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The system of closed party lists puts too much power in the hands of the party machines-and I say that as a former chief executive. Those seeking election put all their efforts into selection by the party, rather than presenting a choice to the voters. People can show their disapproval of someone whom a party has put at the top of its list only by voting for another party list or by not voting at all. These are serious defects. However, to those who would say that these arguments against closed party lists mean that we should continue with first past the post, I would say simply that exactly the same defects apply to first past the post, with none of the ameliorating benefits. First past the post is simply a closed list of one.

Some of the disadvantages of closed lists may be removed by allowing the voters the power to vary the order of the list-the so-called open lists. In other countries, this power has been used to make sure, for example, that there is a fair gender balance among those elected. Another downside of party list PR has been the way in which relatively tiny levels of support have led to BNP members being elected to the European Parliament and the London Assembly, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned. The alternative proportional system of STV would allow those who wished their votes to count against the BNP to transfer their votes accordingly and thereby require a much higher threshold for election, which would keep out the BNP unless it had vastly more support. Sadly, I have to say that first past the post is already failing to prevent the BNP from winning some seats, although so far only at local council level. So let us not see the potential for the BNP winning seats used as an excuse for supporting either first past the post or opposing all systems of proportional representation.

7.50 pm

Lord Lipsey: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who for many years sat on my committee of Make Votes Count, the voting forum umbrella organisation. I was also a member of the Jenkins commission, so I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for making tonight's debate possible.

If from that long exposure I could offer one word of advice to the House it would be to avoid dogmatism in the field of electoral systems. This evening, for once, we have a majority of reformers in the House, although there are one or two exceptions. Dogmatism has been one of the biggest obstacles in the way of electoral reform, dividing electoral reformers when they should have been united against the inexcusable first-past-the post system.

Electoral systems are a single instrument that try to deliver multiple and often conflicting objectives. I take the most obvious example of proportionality to public opinion and stable government, which may conflict. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, they also have to deliver on maintaining voter turnout, reducing alienation and discouraging extremism. It is very difficult for one system to do all of these perfectly. I recall the wise words of Roy Jenkins from the introduction to our report, which stated that,

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I commend his advice to the House.

I was slightly surprised at the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, because, although his Question refers to party list electoral systems, he referred to only one form of list system-the closed list system. The variety of list systems is so great that to base your remarks on one version of them does not carry the argument forward very satisfactorily.

The first difference concerns closed lists, open lists and semi-open lists, as in the Belgian system. Liberal opinion has it that open lists are better than closed lists because they give voters more choice. I have my reservations about that because, when you have a closed list system, the party will try to find a selection of candidates who represent all aspects of the community. There is always the danger, if you have an open list, that some racist voters will look for the name Mohammed and shove it to the bottom of the list. However, it is well worth arguing the merits of closed lists versus semi-open lists versus open lists.

To take another example, what area are we talking about over which the list applies? There is a complete difference between those countries that run national list systems-I think that Israel is an example-those that run regional list systems, as we have done for European elections for a longish time, and those that run lists on a county scale, as the Jenkins commission recommended. These are completely different in their impact and effect on the results. Then we get into what can be regarded as cartoon country with some of the technical differences between list systems. Are we talking, for example, about largest remainder systems-the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will no doubt tell me-or highest average systems? For the former, the largest remainder, are we doing our calculations using the Droop, Hagenbach-Bischoff or Imperiali formulae, or, in the latter case, the Sainte-Lague or-I can see the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has been waiting for this all evening-the d'Hondt system, named after the world's most famous ever Belgian? I would not like to be the government official charged with carrying out the assessment asked for by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, across such a variety of systems. I think that a common-sense approach is more satisfactory.

We on the Jenkins commission avoided getting drawn into such Byzantine complexities. We chose to propose that, on top of the alternative vote in single member constituencies, there should be a smallish number of county top-up seats-counties being areas where voters could be expected to get to know the individual candidates. We wanted to increase proportionality but we did not want total proportionality, which we thought would cut against stable government. We said that the county lists that we proposed should be open lists and not closed lists and, very importantly, we designed our system with great care so that it meant that extremist parties would not be represented unless they got very significant votes, certainly 10 per cent or more in county areas before they could expect to get a seat. Ours was a reform that used list systems-I am not ashamed of that in any way-but one that also delivered

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the results that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, wanted of reducing alienation, increasing turnout and discouraging extremism. However, we did all this without venturing into STV, which has the incalculable and to my mind fatal disadvantage of abolishing the single member constituency.

7.57 pm

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I appreciate the references to Miss Enid Lakeman, because when I was elected chairman of the Union of University Liberal Societies she was my guest speaker at the inauguration meeting. I am proud to say that my younger daughter has taken over some of her duties that were there and is now with the Electoral Reform Society.

But what we are looking for here, I think, is a democracy which requires that each individual has a place and a voice that is as strong as possible in the community and in society. It is of the people, for the people. I do not claim that any one system meets all the requirements of those in this Chamber-it cannot do that-but we can look for the system which will allow the most electors to have the greatest influence possible in the way their lives are run. That is what I am looking for. Some will say-some are not here this evening-that what we need is strong government rather than representative government. They say that strong government is more important. Hitler and Stalin would have agreed with that, but we look into another direction. We have to espouse and promote the democratic ideal. Of course, it is more difficult to manage and is not as obedient and subservient as other methods. Of course, it needs a great deal of tolerance. However, at the end, the people have the strongest voice possible.

I mentioned in a debate not so long ago that when Britain had a two-party system, the Whigs and the Tories, and they had straight fights, at least 50 per cent of the folk would have MPs of their choice. I found an astonishing figure that showed that at the 1900 general election, 243 constituencies had unopposed returns. It was a totally different world from that in which we are living today. As the number of parties increased and we had four and five candidates in constituencies, and more in some cases, naturally you did not need the 50 per cent to win. You could win, as one or two of my colleagues did in the past, with about 26 per cent of the vote, but that means that the 74 per cent are unrepresented.

Governments have been elected, as has been mentioned, on 42 per cent of the vote. We had the poll tax, although the Conservative Government were elected on 42 per cent. Even wars have been entered into by Governments with minority support. That is a danger. When setting up devolved government in the United Kingdom, it was decided to have not just a first-past-the-post system, but a top-up system which ensured that parties had some measure of support reflected in their membership of the Parliament in Scotland, the Assembly in Wales, the London Assembly and so on.

I am surprised that tonight the Tory Benches look like the Marie Celeste, because if any party should be marching against the first-past-the-post system, it is the Conservative Party. If, when Scotland in 1999

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voted for its first Parliament, there had been only a first-past-the-post system, there would have been not a solitary Conservative Member in that Parliament. The next election in 2003 was a little better for that party, because it won three seats, but it would have required another 15 Members from the top-up regional list for the party to be adequately represented in that Parliament. The Conservatives should take that to heart. They speak of reform when the next election comes, but my understanding is that the reform is to reduce the number of MPs in the House of Commons by 100 and to appoint 100 unelected Peers to boost their numbers here in the House of Lords.

The whole system is nonsensical until there is some form of proportional representation. I am not sure how the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats will do in the coming election. I know one thing: when there was a change of system for the European elections, although there were closed lists, that bit of PR, instead of providing my party, the Lib Dems, with a struggle to return two MEPs, provided us with the 11 MEPs we have today. That sort of system is not ideal by any means, especially as it is a closed-list system, but it at least acknowledges the fact that the present first-past-the-post system is unfair and unrepresentative.

It is easier to preach to a congregation and change their minds than it is to change the minds of some Members in this Chamber. We should ask ourselves the question: is it better and fairer not to have a top-up list for the devolved Assemblies whereby, possibly, no Tories will be represented in Scotland or Wales, or is it better to find a system that provides at least some representation for minority parties? If a top-up system is good for democracy, because it shows the weakness of a first-past-the-post system in Scotland and Wales, why do we not look at a PR system for Westminster? The best system is the single transferable vote, as my noble friend-I still call him my noble friend-Lord Alton said. My noble friend Lord Rennard agreed. If we look in that direction, we will achieve a far more representative society.

8.03 pm

Lord Grocott: My Lords, I cannot say that it surprised me, because it is very much as I would have predicted, but one of the things that ought to be surprising is that we have heard a series of contributions which were made almost as if this had been an academic debate about theoretical systems of proportional representation, their merits, their demerits and all the disadvantages of first past the post that we have heard so often. What should not have happened, but has, is regarding the dogs that have not barked. We are not talking in academic terms. Various forms of PR have been in existence for the past 10 or 12 years. What I was waiting for-but still have not heard, although it may come later-was to hear from supporters of PR and the list system the benefits that have accrued to the country from adopting these various systems.

It may be uncomfortable for those noble Lords, but perhaps I should remind them of some of the predictions that they made about the benefits that would accrue from PR systems that, I fear, from their points of view, simply have not happened. The most common was to

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say that it would increase the engagement of the electoral procss on which we have mathematical evidence to present, which is the turnout at elections. We were told time and again that lots of Labour, and perhaps Liberal, voters in Sussex, Kent and the south-west, and lots of Conservative voters in the north-east were dying to get out to vote and would be liberated by PR because their votes would count. Was that not one of the many slogans-"make votes count"? That simply has not happened. The turnout at European elections has been abysmal-even more abysmal under PR than it was under first past the post. The first test was the last election under the first-past-the-post system in 1994, at which there was a 36.5 per cent turnout. In the first election under this wondrous new system of PR in 1999 the turnout was 24 per cent-a reduction of a third.

I have a slightly anorakish point which I, and I hope the House will, find intriguing. Under as near a scientific test bed as you could get in electoral systems, such as that in Scotland, with the two systems side by side-people voting for constituencies and for lists at the same polling stations on the same day-even then, the turnout for the first-past-the-post section of that election was higher than the turnout for the list section, despite the fact that in some constituencies there are no first-past-the-post candidates, but there are list candidates. There needs to be an answer to that from the people who frequently tell us that PR would increase voter participation.

We also know that PR in practice-not in theory-greatly increases the number of spoilt ballot papers. At the most recent general election in 2005, there were some 85,000 spoilt ballot papers under first past the post. In the most recent European election in 2009, there were 102,471 spoilt ballots, despite the fact that, as we all know, there is a far bigger turnout in a general election under first past the post than there is in a European election under a party list system. Thereby, on a much lower turnout, there are far more spoilt ballot papers. That is not exactly a ringing endorsement of PR in terms of involving more people.

Perhaps I may make a couple of smaller points, one of which is, however, very important to me. As soon as one introduces a list system, the system of parliamentary by-elections is ended. I am a great fan of parliamentary by-elections. I can think of nothing more undemocratic than a list system whereby you could be having a quiet pint in a pub one evening and someone rings you up and says, "By the way, you are a Member of the European Parliament", which is of course what happens if you are next on the list after someone dies or retires. Parliamentary by-elections are exciting and engage the electorate. We should not freeze an election which PR and the list system do on the date of a general election. Whatever happens to political opinion in the country after that, can never be reflected. By chance, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, was the last person to speak before this debate. If anyone knows the significance of a parliamentary by-election, it is the noble Lord. We still remember that 40 years later. By-elections are of great significance-and we lose them.

Finally, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, made plain, we lose under list systems-and we have seen that. It is a cliché, but I shall use it because time is short. The

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jewel in the crown of the British electoral system is the link between the individual Member of Parliament and the electorate which he or she is privileged to represent. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, took great pride from that in his constituency, as did others who I can see in the Chamber. That is the lifeblood of a politician. It has been suggested that somehow by severing that we will renew, refresh and invigorate our democracy for the electorate, but the reality is the reverse and there is a fair bit of evidence to suggest that. What I am suggesting-I am sure that the whole House will agree with me-to my noble friend on the Front Bench, who will sum up in his inimitable way, is that we need post-legislative scrutiny of this. Let us see whether the introduction of PR for Europe has worked according to the principles and arguments that its proponents suggested at the time. We are all in favour of post-legislative scrutiny. Let us make this the first example.

8.10 pm

Lord Tyler: My Lords, in view of the time, I do not propose to tackle in forensic detail the issues that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in his inimitable way, has addressed this evening. This is a very timely debate: we are all grateful for his topicality and congratulate him on it.

I will deal briefly with the context in which this discussion has taken place. There is a sudden interest in different electoral systems, notably among Ministers. Some people might think that it is a Pauline conversion-in his charitable way, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, suggested that-but it is more a death-bed repentance. In the 1997 manifesto, the Government said:

"We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons".

The 2001 and 2005 manifestos stated that a referendum remained the right way to agree any voting change for Westminster. I have no doubt that the Minister, for whom I have a great deal of respect, will give us all sorts of interesting insights into government thinking. I will not believe a word of what he says. A lorryload of salt to clear the lane from my house will give me no reassurance at all that he will give us something with which we can live.

Contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, we already have umpteen analyses of different electoral systems. We have the Government's own analysis and the one from the Electoral Reform Society, which is excellent. What we have not had is the promised action. As a son of the manse, the Prime Minister should remember the biblical instruction, "By their fruits ye shall know them". Where has the radical promise of the 2007 Brown constitutional reform agenda gone? Where has the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill gone-in which, we were told, there would be reference to the need for electoral reform and some mechanism for achieving it? My honourable friend David Heath in the other place described the Cabinet as moving with the alacrity of an arthritic slug on the way to its own funeral. This could apply equally to the Government's attitude to this Bill. Where is it? Will it ever reach us? If it does, will there be anything in it of any value?

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Just eight days ago, the Prime Minister had the nerve to suggest that the "Liberals"-he does not have the courtesy to use the right name, 20 years after our party changed-agree with him about the alternative vote and Lords reform. We agree with him that the issue must be put to the people. No one who has spoken in the debate wants us to go on as we are-apart from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who shares with the Conservative Front Bench the noble distinction of being one of the reactionary dinosaurs in the House on the issue. Everyone else believes that first past the post is the worst possible system to give us good governance representing the people as a whole.

It is a long time since I studied Latin, but when I look at the way in which the Cabinet, in the last dying days of its Government, is now offering yet another broken promise of advance after 13 wasted years, I am reminded of Virgil. I will not attempt the Latin, but it went something like, "I fear Greeks who proffer gifts" or, more freely interpreted, "I fear geeks who proffer shop-soiled gifts".

I offer the Conservatives some food for thought. At the Council of Europe Forum in October on the Future of Democracy, which I attended on behalf of the Lord Speaker, I was reminded by a delegate from the former Soviet bloc that the most undemocratic party list is the one with just one name on it-which most of them have experienced over the years. That is precisely what we have, as my noble friend Lord Rennard said, with first past the post. Even if you try to improve it with primaries-as was the case in Totnes, near my constituency of yesteryear-the shortlist is selected by the central party leadership. It is not an open system, as the single transferable vote would be.

Both the other parties have shown themselves contemptuous of the right of our people to exercise real choice and to know that every vote, everywhere, has a chance of affecting the result. I share with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, the distinction of having represented a very interesting constituency in the other place and I have great pride in that. However, at no point in my career-I had a generous majority at the end-could I say that a majority of the people who were entitled to vote in that constituency had voted for me. This nonsense about the close connection between the constituency Member and his constituents is very limited.

I believe in real democracy. Therefore, I think that we should revert to the promise that was made in previous manifestos and then broken. Until that happens, I will treat all manifestos from this Government and from the Opposition with large amounts of salt.

8.16 pm

Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, described the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and myself as dinosaurs. I take pride in that. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, likened my Benches to the Marie Celeste. I rise to refute him.

I start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on bringing in this timely debate on the effect that certain electoral systems, particularly list systems, have on voter turnout, alienation and the rise of

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extremist political groups. He is being ambitious in trying to squeeze such a thing into one hour. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, talked about the need for relative virtue in an imperfect world. To find that in a dinner hour debate on a Monday evening in snowy January is asking a bit too much; but we will listen with care to what the noble Lord, Lord Bach, says in due course when he answers and delivers his lorryload of salt to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler.

I will make clear the position of those of us on the Marie Celeste Benches to noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches. We do not support the use of party lists in an electoral system. We believe in first past the post and, like the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, we believe that first past the post ensures that each Member of the House of Commons represents a recognisable constituency with a single Member; and, more importantly, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and others who have been in the Commons will know, that the Member can be kicked out if they or their party fail to satisfy the electorate. Most systems of proportional representation, and in particular the party list system, fail that test. They completely fail to allow the electorate to kick out any individual and place excessive control in the hands of the party bosses-something to which the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, referred.

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