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Professor Anthony King told some of us on Tuesday that democracy is institutionalised disappointment. To misquote Churchill: lack of real democracy might be even more disappointing. One thing is for sure: we cannot go on like this. Our political system must let the people in, rather than shut them out. At the moment, they are shut out from public debate and we are devoid of public respect as a result. It is corroded

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by cynicism and we are damaged by our refusal to listen. The present electoral system badly serves our fellow citizens, as the report demonstrates so well. If the political class ignores the public, people can scarcely be blamed for turning their backs on the whole political system.

My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

11.57 am

Lord Maxton: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for introducing the debate. This is a very important subject, which the House should consider. However, he will not be that surprised to know that I am not going to follow him down the route of supporting PR systems. I use the word “systems” deliberately, because PR covers a multitude of sins, not just one particular system. I think that the Liberal Democrats agree, but it depends where they are on what exactly the system should be. It is always worth pointing out that when the Liberal Party was last in power—I accept that it was a long time ago, before the First World War—it opposed PR, whereas the small, struggling Labour Party was in favour. I think that it is quite clear why. Before moving on, let me say that I am looking forward to the speech of my noble friend Lord Grocott, as I believe that it will be his maiden speech from the Back Benches of this Chamber.

I support the first past the post system. It is not perfect by a long way but, as Churchill said about democracy, although it is a very poor system of government, it is better than any alternative. Of course, some PR systems may appear more democratic, but I do not believe that they always are. The first past the post system has served this country well and, although not perfect, it is better than anything else, as I said.

I make it clear that events in Scotland under the devolution settlement have not influenced my support for first past the post. As some noble Lords present may know, I opposed the introduction of PR during the constitutional convention from 1991 onwards; I have not been a convert to first past the post. My noble friend Lord Elder—if he were present—and the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, who served on the convention with me, will confirm that. At that time, we in the Labour Party reluctantly agreed to support PR because, to be honest, we thought that the 1997 election was going to be close and that we might require the support of the Liberal Democrats in order to achieve a Government. It is to the great honour of Donald Dewar and others in the party that, when we won a landslide victory, they stuck to that promise; it is to their honour but I think that it was not politically wise. It would have been much better simply to have said, “Sorry, we are going back to the first past the post system”.

Events in Scotland since 1997 have confirmed and reinforced my view that first past the post is better than any other system. We now have four electoral systems in Scotland—or five if you count two in the Scottish parliamentary elections. As a result, we now have a minority SNP Administration. We also have MEPs elected by the whole of Scotland—to be honest, even I, a political figure, have some difficulty naming them and they have some difficulty representing the

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people. In local government, increasing numbers of local authorities are run by some form of coalition of parties, which often have little in common except one major aim, which is to prevent some other party from having power—that is the whole purpose of it.

I turn to the reasons why I think that we should stick to first past the post. There are basically five reasons. First, the first past the post system is known, it is easy to understand and it is easy to use. That is not to underestimate the intelligence of the electorate, as some people might think. I believe that the electorate in the main are very intelligent in the way in which they use the electoral system. It just so happens that they understand the first past the post system and they know what it is about.

Secondly, there is the constituency link. I heard what the noble Lord said but I served 22 years as a Member of Parliament in the other place and I know how important that link between me and my constituency was. I was seen as someone who represented Cathcart in the House of Commons. It is interesting that the general public, who often condemn politicians—they use the word as a generic term for people whom they do not like—often give much respect to their own Member of Parliament. In Scotland, it is interesting how many Members who were elected to the Parliament on the list system are desperate to get a seat through the first past the post system. That includes the First Minister, who, although he put his name forward as a candidate for a constituency seat, made sure that he was on the list just in case somehow or other it all went wrong; he was determined that he would be in there.

Thirdly, the first past the post system gives us stable government. In a democracy it is of course important that people are represented and that there is full scope for people to express their views, but let us remember that at the end of the day we are electing not just a Parliament, an Assembly, a local government or whatever it might be, but an Administration—someone to govern a country. Despite what the noble Lord said, first past the post gives us more stable government and a greater ability for a Government to say, “These are our policies, this is what we were elected on and this is what we will do. If we fail to do it, it is the right of the electorate to turn us down and throw us out at the next election”.

The last two points that I want to make are linked. Despite the claims of PR’s supporters, its various systems can be—they are not always—profoundly undemocratic in two ways. In a lot cases it means, as it did until the last election in Scotland, that there has to be a coalition between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. That meant that the views of the vast majority of Labour members, to be honest, tended to be ignored because the views of the Lib Dem members had to be taken more seriously. What is democratic about that? In system after system where there is PR, the minority rules. The governing or largest party might have only 35 or 40 per cent, but it is surely more democratic that its say holds power rather than that of the 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10 per cent represented by the party on which it relies for power. We have seen that in local government in Scotland as well. There is nothing democratic about a system that says that small minorities will be more important than others in the Administration, but clearly that is often the case.

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The other undemocratic thing about PR is that, if I was standing in Scottish elections, I could not go to the electorate saying, “These are my policies and this is what I am standing on. If elected, I will fulfil these promises or make every effort to do so”. I have to say, “These are the things that I am promising—but, of course, once the election has been decided, I will have to decide with which party I am going into coalition”. I would then have to go into what used to be smoke-filled rooms—of course, we can no longer have those—and say, “Let us now decide what we are going to do in government”. In that situation, the electorate have no say on what policies we will have.

Ultimately, a democracy is not about choices between parties, or even individuals; it is about choices between policies and differences of opinion on what should be done to rule and govern the country. Surely we ought to be looking for that. As I said, first past the post is not perfect—it is a long way from that—but, in my view, it is considerably better than anything else.

12.07 pm

Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, and I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on introducing this timely debate. It may come as no surprise that I shall disagree with many points that have been made; indeed, it may appear that we have been reading completely different documents.

The Review of Voting Systems provides, on the face of it, a balanced assessment of the different voting systems employed in the United Kingdom. I say “on the face of it” because the more one reads it, the more one appreciates the problems associated with the voting systems offered as alternatives to the first past the post method employed in elections to the House of Commons.

The review is a valuable corrective on two levels. First, it moves the debate away from discussing proportional representation as if it were an electoral system in its own right, rather than a generic term for several electoral systems. All too often—the noble Lord touched on this—the debate on electoral reform has been based on a false dichotomy between PR and the first past the post system. First past the post is a specific electoral system; PR is not. Secondly, the review identifies the problems with the alternatives and does so by ensuring that none is seen to be problem-free.

This review is not the only one to recognise problems with the additional member system; that point is well made in paragraph 6.135. Not only has AMS not got rid of adversarial politics, but it has managed to inject a new level of conflict between different types of members. The problems with the list system of election are clear, not least when a closed list is utilised. It vests power in the hands of parties and denies electors the opportunity to make a choice between candidates.

The single transferable vote system perhaps comes out least badly from the review, but that is a consequence of the way in which other systems operate. According to the review, STV has tended to be the more proportional system in the UK, but that is because of the way in which AMS has been used. AMS can produce greatest

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proportionality, but the balance between constituency and top-up seats in Scotland and Wales has prevented it from achieving proportionality. STV can produce, and has produced, situations where one can gain a majority of seats on a minority of votes. What the review does not say in its coverage of Ireland is that it has tended to encourage excessive localism. The review does, however, draw attention to what happens in Australia, where more than 90 per cent of voters opt for a single party—known as voting “above the line”—rather than utilising the power to express a preference between candidates. This, as is noted in paragraph 7.66, constitutes an example whereby STV can be engineered to operate like a list system. The alternative vote system, or variations of it, is not a proportional system; indeed, as is clear from the review and earlier studies, it has the capacity to be even more disproportionate than the existing system.

The strength of the review, then, is in identifying the limitations of systems that are variously held up as preferable to the first past the post method of election. They are not the glorious saviours that they are made out to be. There is little evidence that they will address the perceived malaise of contemporary politics, increase turnout significantly—certainly not in the UK—or engender a new attitude on the part of voters. The review thus serves a valuable purpose. The limitations of the various voting methods that the review identifies are even more apparent when one considers that it addresses only in part a particular problem with PR systems and does not address at all what arguably constitutes the principal benefit of the existing system.

Supporters of the present electoral system tend to stress output legitimacy; that is, the consequences of the system. Opinion poll data suggest that the electorate sympathise with that view. Opponents of the system stress input legitimacy—that is, the means by which the body is selected—arguing the need for fairness in the relationship between votes and seats. Survey data, as shown in paragraphs 6.65 and 6.66, show that electors have sympathy with this approach as well. In other words, electors see the need for a fairer electoral system but wish to preserve the consequences of the existing system.

Supporters of a move to a PR system have tended to enjoy a virtual monopoly in making the claim of fairness. I challenge the basis of that claim. The review touches on the basis for this challenge but does not develop it. As the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, outlined, the argument that the present electoral system is unfair rests on the fact that there is not a precise proportional relationship between seats and votes: 10 per cent of the votes won by a party do not necessarily translate into 10 per cent of the seats. That, however, misses out the last, fundamental part of the equation. One needs votes in order to gain seats, but what is the purpose of having seats in Parliament? It is to achieve a change in public policy.

This brings us to the problem. The term “proportional representation” refers only to the relationship of votes to seats. Negotiating power in the House of Commons is excluded. Under a PR system, 10 per cent of the votes may translate more or less into 10 per cent of the

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seats in Parliament but produce far more than 10 per cent of the negotiating power in the House of Commons. A third party may become what is known as a veto player and, in effect, exercise far more political weight than its electoral support justifies. That is not necessarily a fair system; it is certainly no fairer than the existing system.

The most important argument for the present electoral system is not developed in the review. It mentions it in opening as one of the arguments for the present system, but at paragraph 6.168 makes it clear that it is outside the scope of the study. The case for the existing system is that it delivers core accountability. As the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, mentioned, our system facilitates the return of a single party to government and, as a result, one body—the party in government—is answerable to electors at the next election. Election day, in Karl Popper’s words, is judgment day. As the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, said, electors can sweep a Government from office. Critics point out that the Government may be elected on a minority of the votes cast, but that applies also—and in many cases more so—to coalitions formed under a system of PR. Parties usually fight elections as free-standing bodies and, when no one party wins a majority of seats, they form coalitions. However, post-election coalitions enjoy no definitive electoral legitimacy, because not one voter has voted for that particular combination of parties.

The experience of other parts of the United Kingdom is instructive. In Wales, there is a coalition of Labour and Plaid Cymru. Not one voter had the opportunity to vote for that combination. If the parties stand as free-standing parties at the next election, there is no one body to hold to account. If there is a switch in coalition partners between now and the next election, that exacerbates the position. Furthermore, as the experience of Scotland demonstrates, when there is a minority Administration much depends on deals negotiated privately. There is no obvious transparency and no direct accountability.

In short, our current system is not as bad as critics make out and the alternatives are not as wonderful as they claim. No system is perfect, but putting the defects of the present system alongside those of the alternatives leads to the conclusion that the case for change is not made—indeed, the reverse is true. This review is extremely valuable in identifying many practical problems associated with the alternatives. It is most welcome.

I conclude with a few questions to the Minister. I suspect that on the broad question of electoral systems the noble Lord will be non-committal, emphasising the pros and cons of what we have. However, it will be valuable to have his response on three matters for which the Government are responsible and which are touched on in the review. First, as is clear from the review, there is little to justify the use, in any list system, of a closed as opposed to an open list, as that system denies voter choice. Given the problems associated with closed lists, could the Minister justify their continued employment?

Secondly, as was apparent in the debates at the time, there is little to justify the ban on dual candidacy. As the review explains, the Government introduced it

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in 2006 for Wales but the Arbuthnott commission recommended against it for Scotland. The Electoral Commission noted that only Ukraine had tried to ban dual candidacy, prior to the country’s 2002 elections. Other countries with AMS permit it. Could the Minister remind us why banning dual candidacy is correct for Wales but not correct for Scotland or the rest of the world?

Thirdly, paragraph 5.120 of the review records the Electoral Commission’s observation that individual registration in Northern Ireland has resulted in a much more accurate and robust electoral register. This again is something that we have discussed. Is it not time that we moved to individual registration in the rest of the United Kingdom? There are clear concerns surrounding the integrity of the electoral register and we need to address these as expeditiously as possible.

These are issues on which we should make progress. Let us focus on improving the systems that we now have and not on destroying the benefits of our existing system of electing the other place.

12.18 pm

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, it is my intention—at the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Tyler, to whom I am very grateful for introducing this debate—to speak mainly on the subject of what form of electoral system should be used if your Lordships’ House should become wholly or partly elected. However, before I do that, I would like to make a couple of brief comments on the previous two speeches.

First, I have to say that I was rather startled by the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, that having a Government elected by 35 per cent of the voters was somehow more democratic than a coalition Government elected jointly by something over 50 per cent of the voters. This point was taken up in a slightly different way by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. He said that having a coalition Government was not democratic, because not one voter had voted for the particular combination of policies adopted by the coalition. In a sense, that is true, but it is illogical because that really is a serious argument only if one can assume that everyone who voted for one party was thereby consciously supporting its every proposal. Many people vote for a party whose policy they like on balance; hardly any of them would personally adopt every single proposal that is made. It may well be, therefore, that the policy of a coalition Government may more accurately represent the views of those who voted for one or other of those parties than the policy of the party for which they voted on its own.

Let me address the question of what would be the best system for electing Members of your Lordships’ House, if and when it becomes wholly or mainly elected. I am not going to talk about whether we should become an elected House; we have debated that issue ad nauseam and no doubt we will continue to debate it on other occasions. There is a clear possibility that legislation may be passed in the next Parliament—plainly not in this one—to make your Lordships’ House a wholly or mainly elected House. It does not follow in any way that the system that is

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appropriate for electing Members of the House of Commons should also be the system for electing Members of your Lordships’ House. I am well aware, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, pointed out, that there is no such thing as an ideal electoral system.

I start from what seems to me a pretty obvious proposition—that the system for electing Members of your Lordships’ House should at least be different from the present system for electing Members of the House of Commons. That is because one of the main duties of your Lordships’ House is to act as a check on the abuse of power by the Government, which may have been elected, as the present Government were, by as little as 35 per cent of those who voted and, of course, by a much smaller proportion of those eligible to vote. Your Lordships’ House would be quite unable to exercise that duty of providing a check on the abuse of power effectively if a majority of elected Peers were members of the government party, as could well be the result if first past the post was chosen as the system for electing Members of your Lordships’ House. That would obviously be the case if your Lordships’ House was wholly elected, and it would be the consequence even if only, for example, 80 per cent were elected and a number of Cross-Benchers remained.

Therefore, it follows that if your Lordships’ House is to carry out its functions, at least so long as the House of Commons is elected by first past the post we cannot have the same system for election to your Lordships’ House. That applies also if the House of Commons was elected by the alternative vote, which can occasionally produce even more distorted results than first past the post, as happened in the French elections some years ago and as might well have happened in the United Kingdom in 2005, according to the table on page 130 of the report. Only if STV was accepted for election to the House of Commons would it be appropriate to have both Houses elected by the same system. I do not think that a list system would be appropriate for election to the House of Commons, because it is clear that there is strong popular support for having a local MP or MPs. Therefore, while STV does that in normally producing constituencies with between four and seven or eight Members, there would be very limited numbers. Of course, ordinary electors would have the advantage of having an MP who, although possibly a little less local than at present, would have the same political views as them, so they might feel happier about approaching them. We are getting a little closer if we have the first past the post plus a top-up system, as used for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, or a similar system recommended by the Jenkins commission, but if that were adopted for the House of Commons, it would not be appropriate for your Lordships' House.

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