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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:16 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour 5:16 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, I shall say a few words on electoral reform in general and AV in particular. I speak as a member of the Jenkins committee on electoral reform right back in 1998. It is interesting that, when the Commons wanted advice about how to change the electoral system, they chose a committee with four out of the five members being Members of this House. Unfortunately, two of them are no longer with us-Lord Jenkins and Lord Alexander-but my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton and I remain and I shall give a few reflections on the AV proposals from that perspective.

Your Lordships will recall that Jenkins proposed a system called AV+. That would constitute substituting AV for first past the post in single-member constituencies and creating additional members to make the system as a whole more proportional. So there were two legs to Jenkins: the AV leg and the plus leg. I supported, and still support, both, but I make no secret of the fact that I thought that the AV leg was decidedly the more shapely of the two on which Jenkins stood. Indeed, with my noble friend Lady Gould, I worked hard to design a plus that fell well short of the exact proportionality demanded by electoral reform fanatics. It seemed to me then, and it seems to me today, that proportionality of representation cuts across another equally valid concept: proportionality of power. We have seen tremendous evidence of this in this coalition agreement because to my mind the Lib Dems have got tremendous value for just 23 per cent of the votes in the general election.

First past the post in single-member constituencies will no longer do because the electoral facts that supported it no longer exist. In 1951, when the two big parties commanded 98 per cent of the vote in the country, it was a pretty fair approximation to MPs getting a majority in their constituencies. Nearly all of them did. However, in 2010, the two main parties polled only two-thirds of the national vote and the winning candidate had a majority of their electorate in under one-third of the seats. In 68 per cent of seats, they lacked that majority. By any standards, and leaving aside all the other arguments for electoral reform, that is a defective mandate for them to carry forward.

AV is not systemically more proportional than first past the post. It is not meant to be and it would not necessarily be more desirable if it were. AV does not, on the imperfect simulations that have been performed, make that much difference to the national overall election result. Nor, incidentally-and contrary to what Peter Lilley said in the debate in another place-does it greatly increase the chances of a hung Parliament; it marginally increases them. But that is not its purpose, either. Its purpose is as simple as it is right: to ensure that every MP has the support of more than half of his or her constituents. It needs no greater justification than that.

I am glad that the Government are proceeding towards an AV referendum, as would a Labour Government if they had won the election. Of course, the Lib Dems would like a more proportional system-they would like AV+, as I would, or STV-but it would be dangerous to move there in one leap.

With the proposal in the Queen's Speech, we have jumped the first fence on the electoral reform course, but I remind the House that we have jumped it not for the first time. The Labour Government in 1997 also promised a referendum on voting reform: Jenkins was to pave the way for that. It never happened, for it fell at the second fence-I am sorry about the steeplechase analogies, but I cannot help myself-of getting parliamentary approval. The third fence-the approval of the electorate, which might also have been tricky-was never faced.

The second fence will be hard to jump this time round, too. The fact is-it is no good beating about the bush on this-that a majority of MPs from the main governing party are against changing the system. Indeed, the Prime Minister is against changing the system. There is a commitment by the Conservatives to whip through a referendum Bill. I have never been a Whip, but I do not think that they will find it easy to persuade a majority of their party to back a referendum on something that they do not want to happen. I trust that the Labour Party will support the Bill, which it would have introduced itself in government, but no Government like to rely on opposition votes.

The situation has been made trickier by the coalition's decision to link the referendum on AV with the referendum to cut the size of the Commons and make constituencies more equal in size. I will not express a view on that proposal, but I have a clear view on the realpolitik of including it. The proposal to shrink the House of Commons is a threat to every single Member-not just the 65 who will lose their seats because there are fewer MPs, but the other 585 whose seats will be subject to redrawing by the Boundary Commission. Not one Member of the House of Commons can be absolutely confident, first, that their seat will survive; secondly, that with the redrawn boundaries it will be won by the party that holds it now; and, thirdly, because there will have to be reselection, that they will be the candidate for the seat when the election comes. By voting for the proposal to reduce the size of the House of Commons, Members will be taking a gallant decision to put their own futures at risk. I am sure that, as men of principle, they will do so, but I will not hold my breath.

My advice to the coalition, as an electoral reformer-I am a passionate believer in AV and in electoral reform in general-is to take things steadily. Let us have the AV Bill and referendum first. I very much hope that the British people will support it, as on its merits they should. Let us then have a separate attempt to legislate for a smaller House of Commons, based on the arguments for that change. Then let us take stock and see whether we want to go further and change the electoral system more radically, or whether we have had enough change for the time being and should let things settle. As chair of Make Votes Count, I have campaigned for electoral reform ever since I sat on Jenkins. One lesson that I have learnt is that often the price of going for the whole loaf is that you end up without even the crumbs.