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My Lords, I wish to address two issues: first, the 55 per cent dissolution trigger; and, secondly, electoral reform, which I support.
I have spent the past week arguing with colleagues the possible merits of the 55 per cent proposal: that is, 55 per cent of the vote in a dissolution Division, not 55 per cent of the House of Commons-an issue that we may have to settle in the Division Lobbies in either the Commons or the House of Lords. That was until I saw live on BBC Parliament the speech of David Heath, which I can only describe as very interesting. He confirmed my view that a Motion of no confidence in the coalition that was carried by less than 55 per cent of the House would trigger the resignation of the Government but not the dissolution of a five-year Parliament.
Following the carrying of the no confidence Motion, attempts could be made to form an alternative coalition, and dissolution would arise only where it had proved impossible to create an alternative viable Government. In these circumstances, dissolution would, as he said to the Commons, be automatic. Therefore, I add, there would be no need to use the 55 per cent trigger. I have been arguing the possible merits of the 55 per cent trigger, but in the light of what David Heath has said I no longer believe that it is necessary. It is the combination of the attempt to create the alternative coalition within the five-year term, and the automatic dissolution if that attempt fails, that has changed the argument. I should make it clear that by alternative coalition I mean a new configuration of political parties in government.
I support electoral reform, and will set out the reasons why I support it. I find it hard to justify the election of a Government on a minority vote that is as low as 35 or 36 per cent, as happened with the previous Government. The stacking up of votes in safe seats does not serve the public interest. There is a tendency in first-past-the-post safe seats for some MPs to take life easy. Levels of service by MPs in marginal seats where results are less predictable can be far higher, and party structures in first-past-the-post safe seats are often flimsier and there is less political debate. Huge first-past-the-post majorities can dilute the incentive for MPs to reflect electoral concerns. That may suit the Whips and the Executive and make party discipline far easier, but the strong Government for which the public yearn is too often built only on Parliaments that lack adequate debate and accountability and often end up out of touch.
I now believe, after 13 years of a Labour Government, that if you want courageous and radical decision taking that addresses public anxieties you need to have far more volatility within the system and dynamic tension within political institutions, which means more marginal Parliaments. For all those reasons and others, I initiated a project 21 years ago in 1989 to invent, or so we thought, a new electoral system. From a blank piece of paper we devised and named the system of the supplementary vote, only to find years later that variations on it had previously been designed in Sri Lanka and the United States of America two centuries ago. In the UK, following evidence I gave to the Plant commission-my noble friend Lord Plant unfortunately is not with us today-the commission recommended it to the Labour Party. Since 1998, it has been used in all the mayoral elections nationally. If you look at the academic work, of which there is a lot, the supplementary vote system is often confused with the alternative vote.
The benefits of SV are too often attributed to AV, the effect of which is to obscure the defects in AV. It was seeking to avoid some of those defects which led us to design the new system of SV. The idea that under AV candidates can be elected only with at least 50 per cent of the vote is a myth. Under AV, it is perfectly possible to be elected with less than 40 per cent of the vote. It all depends on the number of additional preference votes cast. We have learnt from the mayoral elections under SV that it is often a minority of electors who cast additional preferences. Under the SV system, candidates have only a first and second preference, which is marked for simplicity with just an X. AV is far more complicated and difficult for the public to understand.
The second defect in AV is that third place candidates on the first count can win seats after the transfer of additional member preferences. They can simply leapfrog into pole position, again often with less than 40 per cent of all the votes or preferences cast during that election. I think that we will have trouble selling that to the electorate in a referendum, which worries me.
That is the joy of SV. All candidates after the first count are eliminated, apart from the top two. SV concentrates the mind of the electorate on who is likely to be in the run-off. It provides an incentive for people to use their second preferences as they can really influence a credible result. It blocks the extremes who can sometimes pick up large numbers of additional preferences under AV.
As I have already said, AV is often confused by academics all over the world. A lot of material is available, much of which is in our Library. That being the case, why not have an SV question in the referendum? Such a question could be justified on the basis that it is a variation on AV. The public need a system that is simple to interpret and understand.
Finally on SV, I believe that we should build an element of greater proportionality-not full PR. I would argue that if 10 per cent of all seats were list seats, with built-in safeguards against excesses by list members-there has been some experience of that in Scotland-we could create a healthy electoral system that is fairer. We should work on devising a credible list system. Perhaps some of us should get together and do that.
In finishing my contribution, I should like to say to the Liberal Democrat Benches that they have to make the coalition work. If they fail, they threaten the whole programme for electoral reform. For the public to support electoral reform, they will have to be convinced that coalition government is not weak government, but that it is strong government which works. The route they have taken is very high risk. I wish them luck.