Second Reading (1st Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 10:31 pm on 15th November 2010.

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Photo of The Earl of Clancarty The Earl of Clancarty Crossbench 10:31 pm, 15th November 2010

My Lords, with the Division today I would not have wanted to see jeopardised that part of the Bill that I, with reservations, support. On the other hand, I have various concerns about the other part of the Bill. This is two Bills-or perhaps, more accurately, bits of two Bills. My approach is to take the point of view, for the first part, of the voter; and, for the second, of the constituent-two distinct political roles of the individual member of the public.

The first half of the Bill is like being taken to a wonderful expensive restaurant-possibly a once in a lifetime experience-and being offered a starter, the alternative vote system, but only one out of numerous main courses available, that dish being first past the post. It is ludicrous that proper proportional representation in any form is not on the menu. I realise, of course, that what we have before us is a political compromise, but it is nevertheless insulting to the public, given this extraordinary opportunity, that they are not allowed to make the important choice about precisely which voting system they would prefer.

Like other noble Lords, I voted in the general election this year. In past elections I have voted for larger parties and for smaller ones, but I have always maintained the belief that it is unfair that voters for a smaller party are so heavily discriminated against by our current system to the extent that one can consider some votes to be almost worthless before they are cast. It is because of this that, whatever would be the political consequences of the introduction of true proportional representation, I believe such a system to be inherently more democratic.

Under the first past the post system, the voter suffers a difficult internal conflict, often torn over the choice between personality, political party and pragmatism. A good voting system should take all three of these elements into account. The additional member system used all over the world, and now in the UK in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the London Assembly, is not an option within the Bill, although it should be, as indeed should be the single transferable vote. AMS is a system that would go a long way towards solving these problems as the voter can vote for both the political party of their choice and for their constituency MP. It also preserves the geographical link to a single constituency MP, to which the British public are attached.

It is true, of course, that we would not be having this referendum if the Liberal Democrats did not themselves want PR in the first place. AV is better, arguably, than first past the post on the basis that it is more proportional, although the fact that it is also more of a consensual system means that you would probably have fewer mavericks in Parliament, which is a shame.

I would support an amendment to this Bill so that the public can make their own choice from the alternative voting systems available. I am fully in favour of a referendum, but as it stands the public are forced to play political games. Does a voter who might prefer what is in my view the real alternative-a true PR system-therefore vote against AV or does he vote for it, hoping that AV will be a stepping stone towards that? We know, of course, that this is the political reality, but it is ultimately disrespectful to the public that they are put in this position of limited choice.

The second half of the Bill is also a part of another Bill. I believe in principle that it is a good aim to equalise the size of the electorate for every constituency, but the problem with decreasing the number of MPs at this stage is that we do not know what our end point is likely to be in the overall reform of the other place and, indeed, of Parliament as a whole. For example, if we kept first past the post or opted for AV in the long term, I would say that, no, I am not in favour of decreasing the number of MPs, simply because the larger the number of constituents, the less your MP is going to be your MP, and the larger the constituency, the larger the workload and the less the local work accomplished. That is as long as there are no other kinds of MPs, but if one believed that at some stage the MPs would be topped up and we would have stronger regional government across the whole of Britain, it would be a different matter.

If we had true PR, there would be no more political manoeuvring through boundary changes, which we seem to get with every change of government and whose administration no doubt costs the country unnecessary money. Neither would a Government see fit inflexibly to clamp down on appeals to such changes. This wrangling would simply stop, because it would become politically irrelevant. We might then concentrate our minds solely on how a constituency might be defined in ways other than by the thought of potential political advantage.

Finally, I share the concern of many others about whether the number of Ministers should not be reduced alongside a reduction in the number of MPs and whether there should not be an agreed formula for this. This Government have already shown in the Public Bodies Bill that they are not afraid to try to increase the power of the Executive at the expense of wider, properly democratic scrutiny and consultation.