Constitutional Convention - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:45 pm on 13th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour 1:45 pm, 13th December 2018

My Lords, I strongly support the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for a constitutional convention. This is as well, because I will not say a single word after now with which he will not vehemently disagree. I hope he will forgive me.

As the last two speakers have done, I want to speak briefly about electoral reform. I know that AV was decisively rejected in the 2011 referendum. As a campaigner for electoral reform, that came as no surprise to me. It was a rushed, botched referendum where the pros were destroyed by the serial misjudgments of Nick Clegg, the then Liberal Democrat leader, and the treachery of David Cameron. However, as we are fast learning, no referendum result is for ever. When the facts change, the British people are entitled to change their view, and I think the facts have changed on electoral reform.

What facts on electoral reform have changed? Most significantly, since 2011, the traditional main argument of first-past-the-post supporters—that it provides strong and stable Governments—has been left in ruins. In truth, the system has always been liable not to produce such Governments, but between 1979 and 2010 a series of flukes led to majority Governments: under Labour because the Tories were unelectable and under the Tories because Labour was becoming unelectable. It remains the case that we are now mostly getting Parliaments in which another party holds the balance of power. Currently, it is the DUP; we can all see where that is getting us.

A sharp decline in marginal seats is spotted less often in this country, although it is commonly remarked on in the United States. Even since 2010, the number of marginal seats has fallen from 85 to 74, so the chances of a huge swing leading to an influx from a different party that then enjoys an overall majority have declined greatly. It is harder than ever for a big party to build up a lead in seats big enough to outnumber the MPs who do not belong to either main party. The reality is that, except in unusual circumstances, strong and stable Governments have gone—and that defence of first past the post with them.

The change in the nature of the two parties, partly caused by first past the post, is equally important. When I was being brought up in politics, I was taught that the main aim was to attract the centre ground; if you did not, you would not get into office. Of course, it is now possible to become a successful party by appealing to just a third of the electorate, as was said to be the strategy of Mr Ed Miliband in 2015. That strategy makes sense. At the same time, perhaps more crucially, the danger of the growth of a new party to the existing two big parties has been virtually removed by first past the post. The SDP nearly did it, under peculiar circumstances, but anyone who starts a new party now would not, I think, be optimistic about their chances of success.

So we have a terrible distortion in our democracy: two monopoly parties, each aiming at a smallish section of the electorate, each ever more a prisoner of their activist members. Arthur Balfour famously said of the Conservative Party that he would rather take advice from his valet. Nowadays, the activists in each party are in charge and call the shots, so we see the Brexiteers forcing the Prime Minister into the situation we saw yesterday, with many Conservative MPs cowering for fear of their local associations, and we see what we see in the Labour Party. There is no threat to the big parties’ monopolies because it is nearly impossible to establish a new party. I am not saying that we should do so; I would like the two big parties to behave differently and start to appeal to the centre ground again, but they will not while the situation is like that. The two big parties have not just a monopoly, but a protected monopoly.

I am not a supporter of pure proportional representative on, say, the Israeli model. I sat on the commission chaired by Lord Jenkins, which came up with the attractive, if a trifle complicated, solution of AV+. Times move on and today I would be content if a referendum approved AV tout simple, but the indefensibility of first past the post is clearer than ever. A constitutional convention is the best way to start a national debate on whether it should be replaced and by what.

Before I sit down, I shall pay my own tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, of whom I was a friend before either he or I were in this place. He is the greatest Speaker that the House of Commons never had. We shall miss him terribly.