New Clause 88 — Referendum on voting systems

Part of Bill Presented — Climate Change (Sectoral Targets) Bill – in the House of Commons at 6:00 pm on 9th February 2010.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice 6:00 pm, 9th February 2010

I have taken a lot of interventions, and I am now going to make some progress.

I am sure that we will hear of Winston Churchill's dismissal of the alternative vote in the Third Reading debate on the Representation of the People (No.2) Bill in June 1931. That was the third attempt in 21 years to get a change in that regard, but each of them was thwarted not by this House, but by the Conservative majority in the unelected House of Lords. Churchill said that a decision under AV

"is to be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates."-[ Hansard, 2 June 1931; Vol. 253, c. 106.]

However, those who pray Churchill in aid need to be careful. First, as ever with Winston Churchill, he changed his mind more than once-and he supported AV in 1917. Secondly, his first preference was not for first past the post, but for proportional representation, and his "next best method" was "the second ballot", which is simply a longer, more expensive form of AV.

Let me turn to a point raised by the hon. Members for Cambridge (David Howarth) and for Eastleigh. I do not dismiss the case for PR out of hand, and I know that it has some adherents on the Labour Benches. Where elections are to a body that has a representative, not an Executive, function, I have always accepted that the case for PR is much stronger. The truth is that every system has its advantages and disadvantages, but we are of the firm view that a majoritarian system is right for the Commons.

Let me now deal with the specific question of why we propose a referendum. As I have said, this is a matter of trust. Over most of the past 13 years, I have been the Secretary of State with responsibility for coming to the House with various pieces of constitutional change. Some of them have been controversial at the beginning, but on every occasion I and the Government have sought to reach a consensus across the Floor of the House, as we did in respect of the Human Rights Act 1998, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and the provisions on party funding in 2000 and 2009, and also in respect of devolution, when the proposals were put to a referendum. I believe it is essential that changes to our electoral system-big changes, such as to the number of MPs, which I shall come on to-must be the subject of some kind of cross-party endorsement or referendum, and cannot be seen as partisan tools in the hands of an individual party.

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