Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd

Miss Betty Boothroyd (Speaker)

Before we commence the main business, I must tell the House that I shall limit speeches to 10 minutes between 7 pm and 9 pm. I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3:39 pm
Photo of Earl of Michael Ancram

Earl of Michael Ancram (Devizes, Conservative)

I beg to move, That this House affirms the strength and fairness of Britain's current electoral system; recognises that it meets the criteria laid down for the Independent Commission on the Voting System better than any alternative; believes that the current terms of reference of the Commission prevent a fair and balanced assessment being made; urges the Government to change the remit of the Commission to allow it to examine equally all systems of voting; and believes that, in these circumstances, the Commission would recommend the status quo. We have chosen to debate Britain's electoral system because we believe that it is being deliberately and systematically attacked and undermined. What makes this debate all the more urgent is the fact that this demolition is happening right now, under the guise of an independent review, which will report in the autumn. We face a process that is clearly aimed at changing the present system not on the balance of any argument that it is right to do so, but because wider political motives are motivating such change. It is a cynical attempt to play politics with people's votes dressed up as an intellectual and even-handed exercise, which it simply is not.

The so-called independent commission on voting systems, under the leadership of that well-known advocate of electoral reform, the noble Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, was established at the end of last year by the Government. Its members were selected by the Government, not in consultation with other political parties but, in most cases at least, according to each individual's known interest in and support for electoral reform. Its remit is not to examine all possible electoral systems and to evaluate them on the basis of what will be best for this country, but coldly and openly to find an alternative to the present system. Its intent is to create an electoral environment that will permanently favour one brand of politics over another.

Far from being independent, the whole exercise is pointing firmly in one direction—away from the first-past-the-post system, which has served this country so well and for so long.

Photo of Mr Paul Flynn

Mr Paul Flynn (Newport West, Labour)

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that, in last year's election, 20 per cent. of the population of Wales voted Conservative, yet not one of the 40 Welsh Members of Parliament is a Conservative? Is that a system that is strong and fair?

Photo of Earl of Michael Ancram

Earl of Michael Ancram (Devizes, Conservative)

If the hon. Gentleman waits to hear the rest of my speech, he will discover why I believe that the present system is strong and fair. His point is often put to us, but I do not believe that our consideration of the way in which we elect this House of Commons should be governed by political expediency. It is very easy to say that proportional representation would help the Conservatives in Wales and Scotland, but we are talking not about parties' votes or politicians' votes, but about people's votes. That is why we must examine closely the work of the Jenkins commission.

Photo of Mr Richard Burden

Mr Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield, Labour)

The right hon. Gentleman said that people's votes are more important than politicians' votes. Is he in favour of a referendum?

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Earl of Michael Ancram (Devizes, Conservative)

I shall also ask the hon. Gentleman to listen to my speech. If he reads our motion, he will see that we are asking for changes to be made in the remit of the Jenkins commission, which, as we understand it, will be followed by a referendum.

Despite the protestations that the outcome of this exercise will be put to the people in a referendum alongside the current system—that is reflected in the Government's amendment—the whole dynamic and momentum of the Jenkins commission is clearly designed to persuade people that, in this era of constitutional reform, it is smart to change the way in which we vote and stuffy to resist it. That is a dangerous and cynical argument. It is playing politics with the very foundations of our democratic system, and the way in which people elect their representatives and their Governments. More dangerously, it threatens to play party politics with this central constitutional issue, which, ahead of all others, should be above party politics.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours

Mr Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington, Labour)

The right hon. Gentleman has been slinging a few insults across the Dispatch Box. He will know that a number of Conservative Members of Parliament belong to organisations that are in favour of electoral reform, including direct proportional representation. Does he cast the same aspersions on them? Is he challenging their integrity on these questions?

Photo of Earl of Michael Ancram

Earl of Michael Ancram (Devizes, Conservative)

It is obvious that the hon. Gentleman has not been listening to what I have been saying, and has not read the motion. I am arguing not that one system alone should be considered, but that the Jenkins commission should consider all potential systems, including first past the post.

I pay tribute to the courageous article by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) which was published in yesterday's edition of The Times. In that article, the hon. Gentleman advanced a cogent argument for retaining the current system. He is, I suspect, by no means alone in the Labour party in holding that view. Indeed, looking at the few Labour Front Benchers who are present for today's important debate, I suspect that he might even find tacit support for his opinions there—although we may not hear it enunciated today.

Photo of Mr William Cash

Mr William Cash (Stone, Conservative)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his excellent article which appeared in a Sunday newspaper about 10 days ago. May I request that Conservative Members never again be asked to vote, on a three-line Whip, for a list system? That has happened several times in the past few months, and is clearly contrary not only to the Opposition motion, but to my right hon. Friend's extremely good newspaper article.

Photo of Earl of Michael Ancram

Earl of Michael Ancram (Devizes, Conservative)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. As I am sure he realises, we had argued firmly for a first-past-the-post system in the context of those elections; only when we failed to achieve that did we try to mitigate the results of what we considered a very bad alternative by arguing for an open list.

My central thesis is that it is time to open the windows on what is actually happening—to get away from the soundbites and slogans that we heard this morning, and to begin a genuine public debate on what is in the best interests of our democratic system and the rights of people within it. Our motion sets out our confidence in the current system of electing this House of Commons. We believe it to be both strong and fair, in ways that I shall outline shortly. It is because of our confidence in that system that our motion does not seek to bring down the Jenkins commission. In any event, we are realistic enough to know that, were we to try to do so, given the Government's current majority we would be unlikely to succeed.

What we are doing is challenging the Government to broaden the commission's remit to allow it to evaluate the first-past-the-post system alongside the others. We believe that, were it to do so honestly and strictly in terms of the criteria given to it by the Government, it would be bound ultimately to recommend no change. We have the confidence to issue that challenge to the Government today. We want to know whether they will have the integrity to accept it, and we shall find that out later this afternoon.

Let me make it clear that Conservative Members do not blindly oppose constitutional change. We do, however, oppose it when the case for it has not been made—when it is for short-term party advantage, or simply change for change's sake. Tried and tested arrangements should be discarded only when they have clearly failed. Moreover, any reform should have the national interest, rather than partisan interests, at heart, and should proceed on the basis of the broadest possible political consensus.

I have to say that the Jenkins commission is the antithesis of consensus. It stems from the Government's decision—agreed as part of their cosying up with the Liberal Democrats—to proceed unilaterally on electoral reform. Conservative Members were not approached about it; the commission was packed, its remit was rigged, and the British voting system is now in danger of being dragged into the party political arena.

We seek today to introduce some balance, some fairness and some independence into the exercise before it is too late. The present picture is of a commission the outcome of whose deliberations is a foregone conclusion. That outcome will be a voting system designed to produce perpetual coalitions, and tailor-made to allow the core message of the popular vote to be ignored and an enduring political hegemony to be achieved. The fact that such an hegemony is openly envisaged as left of centre makes it even less palatable to Conservative Members.

Photo of Earl of Michael Ancram

Earl of Michael Ancram (Devizes, Conservative)

I have been reading something very different, as the Home Secretary will discover.

Before the general election, the Labour campaign news letter stated: So what are the realpolitik reasons for electoral reform? The answer was: We can abolish right wing Tory Governments forever. The Minister nods, but that is hardly the language of consensus or of reaching across parties. It is the language of raw political ambition, and its echoes permeate the Jenkins commission.

If our electoral system needs to be reviewed—and I have yet to hear a rational rather than a political case for doing so—the basis of the review should be even-handed and should have no predetermined outcome. On an even playing field, the case for the present system would prevail, even using the carefully selected criteria that were given to the Jenkins commission.

Our argument is simple. It is, first, that the current system of first past the post produces clear results which, by and large, reflect the most favoured choice of the electorate. To borrow a phrase, election day is, in a very real way, judgment day. Only on the rarest occasions, such as we almost reached in February 1974, are we left with a result that depends on the machinations of politicians behind closed doors rather than on the electorate.

The opposite would be the case under any proportional system. That is great for politicians, but bad for voters. At the moment, the voters know whom to blame and how to get rid of them. Last year, we discovered the truth of that in spades. Although we may not have enjoyed that experience, we accept that that is what accountable democracy should be about. Under any so-called proportionate system, that ability of the electorate would be seriously, if not fatally, undermined.

Photo of Mr Eric Forth

Mr Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst, Conservative)

In that context, or later in his speech, will my right hon. Friend draw attention to the New Zealand experience? The people of New Zealand were conned into changing their electoral system and they have bitterly regretted it, not least because the outcome of the first election under the new system was the opposite of what they expected, and was the result of back-room deals between political parties.

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Earl of Michael Ancram (Devizes, Conservative)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for making that important point. I shall address it later, because it flags up the inherent dangers of the Government's proposals in the context of the Jenkins commission.

The second part of our argument is that, under the terms of reference for the Jenkins commission as a whole, first past the post still wins. It is worth repeating those terms of reference. They are the requirement for broad proportionality; the need for stable government; an extension of voter choice; and a link between MPs and geographical constituencies. Those who gave the commission those criteria may have thought that they were first-past-the-post-proof and that the argument had been won before it had begun. They were wrong. In our submission to the Jenkins commission last month, we argued that the British voting system beat the alternatives, even on the Government's own terms. That system is the only one that can maintain a genuine constituency link between elected and electors.

Photo of Earl of Michael Ancram

Earl of Michael Ancram (Devizes, Conservative)

When the hon. Gentleman can show me that AV is a proportional system, I shall listen to him. All the signs are that its products are totally disproportionate.

Any form of PR either breaks the direct one-to-one relationship, or at least dilutes it beyond recognition. Our electoral system also empowers voter choice more widely than the alternatives. It ensures that the most popular candidate in each constituency is elected, and it tends to give a working majority to the party with most votes. It offers the electorate the chance to decide.

By contrast, under PR, it is politicians rather than the people who make the real decisions as they negotiate to form governing coalitions. The only certainty under PR is that no voter will get the manifesto for which he voted. In giving a working majority to a single party, the British system also provides stable government, whereas under PR coalition government is almost inevitable. As the record in other countries shows, it can produce the very opposite of stable government. Where there is stability under PR, it is often achieved by giving undue influence to small minority parties—in some cases, from the extreme edges of the political spectrum.

Photo of Mr Hugh Bayley

Mr Hugh Bayley (City of York, Labour)

If the right hon. Gentleman is arguing that proportional representation leads to bad governance, could he explain why, over the past 30 years, Britain has had the second-lowest average growth rate out of the 15 EU member states—I am not making a party political point—when all 13 countries with a better growth record than ours have PR systems?

Photo of Earl of Michael Ancram

Earl of Michael Ancram (Devizes, Conservative)

If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, he would have realised that I was talking about the stability of government. We can all bandy statistics around, but the countries to which he refers have higher unemployment rates than this country. I am not suggesting that that is because of the instability of government. I am talking about the way in which we elect Governments and what we should expect from them.

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Mr John Gummer (Suffolk Coastal, Conservative)

Will my right hon. Friend go further and point out that in Germany, for example, the proportional representation system means that the smallest party has perpetual membership of the Government? If one wants an unfair system, it is that Mr. Genscher first, and his successors thereafter, as Free Democrats, will be the Foreign Minister of Germany almost in perpetuity. Is that a fair system?

Photo of Earl of Michael Ancram

Earl of Michael Ancram (Devizes, Conservative)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for making another point to which I was going come later. One of the slogans of those who support proportional representation is that it is a fair voting system. My right hon. Friend quite rightly asks what is fair about the way in which, in Germany, the smallest party has spent the longest period as part of the Government.

The final criterion is broad proportionality. Proponents of PR almost invariably argue from the standpoint of proportionality of seats. If this means—and in most PR systems it does—that voters should have the right, by and large, to be represented by representatives of the party they voted for, it opens some seriously dangerous doors. The German regional elections this year have shown how easy it is for extremists to enter Parliament, when the Deutsche Volksunion won 16 per cent. of the seats for its 13 per cent. of the votes in Saxony-Anhalt. Do we really want to go down that road here? That is one of the implications of PR.

Incidentally, that is the reason why France scrapped PR after using it for only one election. In 1986, the National Front won 6.3 per cent. of the seats—or 35 seats—for 9.8 per cent. of the vote. The National Front won only 0.2 per cent. of the seats—one seat—at the next election on the same share of the vote. That suggests that what matters in democracy is whether people get the Government they voted for. That is at the heart of our case against proportional representation.

Small parties play a pivotal role in forming a coalition, and thereby exercise a degree of power quite disproportionate to their share of the vote. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) has made the point that in Germany, the Free Democrats have almost always been in government since the war, and, furthermore, have been able to decide which of the major parties should share the Government with them. This can mean that the largest party—in terms of its votes or its seats—is excluded from the Government.

What should matter is not proportionality of seats, but proportionality of power. There are widely accepted measures of disproportionality, which usually compare a party's share of the vote with the number of seats it wins. We have applied those same measures to proportionality of power. This morning, we published new figures—based on data largely gathered with a great deal of assistance from the Library—which show that the British system is more proportional in terms of the share of power than any of the conventional PR systems, as well as systems such as the alternative vote.

The Jenkins commission cannot take this evidence into account, as the Government have prevented it from considering the current British voting system. Why will the Home Secretary not allow the commission to reach a truly independent assessment of all the various systems? Why can it not base its recommendations on a fair consideration of the evidence after looking at the British system, as well as those abroad?

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Mr Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify the Conservative party's position? He has argued that the electorate often do not get the Government they want. Is he saying that, regardless of how small the percentage of votes a party receives—perhaps 44 per cent. or 33 per cent.—and the fact that a majority of the electorate did not support that party, the people will be given the Government of their choice simply because the arrangement of constituencies will give that party a majority of seats in this place?

Photo of Earl of Michael Ancram

Earl of Michael Ancram (Devizes, Conservative)

Again, the hon. Gentleman makes a very strange case. I suspect that he has supported systems that have enabled the Free Democratic party, with 7 per cent. of the vote in Germany, constantly to be part of the German Government.

No system will produce an exact proportion between the share of votes and time spent in government. The exercise that we have conducted—I will not give the figures to the House; I suspect that we would all have some difficult in reading them because they are rather complex—shows that the gap between proportion of votes and time spent in government is much smaller under the first-past-the-post system than it is under any of the other systems examined.

The other systems covered by our exercise included most of the other forms of proportional representation under consideration by the Jenkins commission. We covered Israel, which uses the list system; Germany, which uses the additional member system; Australia, which uses the alternative vote system; France; Ireland, which uses the single transferable vote system; and the United Kingdom. On the basis of those systems, it is clear that the proportionality-of-power battle is won by the first-past-the-post system.

Photo of Dr Tony Wright

Dr Tony Wright (Cannock Chase, Labour)

I am trying to follow the right hon. Gentleman's curious argument on disproportionality of power. Under our system, on two occasions in this century—once in 1951, and again in 1974—the party that won the most votes lost the general election. Regardless of the proportionality of our system, can we tolerate one in which the party that wins loses?

Photo of Earl of Michael Ancram

Earl of Michael Ancram (Devizes, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman has produced two examples from the past 100 years. In any of the proportional systems, such examples are the norm rather than the exception—which is precisely why we believe that the Jenkins commission should consider the first-past-the-post system with the others. I am confident that, were the commission to do so, the evidence would clearly show that the British system scores best against the commission's criteria overall, and better than most other systems on each criterion.

It is worth examining the alternative systems. The first is the additional member system, which the Government have decided to foist on Scotland and Wales. We know from our previous debates on the devolution Bills—which may come as news to most hon. Members in the Chamber today, as those debates were not very well attended by English Members—that the additional member system is wide open to abuse and manipulation because of what is known as split-ticket voting, which can produce highly disproportionate results.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said, the evidence on the additional member system is not encouraging. In New Zealand, it took more than eight weeks to form a Government after the 1996 election, which was the first in which a similar system was used. During that time, New Zealand First eventually supported the National party, although it had stood in the election on an anti-National ticket. That is hardly an example of "fair votes" or—to use the other slogan—of "making votes count".

The evidence is not confined to New Zealand.

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Mrs Anne Campbell (Cambridge, Labour)

I am trying carefully to follow the logic of the right hon. Gentleman's argument. At the beginning of his speech, he said that he was not saying that we should not have a referendum. However, he seems to be trying to get the Jenkins commission to make the choice, rather than giving the people the choice—which is what the Government want to do.

Photo of Earl of Michael Ancram

Earl of Michael Ancram (Devizes, Conservative)

As I said—I do not know whether the hon. Lady was listening—the Government have set about the matter by trying to achieve a momentum behind the alternative proposed by the Jenkins commission, with the intention of seeing that alternative implemented. I am asking for a fair evaluation of all the systems. I believe that, if we have that, first past the post will win.

We have already dealt with the situation in Germany. It is worth remembering that—overnight, in 1982—the Free Democrats switched allegiance from the Social Democrats to the Christian Democrats, immediately changing the complexion of the German Government. That is hardly another example of fair votes or votes counting. I am astonished that New Zealand came to be saddled with a system that had such a track record—a system that the polls show is highly unpopular there.

We shall use the list system to elect our Members of the European Parliament next year. Evidence from other countries shows that that form of proportional representation does nothing to enhance the quality of democracy. Italy has had more than 50 Governments since the war, the shortest lasting, I think, 12 days. No doubt that is why the Italians voted in a referendum in 1993 to abolish list PR for the Senate—a clear signal that prompted the parties to change the electoral system for the Chamber of Deputies as well. In each case, three quarters of the members are now elected from individual constituencies, with only a quarter elected from lists.

Then there is the single transferable vote. After the 1997 election in Ireland under that system, Bertie Ahern had to rely on the Progressive Democrats—a party with only four seats out of 166. In 1994, when I was involved in Irish affairs, the same system allowed the complexion of the Irish Government to change without any reference to the electorate, because the partners in the coalition changed their minds about each other and formed different coalitions. Professor Philip Norton, a former Minister in Ireland, has written that, of the many factors which inhibit reform of the virtually powerless Dail … the first and arguably the most intractable is the proportional representation multi-seat system. The case for keeping our current electoral system is compelling. The electorate can remove the governing party if it no longer retains their confidence. We avoid coalitions and prevent minor parties from bringing down Governments. Above all, our system is fair; the most popular party always forms a Government, it cannot be kept out of office by minor parties, and the most popular candidate in a constituency is elected. We should not consider changing a system that evidently works so well.

The Government's exercise is not about democracy, but about power. If it was about a fair voting system or about making votes genuinely count, the Jenkins commission would have been asked to look at all the options; it has been prevented from doing so. It would have been asked to recommend the most appropriate system; it has been asked, for better or worse, to recommend an alternative. It would have been asked to test the current system against the criteria of its terms of reference to see how it fared; it has been told deliberately that it cannot. Its terms of reference are skewed, so its answer will be skewed.

The exercise is not academic; it is political. I do not believe that Lord Jenkins would deny that he would like the electoral system that would be most likely to produce the left-of-centre political balance beloved of Asquith's Liberals.

The process is playing with political fire. A country cannot destroy the credibility of its voting system and then hope to re-create it—look at New Zealand. It cannot seek to give smaller parties more influence and then complain when small, extremist parties get elected and start wielding real political power—look at Saxony-Anhalt in Germany. It cannot destroy the basis for electing stable and coherent Governments, and then complain about constant changes of Government for no good political reason—look at Italy before the move towards our current system. It cannot undermine the basis of representative democracy and then complain when democratic institutions are devalued—look at Ireland.

Photo of Ms Gisela Stuart

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston, Labour)

The right hon. Gentleman puts great stress on the election of the most popular candidate, and has referred to New Zealand, where vote splitting resulted in 37 per cent. of electors voting for the candidate they wanted, but choosing the election manifesto they preferred. There is a contradiction in the right hon. Gentleman's argument.

Photo of Earl of Michael Ancram

Earl of Michael Ancram (Devizes, Conservative)

I listen with interest to the hon. Lady's argument. New Zealand ended up with a Government that nobody had voted for, because the partners in the coalition had campaigned against each other.

Voting systems are not like new hats to be tried and then discarded if we do not like them. They are the basis of people's democratic rights, the source of their sovereignty and the guarantor of democratic accountability. It is an insult to democracy to subject them to the judgment of Paris—or, in this case, the judgment of Roy—with one of the beauties excluded from the contest. Such judgment is designed to produce a predetermined result, and no amount of flannel can cover that fact.

Today's debate and tonight's vote are not about the usual political issues which are the normal fare of Supply days. They are about the very future of our political system. The implications of what we are discussing could be far greater than any of the other constitutional changes that the Government are proposing. At the very least, such implications should be examined honestly and even-handedly. The Jenkins commission, by its terms of reference, cannot do so. It is a rigged exercise, designed to produce a rigged result. We should reject not only its outcome, but the very basis on which it has been set up.

Our motion gives the Government a chance to redeem the credibility of the Jenkins commission. If they reject that chance, we Conservatives at least must start the campaign to keep the system that has served our democracy so well. This is a battle for the political integrity of our democracy. It is a battle to establish beyond doubt that the people's vote is for the people and not for the convenience of politicians. Our message today is simple: stop messing with the people's votes.

4:10 pm
Photo of Mr Jack Straw

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: 'congratulates the Government on its constitutional reform programme; welcomes the creation of the Independent Commission on the Voting System and its remit; and supports the commitment of the Government to consult the people of the United Kingdom by a referendum on the appropriate electoral system to be used to elect this House'. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) on his imminent appointment as chairman of the Conservative party, and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) on his appointment as shadow Home Secretary. I should also like to take this early opportunity to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney). I enjoyed our year of facing each other across the Dispatch Box, and I wish him well in his new role on the Back Benches. It was typical of the man that, within a few hours of becoming a Back Bencher, he was asking forensic questions on a matter very dear to his heart—Northern Ireland.

The Government welcome the debate. We have embarked on a major programme of constitutional reform. We are modernising our constitution, and hoping to bring the institutions of government closer to the people whom they serve. We want to restore the trust of the people in the democratic system. The introduction, where appropriate, of new electoral systems is an important element of that agenda.

In any democracy, if the electoral system is not right, everything else is open to question—the right hon. Member for Devizes was entirely right to assert that. So the question of which electoral system to use for any election, far from being a matter of concern only to enthusiasts, is a vital one. The distinguished political scientist Dr. David Butler was entirely correct when he observed: Electoral Systems lie at the heart of a nation's arrangements". My party's interest in electoral systems dates from when the very first Labour Members were elected to this House; from the first moment that there was any prospect of power for the Labour party. As a minority party in those early days, it was, I suppose, natural for senior party figures such as Keir Hardie to be in favour of a proportional system in order to gain more seats in Westminster and so move out of the Liberal party's shadow.

Our stance in the early years of the century was in marked contrast to that of the Liberal party, which was then one of the big two players. The Liberal party opposed moving from the first-past-the-post system when the issue was first considered by a Speaker's conference at the end of the great war. It is a matter of record, of which we should take account, that it was only when the Liberal party became the third party that it began to look on proportional representation with rather more favour than it had during its time in government—while my party was moving in the opposite direction.

Following a few sporadic forays into the sphere of electoral reform between the wars, it was not until the late 1980s that the issue arose again as a major area of debate in the Labour party. Under the leadership of Neil Kinnock, my party took the step of establishing an internal commission on the subject, chaired by Lord Plant of Highfield. In turn, the Plant committee's recommendations triggered the late Labour leader, John Smith, to propose a referendum on the issue.

The whole House will know that I have not been exactly a shrinking violet when it comes to electoral systems. My view in favour of single-member constituencies is long stated. In the dog days of the Labour party in the early 1980s, when some people thought that my party could never again win by itself, I crossed swords with many advocates of proportional representation.

In last November's debate on the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, I set out my views about the electoral system for Westminster. I said: My arguments against proportional representation for the Westminster Parliament have been based on the mathematical and political difficulty of securing an identity between votes cast, seats gained and power secured. It is possible to devise a voting system where the seats won are proportional to the votes cast—but there follows a serious conundrum. The greater the proportionality of votes to seats, the less may be the proportionality of votes to power.PR systems typically give disproportionate power to the smaller minority parties, while first-past-the-post and similar systems with single-member constituencies give power to the largest plurality and so help secure a system where the proportionality, not between votes and seats, but between votes and power, may be the greaten"— [Official Report, 25 November 1997; Vol. 301, c. 804.] We will wish to take other matters into account, of course. The right hon. Member for Devizes managed from time to time to contribute to the informed debate he wants, but at other times he undermined that debate by insulting the integrity of those who may take a different view from his.

I want to raise two issues that are important to an informed debate. The first matter is raised in the Jenkins commission's terms of reference, and it is the constituency link. The connection between constituents and Members of Parliament has grown in recent years. Like me, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield will recall the late Sir Hubert Ashton, who represented Chelmsford—the right hon. Gentleman's home town—from 1950 to 1964. Chided on why he had not often visited his constituency—if he had done so at all—Sir Hubert dismissed the complaint famously, by saying, "Sir, I was elected to represent Chelmsford in Westminster, not Westminster in Chelmsford."

Within recent memory, many Members on both sides of the House considered that they were doing their constituents a favour if they made a regal visit to the constituency every one, two or three months. I recall a conversation I had with a close friend—now right honourable, but not a Conservative—when he and I arrived here in 1979. His outgoing predecessor had told my friend of a complaint to his general management committee that he had not been to the constituency for a year. He had taken out his diary and said, "That is entirely wrong. I was there just nine months ago." We all remember such people, and we all know that the connection was not always as strong as it is now.

That fact is also highlighted by interesting work—it is a little dated—on the mail that Members of Parliament receive. In the 1950s, the average Member received between 12 and 20 letters a week. By 1967, it was approximately 50 a week, and by 1986—the date of the research—it had risen to between 100 and 150 a week. Information from the House of Commons postmaster showed that, in 1964, Members of Parliament received 10,000 letters a week in total—though, obviously, not all came from constituents. By 1987, that figure had increased to 40,000 a day. I do not have a contemporary figure, but it is very much greater.

If the public at large are asked what they think of politicians at large, they dismiss us and rate us equal with estate agents and journalists.

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Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)

The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border speaks for himself. It is interesting that, while the public do not generally hold us in great esteem, they wish to use the services of individual Members of Parliament more and more. That is entirely right in a healthy democracy.

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Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston, Labour)

Only 30 per cent. of the people who live in my constituency also work there. Birmingham has 11 Members of Parliament, but its people have little idea of which side of the Hagley road is the end of Edgbaston and which the beginning of Ladywood. They regard us all as representatives of Birmingham, and therefore as a group. There is a lot of trade in between. Does my right hon. Friend accept that such links can exist with larger units and a multiplicity of representatives, such as 15 Birmingham MPs?

Photo of Mr Jack Straw

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)

Of course I accept that in principle. It is one of the points that I will make when I come to express my disagreement with the motion. Of course there are different ways of achieving a connection between representation in this House and areas of the country. However, I personally believe—it is no secret; I made it clear the last time we debated this matter, last November—that single-member constituencies are best. I know that I am in a privileged position because I represent a one-constituency town with clear boundaries. I have also represented Islington as one three of members for a council ward, and I often wished that I was representing a smaller, single-member ward.

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Dr Norman Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde, Labour)

I have considerable sympathy with what I might call my right hon. Friend's constituency link argument. However, it is widely believed in Scotland that, if we had offered the Scottish people in our recent referendum a Scottish Parliament based on the first-past-the-post system, we would not have achieved the resounding success we did on 11 September.

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Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)

I accept what my hon. Friend says. As he knows, I strongly support the system that we put forward in Scotland. I shall later point out that different political institutions require different electoral systems. I have been on the record for many years as saying that I was never happy with situations such as that in 1971 when I was elected to Islington council: 70 per cent. of the vote was for Labour, but we got 100 per cent. of the seats. That was not healthy for the electorate or for the Labour party, as events have proved.

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Mr Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton, Labour)

Following the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), is my right hon. Friend aware that, although things may be different in Birmingham, in Manchester people know very well who their representatives are? I have split roads in my constituency, but when people from the side of the road that is not my constituency come to me for help, it is not because they think I represent them, but because they wish I did.

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Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)

I know that to be true of my right hon. Friend. His extraordinary expertise in parliamentary matters is exceeded only by his modesty.

Another issue is often raised by those who want a fundamental change in the system. It was raised early this morning on the radio by advocates outside the House of a shift to a full proportional representation system. It is the issue of voter turnout. To follow on from the serious part of the speech of the right hon. Member for Devizes, what is important is that we have an informed debate and that we do not make huge claims for one system over another, but that we recognise that we are dealing with systems that may or may not—there is no perfect system of election—produce a balance of advantage for a country or an institution.

The figures on voter turnout are interesting. I was sorry that, in the last election, there was a lower turnout than in 1992—I dare say that the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) was even more sorry that the turnout was only 71 per cent. However, it is interesting to compare that with Portugal, which has a system of proportional representation, where the turnout in the most recent national elections was 68 per cent.; or with Ireland, where turnout was 65 per cent.

When discussing the question of proportionality—in this case, not proportionality of power with the interesting algorithms developed by Library statisticians, but proportionality of votes cast to seats gained—it is interesting to note that, although the United States uses a first-past-the-post system for national elections, because there is a two-party system across the country, there is almost exact proportionality between votes cast and seats gained; and even in that country, turnouts are low by any standard, at 50 per cent.

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Mr Harry Barnes (North East Derbyshire, Labour)

There is a problem with the turnout figures in this country, because our electoral registration process is inadequate. There are many people on registers who have died or moved and who are therefore not expected to vote, but we calculate the turnout of voters in an election from the number appearing on the register. The worse the registers become, the more inadequate are the turnout figures, so an improvement in the registration process would help us considerably in understanding exactly what proportion of people vote.

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Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)

I accept entirely what my hon. Friend says, and I pay tribute to his work over many years in Parliament to raise interest in voting. In my judgment, increasing interest in voting is a function not simply of the electoral system, but of many more prosaic issues, such as making the system of registration easier and quicker, making polling stations more accessible, and perhaps changing the day on which we vote.

I remember that, when I first took numbers in Chigwell urban district council elections, voting in urban districts in many parts of the country took place on a Saturday. We need to have an open debate on that matter. All those issues are being considered by a working party chaired by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), on which nominated representatives of the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats and other parties sit.

It should be an obvious truth that no electoral system can be suitable for all political institutions, whatever their purpose or powers. We have proposed different arrangements for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh assembly and the Greater London assembly. In the debate on the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, I set out the reasons why, in my judgment, the first-past-the-post system in huge artificial European constituencies was not a satisfactory system, and why, in the particular circumstances of the European elections, where we are electing not a Government but a representative body, a regional list system was better.

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Mr David Winnick (Walsall North, Labour)

All voting systems have blemishes, and no one, including its defenders such as myself, denies that the first-past-the-post system has its faults; but should we not recognise that, despite all that has happened on the continent before and after the war, no fascist and only the occasional communist has ever been elected to the House of Commons? Would not almost every anti-democratic party—fascist, communist or whatever—dearly like proportional representation to be introduced in this country, for obvious reasons?

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Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which needs to be weighed in the balance. I cannot and do not say that, if we moved to a system of proportional representation, it would be bound to lead to a growth of extremist parties. However, were it not for this debate, I would be chairing a European Union conference on racism being held in Manchester today under our presidency; and it is true that almost all our European partners are greatly anxious about the fact that extremist parties—particularly from the right—now have parliamentary representation in their domestic parliaments.

I have read with great care the Conservative party's submission to the Jenkins commission, and I say, without any condescension, that, on the merits of first past the post, it is well argued. Its fault lies in its dogmatism—its refusal to admit at all the possible merits of any alternative. That fault is compounded by the practice to the contrary of Conservative Administrations.

The right hon. Member for Devizes is the last person to dismiss Ireland as unworthy of the consideration that we should give the mainland of Britain, which is to his credit. He knows that, not once but twice in the Conservative party's recent history, Conservative Members have come to the House and recommended for Northern Ireland's political institutions not first past the post, but systems of proportional representation: the single transferable vote for elections to the old Northern Ireland Assembly, and a closed regional list system with our now famous d'Hondt divisors for the Northern Ireland peace forum.

The Conservative party rejected first past the post not only for those institutions but for its Members of Parliament, who make up the franchise for the electorate of the Conservative party leader. The system that the party has operated since 1965 is so complicated that it might well have been invented by our old friend, the famous Belgian, Victor d'Hondt, while resting from his labours on divisors. However, in essence, the system for electing the Tory leader is a form of the alternative vote.

Those who have just benefited from the patronage of the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), ought to be thankful that the Conservative party uses an alternative vote system, because, had the Tory leadership been decided by first past the post, the Leader of the Opposition would be not the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, but the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), and some Front-Bench Conservative Members might not now be in their posts.

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Mr Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield, Labour)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is interesting to note that, when the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks was at Oxford university, he urged the adoption of a single transferable vote system for its Conservative association?

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Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)

That information is interesting, but I do not necessarily hold against people what they did or said when they were students. To do so might be unwise not only for me, but for some of my hon. Friends.

Although I have long opposed proportional representation and favoured single-member constituencies, I have also come to recognise that questions have increasingly been raised about the legitimacy of first past the post, with endless challenges to its merits on the grounds of its alleged lack of arithmetical proportionality between votes cast and seats won.

It is for that reason that I have also long been a supporter of a referendum on the issue to give the British people a chance, which they have never had before, to express their confidence in the current system or to vote for a specific change. The 1995 Labour party conference finally made a decision on that issue. I was then a member of the national executive committee, so it fell to me to recommend such a referendum to the conference, which I did.

It is on that point that a great gulf emerges between the Government and the Opposition. The gulf is not between those who support proportional representation and those who support first past the post. There are different views among Labour Members, and, as I shall explain, in the Conservative party and the country. The gulf arises from the fact that the Conservative party writes an elegant and persuasive paper in favour of first past the post, in which it says: the evidence suggests that the British system fulfils the criteria"— set out in the Jenkins commission's terms of reference— better than any other system". It submits that evidence to the Jenkins commission, but it is unwilling to submit the same evidence to the British people.

Where is the courage of Conservative Members' convictions? Where is their trust in the British electorate, who, through first past the post, have served them so well, giving them power for 35 of the 53 years since the war? If their arguments are as strong as they say, what exactly is it they are scared of?

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Sir Nicholas Lyell (North East Bedfordshire, Conservative)

Does not the logic of the Home Secretary's argument lead to the question why the Government have not been willing to allow the Jenkins commission to give advice to the country on the whole question, including the merits of first past the post? Will he keep an open mind on that question and eventually answer it in the affirmative, and change the commission's terms of reference?

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Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman will bear with me, I shall deal with that point later, because it was also raised by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who has left the Chamber.

I ask the Conservative party in the House of Commons: why does it appear to be scared of a debate across the country about the relative merits of the first-past-the-post system and an alternative? I do not believe that Conservative Members' view is unanimously shared by members of the Conservative party. I note that Mr. Timothy Rathbone, Member of Parliament for Lewes until he lost his seat under the first-past-the-post system at the general election, is today reported as saying: The parliamentary motion on electoral systems chosen by the Conservative party in the House of Commons for debate today must be one of the most thoughtless and complacent of political actions by any party for a very long time. I share that view.

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Mr Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend East, Conservative)

The Home Secretary is making a sensible, balanced case. Does he not think that it would add to the confusion if we held a referendum and only 50 per cent. of the electorate bothered to vote?

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Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)

Obviously, there would be an issue of the turnout, but it would be for proponents of each argument to ensure a good turnout. I strongly believed—and advocated before the general election, when it was not the unanimous opinion in the Labour party—that referendums should be held in Scotland, Wales and London on the major issues of constitutional change there. I have never accepted that a minimum turnout should be set for the legitimacy of a referendum vote, because I do not believe in compulsory voting. I happen to believe that, in a democracy, people have as much of a right not to vote as they do to vote.

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Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)

We are talking about political institutions, not about trade unions—it would be quite off the point to do so.

The right hon. Member for Devizes seems to imply that the views that he has expressed are the unanimous views of the whole Conservative party; he knows that that is not true. I have with me the evidence that Conservative Action for Electoral Reform submitted to the Jenkins commission. It starts: Conservative Action for Electoral Reform welcomes the inquiry by the commission into an alternative system. It says: In the late 1970s, the Conservatives in Parliament had 41 Members of Parliament and 60 peers who supported change. It says that even the campaign guide of 1991—which, it correctly says, is the Conservative candidate's definitive authority from which the line is taken during a general election—stated: Ever since its invention in the 19th century, PR has had its advocates and opponents. In the Conservative party, the latter have always predominated, though the case for PR had been put with vigour by the group, Conservative Action for Electoral Reform, founded in 1974. If the Conservative party now denies that there is unanimity in the party on the issue, and if it accepts that there should be a debate in the Conservative party on the subject, why the devil should there not be a debate across the country also?

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Mr John Gummer (Suffolk Coastal, Conservative)

I am following the right hon. Gentleman's argument with care, and I am very much in favour of a debate across the country. However, would it not be helpful if that debate were to be informed in two ways? First, should there not be a commission whose membership, and above all whose chairmanship, was seen to be both balanced and, as far as the chairman was concerned, entirely without past baggage, so that it would present an independent approach? Secondly, would it not be helpful to ensure that the terms of reference enabled that commission to make comments about the present system, so that a subsequent referendum could properly draw its opinions from a properly presented case?

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Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)

The right hon. Gentleman anticipates me. I shall now discuss the appointment and the terms of reference.

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Dr Tony Wright (Cannock Chase, Labour)

Slightly more than 20 years ago, in 1976, an independent commission—organised by the Hansard Society and chaired by a distinguished Conservative peer, Lord Blake—did indeed study electoral systems. Contrary to the argument we heard earlier—that no rational person could reach a conclusion other than to support the first-past-the-post system, that independent commission, having studied the range of electoral systems, came out in favour of electoral reform. Is that not another important item for my right hon. Friend's list of Conservative opinions?

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Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)

Yes. There have been many external or independent commissions, some centred on voluntary organisations—and that is all as it should be. This is the most vital issue to affect any democracy—as far as that goes, I do not demur from what the right hon. Member for Devizes said.

The Jenkins commission was established in fulfilment of a manifesto commitment. There is, first, the issue of membership. We held discussions with the Liberal Democrats and among ourselves—[HON. MEMBERS: "Not with the Conservatives."] No, indeed, because, in the run-up to the general election, the Conservative party completely ruled out the possibility of any constitutional change. But there is always time for sinners to repent.

I am conscious of the repentance often uttered by the right hon. Member for Devizes, for instance. He was a sinner against sinning back in the 1970s, when he strongly supported constitutional change while in opposition, and spoke up in favour of a Scottish assembly. I have the quotations with me if the right hon. Gentleman has forgotten them—

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Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)

Yes. So the Conservative party ruled itself out of the equation.

The experience of New Zealand was uppermost in many of our minds. In that country, there was discontent with the electoral system. That is often a feature of all systems, even in countries with apparently wonderful systems of proportional representation. It is usually easier to find complaints about the systems than advocates of them—until one moves across the border. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), with her shining expertise in matters German, knows that to be true.

Nevertheless, the New Zealand experience was instructive. There was discontent with the first-past-the-post system, and the consensus was that there should be a referendum to decide whether there should be change. The voters were offered a curious choice, between a current system whose advantages and disadvantages they knew in every particular, and a mirage of some imprecise change whose detail was by definition unknown.

We were determined to avoid that. The Liberal Democrats and Labour agreed that the only fair way to put a choice to the British people was to give them a choice between two equals: between the first-past-the-post system—it would be absurd to suggest leaving it out—and another system carefully worked out by a relatively independent body.

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Mr Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire, Conservative)

Is the right hon. Gentleman seriously saying that the commission is in any sense independent or impartial?

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Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)

I used the term "relatively". I, for instance, would not be qualified to serve on the commission—this was a matter of some levity between the Liberal Democrats and me—because my views have not exactly been in favour of PR. There was not much point in putting on the commission people who were wholly opposed to the idea of PR, because its whole purpose was to draw up a practical alternative.

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Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)

I am sorry that it is taking me so long to get my point across. The balance is between the existing system, which the hon. Gentleman and most of his hon. Friends support, and an alternative worked up in detail. So, when the British people have the chance to vote, they can see the advantages and disadvantages of both.

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Mr John MacGregor (South Norfolk, Conservative)

Does it follow from what the right hon. Gentleman is saying that, when the time comes for the referendum, the Government will make the case both for what the commission recommends, which we know will have a particular slant, and for the existing system; and that they will ensure equal time and resources for putting across both cases to the country?

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Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)

I shall come to that in a moment. It is, of course, important to ensure that a fair debate is conducted on such a crucial issue. We have not yet made any final decisions; it will still be many months before we receive the report of the Jenkins commission. The right hon. Gentleman's point is an important one, and it distinguishes this issue from arguments about the Greater London referendum, for example—

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Mr John Gummer (Suffolk Coastal, Conservative)

If a commission presents a report saying that such-and-such is the best system, inherent in that presentation will be a judgment. Thus the British people will be presented with a report by a commission that has spent many months discussing the issue, and also with the status quo. They cannot but think of the commission as the sort of body that would usually investigate all the pros and cons and then come up with a proposal. Now we are told that it is not that sort of commission at all: it is supposed to come up with some proportional system, which will then be compared with the present system.

I submit that the Home Secretary should make it quite clear that the commission's report will be different in kind, and that whatever suggestion it backs will have a different sort of authority.

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Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)

No. The Conservative party has got itself in a terrible twist. The absurdity of its argument—which is that the commission will bring down tablets of stone declaring which is the best system—lies in the fact that the commission has not been invited to consider the merits of first past the post alongside all the alternatives. The Tories would have been in a pickle if the commission had been invited to do so. If an independent commission, as Lord Blake's body did 20 years ago, then handed down a recommendation stating that the additional member system or some form of STV system was incontrovertibly better than first past the post, Conservatives who support the latter would be in serious difficulties. The fact that the commission is not doing that is doing them a favour, although they seem not to recognise it.

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Mr Martin Linton (Battersea, Labour)

As the first-past-the-post system is guaranteed a place on the ballot paper, regardless of its merits and regardless of the findings of the Jenkins commission, can my right hon. Friend understand what the Opposition want?

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Mr John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings, Conservative)

Surely the frailty of the Home Secretary's argument is that it contravenes the principle, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"? To mix my metaphors, one does not have exploratory surgery while feeling perfectly well. Consequently, the British people will assume that the thing is broken, damaged or faulty from the very fact that it is being investigated.

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Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)

Although my views on single-member constituencies are widely known, I also acknowledge that, over the past 30 years, the legitimacy of first past the post has increasingly been challenged—that is a fact. Now it is time to ask the British people either to express their confidence in the system or to move to a different one.

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Mrs Ann Winterton (Congleton, Conservative)

I do not believe that the Home Secretary answered the question about equal funding. Will he give the House a guarantee that the campaigns for both systems will receive equal funding?

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Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)

I hope that my answer to the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) was satisfactory, because I well understood his point. I understand the expectation among all parties that there will be fairness in the conduct of the referendum. The Government have made no decisions yet, but we shall take the views of all parties fully into account.

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Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)

With great respect, I want to conclude my speech, so as to give others a chance.

The right hon. Member for Devizes seems not to have consulted the Conservative party's own evidence when he wrote his speech and the motion. In the motion, the Government are urged to change the remit of the commission. In the evidence that the Conservative party submitted just six weeks ago, it is not the Government who are urged to change the commission's remit, but the commission that is told that it should have been allowed to drop its own terms of reference. That is one of the most extraordinary propositions that I have ever read, and not one to which any Government of the Conservative Administration has ever subscribed. Indeed, it would amount to an abdication of government, were it to happen.

I shall go through the expected time scale for the referendum. The Jenkins commission hopes to report in October. After that, primary legislation will be needed to permit a referendum to be held. The plan is that the referendum should take place well before the next election. It will offer the public a clear choice between first past the post and an alternative, drawn from the recommendations of the commission.

If there were a vote for change in the referendum, further primary legislation would be required to introduce the new electoral system. Depending on the nature of the new system, extensive redrawing of electoral boundaries might also be required. These factors will determine whether any new system could be in place for the next general election.

At the last election, the Prime Minister said that he wanted to rebuild the country's faith and trust in Government and politics. Fundamental to that vision was a change not just in what the Government do, but in how they do it. Confidence in our political system has been significantly eroded in recent years. Our challenge is to restore confidence in our democracy, to bring decision-making closer to those who are affected by decisions, and to restore trust in the way in which we are governed. That is why we have embarked on a major programme of change.

We are giving the Scottish and Welsh people a greater say over the issues that affect them. We are giving Londoners their own elected mayor. We hope to secure a settlement in Northern Ireland. We are bringing rights home for all. We are reforming the House of Lords, and, yes, we are giving the British people the right to decide how they elect those who represent them.

The right hon. Member for Devizes said that what mattered were not parties' votes, but people's votes. For that reason, I find it extraordinary that he opposes a referendum. Voters, not politicians, should have the final say over the electoral system that they, the voters, use to elect us, their representatives, to the House. Whether there is change or no change, the referendum will provide the popular legitimacy that is essential for our working democracy. It is the British people's right to have that say, and our responsibility to provide it.

4:52 pm
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Mr John Major (Huntingdon, Conservative)

The Home Secretary has just made a speech in a very reasonable tone of voice. That makes me suspicious. When I was at the Dispatch Box and I was excessively reasonable, it usually meant that I had something to hide, or that I sided with the Opposition, but did not wish my own party to realise that so plainly. We are not clear which is the case with the Home Secretary, although the cat may have come out of the bag towards the end of his speech when, in a low-key, throwaway tone of voice, he set out a possible sequence of events for changing the nature of elections to the House before the next general election. I may return to that point in a few moments.

Since they came to power, the Government have been determined to make constitutional changes. I have no objection to that. They won a clear mandate at the election for some of those constitutional changes; where the changes are sensible, I have no objection to them, although my own preference is for incremental change, rather than root-and-branch constitutional upheaval.

It is sad that many of the changes that have taken place so far are not sensible. Of course, the Government have a clear electoral mandate for devolution in Scotland and Wales, even though it was obtained from the belief of many voters that devolution would put to rest the fear of Scottish nationalism, whereas, in practice, it has excited and improved the position of Scottish nationalism. It has fed it, rather than curbed it, and Scottish nationalism may yet be the coffin that carries away the Union that has been of such great assistance to both England and Scotland over the past couple of hundred years.

The Government clearly also have a mandate for the mayor of London, on the ground of democratic accountability. I accept that, although I find it curious that that desire for democratic accountability does not extend to letting the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) be a candidate in that election. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not present. He is probably out canvassing, having turned his pager off, for he is notoriously unprogrammable. He is clearly Labour's best candidate for the election if it comes about, and it is a great shame that he may not stand and that a party clone may stand in his stead.

The Government are also flirting with piecemeal changes to the House of Lords and, as the Home Secretary has just told the House, to the electoral system for this House. I fancy that those two points are connected, as I shall explain to the House in a few moments.

Why are the Government considering these changes? I came to the House today in an optimistic frame of mind. I thought that perhaps they were not really considering change, but rather stringing along the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and the Liberal Democrats in return for their slavish support. That seems to have been working over the past few months. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, whom I am delighted to see in his place, or at least in the Chamber, is the main cheerleader for the Prime Minister and the new Labour Government, and has already given full value for the electoral change that he hopes to achieve, by consulting them from a kneeling position seven days a week.

I sympathise with the right hon. Member for Yeovil. If I were a Liberal Democrat—which, thank goodness I am not—

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Mr John Major (Huntingdon, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman does not know me very well. I can give him a categorical assurance that, despite the charm of his implicit invitation, I shall not be able to accept it; nor would I wish to. However, if I were a Liberal Democrat, I would be in favour of changing the electoral system. I am not arguing that first past the post is perfect or even perfectly fair. Of course there are aspects of it that are unfair, and every other electoral system has its own share of unfairness.

We should consider whether a change in the electoral system is logical and whether it would work in the national interest—not which party is elected, but whether the party in government, when elected, can make the often painful, difficult and unpopular decisions that any Government must make.

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Mr John Major (Huntingdon, Conservative)

Will the right hon. Gentleman wait a couple of minutes? He may have more to intervene on.

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Mr Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil, Liberal Democrat)

On the right hon. Gentleman's last point, if he reflects on the last year of his Administration, does he believe that he had the power to institute what he wanted to institute? Even his more generous friends would believe that his party was a coalition and that he was driven by a very small, extreme group in it to decisions that he would not have wished to take.

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Mr John Major (Huntingdon, Conservative)

If the right hon. Gentleman had been a little wiser and waited a few more moments, I would have dealt with the points that are exercising him.

Those who advocate one or other form of proportional representation—I understand why they do so—seem to be confused about the underlying purpose of popular elections. Is the purpose to produce a miniature mirror of the entire electorate—a Britain in vignette? If that is the case, plainly some form of proportional representation is the right way to achieve it: I concede that. Such an assembly would mirror society more accurately than first past the post, but let us make no bones about it: if we fall below a certain strength, first past the post places a firm hand on our shoulder, informs us that we have lost, and shows us the door.

If the purpose is to make Westminster a little Gothic framed mirror in which every face is shown, proportional representation is best for us, and we can look forward to welcoming into the House, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said a few moments ago, some tiny parties, some of which have very extreme views.

The question arises: what is that Gothic mirror for? The electorate may have the illusion of democracy because they see in the House of Commons a direct reflection of their own image. However, is that really what the electorate wants to see? Do the people want their Parliament, when elected, to provide an effective Government, and effective Opposition parties who will work together when that is appropriate?

A Government—whether Tory, Labour or Liberal—must take firm decisions. For example, my predecessor's Cabinet did not privatise only 60 per cent. of British Airways because 40 per cent. of the House of Commons wanted the corporation to remain in state hands. The present Cabinet abolished the assisted places scheme after winning the vote in this place. Some 25 per cent. of hon. Members voted against that proposal, but we lost and we accepted defeat. It would be absurd if the decision were made to represent us proportionally by leaving in place 25 per cent. of that scheme. As far as I am aware—unless we have more to learn from the Government—we shall not have three quarters of a London mayor, half a Welsh assembly or four fifths of a Scottish Parliament.

The point is that decision making is a first-past-the-post system. Those who lose the argument are outvoted and overruled. That is frustrating, and they hate it, but decisions in the interests of the country then get taken.

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Mr John Major (Huntingdon, Conservative)

In a moment.

The present Government—like all their predecessors—are about decision making. At some stage, the losers must be ushered out. To offer the electorate a proportional Parliament that mirrors its opinions, but is unable to take decisions that mirror those opinions, is to change the moment at which the losers are ushered out. It offers a false prospectus to the elector.

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Mr Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

I differ from Privy Councillors in that I am concerned about not strong government but arbitrary government. There are insufficient brakes on government in our constitution, and we are getting arbitrary government. Electoral reform might mean that Governments—of whatever political complexion—will reflect on that point. For instance, the poll tax was a daft idea, which everyone agreed was stupid but which they had no way of stopping. If there had been a less arbitrary Government with an overwhelming parliamentary majority, that crackpot legislation might not have reached the statute book.

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Mr John Major (Huntingdon, Conservative)

It is interesting to develop the question of arbitrary government. It is self-evident that the hon. Gentleman is not wearing his pager. If he were, he would no doubt hear from Alastair Campbell within a matter of seconds. If there is a buzz, we shall know exactly what it is—we shall wait and see whether the hon. Gentleman leaves the Chamber shortly.

I understand the frustration of the advocates of proportional representation—I do not dismiss that. However, proportional representation has practical drawbacks for the process of good government.

Under proportional representation, in theory the sitting Prime Minister could have remained in office after every general election since the second world war if he or she had obtained the support of the third party. No Prime Minister would have left office. That is hardly democratic, and it is hardly the wish of the electorate, but it illustrates vividly the disproportionate power that proportional representation gives to the third party—or perhaps the fourth or fifth party in some cases. The electorate's basic decision becomes irrelevant, and a decision is made after the House reassembles.

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Mr Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil, Liberal Democrat)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I must raise some issues now, as I may have to leave shortly—I am not wearing my pager. The right hon. Gentleman has made four important and familiar points regarding, first, firm decision making; secondly, strong government; thirdly, the national interest; and, fourthly, control by extremists. Reflecting on the last two years of his Administration, does the right hon. Gentleman believe that he was able to provide that for the nation?

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Mr John Major (Huntingdon, Conservative)

At this moment, the Government—and the right hon. Gentleman as their faithful ally—are benefiting from the strength of the economy that they inherited from the previous Government and the decisions that that Government took, many of which were deeply unpopular. Those decisions were opposed mostly, but not entirely, by the right hon. Gentleman and almost entirely by the Labour party. However, their legacy is an economic climate unlike that inherited from any previous Government. The right hon. Gentleman would do well to reflect on that point.

Let us take a flight of fancy and suppose that Britain abandoned the first-past-the-post system. What would happen after future general elections? It is likely that they would be followed by a period of negotiation: the wishes of the electorate would matter less than the ability of party leaders to bargain. A coalition would be formed; by definition, coalitions are unstable and uncertain. History shows us that they are likely to fall because of internal politics rather than the electorate's wish at a general election. History tells us also that coalitions find decision making a tortuous process.

Over the past 20 years—the right hon. Member for Yeovil might reflect on this point—the previous Government took tough and unpopular decisions that are now generally accepted as having been correct. Would the unions have been tamed, the health service reformed, inflation brought down and privatisation begun if Governments had been elected by proportional representation? No; none of that would have occurred. Yet the present Government—and, I assume, the Liberal Democrats in most cases—now support those measures.

The last time we had a coalition—the Lib-Lab pact of 1977–78—it led to an erratic and ineffective Government that was in hock not to moderate and sensible opinion but to extremist Welshmen and sour Scots who had to be fought off. Any system that makes that the norm is mad, bad and dangerous to adopt, and we should not touch it.

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Mr Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, Liberal Democrat)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way to one who served in the arrangement that he has described. The difference between the Lib-Lab pact and the Government over which he presided was that the arrangements between the Liberal and Labour parties were open and clear, whereas he presided over a dishonest coalition of people who could not agree about the most fundamental issues facing the nation—particularly European policy.

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Mr John Major (Huntingdon, Conservative)

I am afraid that the real difference was that the Lib-Lab pact left the country in a shambles, whereas we left it in the best economic circumstances for generations.

What form of proportional representation should we have? Some forms create two classes of Members of Parliament—those with constituencies and those without—and others degrade the constituency link entirely. One system requires mumbo-jumbo, multi-member seats that no one wants. None of those options is attractive. The Government promised to hold a referendum—the Home Secretary has reiterated that pledge today—but they are already making changes, step by step, without a referendum. They have not made changes to Westminster—the Government have promised to hold a referendum in that regard—but they have introduced a London assembly, a Welsh assembly, a Scottish Parliament and changes to European elections.

Under the Government, first past the post might soon become the only electoral system that is not available to the British nation. The Government are inflicting a confusing mass of electoral systems on voters. There will be a regional closed list system for the European Parliament, two versions of the additional member system for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh assembly, the supplementary vote system for the London mayor, the additional member system for the London assembly, and whatever the hand-picked enthusiasts for reform on the Jenkins commission finally come up with for Westminster. Commission members are reformist, so who will even consider the case for retaining the status quo?

Labour-style electoral reform panders to the repressive tendencies that we are coming to expect from this Government. They have, I suspect, a taste for the closed list system which allows the party—we know what a small number of people that means in the present Labour party—to foist almost anyone on the public by offering a "take it or leave it" party ticket. Decisions in the Labour party national executive committee make it evident that that is the way it is going.

Even the Liberal Democrats—[Interruption.] I was about to say something nice about them, but that was clearly a mistake. Even the Liberal Democrats, whose eyes normally light up at any mention of proportional representation, did not like that system. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) nods his head. He, at least, has been listening and understanding a little of what I have said.

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Mr Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed, Liberal Democrat)

We sought to amend that closed list system, but does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that the first-past-the-post system is a closed list of one, which is open to the same criticisms? In any seat in which a party has a large majority, it leaves the choice of who will serve as constituency Member to the party.

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Mr John Major (Huntingdon, Conservative)

First past the post is not controlled remotely by the centre in the way in which that other system would be. The right hon. Gentleman understands that very well; he is a Liberal—an old-fashioned liberal, I think.

As the distinguished commentator Ferdinand Mount put it a year or so ago: PR means the Party Rules. Proportional representation means less control by the voters, not more. Under our present system, the voters have a good idea of what they are letting themselves in for when they vote Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat or whatever. Under proportional representation, a party may not choose to say with whom it will go into coalition after the votes have been counted. If it does, it may rat on them, as the New Zealand First party did so memorably a year or so ago.

If the Jenkins commission advocates, for example, the additional member system, Britain will end up with two classes of MPs: party hacks without constituencies chosen from a list drawn up in party headquarters, and directly elected constituency Members who, to rub salt in the wound, will have their constituencies enlarged to make way for the seatless additional Members.

If the commission advocates the alternative vote system, Britain will end up with a system that is far less representative than even the most hostile advocates can say of the present first-past-the-post system. Winston Churchill described the alternative vote system as the stupidest, the least scientific and the most unreal of plans for electoral reform. As usual, he understated his case.

An examination of proportional representation in action is pretty fearsome. In Israel, for example, the Prime Minister is hamstrung by small religious parties whose militant MPs keep him in power. Although those MPs won only tiny votes, Israel has them because it has the purest system of proportional representation.

In Germany, which has been mentioned, the alternative member system has produced a Parliament hamstrung by coalition, compromise and indecision. The previous change of Government occurred because the small Free Democrats decided to ditch the SPD and back the CDU—it was nothing to do with the voters. A majority of German voters want tax reform and welfare reform, as do the German business system and German politicians, but the electoral system simply cannot deliver it. Reform proposals have collapsed, causing social unrest and political disquiet. Here in Britain, whether the Government were Labour or Tory, those proposals would have gone on to the statute book, because the Government would have had a majority in the House. I do not think that we want a system of government that is causing so much difficulty elsewhere.

New Zealand has also been mentioned. In many ways, it offers the best lesson for us to absorb before minds are finally closed on this important issue. In 1993, it voted to abandon the system bequeathed by Britain and introduce one similar, but not identical, to Germany's. It now wants to change back, and it is easy to understand why. After the first general election under the new system, it took eight weeks of secret negotiation even to form a Government, and then only because 17 members of the New Zealand First party ratted on a pre-election promise not to go into coalition with the National party.

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Mr John Major (Huntingdon, Conservative)

I shall not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, because many hon. Members want to speak, and I want to make progress.

New Zealand First is nowhere in the polls, yet it still decides who governs. That is not appropriate to an electoral system that is like ours and a country with a democratic history similar to Britain's.

From Italy, too, we now have something to learn. After 40 years of instability, deal making and corruption, it reformed its electoral system. What did it reform its system to? Something that bears more than a passing resemblance to the British system.

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Mr John Major (Huntingdon, Conservative)

I shall not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me. I have given way several times, and many hon. Members want to speak.

Let me touch on a final danger of proportional representation. The Government threaten to reform the House of Lords—not wholesale, but piecemeal; to abolish hereditary peerages; and to flood the upper House with the Prime Minister's appointees to make it an obedient poodle of Downing street, whenever he needs it to be so. Making the Lords a poodle first, then introducing a forced change of the electoral system without the likelihood of the Lords blocking the scheme would be a contemptible way for the Government to proceed, but it would surprise few people if that is what they plan.

I hope that the Home Secretary, who has a reputation for straight dealing, will keep that reputation and ensure that that is not the Government's intention. If he does not, we shall be warned. I am profoundly suspicious about what the Government plan and why they plan it. He knows in his heart that their plans are for party advantage and not for the maintenance of secure good government in this country, whether Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat. I hope to be proved wrong, but the Government's actions, not the Home Secretary's words, will convince me.

5:16 pm
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Mr Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton, Labour)

Until he spoke this afternoon, I had held the view that the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) was a kindly fellow, but his praise for my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) as a potential mayor of London may have delivered the death blow to my hon. Friend's chances. If so, we shall have witnessed this week the collapse of Gazza, the collapse of the Spice Girls and the collapse of my hon. Friend. It has been a wonderful week indeed.

I listened with fascination when the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) moved the motion, especially when he rebuked Ministers for what he called playing politics with people's votes. That comes rich from the Conservative party, whose Representation of the People Acts 1983 and 1989 played politics with people's votes.

Conservative Members attack Ministers, but they are the people who when in power had the nerve to increase the deposit for parliamentary candidates while trying not to reduce the threshold for losing the deposit; who tried to reduce polling hours at general elections from the present concluding hour of 10 pm to 9 pm, thereby reducing people's chance to vote; and who sought to reduce the right of people to obtain postal votes in Northern Ireland compared with the way in which such votes were allocated in Great Britain. I worked with Enoch Powell and Jim Molyneaux to prevent the Conservatives from reducing the value of a vote in Northern Ireland compared with a vote in Great Britain.

The Conservatives are the people who introduced the overseas vote, which introduced to this country the novel concept not of no taxation, without representation, but of representation without taxation and allowing people with only a remote connection with this country to decide who should govern it. I strongly hope that, when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary introduces a Representation of the People Bill, he will remove the overseas vote from the statute book, because there is no possible justification for it. I can tell him, in the great friendship that I bear for him, that, if he does not propose to remove it, I shall table an amendment to do so.

The last people to whom I would pay serious attention when they denounce Governments for playing politics with people's votes are the Conservatives.

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Mr Gordon Prentice (Pendle, Labour)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in the previous Parliament, the Conservative Government redrew the local government boundaries in Scotland by administrative fiat and with no reference to the boundary commission?

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Mr Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton, Labour)

As is generally—although not quite always—the case, my hon. Friend is right. [Laughter.] One has to measure one's words in the House. I never know who is going to quote me and in what context.

The Home Secretary was absolutely right to point out that the Labour party and the Labour Government have a manifesto mandate to examine changes to the voting system and to conduct a referendum. Labour Members were elected on that manifesto, and the Government are properly committed to carrying out that pledge. The Home Secretary also made it clear that the Government do not have a manifesto mandate to change the voting system; nor do they have any obligation or commitment to do so. They have a commitment to enabling the electoral to decide whether to retain the present voting system or to change it for one suggested by the Jenkins commission.

I am gratified that my right hon. Friend reminded the House of his scepticism about electoral systems other than the first-past-the-post system. I am also gratified that, on television recently, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear his own preference for the first-past-the-post system, as have my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and other members of the Government. As the right hon. Member for Huntingdon and others have said, it can be argued that the present voting system is imperfect. Although it is undoubtedly imperfect—I was defeated twice before I got into the House of Commons—alternative systems are far more imperfect.

Copious references have been made to the fact that the people of New Zealand are bitterly repenting their choice of a new system. The right hon. Member for Huntingdon referred to the disaster of the perfect proportional representation system in Israel. David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, wanted to get rid of that system. He was a great respecter of the British parliamentary system. He would have liked to introduce the first-past-the-post system in Israel, but the small parties in the Israeli Parliament elected under a proportional system would never allow their disproportionate power to be taken away from them by the introduction of a truly fair electoral system in the state of Israel.

The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) referred to the imperfections in the present system in Britain. The PR system that they have in Israel, which could be used elsewhere, including in this country in certain circumstances, enables a tiny collection of fanatics to wield disproportionate power and thereby to jeopardise the peace of a region and, possibly, the peace of the world.

I was talking about the imperfections of the Israeli electoral system to Senator Patrick Moynihan in New York. He said, "There is a rabbi in Brooklyn who tells the Shas party what to do, and the Shas party tells the Israeli Government what to do." That is an example of the most perfect PR system with a very low threshold—of 1.2 per cent.—for representation in the Israeli Knesset.

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Mr Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed, Liberal Democrat)

Will the right hon. Gentleman concede that the terms of reference of the Jenkins commission exclude the Israeli system?

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Mr Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton, Labour)

That may be so, but we are discussing electoral systems and proportional representation. I shall deal with other systems and shall not confine myself to the Israeli system. Right hon. and hon. Members will understand that I take any opportunity to denounce the Israeli Government, because that seems appropriate.

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Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston, Labour)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, when an election results in a stalemate, it usually reflects a tremendous diversity of opinion and energy within a state rather than the election system? Some countries may be extremely difficult to govern, irrespective of the electoral system used, because of the nature of the interest groups that have to be brought together.

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Mr Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton, Labour)

Our present electoral system does not remove diversity of opinion in the House, either among several different political parties or within parties. It is one of my great regrets that the Labour party is not more monolithic. I am in favour of a rigidly controlled parliamentary Labour party so that my own ideas can be implemented as much as possible. That strikes me as an appropriate concept of democracy.

I am not focusing my opposition to alternatives to the first-past-the-post system merely on the system used in Israel.

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Mr John Gummer (Suffolk Coastal, Conservative)

Did the right hon. Gentleman notice that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) dismissed the most perfect PR system as beyond the competence of the Jenkins commission? If the perfect PR system is so worthy of dismissal, how can the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed commend to the House a less than perfect PR system? At what point does the perfection of the PR system become such that it is impossible to implement?

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Mr Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton, Labour)

That is a matter for the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), should he catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As a simple socialist, I lack the sophistication to answer such difficult questions.

All the differing proportional representation systems result not in government by the majority or by the largest single party, but in government by small minorities. It is government not by the people who make their choice of programmes put before them at a general election, but by the manoeuvring of politicians.

We have seen what has happened in this country since 1979. The minority Labour Government were brought down on 31 March 1979 not by the Conservative Opposition, who lacked the power to do so, but by the Liberal party and the Scottish National party. Those two parties put Margaret Thatcher into power—let that never be forgotten. By devising that vote of no confidence in the Labour Government in March 1979, the Scottish National party set devolution back a quarter of a century. Minor parties are not only wrong-headed, but often self-destructive—although not self-destructive enough for my taste.

In the last few elections, what we have seen is the irresponsibility of minor parties. Some say that we on the left of centre—if I may associate myself personally with such a group—

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Mr Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton, Labour)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend.

Some say that we on the left of centre would not have had to put up with the Thatcher years, or even the more benevolent Major years, if only we had had a system of proportional representation. Using the language of moderation for which I have become somewhat noted in the House, I must say that that is absolute rubbish.

Let us just see what would have happened under proportional representation in 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992. In those years, the Conservative party had a huge lead over Labour in terms of votes: 7 per cent. in 1979, 14 per cent. in 1983, 11 per cent. in 1987 and 8 per cent. in 1992. Is anyone really going to tell me that in such circumstances the Queen would have sent for anyone except the leader of the Conservative party to form a Government?

Furthermore—although on each of those occasions the Conservative party received less than 50 per cent. of the vote—is any hon. Member going to tell me that the Liberals, who connived to throw out the moderate Jim Callaghan Government when the moderate Jim Callaghan Government had received more votes than the Conservatives in October 1974, would have worked to keep Jim Callaghan in office in May 1979, having kicked him out of office on 31 March 1979? Are the people who kicked out Jim Callaghan really going to say that they would have worked to help Michael Foot in 1983 and would have worked to make Neil Kinnock Prime Minister in 1987 and 1992? That is utterly absurd. We would have had a Thatcher majority Government, or a Major majority Government, in every one of those elections.

People say that, under proportional representation, there would have been a minority Government. They say, "We would have been able to moderate their approach." Would a Margaret Thatcher who could crush Jim Prior and Francis Pym have bowed the knee to David Steel? I will take a little convincing of that. She would have had her way, with the added legitimacy—from her point of view—of the support of the Liberal party and the great left-wing socialist David Owen.

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Mr Hugh Bayley (City of York, Labour)

My right hon. Friend will recall—because he was a Member of Parliament at the time—that in February 1974 the Queen sent for Edward Heath to ask him to form a Government because he was the leader of the party with the most Members of the House of Commons. He spent a few days trying to form a Government, but failed. The Queen then sent for Harold Wilson. Does not my right hon. Friend think that it is quite possible that that could have happened under proportional representation following the 1987 and 1992 elections?

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Mr Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton, Labour)

As it happens, I was there myself—and not just as an elected Member of Parliament, proud though I was to be so. I was at No. 5 Lord North street, Harold Wilson's house, while he waited to find out what was going to happen. What happened, of course, was that Edward Heath tried to persuade Jeremy Thorpe to join him in the Government. There were wrangles in the Liberal party, and it took four days for that to sort itself out.

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Mr Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton, Labour)

I am replying to my hon. Friend. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hon. Friend?"] I am replying to my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley). The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) could be my hon. Friend in certain circumstances if he played his cards right.

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Mr Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton, Labour)

I am replying to my hon. Friend the Member for City of York. He has the right to put questions to me because I went to help him in his constituency.

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Mr Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton, Labour)

Indeed; he won with an enormous majority—under the first-past-the-post system.

I shall explain to my hon. Friend the Member for City of York. What happened between 28 February and 4 March 1974 was one thing. The Conservatives had a lead of five seats over Labour. In the case of the elections in which Labour was defeated, between 1979 and 1992, the Tory lead over Labour was never less than 8 per cent., and rose as high as 14 per cent. The scenario that my hon. Friend imagines for 1974 simply would not have been repeated.

Why the delusions of those on the left who hated—understandably; I did too—so much of what was done during those Tory years? They believe that under proportional representation the Tory years could have been avoided, but they could not and would not have been, and the Tories would have been given the imprimatur of the Liberals and the Social Democrats.

The right hon. Member for Huntingdon—and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. who rightly dismissed the Israeli system—referred to the system that is most supported: the additional member system, which I discussed with Lord Plant. People say that the German system ensures good left-of-centre government and that we in the Labour party should adopt the same approach, but let us look at what has happened under that great additional member system.

In the 49 years since the first election in post-war Germany, our sister party--the Social Democratic party—has held office for a total of 13 years. That is even less than the Labour party in Britain—and we should take account of the fact that, during the 1980s, the Labour party deserved to lose general elections because it was riven by extremism. Under the first-past-the-post system, Labour has been in power for a greater aggregate period than the Social Democrats in West Germany. The Christian Democratic Union has been in power for 35 years during that period, and the Free Democratic party for 27 years. It has been in power—part of the Government—for twice as long as the Social Democratic party, although on occasion its vote has fallen as low as 6.9 per cent; and that is the system that some of my hon. Friends, who in other respects appear perfectly sane, are ready to support.

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Mr Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton, Labour)

Let me finish my argument first.

Who held office as Foreign Minister for longer than any other Minister in democratic western Europe? Mr. Genscher, who, among other things, was the architect of the disaster in the former Yugoslavia. He was Foreign Minister in West Germany for 18 years, regardless of whether the Social Democratic party was in power—as it rarely was—or the CDU was in power, as it frequently was.

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Mr Martin Linton (Battersea, Labour)

My right hon. Friend seeks to give the impression that proportional systems have led in Germany and perhaps elsewhere to a preponderance of centre-right government. Germany was partitioned after the war, and the largely social democratic part was in the east. To draw comparisons not only from one instance, but especially from Germany, is misleading. Why did he not point to the success under PR of the Austrian socialist party, the Swedish social democrats, PASOK in Greece and the Spanish socialist party?

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Mr Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton, Labour)

One of the great glories of the Austrian system was Kurt Waldheim. I am sure that we all envy the Austrians having him as their leader.

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Mr Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton, Labour)

I promised to give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. After he has intervened, I shall respond further to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton).

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Mr Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham, Conservative)

The right hon. Gentleman made an important statement about the Free Democrats, who, under Hans-Dietrich Genscher, secured the foreign ministry at the price of the party's support for the CDU.

However, the issue goes further than that, because Klaus Kinkel secured an extension of that freehold at the price of the support of the Free Democrats.

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Mr Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton, Labour)

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes his point. I shall now respond further to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, who quotes a special circumstance.

Even after East Germany was incorporated into Germany, it continued to elect the CDU. Any country using PR has a propensity to instability. It is a miracle that the Irish Republic, with its single transferable vote system, has managed, despite constant changes of Government, to achieve the peace settlement.

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Mr Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton, Labour)

No. My arguments are overwhelmingly compelling, and no intervention will throw me. Many hon. Members wish to take part in the debate, and I take it, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will choose them proportionately.

Like every Labour Member, I was elected on a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on electoral systems, and I accept every commitment in that manifesto. I was not elected to support a change, and in no circumstances will I do that. I support my party's manifesto, and after that I am free in a referendum to campaign for the continuation of the present system. I hope that the Government will do that. I certainly shall.

5:42 pm
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Mr Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, Liberal Democrat)

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) has been a Member for a long time, and it is normal courtesy to follow his remarks with at least some animadversion. His memories of No. 5 Lord North street are riveting, but when he fantasised about possible alternative systems to be transplanted from foreign soils to this country, he was less interesting. In that area, the right hon. Gentleman speaks with no greater authority than any other hon. Member. He chose to use the debate, rather prematurely, to discuss alternative systems to first past the post, with which we are familiar. The debate was initiated by the Opposition, and focuses not on alternatives but on first past the post.

The debate was opened by the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), and I add my felicitations on his translation to the chairmanship of his party. It is somewhat analagous to my role as president of my party, although, of course, my role is on a smaller scale. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I have not found it impossible to speak my mind. However, a Front-Bench place for the right hon. Gentleman is not always guaranteed. I have great admiration for the right hon. Gentleman as a rhetorician, and even greater admiration for his ability to glide from one position to another on constitutional affairs, leaving no wake, so that within a decade or so he can complete a 180 degree turn on devolution for Scotland.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman's bon mot that he is in favour of retaining the integrity of the political system. The debate is being held because the integrity of the system was plainly under attack. In a candid speech, the Home Secretary, who has not always shown himself a whole-hearted supporter of electoral reform, showed that the electoral system has become a central issue for constitutional debate. For that reason, discussions were held before the election between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats. The discussions were not exclusive: other parties and individuals were involved.

A common programme was agreed before the election by both parties, and the electorate resoundingly supported the proposition that there should be a referendum on the electoral system. The Home Secretary rightly emphasised the nature of the choice, and explained the way in which we should proceed. The Government are simply carrying out precisely what they said they would do. It would not make sense to put to the electorate a wide range of alternatives and expect a sort of grab-bag approach to the exercise.

It is hard to follow the logic of the motion. The right hon. Member for Devizes said that the Government-appointed commission needs to investigate the merits of his preferred system, which is first past the post. Everybody over the age of 19 has a direct and recent familiarity with that system: it has been in operation for 100 years. Does the right hon. Member for Devizes seriously believe that the British people would prefer the commission to be asked to say what it thinks about a system under which they have been operating and with which they are so familiar?

It is preposterous to suggest that the people who are considering the alternatives should not favour reform. Such an approach is perfectly sensible and natural, to ensure that the best alternative to first past the post is chosen. That will ensure that the known system and the best alternative can be weighed in the balance. We are not debating some sort of quick political fix or change in the political environment of the kind that the right hon. Member for Devizes suggested the Government could somehow manufacture. We are debating the will of the British people expressed through the ballot box, and yes or no will decide whether the system is to be changed.

The right hon. Member for Devizes will have many opportunities to deploy his arguments in favour of first past the post, and will no doubt pursue the line of thought that is becoming so familiar in the Conservative party, whose members seem to think that they have the philosopher's stone that will turn the base metal of their argument into liquid gold—the philosopher's stone being repetition. I dare say that we shall hear the right hon. Gentleman's speech again, but not necessarily from him.

I must be fair to the right hon. Gentleman, who produced one rabbit out of the hat—the novelty of a new definition of proportionality. He apparently managed to persuade the Library to give him some figures to enable him to make his case, which he said was too complicated to explain to the House. Of course, we in the House would not understand it; no doubt those outside will. We look forward with great interest to the right hon. Gentleman's explaining it to the country.

I have taken the precaution of reading the Conservative party document, and of endeavouring to understand it.

Happily, I agree with the verdict of the Electoral Reform Society—an independent organisation—that the document is nothing more than a fiddle with figures to make a preposterous claim.

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Mr Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, Liberal Democrat)

I am dealing with a very important point made by the right hon. Member for Devizes, who is still the Opposition spokesman on the issue. We shall no doubt hear more from the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) later.

The Conservative party has equated power with having representation in the Cabinet, with no differentiation between being a major or minor coalition partner. Power is then measured as the proportion of years during which a party has had representation in Parliament.

Exactly the same mistake was made by the right hon. Member for Gorton, who talked about the FDP in Germany as though it had been a great power wielder over the past two decades. The right hon. Gentleman may know a great deal about the workings of the electoral system in Israel—I bow to his views on that—and about the country's Government, but it is evident that he knows very little about what happens in the Federal Republic of Germany. Those who say that the FDP has been a great wheeler-dealer are plainly out of touch. Mere representation in Cabinet is no measure of power.

The argument advanced by the right hon. Member for Devizes about the proportionality of power, if applied to Ireland, would show that the Labour party in Ireland was a more powerful party than Fine Gael. I do not believe that there is a single Irish Member of this House who would recognise that description. Coming from the right hon. Gentleman—a former Minister with responsibilities for the northern part of that island—it is a peculiarly disingenuous argument.

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Earl of Michael Ancram (Devizes, Conservative)

If the right hon. Gentleman disagrees with my argument, could he explain why Dick Spring was the Deputy Prime Minister under both Albert Reynolds and John Bruton and was the man who decided which was the Taoiseach as he switched from one side to the other?

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Mr Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, Liberal Democrat)

Deputies are not always second in power. I have noticed the fate of the immediately outgoing shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who has been elevated to the deputy leadership of his party. Some of us have been here too long to be taken in by that kind of argument.

I did not find the submission of the Conservative party to the Jenkins commission at all compelling as a case for first past the post. In fact, it was such a weak case that I wondered why they had tried to make it. It was such a weak case that I wondered whether, from the Conservative party's own point of view, it gave the Jenkins commission a legitimacy which it may come rather to regret as its arguments are stripped out one by one in later months.

Some of the things the Conservatives have said in the document are coruscating truisms. The document states: The electorate can remove the Government if it no longer retains their confidence under first past the post. What a remarkable aperçu. Is that not also true of Governments in other countries? Have not the Irish Government been defeated at a general election? Have not the Spanish and French Governments been defeated at a general election? May not the Federal Government of Germany be defeated at a general election? What a bizarre proposal in terms of the accountability of Government.

We are told that, in Britain, parties under the first-past-the-post system have to be sensitive to the public mood if they are to survive. Is that peculiar to the position in this country? I would suggest not. It is true in all democratic countries.

The first-past-the-post system is always referred to as "the British system", for reasons that are hard to discern, as it was first devised in the United States of America after the revolution. Certainly it is true that we have lived with it for a long time.

In another of the document's insights, it boldly states that the British system ensures that both parties and their Members of Parliament govern in the interests of the people. That is a product of the British system. It must be said that many people felt that there was a certain disconnection between the interests of the British people and the Government during at least the latter days of the outgoing Administration, which led to the sort of electoral nemesis which I had not experienced in my 32 years in this House. The system did not ensure the position of a Government who had been involved in all the queasy privatisation deals, the fat cats and jobs for the boys. I do not want to bring back memories of the ethos which is being prayed in aid of the present system. That would be repetitious.

The Conservatives' other allegation was that first past the post produces stable Governments, and we heard a great deal about that from the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). Both my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and I intervened briefly to ask whether the Government over whom he presided had truly demonstrated firmness of purpose and a great sense of direction. The country's judgment was a resounding no.

I was not surprised that the former Prime Minister chose not to answer and talked about the state of the economy, which, unusually, the country was prepared to overlook during the election, so dazzled was it by the Government's other activities, which had been calling into question the probity of many of their members.

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Mr Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley, Conservative)

The right hon. Gentleman got fewer votes in 1997.

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Mr Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, Liberal Democrat)

I certainly did, and I much preferred it when I had the majority of the votes, as I did at the 1987 election—the only time under our present system when I felt able to say that I spoke for the majority of my electors. I look forward to the possibility of that happening again.

The argument of the right hon. Member for Devizes suppresses the obvious fact—that the biggest single party in Parliament winning 43 per cent. of the vote leaves 57 per cent. voting against. I am sorry that I have to produce somewhat inane arguments to deal with inane propositions. This is all about allowing the people their voice. On that I agree with the right hon. Member for Devizes—the people's voice has not been heard clearly for a long time in this country. That is why we wish another electoral system to be adopted.

I should like to mention one other peculiar utterance in the Conservative party's statement to the Jenkins commission in defence of first past the post. Page 14 of the submission states: Systems other than our present one do not give voters choice. That statement seems to be standing the argument entirely on its head. Nevertheless, the submission goes on to trumpet that lack of choice with the rather extraordinary sentence: Our present system is monotonic. First past the post is monotonic? I looked up the word in the "Oxford English Dictionary", and found that it does not exist in that context, or in any other. It is a neologism. Presumably that creative use of the English language is supposed to dazzle us into thinking that there is more to the matter.

We have seen the Conservatives' argument for what it is. In truth, the argument is about the fact that, in the past 100 years, the first-past-the-post system has served them not at all badly. The Conservative party has been in power—especially if one accepts their definition of "proportionality of power", which is being in coalition—for 70 out of 100 years. That is the achievement of the first-past-the-post system. It has kept Conservative Members sitting on the Treasury Bench for a very long time.

Some Conservative Members have hopes that the electorate will put them back on the Treasury Bench—I would not count on it. However, I should certainly think their return more likely if the absurd system with which the United Kingdom has been lumbered is perpetuated—which I cannot think would reflect the wishes of the British people.

The Liberal Democrats have expressed our views on the matter. I invite the right hon. Member for Devizes to study and comment on those views, and to find arguments that directly address them. He has not done so today. We believe that the single transferable vote system best fulfils not only our objectives but those stated in the criteria of the Jenkins commission. It is unnecessary to repeat the objectives now, as this is not a debate about alternative systems. We will have an opportunity to debate those systems once the Jenkins commission reports.

Broad proportionality—the first criterion sought by the Government from the Jenkins commission—under the single transferable vote system would ensure that no party would be likely to secure a Commons majority without the support of nearly half the popular vote. Ideas that the British public would prefer something else, and that they would not like to look at the House and the Government and see in them a reflection of their own opinion—which the former Prime Minister characterised as looking in a Gothic mirror—seem to be far removed from public opinion on the matter.

The second criterion that the Government asked the Jenkins commission to apply was the need for stable government. Under the single transferable vote system, Governments will always reflect the opinions of the majority of the electorate, rather than being captured by rival minorities. Parties will rule by consensus and avoid destabilising, extreme policies.

The extension of voter choice—the third criterion—was dismissed by the right hon. Member for Devizes as leading to "splitting the vote". What is wrong with voters having the opportunity to vote for candidates of different parties if they so choose? There is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that, at the previous general election, in many constituencies, people chose to vote not for the party they most favoured—or even to which they belonged—but for another party which had a better chance of defeating the sitting Conservative Government. It was called "tactical" or "judicious" voting; it seemed to me to be sensible voting. Splitting the ticket may also be sensible voting. The British public are quite capable of intelligently making up their minds how to use whatever electoral system they give themselves—as they will do when casting their votes in a referendum.

The final criterion is maintenance of a constituency link. With the single transferable vote system, constituencies could be strengthened by being given the same boundaries as natural communities. I so agreed with the point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who spoke about the importance of people in Birmingham looking on their Members as attempting to represent the people of Birmingham, and of familiarity. The link problem arises not only in urban constituencies. In rural constituencies, such as mine, confusion is caused when the boundary commission shifts boundaries—south, in my case—and adds an additional 300 square miles. There is no sense of the constituency being a natural community.

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Mr Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain to the House how—in the context of the much-beloved multi-constituency system—a constituency link could be applied to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand)? Which specific part of Hampshire forms a natural community with the Isle of Wight? Is it Basingstoke?

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Mr Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, Liberal Democrat)

That is one for the boundary commission, which I will happily leave to it.

Given the breadth of experience and acumen of all the commissioners, I have no doubt that they will find an admirable proportional alternative to the current system. Although I hope that the alternative system will be the single transferable vote, I know that all the commissioners will be seeking to devise a system that fully meets all the set criteria.

I look forward to the day when the United Kingdom will be able to decide on the arguments for and against those rival systems. If the type of arguments that we have heard today from Opposition Front Benchers are deployed generally in the United Kingdom, there can be little doubt that, when the opportunity comes, the British people will vote for electoral reform.

6:06 pm
Photo of Mr Stuart Bell

Mr Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough, Labour)

It is a great pleasure to speak after the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland. and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), and in a debate in which the humour has flown thick and fast. I hope that that humour will continue not only for the rest of the debate, but into the subsequent campaign.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the arguments that may be made by Conservative Front Benchers in the campaign, and said that, on the basis of those arguments, the public would change not only their view but the electoral system. I tell him, and the House, that the campaign will be fought fully by many Labour Members who support first past the post. On both sides of the House, the campaign to ensure that the system remains the same may well begin today.

In elaborating on the reasons why the system should not be changed, I shall build somewhat on the comments of the right hon. Gentleman—although I shall not advert to the philosopher's stone. He mentioned some of the comments of the Electoral Reform Society. I should like to share with the House some of the comments made by the society on the elections in New Zealand, about which we have heard much in this debate.

On the first election in New Zealand held under a proportional representation system, the Electoral Reform Society said: On the negative side many New Zealanders are unhappy that the system has not led to a more consensus based politics. Many politicians are still operating under a first past the post mindset.There is also a feeling that New Zealand First to which the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) referred— betrayed its supporters by going into coalition with National when it had campaigned against National in the election and most people believed it would form an administration with Labour.

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Mr Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby, Labour)

There is clearly criticism of the electoral reform in New Zealand. A system takes time to settle in. However, the main problem was not the system, but the fact that Winston Peters, the leader of New Zealand First, said, "If you want to get National out, vote New Zealand First," and then made an alliance with National. That was the betrayal. That is a problem of the politicians, not the system.

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Mr Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough, Labour)

I had been wondering what had happened to my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby and where he was lying in wait for me, when he pounced from the Bench behind me. What he says is correct. However, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon gave some insights into that election. New Zealand First said that it would not form a coalition and the campaign was based on trading insults from one end of the country to the other, yet at the end of it all New Zealand First entered into the sort of coalition that would suit the Liberal Democrats.

On the basis of 13 per cent. of the popular vote, the leader of New Zealand First ended up as Deputy Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, with eight Cabinet Ministers from his party. He had fought the election on the argument that too many assets in New Zealand were going to foreign companies and immigration should be stopped, but in government he immediately dropped both those commitments, for which 13 per cent. of the electorate had voted.

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Mr Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough, Labour)

I should like to make a little progress, because I do not want to get bogged down on New Zealand. I shall come back to my hon. Friend, but I should like to comment further on the remarks of the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, who mentioned Dick Spring, the leader of the Labour party in the Republic of Ireland.

I know Dick Spring, and have followed events in Ireland for some time. I am interested in the fact that the Liberal Democrats favour the single transferable vote. In 1992, Dick Spring's Labour party campaigned vigorously against Fianna Fail. When the election was over and the votes were counted, there was horse trading for some time, after which the Labour party came into government with Fianna Fail, much to the bemusement of the electorate. That Government lasted for two years, before being exchanged for a Labour coalition with Fine Gael. At the following election, the voters did not forget the behaviour of the Labour party, which paid heavily for it.

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Mr Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, Liberal Democrat)

Is that not the point? The proportional system punishes parties that seek to overstep their support in the country. The hon. Gentleman has given one of the classic examples, but there are others. The same principle could well be demonstrated shortly in New Zealand, where New Zealand First's 13 per cent. support appears to have slumped to 1 per cent.

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Mr Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough, Labour)

The right hon. Gentleman makes the case for first past the post. The problem is endemic in the system. He said that 43 per cent. of the electorate voted for new Labour at the general election last year; in fact, the figure was 45 per cent., and we had a majority of 177. He then said that the 57 per cent. who did not vote for the Labour party were opposed to it. That is not the case.

The right hon. Gentleman is a fellow barrister, but his logic has gone somewhat astray. People have a choice at a general election, but when the votes are counted, the person who is elected becomes the Member of Parliament for the whole constituency, and the Government govern for the whole country. That happened with the Conservatives from 1979 and Labour in 1997.

The Liberals have never argued with the proposition that a Government, once in office, seek to represent all the people. The right hon. Gentleman has shown that a proportional system has horse trading built in. Manifesto commitments are diluted. The specific manifestos for which the public voted are brought together, and there is a punishment at the end. That is endemic in the system. He wants to introduce that instability to our system.

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Mr Stephen Day (Cheadle, Conservative)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, however imperfect our present electoral system—no electoral system is perfect—when the electors cast their votes, they know that they are deciding who will govern and what that Government's policies will be, because in each constituency the candidate with the most support wins? Under proportional systems, the composition of the Government might be decided only days or weeks later. Under PR, the politicians, not the electorate, decide who will form the Government.

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Mr Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough, Labour)

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We fully accept that no system is perfect. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) mentioned two elections that resulted in a Government being elected with fewer votes than a rival party. New Zealand set up its electoral commission because that had happened twice in the 1970s, but 54 per cent. of the population now say that they wish that they had never changed the system. However, that is a valid point that we shall argue in the country.

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Mr Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield, Labour)

My hon. Friend says that the shenanigans in which Winston Peters indulged is endemic in proportional systems. He should consider the results in the constituency seats in the New Zealand elections. The National party won 34 per cent. and the Labour party won 31 per cent. New Zealand First would have held the balance of power under a first-past-the-post system. Winston Peters, not the voting system, produced the shenanigans.

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Mr Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough, Labour)

It is not clear that my hon. Friend's analysis is correct. However, under a proportional system, the manifestos for which the electorate voted were diluted. The programme of government that resulted was different from that which they would otherwise have had. The people now regret that. The leader of the New Zealand Labour party has said that the situation is like the bronze medal winner in the Olympic games deciding between the winners of the silver and gold medals. The battlefield is then in Parliament, with to-ing and fro-ing, diluting manifestos and trying to make deals, in which the public are forgotten. The right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) made the valid distinction between a people's vote and a politicians' vote.

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Mr Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed, Liberal Democrat)

If only 30 per cent.—or, let us say, nearly 40 per cent.—of the electorate vote for a party's manifesto, surely that part' is under an obligation to consider the combined views of a majority of the electorate, rather than ramming through its policies. If that leads to the manifestos of more than one party being considered, that reflects the fact that there was not a majority of the electorate in favour of one manifesto.

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Mr Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough, Labour)

The benchmark is that, under first past the post, we elect a Government—whom we may or may not like. There have been only three hung Parliaments this century. Some Labour Members have recalled the long years of Thatcherite and Majorite government. That was the fault of the Labour party. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby wrote a book called "Four Years in the Death of the Labour Party"—a book that we read, never mind buying it. It took three leaders—Neil Kinnock, John Smith and my right hon. Friend the current Prime Minister—to bring the Labour party back in accordance with its principles to put forward to the electorate policies in its manifesto that could be followed.

We have a manifesto. Our deputy leader carries the five pledges around in his pocket. When he goes to party conference, he loses it, which is nice and theatrical, and then finds it again. Those are the manifesto pledges to which we are committed. The Opposition are perfectly right to hold us to account on those pledges. Under the first-past-the-post system, we are given a Government, the House holds them to account, and their actions are built on a manifesto.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) said that there would have been a hung Parliament in New Zealand anyway. If there is a hung Parliament, one goes back to the country. For those who wish to recite history, that happened in 1924, when the Liberal party brought down the first Labour Government. The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said that the Conservatives ruled for 70 years, but he has only his party to blame for 70 years of Conservative rule. The Liberal party won an election in 1906 with a huge majority, but, in 20 years, it was reduced to 40 Members. Who is in government, or who is not, is the fault not of the electoral system but of the politicians who formed the policies on which the parties run for elections.

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Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston, Labour)

That is precisely the point about New Zealand. It was not the electoral system that let down the people, but the politicians. Two parties that were totally opposed to each other formed a coalition Government, and their agreement was so tightly drawn that it does not allow for coalition government.

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Mr Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough, Labour)

The point that I am making, on which the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross touched, is that such faults are endemic in the system.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said that he was in Lord North street in February 1974, when the former Labour leader, Harold Wilson, was waiting to see what would happen between the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), the Prime Minister, and Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal party. The two spent five days horse trading because the Conservative party leader believed that he could do a deal with the Liberals because of their pro-European position and social policy. Jeremy Thorpe agreed, on condition that the Liberals were given proportional representation. The then Prime Minister said that he could not do that, so the deal fell through. Therefore, Harold Wilson was called to No. 10 Downing street.

Later, during the Lib-Lab pact of 1977, David Steel—now Lord Steel—asked for proportional representation for European elections. He has had to wait 20 years; we will give it to him next year. The Prime Minister of the day said that he could not give the Liberals PR for the European elections, but he would grant a free vote on the matter on the Floor of the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston said, horse trading is endemic.

I accept fully that my hon. Friends who support proportional representation do so with the utmost sincerity and honesty, but such horse trading cannot be blamed on the situation in New Zealand or the politicians; it cannot be changed. One thing is certain; if we adopt a system of proportional representation, we are inviting a minority Government, a weak Executive and, at least, a coalition Government.

The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross has put the Liberal Democrats' view for the single transferable vote. He said that it meets the constituency link argument. If I may, I shall draw again on my experience in the Republic of Ireland. In the Republic, Deputies from the Dail told me that they were spending all their time in their constituencies because their constituents had three Members of Parliament to whom to go. If their constituents did not like what one Member told them, they would go to another. If they did not like what the second told them, they could go to the third.

Under parliamentary convention in this country, where there is one Member of Parliament for one constituency, all that is out the window. In a multi-member constituency, there is a beauty contest between Members, because they all participate in elections again. No Member wants to let anyone down, so Members spend more time trying to deal with constituency matters and less time in the Dail dealing with national matters.

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Mr Tom Levitt (High Peak, Labour)

My hon. Friend is eloquently expressing his scepticism about proportional representation, much of which I agree with. He is right to say that we have a manifesto commitment to improve the electoral system if we can. In his response to the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day), he acknowledged imperfections in the first-past-the-post system. For example, barely 12 Tory Members command the support of 50 per cent. or more of their electorate. Thirty Members who represent English constituencies have the support of less than 40 per cent. of their electorate. There is clearly a lot wrong with the first-past-the-post system. I ask my hon. Friend to consider how we can improve that system to meet many of the criticisms that he has accepted.

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Mr Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough, Labour)

I surmise, therefore, that my hon. Friend advocates the alternative vote or the supplementary vote, as my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) proposes. I can well understand that, but I must tell him that, if one writes in a second vote preference, one writes in tactical voting. One must accept that. I understand that, at the last election, the Conservatives would have lost even more seats under an alternative vote system.

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Mr Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough, Labour)

My hon. Friend makes a party political point that I well understand—but we may be there some day. Given that the Liberals lost power in 20 years and the Conservatives won an election in 1979 with a majority of 40, which rose to 100 and then 161, who can tell where the Labour party will be in 10 or 15 years? This matter is not party political but constitutional, and of the utmost importance. The alternative vote or supplementary vote advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) writes in tactical voting, which is not necessarily healthy because it is destabilising and breaches the terms of reference that the Secretary of State for the Home Department has given the Jenkins commission.

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Mr Tom Levitt (High Peak, Labour)

I take my hon. Friend's point—although, by allowing an alternative vote, one allows voters to vote with both their head and their heart. At the moment, they have to choose whether to vote with their head or their heart. The experience of the 1992 general election, in which tactical voting was urged, suggests that the present system is not ideally suited to tactical voting. One cannot transfer the results of the previous election to assess how people would have voted under a different system. One simply cannot tell from previous results how an election under the alternative vote system would turn out. I ask my hon. Friend to give the matter more consideration.

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Mr Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough, Labour)

I have already considered the alternative vote and the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington. I say again that such systems introduce volatility and instability, and encourage tactical voting. Any party that happens to be unpopular at the time will suffer the consequences.

If I may, I shall throw in a comment from the French revolution—why not, this is a wide-ranging debate. When men came to see Danton and said that the Robespierre faction had been executed, Robespierre said, "We are all factions," and Danton was the next to be executed. The Conservatives were unpopular in 1997, but Labour might be unpopular in 10 or 15 years' time, and we would do a great disservice to our people who look to Parliament for democratically accountable government if we somehow gave such accountability away. It would be quite wrong to do so.

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Mr Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove, Liberal Democrat)

A few moments ago, the hon. Gentleman made two comments on the way in which the single transferable vote applied in the Republic of Ireland. First, he said that proportional representation broke the link with constituencies. Secondly, he said that constituency work for Members in the Irish Republic was overwhelming and preventing them from carrying out their national duties. Which of those two contradictory arguments does he want us to take seriously?

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Mr Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough, Labour)

As was said earlier, those who are elected to the House are elected by their constituents to serve them in this place. We also play a national role, which turns out to be very important and significant. Over the past year, we have not had to deal with a great crisis, but when one such as the invasion of the Falklands by Argentina occurred, the House came into its own. In a multi-member constituency, one serves three or four masters, and one cannot ever get out from under them.

I do not want to detain the House much longer after having taken a number of interventions which have added to the debate and helped me to make my argument, but I have two final points. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred to Lord Plant and his commission's report, which talked of the ethos of conviction, which means having a conviction that one belongs to a party that has an ideology that should not be diluted, and of the ethos of responsibility, under which it is fair to dilute ideology to gain power. I believe that the ethos of responsibility and the ethos of conviction can come together in elections to the House through first past the post.

I sincerely believe that the introduction of proportional representation for elections to the House of Commons would ensure minority or coalition governments, and would deprive any future Government of a mandate to govern in the way that it might have been expected to govern if elected under the first-past-the-post system. Let me finish with one more comment from a New Zealander who followed events there closely, and who felt that proportional representation had let the genie out of the bottle so that it would never go back in. We should remember that in the House and in the campaigns to come. A change to the voting system will weaken government, weaken democracy and do a great disservice to our people, for which they will not forgive us.

6:30 pm
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Mr John MacGregor (South Norfolk, Conservative)

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), partly because I entirely agree with his argument, but also because his article in The Times made points of relevance to his party. He has demonstrated that there are divisions on the Government Benches, just as there have been on our Benches. The Home Secretary made great play of the point that one of my former colleagues supports electoral reform, but we all know that many Members on the Government side—I suspect rather more than on my side—have grave misgivings along the lines taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram).

On taking office, the Government found that many issues were much more complex than they thought when they were in opposition. That is why there has been a long delay, whereas they have made up their mind on public expenditure programmes, on the transport White Paper, on pensions and on many other issues. However, they have rushed headlong into a series of constitutional reforms without thinking through the consequences or worrying about the impact. Without doubt, there will be unpredictable consequences, sometimes boomeranging in unexpected directions.

The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh assembly and elections to the European Parliament have already been mentioned. Much interesting feedback will come from those, and it is a pity to rush into deciding what to do about the Westminster Parliament without taking their lessons into account. We have already had one clear lesson from the referendums. I am a member of the Neill committee on standards in public life, which is currently considering party funding. I am not giving away any secrets about how the committee is thinking, because I do not know, but public evidence relevant to the question of referendums has made it clear that practically no one in Wales felt that the Welsh assembly referendum could possibly be justified as an example for the future.

I want to press two further points arising from the Home Secretary's reply to my intervention. He made a strong point about the fact that the Jenkins commission is looking for the best alternative voting system, because, when the time comes, we shall have a choice between the existing system and whatever the Government believe the Jenkins commission is advocating. The Government may not wish to adopt all that the commission proposes, but they should ensure equivalent resources for both sides of the argument when a referendum comes. That did not happen for the Welsh or Scottish referendums, or for the referendum for a London mayor.

Equivalent resources should be available to both sides because a referendum would be of profound constitutional significance to the future of our country. It is equally important that the Government should not only promote the Jenkins commission's proposals but ensure that arguments for the existing system are put forward too.

I would go further. There has been clear evidence in the debate that many Labour Members favour the present electoral system. I hope that, when the referendum comes, the Government will do what was done in the 1975 European referendum, so that Ministers will be able to put their own case rather than being bound by the Government vote. They should have a free hand to advocate in public whichever of the two systems they think is right.

This is not a party political matter, but a matter of acute constitutional significance. The example of 1975 should be followed, and if the Minister cannot deal with that point tonight, I hope that it will be taken on board in consideration of how the referendum will be treated. It must follow from what the Home Secretary said today in reply to our motion.

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Mr David Drew (Stroud, Labour/Co-operative)

I accept what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he accept that his party might give resources to those of its own members who support electoral reform?

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Mr John MacGregor (South Norfolk, Conservative)

I was talking not about party funding for the referendum, but about Government funding being available, I hope, to both sides. What the two sides do by way of raising funds is a matter for them. It is clear that there will be cross-party arrangements, because there will not be one party arguing one case while the other argues the other.

I have long felt that a huge amount of special pleading is dressed up as so-called fairness arguments for proportional representation. Its advocates fail to take account of the experience of other countries, and of the real benefits of our system that countries with PR do not have. I am glad that the debate is dealing with both the negative aspects in other countries and the advantages that we have here.

I shall not repeat all the arguments, as they have been fairly well rehearsed, but I shall run through a few quickly to put my own gloss on them. The only serious criticism of our present system that has ever made an impact on me is that seats in the House do not always mirror precisely the proportion of votes cast in the country. That is a criticism, but it has been generally accepted in the debate that no system is perfect. There are difficulties in all systems.

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Mr Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby, Labour)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the greatest piece of special pleading is to argue for a system that, for 18 years, gave the Government of whom he was a member the almost absolute power of the British Executive? That Government had a minority of the voters in favour of them; most people were opposed to them and voted against them. The system effectively entrenches a dictatorship of the minority.

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Mr John MacGregor (South Norfolk, Conservative)

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough has already dealt with that point. The other parties are divided in what they seek, and the people who support them would not form a complete coalition in support of the same policies against a Government who had gained the biggest plurality. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell).

When we consider the alternative, we begin to see the difficulties. The constituency link that our system offers is one of its greatest strengths, and people in other Parliaments envy it. It keeps Members of Parliament in touch with what is going on in the country and with what people think, as the Home Secretary, who supports the link, has said. The argument that Members are out of touch is fallacious; we are probably more in touch than anyone with all the trends and difficulties in the country, and in our constituencies.

The constituency link allows individual grievances and problems to be taken up by an identifiable Member of Parliament, which is a great benefit. Above all, it avoids the remoteness of Westminster and Whitehall debate from the real feelings of the country. As a Minister in many Departments, I frequently found that my constituency experience was of great help in dealing with departmental issues. That experience was simply not available to the civil servants who were apparently there to advise me.

I also recall that, in Cabinet discussions, colleagues dealing with foreign affairs or defence made good contributions on housing policy because they had the constituency experience that enabled them to contribute. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) will remember that. That is lacking in many other systems.

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Mr John MacGregor (South Norfolk, Conservative)

I am sorry, but I cannot because many other hon. Members wish to speak.

When I was Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food negotiating in Brussels or Luxembourg, I was often struck by the following fact. In those late night sessions, when we were not part of the negotiating process and were waiting for the President to discuss our delegation's view, I was sometimes seen dictating constituency mail because I knew that it would build up if I did not deal with it before I got back. Colleagues from other countries would look on in amazement and ask what I was doing. I explained that I was dealing with my constituents. They never had to do that; they did not what know what was going on.

I asked one Minister how many letters a month he got from constituents and how many meetings he addressed. The answer was practically none—the opposite of the single transferable vote experience mentioned by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough. He explained that he was on a regional list and that people just did not get in touch with him. He made only the occasional speech in his region. That is a consequence of PR systems. I am a strong believer in the constituency link, and oppose systems that weaken or break it.

That point leads me to the additional member system and the German system. The arguments against it have been well rehearsed. First, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) said, there would be two classes of MPs. It will be bad enough having two classes of MPs as a result of the Scottish Parliament. Such systems would involve a further two classes, with one group allied to the party line and not attached to a constituency interest, and another with a considerable constituency work load.

Without going into all the details, that is a great weakness of that system. We shall learn, certainly from the way in which the Labour party is approaching regional lists in the elections for the European Parliament, that the power of the centre of the party will hugely increase. I hope that that becomes a big issue in the political debate.

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Mr John MacGregor (South Norfolk, Conservative)

The Conservatives are going through the selection process. We are giving selection to all local members of the party in each regional constituency. It is proving to have considerable difficulties, but it is not increasing the power of the centre in the way in which the Labour party will. The regional list system makes it much easier to increase the power of the centre, which I oppose.

That point brings me to the alternative vote system, which sometimes seems to be the fairest. There are two fundamental objections to it. The study by Democratic Audit of how the Australian system would have applied in the last UK general election has already been mentioned. The Government's majority would have increased from 179 to 213. The Labour party would have taken 68 per cent. of seats on 44.3 per cent. of the vote; the Conservatives 17.2 per cent. on 31.5 per cent. That is hardly proportional representation and hardly democratic. It destroys the argument for that system in one go.

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Mr Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington, Labour)

Anyone who has done any study of how supplementary vote or alternative vote systems work will emphasise that the whole dynamic effect is being underestimated. People begin to use their first preferences in a very different way if the system changes to AV or SV. I cannot stress too much to hon. Members that they should consider the dynamic effect before making up their minds.

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Mr John MacGregor (South Norfolk, Conservative)

To plunge into a new system with such consequences—a substantial step—at least in one election, would need a strong justification.

The other problem is that in many constituencies, not a majority, but a substantial proportion of those voting would get not the candidate that they wanted but the candidate three or four down their list of preferences, having voted to keep someone else out. I do not believe that that is an attractive system.

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Mr John MacGregor (South Norfolk, Conservative)

I am sorry, but I will not give way any more, because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak.

The greatest weakness of all the alternative systems of which I have heard has already been rehearsed: they put the third or fourth parties in a position of permanent power. When it is realised that the argument that a Government have got only 43 per cent. of the vote and are therefore able to govern has changed to the argument that a party that gets 14 per cent. of the vote has the controlling influence, there will soon be disillusion among the electorate.

It is endemic in such systems, as the hon. Member for Middlesbrough said and as the New Zealand experience shows. Under first past the post, there occasionally has to be some horse trading if there is a close result. It is endemic in other systems that that will happen most times. It is at that point that disillusionment with politicians will not only set in, but get worse. I do not see that that is fair or democratic in any sense. The electorate do not vote for coalitions, but that is what they would get under such systems.

Those systems are especially wrong because, under our system, the party commanding the biggest number of votes sets the agenda for a Government. Under the other systems, the whip hand will pass to the third party. Often a party with only a limited agenda would have the whip hand and hold the biggest parties to ransom. I sometimes wonder whether the Labour party before the last general election had insufficient confidence that it would be able to sustain a majority, and so was held to ransom by the Liberal Democrats and made to go for this referendum.

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Ms Fiona Mactaggart (Slough, Labour)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the fact that our party, with its large majority, is giving away power to the national Governments, and considering doing it through electoral reform, is the opposite of what he said about us being frit?

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Mr John MacGregor (South Norfolk, Conservative)

I suspect that many in the Labour party did not expect to have such a big majority. When the consequences of PR sink in, many of them will think again.

It is not right that the most popular party, the one that wins the biggest number of votes, will be in government only if the minority parties decide to vote for it. That is also a consequence of PR systems. Minority parties would have an influence disproportionate to their share of the vote. It is easy to see that that is why the Liberal Democrats have always favoured PR. It was astonishing that the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) should wax so eloquently about the Conservative party being in power for so long because we commanded the largest number of votes. He seeks what he regards as a better system, in which his party would have a controlling influence with a very small proportion of the vote. There is nothing fair about that, but it was precisely the logic of what he said.

For this debate, I examined what Lord Jenkins said about his desire for proportional representation in his delightful autobiography, "A Life at the Centre". It was clear that, at bottom, it was his disillusionment with the Labour party as it then was that led him to support such a system, coupled with the attachment that he has always had to elitist, centralist views of politics. I hope that it is clear that mine is rooted in the constituency link.

The Labour party is taking the plunge on this for no good reason. Rather, it got itself committed to it before the general election because it was afraid that it might not succeed without the support of the Liberal Democrats. It is a plunge that will get Labour into even deeper water if it goes down that route.

I have two pleas. First, the referendum must be fair, and both arguments must be fairly put and properly resourced. Secondly, and even more importantly, the Government should wait to learn the lessons of the constitutional election changes that we are already making and see how the electorate react to them, and how we regard their development, before taking the plunge on this crucial Westminster vote.

6:48 pm
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Mr Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield, Labour)

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), even though I disagree with much of what he said. I do agree that it is important that the referendum be fair, although, as a supporter of electoral reform, I wish I had his confidence that we will be able to raise the vast amounts of money that will swamp the other side.

We have had an interesting debate. I found the Opposition motion rather intriguing, and the speech in support of it by the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) even more so. The motion implies that the criteria for the Jenkins commission are okay—indeed, the Opposition have produced a rather strange set of figures to back up their contention that first past the post is the most proportional of all systems. However, the motion goes on to say that the terms of reference for the commission are overly restrictive and need to be changed. Apparently, the Opposition think that the commission charged with the responsibility of looking at alternatives to first past the post should be able to recommend first past the post.

I find that slightly illogical, and the Opposition have to answer a question that I asked the right hon. Member for Devizes, but which he did not answer. What is their view on the referendum? Do they agree with the referendum, or not? If they do agree with it, are they seriously suggesting that we should have a commission that recommends first past the post to put into a referendum against first past the post? That is an absolutely absurd position. Alternatively, are they saying, as I suspect they are, that we do not need a referendum at all? Are they saying that, because they as politicians—and perhaps politicians in general—feel that the present set-up is okay, the people really do not need to have a say in the matter?

I hope that the Opposition will make clear their view on the referendum, because, if they are saying what I think they are, it shows how out of touch they are. They proved that they were out of touch in the run-up to the last election, and they suffered at the polls as a result. Sooner or later, they need to grasp the fact that such a complacent "we know best" attitude is a profound turn-off for the British people and the electorate.

A few weeks ago, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) wrote an article on electoral reform in The Independent, saying that, in launching a debate on electoral reform, the Prime Minister had got it wrong—that he is fiddling the system rather than mastering the art of perpetual popularity. Nobody could accuse the right hon. Gentleman of having mastered the art of even temporary popularity. The fact is that the Opposition motion and the thinking behind it is of a different age—an age that is being left behind by the people of this country.

All the evidence is that the people want change. They wanted a change in the colour of Government, and they achieved that at the last election; but I believe that they want a more fundamental change—a change in the political process itself. They look at this place, and are turned off by what they see.

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Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest, Conservative)

I am following the hon. Gentleman's logic carefully, but I do not understand how he can be so sure that the people want change in a certain direction when the people have not been consulted. Why can they not be consulted about whether they want things to remain the same?

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Mr Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield, Labour)

I recommend that the hon. Lady, if she is going to participate in the debate, follows what it is about. There is no dispute that retaining the first-past-the-post system will be on the ballot paper in the referendum. That is what is so absurd about the Opposition's position. They—indeed, hon. Members on both sides of the House—will have every opportunity to argue their case in the referendum campaign. We are in favour of consulting the British people, and of people who support first past the post advancing their arguments. The hon. Lady should ask her own Front Benchers whether they share that view.

Do the Opposition think that there should be a referendum, and, if so, should it offer the sort of fair choice that the right hon. Member for South Norfolk wanted? If they believe that, they must accept that the process of establishing the Jenkins commission is absolutely right, and that it should look at the alternatives to first past the post and consider which might best fit the British political culture; and that it is right to let the people, not politicians, decide.

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Mr Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield, Labour)

Time is short, but I shall give way twice more, once to an Opposition Member—the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer)—and once to any of my hon. Friends who intervenes later.

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Mr John Gummer (Suffolk Coastal, Conservative)

Will the hon. Gentleman read again the Government amendment, in which we are supposed to welcome the creation of the Independent Commission on the Voting System and its remit", and try to understand what the issue is? It is not an independent commission, but one that has already been told that it has to come up with an alternative to the current voting system; both sides agree on that point. Does he not understand that, if the British people are to vote, they will have on the one side a investigation that has been held and a commission that has made a recommendation, and, on the other side, merely the status quo? All we are suggesting is that the Government must make it clear that the two will be presented in an equal manner.

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Mr Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield, Labour)

With respect, the hon. Gentleman is wrong about his own party's motion—that is not what it suggests. The motion suggests that the independent commission on the voting system should be able to recommend first past the post into a referendum that will be on an alternative to first past the post. That is logically impossible.

People outside this place will have more interest in the sort of political culture reflected in this debate, because this is the sort of politics the people want. All too often, the people see a bear garden, where the question of which gang one belongs to appears to be more important, and generates more heat, than the issue being discussed. The evidence suggests that people want a politics that is based on solving problems, not on exaggerating the differences between us. That is not an argument for fudge or for compromise where no compromise is possible, but an argument that the stuff of politics should be the issues and not which colour we wear.

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Mr Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield, Labour)

No—I said I would give way twice, once to one side of the House, which I have already done, and once to the other.

That is why the debate is so important. No one suggests that changing the electoral system will, on its own, change the political culture in this country, but it is part of the package of constitutional reform on which we have already embarked—devolution to Scotland and Wales, and the beginnings of devolution to London and the English regions. We are adopting a new approach to local government which tries new ways of consulting people and shows that the rights of citizenship do not revolve around one cross on one ballot paper once every five years, but go much further. The electoral system is part of that process, because, with first past the post, the process by which Governments are elected too often resembles a military coup.

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Mr Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire, Conservative)

As none of his hon. Friends has risen, will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Mr Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield, Labour)

No, but if none of my hon. Friends has asked me to give way by the end of my speech, I shall certainly give the hon. Gentleman his chance.

Under our current electoral system, it is not the job of Governments to try to win majority support. The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) made it clear before the last election that a party did not need the majority of the people behind it to win, but only enough votes. Under the current system, just enough votes in just enough constituencies gives just enough seats in this place to allow a party to claim monopoly power and a democratic mandate for anything it wants to push through. We saw the consequences of that for 18 years.

When people argue about how the Thatcher years might have been changed by a different electoral system, no one suggests that, in 1979 or in 1983, a Conservative Government would not have been likely. The issue is how power is wielded in this place. Measures such as the poll tax, which patently never had majority or even substantial minority support, would not have been passed. That would have been a democratic strength.

Before I came to the House, I was involved in the water industry. At the time that the Conservative Government privatised that industry, polls showed 80 per cent. public opposition to selling it off, but that was not reflected in the House. The exercise of power in Parliament, bolstered by the present electoral system, does not reflect people's feelings or empower the individual in the political process.

Much changed in 1997, when there was a massive turnaround. The British people showed their determination, and wised up to how to get rid of the Conservative Government. There was a significant Tory defeat; 174 seats changed hands; there were many Labour gains; and the Liberal Democrats doubled their representation. All that was good news, but there was also bad news in that election—the turnout was the lowest since 1935.

The turnout was lowest of all in those seats that are regarded as safe. Many people believe that their vote does not count and will not change anything, and to some extent that is true. The statistics for the previous election show that no fewer than 14.5 million people—nearly 50 per cent. of the electorate—helped to elect nobody with their vote. That has an impact on voter attitudes, and separates the citizen from the political process.

That factor has an impact also on parties' behaviour, because in recent years they have wised up to the fact that, to win elections, they do not necessarily have to address grave national issues, or even the most difficult ones. Let us examine the difficulty that politicians have in discussing the drugs problem in this country. We cannot have the discussions that social workers, parents, young people and police officers have, because, as soon as we say anything, the press are on to it. In our present electoral system, it is too risky for political parties to address matters of great national importance, so they do not.

Parties wised up to the fact that they had to target swing voters in about 100 marginal seats. They are the people to whom all political parties address their policies. The idea that parties operate on a clear mandate because they openly discuss their policies and then put them to the people is out of touch with what happens in British politics today.

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Mr Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield, Labour)

No, I stick to what I said before, and the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer) is ahead of the right hon. Gentleman in the queue.

It is time to call an end to that political mindset, which we have had for too long. That is why I welcome the establishment of the Jenkins commission. We can seek, and find, a fairer system in which every vote—[Interruption.] With that ingenuity, if the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) stays on these Benches and votes accordingly, I will give way to him.

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Mr David Maclean (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I am sorry that I had to use this temporary ruse to bring that about.

Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that issues such as drugs, which he criticises politicians in this country for not addressing, are better addressed by politicians in countries with voting systems different from ours? I shall sit on this side of the House, if I may, to listen to his answer.

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Mr Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield, Labour)

I am afraid that, as he has agreed to my conditions for giving way, the right hon. Gentleman will have stay on these Benches and vote accordingly.

The electoral system is part of the glue that holds together our political culture. No one is suggesting that it is the only factor. The centralisation of power and the way in which the media operate are other factors. However, it is wrong to think that the electoral system is divorced from them.

The right hon. Gentleman should consider the problems that his party—or, I should say, his former party—is experiencing at present. It is trying to get back in touch with the British people, but I wager that it will not consider in broad terms what actions are necessary. Over the next five years, it will examine what it needs to do to win just enough votes in just enough seats to get back on these Benches and claim a monopoly on power for another five years. Within the House, parties may exercise such power well or badly, but the British people expect more from politics. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Order. Very early in this Parliament, Madam Speaker made plain her views about the way in which hon. Members dispose themselves in the Chamber. This kind of play-acting is not adding to the quality of the debate.

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Mr Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield, Labour)

Polls that are being published as this debate takes place show a reservoir of support for changing the voting system. Up to 75 per cent. of people want such a change. If the Conservative party is serious about its listening exercise, perhaps it should listen to people's views on the electoral system as well as on other matters.

It is possible to have systems that fit the Jenkins commission's criteria of broad proportionality and voter choice, retain the constituency link, and provide a better form of government. Conservative Members should examine all the evidence from abroad, not only that which suits them. There has been much selective quoting of experience abroad. We should consider, as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) said, the experience of Scandinavia, how proportional systems have worked, and how the political process has benefited, rather than suffered, as a result.

The precise system has yet to be determined. I make no bones about the fact that I should prefer a proportional system based on the single member constituency. Liberal Democrat Members have a different view. However, there is unity on one point—when citizens in this country cast their vote, every vote should count in every constituency in every part of the country, and it should count equally. That is not the case under the present system, which is why I look forward to the referendum and to a fair debate.

I am confident that after that debate, the British people will vote for change. Even more important, perhaps, than how they vote in the referendum is the process that they will have gone through. For the first time that I can remember, people across these islands will have been given the chance to say not only what party they want in government, but what they want politics to consist of. That is valuable, and we should welcome it.

Several hon. Members:

rose

7:07 pm
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Sir Peter Lloyd (Fareham, Conservative)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden), although much of his argument was contradictory. He seems to believe that the present system prevents a Government from tackling serious issues because they may experience unpopularity or difficulty, but he criticised the last Conservative Government for implementing a series of policies in the national interest which, I agree, at the time did not individually have majority support in the country. He cannot have it both ways. However, what we all want from an electoral system is to have it both ways, and that is not possible for any of us.

When I visited the Netherlands earlier this year as part of an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation, some of our Dutch hosts said that they had heard that the UK was changing to PR. They could not understand why we might want to abandon a system that, in their view, had produced great governmental stability. They obviously admired the clarity and the personal involvement of the single member constituency system, which they do not have. I do not know how representative those Dutch Members of Parliament were—they were certainly not a scientific sample even of Dutch Members—but, although many of them wanted the UK to join economic and monetary union, if only for company, none of them advised us that we would be better off with their electoral system. Perhaps that is because they have yet to find out about EMU, but they have personal experience of PR.

As I listened to the Home Secretary's very good speech, it became plain to me that a similar suspicion of PR flourishes at the highest reaches of the Government, and I wondered whether that was why they had chosen for the Euro-elections a form of PR which shows PR at its worst. The Euro-constituencies will be so large, and will have so many representatives, that it will be impossible for any of those elected to make the personal constituency-wide connections with local organizations—let alone voters—that most MEPs of all parties currently seek to do. Inevitably, closed lists will give maximum power to party machines. Despite the real effort to open selection, and the all-important list order, to all its members, the Conservative party is finding that the decisive voices still belong to only a limited number of the most active activists.

I shall not try to discuss all the shortcomings of the various systems on offer, because in one way or another they have been dealt with effectively by previous speakers on both sides of the House, but I shall dwell on two points.

First, as the Jenkins commission is to recommend an alternative to the current electoral system, it will presumably make the case for its chosen system, and explain why it prefers it to all possible alternatives. Come the referendum, therefore, voters will have the commission's authoritative arguments on the merits of its chosen system. Apparently, however, they will not have a similarly authoritative set of arguments for the merits of the present system. Unlike many of my hon. Friends, I do not think that could be reasonably asked of the Jenkins commission, which was set up to find an alternative.

No doubt the arguments for the present system will be set out in, and publicised by, those who believe that our present system meets the Government's criteria better than any of the alternatives, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) said, it is essential that we know that the Government will be even-handed and straightforward in the way that they organise the test of voter opinion. I hope that, when the Minister replies, he will make it clear that that is the Government's intention.

I hope that the Minister is listening to this as well as talking to his colleague. I hope that he will assure us that every household will receive, officially paid for by the state, the full arguments on both sides of the case, so that all voters may reach a fully informed decision.

Secondly, although the point has been well made that the first-past-the-post system produces strong Governments, whom, because they do not rely on coalitions and deals, the electors can throw out whenever they are dissatisfied, in the long run its most valuable characteristic is its prior effect on the parties which want to win power. To form a Government, a party must appeal broadly across the electorate. It is not enough to maximise support among a minority, and then rely on being needed as part of a coalition Government. To win and keep power in the United Kingdom, a party must seek to retain the support of the broadest swathe of voters and their opinions, and of people who do not naturally or automatically vote for it or support all its policies.

The voters impose a very heavy penalty indeed on parties that lose the confidence of the electorate generally, as Labour saw after 1979 and the Conservatives saw in 1997. Labour eventually learned that, to win back that confidence, it had to appeal beyond the bedrock of its support. If we had adopted PR in the 1980s, we should not have had new Labour; we should have had the rump of old Labour, exerting unrepresentative influence within an uneasy coalition. Although it hurts me to say so to Labour Members, I know that the former possibility would have been worse. Similarly, the Conservative party knows that its return to office depends completely on being able to reconnect with and convince the mass electorate, not only its traditional supporters.

The first-past-the-post system provides strong government and clear choices, but it also forces parties to listen to all the electors, and punishes them if they do not. It thus ensures that there are real changes, when the voters at large come to feel that previous policies and arrangements no longer suit—as they did pre-eminently in 1945, as they did in 1979, and as they obviously did in 1997.

In the long run, the first-past-the-post system is more responsive to the electors than PR. Abroad, under PR, political frustration, without effective political outlet, can accumulate as it does not here. I fear that, in some of our neighbouring countries, that may yet produce very disagreeable outcomes.

I am very happy with the prospect of a referendum, because I am certain that, when the arguments are placed properly before them, British electors will realize—if they do not already—the truth of what I have been arguing, and will vote to stay with the present system.

7:15 pm
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Mr Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

I welcome the opportunity to debate electoral reform, although I find Conservative Members' arguments confused, and, in some ways, inspired more by panic than by serious consideration of the issues. They appear to want to pre-empt the Jenkins commission, and certainly to discredit it, despite the fact that the Labour Government have a clear mandate to establish it, and have done just that.

Like my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I have examined the submission by Conservative Action for Electoral Reform and the official submission by Tory central office. They could scarcely be more different, and it raises the question of which brand of Conservatism is on show today. It may surprise hon. Members to learn that several newly promoted members of the so-called shadow ministerial team are long-standing supporters of electoral reform; they may be in a quandary about which way to vote tonight. We shall watch their voting records with interest.

In fact, there are differing views in all parties—even among the Liberal Democrats, who may not be very excited by the debate any more. Does that not show how right the present Government are to leave the final choice on our political systems to the people of this country? What is there for Opposition Members to be scared of?

I am worried that the debate—not just in the Chamber, but within the Labour party and between the Labour party and other political parties—is becoming polarised. The debate is almost saying that electoral reform equates to pure proportionality. If that is the case, I certainly would not be an electoral reformer. I do not believe that electoral reform necessarily means pure PR. To coin a phrase, I do believe that there is a third way, but I shall come to that.

The first-past-the-post system is difficult to defend, but some alternatives are even worse. For me, the most important function of any electoral system is the retention of the link between an individual Member of Parliament and his or her constituent—a case eloquently made by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. That link is the foundation which gives us authority to speak on behalf of our constituents—the people who send us to this place. Arguments about accountability are every bit as important as those about proportionality. I have not heard enough in the debate about accountability—and retaining the link is the essence of accountability.

The first-past-the-post system does produce huge anomalies. As has been said, 300 Members of the House do not enjoy a clear mandate—they do not enjoy 50 per cent. of the vote in their constituencies. I am one, and there are many on the Opposition Benches.

I cannot believe that it is acceptable to continue with a system in which we purport to represent all our constituents on a vote of, in the case of the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), 37 per cent; even more ludicrously, Russell Johnston won his seat in Inverness in 1964 with 24 per cent. of the vote. What kind of mandate is that? Perhaps it is good enough for a Liberal. One hopes that the Jenkins commission will remove such anomalies once and for all.

The case for proportional representation has been roundly attacked by Members on both sides today. The additional member system, which produces two classes of Members of Parliament, one with a constituency link and the other with none, is presumably favoured by the party hierarchy. God save us all from that. It would certainly damage democracy and reduce accountability.

I cannot see how the multi-member system would work in my area. We have already discussed the nonsense on the Isle of Wight, and I know that its Member shares my concerns. Berkshire is a very polarised county. Two Labour Members represent the Reading seats, a Liberal Democrat represents Newbury, and there are Conservatives Members for Wokingham, Windsor, Maidenhead and Bracknell. If Berkshire were split, which bit of it would my colleagues or I represent? Would we represent the leafy lanes of Wokingham or the council estates of Reading? It is just not workable.

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Mr Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

I accept the point that my hon. Friend is about to make—indeed, I will make it for her. Different arguments may apply to Birmingham, but, in my neck of the woods, the multi-member constituency could never work; nor would the link between the constituency and the Member be retained.

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Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston, Labour)

I represent a constituency which has never had a Labour Member before; 23,000 of its people have never had a Member who shared their views. It appears that the constituency link is strong only if the Member belongs to a party that one supports. What about all the others?

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Mr Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks. The argument may be right for places such as Birmingham, but it is not for many other parts of the country.

I regret the attacks that have been made on the integrity of the Jenkins commissioners. I also regret the attacks on the integrity of my party. The commissioners were given contradictory criteria, and they faced an extremely difficult job. They were asked to find a broadly proportional system, a system that extends voter choice, a system that produces stable government, and a system that retains the constituency link. I know from my Northern Ireland experience that we can all cherry-pick—but no single system will meet all those criteria. Thank goodness, the issue will be decided by a referendum.

I favour preferential voting systems, whether they involve the supplementary vote or the alternative vote. Of course, an electoral system that is right for this Parliament will not be the same as the systems for the European Parliament or for what I hope will be an elected second Chamber. When we vote for Members of this place, we are choosing an Executive and a legislature. We want Members to represent different points of view and different parts of the country fairly, and we want to retain that all-important link. We also want to provide stable government that commands majority support; it is important, too, to reward more consensual and pluralist politics.

The alternative vote does reward pluralism, and parties that can be seen to work together—that is one of its greatest advantages. AV can require Members to have a proper mandate and to represent clear majorities of their constituents. It also rewards parties that share common ground. What is more, it can be implemented in time for the next general election, without the need for a boundary commission. It is probably the only system for which this Parliament is likely to vote—I do not believe that we are going to vote our own constituencies out of existence.

Perhaps most important of all, in view of attacks to the effect that tactical voting is enshrined by AV, I might point out that there was a huge amount of tactical voting at the general election, but it was dishonest voting. The mood of the country was to get rid of the Tories, so we had to persuade our swing voters to second-guess how their neighbours might vote—to work out whether Labour or the Liberal Democrats were most likely to defeat the incumbent Conservative. At least the AV system is honest: people can exercise their clear first preferences, but still vote tactically.

The Conservatives may have problems arguing against the alternative vote, as it was the very system that they used to elect their leader.

7:24 pm
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Mr John Gummer (Suffolk Coastal, Conservative)

One of the problems with arguing about the PR system is that, every time one presses objections to a particular system, one is told that that, of course, is not the one supported by the person to whom one is talking. The purer the PR system becomes, the more likely its supporters are to ditch it. The purest PR system of all, in Israel, has been said to be outwith the terms of reference of the Jenkins commission—that is perfectly reasonable.

We are told that the Liberals do not like AV because it is not proportional enough; they do not like the Israeli system because it is too proportional. What they want is the system most likely to produce the largest number of Liberals. They want a different kind of politics. But the Labour chairman of the electoral reform organisation wants a different sort of politics only in the sense of an electoral system that is predisposed in his party's own favour.

The Conservative party is in a strong position to discuss first past the post, given how badly that system dealt with us recently. I still, however, maintain that it is the right one.

First, people know in advance—before the election—which coalition they are going to get. That coalition, in the case of my party, contains people such as me, who are strongly in favour of membership of the European Union, and one or two others who do not happen to hold the same view. But at least people know in advance the coalition that they are voting for; with proportional representation, they do not.

Under PR, as experience of many PR systems shows, people vote for a party that closely identifies with their personal views. Such parties tend to become ever smaller. Then, behind closed doors, that party does a deal with a number of other parties in order to reach power. In doing that deal, it almost inevitably abandons the very positions for which people voted in the first place. People find that the parts of the manifesto that they most approved of are the ones which the party drops to get into power—and they do not know in advance which bits will be dropped. Parties do not say to voters, "We are against abortion but once we are elected we will drop that because we know we cannot keep it and get into power." No; parties get votes under certain pretensions and then do deals afterwards.

That is not proportional representation: it is a system in which people buy a pig in a poke, and the pigs decide which poke to enter after the election.

The second problem concerns constituency contact. Last weekend, I was in the village of Chediston. Only the Member of Parliament for Suffolk, Coastal would ever be likely to know the best way to get from the village where I live, Winston, to Chediston. I travel the route often, but if I were one of six or seven Members for a large constituency it is unlikely that I would. There are 74 miles of coastline in my constituency, so it is pretty big. I do the route because I am the only Member, and all my constituents need to be able to ask for my help, irrespective of their political views.

I try to hold my constituency surgeries in places that are not politically labelled, although that is not always possible. Some Labour Members call themselves the Labour Member for somewhere or other. They are not the Labour Member for anywhere. They are the Member for a constituency. I find it difficult to reply civilly to hon. Members who put their party politics before their constituency representation. From the moment the election is over, almost all of us seek properly to represent the constituency, because there is no one else to do so. No one else can be blamed for not doing whatever needs to be done.

If we did not have just one constituency, we would adopt the do-not-care-at-all view that is so noticeable in some PR systems, or, worse still, everyone would be busy arguing against the other, often of the same party, to get the odd extra vote, and the job of the legislature that produces the Government would not be done.

Our Parliament is different from many continental Parliaments. I repeat that I am a strong supporter of the European Union. I believe it to be essential if Britain is to have real influence in the world, but it is no good pretending that everything that everybody else has is better than what we have. If I want people to be a little more humble about what we have in Britain and to learn a little from our continental neighbours, I must also recognise that we have one or two things that we should share with them. One of those is a system where government is firmly anchored in Parliament.

Apart from the present incumbent, most Prime Ministers have insisted on coming to the House twice a week to be questioned. Ministers are never questioned in the French House of Representatives or even in the Dutch Parliament, which is the closest to ours. One of the reasons for that is that no direct connection is seen between the election and the Government. The parties arrange among themselves what the Government should do.

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Mr John Gummer (Suffolk Coastal, Conservative)

No, I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman, because I have never heard him listen to the views of anyone else for a whole 10 minutes. I have only 10 minutes and I should love him to listen to my views, just on this occasion. I am sure that I shall have to listen to his in future.

Continental Governments do not see themselves in the same way as ours—as rooted in Parliament. In this country, we have a parliamentary democracy, and changing the electoral system will have a fundamental influence on it. We should be concerned about that.

Much has been said about the frustrations of the minority. To those who are in favour of PR, may I say that the frustrations of the minority are nothing like the frustrations of the majority in a PR system when minorities always hold sway. We have spoken about the problems of Germany, but there are many other examples where small numbers of people get parties elected which can then change Government policy, even though only a tiny minority of people want that change.

We must be careful about trying to run our society by never making a change unless it is popular at the time. The Government do not say that they will renationalise the water companies—I should declare an interest, as I work for a water company, but it is one of those that was never privatized—or that they will renationalise the electricity company, yet they say that privatisation was unpopular when we carried it out. They support the privatisation now. Indeed, they could not deliver their programme had those companies not been denationalised.

The Labour party must recognise that part of government is to do something that is unpopular at the time so that, when it has been seen to work, it is recognised as part of the consensus. The electoral system must give the Government the strength to do that. Only the first-past-the-post system delivers that.

7:34 pm
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Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston, Labour)

I am beginning to wonder whether the debate is opening an age divide—the supporters of the status quo seem to be hon. Members who have been in the House for some time. I hope that I do not do an injustice to some hon. Members of longer standing, but perhaps, by being in the House for a long time, hon. Members become more focused on effective government and tend to forget that we are also meant to be here as parliamentarians. An electoral system is supposed to deliver a healthy and effective Parliament that can hold the Government to account. A healthy Parliament must also be representative of the people.

The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) said that government was our role, but as this is a parliamentary democracy, Parliament and its ability to hold the Government to account are equally important. For that, we should be representative of the people who elected us. As a body, we are not representative of the people.

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Mr John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings, Conservative)

That is a narrow definition of representativeness. You are talking about mirror image representativeness, in the sense of hon. Members being men or women, black or white. That is not the same as representing all the people—

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Sir Alan Haselhurst (Deputy Speaker)

Order. I am not saying anything. I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to the hon. Lady.

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Mr John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings, Conservative)

The hon. Lady is defining representation narrowly. Does not representation mean that, having been elected, hon. Members represent all the people, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) outlined?

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Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston, Labour)

Being representative is a springboard for forming the Government. One of the most glaring features of the House is that only one in five Members are women, yet we are supposed to be governing a population of which half are women. Ethnic representation is not doing well. If the first-past-the-post system has served us so well, why have some parts of our constituencies not been represented?

We have heard much about the constituency link. The right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) feels strongly about it. Other systems allow the constituency link. Some people feel that, if their Member of Parliament is not representative, it is not worth going to see him.

It has been suggested that, if there were three Members for a constituency, there would be a beauty contest among them, which would be dreadful. May I suggest that we start looking at electoral systems not from our point of view as politicians, but from the point of view of the people we are supposed to represent? They may want a beauty contest to choose the most representative Member. Perhaps there should be more competition, instead of the present complacency.

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Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston, Labour)

No. Speeches are limited to 10 minutes and I should like to proceed.

I urge hon. Members on both side of the House to move away from our self-interest as parliamentarians, and to start seeing things from the point of view of our electorate. Coalition is considered a dirty word. That may be so where coalition means instability, but where it means consensus seeking—and if it changes the way in which we conduct Parliament—it may be welcome.

The experience of New Zealand was unfortunate. The coalition there that followed the electoral system changes was a disaster. The two parties that formed the coalition did not make it clear before the election where there was common ground between them or where they were open to negotiation to form a coalition Government.

A change in the electoral system brings in its wake a change in political culture. That takes a little time. A debate that begins by outlining the voting pattern in the United Kingdom, the various systems and the possible outcomes is rather sterile because of the dynamics of changes in voting patterns. We must ensure that our electoral systems are representative.

My biggest objection to first past the post was illustrated at the general election. It was fought in some 100 key marginal seats, and a tiny minority of voters decided the result. Voters are very sophisticated and tactical voting is well within their capabilities, although they have had to work within a system that they do not like. I would rather have a more open and honest system, so that the electorate can identify the common ground and areas of negotiation between parties. It is a fallacy to assume that political parties produce a manifesto and do not deviate from it for the next five years. If that is the case, we are wasting our time debating issues in this place. There are debates in Parliament because we are seeking consensus about the way forward, which requires compromise and change.

Time is limited, and I wish to give as many hon. Members as possible a chance to contribute. When participating in constitutional debates, I urge my fellow parliamentarians to use as a starting point the people we are meant to represent. We must consider how we can form a strong Government that reflects the people's wishes. We must put an end to the old-fashioned, arrogant view that we, as politicians, have all the answers. It is not valid to argue that, although 80 per cent. of people opposed water privatisation, a firm Government introduced it and hence it was good. Politicians must have some humility: they must accept that they may have got it wrong. If the electoral system seeks consensus as part of its political culture, it may be possible for politicians to be more humble and to reconsider the issues rather than become entrenched in their views.

It has been argued that proportional representation would lead to the rise of extremist political parties. I simply make two points. First, that problem has been dealt with effectively in other countries by introducing thresholds. Secondly, if more than about 5 per cent. of the British public support a very right-wing racist party, I want to know about it. I want that party's representatives to come to this place and try to defend and explain themselves. We could then deal with them openly and face them head on rather than attempt to address a swelling underground culture. I believe that that objection to PR is a red herring; our starting point must be the people we are meant to represent, not our interests.

7:42 pm
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Sir Nicholas Lyell (North East Bedfordshire, Conservative)

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) said that she favours a more open system, which would be provided by proportional representation, but the debate has exposed the fact that, although PR may appear to be the theoretically correct manner of electing individual Members—comparisons have been made with the purist Israeli system, which no one would choose, and other systems—the horse trading would begin shortly thereafter, and we would not get what we saw. That is the great danger of the PR system, particularly for the House of Commons.

I wish to develop two points. First, for the House of Commons. the first-past-the-post system gives the electorate the power to choose. The people must make up their minds about which major party to support, and, as my right hon. Friends the Members for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd) said, those major parties must show that they are broad churches that encompass the spread of political requirements of the day and are united in that cause. That is one of the great strengths of our system. If people vote for a party and their vote is successful, what they see is what they get.

I wish to broaden the argument and remind the House that the United Kingdom has a bicameral system. Many of us have considered electoral reform for more than 20 years—I think that I still subscribe to the Conservative Association for Electoral Reform, although that does not mean that I agree with the comments of my old friend, Tim Rathbone. I have personal thoughts about proportional representation in relation to the House of Lords, which I think are part of the debate.

The Government are looking correctly at the future voting system for this Chamber and at the future composition of the second Chamber, the House of Lords. Those two issues must be distinct. Our first-past-the-post system is envied across Europe and the world because it produces a clear decision. There are only one or two examples this century when that has not occurred. Basically, our system produces a clear decision as to the nature of the Government for the next five years.

Secondly, the House of Lords must be a strong constitutional anchor. I shall concentrate for a moment on the House of Lords, because I wish to put down a marker that I believe will be acknowledged by many of my right hon. and hon. Friends. It is unacceptable for this Government—however large their majority—or any other to tinker with the House of Lords and abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers until they have thought out, canvassed, consulted on and advanced their proposals for what should happen to the second Chamber as a whole.

A feature of that second Chamber—whatever its political make-up—must be that its Members are substantially independent. That independence may come by way of appointment for life, but if we appoint too large a proportion of the second Chamber, we will give too much patronage to the Prime Minister of the day.

Independence may come by way of election. I think that there is a great deal to be said for looking to proportional representation to elect a part of the second Chamber. People who are so elected should serve for a lengthy period—perhaps six or nine years on a rolling system—so that they exercise substantial personal independence.

Another feature of the second Chamber should be that it represents the great interests of the land. That role is fulfilled in part at present by the Law Lords and the bishops, who represent the law and the Church, which are two great interests. One might consider other interests, such as industry or the trade unions, and such representation would provide a constitutional anchor.

I hope that the Government will consider with an open mind the fact that hereditary peers have a great deal of skill—although that is receding in some ways—and a great deal to offer. I think that we should consider allowing hereditary peers to elect a proportion of their number, as the Scottish hereditary peers used to. In that way they could continue to make a valuable contribution to the second Chamber.

I return to why I believe passionately in the importance of first past the post for this Chamber. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) said, first past the post enables the voters' choice to be reflected in the Government. It means that the most popular party—it may not have 50 per cent. of the vote; it seldom does—always forms the Government. It means also that the most popular candidate in any individual constituency is always elected as the Member of Parliament.

A great fallacy that has been exposed during the debate is the idea that alternative votes have equal value in an alternative voting system. A great difficulty is that the second, third, fourth or even fifth choice under an alternative voting system is given the same strength as the first. That simply is not fair; indeed, it is purely an intellectual concept to suggest that it is. As has been effectively stated many times, proportional representation gives disproportionate power to smaller parties. Those points have been well made in relation to Israel, Italy, France and New Zealand, and I support them strongly.

I agree with my right hon. Friends the Members for Suffolk, Coastal and for Fareham that a first-past-the-post system forces any party that wants to form the next Government to be a broad church, to cover the entire political spectrum and to be ready to represent and unite on points of view to provide a coherent Government for the next five years.

My final point is the strong constituency link. It may be possible to achieve it through some proportional representation methods, but it would not be as effective. Even with PR, Members would not necessarily be elected by a majority of people for whom they were the first choice, but Members of Parliament are none the less elected to represent all their constituents. I am sure that hon. Members do not take party matters into account when people come to them for help; we represent our constituency and do our best for it. Over our parliamentary careers, we shall have to stand out firmly against our party in the interests of our constituents on a number of occasions. That is what we should do.

We are looking to a reform of Parliament as a whole, involving both Chambers. The Government should consider the reform of the House of Lords much more broadly, but I was deeply encouraged by the attitude of the Home Secretary, who recognised the value of the first-past-the-post system. I hope that, with or without a referendum, that is what we shall stay with.

7:51 pm
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Dr Tony Wright (Cannock Chase, Labour)

As I listened to hon. Members' speeches, all of them excellent, I asked myself, "Why we are debating electoral reform now?" Is it because of the efforts of those in my party who have promoted the cause, the efforts of those in the Liberal Democrat party who have promoted the cause over the years or the campaigning efforts of outside organisations? Although they played a part, we are having the debate because of none of them. The architect of the debate and of the constitutional reform programme is the Conservative party.

While listening to the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), I felt strongly that Mrs. Thatcher was the real architect of constitutional reform. Until people realised what could be done by an Executive elected by a minority of the electorate and prepared to sweep away the conventional restraints that were supposed to have hemmed Governments in, no one could get a hearing in my party or in the country for the arguments that are producing the programmes that we are carrying out. Conservative Members must reflect on that and, whether they like it or not, regard themselves as the great architects.

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Dr Tony Wright (Cannock Chase, Labour)

I should like to, but, with only 10 minutes in which to speak, I cannot.

As we return to it, this issue is the for our generation. In 1908, exactly 90 years ago, a royal commission on electoral systems recommended the alternative vote. A few years later, the first Speaker's conference recommended PR. We do not have the records so we cannot be absolutely sure, but it is believed that the Conservative membership supported PR as a quid pro quo for their toleration of the wider extension of the franchise in 1918. There is a history to all this.

Rational argument gets mixed up with arguments of party advantage. What unites the two main parties is an ability to tease the Liberals. When they were in power and had a chance to do things, what did Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George do? They had nothing to do with PR. When the moment was there for them to move on the issue, they did nothing. The choice is for our generation: this is the moment of truth for electoral reformers, because, until now, people could favour electoral reform in a vague, amorphous, unexamined way, and were not pressed on the details of reform proposals. They were generally in favour of something different from the existing system.

We have arrived at the point of choice. A commission has been charged with establishing the details of an alternative on which we shall have to choose. That is a challenge for people in my party—and for the Liberal Democrats, although I hear from certain quarters that they are about to funk it, that they will go for purism and that, if the moment of real change comes, they will move in a different direction. We shall see, but what a missed opportunity that would be.

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Dr Tony Wright (Cannock Chase, Labour)

I am afraid that I cannot.

We know that there is no perfect system. I should add, because the point has come up variously, that foreign examples tend to be misleading and generally unhelpful, but we are being asked to find a system that retains the major merits of first past the post while removing the major disadvantages. That challenge has been given to the Jenkins commission. We have to have the argument freshly; we cannot rehearse arguments that we have had year in, year out, because, finally, we must undertake detailed consideration and come to a detailed choice. Can we retain a constituency link, the merits of which have been well advertised in the debate, with more fairness and more proportionality? It is a tribute to the Government that, having been elected by a landslide, they have moved to put the issue on the table and reach a conclusion.

I confess that, to an extent, I have changed my mind over the years. I was a fundamentalist: 10 years ago, I would have signed up to any sort of electoral change, simply to break what I thought was the tyranny of a minority pretending to be a majority and using the resources of our present political system to do it. People asked, "How can a Government do this kind of thing?" The only answer was to change a system that could produce such consequences.

I had not anticipated that a Government could be elected under it who would move to put into place a series of checks and balances that would reform the political system. I had thought that such reform would come only when we had put the trigger mechanism in place, so we must now have the argument in a different way. We must be absolutely sure that we are going for reform not simply to break the system wide open, but because we believe that the reform we propose has the merits to win the argument against first past the post.

I do not want a system that is simply more proportional, as some people do. Although I realise its attractions, I do not even want a system that would dish the Tories for ever more and establish a great progressive coalition that would rule into eternity. I should regard that as an acceptable by-product of a reform process, but it should not be the reason for it. I am much more influenced by other considerations. Would reform of a kind that would solve the riddle that we have given Jenkins to consider do something to strengthen, renew and revitalise our democracy? Could it give us greater civic energy? Could it encourage people to participate more? Could it make them think that their votes count? In an age when parties are becoming ever more disciplined, and when the area of debate is being closed down, would it enable more voices to be heard and more real debate to take place? We desperately need that.

We live in an age when any expression of opinion inside a party is immediately interpreted as a putative split. That is the atrophy of democracy and debate, and it is the end of real scrutiny and accountability. It would interest me greatly if we could solve that problem through a reform of the system.

Lord Jenkins carries a huge responsibility. He has been given the task of solving this great riddle by proposing a British system devised to suit British conditions that can be voted on by the British people. That is the fresh, new task. This is the moment when the electoral reform argument moves away from the anoraks and the zealots and becomes a public argument that will cut across normal party divides. Even the process of decision, referendum and argument will contribute towards the renewal of our democracy.

8:01 pm
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Mr David Curry (Skipton and Ripon, Conservative)

There is no such thing as a right or a wrong electoral system—merely a system that is appropriate to national circumstances and a product of a country's historical development. All electoral systems are, to some extent, a form of manipulation. We can obtain the political result we want by the electoral system we institute at the level of primary democracy.

A generation ago, the French diagnosed their problem as arising from a weak Executive and fractional parties. They chose to vest their democracy in a presidential and bureaucratic system rather than in a parliamentary system. That produces a weak Parliament with delegated votes, in which Ministers cannot sit, which is counter-balanced by a strong local democracy—much stronger than ours. The French system corresponds to their historical experience. When the French briefly changed it to a proportional representation system and Mr. Le Pen's party emerged as a national threat, it was amazing how rapidly they reverted to their two-tier, first-past-the-post system.

If we are in the business of healing—to use a glib word—and want all sections of the community to be represented so that no one feels excluded, we should choose the single transferable vote methodology, because then everyone can feel that they have a stake. The priority is not decisive action, but inclusiveness, which is why that system has been selected for Northern Ireland: it blurs rather than crystallises the divisions.

A country that has not experienced a long period of territorial integrity may want continuity and checks against a majority tyranny and may look to the German system, which has a strongly federal constitution and a large amount of devolved power. The German system lays emphasis on the continuity of the political process, but what we in this country would find offensive is the fact that a small party needs only 5 per cent. of the vote to get over the barrier and has a pre-emptive right over certain political positions under the constitution.

Scotland and Wales will have the additional member system. We will have an amazingly diverse flora of electoral systems in the United Kingdom: almost every system that has ever been tried will be on offer.

It is not true that proportional systems cannot generate radical change when that is necessary, although they may not be inherently good at it. I note what has been said about Italy's hybrid system. The economic change needed to qualify for the single currency has been demonstrably achievable; it will be interesting to see whether it is sustainable. Everyone must ask themselves such questions in the present scenario.

The United Kingdom has a system that has evolved over time. There has been no doubt about this country's territorial integrity for a millennium or more. We have no history of social unrest: there is no fear of social unrest or challenge to the political system. We have a long tradition of civic peace, and a great premium is placed on getting things done. Even though we elect a Government with less than a majority of the vote and Members of Parliament are elected with less than 50 per cent. of the vote, that is not challenged. People accept that that is the system: sometimes they win and sometimes they lose—fair do's.

Our first-past-the-post system depends on two factors. First, all the parties are coalitions. Even though the political system in Britain crystallises the difference, what happens outside the Chamber in the informal contacts among Members represents a consensual overlay to a system that is based on differentiation. Secondly, we have a bicameral system, and the role of the other House in the political process cannot be divorced from the debate, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) said.

The essential question is whether we want a Parliament—and hence a Government—that represents positive choice, or a system of least offence. Is our system pushing towards consensus, however laboured, or are we looking for a system that crystallises divisions? Day after day, the House votes at 10 o'clock; we crystallise the divisions; the winner takes all.

We face substantial variety and change. We have mentioned Northern Ireland, the additional member system in Scotland and Wales, the list system with a single vote for the European Parliament, and the amazing variety of systems in local government with single or multi-member constituencies and with elections either of all the councillors or a third of them. It is interesting that the Labour Government, who want to ensure that no council leader can sleep happily and quietly in his bed at night with too great a majority, have not introduced proportional representation for local government, which would be the logical way to get what they seem to want. We also have referendums.

We have a significant diffusion of power away from the traditional power exercised in Parliament. There is a diffusion of power regionally or nationally, depending on how one defines the units of the United Kingdom. The House is also aware of a shift of competence towards the European institutions because of our membership of the European Union and the problems of accountability that that poses. Have circumstances changed so significantly in the light of the contradictory shifts that are already taking place that we should add a further shift by introducing a system that may enfeeble the ability of the central Executive? Until it can be shown that there has been a fundamental shift and that an articulate case has been made for changing from an evolved system—there is no point pretending that a deliberate choice has been made, as a great deal in politics has happened by accident—I shall not be persuaded that we should reform the system, particularly given the current constitutional turbulence.

The arguments are familiar. There is the difficulty of the Government-building process following an election in which there is no decisive result. People should feel that they are represented in that process. Sometimes that can take months. Indeed, in countries such as Holland, politicians may not be necessary, given that the bureaucracy copes well in the months that it sometimes takes to build a Government. That may be the happiest period in a country's history.

There is the danger of election by the apparatchiks rather than by the people under the list system that is being used for the European Parliament elections. There is the problem—mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor)—of Members of Parliament with different qualities, as it were. I am talking about a lack of equivalence of function. We already see that in relation to Scottish Members, and we would see it again in a system that depended on the election of Members of Parliament on a constituency basis in parallel with that of Members drawn from a central list, without any such constituency responsibility.

It is important to recognise that, at one minute to seven on election day, we are all equal. I simply do not accept the idea that there is an inherent unfairness in that. When I go to the first poll just before 7 am, I have zero votes and everyone else has zero votes. Whoever ends up with one vote more than anyone else will win, on an entirely fair basis.

What does the Prime Minister seek? I think he knows that, some day, the Labour old guard will say, "We did not join the Labour party for this sort of budgetary rigour. We did not join the Labour party to embrace capitalism—still less to promote it—or to see class sizes and hospital waiting lists increase, or to endorse privatisation. We joined the Labour party because of its socialist policy." I think the Prime Minister fears that there may be a time when he will need to be able to change things in order to continue that non-socialist policy.

It may be that Lord Jenkins has been charged with bringing about the final demise of socialism in this country. If so, there may be at least one argument in the commission's favour.

8:10 pm
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Mr Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead, Labour/Co-operative)

It is difficult to follow the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who, in their different ways, were very eloquent. I shall begin by shooting myself in the foot, and congratulating the Opposition on their choice of topic: it has led to a good-humoured, rational and constructive debate, which will probably provide evidence that Lord Jenkins will be able to use.

Commendably, the debate has not been particularly fundamentalist. I am tired of hearing devotees of a method of election drawing attention to the difficulties involved in all the other methods, and devotees of a different method doing the same in a different way. As the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon made clear, in a sense such matters arise from historical causes: decisions must sometimes be made not just on the basis of the electoral systems available to us.

In fact, every electoral system is fundamentally paradoxical and fundamentally flawed. As many hon. Members will know, economic literature includes something called the Arrow paradox—named after Kenneth Arrow. It states that, if there is a choice of A, B or C, a population often prefer A to B and B to C but, alas, C to A. In Arrow's terminology, preferences are non-transitive once there are more than two options. That tempts one to think that we would all be all right if only we got rid of the Liberals: when there is a binary system of choice, at least Arrow's paradox is removed.

A long time ago, I read an article in a philosophy journal. When I looked for it in the House of Commons Library, I discovered to my horror that not every philosophy journal of distinction was held there. I hope that the authorities will note the omission, and will stock them all in future. The article in question was written by a woman called Professor Anscombe at Cambridge, who had come up with the following system.

Let us suppose that there is a small-scale democracy, involving only 11 people. Let us also suppose that there is a perfect democracy, in which everyone votes on everything: in this instance, there would be 11 issues on which to vote. That sounds about as pure a democracy as could be achieved, but, in fact, the majority could be in the minority the majority of the time. So there is an Anscombe paradox even when there are no Liberals!

I suppose that we must think in terms of the best bad system that we are trying to select. Churchill said that democracy was the best bad system, but we are trying to choose a form of democracy. Many persuasive speakers have argued that our present system is admirable in many ways, and has many virtues, but—I do not entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase in this connection—today's debate was initiated not just by the former Member of Parliament for Finchley, but by the sense of outrage felt by many people about the outcome of certain elections.

Although I know that all systems are paradoxical, I could not regard it as sensible when European elections returned no Liberal Members whatever. That strikes me as a step too far. Historically, societies sometimes end up with the awareness that a particular system is leading to severe problems that they wish to address.

I was an unsuccessful candidate in the European election of 1989, as in so many others. Being a Labour candidate in Hertfordshire was not guaranteed to secure electoral success, until the happy date of 1 May 1997. In that European election, the Green party received an extremely large vote, and everyone asked why there was no way in which that vote could be translated into at least some form of representation. The party had received 14.99 per cent. of the vote, which was also a paradox. It had argued for a threshold system of proportional representation; I suggested, rather cheekily, that a 15 per cent. threshold would still have left it about 25 votes short.

We have built up a perception that something needs to be done, but I do not think that we are terribly clear about what needs to be done. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase that we need an evolutionary change, enabling us to establish within some new system—but not too new—many of the virtues of our old system, while at least responding to some of the pressures on that system that have made so many people consider it unfair, not remotely for party political or parochial reasons.

I think that, on the whole, the present Government are trying—if I may use the "in" word—to be ethical. They are trying, knowing the difficulties, to deal with a deficiency in a way that most people will consider right. I hope that, in the end, the Jenkins commission will give us a choice between first past the post and a system that, while being very like it, will build in a little additional proportionality.

8:18 pm
Photo of Mr David Maclean

Mr David Maclean (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter). His was one of a number of erudite speeches that we have heard today. It is a while since I have heard a debate in which so many hon. Members on both sides of the House have made such knowledgeable speeches; it would be a great shame if I broke that track record.

I want to make only a few simple points, and I hope that I shall be able to so well within the 10-minute limit. I do not wish to comment on all the alternative systems or to make a passionate plea for first past the post—although I firmly support that system, for most of the reasons advanced by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The motion, which I support, states that the commission is not as independent as the Government wish it to seem. The Home Secretary, who is a reasonable man, said that it is a "relatively independent" commission. The Government amendment states that it is an "Independent Commission".

We have said that the commission should investigate the first-past-the-post system and present the pros and cons of that and of the alternative. Any commission that calls itself and is said by the Government to be independent must at least examine the present system. The Home Secretary has said that we misunderstand the purposes, that the status quo will be offered on the ballot paper. He has said that the "relatively independent" commission, which consists of those who passionately support an alternative, will merely recommend the best alternative to the status quo. That is a reasonable argument, and in one of my rare moments in the House I shall try to be as reasonable as the Home Secretary.

If the Government's defence is that they have appointed a partial commission to present an alternative to the present voting system so that both systems—one from the commission and the status quo—can be put to the electorate, it is incumbent on them or on a body of equal status to the independent commission to advocate the pros and cons of first past the post.

When the Jenkins commission reports, it will be trailed for a few days. It will dominate the "Today" programme and the national news. The message will not be that the first-past-the-post system and the commission's alternative are equally good. The report will be presented as if the commission has found the holy grail—a system that is much better than first past the post. The news media will not view the commission as partial. It will be said that the independent commission of the great and the good has found a system that will cure all Britain's ills.

Some Labour Members have been driven to PR because of a dislike of Lady Thatcher. However, I shall not go down that route. The Jenkins commission report will have an unstoppable momentum. Perhaps the Government and the Prime Minister are determined that that should happen. I was reassured to find that that is not what the Home Secretary wants. I am inclined to take the Home Secretary at his word because, unfortunately, he is too reasonable. I might take a greater interest in Home Office affairs if the Home Secretary were not such a reasonable man. I get no pleasure from attacking him.

The Home Secretary must recognise the force of my argument. If he wants the first-past-the-post system to be given equal treatment, respect and consideration by voters he will agree that the Government will have to do more than merely say, "Oh, well, the arguments are well known. The electorate have used the current system for years and we do not need to explain much about it." If the Government propose to rely for their defence on the propositions that we do not understand the objectives, that they had always intended to have first past the post in the referendum, and that the commission is merely trying to find an alternative, they must make sure that there is equal funding or no funding. They must also ensure that the arguments for the current system are fairly put. When the Jenkins commission has reported, that could mean setting up a commission drawn from people in all parties to look at the referendum.

In general, I do not support referendums and I shall support one on this issue only if the Government assure us that it will be different from their referendums so far. In those, the question and the timing were determined by the Government and they made the arguments and provided the funding. That happened in Scotland, but perhaps I cannot quibble with that because it was in Labour's manifesto. The question in the referendum must not be determined by the Government alone at a time of their choosing; they must consult other parties.

It has been said that the previous Government made some changes to the Representation of the People Act 1989 without consulting other parties. I am not aware of that happening, and I think that on most occasions we did consult other parties. In my last couple of years in the Home Office, the shadow Home Secretary, now the Home Secretary, was called in by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) for consultation on potential changes to that Act. I cannot remember whether we went ahead with changes, but we consulted. I cannot imagine my noble Friend Lord Hurd of Westwell, when he was Home Secretary, making changes to the Representation of the People Act without consulting other parties.

The Jenkins commission intends to present an alternative system and it will not consider first past the post. Before the questions for the referendum are decided, all parties in the House should be consulted so that there can be no question of the issue becoming a party political matter—which it will become if the Government determine the question, the timing and which system is to receive Government propaganda. I hope that the Under—Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), who is also a reasonable man, will communicate my views to the Home Secretary. I also hope that, in his winding-up speech, he will say that the Government will treat equally the results of the Jenkins commission and the current electoral system to ensure that people get a genuine and fair choice. There must be no unfair propaganda from any quarter.

8:27 pm
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Mr Hugh Bayley (City of York, Labour)

The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) seems to make the mistake that the only document put before the people in the referendum will be the Jenkins commission report. If there is a referendum, a Bill will be presented, and all matters, including the two questions asking people whether they plump for first past the post or for the system recommended by the commission will have equal airing in the House, and no doubt during the referendum campaign.

Many hon. Members tonight have reinforced the myth that, although the current voting system may not be perfect, it has been honed over the centuries, and is the best that human intelligence can devise. However, that is not borne out in emerging democracies. After the fall of the Berlin wall, commissions in central and eastern Europe investigated electoral systems for their new democracies. They considered first past the post, but not one of them opted for it. When South Africa was building towards its first all-race, all-people election, it did not go for our system, but for a system of PR. Those systems have brought substantial benefits to those countries.

I have here an 1837 first edition of the first book written by Charles Dickens, "The Pickwick Papers", in which he describes—among other things—the Eatanswill by-election, and the drunkenness, bribery and debauchery of a by-election in a rotten borough before the great Reform Act. Many things have changed since then—women and working-class people have the vote—but the one thing which has not changed is the electoral system. The system before the great Reform Act was the first-past-the-post system, which was designed for a particular job: to deal with an electorate of a few hundred people who were plumping for one squire or another.

It was not a system designed for a modern, literate and intelligent democracy. That is why countries which have developed their democratic institutions since the emergence of mass literacy have not adopted a historical anachronism; first past the post is not a 19th-century Dickensian voting system, but an 18th-century system, developed in the United States and Britain in pre-democratic times.

There is a wonderful illustration in the book of the debauchery at Eatanswill—I wish the Official Report could reproduce it. Perhaps it can be reproduced as a tribute to Charles Dickens, who was an official reporter of this House before Hansard won the franchise.

The right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) argued that there is a broad correlation between the votes cast for the various parties and their years in power. That is simply not the case. I am 46 years old. During my lifetime, there have been seven years of Labour government with a clear, working majority; five years of Labour government with a small majority, which had to be bolstered by deals with other parties, or with no majority at all; and 34 years of Conservative rule. For 75 per cent. of my life, there has been a Conservative Government, but even the Conservatives would not claim that they have had the support of 75 per cent. of the electorate. At no time in my lifetime have they achieved the support of even 50 per cent. of the electorate.

It is easy to see why the Conservatives support the present system—it is one under which they do extremely well. When they support it, they are putting their party interest before the national interest. It is also easy to see why the Liberal Democrats want change; they do exceptionally badly under the first-past-the-post system. They are arguing, at least in part, out of self-interest.

The fact that, in my lifetime, the Liberal Democrats have had the support of about 20 per cent. of the electorate—rather less when I was a child, but slightly more in the 1980s—pinpoints the fallacy of the argument of the right hon. Member for Devizes. If there was a broad proportionality between votes and years in power, the Liberal Democrats and its predecessors would have been in power for a quarter of my lifetime. They have been nowhere near power at any time in my lifetime.

The fact that there is the Labour party is willing to put before the people the possibility of change is very new. A party which is a beneficiary of the two-party system is nevertheless prepared to contemplate change. That is a reflection of the fact that we have a Labour Government who are prepared to contemplate change over wide parts of the constitution. It would be extraordinary if we were prepared to modernise our constitution in relation to the other place, the government of Scotland and Wales, human rights and freedom of information, but stuck rigidly to an 18th-century electoral system for this House.

It has been argued that first past the post gives strong government. After 18 years of Conservative government, based on slightly over 40 per cent. of the vote—about one third of the electorate, as not all electors vote—I have had strong government up to my neck. If we had had a proportional system, the poll tax would not have been enacted by this Chamber. There would have been a moderating and restraining influence, and the decision of this House would have been a better reflection of the will of the people.

First past the post may give strong government, but it does not give effective government; it is not good for the prosperity of the British people. As I pointed out earlier, in average growth rate over 35 years among the current member states of the EU, the United Kingdom is 14th out of 15. If proportional representation systems necessarily led to weak and ineffective government, 13 out of the 15 EU member states—all of which use proportional systems—would not have achieved a better economic performance than the UK.

In terms of gross domestic product per capita—the average income in each of those 15 states—Britain came fifth out of the 15 in 1962. We are now 11 th. We have been leapfrogged by Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Austria and Italy; all of which have proportional representation systems.

Back in the 19th century, the great Liberal radical John Stuart Mill drew up plans for changing the electoral system; plans which have been reflected, even though hon. Members may not have acknowledged it, in many of the speeches today. He drew up proposals for proportional representation because he was afraid that universal suffrage would create what he called the "tyranny of a majority"—that the poor would keep the educated middle and upper classes out of power for ever. Under first past the post, however, we have had a tyranny of a minority, because, throughout my lifetime, we have never had a Government supported by the majority of the British people.

8:36 pm
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Mr Robert Syms (Poole, Conservative)

The hon. Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley) made some good points, but the key point is that our system has evolved over many decades. It is a tried and tested system, which is widely accepted. There has been electoral reform, but it has been to widen the franchise, to give votes to women and to reduce the degree of corruption which once existed and was alluded to in the novel by Dickens. The system is simple, straightforward and transparent.

We have heard about the various attempts at electoral reform, but none has survived the test of the first-past-the-post system. Even enthusiasts for change can often draw back when they look at the consequences. In 1918, the then coalition Government proposed to change the system. This House voted three times, by ever-bigger majorities, against change, as the consequences sunk in.

The system is effective and delivers changes in government. The electors can go out and feel that they are taking part in a process of change. People can vote on a Thursday; by 2 o'clock in the morning, there is an indication of what is happening; by 4 o'clock, the Government have a majority; by the following day, the Jaguars are sweeping into Buckingham Palace, a new Government are formed, and the furniture vans have turned up to take the former incumbent away. That is a good thing. It allows the electors to deliver decisive change. It delivers a majority Government, who must then carry out their pledges and their manifesto.

All political parties are effectively coalitions. However, under our system, a coalition is formed before a general election, and political parties form around a platform or manifesto which is offered to the public. Under proportional representation systems, that process occurs after the election, encouraging a fragmented political system, in which political parties negotiate. We have heard a great deal in this debate about New Zealand, which took eight weeks to form a Government. That Government was formed around a 68-page negotiated document, which bore no relation to what had happened before the election.

In the general election, the United Kingdom Government stood for election on a manifesto. Undoubtedly they will do their best to implement that manifesto. At the end of four or five years, people will form a judgment on how well the Government have done, and on whether they honoured what the electorate perceived to be their pledges. I think that that is a rather good system, which entails either sacking or backing people. Our electoral system has much to commend it.

Under our system, individuals can vote for an individual they trust, who happens to be a member of a political party. Our system allows a great deal of discretion in what electors can do in constituencies. Usually, although Conservatives will vote Conservative and Labour supporters will vote Labour, some personal voting is possible in constituencies. We have seen many examples of such voting. Quite often, Liberal Democrats are recipients of the results of personal voting, when hon. Members have been elected at by-elections after working specific constituencies.

Under our system, we can vote for individuals who represent a geographical area, for which they are responsible. Even when someone represents a so-called "safe" seat—which, in this day and age, is a very difficult thing to define—he or she will be called to account by the constituency party if he or she does not do the job, even if the electors are not able directly to call their representative to account.

The electorate's expectations of an hon. Member are very high. What were the most frequently asked questions of most hon. Members during the selection process? They were, "Will you live in the constituency? Will you be here? Will you be accessible and available?" A critical point for local people is the ability to feel that their Member is a part of the local community. Our system promotes that connection.

Extremists have been mentioned in this debate. It is true that, when PR was introduced in France, the Front National received representation. The Front National has consistently done better in polls—even after PR was abolished—because of the platform and credibility as a respectable party that that representation gave it. In current polls in France, the Front National does as well as the UVF, with each receiving about 20 per cent. of the vote. The Front National is still a factor in the European Parliament, and it still has much representation on regional councils.

The House may well remember the recent hoo-hah over whether centre-right regional government in France should accept support from the Front National in taking over regional administrations, rather than allowing socialist administrations to be elected. The episode lifted the Front National, giving it a credibility and profile that it has enjoyed ever since.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) made a very good point about facing down someone who may have fascist or deeply offensive views. However, being elected to a Chamber such as ours gives a person a veneer of respectability and a platform that, in some instances, could be quite dangerous. The first-past-the-post system presents some quite high thresholds; the fact that communists, Trotskyites, fascists and some others have not managed to get through that threshold is a rather good thing.

The Liberal Democrats have always been very honest. They have always been in favour of a single transferable vote system in multi-member constituencies, except where there are natural geographical boundaries—which, one may not be surprised to hear, includes the Isle of Wight, Orkney and Shetland, and several other such areas. That has consistently been their policy.

In elections in southern Ireland, a majority is not necessary to form a Government. Fianna Fail, with 46 or 47 per cent. of the vote, can form a majority, although it does not often do so. Nevertheless, it is a practical possibility under that system.

The single transferable vote system has its benefits in small countries. Malta, for example, uses the STV system. However, given the size of our country, I do not think that the system would be especially beneficial here. The system also tends to lead to parish-pump politics. Moreover, given the size of constituency that would be necessary in the United Kingdom, with each comprising about half a million electors, I do not think that the system would be a practical proposition.

The STV system would also lead to a practice that is completely against the British tradition: Conservatives standing against Conservatives; Labour candidates standing against other Labour members; and Liberal Democrats standing against other Liberal Democrats. Such a system would cause substantial problems in party discipline.

I shall not deal now with list systems. I think that most hon. Members—having voted for such a system for European elections—would not think that a list system was acceptable for elections to the House, simply because of its bizarre aspects.

The additional vote system has been touted—today, for example—as a third way. That system was introduced in Australia because the Country party wanted it, so that that party and the Liberals could essentially have a run-off in some seats—so that only one of those parties could run against the Labour party, which is the largest party in Australia.

AV has been a great detriment to the Australian Labour party, resulting in a system in which the second, third or fourth-preference votes of the losing or weakest candidates could well cancel out the first-preference votes of a stronger candidate. The system does not differentiate by allowing for weighted voting. One candidate may receive 20,000 votes, and two other candidates may receive 10,000. If 10,000 votes go to the additional candidate, it will wipe out the candidate with 20,000 first-preference votes. The system assumes that every vote is equal, whether it is a second, third or fourth-preference vote.

An argument can be made for transferring votes, but there should be weighting—by saying that someone's second-preference votes are worth only half of their first-preference votes, and by making third-preference votes a suitable percentage of first-preference votes. However, cancelling out someone's first-preference votes by using the lower-preference votes of a losing candidate is not a feature of a sound system.

Additional vote systems also institutionalise tactical voting. In the recent Australian election, it is no accident that the Australian Labour party had eight bells knocked out of it by the AV system, which delivered a landslide. Although Labour polled 37 per cent. of the vote, it received substantially fewer seats because of the AV system. AV is less proportionate than the first-past-the-post system. Therefore, if proportionality has to be a measure of an electoral system—which I think that it has to be—the first-past-the-post system would be acceptable for the United Kingdom.

Our system has served us well. The geographical link is very important. We have delivered effective government, which allows people to hold the Government to account. Accountability is very important to our political system. Although proportional representation may have advantages for other nations, every nation has to look to its own traditions, history and way of doing things. Our system has evolved and done well in meeting the test of time. As a nation, we would be foolish to ditch it.

The one comment by the Home Secretary with which I can agree is that, unlike New Zealand—where the choice is between—

8:47 pm
Photo of Mr Alan Hurst

Mr Alan Hurst (Braintree, Labour)

I am very pleased to be called to speak in this debate, which has enormously increased my knowledge. We have heard philosophical, literary and historical speeches. Had an hon. Member spoken on the d'Hondt system, I would know a lot more about arithmetic than I probably do now.

What surprises me—as a quite firm opponent of proportional representation—is the wording of the Opposition motion. I think that the Opposition have misunderstood the purpose of the Government's policy in establishing the Jenkins commission. The purpose was not to establish a judicial inquiry to determine what learned men consider to be the best electoral system—which would be rather like swearing in an American jury. It would be almost impossible to find someone who had not some predisposition to one system or another. Every commissioner would have to be asked, "Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Liberal party?" To do so would be to disqualify any independent person from sitting on such a commission.

The Jenkins commission was not supposed to be an independent commission—it was established to determine the best proportional system. I welcome that task, and I should welcome it if the commission finds the best proportional system. It is right and proper that the British people should have the choice between the best proportional system and our current system.

Arguments about proportional representation have been knocking around for a long time. I first learned about it from Edith Lakeman, whom I am sure Liberal Democrat Members know well. She was the high priestess of proportional representation. She could not be called an independent commission. She had firm views on the subject, but her book has remained the bible for many years for those venturing into the intricacies of different electoral systems.

I glanced through Edith Lakeman's book today for the first time in many years. I was reminded that first past the post is only a recent introduction in this country. We used to elect the first two past the post, because most elections, in counties and boroughs, were for double member seats.

In the Victorian age, we dabbled in proportional systems. Birmingham, which has some firm advocates of proportional representation now, had an experiment in the Limited Vote in the Victorian period. We had some exotic systems, according to the book. A voter might have two votes, but three people were elected. They had to choose carefully or they would get it wrong. We even went further than that. I was reminded for the first time in 30 years of London school board elections in the 19th century, and the cumulative vote. There were six members to be elected, and voters had six votes to cast. They could cast them all for their favoured candidate, but they had to calculate carefully how to cast the votes to maximum party advantage. We have also had the single transferable vote on the mainland of this country as well as in Northern Ireland. It was used for the university seats between 1918 and 1950.

Significantly, none of the systems lasted very long—about 30 years at most, I think. They did not prove popular where they were introduced.

I am concerned about the pessimism of Conservative Members. The debate should be taken to the British people so that they can argue about it and discuss it. I do not believe that people talk of nothing but proportional representation in the pubs of Coggeshall and Kelveden in my constituency. I suspect that they never talk about it. It might be good if the issues were debated openly. They have been swept under the carpet.

The proportional representationists have had the better of the argument in many ways because they use the phrase "electoral reform", which implies that a new system would be better than what we have. I am surprised that Conservative Members use the phrase. It would be better to talk about electoral alteration or electoral change, because talking about electoral reform almost prejudges the issue before the debate has begun.

We should talk about whether to have electoral change. Let us test our system against the best that Lord Jenkins can come up with. I have little doubt that when the issues are put before the British people, they will decide that our present system provides the right balance. The constituency link is particularly important. I find it difficult to remember which constituencies Members represent, and I have to make notes about them. It would be far more difficult if I had to remember their number and refer to the hon. No. 6 from East Anglia—or was it the hon. No. 17 from the West Country? We might not have the same esteem for right hon. No. 4 because he was not No. 1. The British people, with their robust common sense, will come to the right conclusion.

I shall vote firmly against the motion and support the amendment. However, I look forward to campaigning in support of the retention of our present electoral system.

8:53 pm
Photo of Mr John Hayes

Mr John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings, Conservative)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst). I can think of no greater delight than sharing a platform with him in the coming referendum campaign, arguing the case for the current electoral arrangements. I shall not comment further on his speech except to pay him a compliment. After a brief meeting with him, my wife said that he was far too nice to be a socialist.

That brings me to the comments of the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter), who, after a typically incisive, thoughtful and moderate contribution, declared that the principal argument in favour of electoral change—I take the point of the hon. Member for Braintree on that phrase—was that "something must be done". If that is the best argument for changing a time-honoured system that is well established, widely understood and highly effective, it is a poor show indeed, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will admit.

I am disappointed that the hon. Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley), has left the Chamber, after attributing the difference between our growth rate and that of our European neighbours to the electoral system. We may as well relate the price of peas or England's fortunes in the world cup over the decades to the electoral system as talk about its direct correlation with the growth records of comparable—or non-comparable—economies.

Why change a system that is working well? That might be a sufficient contribution to the debate, but hon. Members will be pleased—perhaps some will be disappointed—to hear that I do not intend to stop there.

The debate must be seen in the context of the wider arguments about constitutional reform. Perhaps it is enough to say that the zeal of an unreasoning radical is just as unattractive as the extremism of a bigot, and certainly more dangerous than the caution of a conservative or even the obstinacy of a reactionary. I wonder whether what is being proposed is change for the sake of change. Informed by Edmund Burke, Conservatives understand that good government relies to an extent on resisting change unless there is a proven case for its efficacy.

There is no proven case for the efficacy of fundamental electoral change. It could be resisted on that ground alone. Having said that, we have had a range of electoral reform over the years. The system for nominating people, the conduct of elections, the process of elections and the nature of the election campaigns have changed repeatedly over the centuries, contrary to the assertion—in an earlier, less historically accurate, contribution—that the system had remained unchanged since the 17th century.

Proportional representation is used as shorthand for electoral reform, and the debate has therefore rightly focused on that subject. PR presents two main threats. The first is the creation of a confused, muddied system that will leave the electorate feeling disfranchised through incomprehension. Some will say that that is patronising, and that of course people will understand how to cast many votes. However, in the case of the Scottish Parliament, information is to be deliberately withheld from the electorate. Their incomprehension is understandable, because they are not to be given the full facts under a closed list system. An open list system is scarcely better for breaking down the relationship between the choice of the electorate for the person elected.

The second threat is even more important. It is the breach in the relationship between the elector and the elected. Let me be clear about the theme that runs through both these dangers. The clarity of a system for electing representatives in which a group of individuals in a given area choose another individual who represents their interests and is accountable to them is crucial for good democracy.

Moreover, the bond that is established between a Member and his or her constituency is arguably increasing significantly. That point was well made by the Home Secretary and others. People expect a relationship—directly or by proxy—with their representative. My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) cited living in one's constituency as an example of that change. Lord Jenkins may well have traversed the country because he clearly saw his relationship with this place as more important than that with any constituency; that such matters were of less importance. That was certainly true of Disraeli and Gladstone, who represented many constituencies all over the country during their long parliamentary careers.

However, these days, the relationship between electors and the elected is critical. The sense of ownership of their representative that people rightly feel is for many the hub of democracy. That is people's link to the exercise of political power. In turn, Members feel a sense of pride and ownership, which we should value and cherish. That bond is sacred, and we cast it aside at our peril.

The theme that runs through both the threats that I have described is that electoral systems are not just about votes or how one chooses one's representative, but about the subsequent relationship between the representative and those who elect him or her. It is not enough to say that the debate is about the voting system; it is also about the nature of government and of democracy itself.

I could rehearse the standard arguments about minority parties, the dangers of extremism and the deals behind closed doors, but I shall not. I shall simply deal with two of the other points that have been raised in the debate. First, it is undoubtedly true that PR would lead to a more anodyne Parliament. The characters and people of independent mind, who are our best guarantors against excessive Executive powers, would find it very hard to be elected if party apparatchiks had more power than electors in their constituencies. PR would remove such safeguards against the abuses of Executive power.

Secondly, there is significant evidence that PR does not deliver the goods in terms of direct proportionality. The Plant report compared electoral systems in a number of countries, including Britain, the United States of America and most European countries, and found that, using Professor Rose's criteria, which are widely acknowledged, our system was more proportional than, for example, the one in Spain, and that the United States, Britain and Japan have, for the most part, delivered proportionality in greater measure than is ever acknowledged by those who criticise our system—certainly by those in minority and fringe parties, such as the Liberal Democrats.

It is curious that human experience suggests that people do not always value things until they have lost them. One hon. Member spoke about what brand of Conservatism was on display in this debate. I make no bones about the fact that I am a romantic idealist. I lack any cynicism about the principle of representing people and their needs, articulating people's problems and taking up their causes. I put that idealism to one side to say this: in terms of practical government and on the criteria of the so-called independent commission—not our words but those in the amendment tabled in the name of the Prime Minister—our current system measures up pretty favourably. There is no better example than the 1997 general election. Surely no one would argue that, in general proportional terms, the will of the people was not meaningfully exercised. I end where I began: if it ain't broke, why fix it?

Several hon. Members:

rose

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Mr Michael Martin (Deputy Speaker)

Order. I intend to call the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman to make his winding-up speech at about 9.20 pm. I have no power to insist, but I appeal to hon. Members to speak for five minutes each. If they do so, at least four Members will be called before the Front-Bench spokesmen. I know that some hon. Members have been present throughout the debate, and five-minute speeches would allow them at least to make some contribution.

9:02 pm
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Mr Alan Campbell (Tynemouth, Labour)

I shall try to be brief. I welcome the progress that the Government have already made in setting up the Jenkins commission. I am surprised that its mere establishment seems to have thrown the Conservative party into panic. I am pleased that the Government have resisted the temptation simply to accept the system that delivered them so much power, and have been prepared not only to consider reform but make such early progress in fulfilling our manifesto commitment.

By the end of the Parliament, voters will face a potentially bewildering array of choices for a London mayor, a London authority, a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh assembly. I do not share the scepticism of the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), who seems to doubt the capacity of voters to understand what is expected of them. After all, the electorate show a high level of sophistication every time they vote tactically to remove or to promote a particular candidate or party. They did so when they removed the right hon. Gentleman's Government. If we are to have different systems, however, there is a need to educate the public, preferably before they leave school, on how to cast their votes and on how important it is to do so.

There is no overriding reason why we should not have an array of different electoral systems. Their complexity would reflect the society in which we live and the jobs that we expect them to do. The choice of any electoral system depends on the criteria that the body to be elected is expected to meet. We have already gone through the criteria for testing any change, one of which is the link between a Member and a constituency. During the general election, 88 per cent. of electors in Tynemouth said that they wanted a strong link between the constituency and its Member, and they wanted an MP who lived in the constituency. Unfortunately, not all of them voted for me, but enough of them did. A second criterion is the need to reflect as much opinion as possible. Thirdly, we must reflect public opinion without being unduly influenced by minority parties.

I welcome the investigation of alternative systems, and I want the widest possible debate. However, I am not yet convinced that the present system does not meet the criteria as well as any. It provides a clear link between a Member and a constituency, produces a definitive result, and usually means that the most popular party is not at the mercy of minority parties. Perhaps above all, it gives voters a choice of Government or Prime Minister, rather than delegating that authority to Members of Parliament who can do deals.

I concur with some of the points made by supporters of the present system, but their arguments have been well rehearsed, and will no doubt be repeated during any campaign. The difference on the Labour side is that we support investigation of options and want to give people a real choice between the current system and an alternative. I look forward to the widest debate on that, because I am worried that candidates and Governments are elected with a minority vote, and I am interested in the effect that the supplementary vote would have in allowing the winner to claim at least 50 per cent. of the vote. Provided that such a system fulfilled the criteria that I have mentioned, I would not lose sleep over its introduction.

Turnout and participation are also important. If we want to improve turnout, we need an Opposition who are offering a positive alternative rather than simply saying no, I am not simply pointing the finger at the Conservatives, because we, too, had to learn that lesson during the 18 years of the previous Government. I hope that I was not the only person moved by the high turnout in Northern Ireland, particularly among young people who are traditionally alleged not to vote. They were given a positive alternative, and they voted for it.

I welcome the new Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen, in the hope that they will do better than the last lot at providing a positive alternative. Perhaps we should not expect too much. To paraphrase the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), they have something of the day about them, but, for many of them, that day was yesterday.

We need to consider how elections are conducted. Why are crucial decisions made about government in 15 hours of an often wet Thursday, rather than over a worker- friendly or family-friendly weekend? Why is it so difficult to get postal or proxy votes? Our electoral system has stood the test of time, but that does not in itself guarantee that the system is successful or fair.

The Conservatives have often been at the forefront of those who have simply opposed change: Peel not wanting to open the door in 1832, and summoning up the prospect of not being able to close it; Disraeli not wanting to make a leap in the dark. Those fears proved baseless, which is why, from time to time, we have to look at the British constitution to examine and modernise it. Now is such a time.

9:09 pm
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Mr Desmond Swayne (New Forest West, Conservative)

Every electoral system has its imperfections, and the principal imperfection of the first-past-the-post system is that it is proportional only in a fairly broad interpretation of the word. I was heartened when my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) pointed out the respects in which it is proportional. I found that argument helpful. We must be careful about doing away with its imperfections and taking on other systems with even greater imperfections.

Most proportional systems have the profound imperfection of damaging the constituency link. One such system—the alternative vote system—does not do so. I can regard that system with some equanimity because I would have won my seat on 1 May under it, but it suffers from the huge disadvantage that it is even less proportional than our existing system. It must be counted out on that ground alone.

That leaves us with the other systems offered to us. To some extent, all would damage the constituency link. That has a profoundly pernicious effect on the whole body politic. Germany has a mixed system, with constituency members and list members. The pervasive effect on the political culture that attends the list has infected the rest of the body politic. On a recent trip to Germany, it struck me as extraordinary when I was advanced upon by people who knew that I was a British politician. Without any solicitation, they gave me to believe that they were deeply anxious about economic and monetary union. Many were profoundly hostile to it. I did not solicit those opinions; they were freely offered. However, I found when speaking to German politicians that those point of views were not reflected at all. Is it not extraordinary that there should be such a profound gulf between the political class and the people they represent that the anxieties of the people are not represented at all by their politicians?

The reason is that, if someone wishes to be elected as a member on a party list system, it is no good addressing the preoccupations of the electorate, because they will not determine whether that person is elected. One has to address the preoccupations of the party machine. That has a disastrous and pervasive effect that undermines democracy. That is the principal argument against proportional representation, but there are others, not least that mentioned by the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) about arithmetic.

I sat through the debates on devolution in Scotland and Wales, and asked the Minister concerned about the d'Hondt formula because I did not understand it. I said that at least voters understand our existing system. They understand the relationship between a cross in the box and a Member of Parliament being elected. They will not understand the d'Hondt formula. His answer was that the people did not have to understand, so long as the returning officer understood it. Nothing could be more calculated to undermine confidence in our democracy.

One of the arguments that has been advanced by Labour Members is that this is all a great rehearsal of the democratic process and that we are doing all this to refresh our democracy: we will give the people a choice by presenting the arguments dispassionately, letting them think about the arguments and holding a referendum on that basis. The hon. Member for Braintree put that case, which is attractive and persuasive in its own way.

However, it struck to me as rather odd that, from 7 March 1996, when I was selected to fight the constituency of New Forest, West, until the present day, I have had two inquiries about my views on proportional representation, both received before the election and both from members of Charter 88. The subject of our debate is not a matter that is exercising the minds of our constituents. No one ever asked me for a referendum on proportional representation, but multiply the number of people who asked me for my views on proportional representation by a factor of 10 and the result is the number of people who demanded a referendum on our relationship with the European Union or on capital punishment. That is what is exercising the minds of our people, not proportional representation.

As for dispassionately presenting an argument to the people, I do not want to cast any aspersions on the integrity of the commissioners, but I do not believe that one can properly call a commission independent that has someone so partial as Lord Jenkins at its head.

9:15 pm
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Mr Martin Linton (Battersea, Labour)

The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) reminded us that the debate is actually about the first-past-the-post system, yet we have heard many speeches about New Zealand and about Germans advancing on the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), and few about the failings of the first-past-the-post system.

I find it remarkable that the Opposition can table a motion describing the first-past-the-post system as successful and fair little more than 12 months after suffering their worst defeat since the Duke of Wellington led them into the 1832 election. Perhaps their strategy is to make a virtue of misfortune.

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Mr Martin Linton (Battersea, Labour)

No.

If the Conservatives still support the first-past-the-post system after the drubbing they got, perhaps it is a good system after all. I see the Conservative party as a brain-damaged boxer struggling to get back in the ring, oblivious to the cause of his misfortune.

When disaster struck the Conservatives in 1974—when they ended up with only 36 per cent. of the vote—they were so shocked that some of them actually started to think about the voting system. They set up an organisation called Conservative Action on Electoral Reform, which claimed to have 41 members among Conservative Members of Parliament—some of them are still here, no doubt—but apart from Mr. Rathbone, the former Member of Parliament for Lewes, they are now queuing up to praise the system that has just clobbered them.

To have a sensible debate, we should start by admitting that there was a time when the first-past-the-post system worked quite well. People often describe the late 1940s and the 1950s as the golden era of the two-party system, when 97 per cent. of voters voted for one of the two main parties and, in 1950, 84 per cent. went out to vote.

We can see how the system has deteriorated from the fact that the 97 per cent. voting for the two main parties has declined to only 74 per cent. and the 84 per cent. who turned out in the 1950 election has become 71 per cent. Only 37 per cent. of people actually voted for their local Member of Parliament and the past four Governments have been elected by less than a third of the electorate—a figure that was worst of all for the Government elected in 1983.

Members of Parliament elected by a majority of their constituents have almost disappeared: the proportion used to be 94 per cent., but it is now only 50 per cent. and, on the Conservative Benches, only 10 per cent. The hon. Member for New Forest, West is right to say that he is one of the few who would have been elected under an alternative vote system, but only 13 per cent. of current Conservative Members of Parliament can say that the majority of their constituents voted for them. Over the past 50 years, people have become less likely to vote for their Member of Parliament, less likely to vote for the Government, less likely to vote for the two main parties, less likely to vote at all and less likely even to be registered.

In almost every other European country, voters have the satisfaction of knowing that, unless they vote for a very small party their vote will count towards the election of a Member of Parliament from the party of their choice who will be accountable to them. In the UK, most people go to the polling station knowing that their individual vote is highly unlikely even to count towards the result. Only one third of votes in this country count towards the result, and only about 90 constituencies out of 659 are marginal and therefore likely to swing the result.

The only telling argument advanced by supporters of first past the post is that PR can lead to coalition. I have some sympathy with that argument because although there is nothing wrong with coalitions, government is certainly simpler when a single party has a majority in Parliament. However, it is not true that PR always leads to coalition government. Several countries have for long periods had single-party majority Governments elected by PR. Throughout the 1970s, the Australian socialist party was elected with a majority by PR. The Portuguese socialists and social democrats have been elected with majorities, as have Fianna Fail, the CDU/CSU in Germany and the social democrats in Sweden. In Spain and Greece, under PR systems, almost every election in the past 20 years has resulted in a party winning a majority of seats, although that was not always based on a majority of votes.

I point that out not as a criticism of Greece, but to show that there is not a straight choice between coalition-prone proportional representation or coalition- proof first past the post. Our system can be prone to coalition—in the county council elections of the mid-1980s, the majority of councils were hung. Equally, as I have demonstrated, proportional systems can be almost coalition-proof, as they have been in Greece and Spain.

Only if we can detach the arguments about proportional representation from the separate argument about the desirability or otherwise of coalition government do we have any chance of even beginning to debate the merits of PR for the individual voter. The central point is that PR would make their vote effective wherever they live, remove the need for tactical voting and give them control over the political system.

9:21 pm
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Dr Liam Fox (Woodspring, Conservative)

Seldom can a debate have been summed up so well as by the phrase used by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) when he said that there is no such thing as a perfect electoral system. That has been the thread running through much of the debate, which was of high quality. It was one of the best debates in the House for a long time. Most speeches were of a high calibre, they were not party political and they showed the House at its best. The debate was ample justification for the Opposition's tabling the motion to raise the profile of this important subject in the House and beyond.

We accepted from the outset—from the opening speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram)—that there are flaws in the first-past-the-post system. We need look no further than our own Benches to see exactly what the effect of such a system can be, and we can look to Scotland and Wales to see exactly the wiping out that can occur under first past the post. We cannot be accused of defending the system because it is in our party's interests to do so. We defend it because it is in the country's interests to maintain it.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) asked earlier what our system is for. That is surely the question that we must all answer if we are to take this argument forward. He asked whether the purpose of the system is to provide an exact mirror of the minutest voting trend or to provide the people with an effective Government and the Government with an effective Opposition. He said, tellingly, that decision making is a first-past-the-post activity.

In government, it is not possible to make a proportion of a decision. Decisions need to be taken by Governments with strong views on how to tackle problems. The first reason, therefore, to support the first-past-the-post system is that it works: it provides stability and strength in government.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) made a typical point when he said that we need inclusive politics; problem-solving politics; soft and cuddly politics; new third-way inclusive love-in politics. It is true that we live in a deceptively calm political time, but that has largely been the result of challenging the political consensus previously. Throughout the Thatcher years, which so many Labour Members hated, we challenged the political consensus—the perceived political wisdom at the time.

How could we have achieved the things that we take for granted under the coalition mess that PR would give us? How could we have tackled the trade union reforms that the country badly needed? How could we have made the defence changes that we had to, in defiance of the Soviet bloc, during the cold war? How could we have made our economic reforms? At the time, the status quo was supported by the conventional political wisdom. Sometimes Governments must be strong to defy the conventional political wisdom, not simply to pay homage to it.

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Mr Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield, Labour)

I follow the hon. Gentleman's argument, but does it flow from what he is suggesting that Governments should deny what is clearly, in many cases, the majority view of the British people—such as on the poll tax?

Photo of Dr Liam Fox

Dr Liam Fox (Woodspring, Conservative)

It is becoming apparent to many Ministers in the present Government that, occasionally, things must be done that are unpopular. That is part of good government, and it is part of the strength of our system that, at the end of the period, we return to the electorate and say, "These are the decisions we took. We shall stand up for our reasoning, we shall stand up for what we did, and you can make your choice." However, we must avoid the debilitating consensus-ridden systems that some Labour Members who spoke tonight would land us with.

The second reason for supporting the current system is that it is better than the other options, especially on accountability. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) said that the first-past-the-post system gives people MPs to represent all the constituents. Several hon. Members have said that those who do not vote for the winner are not represented in our political system. I resent that insinuation, as I am sure do most Members, because we represent all our constituents the day after polling. No matter what their political persuasion and whoever they voted for, we deal with them all in the same way. The idea that all those who did not vote for us are disfranchised is insulting.

I was happy to hear the Home Secretary say that he had a strong affinity for the direct link between Members of Parliament and constituents, but he also talked of both the specific and the general relationship. We all find it strange that everyone we speak to believes that their MP is a good, hard-working MP but that all the others are thoroughly nasty creatures. It is like the finding that everyone believes that their local hospital and their doctor are very good but that the rest of the health service is falling apart.

The Home Secretary mentioned voter dissatisfaction and low turnouts. Rightly, he said that one cannot link general voter dissatisfaction, which occurs throughout the western world, with our specific electoral system, and that, in general, voter turnouts in many countries that have PR are a good deal lower than those in the United Kingdom.

However, a healthy system must have the approval of the electors and the elected. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) is not in his place; he had the courtesy to say that he would be leaving. He took the example of the multi-member constituencies in Ireland, where he said there was a perpetual beauty contest. Members were so afraid of what the others were doing behind their backs that they could not take their national duties seriously. Do we want such a system in the House of Commons? Do we want to be so busy being the glorified district councillors that Liberal Democrat Members are that we are unable take seriously the business of government?

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes said, under our current system voters know who represents them, whom to blame and whom to get rid of—as we found out to our cost. None the less, we defend the system that allowed it to happen.

Many concerns about the commission have been expressed today. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes said at the outset, it is not independent—it is headed by one of the most partial people in Britain on this subject. It has a flawed remit and a rigged membership, and it will produce an intellectually unsound outcome. We want the commission to take first past the post and test it against the criteria set down for the alternatives: the requirement for broad proportionality, an extension of voter choice, the need for stable government, and the maintenance of a link between MPs and geographical constituencies. We believe that first past the post will come out on top. if we go ahead with the Government's plan—simply to humour another of the Prime Minister's mentors—and if there is a referendum, we would hope for a firm commitment tonight that there will be equal funding and a balance in any such referendum.

In a telling speech, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) said that much of the PR debate is special pleading dressed up as political principle. Under PR, the party with the largest number of votes would depend on some minority party selling its principles for Cabinet seats, rather like some political streetwalker. The Home Secretary gave us some helpful historical insights into how the Liberals wanted first past the post until they became the third party, at which point the sense of humour of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) understandably deserted him. I note that he is no longer in his place. I note also in a leaflet from the Westminster Forum that Mr. Ashdown has chosen the Forum to make his most important speech on the constitutional reform debate since before the general election. The speech is likely to attract national attention. It is a pity that we were not allowed to hear any of it in the House this evening.

I do not blame the Liberal Democrats for their position; it is the only way they will ever have the chance to become Ministers. Generations of going back to constituencies and preparing for government can be very tiring indeed.

We need to clear up one or two confusions and myths. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) asked whether it was tolerable that a party with the most votes should lose an election. It has happened twice this century in the UK. Under PR, however, the party with the largest number of votes could be permanently excluded from power by the actions of parties with far fewer votes. That is surely a far worse system than the one we have now. I do not pretend that those two occasions were democratically defensible—but the alternative is much worse.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman)—I do not see him in his place—gave us a good remark. He said that the pro-devolution camp would not have achieved their Scottish referendum result had they offered first past the post instead of PR. I cannot remember people hurling themselves in front of us during the referendum campaign demanding a PR system—but there we are.

My favourite comment of the evening came from the hon. Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley)—he has given notice of his absence—who argued that our economic performance over the past two decades has been related to our lack of electoral reform. He said that countries with PR had achieved better growth rates, apparently forgetting that the United States, which has first past the post, has outstripped every other nation economically. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) said, we might do as well to compare our performances in football tournaments.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) was the most vehement defender of what has happened in New Zealand, a country about which we have heard a great deal today. He claimed that PR there had failed because of a failure of the political parties—double dealing, dishonesty, betrayal and so on. His message was: "Don't blame the system, blame the parties." In other words, PR would work perfectly well if there were no politicians.

We have warned time and again today of the tyranny of minorities. That is a genuine threat which must not be dismissed lightly. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said in an important speech that fascists and communists have generally not been elected here. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) said that she would like them to be elected so as to be able to confront them head on in debate in the House. I say it is a good thing that they have not been elected, because, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North rightly said, every extremist party, from the National Front onwards, has longed for PR to be able to make its case with the oxygen of publicity in the House of Commons.

The French got a nasty shock when they flirted with PR and saw the advance of the National Front in France. That is surely not one of the aims of our system, which has thrived in a culture of political tolerance. It is dangerous to allow fashion to risk destabilising our political system. We must remember that threat as we move forward.

The third reason I believe we must maintain first past the post is that PR tips the balance towards political parties and away from the people. As has been pointed out several times, political parties are coalitions. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal said, with first past the post at least we know which coalition we shall get. We know from the manifestos what we are likely to receive in terms of policy.

The alternative, after PR, is that we get a huddle of politicians, go back to smoke-filled rooms and, rather than a manifesto for which the largest number of voters voted, end up following policies for which no one voted. I much prefer a system that reflects the wishes of the largest number of voters, with voters being satisfied that they are being delivered what they voted for on polling day, than some dreadful compromise that gives the politicians more power and the people less.

We have been told throughout the debate that, because voters vote for one party, they must be against the rest. That is as nonsensical as saying that, if we buy one type of good from a shop, we must hate everything else. On polling day voters are asked to express a preference. It is preposterous to suggest that, if one party gets 43 per cent. of the vote, the other 57 per cent. of the electorate hate that party and could not stomach anything in its manifesto.

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Mr Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed, Liberal Democrat)

When the hon. Gentleman speaks of coalition politics and agreements between politicians, has he forgotten how the Conservative Government were run? When they were trying to get the Maastricht treaty through the House, the part of the coalition of which he is a member, which was opposed to the treaty, would not allow it to go through, so his party's leadership had to come to my party and ask for votes to get the treaty through. That is what happens under the present system.

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Dr Liam Fox (Woodspring, Conservative)

You will excuse me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I am not moved to tears. The Conservative Government got through all their manifesto commitments on a three-line Whip, including a confidence vote supported by the parliamentary Conservative party in the previous Parliament.

The problem with PR moving power towards the parties is that parties tend to tolerate rather than welcome too wide a range of views. I say that having spent two years in the Government Whips' Office.

In Scotland at present, with the exclusion of any Labour Members who say the dreaded S word—socialist—under a list system the mavericks will disappear and there will be automaton politics. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) said, Members will exist not to look after the interests of constituents but to flatter the interests of the party machine. That is extremely dangerous. As the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) said, how are we to have the same respect for someone who we know is No. 4 from the south-east or No. 7 from the south-west when we could be talking to No. 3, 2 or 1 from the same area?

The hon. Member for Northfield said that we must change because there is an overwhelming urge for change. I do not know whether my constituency surgeries are unusual, but I do not find people banging on the door and queuing up to beg for a change in the electoral system. Since I was elected in 1992, not one constituent has asked for that. They might come about schools and hospitals, but a change in our electoral system is not high on the list of topics that they complain about. I do not believe that that urge for change exists beyond those whose interests are served by it.

The commission is part of a political strategy being pursued by the Government. It is a dangerous strategy, because the game is played with loaded dice. First past the post is not perfect, but it works. It has given us precious political stability in Britain. It is not perfect, but it offers more accountability than the alternative. It gives power to the people, not the politicians. PR is politics for politicians by politicians, but politics should be for the people, not politicians. Ultimately, it is the people's votes that matter.

9:39 pm
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Mr George Howarth (Knowsley North and Sefton East, Labour)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) on assuming his new responsibilities. I think this is his first time at the Dispatch Box in his new role, and I wish him well; he has made a good start.

This has been a very good speech—[Interruption.] That was a slip of the tongue, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I meant to say that this will be a very good speech. This has been a good debate in which—quite apart from the contributions by Front Benchers—22 Back Benchers have spoken. That is very useful. I congratulate the Opposition on raising an important matter which should be debated by the House. Most, if not all, the speeches showed a very good understanding of the issues involved, and were well and thoughtfully delivered. They were in the best traditions of the House.

The House has demonstrated an amazing knowledge of the ins and outs of politics in New Zealand—in fact, almost every hon. Member commented about the situation in that country. I am almost tempted to abandon my long-held dislike of long-haul flights and travel to New Zealand to see for myself—[Interruption]—although not for some time. Opposition Members are very rowdy tonight; I do not know where they have been.

All hon. Members are, by definition, experts in the systems to which we submit ourselves in order to get here. There is nothing wrong with that—it makes us very knowledgeable about those systems and how to get through them. In opening the debate, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary set out clearly the Government's view: any electoral system must be appropriate to the functions and role of the body that it is used to elect. That point is self-evident.

The Government were criticised for seeking to introduce several different systems into this country. There will be an additional member system for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh assembly, a regional list system for the European Parliament and the prospect—I stress that word—of a different system for Westminster elections following the report of the Jenkins commission. Such criticism fails to take account of the test that I mentioned a moment ago: are the electoral systems under consideration appropriate to the roles and functions of the bodies that they will elect? That is the ultimate test.

In so far as decisions have already been made, I argue that those systems meet that test in every respect. The decisions that are still to be made must be judged against that standard. For example, the Scottish Parliament will be a different body altogether from the European Parliament. The members of those organisations perform very different functions, and it is only right that the different systems used to elect them should recognise that fact.

Yet the Opposition seem to believe that all Members should be elected in the same way, using the first-past-the-post system on almost every occasion for any election, regardless of the function of the body concerned. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Opposition Members make my point. We have explained how we believe that British Members of the European Parliament and the new devolved assemblies should be elected. We shall undoubtedly have many more lively debates in future in this and another place when the relevant legislation is considered.

In respect of elections to this House, we have, as has been thoroughly debated tonight, established an independent commission to recommend the best alternative to the first-past-the-post system, if—I stress that word—there is to be any change. After that, we are prepared to let the people who elect us decide whether they want to change the system by which they do so.

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Mr John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings, Conservative)

Will the Minister assure us that the Government would not take a partisan line in any such referendum, and would put the case for the status quo and for change objectively and fairly, without taking a line?

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Mr George Howarth (Knowsley North and Sefton East, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) raised that issue, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary covered it. I shall cover the ground that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned in a moment.

Ultimately, the decision will be made by the electorate in a referendum. My right hon. Friend has said that the constituency basis of first past the post has served this country well for many years, and the Jenkins commission has been asked to take its retention into account. I shall say more about that in a moment.

Photo of Mr Dominic Grieve

Mr Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield, Conservative)

I find it difficult to follow the Government's reasoning. A number of my hon. Friends have said, and it is certainly my experience, that there appears to be no public demand for the change, so why are the Government opting for a referendum? Presumably, they have a view on the subject—what is it?

Photo of Mr George Howarth

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley North and Sefton East, Labour)

The Government's view, which has received some support from both sides of the House, is that it is ultimately for the electorate to choose whether to change the system by which hon. Members are elected to the House. It would be wrong for hon. Members to take a view and to push through legislation to make a change without first consulting the electorate. It would not be useful at this point for me to say that one system is better than the other—otherwise, what would have been the point of our setting up an independent commission and asking it to go through the arguments?

A great deal of our legitimacy as Members of Parliament derives from the fact that we are elected for identifiable constituencies. Hon. Members have made the point that a lot of the experience that we accumulate as constituency Members makes us better Members of Parliament, and one or two former Ministers have said that decisions that they made in the Cabinet or as junior Ministers were influenced by such experience. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear, the independent commission should take the importance of the constituency link into account when arriving at its conclusion. That gives some fairly heavy hints about the directions in which it might have to go to satisfy the terms of reference.

Photo of Mr George Howarth

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley North and Sefton East, Labour)

I give way, finally, to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean).

Photo of Mr David Maclean

Mr David Maclean (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)

I was provoked to intervene when the Minister referred for, I think, the fourth time to the "independent" Jenkins commission. Does he share the Home Secretary's view that it is not independent, but only "relatively independent"?

Photo of Mr George Howarth

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley North and Sefton East, Labour)

Who would I be to disagree with my right hon. Friend? I hope that the right hon. Gentleman agrees that the importance of the word "independent" is that the commission is clearly independent of the Government. It might not be independent in the view that it takes of the issue, but that is an important distinction, as my right hon. Friend explained. It would have been utterly pointless to ask the commission to consider what would be the most appropriate alternative to first past the post if there was known hostility to any alternative system.

The commission is not a creature of the Government. It will arrive at a view in the manner that it believes most fitting, and will make recommendations accordingly. Before Conservative Members jeer, they should at least see what the commission comes up with.

Photo of Mr George Howarth

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley North and Sefton East, Labour)

I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman, but then I must make progress.

Photo of Mr John Gummer

Mr John Gummer (Suffolk Coastal, Conservative)

How many people have come to the hon. Gentleman's surgery in the past year asking for electoral reform?

Photo of Mr George Howarth

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley North and Sefton East, Labour)

I shall give the right hon. Gentleman a direct answer: none. However, the people of Blackburn have an enormous influence on my right hon. Friend, and he tells me that he is regularly asked about it by his constituents. There we have it: the people of Blackburn speak, and my right hon. Friend acts. That is yet another example of the importance of the constituency link. [Laughter.] The right hon. Gentleman asked a question and I gave him an answer. I do not see what is so amusing about that.

The hon. Member for Woodspring and the right hon. Member for Huntingdon argued that Governments under any system must make unpopular decisions. That is a fair point. The Government have realised that on occasions it is necessary to make tough choices. No one would argue that they should slavishly follow the findings of every opinion poll. I am not arguing for a change to our electoral system; I am simply saying that we should not design a system on that principle alone. Electoral systems that lead to the creation of Governments must accommodate that process, but it does not necessarily follow that the system must give Governments carte blanche.

The right hon. Member for Huntingdon has apologised for not being present for the winding-up speeches because he had to attend an important charity function. I know that no discourtesy was intended. He talked about the need for strong government, consistency and stability. I do not want to be discourteous to the right hon. Gentleman: he is not present, and, although he may have become unpopular before the last election, he is respected in the House. It is a different matter for him to argue with any conviction that the Government of which he was Prime Minister was stable, however. They did not enjoy enormous popular support while he was Prime Minister. Former Chancellor Norman Lamont once declared that, although they were in power, they did not seem to be in control. [Interruption.] The previous Government had problems under first past the post. [Interruption.]

Photo of Mr Michael Martin

Mr Michael Martin (Deputy Speaker)

Order. Right hon. and hon. Members on the Front Benches must be quiet. I am listening to the Minister. If they do not want to listen to him, they can leave.

Photo of Mr George Howarth

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley North and Sefton East, Labour)

The former Chancellor said that the previous Government were in office but not in power. That was a fair point. The problem was created by the electoral arithmetic and by the divisions in the Conservative party over Europe. The right hon. Member for Huntingdon cannot argue that the Government of whom he was Prime Minister were a strong Government.

Let me mention particularly the speeches of the right hon. Members for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd) and for Penrith and The Border, who asked about the arrangements that would arise from the referendum. I cannot go a great deal beyond what was said by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary until the commission has reported to the Cabinet and it has had a proper opportunity to consider its report, but funding, and how the campaign will be conducted, are important questions.

We recognise the need for a system that will enable the electorate to make an informed decision about the best way forward, and how it should be handled. Parliament will have an opportunity to debate the report following its publication, and, subsequently, an opportunity to discuss how the referendum should be conducted.

Photo of Dr Liam Fox

Dr Liam Fox (Woodspring, Conservative)

Will the Minister confirm his belief that, in the event of a referendum, Ministers should be able to campaign on both sides?

Photo of Mr George Howarth

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley North and Sefton East, Labour)

That decision will be made by the Cabinet at the time. It is not realistically possible to give any assurance before we know exactly what the recommendations will be, but of course that option will have to be taken into account.

This has been a useful debate. The Liberal Democrat spokesman—the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan)—made an elegant speech; indeed, he had some interesting comments to make, in his customary courteous manner. I can tell him, and the House, that as regards Westminster elections—understandably, that is the subject that has basically concerned hon. Members today—the arrangements will not be changed without the electorate being given a say first, by means of a referendum.

The question facing the Opposition—who tabled the motion and chose the subject—is not whether the public are willing to trust them. That decision is not in prospect for some years. In the first instance, the Opposition should wait and see what the commission has to say. The wording of their motion fails to take account of the fact that, whatever proposal the commission accepts, it will ultimately be for the electorate to decide. The real question that the Opposition must ask themselves is whether they are willing to trust the electorate.

That is the difference between the Opposition and us. Whatever views we may hold as individuals—whatever view I may hold, and whatever view my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary may hold—we are clear about the fact that, ultimately, the electorate are the only group that should have the power to say aye or no to any change in the electoral system. In marked contrast, the Conservative party said in its submission to the Jenkins commission that the Government's four criteria were broad proportionality, voter choice, the need for stable government and the constituency link. It had argued, it said, that the British system met those criteria much better than the alternatives on offer; consequently, no referendum should be held on the electoral system.

That is the Conservatives' view: it is a matter for them to decide, and the electorate should have no say in it, because there should be no referendum. That is entirely wrong. It is wrong in principle for the House to have the power to change the electoral system—or, for that matter, to retain the present system—without consulting the electorate; but it would appear that that is what the Conservative party wants.

The Conservatives still show the contempt for the electorate that got them thrown out last year, and I do not think that tonight they have demonstrated their fitness to convince the electorate that anything has changed. I urge the House to put its trust in the electorate, and not to accept any motion tabled by the Opposition. They have shown that they do yet not even understand what they have done wrong.

Question put

The House divided: Ayes 137, Noes 339.

Division No. 290][9.58 pm
AYES
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey)Faber, David
Amess, DavidFabricant, Michael
Ancram, Rt Hon MichaelFallon, Michael
Arbuthnot, JamesFlight, Howard
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E)Forth, Rt Hon Eric
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Baldry, TonyFox, Dr Liam
Beggs, RoyFraser, Christopher
Bercow, JohnGale, Roger
Beresford, Sir PaulGarnier, Edward
Body, Sir RichardGibb, Nick
Boswell, TimGillan, Mrs Cheryl
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)Gray, James
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs VirginiaGreen, Damian
Brooke, Rt Hon PeterGreenway, John
Browning, Mrs AngelaGrieve, Dominic
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)Gummer, Rt Hon John
Burns, SimonHague, Rt Hon William
Butterfill, JohnHamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie
Cash, WilliamHammond, Philip
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)Hayes, John
Heathcoat—Amory, Rt Hon David
Chope, ChristopherHogg, Rt Hon Douglas
Clappison, JamesHoram, John
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington)Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Clifton—Brown, GeoffreyHowarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Collins, TimHunter, Andrew
Cormack, Sir PatrickJackson, Robert (Wantage)
Cran, JamesJenkin, Bernard
Curry, Rt Hon DavidJohnson Smith,
Davies, Quentin (Grantham)Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Day, StephenLaing, Mrs Eleanor
Dorrell, Rt Hon StephenLait, Mrs Jacqui
Duncan, AlanLansley, Andrew
Duncan Smith, IainLeigh, Edward
Evans, NigelLetwin, Oliver
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Lidington, DavidShepherd, Richard
Lilley, Rt Hon PeterSimpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Loughton, TimSoames, Nicholas
Luff, PeterSpicer, Sir Michael
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir NicholasSpring, Richard
MacGregor, Rt Hon JohnStanley, Rt Hon Sir John
MacKay, AndrewSteen, Anthony
Maclean, Rt Hon DavidStreeter, Gary
McLoughlin, PatrickSwayne, Desmond
Madel, Sir DavidSyms, Robert
Malins, HumfreyTapsell, Sir Peter
Maples, JohnTaylor, Ian (Esher& Walton)
Mates, MichaelTaylor, John M (Solihull)
Maude, Rt Hon FrancisTaylor, Sir Teddy
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir BrianTownend, John
May, Mrs TheresaTredinnick, David
Moss, MalcolmTrend, Michael
Nicholls, PatrickTyrie, Andrew
Norman, ArchieViggers, Peter
Walter, Robert
Ottaway, RichardWardle, Charles
Page, RichardWhittingdale, John
Paice, JamesWiddecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Pickles, EricWilkinson, John
Prior, DavidWilletts, David
Redwood, Rt Hon JohnWinterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Robathan, AndrewWinterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)Woodward, Shaun
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)Yeo, Tim
Ross, William (E Lond'y)
Ruffley, DavidTellers for the Ayes:
St Aubyn, NickMrs. Caroline Spelman and
Sayeed, JonathanMr. Oliver Heald.
NOES
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N)Burgon, Colin
Ainger, NickBurnett, John
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)Burstow, Paul
Alexander, DouglasButler, Mrs Christine
Allan, RichardByers, Stephen
Allen, GrahamCable, Dr Vincent
Armstrong, Ms HilaryCaborn, Richard
Ashdown, Rt Hon PaddyCampbell, Alan (Tynemouth)
Ashton, JoeCampbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Austin, JohnCampbell, Menzies (NE Fife)
Ballard, JackieCampbell—Savours, Dale
Banks, TonyCanavan, Dennis
Barnes, HarryCasale, Roger
Barron, KevinChapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Bayley, HughChaytor, David
Beard, NigelChidgey, David
Begg, Miss AnneChisholm, Malcolm
Beith, Rt Hon A JClapham, Michael
Bennett, Andrew FClark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Berry, RogerClark, Dr Lynda
Best, Harold(Edinburgh Pentlands)
Betts, CliveClark, Paul (Gillingham)
Blackman, LizClwyd, Ann
Blears, Ms HazelCoaker, Vernon
Blizzard, BobCoffey, Ms Ann
Blunkett, Rt Hon DavidColeman, Iain
Boateng, PaulConnarty, Michael
Bradley, Keith (Withington)Cotter, Brian
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)Cousins, Jim
Bradshaw, BenCrausby, David
Brake, TomCryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Brand, Dr PeterCummings, John
Breed, ColinCunliffe, Lawrence
Brinton, Mrs HelenCunningham, Rt Hon Dr John
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)(Copeland)
Brown, Russell (Dumfries)Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Browne, DesmondCunningham, Ms Roseanna
Buck, Ms Karen(Perth)
Burden, RichardDafis, Cynog
Davey, Edward (Kingston)Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Davidson, IanHumble, Mrs Joan
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)Hurst, Alan
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)Hutton, John
Davies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly)Iddon, Dr Brian
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H)Illsley, Eric
Dawson, HiltonJackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Dean, Mrs JanetJackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Denham, JohnJamieson, David
Dismore, AndrewJohnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Dobbin, JimJohnson, Miss Melanie
Dobson, Rt Hon Frank(Welwyn Hatfield)
Donohoe, Brian HJones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Doran, FrankJones, Mrs Fiona (Newark)
Dowd, JimJones, Helen (Warrington N)
Drew, DavidJones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)
Dunwoody, Mrs GwynethJones, Ms Jenny
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)(Wolverh'ton SW)
Edwards, HuwJones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Efford, CliveJones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Ellman, Mrs LouiseJowell, Ms Tessa
Ennis, JeffKaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Etherington, BillKeeble, Ms Sally
Ewing, Mrs MargaretKeen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Fatchett, DerekKeen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)
Fisher, MarkKennedy, Charles (Ross Skye)
Fitzsimons, LornaKennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Flint, CarolineKhabra, Piara S
Flynn, PaulKidney, David
Foster, Don (Bath)Kilfoyle, Peter
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Foster, Michael J (Worcester)Kingham, Ms Tess
Foulkes, GeorgeKirkwood, Archy
Galbraith, SamLadyman, Dr Stephen
Gapes, MikeLaxton, Bob
Gardiner, BarryLepper, David
George, Andrew (St Ives)Leslie, Christopher
Gilroy, Mrs LindaLewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Godman, Dr Norman ALiddell, Mrs Helen
Goggins, PaulLinton, Martin
Golding, Mrs LlinLivingstone, Ken
Gordon, Mrs EileenLock, David
Gorrie, DonaldLove, Andrew
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)McAllion, John
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)McAvoy, Thomas
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)McCabe, Steve
Grocott, BruceMcCafferty, Ms Chris
Grogan, JohnMcCartney, Ian (Makerfield)
Gunnell, JohnMcDonnell, John
Hain, PeterMcGuire, Mrs Anne
Hall, Patrick (Bedford)Mackinlay, Andrew
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)McLeish, Henry
Hancock, MikeMaclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Hanson, DavidMcNulty, Tony
Harman, Rt Hon Ms HarrietMactaggart, Fiona
Harris, Dr EvanMcWalter, Tony
Harvey, NickMahon, Mrs Alice
Heal, Mrs SylviaMallaber, Judy
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)Mandelson, Peter
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Hepburn, StephenMarshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Heppell, JohnMarshall—Andrews, Robert
Hewitt, Ms PatriciaMartlew, Eric
Hill, KeithMaxton, John
Hinchliffe, DavidMeacher, Rt Hon Michael
Hoey, KateMeale, Alan
Home Robertson, JohnMerron, Gillian
Hoon, GeoffreyMichael, Alun
Hope, PhilMichie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Hopkins, KelvinMilburn, Alan
Howarth, Alan (Newport E)Miller, Andrew
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)Mitchell, Austin
Howells, Dr KimMoffatt, Laura
Hoyle, LindsayMoonie, Dr Lewis
Moore, MichaelSmith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Moran, Ms MargaretSmith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)Soley, Clive
Morley, ElliotSouthworth, Ms Helen
Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)Squire, Ms Rachel
Mudie, GeorgeStarkey, Dr Phyllis
Mullin, ChrisSteinberg, Gerry
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)Stevenson, George
Norris, DanStewart, Ian (Eccles)
Oaten, MarkStinchcombe, Paul
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)Stoate, Dr Howard
Olner, BillStott, Roger
O'Neill, MartinStraw, Rt Hon Jack
Osborne, Ms SandraStringer, Graham
Palmer, Dr NickStuart, Ms Gisela
Pearson, IanStunell, Andrew
Pendry, TomSutcliffe, Gerry
Pickthall, ColinSwinney, John
Pike, Peter LTaylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann
Plaskitt, James(Dewsbury)
Pollard, KerryTaylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Pond, ChrisTaylor, David (NW Leics)
Pope, GregTaylor, Matthew (Truro)
Pound, StephenThomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)Timms, Stephen
Prescott, Rt Hon JohnTipping, Paddy
Primarolo, DawnTodd, Mark
Prosser, GwynTonge, Dr Jenny
Purchase, KenTouhig, Don
Quin, Ms JoyceTrickett, Jon
Radice, GilesTruswell, Paul
Rammell, BillTurner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Rapson, SydTurner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Rendel,DavidTyler, Paul
Vaz, Keith
Roche, Mrs BarbaraVis, Dr Rudi
Rogers, AllanWallace, James
Rooker, JeffWalley, Ms Joan
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)Ward, Ms Claire
Rowlands, TedWareing, Robert N
Roy, FrankWatts, David
Ruddock, Ms JoanWelsh, Andrew
Russell, Bob (Colchester)Wicks, Malcolm
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)Williams, Rt Hon Alan
Ryan, Ms Joan(Swansea W)
Salter, MartinWilliams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Sanders, AdrianWillis, Phil
Savidge, MalcolmWills, Michael
Sawford, PhilWinnick, David
Sedgemore, BrianWinterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Shaw, JonathanWood, Mike
Sheerman, BarryWoolas, Phil
Sheldon, Rt Hon RobertWright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Singh, MarshaWyatt, Derek
Skinner, Dennis
Smith, Angela (Basildon)Tellers for the Noes:
Smith, Miss Geraldine Morecambe & Lunesdale)Mr. David Clelland and Mr. John McFall.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments) and agreed to.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved,That this House congratulates the Government on its constitutional reform programme; welcomes the creation of the Independent Commission on the Voting System and its remit; and supports the commitment of the Government to consult the people of the United Kingdom by a referendum on the appropriate electoral system to be used to elect this House