European Assembly (Direct Elections)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th April 1977.

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Photo of Dr Rhodes Boyson Dr Rhodes Boyson , Brent North 12:00 am, 25th April 1977

I declare my approach to the subject at once: I voted to remain in Europe. I have been a European although I was initially a reluctant convert. What concerns me is the effect upon the British electorate if European representatives are elected by an alternative system to the first-past-the-post system. Not only would this have an effect in Europe, it would have an effect in this country ultimately.

Great pressure is being exerted outside this House by a lobby that has gained support over the past two or three years—and which seems to have much money behind it—for a change to be made in our electoral system. That lobby sees any change in Europe as a means of bringing about that change here. I am suspicious and I do not like it.

If there were to be a change in our electoral system now, it would seem to the people that yet another effect of our going into Europe was that we had to change our electoral system. That would have serious repercussions on the attitude of the general public towards the Common Market. I do not believe that the Common Market is highly popular at present, because of food price rises, fishing policy, and other matters. Perhaps it will settle in time. However, if the public saw that there had to be an alteration in the electoral system, it would blame that on the Common Market, which in turn would do harm to the cause of Europe.

For the past 30 years there has been a crisis of confidence among the leaders of this country. This has been manifest in various trends and fashions. We have seen it in the building of tower blocks, huge comprehensive schools, local government reorganisations, decimalisation and metrication These have not been popular with the majority of our people, who prefer to move slowly. If they see another change being implanted from outside, there could well be repercussions that could harm Europe and affect the status of this House.

I do not propose just to defend the first-past-the-post system which operates in this Chamber. In the long run, it produces pretty good government. When it has not produced strong government, it has been because the electorate was not certain which party to elect. The electorate had not made up its mind to give anyone a long-term mandate. The system has not prevented the rise of third parties when they have not arisen for frivolous reasons. We had a three-party system in this House after the repeal of the Corn Laws. There was a similar situation which led to the rise of the Labour Party. If other parties do not rise and win elections, it shows that there is no deep feeling for them.

One of the arguments for proportional representation is that those elected to this House and to Europe should represent an overall proportion of the opinions of the people. If it is right that 20 per cent. of opinions should be represented proportionately, why not 10 per cent. or 5 per cent.? Why not have for Europe a Member for one eighty-first, which amounts to 1·2 per cent. of the population? Why not have a figure of 0·16 per cent., or one six-hundred-and-thirty-fifth for Westminster? If we are to have proportional representation, the only case in fairness is to have every minority group represented.

Such a system would mean the breakup of our party system, which has successfully contained extremes of Left and Right over 200 years. There is no doubt that the rise of the Nazis in Germany was initially due to proportional representation, as was the rise of Communism in Italy and France. Once a few Members were elected, the party gained a platform and a legitimacy. I strongly disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), who said that it was contemptible to argue against proportional representation. Many of us here do not want extreme parties, such as the National Front or the extreme Trotskyists, to be represented. My right hon. Friend said that such people must be out-manoeuvred and out-argued. Germany had to impose a minimum of 5 per cent. of votes to be represented and even then it nearly got extremist parties. It had to outlaw the extreme Right and Left of two parties.

I do not believe that the argument is contemptible. First past the post is the basis of a true party system, which in this country has ensured political stability. If we reduce things to a proportional representation system so that the Liberals are represented with their 20 per cent., why not have everyone who can poll 5 per cent.? We should soon have extremists in the House who would be given the legitimacy and the platform of which I have spoken.

Occasionally, surveys are made in which people are asked: "Do you want a fairer system of electing people, so that minorities are represented?" Everyone replies "Yes". All of these surveys depend for their success upon how they are worded. That is why many of us are doubtful about surveys. Without a doubt, in that context the man who pays the price gets the answer that he wants.

If the question were asked "Do you want your own member to represent you?" in the course of a survey, 80 per cent. or 90 per cent. of those asked the question would answer "Yes". If they were asked "Do you want extremist parties represented in Parliament?" 80 per cent. or 90 per cent. would say "No". If they were asked "Do you want personal immortality?" they would all answer "Yes". It would then be said that the whole country believes in personal immortality. I do not have the greatest confidence in such surveys.

Another argument advanced by one of my hon. Friends is that we must walk in step. The instance was made of the old story of the mother who, seeing the troops march past, said "Everyone is out of step but my Johnnie". That example was delivered in a Scottish accent, and I cannot quote it in the accent that was used last week.

I do not think that the argument applies. It is a good thing for all people in one army to march in step, but various armies can walk in different steps as long as they arrive at the same place. In Europe practically every army has a different way of marching. If some people march in one way, I do not see why we in Britain—I speak as an English patriot—have to march in the same way. If the rest of the world stands on its head and suffers brain seizure as a result, why should we do the same?

Our system of first past the post has been in operation for a long time. It has provided more stability than has been enjoyed elsewhere. The contact between the ordinary Member of Parliament and his constituents is vital. It is vital to the continuance of our system. It keeps us in touch with what the public are thinking. It ensures that we are not mere pawns of a party. I want to see the present system continue.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup referred to the 81 Members being allowed to speak in this Chamber but not to vote. Surely the public would think that this place is a mere talking shop if 81 Members were to come here to speak but not to vote. Apart from that consideration, as was said in an intervention last week, how and when are some Members to get in after Privy Councillors, ex-Ministers and the 81 Members who may talk but not vote? Such a system would put a different complexion on the whole of our meetings in this Chamber. That is a prospect that I do not like.

We are told that it will take much longer to produce 81 individual constituencies in the United Kingdom than a regional list. I have found throughout my life—probably other hon. Members have found the same—that when someone does not want to do something, it is said that it is too expensive or that it will take too long. That is the effect of what is now being said. I believe that if we put six people in a room and locked them in, telling them to group together collections of seven or eight constituencies throughout the country, they would come out with the answer at the end of the day. It would be demonstrated that such boundary changes could be made in a comparatively short time. Surely the grouping of constituencies can be done quite simply and should be done.

As hon. Members may have gathered, I do not like any form of proportional representation. I much prefer the first-past-the-post system, which has served the country for a long time. We have thrown so many things away only to regret having done so. I do not want anything thrown away that relates to our electoral system.

As a reluctant European who still is in favour of Europe, I shall become much more reluctant if we have to change our electoral system as a result of what is happening in Europe. On behalf of the many who support Europe without the enthusiasm of missionaries, I say let us keep the first-past-the-post system both in Europe and in this country for the security of our people and for the views of most of us in this place.