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Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill — Committee (14th Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:09 pm on 26th January 2011.

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Photo of Baroness McDonagh Baroness McDonagh Labour 9:09 pm, 26th January 2011

This amendment seeks to provide that when the average size of constituency reaches 74,000 voters, the Secretary of State will bring forward legislation to increase the number of constituencies. This is a probing amendment, as I want to hear the Minister's views on this issue. I am not sure that the Government fully appreciate the enormity of what they are doing and the impact that this Bill will have on our democratic system.

I shall address a few of the arguments briefly. We have a representative, democratic electoral system in the United Kingdom. It is not proportional, nor is it meant to be. In 1979, for example, the Conservative Party gained 42 per cent of the popular vote and 61 per cent of the seats. Fast forward to 1997 and the position was reversed, with Labour gaining 43 per cent of the vote and 63 per cent of the seats. The first election in which I was active was that of 1979, when 58 per cent of the vote was cast for parties other than the Conservatives. Therefore, it was surely not intended that the Conservatives should win. However, it was very clear to me at the time that the electorate wanted the Labour Government out and the Conservative Party in power. By creating such large electoral constituencies with a ceiling of 600, when we know that the population will increase to 70 million over the next 20 years, and by doing away with community links at the same time, the Government will create PR through the back door. We should have a referendum on that in its own right.

In a previous debate on this issue I talked about differential turnout, and the Minister was good enough to say that I had a point, for which I thank him. I do not know whether it will show itself in any change to the legislation, but I mention one statistic to explain this point again, and that is the turnout in Labour and Conservative seats in the 2005 election. The average turnout in Labour seats was 57.5 per cent. In Conservative seats, it was 65.3 per cent. That situation will not change under the current legislation, but it represents tens of thousands of people as we go across the United Kingdom.

One issue that I did not mention causes a problem under the first past the post electoral system. I did not mention it for political reasons; I felt that the Conservative Party might feel that I was doing more than explain: that I was making a political point. I therefore start by using Labour as an example of what psephologists refer to as an inefficient distribution of votes. In my language it means that the first past the post system needs political parties, particularly the main parties, to be broad churches that are largely representative of the public. When parties become narrow in their views, extreme or unappealing, the electorate punishes us through our electoral system. That is what psephologists call an inefficient distribution of votes. If I give the example of 1983, I think the House will understand the point I am making.

In 1983 it took 33,000 votes, on average, to elect a Conservative MP, and 41,000 votes, on average, to elect a Labour one. I am sure the House would not expect me to say that Labour lost the 1983 election because of an unfair electoral system. Indeed, if I did, anyone who was medically qualified on my own Benches would escort me with a firm hand from the Chamber. We lost the 1983 election because we deserved to lose. We were unrepresentative of the population at large and, it pains me to say, of my own party.

Moving on to the Conservative example, the right honourable Theresa May, when she was chairperson of the Conservative Party, referred to the Conservatives, at the annual conference, as "the nasty party". She did not put that view into the voters' minds; it was how they felt at the time. To the public, the Conservative Party had become very narrow and, because of that, built up votes in small areas of the country and no longer had representation in Scotland, Wales or many northern towns. It could no longer command support across the United Kingdom and, because of that, deserved to lose.

Let me give one more recent statistic to show how that shows itself. In the 2005 election, in the south-east region, which is only 12 or 13 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom-just a small proportion of nine English regions and the nations of Scotland and Wales-the Conservative Party had 36 per cent of its vote: over a third. It is impossible to win enough constituencies to form a Government by piling up votes in your hinterland, and that is a product of your politics, not the electoral system.

Let us look at the average sizes of our current seats. To the nearest 500, in England and Scotland, Labour and the Lib Dems have an average of 70,000 voters for every seat. The Conservative Party has 73,000, so that is well within any quota. Obviously at either end there are some larger constituencies that are outwith the quota, and there are some smaller constituencies. We need to change that. I am happy with having a boundary redistribution before the next general election. I agree with the principle, as far as is practical within a reasonable quota, that we should have constituencies of the same size. Indeed, if the same sensitivity were granted in a bipartisan way to my colleagues from Wales as was granted to the two constituencies that we already have in the Bill, I am sure they would also be happy with those arrangements.

The constituencies are not largely different. Where they are very large, the largest is the Isle of Wight, of which we are making an exception-we certainly passed an amendment on it. I believe that the second largest is East Ham, which is a London constituency. In the top 10 largest constituencies, roughly half are Labour. We will find more or less the same at the other end. Indeed, in the 1980s, there was a larger disparity between Labour and Conservative. Labour had much smaller seats, yet for that whole decade the Conservatives remained in power.

I moved this amendment because I want to understand the Government's thinking on the matter. I do not want to see such large constituencies in which, in a small number of years, we will have seats in excess of 100,000 voters. They would hold no community of interest and MPs would not be able to have a relationship with the areas that they represented. We might as well have introduced PR.

This is also a much bigger problem than we making of it at the moment. The manner in which the Government have introduced this, and their reasons for doing so, are associated with the sort of democracy that we do not want to be associated with. If a country such as Zimbabwe were doing this, we would deplore it.

In a previous debate, one of my noble friends said that we had to be very careful because we do not have a written constitution. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked what difference that would make. I have a huge regard for the noble Lord and all the work that he has done over the years, but having a written constitution would make a huge and significant difference. I have a few examples of how you would have to do this if you had a written constitution.

If you have a written constitution and the method by which you arrive at seats is within that constitution, you generally change it by referendum or you need two-thirds of your Parliament's agreement. In some cases, you cannot change the constitution at all. When we look around at countries, and I have picked a few different ones, I have not yet come across any that could introduce this legislation in the way in which our Government are introducing it-with no debate, no pre-legislative scrutiny and a limited debate in the other place.

I shall go through a few examples. Holland's Parliament cannot interfere with how seats are determined as that is set out in its constitution. To amend that constitution takes a two-thirds majority on First Reading. You then have to have a general election and at Second Reading there has to be a further two-thirds majority. The constitution of Ireland, one of our closest neighbours, sets out that if the Dáil were to change the size, there would have to be a referendum of the Irish people. Latvia's seats are set out in its constitution and for its Parliament to change that it needs three sittings of a two-thirds vote. In addition, many constitutional amendments require a further referendum of the Latvian people.

Slovakia needs a referendum to reduce the size of its Parliament and a majority of the country's vote. It had a referendum on that, and it was lost. Spain has two Chambers that are not allowed to change their own numbers of seats. Again, to amend Sweden's constitution two identical decisions are needed, with a general election in between. Denmark also requires a constitutional amendment. The Cook Islands need non-binding referenda to alter the number of seats; then there has to be a two-thirds majority in Parliament. In Australia, the process is set out in the constitution and Parliament cannot change the principle. It is also not allowed to reject or vary a boundary commission report.

In this last part of my contribution, I really want the Committee to consider the enormity of what we are doing. It is not just that we are creating enormous constituencies that will have no community link. We are also denigrating the esteem in which our democracy is held all around the world. We are also showing as parliamentarians that we can no longer be trusted with an unwritten constitution, something which I personally support. I believe that if we pass this through in the way that we are doing, we will look back and see this as the starting point of when we lost the argument and when a written constitution became inevitable. The worst part of all is that if this all happens, it will not address the problem which the Government seek to address, which is that the Conservative Party believes that the reason for its electoral loss is to do with the differing size of constituencies. It has nothing to do with it. I beg to move.