With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 197, page 6, line 10, at end insert
(c) the number of electors casting a vote in favour of the answer "Yes" is equal to or greater than 25 per cent. of those entitled to cast such a vote.'.
Amendment 8, page 6, line 12, after '"No",', insert
'or if the number of electors casting a vote in the referendum is less than 40 per cent. of those entitled to cast such a vote,'.
Amendment 198, page 6, line 12, after '"No"', insert
'or if the number of electors casting a vote in favour of the answer "Yes" is fewer than 25 per cent. of those entitled to cast such a vote'.
The question of threshold is the second most important issue after the question of whether we agree to this Bill on Second or Third Reading. We have Third Reading to come, and I admit to having voted with some enthusiasm against the Bill on Second Reading, as did a number of my colleagues. We did so because of our inherent objection to the principles that underlie it. I objected to the alternative vote in the wash-up, and I have no reservations about my objections to it. Indeed, I have consistently objected to variants of the proportional representation system ever since I entered the House.
That principled objection has been adopted by Members throughout 150 years of our parliamentary democracy. Many, including Gladstone, Disraeli and even Lloyd George, have objected to the whole idea of undermining the first-past-the-post system. I am reminded of what Disraeli wrote in his novel "Coningsby". At the time of the Reform Act and the repeal of the corn laws, he wrote in a brief chapter of just one-and-a-half pages:
"There was a great deal of shouting about Conservative principles, but the awkward question naturally arose-what are the principles we are supposed to conserve?"
I believe this Bill is inherently contrary to Conservative principles for the reasons I have given.
Indeed, I would go further and say that I fear that we have not really heard the full reality- the actualité-of what is going on here. Failure in that regard makes it all the more necessary to have a threshold, because if we do not tell the British people the entire truth, which Churchill said we had to do, I fear they will be misled in the referendum campaign. My belief that a threshold is necessary is based in part on the fact that at least that would enable a percentage of the population to be the determining factor as to whether or not the vote is valid.
My amendment is very modest. It simply calls on the Government to agree that we should insert in the Bill that the result of the referendum will not pass if less than 40% vote in it. That is 40% of those who are eligible to cast a vote. It is about turnout, and 40% is not a large proportion. It is much less than what George Cunningham insisted on in the Scottish devolution proposals that led to the 1979 legislation on that; he insisted on having 40% for a yes vote, whereas I am calling here for only 40% of the electorate. It is a very modest proposal. Is it not a reasonable proposal? Is it not reasonable that the people of this country should be able to have the result of a referendum refused if less than 40% actually cast a vote in it?
There is another serious problem. If a person goes into the ballot box and votes for one person only because he does not want to vote for any of the others-he should have freedom of choice on that-thereafter his vote is discarded. I regard that as fundamentally undemocratic. I see the Minister looking a little puzzled. Well, he can answer my question when he replies. The inherent problem with the whole of this process is that it will have an insidious effect on our democratic system. It is contrary to Conservative principles, and there is no conceivable basis on which these proposals should be passed. I will be voting against the Bill on Third Reading, and I will also press this amendment to a vote.
In light of the hon. Gentleman's strong denunciation of the Bill for the reasons he has given, why has he set the threshold so low, at 40% of turnout?
Actually, I set it at over 60% until we had the shenanigans on, I think,
The threshold question is very important and we were previously deprived of an opportunity to discuss it properly because of the programme motion and other activities that I regarded as rather disreputable. I believe the Bill is being severely vitiated, and I think it is very important that the people of this country know that threshold is a key issue. Indeed, threshold and the 40% figure are regarded by all commentators as having significance across the international scene as well as for the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the international evidence. Italy has a provision that is similar to the one he is proposing and the effect is that those who favour a no vote in referendums simply campaign for them to be boycotted. If the hon. Gentleman's amendment is successful, will he campaign for a no vote or for people to boycott the referendum?
I will undoubtedly be campaigning for a no vote, but I must also say that I rely very much on the good sense of the British people to decide exactly what they will do, because we trust the people; that is the point.
We were all much more in agreement about this in Committee. All I can say to my hon. Friend is that I believe very strongly, for the reasons I have given and because of the principles I have enunciated, that the 40% threshold is desirable. Incidentally, on the majority provisions prevalent in other democracies in the west, Denmark's requirement on constitutional change is for 40% of registered voters and, as Stephen Twigg implied, Italy has a turnout requirement of 50% of registered voters. Indeed, this country used something not similar, but parallel in the 1979 vote, when the requirement was for 40% of registered voters saying yes.
All these amendments on thresholds are eminently sensible, but does my hon. Friend agree that there is no chance of their being accepted because the Government will not accept them and that is because there is such profound apathy about this measure among the British people that if any kind of threshold was in place, there would be no chance of the proposal in the referendum being accepted? That is the reality.
I understand what my hon. Friend is saying, but the problem arises if he simply takes the view that, for one reason or another, either in this House or outside it, there is apathy. I simply refer him back to all the great constitutional problems that have arisen in the past 150 years, when there has also been a problem of apathy, because the constitutional arguments are difficult to get across. I think of this on the basis of, for example, the preference arrangements where a person votes for only one candidate, which will mean that a large number of people will, in effect, be disfranchised-they might be very concerned about that. Some 1.5 million people voted for the UK Independence party and the British National party, and one might say that they may well not vote for anybody else. The other thing, which goes with that, is that if one is faced with a choice of Liberal and Labour, there may be an increased likelihood of people voting Liberal Democrat.
Wait a minute. That is so for the very simple reason that many people have a visceral hatred of both parties and therefore think, wrongly, that they are voting for another party that will do them some good-we have a different view about that.
I regard this as a lambs-to-the-slaughter Bill-this is why I insist on the threshold-because of what would happen under these arrangements to a number of Conservative MPs if they were to get less than 50% of the vote, as they did in the last election. I have calculated that 60 Conservative MPs had Liberal Democrats in second place. My sense of friendship for my colleagues suggests to me that putting as many as 60 seats on the line is a very high price to pay for the purposes of something so central to the coalition. The figures I have show that those who would be affected range from my hon. Friend Richard Harrington, who got 34.9% of the vote, to my hon. Friend Caroline Nokes, who got 49.7%. All those Members would be largely at risk, although some more so than others, and something will depend on the boundary changes. I cannot understand how my party can make arrangements that take those lambs to the slaughter. This is extraordinary and I would be interested to hear the Minister's reply.
I am very interested in the hon. Gentleman's point. I agree that turkeys do not usually vote for Christmas. Does he perhaps think that his leader has a plan for his party that he is obviously not party to?
I have voted consistently against this Bill and I will continue to do so, for the reasons that I have given. It behoves some of us to act both with consistency and in principle against things that were not in our manifesto-in fact, it is the opposite because our manifesto declared that we were not in favour of the alternative vote. Furthermore, there was complete silence on the question of threshold until we received the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman is probably one of the longest serving parliamentarians. Will he clarify whether he believes that the House of Lords should be bound to follow the manifesto commitment convention or, given that this provision was not in his party's manifesto, that the House of Lords is perfectly entitled to disregard that convention?
That is a very good question.
My final point is that leaving this ultimately House of Commons issue-it is about voting here in the House of Commons-to the House of Lords is absolutely disgraceful. This issue should not be resolved in the House of Lords. I have heard a number of my hon. Friends, for whom I have the greatest respect on most matters, churning this out and I simply think it is unacceptable. This is a matter for the House of Commons; it is about our electors, our constituencies, our constitution and the freedom of choice at the ballot box. I utterly reject this Bill and I utterly reject the idea of AV. I strongly urge hon. Members to vote with me on the threshold provision that stands in my name.
Mr Cash knows that I have great respect for him. He is adamantine in his positions, holding to them with consistency and firmness, and I respect him for it enormously. Often I disagree with him, but I almost entirely agree with him on this Bill, and I also think that he has made a good case this evening. He referred to Conservative principles, so I wish to nick a few words that Mr Williams reminded some Welsh colleagues of this morning in Westminster Hall. As he said, Evelyn Waugh asked what the point of a Conservative Government is if it does not turn the clock back, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Stone will agree with that.
However, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman about thresholds in referendums because, broadly, they are not a good idea. As these amendments have shown, it is difficult to know whether the threshold should relate to the turnout-the number of people who vote-or the turnout of those who express a preference. In other words, should it leave out or include those who spoiled their ballot paper? Alternatively, should it relate to those who vote yes to change. Obviously, in countries that have written constitutions all this tends to be laid down; it is one of the key elements that is written down. If someone wants to change any element of the constitution in Germany, Spain or many other countries, they have to obtain a fixed percentage-normally greater than an absolute majority-to be able to effect change. In the German constitution, any change has to be given a successful mandate after two subsequent general elections. I do not believe that that is the way we have tended to do things in the British system.
I am curious to know why the Labour party takes the attitude it does. Is it because it is, in principle, opposed to thresholds or is it because it is scarred by its experience in 1979, when the referendum would have gone through but for the threshold, which ushered in the vote of confidence, 18 years of Tory role and all the rest of it? Does Labour have a principled objection or is it just history?
The scars of history can give us principles-that is the truth of it. That may well apply to the Conservative party too in relation to some of the things it has had to change in recent years. I point out that if there were to be a threshold for election to this House or to council seats, especially in council by-elections, there would undoubtedly be some occasions when people would not be returned, because voters might choose to do precisely what happens, as my hon. Friend Stephen Twigg has said, in some countries where there is a threshold.
I will give way in a moment. In some countries that have thresholds, people are persuaded to boycott. If people felt that they did not like any of the candidates, they might decide that the best way not to return a candidate was to boycott the election.
I cannot imagine why my hon. Friend is not so sure about that.
I would be grateful if he told us where in the Labour manifesto-or anywhere else in Labour party policy-there is a commitment against thresholds. More importantly, is not the serious argument for the Labour party, the Conservative party or any other party in this Chamber the question of what we would do if there was only a 15% turnout? What would the Government do and what would the House of Commons do? Surely we could not accept that.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is no fixed determined policy that we are completely and utterly in all cases implacably opposed to thresholds. Nor, for that matter, is there a belief that we ardently should have thresholds. However, I suspect that the hon. Member for Stone has tabled this amendment in some sense as a wrecking amendment, in that he does not really want AV, and that is part of his intention.
I shall not give way to him, because there is very little time for debate. I accept that that might not be his intention, but none the less it might be the result of such a thing.
I was actually trying not to suggest a threshold. The hon. Lady is right in one sense, of course. I hope that this might appease my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton as regards some of what he said. There is a complexity about the referendum that we might have next May, because we might have very differential turnout in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England.
If, for instance, there were to be a very low turnout in England that returned a no vote and a very high turnout in the other places-there is a Scottish parliamentary election, in Northern Ireland there are two other sets of elections and in Wales there is the Assembly election at the same time, and in Wales and Scotland those feel in many senses like general elections-returned significant yes votes, people might start to question the validity of what we were doing. This is all the more important because the referendum is not just an advisory referendum-as referendums have always been in the past-but an implementing referendum. In other words, if there is a yes vote, it comes into law. It happens, and the next general election will be held on the basis of the alternative vote.
I am not convinced by the arguments that are being advanced in favour of thresholds. I personally will be voting yes in the referendum. I do not believe that there should be a referendum, but there is a legitimate argument that others might want to consider about whether the fact that we are combining the polls will produce a differential turnout in different parts of the country that might make a necessity of a threshold.
As well as making a powerful comment-and judgment, really-on the proposal for a threshold, is my hon. Friend not harking back to what we talked about earlier, making a convincing case not to have the elections in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland on the same day or to have the AV vote on the same day?
Absolutely. As somebody who supports alternative vote, which I know my hon. Friend does not, and as somebody who will want to see a yes vote in the referendum, I find that one of the most depressing things-I think this is true of others in the Chamber who want to see change to the electoral system-is that the way in which the Government and, in particular, the Deputy Prime Minister have proceeded with this has made it more difficult for many to advocate that cause and to push for reform. Now, I shall give way to Mrs Laing-
She no longer wants me.
As the hon. Member for Stone said earlier, two different thresholds are proposed. One is that there will be a 25% yes threshold-that is, that we would have to secure 25% of the electorate to count for a yes, and that can be found in amendment 197. The other is the turnout referendum of 40% that the hon. Gentleman has already proposed. I think that it would be inappropriate to move forward with either of the two thresholds and I urge hon. Members to vote against them.
Like my hon. Friend, I am a supporter-and always have been-of AV. He mentioned the Labour party, and of course the Labour party has no policy, but has not the Labour movement long held the principle that in trade union rule changes there should be a threshold precisely because rule changes are irreversible, in that they must be implemented? Should not the principle of a threshold mean that the Government should be looking for significantly more than 326 votes on Third Reading tonight to demonstrate any kind of support for this rotten Bill?
The difficulty about thresholds in the Labour movement is that, for instance, I suppose one could have said that there should be a threshold for the election of candidates for the Labour party-or, for that matter, for the leader of the Labour party. I think that that would be inappropriate. When we have an election, we in the Labour movement have always proceeded on the basis of alternative vote- [ Interruption. ] To be fair, in the past, for a brief period, we used a single vote but then there was a run-off that was used for several years. For several years now-for several decades, in fact-we have used the alternative vote to select candidates when there is a single member standing. When there are multiple members, we use first past the post. The point that I want to make is that I do not think that it is appropriate to bring in a threshold at this time, but I fully understand that there are others who say that because of the way in which the Government are pushing forward with this legislation and because it is an implementing referendum, a threshold would be appropriate.
I was not cogitating-I was bemused by the rationality of the hon. Gentleman's argument. If I understood it correctly, he was saying that there was a level of turnout that would not authorise, essentially, so dramatic a change in the public mind. If it does not have the authority of a certain percentage enabling us to claim that it was the will of the people, at what level does he think that should be set? There must surely be a level for such a profound constitutional change to be authorised, as was suggested with reference to the union movement, for instance.
To be honest, I would prefer us to have a written constitution in which all those elements were laid out, but that is not what is before us tonight. One could go around this Chamber and see on what proportion of the vote of the total electorate any one of us was elected-after all, the proposition in amendment 197 is that one would have to be elected by a proportion of the electorate. I think that that would be inappropriate. We have a system in this country where someone either wins or loses the vote. There would be a strong point in arguing that this should not be an implementing referendum, but merely an advisory referendum. The House would therefore be able to take a decision on the basis of what turnout there had or had not been. I would hate to see the campaign simply to boycott the referendum that would almost certainly arise from those who are opposed to a change.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the impact of thresholds on referendums-remember that we are told that the whole issue of constituency changes in this Bill is about creating equal votes-is that they create unequal votes? Those who do not vote-even those who do not vote because they are dead-have more influence and more say than those who go to the bother of voting. Is not the real issue that people want to learn the lesson from Irish referendums? As well as creating confusion and saying, "If you don't know, vote no," they will say in some places, "If you don't know, don't vote."
My hon. Friend made that point in a previous discussion, and he is absolutely right. We should have a straightforward system where people fight to win their side of the argument. They win that side of the argument by getting people past the ballot box to vote either yes or no. That is why I am, broadly speaking, opposed to referendums.
Let me issue one tiny note of caution, which comes from the problems that the Government are giving us by combining the polls on
By tabling amendments 197 and 198 I am again trying to help the Government. The Minister made it clear when we tried to debate this matter in Committee on
The amendment that my hon. Friend Iain Stewart and I submitted in Committee was for a turnout threshold not of 60%, as I have been derided in the press for suggesting, but of 50%. [ Interruption. ] Not by the shadow Minister, no-by The Daily Telegraph. There is a surprise! I would never have suggested 60%. However, I have listened to Chris Bryant and I have listened, surprising as it might seem, to the Deputy Prime Minister.
He is never here for these debates-never at all. The Minister has entirely taken the responsibility for all this and the Deputy Prime Minister has been here only for the first half hour of Second Reading-that is all-and I do not suppose we will see him at any other point in the debate. I have listened to him however, and he has said, as the hon. Member for Rhondda has said this evening, that it would not be fair to count potential electors who do not vote as no votes. The hon. Member for Rhondda has also said that those boycotting the poll would be counted as no votes, and I entirely accept that.
This is a very important point. There was an old rule right through history that with proposals for a big change, those who did not vote were expressing that they were satisfied with the existing arrangements. Does my hon. Friend agree that if one believes in change, one votes for change, and that if one does not believe in change there is no incentive to do so because one is consenting to the existing arrangements?
That is the crux of the matter. People who want a change in our constitution will go out on
The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next point. A referendum is not an election; it is a completely different part of the democratic process. The hon. Member for Rhondda and others have compared turnouts in general and local elections, in which voters choose between three, four or five candidates, with referendums, but they are not the same. If they were, a referendum would be called an election. A referendum is a plebiscite. In a referendum, the people are consulted on a particular issue on a yes or no vote; that is not the same as an election and comparisons between the two regarding turnout or other aspects are therefore irrelevant. The simple, inescapable principle is that a change to the voting system is a significant constitutional change; that is why the Government have decided to have a referendum-and rightly so. The outcome of a referendum to change our constitution must be, and must be seen to be, decisive. It must command confidence and respect and it should not be challengeable. If there is a derisory turnout, the result will not command respect or confidence. Indeed, it is worse that that.
I thank my hon. Friend; that is exactly the point of my amendments on having a threshold for those voting yes. Any constitutional change that will have an enormous effect on the composition of the House and of Parliament ought to be brought about in a way that commands confidence and respect. In tabling my modest amendments, I am trying once more to help the Government.
What if the referendum takes place and 15% of people vote yes? In a local election, we normally get about 29% and, as the hon. Member for Rhondda has rightly said, there is likely to be differential turnout throughout the country, which is likely to add to the confusion and the likelihood that the result of the referendum will not command respect and will be questionable. If the outcome does not command respect-if only 15% of those entitled to vote actually go out and vote for constitutional change-that result will be derisory and will mean that all future general elections under the AV system will be open to question. I have every confidence that the British people will have the sense to vote against AV, but just in case they do not-this is a serious matter-I put it to the House that if 15% or so of the population vote for a constitutional change that brings about a new AV system for elections to the House, the entire validity of our electoral system will be open to question and the very integrity of our democracy will be undermined.
The amendments moved by my hon. Friends seek to specify certain thresholds. They are very different, as has emerged from the debate. The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr Cash would impose a simple turnout threshold. At least 40% of those entitled to vote would have to cast a vote, or the result would not be valid.
I should take this opportunity to put my hon. Friend right on the form of the alternative vote system that we propose in the Bill. I do not know if he was present for the debates that we had on it. His concern, I think he said, was that people would be forced to vote for all the candidates on the ballot paper, and if they did not, their vote would not be valid. He referred to some parties for which people would not want to vote. I can reassure him-
I did not say that people would be forced to vote. I depended for my argument on the freedom of choice to decide that they might want to vote for only one person.
Okay, but under our system of optional preferential, we are not forcing anybody to vote for anyone. Voters can vote for one candidate, all the candidates or any number in between, so the form of the alternative vote that we are putting to the electorate next year does not raise any of the concerns that my hon. Friend touched on. I am sorry if I overstated his argument.
The reason why we have not specified a threshold in the Bill is, as a number of hon. Members said, that we want to respect the will of the people who vote in the referendum, without any qualifications. The argument against my hon. Friend's amendment is that specifying a threshold for voter turnout-on this I agree with Stephen Twigg-is that it makes every abstention effectively a no vote.
People may choose to abstain, but the amendment would create an incentive for people who favour a no vote to abstain. So people would not campaign, as they rightly should, for only yes or no votes in the referendum. We would have people campaigning actively for voters not to participate. We debated this a little on Second Reading, and as I said in my speech then, I do not think that is right. We need to encourage participation in the referendum. We want people to take part, and putting in a rule that encourages at least one side to campaign actively for voters not to take part would do our democracy a disservice.
I am not concerned as some colleagues are about what the turnout will be. As we have said in previous debates, both in Committee and in the House, there are elections for the devolved Administrations-for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly-but there are also elections scheduled next year for 81% of England. The percentage turnout in English local elections varies, but it is usually in the mid to high 30s at least. I am confident that with the additional publicity and the awareness of the referendum, and the fact that it is an important decision, we will indeed get a good turnout.
Previous referendums in this country have either had good turnouts or, where the turnouts have not been that high, they have produced decisive clear results from the electorate, so I do not share that concern. We should not go against our tradition and practice in this country by setting turnout thresholds.
Let me now focus on the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mrs Laing. She is right to say that it proposes a completely different, outcome-specific threshold. It is worth saying to colleagues on the Government Benches who support the Government's proposals and respect the coalition agreement that my hon. Friend's amendment is not compatible with what we set out in the coalition agreement, which was a simple majority referendum, without an outcome-specific threshold. Colleagues who are reconciled to a referendum being held should bear that in mind if they are tempted to vote for my hon. Friend's amendment.
Does my hon. Friend realise the irony of what he has just said? The Liberal Democrat MPs required two thirds support for entering the coalition. Surely it ill behoves them now to suggest that we can change the constitution of this country on a much smaller vote?
I do not think my hon. Friend's point holds a great deal of water. I think I am right in saying that the decision of the Liberal Democrats, although I am not an expert on their internal party mechanisms, was unanimous or almost unanimous. That does not take us an awful lot further forward.
I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out to me that I have made a mistake. I have said in the past that I respect the coalition agreement, and I would not go against it. I understand what he has just said about the exact terms of the coalition agreement and amendment 197. I therefore will not press that amendment to a Division this evening, as it would be inconsistent of me to do so-but of course I will then have to support my hon. Friend Mr Cash.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I do not think I have ever been quite so persuasive with any of my arguments as to persuade one of my hon. Friends not to press an amendment. [Interruption.] I hear the opposition, so I shall put that one away and take it as a victory.
My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest made it clear to the House that she does not think that referendums should be compared to elections in any way, but it is worth saying to hon. Members that if we were to adopt a similar process for elections, the House would be spared the services not of Chris Bryant but of, among others, Mr Deputy Speaker's colleague Dawn Primarolo, Ms Winterton, who is the Opposition Chief Whip, and-most tragically of all for our side of the House-my right hon. Friend Mr Davis, who in his by-election on
I am now totally confused. Generally, I find it is a big mistake to attend debates, because one gets tempted to vote against the Government. Is my hon. Friend the Minister saying that the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mrs Laing is contrary to the coalition agreement, but that the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr Cash is not?
No, the amendment is not contrary to what is in the coalition agreement, but we do not agree with it, and I have set out clearly why. We do not, in this country, have a tradition of turnout thresholds. The one experience that we have had of an outcome-specific threshold was in a Scottish devolution referendum in 1979. That threshold was put there to deny Scottish devolution.
That leads us to the heart of the argument. My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest made it clear, as she has done throughout, that she was confident of the decision that the British people would come to-but then she said she wanted to introduce her amendment, just in case. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone, in a revealing response to an intervention from the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, said that we should trust the people. That is an expression that I used in my Second Reading speech, and it is right.
There are different views in both parts of the coalition and in the Opposition parties, but whatever our views, we should not set artificial limits that encourage people not to participate in the referendum. Whichever side of the argument we are on, we should have the courage of our convictions. We should get the Bill-or the part of it that we agree with-on to the statute book, make our case, engage with the people, explain to them the rights and wrongs of the cases, and trust the people, as the hon. Gentleman said, to make the right decision, to come out and vote, and to make a clear decision. Then the House will be able to proceed. That is the best way, so I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends not to press their amendments-and if do they press them, I urge the House to vote against them.