Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:29 pm on 2nd June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Constitutional and Political Reform) 6:29 pm, 2nd June 2015

My Lords, I am still, I confess, shaken by the news of my friend and colleague Charles Kennedy’s sudden death this morning, and I apologise to your Lordships if I am rather more tongue-tied than usual. This is obviously not the right moment for a full appreciation of his role, and I certainly cannot match the very heartfelt tributes I have heard and seen from all over the world of politics. However, I was his Chief Whip in the House of Commons, and I want to put on the record my appreciation of and admiration for his political courage. It is largely forgotten that when the Iraq invasion was imminent, most people did actually believe the spin that came from No. 10, and it took real courage—real political courage—to stand against that tide. It took guts, integrity and real wisdom. A minority in both the other parties—a majority in my own, of course—voted against the illegal invasion, and those of us who followed his lead then will not forget his strength of character.

Charles Kennedy was also, of course, a passionate European and a true Liberal in defence of human rights; I suspect that we will miss both those attributes in the next few months. He was also a long-standing campaigner for fairness and equality, not least for the long-suffering and cheated electorate. At a British Election Study seminar last December, I forecast that the there would be a wide discrepancy between votes cast and seats gained, and, of course, a few weeks ago there was. I also prophesied that the inhabitant of No. 10 would enter the door with less than a quarter of the eligible electorate voting for him; and so he did.

However, after a political lifetime of campaigning for fairness in votes, I am the first to recognise that new MPs are unlikely reformers as far as their own House is concerned. In recent years, Parliament has been prepared to find fairer electoral systems for everybody else—for Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, even the European Parliament—but for the House of Commons, of course, it has been a step too far. However, what about local government? That is where a real opportunity exists in the present Parliament. This is my plea for reform in this Parliament: to fulfil the gracious Speech and bring about effective democratic devolution.

In the multiparty environment of the 21st century, local government election results are quite as peculiar as those in Westminster, and sometimes worse. The good news is that at long last somebody is making a serious attempt to examine from the point of view of the voters a local government voting system that unfortunately is all too often examined only from the parties’ point of view. I am greatly indebted to the studies of Dr Lewis Baston, who made a recent detailed assessment of the consequences of a fairer system in local government. Hitherto, such limited analysis of the UK system as has been undertaken has tended to concentrate on its implications for the parties, and almost exclusively for Parliament. However, Dr Baston’s analysis is based on more robust evidence: the results of two rounds of single transferable vote elections in the Scottish local government elections of 2007 and 2012, following the reform introduced in Scotland by the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition.

Until 2007, Scotland was in one respect not much different from the English counties: of those who voted for council candidates, barely half had the satisfaction of electing their choice. The average, on low turnouts, ranged from 40% to 55%. However, with the introduction of STV, three in four voters now get what they vote for. If you add in those whose second or subsequent preferences are effective, the “satisfied” figure can rise to 90%—perhaps double the proportion south of the border. Dr Baston terms these voters who get what they vote for “happy voters”, and I think it is time we spread that experience to other parts of our allegedly united Kingdom.

The core of Dr Baston’s case for reform is not the benefits or otherwise to any one party but the benefits to voters. Parties may be obsessed with gaining and maintaining control of councils, and the media certainly find it easier to interpret trends by reference to changes of control, but the consumer of the local democratic process is surely more interested in the connection between the way in which he or she votes and the representative outcome, and the resulting quality of service and accountability of those representatives. Surely England and Wales could, and should, now follow Scotland’s lead and introduce this modest, rational reform to the current local government system.

The narrow choice offered by first past the post discourages any attempt to distinguish the relative merits of candidates of the same party, and makes impossible an informed choice between those of different parties, and of independents, on a preferential basis. Candidates regularly complain about the lack of public interest in the individual personalities, their achievements and special qualifications, especially when local contests are submerged in a national campaign, as they were this year. They would therefore surely be delighted with a new system that encourages more discernment.

Those of us who knocked on doors during the recent election campaign will have come up against the old refrain, “They’re all the same”. That is unfair in general, but at local council level in some areas it carries real credibility. After all, if you live in a city, town or county where one party has continually dominated—not just in “control” but monopolising the whole gamut of council decision-making virtually unchallenged—they may indeed be truly “all the same”.

The experience in Scotland shows that the weakening of one-party hegemony has been wholly positive in reviving local democracy, and indeed has even given new life to local parties. In England, some of the spectacular failures in local authorities have coincided with long periods of one-party domination; that is surely not a coincidence. Long-sighted and wise parliamentarians —from Lord Hailsham to Robin Cook—have warned against “elective dictatorship”. I hope the Government will have that in mind when they think about persisting in pushing for further elected mayors.

Persistent monopoly council control by one party over many years, often with a minority of the total vote, is a recipe for inefficiency, partisan patronage and minor corruption, just as it would be in Westminster. The best way to avoid that is to introduce a fair local government electoral system, meaning many more “happy voters” and better, more efficient services.

I am convinced that Charles Kennedy would be delighted if, in this respect again, England and Wales followed Scotland’s example.