Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:08 pm on 6th September 2010.

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Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee 7:08 pm, 6th September 2010

I do agree, but I think the hon. Gentleman is a new Member, and it is a feature of politics that Governments frequently push through things that people do not like-he will get used to it. The point is that the alternative vote is an orphan voting system. The Labour party is split over it, the Conservative party wants to keep the current voting system and the Liberal Democrats really want the single transferable vote.

Let us remind ourselves that AV is no more proportional than the current system. Indeed, it was rejected by the Jenkins commission in 1998 precisely because

"it might increase rather than reduce disproportionality".

It does not mean fair votes. I hear Take Back Parliament, Unlock Democracy and all those pressure groups talking about fair votes, but they are wondering whether AV is the bandwagon that they should jump on. We watch with interest.

The myth of fair votes is further exposed by the fact that the alternative vote creates two classes of voter: one whose votes are counted once; and another, such as people who vote for the UK Independence party, the British National party or tiny parties, whose votes are counted again and again. As Winston Churchill argued, the alternative vote would mean that elections were decided by

"the most worthless votes for the most worthless candidates".

For that reason, it is not a very good system.

Nor would the alternative vote abolish safe seats. I keep hearing that myth, but in Australia something like 43% of seats are considered safe. In 2005, some 371 seats were won by more than a 15 percentage point margin, and they are likely to remain safe. AV does not get rid of safe seats; it institutionalises tactical voting. It may be a different sort of tactical voting from what we have now, but rest assured there will be tactical voting. Finally, the alternative vote lacks the elegant simplicity of the most popular candidate winning, which is the system that is most widely used throughout the world and has served our democracy for 300 years. I think that we should stick with that.

I have never before spoken in a one-day debate that has been curtailed by a statement before it in which 74 Back Benchers have applied to speak. I ask myself, why the rush to timetable the Bill through on a guillotine, for that is what it is? Although I will support Second Reading, I will not support the timetable. It may be a generous one, but why do we not see how the debate goes before we give licence to all the filibusterers who will fill up the time by saying nothing much at all to stop people raising salient points, which is what inevitably occurs when there is limitation on the time of debate? Let us see whether the Government will genuinely engage with those who want changes and alterations to the Bill before we agree to any kind of guillotine.

Why the rush to hold the referendum on 5 May 2011? I return briefly to the Electoral Commission, not in its rather supine form that we see today but as it used to be in 2002, when it faced down Tony Blair, who wanted to have a referendum on the euro at the same time as the Scottish and Welsh elections in 2003. It stated:

"Referendums on fundamental issues of national importance should be considered in isolation" and that

"the turnout of combined polls can have varied results. As such, the benefits do not appear so great or definitive as to automatically over-ride any potential problems".

It continued:

"It is hard to avoid the conclusion that combining an election and a referendum can have a distorting effect on the conduct and outcome of both polls. Specifically, a combined poll may be perceived as being an extension of the political process as well as being for the sake of turnout. By not disengaging the referendum from the political process the Government risks jeopardising the integrity of the result".

It also warned of the dangers for broadcasters:

"Distinguishing between election and referendum activities will be extremely difficult, if not impossible in some instances."

If we are to have a referendum on an unwanted voting system in this country, let us at least have a fair referendum on a fair, separate date.