Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:31 pm on 27th July 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 5:31 pm, 27th July 2020

My Lords, in following the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, I have to provide one correction which I shall do with a hashtag: AVisnotPR.

I want to begin by thanking the Minister for his introduction and for meeting me in advance of this Second Reading to discuss the Bill. I particularly welcome his acknowledgement that our political system needs to be up to date. Of course, the only-two-decades-old demarcation of constituencies that this Bill updates is the newest element of our creaking, antique constitution, assembled by centuries of historical accident. Were I to be speaking now within your Lordships’ House, I would be gesturing to the roof and noting that the way in which it is falling down around our ears is truly representative of the state of our political framework. The very delay in the implementation of the review of constituency boundaries is a demonstration of the failure of the chief claim of the first past the post electoral system: namely, that it delivers strong, stable government.

The Minister also referred to democracy relying on people knowing that they are fairly represented. Of course, they cannot and will not be in the current system. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, noted that it robs voters—and of all the parliamentary parties, it is Green voters who are robbed the most, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, noted. However, that is not the primary reason why I am an advocate of proportional representation—which, as the noble Lord, Lord Oates, noted, it is the only way the Tory Party could deliver on its manifesto commitment. It is because it is the only way we can have a representative Parliament: one in which, as the campaign group Make Votes Matter says, the number of seats matches the number of votes. That is a democracy: Parliament reflecting the will of the people.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, referred to the missing 9 million people entitled to be on the electoral register who are not: around 10,000 per constituency. However, if in our current system you count all the people whose votes are not represented at all, because their preferred candidate does not win, and add in those who voted for a party that won more votes than it needed to win the seat, the votes of the majority of voters in every single seat have no impact. So it is no wonder we have such a problem with low turnout.

There are some quick, practical details which I will be taking up in Committee. The 5% variance will split communities and leave MPs representing hopelessly disparate areas with no community of interest. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, that it further weakens any claim to legitimacy for first past the post. It is surely time for automatic registration and no voter ID. Almost 5.5 million Britons—almost one-tenth of Britons—live overseas. What of their representation? France has separate constituencies for overseas voters. They have a community of interest.

Finally, we should have votes at 16. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, referred to her disappointment at being excluded from voting when she was under the then required age of 21. Last weekend, I was with young people in Sheffield on a climate strike. They were doing politics. They were sharing their passion and their engagement and trying to get involved, but they do not even have the very narrow power of the vote. They should have it.