Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill - Procedure Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 109-119)


27 JULY 2010

  Q109 Chair: Welcome, Professor Fisher and Professor Dunleavy. Sir Peter Soulsby and Mr Williams will begin the questioning. I just wondered if there were any general things you wanted to say to start us off?

  Professor Fisher: Yes.

  Q110  Chair: We have received your evidence, thank you very much.

  Professor Fisher: Firstly, just to say that I am agnostic on the AV system but I would emphasise that it represents a relatively minor shift from first-past-the-post, contrary to some of the evidence that was presented last week. Secondly, in terms of a referendum, I think it is worth bearing in mind that we are on almost entirely new ground for holding a referendum following the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA). There has only been one referendum held under that Act in 2004 in the North East, so we can learn something from past experiences in this country but we need to be wary of the relatively new legislation. Thirdly, to emphasise a point that has been picked up in the first part of this session, to look at the Government's reform process more broadly and that is that there are knock-on effects for other pieces of legislation which need to be borne in mind. I am thinking in this case of fixed parliaments, which is not something in this Bill but I think it is something that is worth raising to flag up. Finally, whilst I take Nick Boles' point about the manifestoes at the last election, it does seem to me that if it is deemed sufficiently important to have a referendum on AV, it is arguably sufficiently important to have a referendum on reducing the number of MPs by such a large amount given that this would be the largest reduction since the elimination of Irish MPs in the House of Commons in the early 1920s. I have no particular view on this but it does strike me that this is an issue which has not attracted the sorts of discussion that we might expect.

  Q111  Chair: Professor Dunleavy?

  Professor Dunleavy: Thank you. I am a strong advocate of making the minimum necessary change to increase the proportion of MPs, in fact to get all MPs to have local majority support. I do think the measure is highly desirable for the reasons that are set out in my evidence. I also think if it was not to be approved there will be a continuing problem of fewer and fewer MPs having local majority support, and that is very unlikely to go away. However, I think the Government has perhaps skipped a stage, a rather crucial stage, and it comes out of the need to do a coalition agreement rather quickly which does mean that we have a proposal for the referendum which in my view is ambiguous because it seems to be offering voters either a whole class of electoral systems or one system. It is not clear to me which of these is being proposed. Alternative Vote means that you are electing a single office holder but you are using an instant runoff form and that you are looking at multiple preferences. As my evidence sets out, there are three or four existing versions of that system you might want to use and the Government has in mind the particular version that is currently used in Australia but that was not the version that was used for many years in Australia and it has certain advantages and disadvantages. Because there has not been a little commission or a royal commission or an investigation, except of course by your Committee, I think there has been a bit of a stage missed out. Election systems are not cast in stone, they are not implemented in the same way everywhere. When you take a new election system into a country you always tweak it. Sometimes you tweak it deliberately and sometimes you do it inadvertently because you have made a mistake. For example, we have a very distinct kind of additional member system in this country which is very specific to this country and is not found in any other use of additional member systems, so the British one has more local MPs and fewer top-up MPs. That came out of the Scottish constitutional convention and was used in London and Wales as well. There is a whole set of tweaking and very detailed decisions. Voters need to know in great detail what exactly it is that the government means when it says, "Do you want to replace first-past-the-post by the Alternative Vote". There is this ambiguity between basically two versions of the Alternative Vote, one of which allows people who are placed third, fourth or fifth in the initial ranking of votes to win office and another one, the London version, which really creates a kind of runoff between the top two.

  Q112  Chair: Could I ask you, just to start you off, whether you feel it is helpful or unhelpful to link in one Bill the issue of electoral systems and the issue of the number of Members of Parliament?

  Professor Dunleavy: If you were going to introduce AV-plus it would be helpful to be reducing the number of MPs because you would be redistricting anyway because you would need to create top-up MPs. I do not see any clear connection between AV as a class of system very closely related to first-past-the-post so I do not see any virtue in linking it but I do not see any particular disadvantage either.

  Professor Fisher: I think it is a risky strategy. I do not see any particular problem with linking them, but there is a danger if one half of the Bill gets into difficulty then the whole Bill may fall. In that sense it is risky for the Government but I do not see a problem in linking them together in one Bill.

  Q113  Sir Peter Soulsby: Professor Fisher, in your introduction you talked about a change to AV as a relatively minor issue. Professor Dunleavy, you talked about it as an overwhelming public interest case. Those are rather different ways of describing it. How significant do each of you feel it will be were we to adopt it in terms of the outcomes it would achieve and public perception?

  Professor Fisher: The only evidence that you can really use is evidence based on survey work. If you have simulations based on aggregate data there are an enormous number of assumptions which are not terribly helpful. The work that was done by Patrick in the 1990s and more recently by the British Election Study shows firstly that people's first preferences tend to be fairly similar, particularly for Conservative and Labour, but the outcome tends to amplify the national mood. If you take the 1992 election, when there was a simulation done then, rather than being a small Conservative majority, there was a Conservative minority. If you run the simulation in 1997 the Labour majority would have been rather larger than it was. If we are looking at the effects, it is fair to say that it probably amplifies very slightly what you get under first-past-the-post. The general principle of electing one person to serve in a constituency seems to me to be not a huge departure from where we are currently.

  Professor Dunleavy: I think my view is not totally distinct from Justin's. We did a lot of work in simulating when Labour was changing the electoral system in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Basically the changes in behaviour which took place were much more extensive than those that we had envisaged. In particular I think if you are introducing a numbering of preferences—one, two, three, four, five—I would expect that support for smaller partiers will go up. I would expect that, depending on how you design the system, in the London AV you are only given the first and second preference so that restricts your expression of preferences. If you go one, two, three, four, five at least a substantial proportion of voters may begin to cast multiple preferences, so more smaller parties may tend to get first preference votes and the first preference support of the winner will tend to decline. When we were advising Nick Raynsford on the London mayoral system, one of the reasons why he and the government at that time went for the restricted expression of preferences to first and second was to try and avoid having large numbers of candidates. On the whole I think that has been quite successful, the number of candidates for London Mayor went up to ten but it has not gone up continuously. I would think there would be a slight danger that the AV system might conduce to a fragmentation of the votes further. If everybody expresses a complete preference set so that they number all the candidates you still have MPs with majority support but if you get a fragmentation of the votes and then people expressing only a few preferences then the winning candidate may not have majority support. I think there are a lot of dynamic things that you have to take into account. You have to think what will the ballot paper look like and I have included in my evidence a couple of versions of the AV ballot paper. You have to think how will the candidates and voters behave when they are confronted by a different ballot paper with this different task that you are asking of them. You have to think what is the trend of political party activity in the UK and it is overwhelmingly towards increased fragmentation. For example, there were no constituencies at all in 2005 or 2010 with two party contests and there were almost none with three party contests. We are heading in a very different direction. There are a large number of other parties bubbling under that might be encouraged or fostered by particular choices that are made on the voting system.

  Q114  Sir Peter Soulsby: Why do you think the AV system is so rare? Is there any example of it having led to increased public satisfaction with the outcomes?

  Professor Dunleavy: AV has been used in Australia more or less since its foundation. Initially it was used in a version where people had to number all the parties but as the number of parties increased the Australians moved to a system where you do not have to number all the choices. That is quite a big difference. It is not used virtually anywhere else in the world. It has been used in some Canadian provinces.

  Professor Fisher: It is not something that is unique to AV; it is something that you find with preferential systems. STV, for example, is only used in a relatively small number of cases. One of the issues with that is firstly that AV is not proportional and a number of democracies have opted for a more proportional system. Secondly, there can be a danger with preferential systems, particularly if, as was the case in Australia, you have to rank every candidate. You can experience something called donkey voting where people simply vote for the candidates in the order that they appear on the ballot paper. It is the same principle that is suggested if you go in the Yellow Pages you will have lots of Aardvark plumbers but very few Zoo plumbers, if you see what I mean. There are some dangers with that. I do not think they are insurmountable. Through administrative techniques you can override the effects, such as reordering the ballot paper in different districts and so on. The general trend has been not to move from a plurality system to a majoritarian system but often to move towards something that is more proportional.

  Q115  Sir Peter Soulsby: Some of the proponents of AV see it as a step towards a proportional system of some sort. Do you yourselves see it as an end state or a step toward something different?

  Professor Dunleavy: In my evidence in part three I pointed out that general elections are very often held on the same day as other elections, that in particular the Government will be announcing plans in January, I understand, for the new constitution of the House of Lords. We do not know what timetable that is on but that is likely to require the House of Lords election takes place on the same day as the general election. It is common for general elections and local elections to take place on the same day and we have had instances of general elections and European Parliament elections on the same day. There would be a risk also of Scottish Parliament, Welsh National Assembly and London elections possibly coinciding. When you are making a voting system decision like this you do need to take into account how consistent or inconsistent is the new voting system with the ones you have already, particularly for voters. There are small problems for administrators. In particular most of our existing voting systems use X voting and moving to numerical voting will create problems in having the elections on the same day and would also tend to mean that if you move to numerical voting for Westminster perhaps there will be more pressure for STV for the House of Lords as one of the three possible big systems coming there. Perhaps there will be more pressure for STV for local elections because that way you would be able to recreate consistency. I certainly think if AV in the Australian form was introduced you might need to make some consequential changes in how the London Mayor is elected and other English mayors. People have complained already about a bewildering variety of electoral systems in use in the UK. I do not think that really matters very much to voters but I do think the thing that matters is if they are being asked to do X voting and numerical voting on the same day. We have had one case of this in Scotland and it was a very searing problem for Scottish voters. The Government should be careful and should indicate how this is going to become possible for the future.

  Professor Fisher: I have to say I do not really buy this Trojan horse argument. It strikes me that particularly because the decision on whether to adopt this will be based on a referendum it would be very difficult for a subsequent government to hold another referendum or simply change the decision. One of the advantages of a referendum is that it embeds the will of the people. Patrick may be right with other levels of government but it strikes me that for Westminster elections the idea that a party propping up a coalition could in effect demand a further change is perhaps unlikely.

  Q116  Stephen Williams: Before I ask the question on AV which I do have, Professor Fisher said something interesting in his opening remarks that perhaps we could have done with in the previous session. He said the reduction of the House of Commons by 50 was the biggest change since the Irish or the Southern Irish left in 1922. The difference between then and now is that responsibility left as well. Westminster is no longer responsible for Dublin, Limerick, Cork, et cetera. Can either of you think of another instance in the democratic world where an assembly has had its numbers reduced without some transfer of sovereignty or devolved power somewhere else?

  Professor Fisher: I do not know of any.

  Professor Dunleavy: The UK House of Commons, to put it in perspective, is one of the largest legislators in the world. Apart from the Chinese and Supreme Soviet there are not many that are bigger than the UK. UK constituencies are quite small. It is not massively over provided with MPs but it is certainly not short of MPs at the moment compared with other countries.

  Professor Fisher: I think that is an important point. There may well be international examples. I am not aware of them but it is important that the idea of what works in a particular country is retained. My point about whether or not there should be a referendum on this, if it is deemed sufficiently important to have one on AV, is that whereas there has been a reasonable amount of discussion about the potential impact of a certain electoral system, it strikes me there has been almost no discussion about the potential impact of a reduction of MPs even to 600 as opposed to 585 which stems, it seems to me, from a rather populist response to the expenses crisis. Given that we know constituents use their MPs more than they ever did, given that we know that people value local representation, I am not sure that the argument has been put to people that, effectively, increasing constituency size by an average of 10% is necessarily what the voters want. I do take the point that it was in the manifesto, and that seems to me a perfectly legitimate argument, but I go back to the point: if it is deemed legitimate to have a referendum on AV then it strikes me that this change is of a similar magnitude, and therefore might be worthy of further consideration.

  Q117  Chair: May I just ask a question of political theory? By what right does a government, an executive, reduce the numbers, powers or composition of a legislature in the UK?

  Professor Dunleavy: The UK is in a rather unique situation because we have a concept of Parliamentary sovereignty instead of a concept of constitutional sovereignty. So I do not think that this is inconsistent. The size of the House of Commons has gone up and down in the past; this is the most dramatic change, but I do not see it as a constitutional change.

  Q118  Chair: Let me be clear: you see the exercise of executive power as an exercise of Parliamentary sovereignty?

  Professor Dunleavy: I think the justification that has been given is a mandate doctrine justification. It is a stretching, certainly, but I would not say it was quantitatively a constitutional change.

  Q119  Chair: Do you regard it as legitimate?

  Professor Dunleavy: It is not something I am terribly keen on, but—

  Professor Fisher: Let us be clear: there is no existing practice about when one has a referendum. It is not set in stone that it is about constitutional change; it is often for purposes of convenience of government. So I go back to my point about AV; there is no particular need to have a referendum on AV—one could do without one—and indeed I think I am right in saying that had Labour won the election it would have been introduced anyway. My point is simply that if you are embarking on this road we are differentiating between two different fairly significant changes in the way in which people are represented. Whereas there is an acceptance that you should have a referendum on one, it strikes me that the other issue has not been discussed in such depth.

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