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Electoral Reform

– in the House of Commons at 4:16 pm on 11th February 1992.

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Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace , Orkney and Shetland 4:16 pm, 11th February 1992

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to reform the law on elections in the United Kingdom; to base the electoral system for such elections on proportional representation; and for connected purposes. This is one of a series of Bills introduced by my hon. Friends and intended to address a fundamental British malaise. Britain is ill, and it is no wonder: it is because we have a bad constitution. My hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) has already proposed a Freedom of Information Bill in this Parliament. Last Friday, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) moved the Home Rule (Scotland) Bill. Tomorrow, my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) will seek leave to bring in a Bill to establish in law a charter of human rights. Today I wish to address the issue of our bankrupt and outdated electoral system.

That list of reforming measures is not exhaustive. Those four measures are critical if we are to reform our political institutions for the modern age and if we are to establish open, near and fair government.

The Bill would reform elections at all levels. At the last European parliamentary elections, it was not so much my party as the Green party, which polled 15 per cent. of the vote with no reward in terms of seats, that was the victim of the distortions of our present electoral system. Those distortions are magnified by the constituency sizes at European parliamentary elections.

The other victim of that distorted electoral system is the European Parliament itself. Its balance and composition, as well as those of its committees, are skewed by the unrepresentative voting system operating in Great Britain. I deliberately exclude Northern Ireland, where a system of proportional representation has ensured representation of the Province's two traditions in the European forum.

The Bill would also apply to local government elections. That may commend itself to Conservative Members—or perhaps they feel that they can justify on good democratic grounds a result such as that in the London borough of Richmond upon Thames, where, in the last elections, a 46 per cent. vote for the Liberal Democrats awarded us with 92 per cent. of the council seats.

Apart from fairness, proportional representation in local government would lead to a far more acceptable or democractically legitimate and accountable restraint on the excessive spending notions of some more extreme council groups than is a centralist power to cap. To be fair, some hon. Members accept that, but the Government have never explained why they are so unwilling to allow the electors, rather than the Secretary of State, to exercise any restraint on erring councils which may be needed.

The Home Rule (Scotland) Bill, debated last Friday, incorporates a system of proportional representation. Indeed, after the experience of the Scotland Act 1978, my right hon. and hon. Friends would be loth to commend any Scottish Parliament without proportional representation. The change of heart by the Labour party on that issue is very much to be welcomed.

So we come to the Westminster Parliament. It is very tempting to dwell on the injustice which the present system deals to my own party—that, at the last election, in return for 23 per cent. of the vote we got 23 seats. But the system throws up other damaging and divisive anomalies too.

Outside Greater London, the hon. Members for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) and for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) are the only Labour Members south of a line drawn from the Severn to the Wash. In spite of the Conservatives polling a cumulative total of 98,340 votes in the cities of Glasgow and Liverpool in 1987, there is not one Conservative Member for either of those great cities.

That kind of imbalance means that, on critical issues affecting those cities or the vast area of southern England, the Government on the one hand and the main Opposition party on the other cannot have the benefit of first-hand knowledge or input in parliamentary debate. That cannot be healthy for a pluralist democracy.

I claim that proportional representation would lead to greater fairness. That in itself is an important factor in any democracy, but experience abroad also suggests that it would lead to better representation of women and of those from our nation's ethnic communities. That could only make the House more representative of the nation as a whole.

Our preferred system of the single transferable vote in multi-member seats with a community identity would change, but nevertheless retain, the link between a Member and his or her constituents. After all, which Member would risk taking too much for granted if the penalty were to lose one's seat to a member of one's own party? That system, too, places more choice in the hands of voters and less in the hands of the constituency executive.

There are clear and encouraging signs that the case for proportional representation is gaining ground. The Labour party has taken some welcome steps in the right direction, but, with a few honourable and wise exceptions, it still balks at taking the final critical step of supporting fair votes for this Chamber.

There have always been some distinguished supporters of proportional representation on the Conservative Benches. Indeed, in 1983, before taking up office, the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Patten), writing as the author of a Penguin book, "The Tory Case", said: Conservatives believe in defending our liberties and sustaining efficient government. Electoral reform, as Sir Winston Churchill accepted, provides the best way of doing both these things. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Bath would do well to remind himself of his own words.

More important, however, the case for a fair voting system is gathering support among those who really count: the voters themselves, those who use the system. Any citizen's charter worth its salt would surely try to enhance the value of the citizen's most valuable possession—his or her vote. But, to no one's surprise, the Prime Minister shies away from that. He may well be able to do so on a Tuesday afternoon at the fag-end of a Parliament, but we shall not lose opportunities in the coming weeks and months to tell the electorate that every Liberal Democrat vote in the coming election will help to put the issue of electoral reform at centre stage on the agenda of the next Parliament.

There is a fundamental reason why it should be there at centre stage. I believe that a reformed electoral system and the reform of government which would inevitably accompany it would bring about the stability and continuity which our country and our economy need. Britain's relative economic decline over the past 40 years is the product of a failed political system which brings uncertainty and breeds conflict.

To those who claim that first-past-the-post produces the certainty that flows from a large majority, I say take but one example. Where has the certainty been in local government finance over the past six or seven years? Those who claim that certainty confuse strong government with headstrong government. A reformed electoral system offers the prospect of genuinely strong government: government with the support of the majority of the people.

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

Does the hon. Gentleman seek to oppose?

Photo of Mr Robert Adley Mr Robert Adley , Christchurch

I do.

The House will have listened with interest to the speech by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace). It is right that he should have the chance to make such a speech, and I hope that he will allow me, I hope in a moderate and quiet way, to put an alternative view.

At the start of a speech it is normal to declare an interest, and I shall declare mine. At the last election, I received 65·9 per cent. of the votes that were cast in my constituency, as opposed to 41·7 per cent. cast for the hon. Gentleman in the constituency of Orkney and Shetland. It is a matter of statistical record that, at the last general election, the Liberal Alliance averaged only 44·9 per cent. of the vote in their constituencies. Only three of them managed to achieve more than 50 per cent. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Bellotti) points. He was not in the House at that time, and shortly he will not be here again.

There is nothing to stop people electing a Liberal, a bush Baptist or whoever they wish. Under our existing system, they may vote for any of those on the ballot paper. People who argue about fairness really mean that some parties are inherently incapable of persuading enough people to vote for them. As far as I know, the Liberal party is the only United Kingdom party which to a man and woman favours eliminating the traditional voting system. The reason for that is clear, and I shall give it, I hope without giving offence: ever since the early years of this century, the Liberal party has been a perpetual loser and it is naturally enthusiastic about changing the rules, rather in the way that the supporters of Aldershot or Accrington Stanley football clubs would like to change the bankruptcy laws.

The usual proposition—we heard it from the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland—is that, if the votes cast were distributed under proportional representation, X, Y and Z would follow. There is no logic on earth which says that, if we change the voting system, the votes will be cast in the same way. That reminds me of a phrase that my late father used to use—if my grandmother had wheels, she would be an omnibus. She had not, and she was not.

This is a serious issue. I am prepared to be persuaded about PR, but many of the arguments are simultaneously seductive and superficial. The proposition is that a system of proportional representation would eliminate extremism. Precisely the opposite is the case. What actually happens is that those who get the fewest votes have the most power. Anyone who looks at Eire and Israel, two democracies in which tiny minorities hold the Government and people to ransom, will see that the PR argument is difficult to sustain. Mr. Shamir, as a product of proportional representation, is an example of nothing that I particularly want to follow.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland spoke about proportional representation in Northern Ireland, but he rather gave the game away by making the point that that has only entrenched the polarisation, so that each community has a representative. Instead of the emergence of an "alliance" candidate, who might represent neither of the entrenched parties, PR has merely entrenched the existing situation.

I told the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) that I would mention him in my speech. I do not think that many hon. Members would relish the proposition that, in a so-called hung Parliament, the future size, shape and disposition of the Government would hang in the balance depending in whose favour the hon. Member for Antrim, North decided to bestow his good wishes. The Labour party, the Liberal party and the Conservative party are all, as I understand it, in favour of the Anglo-Irish Agreement; the hon. Member for Antrim, North and his hon. Friends are not.

Are we really to suggest that a hung Parliament, with somebody such as the hon. Member holding the balance of power, is likely to produce a situation which is acceptable to the majority? The way in which that particular person was elected is irrelevant. The proposition is that somebody holds the balance of power and so moderation is ensured. It is far more likely to ensure behind-the-scenes, Tammany hall-type deals which are not in the interest of the majority of people in a democratic society.

The constituency link is paramount. I do not want to see a system whereby party organisations have more power than the people who are elected to do the job. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland mentioned the poll tax, which I have opposed all the way through. It may be that my views on that and on the future of the railways, for example, colour my reason for not wanting the apparatchiks of the Conservative party determining what I do and do not do. I believe that we derive our strength from our election by our constituents, to give that clear, fine definition between constituency and Member of Parliament.

The rock of British democracy is the existing system. It is interesting to me that the Italians, who have long enjoyed, if that is the word, a system of proportional representation, are now seriously considering changing their system because of the constant changes of Government and the instability that many Italian politicians regard as an inherent defect of their system.

If I am wrong, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) will tell me, and I will apologise, but I understand that this morning at a press conference he said that he would vote down the Queen's Speech unless there was a commitment to proportional representation by the party with the most seats in the House. Let us consider that proposition. As far as I know—hon. Members on the Labour Front Bench will tell me; I ask them rather than tell them—neither the Labour party nor the Conservative party is going into the next election with a manifesto commitment to change the voting system to proportional representation. We may well say in both our manifestos that we need to look at it, but there will be no commitment to change it.

So we have a situation where the leader of the Liberal party, with a minority of seats in a hung Parliament and holding the balance, is willing to use that minority position against the votes of the two main parties, neither of which will have offered that proposition to the people of this country. If the right hon. Member for Yeovil would stop and think about the proposal for one moment, he would see that he is not suggesting a fair debate and discussion in the House or among the political parties about the way in which we elect our Parliament: he is offering political blackmail—nothing more, nothing less.

I close my remarks, I hope in a conciliatory way, by saying that I am not opposed to an examination of the system by which we elect our Members of Parliament. What I am opposed to is the arrogant assumption that this country is suffering from what the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland described as "a fundamental malaise". I do not believe—and I have tried to give examples—that there is any necessary correlation between good government and proportional representation or between first-past-the-post and bad government. It needs men and women of good will in politics to try to reach a consensus on individual issues, but to suggest that issuing threats, to be carried out unless those elected with a minority of the votes, in this place or elsewhere, get their own way, is some sort of fair and democratic system is not democratic as I understand the meaning of the word.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):

The House divided: Ayes 27, Noes 151.

Division No. 76][4.33 pm
Ashdown, Rt Hon PaddyMeyer, Sir Anthony
Ashton, JoeMitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)Raffan, Keith
Beith, A. J.Salmond, Alex
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)Stephen, Nicol
Carr, MichaelTaylor, Matthew (Truro)
Douglas, DickThomas, Dr Dafydd Elis
Edwards, HuwWallace, James
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)Wigley, Dafydd
Faulds, AndrewWilliams, Alan W. (Carm'then)
Flynn, Paul
Godman, Dr Norman A.Tellers for the Ayes:
Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Môn)Mr. Ronnie Fearn and
Kennedy, CharlesMr. David Bellotti.
Livingstone, Ken
Adley, RobertBruce, Ian (Dorset South)
Alexander, RichardBuck, Sir Antony
Allen, GrahamBudgen, Nicholas
Amos, AlanBurns, Simon
Arbuthnot, JamesButler, Chris
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)Callaghan, Jim
Ashley, Rt Hon JackCampbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)Cash, William
Barron, KevinClark, Rt Hon Sir William
Batiste, SpencerCohen, Harry
Beggs, RoyConway, Derek
Bell, StuartCoombs, Simon (Swindon)
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)Cormack, Patrick
Blackburn, Dr John G.Cryer, Bob
Blunkett, DavidCunliffe, Lawrence
Bottomley, PeterDalyell, Tam
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)Day, Stephen
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir RhodesDickens, Geoffrey
Dixon, DonMaxwell-Hyslop, Sir Robin
Dunn, BobMichael, Alun
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs GwynethMichie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Durant, Sir AnthonyMitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Eadie, AlexanderMoate, Roger
Eastham, KenMorgan, Rhodri
Evennett, DavidMudd, David
Farr, Sir JohnMurphy, Paul
Foster, DerekNeubert, Sir Michael
Fox, Sir MarcusNicholls, Patrick
French, DouglasNicholson, David (Taunton)
Gardiner, Sir GeorgeNorris, Steve
Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Gill, ChristopherO'Brien, William
Glyn, Dr Sir AlanO'Hara, Edward
Golding, Mrs LlinOnslow, Rt Hon Cranley
Goodhart, Sir PhilipOrme, Rt Hon Stanley
Goodson-Wickes, Dr CharlesPatchett, Terry
Gordon, MildredPawsey, James
Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)Porter, David (Waveney)
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Greenway, John (Ryedale)Powell, William (Corby)
Grist, IanPrice, Sir David
Hardy, PeterRedmond, Martin
Harris, DavidRiddick, Graham
Hayes, JerryRidley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Haynes, FrankRooney, Terence
Hayward, RobertRost, Peter
Heal, Mrs SylviaShepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Hind, KennethShersby, Michael
Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)Sims, Roger
Hoyle, DougSkeet, Sir Trevor
Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)Skinner, Dennis
Hughes, Roy (Newport E)Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Hunter, AndrewSmyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Illsley, EricSpicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Irvine, MichaelStanbrook, Ivor
Janner, GrevilleSteen, Anthony
Jessel, TobySteinberg, Gerry
Jones, Robert B (Herts W)Stott, Roger
Jopling, Rt Hon MichaelStraw, Jack
Kellett-Bowman, Dame ElaineSummerson, Hugo
Kilfedder, JamesTaylor, Ian (Esher)
King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)Thompson, Sir D. (Calder Vly)
Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)Thornton, Malcolm
Lestor, Joan (Eccles)Tracey, Richard
Lewis, TerryTrimble, David
Litherland, RobertTwinn, Dr Ian
Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Lofthouse, GeoffreyWaller, Gary
Lord, MichaelWelsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Loyden, EddieWheeler, Sir John
Luce, Rt Hon Sir RichardWilkinson, John
McAvoy, ThomasWilshire, David
McFall, JohnWise, Mrs Audrey
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
McNair-Wilson, Sir MichaelTellers for the Noes:
Madden, MaxMr. Dennis Turner and
Mans, KeithMr. Conal Gregory.
Marland, Paul

Question accordingly negatived.