Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:23 pm on 6th September 2010.

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Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell Labour, Great Grimsby 8:23 pm, 6th September 2010

I have sat through debates on many unappetising measures in this place, both Thatcherite and new Labour, but I have never sat through a debate on a measure that has been greeted with such a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm as this. It is true that most of the criticisms have come from advocates of first past the post, who do not include me, but I intend to add to those criticisms as an advocate of electoral reform and a believer in proportional representation, because this is not electoral reform but an electoral fiddle that is designed to entrench the coalition.

The Bill helps the Liberal Democrats in the first place through AV. They think that they are likely to be everyone's second preference; at least, they thought that before they formed the coalition and went in for cuts. It is estimated that they will gain between 12 and-according to the Electoral Reform Society-22 seats. That will help the Conservatives, because the redistribution will mean that smaller seats held by Labour will be enlarged. The reduction in Wales and Scotland's representation is designed to hit Labour and benefit the Conservatives by between 12 and 20 seats. Those estimates come from polls and are obviously unreliable, but both sets of estimates suggest a gain. The interesting thing is that the only gain that is likely to materialise is in the redistribution. The Liberal Democrats had better look out, because the AV element is the less likely of the two parts of the Bill.

Why does the Bill propose the alternative vote? We have learned tonight that we are catching up with Papua New Guinea, and that is a marvellous position to be in-I always wanted to be in such a position-but AV will achieve very little else. It has suddenly been dragged out of the tomb in which it has lain since 1929, given the kiss of life-bandaged and bleeding as it is-by the Deputy Prime Minister, and trundled out on to the stage. It was not in the Liberal Democrat manifesto or the Conservative manifesto. Where did it come from? [Hon. Members: "It was in your manifesto."] No, it was not. We proposed a referendum on AV, but the heart of our party was certainly not behind AV, as has been well demonstrated tonight.

Why should we have a referendum on AV, which no one particularly wants, and not a referendum on proportional representation, which a large percentage of people do want? All the polls indicate that AV is less popular than PR. In a referendum in New Zealand in 1992, people were asked whether they wanted to retain the first-past-the-post system. When 85% of the population said no, they were asked what system they wanted to replace it. They were offered four possible options. The German additional Member system was supported by 70%, whereas the AV system that is being proposed here was supported by a tiny 6.6%.

In my opinion, PR is the only system that will enable us to cope with all the emerging strains of a multi-party arrangement. Very odd results will be produced if we try to cram that into the constraints of first past the post. PR means that every vote is a wanted vote. It ends the elective dictatorship. It forces the parties to campaign in every constituency, rather than just in the safe seats.

It is true that the parties are divided. When I first went into the electoral reform game, I rapidly became chairman of the Labour campaign for electoral reform because all the other members left to join the Social Democratic party in 1981. At that time, the largest number of advocates of proportional representation were Conservatives; now almost no Conservatives advocate PR. The Labour party is divided on it, although there is a great deal more support for it on this side of the House. It is exactly this sort of issue-an issue on which the parties are divided-that is best submitted to a referendum. So why is PR not to be included in this referendum? Have the Liberal Democrats given up on it? Why did they not insist on its inclusion? If we are to have a referendum, why should we not include PR as an option?

Let me now briefly turn to the subject of the proposed reduction in the number of MPs to 600. The redistribution will go ahead even if AV is defeated in the referendum, but we MPs have a vital democratic role: we are the representatives of the people; we protect them against the Executive; we are local ombudsmen; we are the voice of our constituencies; and we have an increasing volume of mail and of work in this place thanks to the Select Committees and pre-legislative scrutiny and all the other innovations that we want to see. We cannot do our work effectively if the number of MPs is reduced. This proposal will strengthen the Executive, because the Executive will be bigger in a smaller pool of Members, and there will be a smaller pool of talent from which to choose the members of that Executive.

The proposal is based on a fallacy too: the fallacy that this place is too large. The number of Members we have as a proportion of the population is much the same as in France and Italy. We are not too large, because our system is one of the few that is not federal. In federal systems people have elected representatives at all levels to turn to, whereas in our system people have only the 650 MPs.

I think AV will be defeated in the referendum because referendums are Conservative devices. That will face the Liberal Democrats with the following consequence, which they must consider. Their leader, who is looking more and more like Elmer Gantry, has dragged them into this. He has said, "We will liberalise the cuts and democratise the constitution." When AV is defeated in the referendum, they will not be doing the latter. What, then, do they stand to gain from this coalition?