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9.30 pm

I say to the Lord Chancellor, a man whom I respect and honour-he always knows that that probably means that the next sentence is not going to be as polite-that he cannot help to regain the trust of the people in Parliament by proposing a change that every independent commentator has said is entirely for cynical, party political reasons. No one believes him. No one outside the House thinks that it would have been brought forward had the Prime Minister not thought it was good for him and his party. It would not have been brought forward if the Prime Minister held high views of his responsibility towards Parliament and the people, instead of some of the lowest views of any Prime Minister in our history.

Several hon. Members rose -

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. I advise right hon. and hon. Members that the winding-up speech, I understand, will commence at 9.50 pm. I would like as many Members who rose as possible to make a contribution to the debate. I leave hon. Members to do the maths themselves so that that can take place.

Hugh Bayley: We have heard this afternoon a lot of party political advantage masquerading as high principle, but nobody has done it better than the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). I do not buy the argument that the public are not interested in how we, as Members, are elected to this place. I think that, at the next general election, there will be two key questions. The first will be on the trust that the public have in us, as Members, and in the House and Parliament as institutions. Secondly, they will be interested in accountability-how they, as the public, can make Members of Parliament, especially those in safe seats, more accountable to the electorate. That is why the public are pressing for things such as primaries to select candidates, the recall of Members, greater transparency through the publication of expenses and Members' commercial interests.

I believe that the alternative vote increases accountability, because it encourages Members of Parliament and candidates to listen to, and seek to gain second preference votes from, supporters of other parties. For a long time-more than 20 years-I have been a member of a Labour campaign for electoral reform, and I used to argue for proportional representation, but I have to say that I have been won over to the case for the alternative vote, principally because it preserves the constituency link, which I believe is a key issue as far as accountability is concerned.

Over the past decade and more, we have introduced non-first-past-the-post voting systems for a number of institutions, including the additional Member system for the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments. Twenty years
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ago, I would have favoured that system, but I do not think that it has worked particularly well because it has broken the constituency link and encourages bickering between parties. For example, there might be two MSPs from different parties claiming different mandates from the same group of people.

The party list system, which the House approved for the European Parliament, like STV, which the Liberal Democrats support, uses multi-Member constituencies that are so big that they break the link between the constituent and the Member of Parliament, leave the public unclear about who represents them and, as we saw at the last election, allow extremists, such as the British National party, to be elected when they have nothing like the support of a majority of members of the public.

The London Mayor-I say this nervously, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) sitting behind me-is elected by a modified form of the alternative vote. That system has worked quite well. Over three elections, we have had three changes. We had an independent Labour Mayor elected, a Labour Mayor elected and a Conservative Mayor elected. That shows that the alternative vote does not lock in an unfair advantage to the left or the right, or to the two largest parties at the expense of others.

Opponents of electoral reform ask, "Why bring the proposals forward now? What has changed?" Three things have changed. First, there is greater public mistrust in the system than ever before. Secondly, there has been a fragmentation of the vote. In 1951, 582 MPs-94 per cent. of the total-won with an absolute majority, with more than 50 per cent. of the votes in their constituencies. By 1979, when Margaret Thatcher came to power, the proportion was down to 68 per cent. By 1997, in Blair's landslide, the figure was down to 53 per cent., and at the last election it was down to 34 per cent. Barely one third of the Members of this House enjoy the support of a majority of their voters, let alone a majority of those living and entitled to vote in their constituencies.

The first-past-the-post system works fairly well in a two-party race and reasonably fairly in a broadly two-party system, but the United Kingdom no longer has a two-party system. We have three broadly left-of-centre parties: the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and the Green party. In addition, we have two broadly right-of-centre parties-the Tories and the UK Independence party-and some other parties too, which are represented in the Chamber this evening.

In York in 1987, which was the first time I stood, there were four candidates. In the last election there were eight candidates. There has been a fragmentation of the political parties, too. In 1987, I lost the election by 147 votes. The Green party took 637 votes. The Liberal Democrats, who had a particularly strong candidate-a Social Democratic party candidate, as he was in those days-in the form of the person who is now the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), took 9,898 votes. I would not be human if I did not wonder whether I might just have scraped ahead if those votes had been redistributable to other candidates. The same question occurs to Conservatives who lose by a whisker because their vote is split by UKIP or some other right-of-centre party.

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In a constituency where 40 per cent. of the voters vote for candidate A and 40.1 per cent. vote for candidate B, should not the remaining 20 per cent. of the electorate have a say over whether A or B should represent them? [Hon. Members: "No."] We are hearing the self-interest now. Under first past the post, everyone in that 20 per cent. is disfranchised. They have no say one way or the other between the two leading candidates. The alternative vote would enfranchise them. As the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) argued so eloquently, the public have the right to decide whether they want to make a change. We should put our trust in the public and have a referendum on the issue.

Mr. George Galloway (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Respect): Like the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), I am a long-time member of the Labour campaign for proportional representation. Indeed, I am still a member, although not a member of the Labour party. [ Interruption. ] I know, that's me expelled now-I have blown it. I was a member of the campaign when the late Robin Cook was its chairman. Imagine my surprise to learn that the hon. Gentleman has been won over by the Government's position, thereby leaving us.

Like the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), I came here this evening to support amendment (b), standing in the name of the Liberal Democrats, although I almost lost the will to live as we approached the 50th minute of the speech by the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth). I have sufficiently woken up that I will still vote for that amendment. However, in extremis, like the hon. Member for Foyle, I will support the Government, and for the same reasons: that what is proposed is a step forward and a slight improvement.

The Government are making a big mistake if they think that this little broom is going to sweep clean the Augean stables in this place. The labours of Hercules and the diversion of great rivers were required to cleanse the stench of those stables, and this little broom-this tiny little reform-will not do it. It will take far more radical proposals than this Government are likely to introduce to restore public trust in this place, and far more than have been canvassed in this debate, which, I am sorry to say, has been characterised by a complacent, joking, student debating society approach. [ Interruption . ] Well, it has. I have sat here for six and a half hours, shaking my head at the complacency on view on both sides. Members have no idea of the contempt out there in the country for the kind of debate and debating styles that have been on display this evening.

The reforms that we need in this place are beyond the reach of the existing Members of the House of Commons. That is why we urgently need a general election as soon as possible. We need to change the way in which we approach all our politics, and in my view, that includes retiring this very building. We need to acknowledge that it has become a museum-

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. In the time that is remaining, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will confine his remarks to the new clause that is before the Committee.

Mr. Galloway: If I do-and I will-follow your injunction, Mrs. Heal, I shall be practically the only Member in the entire debate to have done so. We have covered Scottish devolution, Lloyd George, and the whole of 20th century history, all in that lazy, complacent way. But I shall-

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The First Deputy Chairman: Order. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will do so. Whatever other people might have done, I am currently in the Chair, and I am suggesting that he confine his remarks to the new clause.

Mr. Galloway: How I wish that you had been in the Chair all evening, Mrs. Heal, as I have had to listen to all of it.

I am in favour of the kind of reforms that are beyond this House, but I shall confine my remarks to those that are not. That there is cynicism is obvious. The Government are in favour of a referendum on this-a voting system that no one in the country is talking about-but on nothing else. A referendum on the Lisbon treaty, which everyone in the country was talking about, was promised in the manifesto, but it was denied. But I risk straying again, Mrs. Heal.

I regret to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz)-with whom I was long associated, not least on this subject-painted a picture of a Scottish people unable to grasp the complexities of the single transferrable vote system. He insisted that whether someone's name was Anderson or Young had far more significance under the STV system in local government elections in Scotland than-

Mr. Hayes: On a point of order, Mrs. Heal. Having had to put up with a guilt-ridden, doubt-fuelled rant about Parliament, we are now having to endure a treatise on STV, which is not part of the new clause-[Hon. Members: "Yes it is!"] I hope that you will bring this to an end, Mrs. Heal.

The First Deputy Chairman: The points that are currently being made are relevant to the debate.

Mr. Galloway: Yes, they are. I am supporting amendment (b). The hon. Gentleman-who has made at least six interventions, each one more bovine than the last-ought to have read the amendment paper more closely.

The single transferable vote system may or may not be beyond the voters in Edinburgh, but my experience of Edinburgh is that nothing is beyond them. It is certainly not beyond the voters of the Republic of Ireland who have developed that system into a fine art. It is as fine an art of political sophistication as is available anywhere in the western world. It is not beyond our people to grasp its complexities. Neither is it the case that one of the three Members for Dublin South is not regarded by the voters of Dublin South as their MP, nor that the MP for Dublin South does not regard himself as the MP for Dublin South because there are two other Members. That is absurd. The idea that this ossified system of ours-of "one Member, one constituency" of a given size-is a better system is foolish in the extreme.

9.45 pm

If we moved to the system in the Republic of Ireland, as we can do if we support amendment (b) this evening, things would change. But then, if things do not change, there is no hope for politics in this country. [Interruption.] I hear a sedentary intervention saying there is no hope for me. I have won five general elections, the first of which was against the great Roy Jenkins, who was
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prayed in aid by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) earlier this evening. Roy Jenkins was the first pillar of the establishment I defeated; he was not the last, and there may be more to come. Don't bet the farm on that.

Roy Jenkins suggested to this Government more than 10 years ago that they could have grasped this nettle, yet they refused to do so for the same cynical reason that they are now grasping for it. If they had listened to Roy Jenkins and implemented the Jenkins commission report, the centre-left majority that exists is this country would be entrenched in power and the right-wing rump represented by these people here, who opposed votes for women, who opposed votes for working men- [Interruption.] They can laugh, but people know that the words democracy and the Conservative party do not easily fit together. This right-wing rump- [Interruption.]

The First Deputy Chairman: Order.

Mr. Galloway: This right-wing rump-for a variety of reasons that I have no time to develop-now stands on the brink of power, but they would never have been in power again if Jenkins had been listened to and electoral reform had been implemented. Do the maths; look at any opinion poll; add up the Labour and the Liberal and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists and Respect and other parties, and it is easy to see that there is a very clear centre-left majority in this country. What would be wrong with an electoral system that gave the House of Commons the actual levels of representation that the people had voted for?

My last words on this-[Hon. Members: "Hooray."] Yes, they don't like it up 'em, Mrs. Heal. That is for sure- [Interruption.] Well, some of them do! My last words are that proportional representation is about giving people what they vote for. I have heard all sorts of asinine comments tonight about small parties being the prerogative for idiots. It was twice said that people who vote for the third or the fourth party are idiots. Well, that is a good way to increase their popularity, but those people have as much right to choose how this House of Commons looks like as any of those supporting what we increasingly less often can call the major parties.

Proportional representation is about giving people a House of Commons that reflects how they voted. What is wrong with a system that provides 10 per cent. or 30 per cent. or 50 per cent. of the seats in a Parliament if the party received 10 per cent. or 30 per cent. or 50 per cent. of the votes. What is wrong with that? I will tell you what is wrong with it, Mrs. Heal. It would put the iron-clad consensus that normally exists across this Chamber out of business-and that would be a good thing, too.

Mr. Wills: I think we have had a good debate. Amid all the arcane discussion of electoral technology, various important points of principle have emerged.

Before I turn to some of the detail, let me highlight three key points. Nearly all the Members who spoke touched on the question of partisan advantage in the different systems, and much play was made of extrapolations by various academics. I caution Members not to take voters for granted-voters tend to get the Government they want regardless of the electoral system that is in place-and I say to Members who are relying on professors
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that even professors can be wrong. This issue must be treated as one of principle, or it should not be treated at all.

Secondly, there is the difficult question of which principles should be engaged. I am glad that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) is present. He rightly drew attention to the fungible nature of the term "fairness". I commend to all Members an admirable document entitled "Review of Voting Systems", which tries to assess the various voting systems according to seven criteria-proportionality, participation, the stability and effectiveness of government, the impact on voters, social representation, political campaigning and the impact on administration-and reaches very different conclusions.

There are strong, principled arguments on all sides of this debate, and we have heard them from both sides of the Chamber this evening. The Government have made it clear that our objective is to enhance the legitimacy of the system, and I was glad that, in a good speech, the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) said exactly that. Others may seek different ends from their electoral system, but that is what we seek.

Finally, let me deal with the question of who should decide the electoral system. In discussing our proposal, the Conservatives more or less exhausted the dictionary in seeking synonyms for scorn and contempt, but I remind them that all we are asking is for the British people to be able to decide. I fail to understand why that should excite such opposition from the Conservative party.

Richard Burden: The most important thing that the Leader of the Opposition said in his speech yesterday was, "Above all, power to the people." Why does my right hon. Friend think the Opposition find it so difficult to say that they and I, if we come to this place, should have the support of at least 50 per cent. of the people who vote in the election?

Mr. Wills: My hon. Friend has made a good point. I will suggest a possible reason why the Opposition take that view.

Despite several attempts, the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) failed to provide any compelling reason why a system that is good enough for the Conservatives to elect their own leader and good enough for hereditary peers to elect hereditary peers in the House of Lords-a system which, incidentally, the Conservative party voted to support just two weeks ago-should be so axiomatically bad for parliamentary elections that the British people must be denied a say in whether they want to elect their Members of Parliament under that system. It is, I am sorry to say, hard to avoid the impression that the Conservatives are operating solely and exclusively in pursuit of what they believe, probably wrongly, to be their partisan self-interest. [Interruption.]

The First Deputy Chairman: Order.

Mr. Wills: The vigour of the response that my words have elicited may demonstrate that I have struck a raw nerve. It is clear from new clause 99, which, sadly, we shall not have time to debate tonight-from now on it will be known as the gerrymandering clause-that that is precisely what the Conservative party is trying to do.

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