Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill
Second Reading (1st Day)
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Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I will follow the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, in talking about the alternative vote system and the question that will be put in the proposed referendum. Before turning to the main burden of my remarks, I will make one or two observations about things that have been said, and will ask the Minister three questions.
First, I return to a point that I made in an intervention on the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking. I refer to the question of public inquiries and reiterate my belief that the public should have the right to contest decisions made by the Boundary Commission. In the 25 years that I served either as a local councillor, or as a Member of Parliament for an inner-city neighbourhood of Liverpool, I was struck by the alienation and the detached nature of democracy from the grass roots. It is important that we do not entrench that further. Having been through two public inquiries and successive boundary reviews in the constituencies that I represented, Liverpool Edge Hill and Liverpool Mossley Hill, I was very conscious of how important it was that the process was given legitimacy. As the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, remarked a few moments ago, if we do anything to undermine the legitimacy of the process, it will not inspire confidence in our democracy.
I am also struck by the remarks that have been made about registration in inner-city areas-which, again, I wholeheartedly support-and by what has been said about geographical and community considerations being taken into account, as well as sheer arithmetic. In another place, Mark Durkan MP said that he felt that the process had been,
“driven by robotic computer-generated arithmetic”.-[Official Report, Commons, 1/11/10; col. 718.]
He particularly raised the issue of Northern Ireland, which has not yet been referred to in our Second Reading debate. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will say something about the effect of the arithmetic on the very delicate balance that has to be sustained in Northern Ireland. Of course, we should do nothing in this legislation that in any way jeopardises what has been achieved there.
My other remark concerns the process through which we have got to this point today. I am aghast at the fact that we have not used pre-legislative scrutiny and that we have not had the opportunity in a Select Committee to try to reach more consensual positions on issues that I think need not divide the House as
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much as they have done today. I think that we have been driven on by other factors and considerations which the coalition Government will come to regret in due course.
I said that I had three questions that I should like to put to the Minister. First, given that Jenny Watson and Peter Wardle, the chair and chief executive of the Electoral Commission, have said that they need at least six months to prepare for a referendum, how can that requirement now be met, as we have passed 5 November and the ballot is scheduled for 5 May 2011? Secondly, can the Minister explain why the Government resisted threshold amendments in another place? Will he confirm that a referendum could be won on as little as 15 per cent of the popular vote? Furthermore, does he accept that such an outcome would, again, call into question the legitimacy of the process? Thirdly, do the Government regard the proposed change to the voting system as a constitutional change-hence the need for a referendum-or is this simply an incremental change in how we govern ourselves? If it is a constitutional change, will the referendum be used as a precedent for how the voting system is determined for your Lordships’ House when the Government’s next reform Bill is laid before the House? If not, why are elections to the two Houses to be treated differently?
I said that the main body of my remarks would focus on the referendum question which will be used to determine the future shape of our voting system. I will join others in seeking to amend that question, so I was particularly pleased to hear the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, say today that he intends to table amendments to broaden the scope of the referendum question, and I am sure that many others will support him in that.
On 11 January this year, I initiated a short debate in your Lordships’ House and argued the case against closed party-list systems, which of course we continue to use in European elections, and for carefully assessing other electoral systems before contemplating any changes to Westminster elections. In that debate, I recalled that at the age of 17, and perhaps in danger of being called an anorak-a word used earlier by one noble Lord about those who are interested in electoral systems-I chaired a meeting for the late and indefatigable Miss Enid Lakeman, who was then director of the Electoral Reform Society and had been sent to our town by Mr Grimond to extol the virtues of the single transferable vote, or STV, system.
We currently use STV in Northern Ireland, where, for well known reasons, we say that we need the fairest possible system. However, we also use it in local elections in Scotland-an experience addressed in evidence by Mr Peter Facey of Unlock Democracy in remarks that he made to the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. He said on 22 July, reported at page 3 of the oral evidence:
“I think that STV in Scotland is a very clear example of something which increased accountability and increased the influence of voters compared to first past the post”.
Therefore, I was particularly glad last May to see that in the general election Mr Clegg gave a pledge that his party would support the single transferable vote in any reform of the voting system. Sadly, pledges
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seem to have become a devalued currency in politics. Our politicians should beware of losing authority and respect if they too easily jettison their beliefs and commitments.
On 5 October last, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, gave an explanation as to why the decision had been made to jettison previous support for STV. He said:
“If we could persuade our coalition partners and the Labour Party of the merits of STV, on which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and I agree … we could then go to one system in all elections”.-[Official Report, 5/10/10; col. 8.]
I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, truly believes that, but it is not about persuading his coalition partners or even the Labour Party about the merits of a particular system; surely it is about allowing the electorate to express their views on several alternatives.
We were told earlier that the referendum is to cost £30 million of public money; I think that was the figure given. If it is entirely to exclude a question on whether we might move towards a proportional system-which the alternative vote, AV, is not-this political deal, which superseded the manifesto commitment, will miss a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a truly fair, just and representative system. Even worse, from the noble Lord’s point of view, it is likely to create an alliance among those who oppose the political fix of the alternative vote and leave us with the status quo. Certainly from some of the speeches we have heard today from both sides of the Chamber, the noble Lord would agree that he is likely to be caught in that kind of pincer movement.
This argument is not about persuading other political parties; it is about whether the public should be allowed to decide on something other than the alternative vote, which is neither proportional nor much of an improvement on the present system. This argument involves popular sovereignty and it is surely a matter for our fellow citizens to settle, not political caucuses.
I need hardly remind the noble Lord-in those times we were noble or at least honourable friends-that the late Lord Jenkins of Hillhead’s 1998 commission reported to the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, that AV can be even less proportional than first past the post and that:
“So far from doing much to relieve disproportionality, it is capable of substantially adding to it”.
Contradicting something that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said earlier, he said that,
“there would still be large tracts of the country which would be electoral deserts”,
and that most seats in the country would remain safe. As the late Lord Jenkins warned:
“AV on its own is unacceptable because of the danger that in anything like present circumstances it might increase rather than reduce disproportionality”.
Mr Clegg has reportedly said that he sees AV as a step towards a proportional system. Perhaps the noble Lord could clarify that remark. What is the timetable? What would be the system? In political life, do you not get some credit for arguing for what you believe in rather than something less? In any event, you do not usually get to your destination by walking in the opposite direction.
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As it stands, the Bill provides that the question should read: do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the alternative vote system instead of the current first past the post system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons? As proposition questions in the United States illustrate, voters are quite capable of understanding multiple choices and they are also capable of understanding when real choices are denied them. What are these arguments for STV, arguments which the public have a right to hear?
I set out some of those considerations in my short debate on 11 January when I said:
“By contrast with AV, single transferable votes give voters a choice of different candidates whom they can support within each party-a kind of built-in primary, without the extra expense … Since each party has more than one candidate, there is wider voter choice and the power to eliminate the least suitable”.
I pointed out that:
“There is also far more scope under STV to promote candidates from such underrepresented groups as women, ethnic minorities and so on, without quotas-a point highlighted this weekend by the Speaker, Mr Bercow … in comparison with STV, AV would still allow parties with minority support to have large majorities in the Commons”. -[Official Report, 11/1/10; col. 354.]
Like AV, but unlike list systems, STV retains a crucial geographically determined constituency link, something that I greatly valued during my 18 years in another place.
Another contrast between STV and AV is that AV would still allow parties with minority support to have large majorities in the Commons. That is something which many of us are vigorously opposed to. By contrast, STV would ensure fairness, with the parties’ share of the seats more closely reflecting their share of the vote, while avoiding the fragmentation and centralising effect of party lists. That would change the culture and the conduct of politics, ushering in a permanent need to build relationships and alliances and to win pre-legislative agreement before introducing legislation.
One of the outcomes of the 2007 Scottish elections, to which I referred-elections which used STV-was that nearly three-quarters of voters are represented by their first-choice candidate. They now have a choice of representatives to turn to when the need arises. By contrast, AV would leave many voters without a local representative whom they had supported at the ballot box. Nor would AV do anything to end the relentless focus on a handful of key marginal seats-100 or so-which so distorts British politics. Under STV, there are no safe seats and no no-go areas for any party. STV has the added advantage that it requires political parties to coexist, as it has done to such historic effect in Northern Ireland.
By comparison, AV is a very complicated and uncommon voting system, used only in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and, as we have heard, Australia-where, incidentally, 60 per cent of people are reported to want the system scrapped. That does not seem like a compelling case for taking a small step in the wrong direction.
The political reality is that we are saddled with a proposal which neither coalition partner likes. The Conservatives will campaign against it, and the Liberal Democrats-and certainly the old Liberal Party, of which I am a one-time Chief Whip-have never supported it. Only the Labour Party argued for the alternative
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vote at the general election and, from the debates on the Bill thus far, there seems to have been some sort of aberration when that support was given.
When we come to Committee, this House should do its historic duty and amend the referendum question so that there is genuine voter choice about the way in which we cast our ballots. In this generation, there will be only one opportunity-one chance-to achieve electoral reform, and we have a duty to get it right.