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Lord Howell: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. Having listened to him and his predecessors speaking on the evils that come from low turn-out and the importance of a high turn-out, I wonder whether he would care to address his mind for a moment to the possibility of compulsory voting, which happens in other parts of the world and which would achieve much greater results than would apparently be achieved under proportional representation.
Lord Newby: My Lords, at one stage when I was a civil servant, attempting to look at alternatives to the domestic rates in the days when Michael Heseltine was Secretary of State for the Environment, there was a discussion about whether the poll tax might be an appropriate alternative. Among the civil servants a laugh went around the room and somebody said, "Imagine collecting that in Brixton." Frankly, I believe that the same argument applies to compulsory voting. I do not believe that one can force people into democracy. It is up to the politicians and the system to persuade people that this is something in which they should participate.
I apologise for returning to the topic of the Conservative Party, but I had hoped that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, might, in winding up, extend his movement onto Liberal Democrat ground by expressing support for PR, at least for local government elections, just as his leader had expressed support for community politics. I suspect, from his earlier intervention, that may not be the case. However, I believe that having moved half-way across the road with regard to the relevance of local government and the way in which it might be conducted, he should really give further thought to going the whole way.
Although I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howell, about the desirability of compulsory voting, I believe that other changes will be needed to improve the standing of politicians. A range of other measures will be needed if the status of local government and interest in its elections and participation in them is to increase. I believe that PR is the key.
Lord Alderdice: My Lords, I came yesterday to your Lordships' House from the talks in Belfast. I find it rather remarkable to be sitting in this debate. Your Lordships are struggling over the question whether or not proportional representation might be introduced into local government at some point on this side of the water. Whatever the contentious matters that we debate in Northern Ireland, it is quite clear in the talks that not a single party there is proposing that we should have anything except proportional representation in Northern Ireland. That is because we have had the experience of it over quite a number of years.
Why should the people of Northern Ireland and their political representatives have become so persuaded that proportional representation is much the best way to approach representational politics? It is not because, in the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, they fear being made to vote. In Northern Ireland we escaped the notion of conscription because at a very early stage it was appreciated that to try to conscript Northern Ireland people as soldiers would only create trouble; but to give them the opportunity to fight voluntarily would ensure a massive surge of support, and so it was. I strongly suspect that if the largest fines imaginable were to be imposed for failure to vote, there would be a long queue of people blocking up the courts.
There has been no problem about ensuring high turn-outs. Indeed, if one takes into account some of the postal votes, there are areas of Northern Ireland where the vote verges above 100 per cent.! It is not proportional representation on its own which has created this situation, but because, whatever else, there is a sense of stridency, enthusiasm and a valuing of politics in that people believe their votes make a difference.
I have some personal experience of proportional representation in local government. On the two occasions when I stood for Belfast City Council in 1989 and 1993, I was elected under the system of proportional representation and the single transferable vote. It may seem a very complicated system, but it is not, particularly for the voters and the parties. If it is seriously being suggested that the people of Northern Ireland can quite happily understand the single transferable vote system, but that those in the rest of the United Kingdom are simply not up to understanding it, that would be a remarkable state of affairs. It is not a complicated system at all; it is quite simple. People put down, in order of preference, the candidates for whom they wish to vote as one, two, three, four, five and whatever.
Perhaps I may take your Lordships briefly through the kind of situation which has been our experience for more than a quarter of a century in Northern Ireland. As regards the selection of candidates within a party, because the STV system has multi-members--that is to say, in each of the areas there will be a number of representatives--most of the major parties, like my own, put forward a number of candidates for each of the electoral areas. They are not very large areas, but are large enough to sustain five or six councillors. At the selection meetings therefore it is not a question of the party elite deciding on the single standard bearer; on the contrary, there is the opportunity for the party to put forward two, three and sometimes even more candidates, which it is felt might have support in the local community. That means that the parties are not able simply to put their stamp of approval on one single individual; it means that the representation coming forward from the party expresses the breadth of view within it.
As regards campaigning and voting, the voters are able not just to look at the representative of the party and say, "Will I vote for him or her"; they are able to say, "There is one of those representatives whom I think is a particularly fine woman. She deserves my vote and
That is not such a difficult concept for the voters as one might imagine. Indeed, within a matter of a year or two the voters of Northern Ireland became extremely sophisticated at deciding exactly whom they wanted; who would really represent their views and who would not. Transfers were sometimes quite remarkable. Representatives from one party found themselves being elected on transferred votes coming from one or more of the other parties.
It is not that this is difficult for the voters and the political aficionados to understand. The problem is that the party leaders and elites do not have full control of things. I accept that that is a problem, but is it one from which we should turn aside?
Some noble Lords have said that it is desperately important for there to be close links between the elected representative and the people of the area. That is entirely so. But if you happen to be a nationalist in the Northern Ireland context and the representative for your area is a unionist, you would not feel that there is a particularly close link between you and your political representative just because he happens to represent your area. Indeed, you would feel completely unrepresented. You would much rather be in a situation where there are four or five representatives for a slightly larger area. You could then go to the representative whom you believe actually represents your views and is in some way sensitive to you. That is exactly the situation that obtains on this side of the water.
If in a particular area there is almost no one but Liberal Democrat councillors, Conservative councillors or Labour councillors, anyone who is not susceptible to those political views will not feel particularly represented just because someone is elected for their geographical area. The voter will want someone who has some sensitivity towards his or her political viewpoint. The voter will want to know that his vote matters and makes a difference. It is not so difficult to create such a scenario.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said, "Yes, but there will be stagnation. Change will not happen". I can understand that being a concern. If there is to be progress and development in politics, some people have to be in and others out (as the noble Lord well knows), at least for a period. However, I draw the noble Lord's attention to some of the local government elections in which my own party has had that experience in the past 12 months. Last May, before the local government
It is important to understand that in that context the unionists did not suddenly feel, "Now we are completely out in the cold and there is nothing for us for the next few years; we have lost control which means we have lost involvement; we are alienated from our own city". That was not so at all. The fact that we have a controlling interest on the council means that not only can we ensure that the SDLP provides the lord mayor for this year but that the Alliance Party will provide one for next year. The unionists, even though they lost votes, do not have to feel alienated from their own city because they will have their opportunity in the millennium year.
It is not necessary to create the conditions where those who are in power have control and keep it to themselves and those who are out feel alienated and have no part in the conduct of their own local government. There is a real possibility for change, development and evolution. Surely that is part of what this debate is about. It is about change, development and evolution for the better of our whole political system from bottom to top or, as in the case of proportional representation perhaps, from the top to the bottom.
Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Alderdice--and one that I often have. Apart from the eloquence and force of his contribution, we have learnt that the British constitutional system is conspicuously bad at finding actual experience, drawing conclusions from it and then applying it. We have such experiences in Northern Ireland--my noble friend outlined them--and perhaps we could all usefully learn from them.
We owe a debt of gratitude to my noble friend Lady Hamwee for introducing this subject--not, I emphasise, wholly or solely (as one or two noble Lords have implied) as a matter of Liberal Democrat interest only. This is genuinely a matter of public interest because it affects the quality of our government in this country.
I say at the start that I warmly welcome the Government's approach to modernising our democracy, putting our institutions back in touch with the people and generally producing a better quality of government. This is a time of constitutional renewal and this debate is about whether that constitutional renewal should
As many noble Lords have said, one-party government can lead to complacency and corruption. It is not inevitable but, as my noble friend Lord Russell said, let us not lead people into temptation. Distance can grow between voters and their representatives and, as a result, turnout can decline and apathy and cynicism can grow. Unrepresentative minorities can gear themselves up (because they are part of the largest minority) to absolute control for extreme and unrepresentative policies. I hope that even now the memory of what Militant did in Liverpool is as fresh in the minds of the Government as it should be fresh in the mind of every citizen in this country. It was an example of what can be done by a small, unrepresentative minority taking over a ruling party which is itself based on a bare majority.
It was the problem of unrepresentative minorities taking over city councils, largely, that led the former Prime Minister, now the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, to introduce the poll tax. Let us be quite clear about it. That was the motivation for the introduction of the poll tax. This country had five years of convulsion, with the most unpopular policy of modern times. That led directly to her political demise as Prime Minister because she had not grasped the basic fact that you best get representative policies by having representative government. The party to my left could certainly have saved itself the agony and humiliation of the poll tax incident if it had simply set about democratising local government so that majorities were representative majorities, and not unrepresentative majorities.
I fear that that blindness in Conservative ranks continues because the most conspicuous feature of this afternoon has not been the eloquence of my noble friends--it is well known that Liberal Democrats know the arguments for proportional representation--and it has not been the extremely cogent speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Bassam, from the Labour Benches; it has been the silence of the grave from the Conservative Benches. We have not heard one single speaker, yet I read this morning in the Financial Times, a reputable organ, that Mr. William Hague, now a reluctant convert to community politics and to partial constitutional reform, will nevertheless fight proportional representation tooth and nail. I am sorry that the weight of that responsibility falls solely on the broad shoulders of the Conservative Chief Whip. One would have thought that the Conservative Party could have found someone else also to fight tooth and nail this afternoon. Perhaps their colleagues at this end of the
Indeed, Conservatives should be ambivalent because the Conservative Party's attitude on proportional representation is a very strange one. The first-past- the-post system from which the Conservatives have benefited for so long has now turned on them. The Conservative Party has now become the victim of the system to which it has been so slavishly devoted for so many years. In Scotland and in Wales, the Conservative Party has been eliminated as a parliamentary force--because of the voting system. As my noble friend Lady Maddock said, the Conservative Party is now the third party of local government--because of the voting system. The Conservative Party has very nearly been eliminated as a force in local government in many Northern and Midland cities--because of the voting system. In the London boroughs of Hounslow, Islington, Newham, Lewisham and others, the Conservative Party is hardly represented. It seems political masochism of the most extraordinary order for the Conservative Party to persist in its opposition to a reform which is not only in the public interest, but which would also so clearly benefit the Conservatives in their new minority status by ensuring that they are properly represented. I have a prediction for them: it will get worse.
I dare say that we shall hear from the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, about the defects of proportional representation. I have heard that argument from him before on such occasions. Most of the arguments boil down to the following: first, PR produces weak government. All that I would say to that is that in local government what we want above all is good government, based on consent, and good government that will persist over time, with policies that are in touch with local people. We do not want little Mussolinis in our town halls; we want good government. Strong government is not the British way of doing things. I repeat that we want good government.
The second argument is the one that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, made when he intervened in the speech of my noble friend Lord Russell. It was the question of how, with PR, one can turn people out. As my noble friend Lord Alderdice said, that is a real discussion. My answer to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is this: if the Conservative Party were able nationally to muster 50 per cent. of the votes, it would have the majority in Parliament. What is there intrinsically to stop any party setting out with the leadership and the policies that will command the majority of its fellow citizens? That applies locally as well as nationally. If you cannot do it, you have to do what most people do in their personal, professional and business lives--and that is, to find some via media and some way of compromising so that good government can be carried on.
The other argument that is often used is to say that the system is complicated. My noble friends have dealt with that point very well. I am not sure that I would go as far as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, in saying that we should sell PR on the basis that it is just as easy as the
It is right that PR is no panacea. However, in local government PR could have some conspicuously virtuous effects. It could make election more important than selection. It could encourage higher participation and therefore a better turnout. It could produce greater responsiveness on the part of local government. It would produce a lower likelihood of complacency and, I believe, a lower possibility of corruption. It would produce better representation, and I believe that it would ultimately produce better government. The arguments for PR are extremely powerful.
In concluding, I should like to ask the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, who has great experience of local government, to answer two questions when she responds at the end of the debate. First, when shall we know the system by which London elections are to be conducted? Secondly, if, as is widely rumoured, they are to be based on proportional representation, why does the same logic that is to be applied to London not apply to local government in the rest of the country? I should like to hear quite specifically from the Minister that at this stage on this important issue the Government have an open mind. I believe from the sense of the debate this afternoon that that is what the House wants to hear.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this interesting debate. I am sure that the House is grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for having instigated it. Noble Lords may have noticed that I slipped into the Chamber a few minutes after the noble Baroness began her speech. I apologise for that discourtesy.
I am the only speaker so far who is to speak against proportional representation. I therefore look forward with particular interest to the speech to be made by the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, to see whether I am the sole voice in the debate this afternoon. There is nothing particularly surprising about the Liberal Democratic Party initiating a debate on proportional representation. It is rather like a convention of football club owners initiating a debate on the need for more televised football.
In all the best detective stories the first task is to look for the motive. The Liberal Democratic Party has a powerful motive. Proportional representation gives more power to the Liberal Democrats, more power to politicians and less uncertainty for those with political power; in other words, the political machine.
Who stand to be the great gainers from the introduction of proportional representation? It is the Liberal Democratic Party. "PR" should stand not for "proportional representation" but "permanent representation"--permanent representation for the Liberals in government and local government alike. It also stands for the preservation of governments, local councils and politicians. Earlier in the debate I asked the noble Earl, Lord Russell, a question. It was the noble
The Motion before us today is concerned with local government, but let us not delude ourselves. PR in local government would be a further step on the road to PR in general elections--a direction in which both the Labour and Liberal Parties are already pointing in policies for European elections and for Scotland. During the course of the debate I could not help but reflect on why, if PR was such a good idea, we had not got it already. Why did not the Labour party include PR in its manifesto? Why in the past 18 years did we not bring forward our own ideas? We have not done so because we believe PR to be profoundly undemocratic.
I ask the House to consider the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in describing the benefits of proportional representation: it will be fairer to the electors; it will increase the turnout at local elections; people will vote for candidates rather than parties; it will mean that more women will be elected and that other kinds of minorities will be represented. This is marvellous stuff, and the Labour Party should listen to it with care.
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