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Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, this may be the wrong place to interrupt the noble Earl but perhaps he could help me. He talked about democracy. Is not one definition of democracy and the right to vote the ability to get rid of a government or a local council? Under first-past-the-post, this works extremely well. Indeed, it works brutally, as the Conservative Party discovered on 1st May. Does the noble Earl agree that under proportional representation, however it is defined, that can never happen? All we have is a minor shuffling of the seats which preserves the old order rather than bringing in something new.
Earl Russell: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that intervention which I was just about to answer. May I also remind him of the point made in the Companion that in timed debates interventions should, if possible, be brief?
In 1985-86 my own party in Brent worked with the Conservatives. In 1990 we worked with Labour. We are prepared to assess which is the less loony of the other two parties. From time to time we change our minds on that question.
I thought that that was called democracy. You get factions. But in another place where the ballot box has not produced an adequate process of change, the London Borough of Hackney, for example, you see it getting out of control. Because people always want to change things, you also get corruption. Not that people are more evil in those places, but they are led more into temptation. My noble friend Lord Tope has resisted temptation, but he should not have been led into it.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I decided to join the debate on proportional representation this afternoon not because I have a great love for the system, but because it satisfies one important criteria by which we need to judge voting systems; that is, the simple test of fairness.
We have had ample examples quoted by our Liberal Democrat colleagues this afternoon indicating how unfair the system is in its present form in terms of delivering what the electorate want in relation to the form of their local government. The Liberal Democrats extended and expanded effusively on the subject and gave good cause for a change of electoral system locally. The Government, in their modernising document published a week or so ago, left the door open for us to consider these matters afresh and in the future.
It is somewhat churlish of some of the Liberal Democrats to discern that Labour is disinterested in electoral reform. That is not the case. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, gave some good examples of where we are contemplating change in the electoral system--in Wales, in Scotland, and perhaps in relation to the Greater London assembly. We are not therefore a party fixed in our opposition to PR and we have a commission looking at the wider question of proportional representation for another place. We are therefore a party which is prepared to contemplate change in that direction.
Perhaps one of the failings in the arguments put by those opposite is that they seem to think that all the problems of local government will be solved by a new system of election. They fail to address the other issues in local government which are just as important: for
However, I believe that we should revisit PR for local government because the current system, as my noble friends opposite argued, throws up ludicrous anomalies and extreme cases. How can it be right that Cheltenham should have 94 per cent. of Liberal Democrat councillors with around 49 per cent. of the vote? That cannot be right and produces a gross inequity. It cannot be right that in many of the boroughs which Labour runs throughout the country, we have almost a majority of seats based on less than 50 per cent. of the vote. That cannot be right either. In my borough, Labour secured 55 per cent. of the vote in the last set of local elections and we have around 77 per cent. of the seats on the council. That is another example of inequity.
However, if we are to change the system of first-past-the-post, we should not countenance changes in other important aspects of representation. It is important to have the community and ward link between the elected member and the town hall, county hall or city hall. If we are to contemplate a change, we should look for a system of proportional representation which produces clear outcomes. I am not one who favours hung councils--and "hung" they are, not "balanced".
We should look to retain the important, powerful community and ward link. If we can design a system that does that, we will match four or five important tests for local democracy. We must design a system that is simple; one that is fair; one that establishes the local people and councillor link; and one that is effective. Those tests need to be put into the PR debate and I hope that if we revisit PR in government, those tests will be applied.
The fifth test which is also important is transparency and accountability. PR can produce some strange anomalies which blur accountability and can obfuscate outcomes. It is there that we need to concentrate our attention. For example, if we were to opt for a single transfer of the voting system, we would end up with a form of local government where the tail wags the dog. That would not be right; nor would it be in the best interests of local government. We need to look further afield for systems of PR which produce clearer political outcomes and which reflect a better balance in the scale of representation on each local authority.
I might add one argument that has not been put this afternoon, but which is extremely valid in terms of proportional representation. It is this. The current system means that we can almost predict that many northern areas will always deliver a Labour council with a large majority. We might equally predict that many south-western councils will deliver large Liberal Democrat majorities. But in each of those areas there are electors who are effectively sidelined from the system because they have no representation in their town hall,
We therefore need to look at different forms of proportional representation--forms that are more reflective of a party in a locality; forms which retain the local ward and community link with the councillor; and forms which enable people to identify clearly who their councillors are. That is an important point. Some research recently conducted suggested that less than 10 per cent. of the local electorate will know who their local councillor is. I believe that to be wrong. It demeans the system and it means that the councillor will be valued less. We need to address that issue, perhaps through better publicity or by ensuring that local councillors are better local champions. Again, if we have proportional representation in local government, it will need to address that issue.
My noble friend Lady Gould tells me that PR is not one of four, five or six different systems; she says that recent research identified 757 varieties of proportional representation. I never believed that that could be the case, but my researches show that there are indeed many and we need to find one that works. For me, that may be the AV system which produces clear outcomes and in the last general election would probably have produced a House of Commons with a similar composition--certainly on the Labour Benches--to that which it currently has.
I therefore welcome the debate. It opens up the final chapter of the modernising agenda. It should be seen as part of a broader package of improving the quality of local government. I believe too that it may enable us to attack the unfairness that currently exists in the electoral system, create genuine oppositions in those local authorities that desperately need them and better reflect voters' wishes.
Some of the claims made for PR, such as the fact that it will attack corruption and enable better scrutiny, are poor arguments. I believe that corruption can occur in any local authority if that is the way in which members wish to operate, and the system can be exploited to that effect. I do not know that PR will attack corruption. I can predict that there will be systems of PR abroad internationally where corruption occurs in local government. So that is a poor argument.
However, if we are looking for fairness; if we are looking for a better balance; if we are looking for local authorities that give a fair reflection of their host communities in terms of age, gender and ethnicity, PR may be a way forward. On that basis I am happy to give my general support to the move to bring proportional representation to local government.
I thank my noble friend Lady Hamwee for introducing this timely debate. She spoke of co-operation, not confrontation. I recall--as those noble Lords who were present at the time will also recall--in June last year that my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank introduced a Motion in this House in which around eight of my colleagues from these Benches spoke, urging the Government to introduce proportional representation in time for the next European elections. It was the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, who, as Minister at the Home Office, answered. Although sympathetic, the noble Lord gave reasons why it was unlikely that proportional representation would be introduced before the 1999 European elections. A few weeks later we found out that the Government had found time. We are very grateful for that. We do not know yet how the noble Baroness will answer the debate. But if she says that it is unlikely to take place or that there will be no time to introduce legislation by the next European elections or the elections after that, perhaps we may take that as a sign that something will come out of Downing Street and that we will be faced with a situation in which we have proportional representation at local government elections. Therefore, I am optimistic. We look forward to her reply on that point.
I declare an interest. I have never taken part in local government, much to my regret. Even if I now lived in east Durham, where I lived for five years after leaving Her Majesty's ground forces, the Army, I would never, under the present system for local government elections, take part. That I regret, but I would not have been elected.
In 1989 there were both county council elections and European elections. I stood in both. The reason I stood as a Social and Liberal Democrat candidate in both the county council and European elections is as follows. The Labour Party in Durham controls politics at every level. It has done so since 1922. I congratulate those in this House who hail from Durham and who have represented Durham, on their splendid service to the people of Durham. I refer in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, who is not in his place. Perhaps I may tell the House what happened in Easington in 1989. The Labour Party had not been opposed at the county council elections for about four elections. A farmer who lived in Durham was a member of the Conservative Party but regarded himself in local politics as an independent. We met in the village pub by coincidence. He said, "I understand you are standing for election to the county council. If you do so, I will not canvass for you, but I will vote for you, and I will ask my friends to vote for you". I said to him, "I understand that you are standing against the Labour Party in the forthcoming election. If you stand, I will not only vote for you but I will canvass for you if you want my support". What a way to go about things! He then said,
Three things happened. First, my opponent's leaflet came out first. It was not a well thought-through leaflet and it was rather ill-written. The electorate realised that my leaflet, which came out about two days later, was better thought through and rather better written and presented. Then an extraordinary thing happened. Throughout the campaign the Labour Party canvassed. It had about 50 people in the area. They were knocking on doors and cajoling and asking people to vote for the Labour Party candidate. Then came the count. A fellow member and officer of the Territorial Army told me that he had never attended an election count and asked whether he could come. I procured him a ticket. There were the Labour Party workers, myself and my friend. As the votes poured out of the boxes the number of ballot papers showed that I was leading in my ward. My friend turned to me and said, "George, if you win, will we get out of this place alive?" I said, "No". I think that illustrates the point that power corrupts and total power corrupts absolutely.
Let us look at proportional representation for local government. Local needs range from drains to dustbins, from education to the environment, from pavements to policemen, and from libraries to leisure centres. Let us have more people involved in local government, from all parties and from no party. Let us have more people voting at elections; not just 7 per cent. Let us not just aim, like the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for 54 per cent. Let us aim for 75 per cent. to 80 per cent.
We are one of the countries that first created local government. At the moment one would think that we had not created local government and that we did not have it. I ask the Minister to listen to the speeches made in the debate, to look at the problem with her advisers and to come back to the House and say that her government, to whom most of us offer good will, will bring in proportional representation for local government.
Lord Newby: My Lords, my enthusiasm for supporting the introduction of PR in local government relates to the credibility of the political process as a whole. It will be common ground in the House, as it is across the country, that politicians are held in very low esteem. There are a number of reasons for that. There is a common view that politicians are in it only for what they can get out of it. That is often expressed in those terms rather than by suggesting that politicians might actually be corrupt. It is partly because, as has already been mentioned, there is a sense that many politicians are not seen or felt to be close to the people whom they represent. It seems to me that the electoral system in local government exacerbates these perceptions at lost local levels.
I grew up in what was then a mining area of west Yorkshire. It was a one party state. Labour dominated politics, utterly and completely. I do not believe that the old Rothwell Urban District Council was a corrupt body but it was certainly a smug and unimaginative body. Largely because there was such a predominance of Labour councillors--in reality, councillors of a single party--its actions were never scrutinised and the politicians never had any need to fight anything approaching a real electoral campaign. The electoral system in those circumstances made it difficult for any other party to gain meaningful representation. So I am sure that a number of people who might otherwise have been prepared to play a part in public life were deterred from attempting to do so by the very high hurdle of actually being elected and winning a seat on the first-past-the-post system.
For the population of Rothwell at large there was rarely, if ever, any real sense of an election taking place because everyone knew that the only election that mattered was the selection process that went on in the wards of the local Labour Party. The dangers of the smugness and complacency we saw there become worse if we see that one party has an untrammelled rule over a long period. In parts of west and south Yorkshire huge Labour majorities have been notched up in local elections for decades. While the vast majority of those councillors remain extremely scrupulous and uncorrupt, there are a number of glaring and recent exceptions to this rule.
Doncaster is perhaps the most dramatic of these. Here there is a council in which Labour holds over 90 per cent. of the seats: 57 out of 63, with about two-thirds of the votes. This is a situation which has encouraged a serious and systematic abuse of expenses, overseas trips, gifts and hospitality. The district auditor has produced a damning report on the activities of the council and, on top of the costs of its previous extravagances, it is now faced with a bill of £275,000 to help pay for the inquiry and to set things right. Many of the excesses in Doncaster have been on a pretty low and petty scale rather than on a grandiose scale.
In one much publicised case, a councillor spent £110 on two nights in a three-star hotel in Bradford in order to attend a conference although he had undertaken that he was going to commute. This is hardly corruption beyond the dreams of avarice, but the cumulative effect of this kind of case, partly because it is so common place and partly because people can understand what is going on, brings politics into disrepute--not just the actual politicians involved but, by association, all politicians and the process. This is extremely bad for the system of democracy as a whole. It must be said that it is exacerbated when, as in the case of Doncaster, the councillors who have been specifically criticised by the audit commission steadfastly refuse to apologise for anything that they have done wrong.
If there had been PR in Doncaster based on reasoned votes in council elections, the opposition parties would have mustered over 20 seats instead of their paltry six. They could have then exercised a much more effective scrutiny of what was going on and jolted the ruling group out of the complacency which, in my view, has
Incidentally, I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, that the electoral system is irrelevant to the issue of corruption. If one looks at where there has been corruption in British politics, certainly in recent years, in all the cases of which I am aware it has been in councils where there has been a large and continuing majority of one party or another. In the case of Westminster, I believe it was a fear of losing a long-standing majority that led councillors to contemplate all manner of things which the district auditor and public opinion believed were not in the best interests of the voters of Westminster.
If first-past-the-post can encourage corruption, it also encourages voter apathy. Turn-out in local elections is low, and we have heard many figures about that. As has already been said, in many inner city wards it is lower still. Leeds City Council has a unique social mapping database which records on a street-by-street basis levels of dependency on state benefits--in effect, levels of deprivation. The council has undertaken an exercise to compare deprivation levels with turn-out at local elections. There is an almost exact fit. There are many reasons for this. Education levels are relevant to turn-out as well, so is the daily grind of life if one lives on the poverty line, which makes participation in politics seem to very many people an unnecessary luxury.
Another contributing factor in my view is that in many of these wards there is no effective electoral contest. Labour has held them for decades, the Conservatives have disappeared from the cities; and the Liberal Democrats, despite our spectacular growth in Yorkshire and Sheffield, elsewhere in the county and in inner cities across the country, simply do not have the resources to campaign intensively in all inner city wards. Frankly, in many of these wards there has been no serious electoral activity within living memory. Therefore, even if there were to be an interest in politics among the people who live there, it is actually quite difficult to find an outlet for it.
As many people have said, nobody but a fool would claim that PR would transform the situation overnight. However, any system of PR which would require the parties to take the whole of a council area seriously, instead of being able to leave whole swathes of an area without any real activity, and any system which retained a link between the councillor and a geographical area--I believe that for local council elections the arguments for STV are particularly strong--would jolt many local councillors out of their complacency and require them to keep in close contact with their electorate.
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