Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:17 pm on 6th September 2010.

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Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett Chair, National Security Strategy (Joint Committee) 5:17 pm, 6th September 2010

I am sorry, but time is so short.

I recognise the argument that the alternative vote does not create a fully proportional system, but I oppose the proposal for exactly the same reason that the Liberals support it. Like them, I regard it as the thin end of the wedge, and I oppose their ultimate goal. Incidentally, it is now clear that in the formation of the coalition, the Liberals tried to force both the Labour party and the Conservative party to push through the change to alternative vote without a referendum and without seeking the views of the British people at all, so I hope that we will not hear much from them about what a great idea a referendum is.

Our current system has substantial strengths and virtues. It is simple and easy to understand, and the British people know exactly how to operate it to get the result that they want. For decades, I have listened to the most arrant rubbish about how our electoral system somehow cheats the British people of the Government whom they want. I have never believed that, and I do not know how anyone can continue to argue it with a straight face after the elections of recent years.

In the '80s and '90s, those who support PR argued that votes cast for the Labour party, the Liberals and others outweighed those cast for the Thatcher and Major Governments, and said that our system prevented the people from removing them. However, people knew perfectly well that if they voted Tory or for a third party rather than the Labour alternative, they were actively choosing or risking the re-election of a Tory Government. I deeply regretted their decision, but I never doubted that it was a conscious one. The argument that our electoral system stood in their way was surely demolished for ever by how they voted in 1997. Indeed, so well did they understand our system, they could even produce a Parliament such as this one, when no party has a clear majority.

The people therefore have the influence and the power, and they understand how to make change if that is what they choose. It is not true that the Bill will give more power and influence to the people. The Bill takes power away from the people and gives it to the politicians, as the coalition Government daily demonstrate. If the Bill is enacted and if the British people choose to give away their power in the referendum that the Liberals tried to deny them, so be it, but they must be told the truth about the choice that they are making and the effect of their decision. They must not have the wool pulled over their eyes by politicians who believe that they stand to benefit.

Over the years, many people, especially in other countries, have asked me to explain why Britain has such comparative political peace and stability. I believe that that is in large part because the British people know perfectly well how to make dramatic electoral change if that is what they want. If on the basis of a false prospectus of giving them more power and influence that power is taken away or diminished, I believe that there is a risk of a backlash that jeopardises precisely that stability.