Local Government (Proportional Representation)

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 3:34 pm on 4th June 1985.

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Photo of Mr David Alton Mr David Alton , Liverpool Mossley Hill 3:34 pm, 4th June 1985

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the single transferable vote system of proportional representation for all local government elections in the United Kingdom.

Arguments for proportional representation have been heard many times in the House, and will no doubt be heard many times again. But, day by day and week by week, the need for the reform of the absurd, undemocratic and unrepresentative system which has blighted our nation for generations grows ever more clear.

Many people outside the House must wonder how a Government can be elected when their vote decreased by 700,000 in the general election, yet their majority increased to 140 seats, when only about one in three of electors voted for that party. But that was two years ago, and I am sure that all Conservative Members will have noticed the recent opinion polls by Gallup and Marplan. The handicaps with which they are now faced have been suffered by third parties under the first-past-the-post system for many years, and are well known by my right hon. and hon. Friends in the alliance. If any Conservative Member would like me to explain them, I should be more than happy to do so, but if they prefer an academic opinion they should read the pamphlet written by Dr. Gordon Reece, which is available from the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire). It explains with admirable clarity that the Conservative party would be reduced to a rump of 66 seats on its present standing of 29 per cent. in the polls under the first-past-the-post system.

Nevertheless, many Conservative and Labour Members may remain doubtful about the introduction of proportional representation in elections to the House. I do not share their doubts, but I invite them to consider whether they extend to elections for local authorities, which is the subject of my Bill today. The electorate in the area of a local council, be it county, region, district or borough, is not being asked to elect a Government; it is being invited to choose men and women to deal with the problems of its community, and it deserves an electoral system which gives people the opportunity to have their views reflected in the council chamber.

That is not the present system, and examples of distortion in local government are not hard to find. In 1984, in Liverpool, 90,000 voters supported the Labour party and 100,000 people voted against it, yet a Militant administration was elected there with a majority of about 15 seats on the city council. In the same year in Edinburgh, 66,000 people voted for the Labour party and more than 100,000 voted against it, yet the Labour party has a majority on the council of six. The policies of those councils are well known, and Conservative Members have frequently deplored them, yet every Conservative Member who votes against my Bill today is saying, "I want those Left-wing policies to be implemented in those cities against the wishes of the majority of their inhabitants."

I would not want it to be thought that the Bill is aimed only at Labour-controlled councils. In 1982, in the London borough of Sutton, the Conservative party won just more than 50 per cent. of the vote. 1 fully accept that that would entitle the Conservatives to control the council, but I do not accept that it entitles them to 82 per cent. of the seats. Only last month in Surrey county council the Conservatives won more than two thirds of the seats on fewer than half of the votes. Every Labour Member who votes against the Bill today is saying: "I want Conservative policies implemented in Surrey against the wishes of the majority of the people."

The Bill is not aimed at any party. It does not seek to stop parties from winning absolute control of local councils, but it will stop them from achieving such power if the electorate does not agree with them. The results of our apology for an electoral system are often ludicrous. In 1982, in the London borough of Brent, the Conservatives won 6 per cent. more votes than did Labour, but finished with fewer seats. In the same year in Islington the Labour party took 51 of the 52 seats on just more than 50 per cent. of the vote. The Conservative party won 24 per cent. of the vote—1 per cent. more than the alliance—yet it was rewarded with no seats compared with our one. In Tunbridge Wells in the same year, again on just more than half the vote, the Conservative party took all 16 seats.

How can anyone pretend that such outcomes are justified? How can it be right not to have any minority interest representation, or only a derisory representation? How can it be right for total, almost unchallenged, power over the affairs of any local community to be vested in the hands of any one party?

That the powers are often abused is all too evident. Rigged agendas, denial of the right of democratic debate and the appointment of council officers on the basis of their political views happens in authorities such as Liverpool where the majority party is grossly over-represented. In Tammany town halls, officials know that their future is dependent on their relations with the members of a single political party. In such circumstances, the majority party may believe that it can get away with anything.

The report of the Royal Commission on standards of conduct in political life stated:

The local authorities most vulnerable to corruption have tended to be those in which one political party has unchallenged dominance. Not only are such authorities at particular risk because of absence of an effective opposition which can scrutinise their decisions, but investigations and the making of complaints in such areas may also be inhibited by the feeling that there is no way round the party machine". The Bill seeks to end that. It would introduce the single transferable vote system of elections to local government elections everywhere. Under the system voters elect a number of councillors for each ward. They number the candidates in order of preference on their ballot papers, and thus can transfer their lower preferences between parties, within parties, and even to independents. They can vote for whom they like and will be sure that, whatever the choice, their vote will not be wasted—unlike under the present system—since if their first choice candidate is not elected their vote will transfer to their second choice and so on.

Evidence from other countries which already use that system show that it results in the election of more women and more representatives of ethnic minorities. It results in a higher turnout, which is of special importance for local government.

Evidence from opinion polls in the United Kingdom shows that this system, or any other PR system, is supported by a large majority of the population. It is also supported in the House of Lords. Earlier this year Lord Blake, the distinguished Conservative historian, pressed for such a measure and a Bill passed through all its stages without Division.

My Bill should commend itself to the House. It commands support from all parties and there may even be some support for it in the Government. I draw attention to the comment by the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) who, when referring to parental choice, in a debate on appeals procedure under the Education Act 1980 said:

There is a similar disappointment for the people who voted Conservative in Stockport, North and those who voted Labour in my constituency. They might ask what the point is in voting. Whatever people may think of the person who represents them, it is a funny system. People vote and then find that they are not represented."—[Official Report, 20 December 1982; Vol. 34, c. 802.] I hope that hon. Members will support the Bill, which allows proportional representation to be tested at a level at which it is most clearly needed. It will sometimes lead to parties having no overall majority on a council; but so does our present system, as I am sure everyone who has studied the results of the county council elections is well aware. Most importantly, the Bill will bring back to local government democracy, representativeness, and accountability.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Does the hon. Gentleman wish to oppose the motion?

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Yes, Mr. Speaker. I shall not take long to oppose it, but some of us are more than a little tired of hearing Liberal spokesmen talking about proportional representation and transferable votes. I think that the Liberals want proportional representation in local government because there is such a row between the Liberals and the Social Democrats that they want the opportunity to stand against one another. That is the plan. If we are not careful, we shall finish with something like the system in Northern Ireland. Is not that a wonderful hotch-potch?—[Interruption.] I did not do that.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. We should not be considering what the hon. Gentleman did not do.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I am opposing the Bill because I believe that a majority in the House wants to ensure that we do not allow it to go forward.

There have just been elections in Northern Ireland on a transferable vote system. We can see the result. According to the news today, all hell has been let loose in various councils. They have had to bring in the police— [Interruption.] — and countless other incidents have occurred—[Interruption.]

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is generally accepted in the House that hon. Members listen to speeches — [Interruption.]As one who listens to speeches, I object most strongly to the so-called alliance rabble barracking my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) —[Interruption.]

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. I entirely —[Interruption.] Order. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) has raised a point of order with me, not with the alliance. I agree with the hon Gentleman.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I am pleased that you agree, Mr. Speaker. I shall not complain about the hooligan-type conduct of the Liberals and Social Democrats because they do it continually. I do not need an extra microphone, as the leader of the Liberal party does. He had an extra mike put in at a cost of £10,000, and there is an extra one on the Tory Benches—

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. Let us get back to the subject.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I was just trying to explain that it does not worry me what the alliance does, because at the end of the day there will be fewer of them after the general election that there are now irrespective of whether they have the local government transferable vote.

> The Liberal party and the Social Democratic party can agree on hardly anything. I should like to know what the local government candidates would do on matters affecting policy. Would they be able to put out joint manifestos — [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) is rabbiting on again. Would they put out joint manifestos on the abolition of the welfare state? The leader of the Social Democratic party is quite anxious to see the changes that have been put forward by the Government. However, the Liberals are not very happy about it, or at least they have slight reservations—not in principle, simply on the arithmetic. Therefore, it would be interesting to see those manifestos.

I suspect that we would have not joint selection for candidates in local government, but almighty rows based not on democracy but on some sort of quasi-regional vote, in which delegates would come from the various areas —[Interruption.] No, that is absolutely wrong.

Those are some of the problems that would occur. I do not believe that the Bill will get very far because the Government will kill it as they have killed many others on a Friday — [Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Leeds, West wish to intervene?

Photo of Mr Michael Meadowcroft Mr Michael Meadowcroft , Leeds West

Standing Orders do not allow it.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I appreciate that.

The cause of proportional representation, rather than being on the upward trend, is now, according to the Liberals and Social Democrats in their pamphlets, going downhill just a little bit. I do not want to over-egg the pudding, but I read a pamphlet the other day by the alliance which said that whereas it had been generally in favour of proportional representation for everybody in the British Isles, it now had some reservations about the Orkney and Shetland constituency, and Caithness and Sutherland — [HON. MEMBERS: "And the Isle of Wight."] Indeed. The reason is, rather strangely, that members of the alliance realise that they could not guarantee that their candidates in those three parliamentary constituencies would win on the basis of a transferable vote. They are happy with the present system for Orkney and Shetland, Caithness and Sutherland and Isle of Wight so that they can keep their Members of Parliament. We are witnessing the alliance parties indulging in hypocrisy. We oppose the motion so that we can establish clearly in the House that there is a massive majority against this barmy idea—another one—from the Liberals this afternoon.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and Nomination of Select Committees at Commencement of Public Business):

The House divided: Ayes 29, Noes 188.

Division No. 224][3.50 pm
AYES
Alton, DavidMorrison, Hon C. (Devizes)
Ashdown, PaddyOttaway, Richard
Best, KeithPenhaligon, David
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y)Prentice, Rt Hon Reg
Cartwright, JohnRathbone, Tim
Faulds, AndrewSquire, Robin
Freud, ClementSteel, Rt Hon David
Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir IanStewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)
Gower, Sir RaymondThomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Hanley, JeremyWallace, James
Howells, GeraintWigley, Dafydd
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)Wrigglesworth, Ian
Jenkins. Rt Hon Roy (Hillh'd)
Kennedy, CharlesTellers for the Ayes:
Knox, DavidMr. A. J. Beith and
Meadowcroft, MichaelMr. Archy Kirkwood.
Meyer, Sir Anthony
NOES
Abse, LeoFookes, Miss Janet
Archer, Rt Hon PeterFoot, Rt Hon Michael
Ashby, DavidForsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Bagier, Gordon A. T.Forth, Eric
Barnett, GuyFoster, Derek
Bell, StuartFry, Peter
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh)Gale, Roger
Bidwell, SydneyGalley, Roy
Biggs-Davison, Sir JohnGardiner, George (Reigate)
Blackburn, JohnGarrett, W. E.
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir PeterGeorge, Bruce
Bottomley, Mrs VirginiaGlyn, Dr Alan
Braine, Rt Hon Sir BernardGoodhart, Sir Philip
Brandon-Bravo, MartinGorst, John
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes)Grant, Sir Anthony
Brown, R. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne N)Grist, Ian
Bruinvels, PeterHamilton, James (M'well N)
Buck, Sir AntonyHamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)
Caborn, RichardHardy, Peter
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)Harman, Ms Harriet
Cash, WilliamHarris, David
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)Harrison, Rt Hon Walter
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.)Harvey, Robert
Cohen, HarryHawkins, Sir Paul (SWN'folk)
Coleman, DonaldHaynes, Frank
Colvin, MichaelHayward, Robert
Coombs, SimonHeffer, Eric S.
Cowans, HarryHenderson, Barry
Crouch, DavidHickmet, Richard
Crowther, StanHicks, Robert
Currie, Mrs EdwinaHind, Kenneth
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli)Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly)Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l)Holt, Richard
Dickens, GeoffreyHowarth, Gerald (Cannock)
Dormand, JackHubbard-Miles, Peter
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.Hughes, Roy (Newport East)
Dubs, AlfredIrving, Charles
Duffy, A. E. P. Janner, Hon Greville
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.John, Brynmor
Eadie, AlexJones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Eastham, KenJones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Edwards, Bob(Wh'mpt'n SE)Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine
Eggar, TimKinnock, Rt Hon Neil
Ellis, RaymondKnight, Gregory (Derby N)
Emery, Sir PeterKnight, Mrs Jill (Edgbaston)
Evans, John (St. Helens N)Lamond, James
Evennett, DavidLeadbitter, Ted
Fallon, MichaelLeigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Favell, AnthonyLester, Jim
Finsberg, Sir GeoffreyLewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Lightbown, DavidRobinson, G. (Coventry NW)
Litherland, RobertRogers, Allan
Lofthouse, GeoffreyRowlands, Ted
Lord, MichaelSheerman, Barry
Loyden, EdwardSheldon, Rt Hon R.
McCurley, Mrs AnnaShepherd, Colin (Hereford)
McDonald, Dr OonaghShersby, Michael
McKay, Allen (Penistone)Shore, Rt Hon Peter
MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire) Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)
Maclean, David JohnSilvester, Fred
McQuarrie, AlbertSims, Roger
McWilliam, JohnSkinner, Dennis
Madden, MaxSoley, Clive
Marek, Dr JohnSpearing, Nigel
Marshall, David (Shettleston)Spencer, Derek
Martin, MichaelStanbrook, Ivor
Mason, Rt Hon RoyStern, Michael
Maude, Hon FrancisStewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Mawhinney, Dr BrianStokes, John
Maxton, JohnStott, Roger
Maxwell-Hyslop, RobinStraw, Jack
Mayhew, Sir PatrickTerlezki, Stefan
Millan, Rt Hon BruceThomas, Rt Hon Peter
Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)Thorne, Stan (Preston)
Moynihan, Hon C.Thornton, Malcolm
Murphy, ChristopherThurnham, Peter
Nellist, DavidTorney, Tom
Nelson, AnthonyTracey, Richard
O'Brien, WilliamTrotter, Neville
Onslow, CranleyTwinn, Dr Ian
Page, Sir John (Harrow W)Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Page, Richard (Herts SW)Viggers, Peter
Parkinson, Rt Hon CecilWalker, Bill (T'side N)
Parry, RobertWardell, Gareth (Gower)
Pawsey, JamesWareing, Robert
Pendry, TomWells, Sir John (Maidstone)
Pike, PeterWelsh, Michael
Portillo, MichaelWheeler, John
Price, Sir DavidWiggin, Jerry
Proctor, K. HarveyWinnick, David
Raffan, KeithWood, Timothy
Randall, Stuart
Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)Tellers for the Noes
Ridsdale, Sir JulianMr. Kevin Barron and
Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours.

Question accordingly negatived.