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Earl Russell: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for all he is saying. May I just put on the record that I breathe no word of criticism of the Jenkins report?

Lord Alexander of Weedon: My Lords, I am very conscious of that because the noble Earl and I are very much on the same side in this debate. We have slightly different views on the preferable means of improving the system but whether or not it brands me as an inadequate Conservative, I am fully supportive of changes to the electoral system.

However, even our modest proposal found no favour with the Government. Did we have a formal response? No. Did we have the whiff of a referendum? No. Was our report cynically tossed into the long grass where it continues to languish? Yes. The Government were by then already addicted to power. They had won such a victory that they no longer needed to woo the Liberal Democrats and unfortunately they became oblivious to the key issue of fairness to the voters. Here I must part company with my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. He attaches immense importance to the old argument that the great benefit of our system is that it enables us to "throw the rascals out". That in my view is too negative and too modest a view of what is needed in fairness to the electorate. Fairness to voters is what it is all about; it is not about fairness to government or political parties or keeping an established system in place but about giving voters the opportunity to be properly represented.

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In a sense I think that my noble friend's argument would have been convincingly advanced by Napoleon III in the France of the Third Empire in his support of a referendal democracy, but it ignores the fact that there are acute anomalies which will, I think, be recognised at some future time when glaring practical inequities surface and arouse sudden concern. Perhaps I may briefly list some of them. In four out of the past five elections, governments of two political complexions—I am not making a party political point—had an overall majority of more than 100 with rather more that 40 per cent of the votes. At the last election, Labour had 44 per cent of the vote and they have an overall majority of 180. That disproportionate approach, whichever party it temporarily favours, is unhealthy, unrepresentative and also lessens the valuable need for governments to try to reach out for consensus in society.

The second issue that I shall raise was anticipated in the thoughtful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves; that is, the distribution of votes. There is a mix of large and small constituencies. That means that an inappropriate advantage is conferred on the Labour Party. In the doctrine of electoral reformers, it is called systemic bias. That could be of immense democratic importance if, for example, at a coming election, Labour and Conservatives were to dead- heat at 38 per cent. Is it really acceptable in our society that Labour should still have a majority of 75 seats? Will that be comfortably accepted should that dead heat arise? If not, should we address it now?

In spite of that, there is little interest in my own party in any type of electoral reform or in any of the anomalies about which I speak. I would simply say as gently as I can to my noble friend on the Front Bench that I find that disappointing, although I am grateful for the way in which my differing views are, as they are on other issues, tolerated in the broad-church party that is the Conservative Party in this House.

My next point relates to Scotland. In Scotland, as we know, MPs in the UK Parliament have no vote on the wide range of devolved affairs, yet they vote on purely English issues. The time may come when there are more English MPs against a government proposal than in favour and the Government are saved on English issues only by the votes of those Scottish Members. Will that be accepted for very long? The West Lothian question, as it has historically been known, is compounded by the size of the seats in Scotland. They are small. The Government were to take action to reduce the number of Scottish Members, but, alas, that has been postponed. That inequity continues.

I move on to a point where I come very much together with the noble Earl, Lord Russell; that is, the value of a vote to people. In many constituencies—perhaps 400—there is never a change of party control or Member. If one lives in that constituency all one's life and happens to support a party other than that which wins that constituency, one's vote never counts at all. I cannot help thinking that that may be one of the reasons why the voting in general elections in this country has dropped to 61 per cent. I applaud what the Electoral Commission is doing under Sam Younger,

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its chairman, to try to make it easier for people to vote, but we have to look at the fundamentals as well. It is incontrovertible that proportional representation, or even a measure of it, would give some purpose to every vote. So although, because of my Irish experience, I disagree with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, on the STV, I agree with him strongly on the principle of fairer representation. It is right that all new systems are proportional, whether for Europe, Scotland or Wales, or in the London local elections. We are maintaining a dinosaur of a system that is so inequitable to the voters and excludes so many from a meaningful part in the democratic process.

I wish only that the Government would look honestly at the issue, and do so instead of seeking to tinker further with this House, where they have not come forward with a single argument to suggest that our work is not being done, on the whole, reasonably well. The time must come, and it should not be left to when a government feel that the only way to retain office would be to offer another party a douceur of a change to proportional representation. Fairness should begin now.

6.36 p.m.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for raising what has been a quite fascinating debate. There have not been many speakers, but those who have taken part have provided me with a great deal of food for thought. I also endorse the tribute made to the noble Earl by my noble friend Lord Alexander of Weedon about his contribution to the House, which we all appreciate and have welcomed. In the time I have been in the House, I have certainly always enjoyed his speeches and the erudition with which he speaks.

I am conscious that there have been important speeches tonight, and I am delighted that I have had behind me the noble Lords, Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Alexander. I am not so delighted that neither of them supported the view that I am likely to take, but there is the broad church of the Conservative Party, as the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, said. We also had a very interesting exposition by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on the virtue of STV. I disagreed with most of it, but he certainly taught me a thing or two on the way. I agree with him—I hope that my agreeing with it will make it a certain fact—that the reduction in voting at the moment is not necessarily a long-term phenomenon. Of course, it has generated this debate.

The first message that I got about the debate was that it was on the single transferable vote—full stop—so I thought that my reply could be really succinct. I wanted to say, "We are against it", and sit down. However, when I looked at the full title, I realised that there was more to the debate than that, and that I would have to say a little more than that. However, my initial thoughts on a response were not too far off our position on any form of alternative voting systems. They all have one overarching problem, which is that they separate candidates and the elected from

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constituencies. In my view, none can guarantee the strength of government that we constitutionally currently have.

Perhaps that is rather odd. Given our current position in opposition, it might be thought that we would want to review the options for a quick return to power, but none of the alternative routes would provide the stability that we have and value in our current democracy or, as my noble friend Lord Norton said, that provides the accountability that we currently possess. We have a well tried system in this country—at least, we still have it for general and local elections, although the water has been muddied with some of the more recent interlopers into the democratic system, such as mayoral elections and devolved government. But we have a system that has brought stable government to this country for years and where people are selected by individual parties to put themselves forward to a particular electorate. Those people who are voted in represent that electorate.

I am slightly anxious about the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, which has been made elsewhere, that a vote is wasted in a constituency where a party does not win. A vote can never be wasted from that point of view, because if enough votes are cast a party will win. It has been shown on innumerable occasions, particularly in some noteworthy by-elections, that votes and voters are capable of overturning the status quo.

The advantage of the current system is that the representative has to concentrate on maintaining the support of his electorate, work for it and assist with its problems. In general, he has to be identified with that constituency and have a unique position within it. No other system has that direct connection between the two—not even the single transferable vote, which would result in a number of members representing much enlarged constituencies. The nearest is that espoused by the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, the additional vote system, which maintains the one member one constituency connection but brings with it the distribution of votes on an elimination basis to reach the result. So voters do not and cannot have a transparent view of what their vote has achieved.

We have heard today the repeated concerns about the percentage of people who turn out to vote and falling numbers in all elections. The Bill that we will discuss on Thursday, the European and Local Elections Pilot Bill, is germane to the discussion about whether there are administrative and practical methods of encouraging those who want to vote to do so. But what we all have to admit is that there is a large percentage of the electorate who are disengaged from the electoral system—whatever system and for whatever reason. They will not vote whatever changes are made. Some of the reasons are obvious and my noble friend Lord Norton put them more elegantly than I: the perception that Parliament has less and less control over its own affairs as a result of the ascendance of the European Union; that laws are passed down and implemented without parliamentary intervention; that Members of Parliament consequently have less and less influence over policy—some people

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suggest that MPs are becoming self-seeking; that local government has lessening powers to look after itself; and that there are too many elections and people do not know what they are for. There is a feeling that the Government do nothing to "help me".

We have all heard those arguments, which, while we may not agree with all or any of them, are familiar to all politicians, even if we cannot at present see a way to improve the situation. The question today is whether a different voting mechanism would improve matters, or, perhaps, improve the lot of smaller parties and people with individual views, who receive fewer seats than they feel they are entitled to by the number of votes cast nationally on their behalf. The Liberal view, which has not necessarily been put by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, but may have been by definition, is along those lines.

The arguments put forward for STV—that it breaks the party hold on government; that it enables people with wide views to be elected; and that voters have a choice between candidates and do not need to support a candidate of their own party, but can swap and choose—is counterbalanced by the complexity of the counting system, the requirement for large electorates—up to about 150,000—with multi-member constituencies, and the potential for an inconclusive or finely balanced parliament unable to deliver on a manifesto commitment. Governments who put to the electorate their proposals for the policies that they wish to implement, so long as they do not "cheat" on that, at least enable a clear position to be held by electors on whether they have fulfilled their promises or have affected the country well or badly.

I am aware that the single transferable vote system is supported by the Electoral Reform Society, on whose behalf the noble Earl, Lord Russell, spoke. But it is interesting that it was not the system put forward to the Labour Government by the Jenkins commission in 1997, when this was a "hot" topical issue. I listened carefully to what my noble friend Lord Alexander, who was a distinguished member of that commission, said about the not very great difference between the single transferable vote and the additional member vote systems.

Thus, there is little agreement, even among those who have taken an academic interest in the subject, about any realistic alternative to the one voting system that we have at the moment. Therefore, perhaps we should simply leave the matter alone because "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". That is where we would stand in the absence of more compelling reasons than have been put tonight, previously or, most likely, in the future.

6.46 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I have enjoyed this debate more than I have enjoyed many in your Lordships' House. In a sense, it has been, much as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said, a debate small in number but with a very distinguished cast list. I feel that I genuinely learnt something throughout the discussions on the issue debated this evening. I

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congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Russell, on introducing the debate in the way that he did, with many wise words.

Another feature of the debate has been its breadth. Two very different and equally distinguished views were aired from the Conservative Back Benches. One came from the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, who, following his important and distinguished work on the Jenkins commission, offered us a view of that commission's contribution to the discussion about proportional representation systems. The other was a robust and hard-nosed view of the threat that PR in some variant form, perhaps of STV, might pose to the nature of United Kingdom parliamentary democracy.

I considered another interesting feature of the debate to be the use of the term "accountability", and different views were expressed on that. One came from the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who spoke about the importance of accountability within the parliamentary system. The other view, expressed lucidly, came from the Liberal Democrat Benches and referred to the importance of accountability to those whom, after all, we are here to serve—the electors or voters.

I am aware of the considerable interest that exists in electoral issues. I am delighted that we focused a good deal of attention on the issue of the single transferable vote system not only as a model for improving the proportional nature of our electoral system but also as a means of encouraging interest in democratic and electoral politics.

It is interesting that, in a sense, the best example of STV—certainly the only example within the United Kingdom's system of government—is within Northern Ireland. It is ironic that it was the Conservatives who, when in government during 1970 to 1974, first introduced STV into our political processes when they implemented it for local government in Northern Ireland. STV was introduced in Northern Ireland as a means of ensuring that, in a divided society, the candidates elected accurately reflected the opinions of the voters so that the strength of each party in the Assembly, or council, would be proportional to support among the electorate.

While it is generally recognised that an STV system can produce what one might describe as a "scrupulously proportional" result, and certainly notwithstanding what the noble Earl has said, there is little evidence to suggest that the introduction of such a system is likely to increase the level of public participation in politics or necessarily to enhance voter turnout. We have had some debate on that issue. It is certainly the case that within the Dail elections there has been a decline in turnout, even though there is an STV system in place.

We have in this country a first-past-the-post system for general elections, but turnout has only fallen significantly perhaps in the last two general elections, and in particular in the last general election. For that reason, I do not think that turnout can be blamed on the lack of an STV system. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, made the point that it is not necessarily the case that this is a long-term and

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continuing trend. We have too little evidence to suggest that. There is countervailing evidence to suggest that interest in politics is very much alive and well and some considerable evidence to suggest that interest in local government is beginning to revive, regardless of whether there is an STV system in place.

It is certainly notable that turnout for European parliamentary elections has remained good in Ireland in comparison with other member states. However, it is worth counterbalancing that by saying that traditionally voting has been popular there even before the introduction of STV.

Some comment was made during the course of the debate about the role of political parties and politics itself. I would argue that the parties themselves have a large responsibility for reinvigorating the political system and encouraging voter participation. The independent Electoral Commission has indicated in its book on Election 2001 that public participation in politics depends to a great extent on,

    "the quality and persuasiveness of the policies put forward by the political parties and their ability to motivate voters".

In An Agenda for the Future, the commission warns:

    "Responsibility for re-engaging the electorate with the democratic process must rest in large part with the political parties".

So it is our responsibility. I do not think that it is one that we can shirk lightly.

I turn to the Government's record on proportional representation. I think that I can argue that our record is fairly good. We have shown a willingness to address the issues where appropriate and to take action when it is necessary, although the noble Earl, Lord Russell, may be disappointed that STV has not specifically figured in our efforts.

In the Government's first term, in line with our 1997 manifesto, we set up an independent commission to look at proportional representation for Westminster, a matter that was commented on many times by the distinguished and late Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. It produced a very interesting and illuminating report, which recommended, as the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, said, an alternative vote plus top up system—AV+ rather than STV.

We also introduced proportional representation for the European parliamentary elections in 1999, for the Scottish parliamentary elections and for the Welsh Assembly elections also in 1999—

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