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Now, the Conservative party says that it will come into Northern Ireland so that everyone, regardless of background, can vote for secular politics and for parties of national government. Of course, the Conservatives start off with a kind of "new force" axis with the Ulster Unionist party and then they seem to dabble in discussions about a more pan-Unionist pact that might be offered. The party is trapped in that situation, despite what might be its honest good motives; I do not know about those, but I am not here to cast doubt on them. The Conservative party finds itself dragged into that precisely because of the first-past-the-post system. If the party is
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honest and serious about coming into Northern Ireland and making a new, honest offer of its manifesto, the only way in which it will credibly do that is if it supports a change in the first-past-the-post system.

Sammy Wilson: The hon. Gentleman is a strong advocate for the proportional representation system, but he is over-egging his argument if he thinks that it is a way of moving away from people voting on the basis of a Unionist preference or a nationalist preference, given that the vast majority do not transfer between Unionists and nationalists even in a PR election. His other central argument was that having a more proportional system, or an alternative vote system, would increase the credibility of this place. Does he accept that the credibility of this place is not based on how people are elected but on how they behave once they are elected, and that therefore a change in the electoral system would make no difference?

Mark Durkan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point, but I do not accept it. Our experiences in Northern Ireland so far have been in multi-seat elections where people generally transfer to various other candidates whom they think might stand a chance of winning. In elections to a single seat, transfers cross party lines much more; and we increasingly find in elections generally that there is a bit more transferring across the lines. However, electing an MP on the single-Member constituency model involves a significantly different relationship.

Why should MPs in Northern Ireland not have the incentive to be much more actively cross-community in their appeal and be able to stand on much more of a cross-community mandate? That would be to the good of politics in Northern Ireland, and it might add to the weight and credibility that MPs from Northern Ireland have in this House, instead of our just being seen according to the colour of our political faction with no other agenda or mandate behind us other than that we were lucky enough to scrape through because of how things worked out in our constituencies according to first past the post.

I believe that this is an important step. I cannot dissuade anybody from feeling scepticism or cynicism about the motivation behind proposing it now, but I see very positive opportunities in it. I hope that the Committee will vote tonight to show confidence in the electorate. If people are confident enough to trust the electorate with the first-past-the-post system, why do they not trust them with a referendum that would allow them to make a choice between that system and one that ensures that they have more control over electoral mandates, and where it is less to do with the luck-almost the electoral scratchcard-of first past the post?

Mr. Gummer: One could start by saying that there is a distinction between offering the public a choice and offering them a proper choice. I agree with the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) that one should trust the public. Our complaint about the proposal is that it is a fraud, because it does not offer a choice that is in any way informed by a study, a concern, or a search for an alternative, but simply a choice between first past the post and AV. AV has never been adduced as a sensible alternative to first past the post in any independent
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inquiry that has been held, so there must be another reason for offering this particular choice. I do not always disagree with the hon. Gentleman's views, as he well knows, but it is not trusting the people to present them with a fake choice. This choice is being offered simply because it is convenient to the Government, not because it is something that the public want or can exercise.

There is no widespread demand for a change in the electoral system: there is widespread demand for a change in the way that this Parliament works, which is a wholly different matter. I might have had some sympathy with the Government if I did not know that they are not prepared to allow the House a proper consideration of the Wright Committee's report. If they were in the course of coming to the House to make real decisions about giving Back Benchers the opportunity to control the Executive in the way that we once did and could again, they would also be able to suggest that the electoral system might be improved. However, as they have consistently diminished the power of the House over 12 or 13 years, they cannot be taken seriously if, in their dying days, they suggest that we should have a different system of election.

This Government are the reason for much of the disillusionment in the nation. Under the word "modernisation", they conned a new generation of Members of Parliament into giving away the very mechanisms that enabled the House to keep the Executive under control, at least to some extent. That started with the guillotine-the demand that we should at all times ensure that every Bill was controlled by the Government. That has been serious, because it has meant that no Bill has been properly debated in this House since. Without the unelected second House, there would not have been proper consideration of a whole Bill in any circumstance.

In addition to that, the Government have insisted that we should have a system that not only has a guillotine but that increasingly uses secondary legislation as a mechanism of avoiding discussion in the House. If we changed that, which the Wright Committee has suggested ways of doing, we would be much more in touch with what the public want than we are in any discussion about electoral reform.

However, let us for a moment suggest that we might need electoral reform. I oppose referendums in any circumstance except this one. A referendum is an unsuitable way of making any decision in a parliamentary democracy. I have voted against it, and I believe my party is foolish to have taken it up. It seems to me to be a mechanism that is both foreign in invention and foreign to our system, but it has always been said that if we want to change the electoral system itself, there has to be a mechanism by which we return to the public. I therefore do not object to the referendum as a concept in this case, but I do object to conning the public. What do I say to them? I say, "You are going to have a choice not between proportional representation of one sort or another and first past the post, but between the disproportional first past the post and the more disproportional AV." That is not a choice; it is a ridiculous offering that could be given only by a Government who are cynical in the extreme.

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I am very sorry about the two poor, pathetic Ministers who have to defend the Government, because both of them are decent and know perfectly well that in a real world they would never be making this argument. The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), will do his best, of course-that is his job and he will feel that he has to. However, he knows perfectly well that it would be honest to get up and say, "We are going to give an offering between one system and another," but that it is not proper to put forward something that has only one object-to benefit the Government, or the party that the Government hope to entice into coalition if they are in a position to do so. That is what this is about, and we know it. The Minister may smile happily, and he is a genuine and decent man, but if he thinks he can find more than five independent people outside here who have not sussed that out, he will be lucky. Nobody in the country believes that this suggestion has been made for other than mere cynical political reasons. That is the fact. No amount of spin, talking among themselves or discussion will lead anybody outside to believe that this measure is anything other than another cynical move by a very cynical Government.

Mark Durkan rose-

Mr. Gummer: I give way to an uncynical Member.

9.15 pm

Mark Durkan: I thank the right hon. Gentleman uncynically for being so generous. He is suggesting that Ministers do not believe the arguments that they are making. Does he believe the argument that he makes-that the referendum is wrong because it will offer a choice not between PR and first past the post, but between only AV and first past the post? If he really believes that argument, will he therefore vote for Lib Dem amendment (b)?

Mr. Gummer: No I will not- [ Interruption . ] No. I will not do so because I do not believe in proportional representation, and I am now going to explain to the hon. Gentleman why it is wrong.

One must begin with the assumption that no electoral system is perfect. We must also say that the electoral system in a parliamentary democracy is to elect both a Parliament and a Government. One must therefore balance the need for proportionality and an exact mathematical reflection of votes cast, and the need for a Government with a firm mandate. The first-past-the-post system has a huge advantage, because it means that there are coalitions before, rather than after, elections. I therefore believe that that system is more democratic than any system of proportional representation, because voters know precisely what they are getting.

A Conservative voter votes for a range of people, from me to a number of my colleagues who are rather more to the right; and a Labour voter knows perfectly well that they are voting for a coalition that stretches in a different direction, but which gets quite close in the middle. Liberal Democrat voters have no idea what they are voting for-and they are the sort of people who do not mind that. I have therefore always thought that the Liberal Democrats are the one party that have no right to talk about the electoral system, because what they propose is determined by where in the country one lives.

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Sir Patrick Cormack: It is a lucky dip.

Mr. Gummer: Indeed it is. Liberal Democrat voters in my constituency vote for a totally different policy from Liberal Democrat voters in the constituency next door. People know perfectly well that the policy will be dictated by how many people they think they can get to vote on any subject. Sometimes that varies from ward to ward, sometimes from street to street, and I have noticed that it sometimes varies from house to house. As a friend of mine said to me on the doorstep, "The choice here is between Conservative and Liberal Democrat. If God had been a Liberal Democrat, He would have offered us the ten suggestions." Of course, that is true. The trouble and the difficulty is that not only would He have offered my friend ten suggestions, He would have offered his neighbour ten different suggestions.

The Liberal Democrats talk about electoral systems. In every election but one, when I beat them to it, they have put out a letter in my constituency saying, "Only the Liberal Democrats"-

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sylvia Heal): Order. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will get back to looking specifically at the proposals before us. I understand the points he is making, but perhaps, because of the time, he will now do so.

Mr. Gummer: Of course, I obey exactly what you say, Mrs. Heal, but the Liberal Democrats have in this debate taken a holier-than-thou position on the electoral system. I am merely pointing out that they are in no position to do so, but I will move on.

There is a great argument that most PR systems suffer from a notably unfair mechanism. I raised with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the former leader of the Conservative party, the question of the German system. In Germany, the Free Democratic party has an almost perpetual lien on being Foreign Secretary. That is an arrangement. Herr Genscher was Foreign Secretary for so long that he could not remember whether the world was different when he started from the way it was when he finished, because it had been such a long time. Germany is back in that kind of politics again now.

That is all very well, but it means that the Free Democrat voter has more power than any other voter in that system, so it is not fair. The trouble with the AV system, as with many others, is that it means that those who vote for a minority party have, in effect, two votes. It is no good saying that they do not. If I vote for a majority party, I have only one go at it. The person who votes first for ridiculous parties such as UKIP has another vote, and no doubt votes for the Liberal Democrats. I understand that if Liberal Democrat voters are polled, there are proportionally more anti-Europeans among them than in any other of the major parties. Suppose the person votes for the Liberal Democrats. They do not win, so the voter still has a chance to vote Conservative or Labour.

Hugh Bayley: It is very kind of the right hon. Gentleman to give way, but he has got the mathematics wrong. In the first round in the circumstances that he describes, the Conservative voter has one vote, which goes to the Conservative party. The Lib Dem has one vote, which goes to the Lib Dems. If the Lib Dem candidate is
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eliminated, in the second round, that vote may go to some other candidate, and in the second round the Conservative voter still gets one vote and it goes to the Conservative candidate.

Mr. Gummer: The Conservative voter has the same vote in both rounds, whereas the other voter is able to change his vote. That means he has two votes. [Interruption.] I am very sorry. The hon. Gentleman can make his point as much as he likes, but the fact is that one chap has two chances to decide and the other chap has only one chance to decide. [Hon. Members: "No!"] Look, in the House of Commons it is always perfectly reasonable to say that there are two ways of looking at the mathematics, or we would never have passed any of the Government's Budgets.

One can say, "It's really one because it's sort of the Conservative voting Conservative twice." In my view, one person has a series of different choices and the other has one choice, and he cannot go back and say, "In the end, I'd rather like to have done it a different way," so he is in a different position.

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I am enjoying his speech, and he will wish to know that his description of his opponents chimes a few chords on the Government Benches. Let me correct him, if I may. In his example, the Conservative voter and the person whose first preference was knocked out and who went for a second choice both have the same number of choices. This is a serious point. If there were an eliminating ballot, of the kind that all the parties have used, and the right hon. Gentleman were lucky enough to get a plurality of the first preferences whereas Straw was knocked out, on the second ballot Straw supporters would have to decide who to vote for. So would Gummer supporters. Gummer supporters would carry on voting for Gummer. Straw supporters might decide to vote for Gummer. In both cases two votes have been exercised.

Mr. Gummer: I do not want to go into this too far, because I think the Chair would stop me. The right hon. Gentleman gets it wrong. If there is a sequential vote, as there is in his example, the Gummer supporters can say, "I'm not quite so sure. I don't think my chap is going to win if it goes on like that. He is only a couple of votes ahead of Straw." Because the Gummer supporter is able to vote again, he may vote for Cormack. We had a vote in the House not long ago in which that was precisely what many Members did. It is a different system and not one that I am proposing. I am merely saying that the sequential system is fundamentally different and fairer than the AV system.

I know that others want to speak so I shall conclude my remarks. I am sorry that there are now only three Liberal Democrats in the Chamber, as I have more to say about their approach to the new clauses that we are discussing.

The Liberal Democrats have said that they are going to vote for AV even though they accept that it is no more proportional-indeed, it may be less proportional-than first past the post, because it is baby steps towards proportional representation. That is a very suitable phrase for the Liberal Democrats. I ceased to be a liberal at the age of 11-I grew out of it-and that is one of the issues here. The point about the Liberal Democrats is that they will do anything to change the
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system, because the present system does not do them the justice that they feel they should have. They would even move from first past the post to a less fair system so that they get more votes. What kind of principle is that?

The Secretary of State said that this is a matter of principle. I have heard no principle from those who support these new clauses. Therefore, I hope that the Committee will consider four points. First, there is a fundamental difference between reform and change. The Secretary of State has been talking about change as if it were reform. If he were bringing this change forward alongside the Wright Committee recommendations in a manner that enabled the House to discuss and vote on them properly, we might believe in the reform agenda, but there is no motion before us to stop automatic guillotines, for example, or to provide that we will sit for as long as it takes properly to discuss issues. There is no motion to require 100 hours in Committee before a guillotine. All those suggestions would keep the Executive under closer control. We cannot apply the word "reform" to a move from first past the post to something that is less fair and more complex.

The second point is that those of us who are passionate supporters of the European Union, as I am, have gone to great trouble to look at the systems of our neighbours. It would be good if we had a more common approach. However, none of them has a system that I would swap for ours. The disadvantages in every other country are clear, and I shall give one example. If anyone knows a Dutch MP, they will know that he is elected under a perfectly proportional system, but has no interest in a constituency, because in order to be perfectly proportional the system can never be constituency-based.

The third point is that decisions on constitutional matters taken for party political reasons are always bound to fail-apart from also being fundamentally wrong. Parties of all kinds have tried it, and all of them have discovered that it don't work.

The last point-

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gummer: As the right hon. Gentleman has not been in his place for the debate-

Frank Dobson: I was watching it in my office.

Mr. Gummer: Well, that is one of the problems of this House. When we voted for television, we foolishly did not say that it should not be put in Members' offices, so that they would have to come into the Chamber to hear a debate. That is another change that the Government might introduce as a reform-

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. That is definitely a debate for another day.

Mr. Gummer: Let me finish then. My last point is again addressed to the Liberal Democrats. In the past, they have had a majority in this House. Did they come forward with proportional representation then? Were they keen on making everybody happy with equal votes?
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Did they give the nascent Labour party the opportunity to have a proper reflection of the number of votes it won? No, they did not. While they had power under the first-past-the-post system, not a word of such a reform passed any of their lips. This question only comes up in the House when a party thinks that it can get something out of it, and if anybody thinks that that is reform, rather than change, they should think again.

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