Proportional Representation

Part of New Clause 2 – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 11th December 1968.

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Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West 12:00 am, 11th December 1968

The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) spoilt the best part of his case, although he put up a very good defence for some of its weakest parts. He has spoilt the possibility of allowing individual local authorities to choose rational democratic systems of their own. Whether one accepts or rejects his argument for a particular system of election, his suggestion has the demerit of the present system concerning local authorities. We in our wisdom or lack of it, unlike other countries, say to all local authorities," You must all have an identical system of election, the system of election we think satisfactory nationally."

I will not enter into a long dissertation on the merits or demerits of our present national system of election. Suffice it to say that I believe that the overwhelming majority of hon. Members believe that for the purposes of creating a national Legislature and a national Government our present system of election is the best one. I know that the hon. Member for Orpington does not share that view, but all the arguments have been discussed so much that I shall not weary the Committee by going into them.

However, it does not seem to me that it therefore follows that the same system of election is appropriate to every one of hundreds, more than 1,000, local authorities. It does not seem to me that this is at all logical. Nor, in practice, is it the case. We have local authorities situated in the areas where the Parliamentary seats are marginal seats. For those local authorities one could say that the system of election which we have works reasonably well. We may say this, but I do not think that anybody can say that the present system works just as well in the overwhelmingly safe Parliamentary seats.

Quite irrespective of party, it is fair to say, surely, that local government shows some of its least pleasurable aspects in the places where there are overwhelmingly Labour-dominated councils, sometimes so Labour dominated that there is no Conservative representative on the councils. Alternatively, one knows of certain seaside resorts which are so overwhelmingly dominated by the Conservative Party that there may not be a representative of the Labour Party on a council. Even though possibly 20 per cent. or even 30 per cent. of the electorate may vote Labour. The Labour Party there is a totally unrepresented party.

It seems to me that there is a case for saying that a system different from the national system would be appropriate in certain local authority areas. I would not, therefore, wish to support the hon. Member's Clause, but I would ask the Under-Secretary of State if his Department, in conjunction with other appropriate Departments, would consider this possibility in connection with the reform of local government, because it seems to me that while we must have a democratic system of election, nevertheless, provided that the system is democratic in a recognised sense, there is no valid reason why a local authority itself should not be able to have some say in the sort of system of election that it wants.

This may sound an unusual idea, but the strange thing is that it does apply to just one of the areas the hon. Member for Orpington has mentioned. The City of London, unlike any other local authority, has almost semi-sovereign powers. Since the 18th century it has described its decisions as "acts" in the same way as we talk of Acts of Parliament, and this is quite right, because the City of London has, within very broad terms, power to alter its own constitution if it wishes to do so. The City of London is distinct from anywhere else in that it can alter its system of election. Legally, I believe, it could alter it tomorrow, by Act of the Common Council—although I do not think it is likely to do so.

Moreover, in the United States it is quite customary to allow individual electors by referendum to decide the constitutions of their own local authorities or even the constitutions of their own State Governments, within the Federal system. Therefore, it seems to me that there is nothing unusual or irrational in this. It would lead to considerably more participation—which is a word we all pay lip service to, but, when we have opportunities, do not always implement.

The only thing one has to look to is the possibility that somebody may wish to introduce an undemocratic system, a sort of little local one-party state. I think that there are hon. Members on this side of the Committee who wished to raise the issue of Northern Ireland at an appropriate moment. However, it is not beyond the wit of man to say that as there are various possible electoral systems and that, provided a system is democratic, we would allow any local authority to implement any of them it chose.