Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:16 pm on 6th September 2010.

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Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change) 7:16 pm, 6th September 2010

So this Bill will apparently be the biggest shake-up of democracy since 1832; well in Islington we know a few things about radicalism. We elected Tom Duncombe as our Finsbury MP in the 1830s. He wanted a universal franchise, so he presented the Chartist petition, which was signed by 3,315,752 people. That is radicalism, and that is what I call a real shake-up. This Bill is simply wrong, and it is not radical. Given how little time I have, I wish to focus on just a couple of matters. The first is the fact that it ignores a whole swathe of the residents of my constituency, and the second is the issue of AV.

It is estimated that more than 77,000 adults live in my constituency, but under the Bill only 66,400 will count. The others will be non-people. Far more of my constituents will become non-people under the Bill than, for example, in Witney, where there are approximately 82,000 adults, 78,000 of whom will count. I see the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Mr Harper, looking confused, so I shall explain why there is a difference.

First, there is the group of people who do not register to vote. According to the Electoral Commission, they are exactly the people of whom we have large numbers in my constituency. Half of young people do not register to vote, along with half of private tenants and a third of the black and minority ethnic community. There are not many young, black private sector tenants living in Witney, or in Maidenhead or Sheffield Hallam. It is no wonder the rate of non-registration for inner London is 18%. In Islington, our low registration was notorious. We reached the lowest point before the 2006 local elections, when the Liberal Democrat council achieved a measly response rate of 67%. When we challenged it to have a BME registration drive, the deputy leader of the council shouted across the council chamber, "That's how we win elections." As one can imagine, there was a huge row. To cut a long story short, as a result, in the 2010 election there were 9,000 more voters in Islington than there had been in 2005. Some 60% of them voted, and guess what? Six thousand more people voted Labour in Islington.

The second group of non-people that will be created in my constituency is those who come from outside the EU or the Commonwealth, many of whom are very political. In fact, they come from countries where the Governments believe they are far too political, which was why they had to come to this country in the first place. Many of them would love to vote, but they are not allowed to do so because they are not yet British citizens. Under the Bill, they will not exist. They will be non-people.

The third group is very important as well. They can vote and are on the electoral roll, but they do not vote in the right type of elections. In my constituency, I have 6,500 EU voters, like Mrs Clegg, who will not count under the Bill. That is 8% of the adult population there. As an MEP, Mr Clegg used to care about those people, but now he seems to have simply forgotten them, and they are to become non-people. According to the Library, more than half the countries in the world count entire populations when deciding on the size of constituencies, including France, Italy and Portugal. That is what we should be doing, rather than making 11,000 of my constituents non-people.

If that were not enough reason to oppose the Bill, I have another: I am against AV. My reasoning is simple: our current system builds a direct relationship between the community and its MP. Residents come together to decide whom they most want as their national representative; no one has more than one vote, which has to be cast responsibly; we are all equal and the first past the post gets elected. It is simplicity itself and it does not exclude anyone through being a complicated system or because people do not speak English as their first language. Some people scoff at the argument about complexity, but we can see from the London mayoral elections, in which five times as many ballot papers were spoiled as in the general election, that simplicity is important when trying to include everyone.

Of course, there are criticisms to be made of the current system, but AV will not resolve them. If AV brought us honest politicians, I would be a proud Finsbury MP, bringing another huge petition to Parliament, but it does not do such things and that is why the public are supremely uninterested in it. We should not spend our time on it.

The Bill is party political-a measure simply to prop up the coalition. I ask myself what Duncombe would make of it-of a measure that allows 11,000 adults in my constituency not to count in national policy. I am sure that he would be appalled at the use of the cloak of radicalism and the great cause of electoral reform to wrap around a sectarian measure. The Bill is designed merely to serve the interests of the ruling parties and to help prop up the wretched coalition. It will not improve people's lives, and I will vote against it. I would use my second, third, fourth and fifth preferences to vote against it, too.