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Lord Howie of Troon: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt at this point--my noble friend and I have very good personal relations. Has he overlooked the fact that there were multi-member constituencies in this country in boroughs like Blackburn, Bolton, Norwich and so on up to 1950 and they worked perfectly well? They could work perfectly well again, I am sure.
Lord Monkswell: I take my noble friend's advice that they appeared to work well. My memory does not go back to those days. But I remember reading that one of my ancestors was the first MP for Plymouth, which had been totally unrepresented until that time in 1832. So there is an argument both ways.
I was concerned by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, who put forward a very powerful argument. He seemed to be suggesting that we should have PR because of institutionalising community divisions. I should hope that we could utilise the basis of our system--the system that we know very well--to try to ensure that a Member of Parliament genuinely represents all the people in that community and not just some parts of it. I suspect that the vast majority of Liberal Democrat councillors and Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament in fact do that job of representing all their constituents. Unfortunately, I know of several instances of Liberal Democrat councillors and Liberal Democrat MPs, who, unfortunately, did not espouse that glorious ideal to which I hope every
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, the case for proportional representation can be expressed in terms of a very simple principle: it is a more democratic system than our current semi-democratic electoral system. That is the fundamental principle--on grounds of equity or fairness, on grounds of effective representation of the people of this country, on grounds, as others have commented, of increasing the legitimacy of our political institutions and, very importantly, on grounds of diversity. The electoral system that we now have in this country, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, pointed out is not the one with which we started 100 years or more ago, was designed to entrench the two-party system and to represent a country in which it was assumed that all forms of difference--political, social, gender and ethnic--could be squeezed into one grand either/or: the masses against the classes, as Gladstone once described it.
That was never entirely the case and it is less and less the case today. It has led to this Parliament being the one in the entire democratic world which has the fewest women in it, even after the absurd and in themselves questionably democratic methods adopted by the Labour Party as an alternative to proportional representation of enforcing all-women shortlists. It also continues to lead to the under-representation of this country's ethnic diversity in our elected Chamber and, indeed, still in local government.
Therefore, the principles at stake seem to me to be irrefutable. We have a questionably democratic electoral system. As my noble friend Lord Russell remarked to me, part of what is wrong with the education of this country is that the maths that we teach in school is so bad that people think that 42 per cent. represents the majority.
The second argument of principle in favour is that we face a substantial and growing problem of popular disillusionment with politics, particularly among the younger generation. One of the things which most disturbed me about the discussion among the experts and spin doctors before the last campaign was the general agreement that there was not much point in bothering about the opinions of those under 25 because one could guarantee that not many more than half of them would turn out to vote. If that is the direction in which British politics is going, we ought to be desperately worried about the disillusionment of the younger generation.
When I was a student, one went to meetings of students in universities to which hundreds of people would turn up. One now goes to political meetings with high quality people in universities at which, if you are lucky, one may get 40 or 50 people. In my term as president of the Cambridge University Liberal Club, I am happy to say that we had 1,200 members. Two terms ago the Cambridge University Liberal Club announced proudly that it was again the largest of the
What we see among the young is a turning away towards direct action, indeed, even to what some people call ecological terrorism: animal welfare rights, stopping roads from being built and so on; the only answer is to go out and demonstrate because our current electoral system cannot provide a means whereby those who disagree fundamentally with the principles of the two major parties can feel that they are in any way represented. That is a weakness about which those of us who are represented should be concerned.
The third of my fundamental questions concerns the extent to which we still have selection rather than open election. In the last election, I am happy to say that tactical voting managed to unpin some safe seats. I was actively engaged for part of the campaign in Harrogate, where the Conservatives hoped to parachute a Conservative from one safe seat into another. The concerted efforts of the Liberal Democrats from a large number of surrounding constituencies helped to ensure that that did not take place.
But I am conscious from what I saw across Yorkshire and Lancashire during the election that in constituencies which were hard fought at that time there were massive efforts by the opposing parties; and in constituencies which were considered safe barely more than a couple of leaflets were put out and no canvassing was done. We ought to recognise the extent to which the success with which some of us--my own party very much included--used the tactical opportunities in that election has increased the potential disillusionment of many voters with the system that we have.
Small party selectorates still effectively nominate Members of Parliament, allowing, for example, Peter Mandelson to be parachuted into the north of England and Peter Hain to become a Welshman and so to find ways back into Parliament. The more the Labour Party manages to impose central control on the selection of Members of Parliament, so, those who decry regional lists should admit, we have a system in which regional lists operate within our current system in that people can be put fairly safely into Parliament after a show election which they are guaranteed to win.
I remember fighting a seat in Manchester in 1974, when it was a safe Labour seat. I discovered that our 250 members in the constituency numbered 50 more than the local membership of the Labour Party. Never mind, the trades unions and the local city Labour Party managed to get their man nominated and he got through. In a number of areas in Glasgow and South Shields there are problems within constituency parties whereby different groups try to pack the membership for their own groups, be they Catholics (well used to running local Labour parties in my part of the north of England) or Asians now coming in and wanting to take over. That causes all kinds of problems within the local parties. That is because selection and nomination virtually guarantee election. For that reason I and many others on these Benches are strongly opposed to any closed list system. If we find ourselves moving towards
The arguments against proportional representation have not been rehearsed here today in great detail, but they can be easily noted. The first was always complexity; that is, that the average British voter would not understand it--the Irish could but we could not. The second argument was the need for a decisive result to choose a government and not a Parliament. That was an argument which undermined the whole doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty and turned the idea of British elections into a plebescite of a presidential nature. The third argument was the myth of strong government; that we needed a clear, decisive government so that we had a government which could take decisions.
I was thinking about that as I came back through the Channel Tunnel last night, moving from the decent and improved railway line in France to the 25 miles-an-hour at which we travelled through a great deal of Kent. When I move through Heathrow I think about the failure to build Maplin. The idea that we have a strong and decisive government system whereas the coalition governments on the Continent cannot take difficult decisions does not stand up to examination.
We are in favour of open coalitions between parties which represent different points of view rather than the closed coalition which we have in this country--Labour governments with their own internal divisions between right and left; Conservative governments with their own bitter internal divisions between Thatcherites, Heathites, and the like, all locked inside the Cabinet pretending that they all agree but not doing much to promote an open or constructive political dialogue.
There is, of course, the argument, about which we have heard much today, that it is unfair to give minorities undue influence. It was kind of the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, to compare the support for the Communists in this country with the support for the Liberal Democrats, as though both were equally small. Clearly, in parts of this country we have a four party system. I am not talking about only the interests of a third party. In Scotland we clearly have a four party system and there is not a small party among them; they are all substantial parties. It would be good for this country to recognise the extent to which we have moved towards a multi-party system and not try to suppress it.
There are some real myths underlying this debate. There is an old English myth that we are naturally democratic and that other countries are less so and therefore need formal constitutions and different electoral systems. There is a myth that the first-past-the-post system is part of Britain's ancient constitution and therefore ought not to be changed. As the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, noted, multiple constituencies were a normal part of 19th century democracy and disappeared only after the Second World War.
We heard from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, the powerful myth of the single member constituency. He was honest enough to say--if I heard him correctly--"I am not sure if it was good for the voters; it was certainly good for me".
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