government works. It is a good and positive thing. It should be embraced. All the claims about majoritarianism and the need for absolute majorities in Parliament ignore the positive influence that smaller parties can secure, which can be a good thing. The argument is always about how we must have overwhelming majorities in this House, yet that is what we have had for 13 years and what has been the result? Has the legislation that the Government have produced taken us forward? I would argue for a coalition Government or a minority Government any day, if that were able to deliver real results.

It is an outrage that the first-past-the-post system in Scotland means that Labour can secure almost 70 per cent. of Scottish MPs on something like 40 per cent. of the vote. The alternative vote system will not do anything to address that electoral abuse, or to make it possible to have real contests in individual constituencies.

I am interested in the whole concept of referendums, because we have been trying to have a constitutional referendum in Scotland for the past two years. We have wanted the Scottish people to have a choice about their future, but we have been told that that was not possible or desirable. It was claimed that giving the Scottish people a choice about the nation's future would cause the sky to fall in and lead to Scotland's instant demise.

The Labour, Liberal and Conservative parties have all resisted the option of allowing Scotland a constitutional choice about its future. The most fundamental reason given-and it has come from every Labour Member, from the Prime Minister down- is that we cannot have a constitutional referendum because of the recession and the economic downturn.

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However, all that is put aside when it comes to the modest constitutional referendum being proposed tonight. It is not even an issue, or anything to be concerned about: we can go ahead and have the referendum. I am sure that, when they watch this debate, the Scottish people will be able to see through what is going on. They will see that the Labour party is happy to have a constitutional referendum on a proposal that is no more than a modest, timorous little piece of constitutional tinkering, but that it is not prepared to give them a real choice about the future.

I was out canvassing in Perth, like most hon. Members-although by that I do not mean that others have been canvassing there, at least I hope that they have not. I do not think that one person came up to me and said, "The big thing that I am interested in, Mr. Wishart, is more choice in my constituency. I am really fascinated by what the Prime Minister had to say about the alternative vote system." Nothing like that happened, but what people do still ask is, "When are we getting a referendum in Scotland? When are we getting our choice?"

It may be true that not everyone wants Scottish independence, but up to 60 per cent. of the Scottish people want to have their say in the future of Scotland and how our nation should go forward. Why is it all right, therefore, to have a constitutional referendum on this modest proposal but yet deny the Scottish people the real choice about their futures?

We will support this modest proposal tonight, for the reasons that I have set out. We will not play the same game as Labour and say that we will get in the way of the referendum. I believe that it is right for Governments to allow people to have a choice on these issues. I respect the Government's decision to put the referendum to the UK people, but I just wish that the Labour, Liberal and Conservative parties would allow the Scottish people to have the same choice about their future on a much more important question. This is all about trusting the people. I am prepared to trust the people with the Government's proposed referendum on AV. Why do the Government not trust the Scottish people with the constitutional future of the nation of Scotland? One rule applies in this situation; it should apply across the board.

Mark Durkan: Several hon. Members have spoken about fairness and proportionality, and on that basis I support the Liberal Democrat amendments. People have referred to the Irish example, and I am very familiar with the electoral system in the Irish Republic and the similar-although until recently not exactly the same-version of the single transferable vote system that we have in Northern Ireland. The Irish people mandated that system for us when they voted for the Good Friday agreement, which promised that the Northern Ireland Assembly would be elected on the basis of STV for the very good reason that people wanted it to be fair, inclusive and proportionate. So I have strong sympathies with the Liberal Democrat case.

When it comes to council by-elections in Northern Ireland, Dail by-elections in the south and the election of the Irish President, STV morphs into and, in effect, runs as an alternative vote system. It stands out as a very good thing when it comes to electing a key figurehead,
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such as a national President, because people want the person who embodies, and is meant to epitomise, the values and spirit of their country to have the clear endorsement of at least a majority of its citizens. The alternative vote system, as a result of STV, has those benefits, but I am realistic enough to know that the real issue tonight will not be about the single transferable vote and first past the post.

In many ways the real issue is not even about an outright choice between the alternative vote and first past the post; it is about whether, in principle, there should be a referendum that at least puts the choice before the public. Parliament has been embarrassed not just by the facts of the expenses scandal, but by the ridiculous fact that none of us has been able to explain or excuse outright, first, how information was suppressed for so long, then, how things were handled and mismanaged and, even now, the confusion about what reforms there will or will not be. Parliament voted for an Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and received the Kelly report, but now there is confusion about which measure stands, which will be revised and which will not. So at a time when we as a Parliament are open to ridicule, it is the height of arrogance for us to decide that the public should never have the right to say, "There might be a better way of electing people to Parliament so that MPs might have a bit more credibility after all this."

The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said that we have to decide what Parliament is for-why we elect MPs. It is not just for us to decide why people elect Parliaments, however; the public can decide. If the public are given a referendum on such an issue, they will have a say on the quality of the mandate that they want their MP to have. The public will have a right to say whether they are able to trust themselves to express an honest first preference and considered second and third preferences, or whether, for their own ideological reasons, they just want to plump for one candidate.

We should give the public the choice to have that choice, rather than say that they cannot cope with it. Some Members cannot cope with choice because they cannot cope with filling in forms and justifying things, but that does not mean that the public cannot cope with clear and honest choice. So long as we have the first-past-the-post system, electors will be locked into situations in which they have to calculate possible tactical votes while being browbeaten by all sorts of propaganda about who is the only person capable of defeating another party. People are often misled: they do not cast their honest preference and support parties with particular policies; they surrender their vote on the purely negative ground of trying to prevent somebody else from being elected.

Rather than putting things in the hands of those who come up with the best propaganda and the most misleading graphics on electoral trends, surely it is much better to put things in the hands of honest voters-not the dishonest spin merchants working on behalf of political parties. We should make sure that the election of an MP is not decided by the people who control all the party lists and manage things. We should make sure that the overall election outcome is not decided by the parties' targeting of swing voters in the battleground constituencies, who become the only people to determine elections.

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9 pm

I have heard a lot from Conservatives about how under the alternative vote system everybody's vote is not the same and how it means that those voting for small parties end up having a bigger say than those who vote for big ones, but that is not true, because everybody's vote counts equally in the end. The people supporting a system with unequal voting are those who defend first past the post, under which the election will be decided by a very small fraction of targeted swing voters spread throughout the UK in marginal constituencies. Let us be honest about some of the arguments being made.

I have a particular reason for wanting to move to a more proportional system; if the only one effectively on offer is the alternative vote, I shall vote for that this evening. My reason is to do with the experience in Northern Ireland. When we negotiated the Good Friday agreement, one of the things that some of us did, late in the negotiations-particularly when the then Prime Minister Tony Blair was present-was to argue that we also needed a different electoral system for the Northern Ireland seats at Westminster.

We argued that on the grounds that, if we were to make the power-sharing Assembly work and to make inclusion work, and if we were to create a new political ethic, we would not have very much success if every time a Westminster election came along we were convulsed back to sectarian impulses-having to vote orange or green. The thinking would be, "Which Green candidate is most likely to beat the Orange one?", or, "Which Orange candidate is most likely to keep out the Green one?"

In Northern Ireland, we still find ourselves constantly drawn and sucked back to those sectarian, tribal instincts. Some of us are committed to trying to allow politics to move on and to bringing about the emancipation of a new political ethic in Northern Ireland; it will be bad for that project if we stay stuck with first past the post, which keeps us trapped in sterile arguments.

In the 2001 Westminster election, Sinn Fein ran an essentially geo-sectarian campaign of "greening the west". Some of us made the honest choice not to go into sectarian electoral pacts; we believed that the parties should stand on their own distinct principles and we were fighting our cause. My party suffered as a result of that principle, because the instinct was, "We have Unionist MPs in a number of constituencies in the west of Northern Ireland who represent only a minority of the electorate." That fact was deeply resented and led to people saying to us, "If you're not going to stand out of the way, sorry but we are going to bypass you and vote for Sinn Fein so that we can take the seats." That has not particularly helped the political atmosphere in Northern Ireland; it does not give voters a full and honest choice.

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