Amendment 134

Elections Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 23 March 2022.

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Baroness Hayman of Ullock:

Moved by Baroness Hayman of Ullock

134: Clause 11, page 12, line 35, at end insert—“(6A) Subsections (1) to (6) expire 10 days after the next elections for Mayor of London after this Act is passed.”Member’s explanatory statementThis probing amendment would mean that the simple majority system is only used for the next Mayor of London election.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I have a number of amendments in this group. The first two, Amendments 134 and 135, are designed to probe the fact that the Government have changed the voting system for the next Mayor of London election and other mayoral elections—my amendment specifically uses that example—and for police and crime commissioner elections. I want to probe the reasons why the Government have decided to make these changes and why they were included so late during the progress of the Bill. I look forward to hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, when he speaks further on this although I will make my own comments on our concerns more broadly about Clause 11.

Clause 11 was inserted, as I am sure noble Lords are aware, during Committee stage in the House of Commons and proposes changing the voting system for all PCCs, combined authority and local authority mayoral, and London mayoral elections to a first past the post system. It was not included when the Bill Committee took evidence on the Bill. In fact, my honourable friend Cat Smith MP actually made a point of order to the chair during the committee’s evidence sessions to ask whether the committee could take evidence from witnesses on the issue of electoral systems. The chair was very clear in saying that that was out of the scope of the Bill and so committee members were not able to take evidence on electoral systems.

The Government’s intention to include this change, despite this, was announced in a Written Ministerial Statement after the then Minister, Chloe Smith MP, had given her oral evidence to PACAC; this was after evidence to PACAC and after evidence to the Bill Committee. PACAC then received correspondence from several combined authority mayors who made it crystal clear that the inclusion of this change to the electoral system in the Elections Bill came as a complete surprise to them and they felt that they and their local communities had not been consulted properly on the proposed changes.

For example, Dan Jarvis, mayor of South Yorkshire, said:

“The government has not consulted with local communities on this major change, even though the last time a government proposed a reform of the electoral system they put it to a referendum. Greater local consultation would have been carried out for a mid-sized infrastructure project than they have offered for a major constitutional change.”

Similarly, Jamie Driscoll, mayor of North of Tyne Combined Authority, expressed concern about the topdown way this change was being made. He said:

“As a matter of principle major constitutional changes should not be imposed on local areas without full consultation and without taking into account local preferences. To do otherwise runs directly counter to the principle of local control which devolution is meant to enshrine, and inevitably fuels cynicism and growing loss of trust in our democracy.”

Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester Combined Authority, disagreed with the Government’s assertion that voters are confused by the current supplementary system. He further stated:

“The Government has also argued that it wants to bring these elections in line with other English or UK-wide elections. However, the comparison between Mayoral elections and those of MPs or local councillors is a false one. As Mayor, I am elected as an individual executive decision-maker, not to be part of a wider legislature. That difference is important and drives the need for a different electoral system.”

The view that the supplementary vote system was a positive one for the role of mayor was also expressed by Dan Norris, mayor of the West of England Combined Authority. He believes it is important that the present supplementary voting method allows voters to express a second preference if no candidate receives 50% of the vote because

“this ensures that a candidate must have a larger base of support to win” and is

“more helpful to the democratic process”.

The London mayor is also concerned. He is particularly concerned because the moves in this Bill would overturn the 1998 Greater London Authority referendum result which specifically described the supplementary vote system that Londoners voted overwhelmingly in favour of. All previous London mayors won more votes than any other candidate in the first round, so the mayor is also not convinced that changing to first past the past would have given different results.

The conclusion in PACAC’s report said:

“Regardless of the benefits or disadvantages of the changes made by the Bill to the electoral system for those offices, the manner in which the proposed legislative change was brought about is unsatisfactory. Making changes such as this after the Bill has been introduced and debated at Second Reading is disrespectful to the House.”

It is disappointing that the Government’s response to PACAC’s report did not address this comment. I know that the Minister is a decent person. Does he agree that the way these changes were introduced was disrespectful to the House? Does he agree that this disrespectful attitude is compounded by the fact that this is an elections Bill—a Bill of constitutional importance that requires those in power to behave with the highest respect for due process in order to protect our democracy and trust in government.

The Minister may well say this is a manifesto commitment, as was said in the other place. Yet while the manifesto includes commitments to strengthen the accountability of elected police and crime commissioners and to continue to support first past the post, it does in fact reverse the 2017 manifesto pledge to impose first past the post in elections that currently use proportional systems. So that was a previous manifesto pledge, from 2017, overturned in 2019.

Amendment 144D in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mann, would enable returning officers to provide for early voting where they believe it would improve participation. I note that the Welsh Government have developed flexible voting pilot schemes that will take place at the local government elections, in four areas in Wales, this coming May. It will be interesting to read the Electoral Commission’s independent evaluation of the impact and effectiveness of these schemes, which I understand is due to be published in August 2022. I look forward to hearing further from the noble Lord, Lord Mann, on that amendment, and to the Minister’s response to my questions. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Fookes Baroness Fookes Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, is taking part remotely, and I now invite him to speak.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, this is a particularly difficult issue for me. I strongly support the deletion of Clause 11; it is no more than an attempt to abolish an electoral system that has stood the test of time so as to secure an electoral advantage for the Conservatives. The Government are effectively seeking to corrupt a system that is fair and, in the absence of full proportional representation, more proportionally reflects the opinion of the wider electorate.

The Conservatives have always opposed the supplementary vote system since its birth as it challenges the Conservative bias built into the first past the post electoral system—nothing more and nothing less than that. They have opposed it for over 20 years. I know, because I designed it, researched it, named it, wrote the original paper advocating it, gave evidence to the Plant commission advising its introduction, and saw it through to its introduction by the Labour Government. I brought in Professor Patrick Dunleavy from the London School of Economics—a world-renowned academic known for his independence of mind—to approve it as it developed. At every stage, to validate it, we did thousands of runs under different scenarios on a computer in the House of Commons Library when I was an MP. We spent 12 months working on it; Patrick Dunleavy gave it the academic approval and credibility that I lacked.

The driver behind all the work was that any system that totally ignores the centre vote in British politics, essentially a Liberal Democrat vote, will inevitably favour the minority right. First past the post helps in the election of Conservative Governments. If the Conservatives thought for one moment that there was some electoral advantage in AV, SV, AMS, STV or any form of this system, I believe they would support reform of the electoral system.

There was a very interesting article in a recent issue of Prospect magazine on mayoral elections by Stephen Fisher, associate professor in political sociology at Trinity College, Oxford. He carried out research into the use of the supplementary vote. He noted first that 41% of the people in England now live in areas where SV is now in use for one election or another.

He also found that Conservatives suffer under systems where second preferences influence results: they rarely pick up more second-preference transfer votes than their rivals. As he put it in the article,

“Conservatives were typically trounced on transfers.”

The response to all that from Mr Rees-Mogg, the Member of Parliament, was characteristically disingenuous, when he stated that

“first-past-the-post is better for democracy because the most popular candidate wins.”

Tell that to the people of Inverness, who, in 1974, elected an MP on 32% of the vote. Even the Liberals, who were the winners, were discreetly embarrassed by that result, although to be fair, they went on to win substantial majorities in subsequent elections in other Scottish seats.

Stephen Fisher’s succinct response to all this is more honest, when he states:

“What is clear … is that unless a lot changes in the structure of party preferences, a switch from the supplementary vote to first-past-the-post would benefit Conservative candidates in England and Wales.”

Therein lies the truth. The whole supplementary vote reform agenda is being driven by political advantage to the Conservatives. I hope that the next Labour or coalition Government have the courage to reverse this act of gerrymander and corruption of the electoral system.

I see no merit in arguing the merits of the system in today’s debate. They are well documented, and many researchers have carried out a lot of work over the last 20-odd years on the system as it has developed. However, I will say a few words about the Government’s preliminary response at Second Reading, and I call in aid the work of two academics, Professor Alan Renwick of University College London, and researcher Alejandro Castillo-Powell, both of whom have considerable reputations in this area. In a paper published by the Constitution Unit, they challenged every assertion made by the Government on the efficacy of the system.

The Minister, who is in his place today and who will answer this debate, set out a very carefully drafted critique at Second Reading, which I will quote. I presume that it was written for him—he probably did not do a lot of work to establish to what extent it was a correct interpretation of what is happening. He said:

The Electoral Commission added that the rejection rate in May 2021 was 0.8% for local council elections; for police and crime commissioners, it was 2.7%; and it was 4.3% for the Mayor of London. In the 2021 London mayoral elections, conducted by supplementary vote, almost 5% of the total votes in the first round were rejected—114,000 ballots. In the second preference, 265,000 votes were invalidated. That is more votes than were validly transferred to the leading two candidates”.—[Official Report, 23/2/22; col. 315.]

The response of the academics to all this has been very carefully laid out. How do they respond? Their view is this:

“The most detailed explanation for the change given so far appeared in a press release”— from Ministers—

“which gave five arguments for the switch: (1) SV increases the number of spoilt ballots; (2) it allows ‘loser’ candidates to win; (3) FPTP improves accountability by ‘making it easier for voters to express a clear choice’; (4) FPTP ‘is the world’s most widely used electoral system’; and (5) SV is ‘an anomaly’ and ‘out of step with other elections in England’.”

Let me take those one by one.

Does a supplementary vote lead to more spoilt ballots? We admit that elections using SV in the UK have typically high numbers of spoilt ballot papers, compared with those using first past the post. The response from the academics who have researched this in detail is that SV showing higher rates of rejected ballots does not mean that SV itself is necessarily the culprit.

The jump in such ballots in this year’s London mayoral elections points to another factor: ballot paper design—an issue I was always on about. The Electoral Commission notes the use in that contest of a new untested design, split over two columns because of the large number of candidates, which voters described as being confusing and complex. Poor design similarly led to more spoiled ballots in the 2007 Scottish local and parliamentary elections. Another factor may be the deliberate spoiling of ballot papers. The Electoral Commission noted anecdotal evidence of this in the 2012 PCC elections.

I have argued since day one, right back to the days of the Labour Government, that there were problems with the design of ballot papers. I put up an alternative model. The academics supported my view of the simpler model, but it was decided to proceed on the basis of the ballot paper that was subsequently approved. SV elections see more spoiled ballots than FPTP elections, but improved ballot paper design and clearer guidance for voters would ameliorate the problem.

Does the supplementary vote allow loser candidates to win? This is the other accusation that was made. The Government’s second argument is that under SV loser candidates can win on second preferences, but that argument is circular. Such candidates are losers only under the rules of first past the post. Take this year’s north Wales PCC election. On first preferences, the Conservative candidate won 32% of the votes, the Labour candidate won 29% and the Plaid Cymru candidate won 28%. With such numbers it is quite possible that most voters preferred either the Labour or Plaid Cymru candidate over the Conservative. The latter was not the self-evident winner. In fact, under SV many Plaid Cymru voters expressed a second preference and two-thirds of them chose the Labour candidate, giving them the victory. It is not obvious why that was wrong.

Would the Government be happy if a candidate with 32% won the election? I do not think so. I do not think it is credible and I do not think the electorate think it is credible when a candidate with 32% of the poll wins the election.

In reality, the choice between SV and FPTP does not actually affect the result very often. Alan Renwick’s analysis suggests that the allocation of second preferences has affected the result in 8% of SV elections since its introduction in 2000. In other words, it removes the results that lack credibility, which are on the margins, and replaces them with results that are credible.

Does the supplementary vote harm accountability? Ministers in their press release last month said that first past the post would improve “accountability” and

“make it easier for voters to express a clear” preference. The academics respond that under first past the post electors have to work out who has the greater chance of success. It is not obvious how forcing voters into such difficult calculations empowers them to express a clear choice.

I will deal with the claim that

“First Past the Post is the world’s most widely used electoral system”.

That is just plain wrong; it is just not true. For national legislative elections, first past the post is the second most common system, used in only 28% of countries, behind list proportional representation, used in 39%. The great majority of countries with elections to executive offices eschew first past the post in favour of a system that allows second preferences to be counted.

Then there is the claim that the supplementary vote is an anomaly in the UK. The government press release described the use of SV for mayoral and PCC elections as an “anomaly.” That is true, in the sense that these are the only public elections in England to use this system. However, all the main political parties use preferential voting systems to choose their leaders: Labour and the Liberal Democrats use AV; the Conservatives use an exhaustive ballot, whittling the candidates down to two before a final run-off. Why such voting systems are right for these elections but not for public elections is unclear.

Finally, I turn to the discussion of the AV referendum result. The Government’s final argument is that the reform reflects that transferable voting systems were rejected by the British people in the 2011 nationwide referendum. Voters did indeed vote against the introduction of AV for elections to the House of Commons by an overwhelming 68% to 32%. But that was AV. AV is not SV. I have never supported AV. It works in a completely different way from SV. It gives weight to overdiluted preferences—one, two, three, four, five, whatever—which, in my view, the public will never accept. That was why SV was designed: to avoid that very problem.

I refer to the final comments of the authors to whom I have been referring:

“SV elections in the UK are associated with slightly higher rates of rejected ballots than are FPTP elections. But no other plausible argument for switching to FPTP has been given. Indeed, the case in terms of clear accountability runs the other way. In this circumstance, it would be better to seek improvements to the operation of SV, rather than abandon it.”

In other words, look again at the format and design of the ballot paper, which is what I have argued for 20-odd years.

Furthermore, unilateral adoption of electoral reform by one party is always problematic. The risk is that the party will fix the rules to suit its own interest—and that is exactly what is going on in this debate. Let the public out there be in no doubt: this is an electoral fix by the Government to have an electoral system which they know positively favours them. Some form of independent review, such as the citizens’ assembly posited by an amendment previously defeated in Committee, should always be held first. That should be followed by thorough parliamentary scrutiny, which has always been curtailed in this case by the late introduction of proposals through amendments, to which my noble friend Lady Hayman referred in her very interesting contribution.

The Government’s actions have been reckless—are reckless. They have produced no evidence whatever of the need for change. The only complaints I have ever heard in 20-odd years have come from Conservative councillors who have found it difficult to come to terms with losing their seats on minority votes, where, clearly, they simply did not have the votes to win.

The Government are destroying a system that is credible and which works. As I said, I hope that one day, a Labour or coalition Government will bring it back, because it is what the people want and like.

Photo of Lord Kerslake Lord Kerslake Crossbench 5:00, 23 March 2022

It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, with his passion and analysis, which was evident even through the screen.

I speak to support Clause 11 not standing part of the Bill. In doing so, I declare my interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and an adviser to a number of metro mayors and mayors, as set out in my entry in the register of interests.

In support of my view that the clause should not stand part, I shall speak about three issues. First, this proposed change cannot be regarded as a manifesto commitment; secondly, there is the lack of any meaningful consultation on the change; and thirdly, a proportional voting system is right for these particular posts, regardless of whether you support proportional representation in general or for local elections. I apologise in advance that this will be a longer Committee speech than is perhaps normal. However, the issues at stake here are so fundamental to the way we do business in a properly functioning democracy that they need to be set out at length.

I shall start with the question of the manifesto commitment. The Government have asserted that this proposed change was a commitment in the 2019 general election manifesto. Having explored the issue in some depth, I am very clear that that is definitively not the case. To prove this point, I need to take the House for a guided tour of Conservative election manifestos over the last decade—I can hear the enthusiasm in the Committee.

The 2015 Conservative election manifesto, entitled Strong Leadership. A Clear Economic Plan. A Brighter, More Secure Future—not one of the snappier manifesto titles—said on this issue:

“We will respect the will of the British people, as expressed in the 2011 referendum, and keep First Past the Post for elections to the House of Commons.”

The intent is clear: to retain first past the post for general elections. There is no reference to local elections and certainly no reference to changing the supplementary voting system for mayors or police and crime commissioners.

We move on to the 2017 manifesto, entitled Forward, Together: Our Plan for a Stronger Britain and a Prosperous Future, which states:

“We will retain the first past the post system of voting for parliamentary elections and extend this system to police and crime commissioner and mayoral elections.”

The intent here is equally clear: both to retain first past the post for parliamentary elections and to extend it to mayors and police and crime commissioners. However, no action was taken in the period between that election and 2019; I suspect Brexit had something to do with that.

Had that been what was in the 2019 Conservative election manifesto, it would have settled the argument on manifesto commitments, but it was not. The 2019 manifesto, entitled Get Brexit Done: Unleash Britain’s Potential—they are getting snappier—said:

“We will continue to support the First Past the Post system of voting, as it allows voters to kick out politicians who don’t deliver, both locally and nationally.”

The key word here is “continue”. The commitment is to continue to support first past the post where it is currently used for national and local elections. There is absolutely no reference, as there was in the 2017 manifesto, to extending first past the post to mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections. Indeed, the final point in the sentence, about being able to kick out politicians who do not deliver, clearly does not apply to elections of mayors and police and crime commissioners under the supplementary vote, as they are perfectly capable of being kicked out and indeed have been.

I cannot tell the Committee why that was left out of the 2019 manifesto, but in a sense it does not matter. There was clearly no manifesto commitment to change the voting system for mayors and PCCs. The Minister might argue, “Let’s take the best of three from the manifestos”, but that clearly will not do. Political parties can and do change their policy positions substantially between elections so we have to take the most recent manifesto as our reference point. In this instance, the position could not be clearer. It would really help if the Minister acknowledged this point so that we can move on. Given the importance attached to commitments in manifestos, it is also important that Ministers do not assert that they are there when they are not.

Now I will move on to the question of consultation. It is instructive to see the care and attention that went into establishing the London mayor and Assembly and the electoral system to be used in electing them. In this, I am indebted to conversations with the former Minister, Nick Raynsford, who led on this for the Government at the time, and to the research undertaken by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who has kindly shared it with me. In the Green Paper published in July 1997, entitled New Leadership for London, the Government set out different possible electoral systems for the mayor and the Assembly. In the case of the mayor, the choices were first past the post, second ballot and alternative vote. For the Assembly, a range of options was put forward, including first past the post.

An extensive consultation process with stakeholders and voters was undertaken and the subsequent White Paper in March 1998 reported on the results of that consultation. For the mayor, it proposed the supplementary vote system, and for the assembly, the additional member system. The White Paper argued that the system used to elect the assembly should facilitate a more inclusive and less confrontational style of politics, and the system for the mayor should help to ensure a clear winner with strong support. That is a crucial point. The White Paper went on to argue that electing the mayor and the assembly should be done in ways that are compatible with each other.

The White Paper noted that the majority of the responses to the consultation were against the use of the first past the post system to elect the mayor. Instead, there was strong support for a system which could give a winning candidate a clear majority. This was much more likely to be delivered by the supplementary vote system, which I will come on to, than the first past the post system where, in a large field of candidates, it is perfectly possible for the winner to have one-third or less of the votes.

I have gone through this in some detail, because it formed the template for all the subsequent elections for mayors and police and crime commissioners, who were all elected under the supplementary vote system. We now have 15 elected local authority mayors, nine elected metro mayors and 40 directly elected police and crime commissioners, as well as the Mayor of London. Through either metro mayors or police and crime commissioners, the whole country is now served by postholders who were elected by the supplementary vote system. That amounts to over 43 million voters. In the 36 referenda on establishing mayors and the nine consultations on establishing metro mayors, the clear expectation and understanding was that the elections would be under the supplementary vote system. If London is included, some 41.5% of the population is now covered by a metro mayor. Similarly, with the police and crime commissioners, established under Theresa May, the supplementary vote system was used. The relevant legislation in 2011 and 2016 incorporated the supplementary vote system without controversy, so far as I can tell. There was no suggestion that it would be otherwise.

Contrast that very extensive process of consultation and engagement with what has occurred with the current proposals. When the Bill was introduced in the other place on 5 July last year, it made no reference to changing the voting system for mayors and commissioners. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said, the Minister announced that it would form part of the Bill only in September, when the Bill was already in Committee. Given this, it is not surprising that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee expressed strong concern about the late addition. It said that

“the manner in which this change was introduced after the Bill had been debated by the House at Second Reading was unsatisfactory and disrespectful towards the House of Commons.”

I would argue that it is also deeply disrespectful to the 43 million electors who will have their voting system changed without any meaningful notice or consultation. Put simply, this is not good enough. Such sweeping constitutional changes should not be made in this cavalier way.

The Government have argued that the result of the 2011 referendum on moving to AV for general elections makes the case that the public favours change. That was a different voting system for different elections. The use of the supplementary vote system for mayors and police and crime commissioners has been put forward by successive Labour and Conservative Governments when the clear policy of both parties was to support first past the post for general elections.

I happen to favour the wider use of PR as a fairer system, but I recognise that this is not a majority view. However, the arguments made against proportional representation—that it leads to coalition government and a decoupling of elected representatives from their electorate—simply do not apply to the elections of mayors and commissioners by the supplementary vote system. If the Government want to argue that the public support first past the post for these elections, they should test the point through a proper consultation process.

This brings me to my third and final argument. The supplementary vote system, while not perfect—as no system is—is a much better way of electing to these posts than first past the post. I say that because the candidate with the largest number of votes, following the elimination of candidates other than the first two, is clearly the winner. Whatever technical arguments are made about different voting systems, this brings a crucial benefit: a successful candidate is more likely to win on a majority of the votes cast on either first or second preferences. This is a powerful incentive for candidates aspiring to be elected to look beyond their immediate supporters to the wider electorate. It is a unifying process that produces, as was intended, mayors with a strong mandate.

This is essential to produce visible and effective leaders who can effectively represent the different and competing interests of their electorate. We invest directly elected mayors with substantial individual powers over our local public services. They make decisions over significant resources, balancing competing priorities and claims. As has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, we elect individuals with these powers. It is therefore crucial that they have the support of as many electors as possible. There are real dangers in electing such powerful and important figures routinely on the basis of minority support. That is why, whatever voting system is used for national elections, the supplementary vote system makes sense for mayors. Indeed, it is worth noting that the brave mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, was elected on the basis of the supplementary vote system, as are all the mayors of the larger cities in Ukraine.

The Government have argued that the supplementary vote system is confusing and overcomplicated, but the evidence supporting this is far from compelling. We have now had five mayoral elections in London; as has been said, the system is tried and tested. In its post- poll report on the May 2021 elections, the Electoral Commission found that nine in 10 voters said that the system was easy to fill in on the ballot paper. For those who found it difficult, a range of reasons was given, of which the different electoral system was only one.

The number of rejected papers in May 2021 was indeed higher for those elections than for those using first past the post—0.8% for local government elections, 2.7% for PCC elections and 4.3% for the mayor. However, the number of rejected papers for the Mayor of London election was notably higher than the previous election; the figure in May 2016 was half this at 1.9%. The Electoral Commission says that the most significant difference for the May 2021 mayoral election was the new ballot paper design. Combine that with the large number of candidates—there were 20—and the need to split them over two papers and you can see where the problems emerged. These are perfectly solvable problems in the supplementary vote system. It does not require a change of voting system. It could be addressed simply by changing the design. As with London, I am sure that other parts of the country could follow suit.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour 5:15, 23 March 2022

Can the noble Lord enlighten the House by telling us how many results of mayoral elections would have had a different result had they been held under first past the post?

Photo of Lord Kerslake Lord Kerslake Crossbench

The noble Lord had better ask the Minister; I do not have those figures, but I am happy to dig them out. The point I make still applies. As in London, I am sure there is scope for better systems to improve the design of the papers and reduce rejected numbers.

The last of the Government’s arguments is consistency. Those in favour of PR might argue that the way to achieve consistency would be to move all elections over to PR. You do not need to go that far; as I explained earlier, people are perfectly able to live with different electoral systems.

I think the real reason the Government have done this, as has already been alluded to, is the results of the elections themselves. Out of the 15 directly elected mayors, none represents the government party; out of the 10 metro mayors, including the Mayor of London, only two represent the government party. I can understand why the Government find that a disappointing result, but I do not think that is a good reason for taking forward a major constitutional change to an electoral system without meaningful consultation.

Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour 5:30, 23 March 2022

My Lords, I put my name to this stand part debate. When I was in journalism, people used to say of me, “He may be no good, but at least he is quick.” I will try to follow that precept this afternoon.

The first thing I wanted to say will cheer the Minister. Like him, I do not think much of single transferable votes—I do not agree with my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours on that. The immense defect of STV compared to its obvious alternative—the alternative vote, which is an exhaustive ballot—is that it does not produce a candidate who commands a majority of the electorate. AV infallibly does, which is why we so sensibly use it for the election of hereditary Peers. It seems very basic that, for mayors in particular, and perhaps police commissioners too, we want somebody who commands a majority of the electorate, and that STV does not do.

The second thing I want to say is about haste. More than 20 years ago, on the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform chaired by the late Lord Jenkins, we were as quick as we possibly could be. People who have served under Lord Jenkins as chair know he was not a man who permitted excess words or allowed discussions to meander. Even so, it took us about 12 months to come to a conclusion. It may or may not have been right, but it took us 12 months to get there. The complexities are enormous. At that time, I could have distinguished between three varieties of Sainte-Laguë system for the distribution of majorities, but now I can hardly remember the words, and I certainly cannot remember what those were. But these are immensely complicated matters of immense importance, and they can affect the results of elections, which are the expression of our democracy. To do this by introducing an unheralded amendment in Committee in the other place is, to use a word much used by my old boss Tony Crosland, frivolous.

The third thing is that different places need different electoral systems. It does not follow that because first past the post may be felt by some to be right for the House of Commons it is right for every election. It clearly is not. Parliament legislated for different systems in Scotland and Wales—the AMS system. A whole set of desiderata attached to electoral systems apply differently in different elections, and this is a very poor reason for having first past the post.

It is particularly poor because the winner can have a very tiny share of the vote, not much more than 20%; I can cheer the Government up for a moment by citing one such perverse result in an East Anglia PCC election in 2012. The winner on the first ballot was one John Prescott, known to many in this House. John Prescott’s lead—he had just over 20% of the first ballot votes—was soon got rid of, and his votes transferred, to elect Matthew Grove. Where is Matthew Grove now?

We cannot openly countenance a system where candidates with 20% of the vote rule over our big cities and order our police. I use the word again: this is a frivolous approach to constitutional reform in general and to electoral reform in particular. This House should have nothing to do with it.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, my name is on some amendments in this group. As Members of the Committee will know, I am extremely disturbed by this Bill as a whole and by the way it has been introduced. Of all its provisions, I think Clause 11 is the least justifiable, introduced as it was after a Written Statement by a middle-range Minister last September after the Bill had already begun its Committee stage in the House of Commons, and pushed through for clearly partisan reasons.

On Monday, the Minister was asking us to look at the practice on voter ID in other countries as a justification for what the Government propose. I am sure he recognises that in the Irish and Danish constitutions, any change in the voting system is a constitutional amendment and therefore has to go through exceptional procedures. That is also true in a number of other countries. In this respect, of course, he will probably say that we should pay no attention to other countries. I deeply respect that, privately, the Minister knows this clause is impossible to defend, and I recognise that he nevertheless has to stand up for it as best he can in the circumstances that this was a Conservative pledge in 2017 and someone up there has not forgotten that.

Yesterday, I read a very good article in the Political Quarterly of 2019 entitled “The UK Politics of Overseas Voting” by Susan Collard; I will return to it when we get on to overseas voting. One of the things that struck me about the introduction was that it talked about the package of measures that might have been agreed among the parties in 2016-17 about voting reform. It was discussed among the parties in the Commons that we could have moved towards automatic voter registration to reduce the number of people not on the register—by and large, the young and the marginal. We could have had a major effort at citizen engagement to encourage people to go to the polls. We could also have included votes at 16, which would almost definitely have helped the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and others. In that context, overseas voting and the extension of overseas voting would have been part of the same package. That could have been negotiated as part of a—

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

Were these official interparty discussions or informal exchanges?

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

These were exchanges on and off the Floor of the House of Commons.

That would have been a major set of changes to voting rights that might even have included some form of examination of our voting system. I draw attention to Amendment 140, which suggests that we need a citizens’ assembly on methods of voting for different elections in this country. That would be highly desirable, encouraging an intelligent approach and taking out of the control of parties the question of whose advantage is most looked to in this respect.

This Government have mucked about with local government over an extended period. I am not a great fan of metro mayors—certainly not metro mayors without the scrutiny of elected assemblies—but the Government have them. The Government have reduced the number of local councillors, and now they want to muck about with the system, partly because what Michael Gove and other enthusiasts thought they wanted—independently minded people like we saw in New York and Chicago—has not yet emerged very strongly. But some of those who emerged are rather good, or not so good, Labour candidates, who do not please the Government. Be that as it may, we have a current system for elected mayors.

The only argument, in effect, that the Government can make in defence of this change is that the voters of London and other cities are not as intelligent as their counterparts in Ireland, Scotland and elsewhere and are not capable of understanding a complicated system such as the supplementary vote and therefore we have to go back to the first past the post. That is not a good argument, and I look forward to hearing what alternative argument the Minister may wish to produce.

One of the problems with the first past the post system is that it works really well only when there is a clear two-party system and the two-party system has broken down in almost all democratic countries in recent years, except for the United Kingdom and the United States. In the United Kingdom and the United States, factionalism within both major parties has almost wrecked our politics, partly because the extremists —or less moderate—in both major parties have done their best to take over their party rather than going off and forming their own.

I was very struck by an argument made by the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, during our previous day in Committee, which was that you need to be very careful about how the selection process for candidates works because in most constituencies in Britain the selection process decides who will be the MP. The attraction of any form of alternative voting, supplementary voting or proportional representation is that it gives the voter some choice among candidates.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour

In European elections, for example, if you are top of your party’s list, it is pretty close to being a safe seat.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The noble Lord and I will have conversations about list systems and non-list systems off the Floor of the House.

On Amendment 144C on proportional representation in local elections, I recall very clearly many years ago that the borough of Rochdale had all-out local elections and thus required three candidates for each ward rather than one. What was most striking was that that was the point at which Rochdale ceased to have overwhelmingly white male councillors because if the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives each had to choose three candidates, they tended to choose one white man, one woman and one Asian. That gave people a choice and in some wards people voted for the woman or the Asian in greater numbers than they did for the Labour or Conservative candidate, which you might think is not a bad thing as a matter of choice in elections.

I remind the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who is deeply committed to the idea of the constituency, that until the first five years of my life the tried-and-tested constituency system in the United Kingdom included a large number of multi-Member constituencies. The last double-Member constituencies were abolished in 1945. I know I am older than him and that was not in his lifetime. We had a number of three and four-Member constituencies in counties and large boroughs, so if we are talking about things that are un-English, English history—the tried-and-tested systems referred to by the noble Lord, Lord True—includes multi-Member constituencies and different forms of voting in return.

Now is not the time to have a full debate on methods of voting, but I commend to the Committee the idea that we should move towards a citizens’ assembly. I hope that whoever makes up the next Government will indeed move forward on this, but I also say as strongly as I can that now is not the time to introduce into a Bill at a late stage, as Clause 11 does, a proposal that the Government have introduced solely because they think it will advance the Conservative Party and disadvantage others.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

I will allow the noble Lord on my right to speak first.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour

No, no. Go on.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green 5:45, 23 March 2022

I know he will interrupt me anyway.

I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and one of the rare people who has been elected under a proportional system to the London Assembly and under first past the post to a council. It has always struck me that I was told by Conservative voters in both areas that they voted for me rather than a Labour or Liberal Democrat person. Under both systems, they realised that there were options other than voting for the person that they might first vote for.

I know the Tory party struggles with the future and does not like modernisation, except when it really suits it, and proportional representation is the future. It is obvious that other democracies—I am not even sure that this country is a democracy any more, but I will grant us that status—have been using proportional representation for years.

There is more grumbling on the Labour Benches about what I am saying and I really wish they would do it quietly so that I could not hear them.

Proportional representation is the future. First past the post is a relic of the past when small groups of landowning gentlemen would gather in a small room to cast their votes to put another landowning gentleman into a room to represent their interests to the monarch. That is really not a system that we want to continue. As the franchise has expanded to include women and non-landowning men and the population has grown, so the number of voters is many times what it once was and social diversity has increased massively. We are now at a point when first past the post simply is no longer an appropriate system. The idea that winner takes all leaves many millions of people unrepresented in Parliament and in councils.

It seems to benefit the two main parties, Labour and the Conservatives. They are apparently content to take turns to run the country. Sometimes they do well and are handed a substantial majority in spite of the fact that they do not have a majority of voters behind them, and sometimes they suffer and end up in opposition. However, it does not suit Labour as well as it thinks it does. In the previous century the Conservatives won 20 elections and the Labour Party only nine. Labour does not benefit from first past the post. If Labour wants to form more Governments—we see this reported endlessly—it will have to appeal to more voters, which means to people like me, who might give them a vote if my preferred candidate is not able to carry a majority. We need PR, and that means real democratic reform, such as the amendments in this group, which I support; I will be happy to vote for any of them. If they throw in a new, real green new deal, that would improve the odds of Labour forming a new Government a lot.

First past the post feeds into the overly confrontational system we have at the moment. The nature of British politics is not very attractive. The parties are forced to fight viciously by the very nature of the electoral system. In the other place and here, we confront each other across the Chamber. It is very unhealthy in terms of being able to work together and find any sort of consensus. The first past the post voting system is designed to create conflict and opposition and it enables a small bunch of right-wing politicians to run a corrupt and uncaring Government on a mandate given by fewer than half the voters. Consensus building in politics is the future and will help us to claw our way out of the climate crisis.

You have to ask: do the general public like the way things are run? No, they do not—they will tell you that they do not like the constant fighting and braying that they see in Parliament, and they wonder why politicians cannot work better together. They wonder why campaigns are run with dirty tricks and character assassinations, and they wonder why politics and politicians—us—cannot be better. These are all reasons why we need to change the voting system, to transform our democracy into something really democratic and to allow people to be represented by the politicians who most closely align with their values, opinions and hopes for their future—to stop people being forced to choose the lesser evil.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, arguing for consensual politics in a characteristically aggressive speech—and it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, as well. There must be a misprint on the Marshalled List, because the noble Lord told us that he did not want to discuss proportional representation. But there is an amendment tabled here, with his as the lead name, proposing a new clause with the heading, “Proportional representation for elections to the House of Commons”. I do not know whether he wants to discuss that—

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I said “at length”. I assure the noble Lord that I can discuss proportional representation at very great length, but I fear that might tire the Committee.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour

I shall certainly follow the injunction not to speak at length, but I cannot resist responding to arguments about proportional representation. Oddly enough, I think I am the first the noble Lord so far to speak passionately in favour of first past the post, which shows once again how unrepresentative this House can be of British public opinion. On two specific occasions, it has been the subject that dare not speak its name. There are two issues that have not been mentioned, either by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace—and I do not blame him—or by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. One is the small matter of an opinion poll, and I shall call it that to be a little contentious, held in 2011, which consisted of 19.2 million voters, who the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has told us probably represent something that is dying out and departing. That opinion poll was in a referendum which the Liberal party made a condition of its membership of the coalition—and at any stage, if the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, wants to interrupt, of course he can. He was a Minister in that Government.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I thank the noble Lord for the invitation. He will remember that this was the first occasion on which Dominic Cummings managed very successfully to make the argument that it would be much too costly to change the electoral system and that the money would be much better spent on the National Health Service instead—an argument that he also used in the Brexit referendum. In neither case was the money spent on the NHS.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour

Well, to bring Dominic Cummings into it sounds like a good argument to a point that I was not discussing and do not intend to discuss.

The referendum was a condition of the Liberal Democrats’ membership of the coalition Government; they said that there should be a referendum on the voting system in this country. Some 19.2 million votes were cast, 6 million in favour of the alternative vote system and 13 million for first past the post, as specifically referred to. There was a 2:1 majority for first past the post, and a widely held debate right across the country. I am pretty shocked that, having demanded that referendum and having rejected the result, which is not an unusual characteristic, the noble Lord wants, by means of an amendment to a Bill, to change the electoral system away from first past the post, not by another referendum—because referendums keep giving him the result that he does not want—but by an amendment to a Bill. I find that a very unsatisfactory way of proceeding, but I am afraid that it has become a behaviour pattern. I am sorry, because I agree with the Liberal Democrats on a lot of aspects of this Bill, but not on this. It is a very similar pattern to what was followed in relation to the European referendum, whereby they voted for the referendum, did not like the result but knew that it was too big a risk to put it back to the people—so, instead of having another referendum, they proposed to change it without one and back to the original situation.

I am afraid that this approach of no compromise with the electorate that seems to be being offered by one party to this discussion is really not a satisfactory way for democrats to proceed. Of course, people can change their mind; people might decide, at some future date, that they want to change the electoral system. But, again, I have noticed—and this is why I both enjoy but am frustrated by discussions about the voting system—that one thing that people who are in favour of changing from first past the post always manage to do, whenever you criticise them for anything that they are proposing, is to say, “Oh, that’s not the kind of proportional representation that I’m in favour of—it’s completely different.” In fact, of course, they will even argue, although it was more proportional, that the proposal in the 2011 referendum, which was for the alternative vote system, was not proper proportional representation. It is not, but it is much more proportional —and I am quite certain that they see the electoral systems for mayors, police commissioners and everything else just as a stepping-stone towards proportional representation.

I am the first noble Lord to mention the referendum. The other thing that proponents of proportional representation always avoid mentioning is the test bed that we had for quite a long time—thankfully, no longer —for elections to the European Parliament. They were done on the basis of proportional representation. I remind supporters of the system of the arguments that are tediously repeated about the great merits of proportional representation, the principal point of which is that it reaches parts of the electorate that are ignored at present. It is said that there are tens of thousands of Labour voters, say, in the south of England and tens of thousands of Conservative voters in the north of England who never have their voices represented, and that if you released all that potential by proportional representation, the public would be energised.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

How does the noble Lord explain the fact that, when you have a PR system—it does not matter in which country—you get loads of Greens elected? Does not that sound as though there is an unexpressed need under first past the post for Greens? I do not know why noble Lords are all laughing: there are three out of 25 on the London Assembly.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour

I was listening carefully to the noble Baroness’s speech, and she seemed to be suggesting that quite a lot of votes were not votes for Greens at all but votes for her personally. I have never kidded myself about that, with regard to elections that I have fought, because I have lost too many—I cannot afford to say that.

I have said that the standard argument is that proportional representation energises people. But the turnout for European elections in 2009 was 35%, which is lower than in local government elections, generally. In 2014, it was 36% and in 2019 it went up to 37%, but that was because large numbers of people were voting for a party to scrap the European Union, as we know. So let us please hear from any proponents of PR who happen to emerge during this debate an explanation as to why they do not attach any significance whatever to a referendum held on the subject, and precisely why it is, when a PR system has been tried in this country, it has not involved large numbers of people turning out to the polls. In fact, although admittedly it is for general elections, good old first past the post is the one that continues to attract far and away the biggest turnout of any of the other fancy electoral systems on offer.

Finally, I will mention an important point: PR kills the link between an MP and a constituency. That is the heart of it. I speak as a former MP—there are many others in this House—in saying that, whenever MPs are accused of getting out of touch with the electorate, the answer is always the same, and it is true: if you hold surgeries every weekend and have meetings—

Photo of Lord Kerslake Lord Kerslake Crossbench 6:00, 23 March 2022

Could the noble Lord perhaps address the point I made in my contribution? Whatever your views about disconnection during a general election between the vote and the person holding the seat, that does not apply to metro mayors in the way it works. Similarly, the noble Lord talks of countering the referendum, but we are here changing the voting system—we are not adding PR but reducing the current use of the system—without consultation at all.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour

I am the wrong person to ask about directly elected mayors or police and crime commissioners because I have always been opposed to both. On the method whereby they are elected, I prefer a parliamentary system in local and national government —namely, a system whereby whoever holds executive power is subject to constant control, management or association with the people who decide who should be in the Executive. Some of my best friends are elected mayors or police and crime commissioners, but the system—certainly that for police and crime commissioners —is not worth having a great debate about. I repeat: the link between an MP and a constituency keeps the feet on the ground.

Finally, I think the proponents of PR call it “fair votes”—I tend to think of it as “unfair votes” because it certainly results in unfair power. It effectively means that the third most popular party of the three major national parties is the one pretty permanently in office. Nick Clegg would no doubt still be Deputy Prime Minister—there is a thought for you—almost for life, because it is always a question of which of the two main parties the third party will associate itself with. That leads to disproportionate power and influence for the smallest of the parties, which is not a system to be defended. Let us at least agree that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, can either be not moved—he does not seem keen to debate it—or, preferably, defeated.

Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, with whom I completely agree. I will speak mainly on the opposition to Clause 11 standing part, which is in this group, but I do not support any of the amendments in it. I listened very carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said—he was clearly much too modest to say that he actually invented the supplementary vote system, back in 1989, so what we heard was some rather over- protective parenthood trying to keep that system going.

Our electoral system has had first past the post at its heart for a very long time—and very successfully. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, referred to the referendum in 2011, when the British people were quite conclusive in their view: they did not want the alternative vote system. I accept that it is not the same as the supplementary vote system, but it showed that the British public had no appetite to change from the first past the post system.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, who is unfortunately not in his place, described the supplementary vote system, in 2015, as “one of the worst” electoral systems, and I agree with that. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, described it in 2014 as the “oddest” electoral system—I thought I was going to find a second thing that I could agree with him on this week, but he may have been using that as a compliment. I do not think anyone has mentioned that, in 2016, the Home Affairs Committee in the other place recommended that it be abandoned for PCC elections.

The supplementary vote system is used hardly anywhere outside England, with very good reason. The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, helpfully gave the statistics for the 2021 London mayoral and PCC elections. He tried to blame that on the ballot paper, but I just do not buy that: there is a very significant difference between the number of spoilt ballot papers in the—

Photo of Lord Kerslake Lord Kerslake Crossbench

I was quoting what the Electoral Commission said.

Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative

I hear what the noble Lord has said, but the difference between the spoilt ballot papers in the local elections at that time and the PCC and London mayoral elections is too great to be laid wholly at the door of the shape or design of the ballot paper.

The British people understand the first past the post system, which is why they supported it in 2011. It gives a clear result to the candidate with the most votes, and that is the heart of accountability. If that candidate does not perform to the electorate’s will or expectation, they can boot him out; they can vote him out at subsequent elections. That is the key advantage of the first past the post system: it gives a very clear result.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

Is the logic of what the noble Baroness is saying that electors in Northern Ireland and Scotland who use STV, or people in South Yorkshire who elect their mayor, cannot vote their officeholders out because of the voting system?

Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative

They can vote them out, but it is much more obscure—the link is much less direct. The supplementary vote system, which is what we are talking about replacing, clearly allows weaker candidates, with fewer first preference votes, to get through the system because of second preference votes, which have the same value as first preference ones—that does not seem right.

My only regret about the Bill is that it does not get rid of the even more confusing additional member system for the London Assembly. As the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, we fortunately no longer have the proportional representation system for the EU elections, which resulted in MEPs being distant and certainly not accountable to electorates. I would personally look again at the systems used in Scotland and Wales, but I shall stick to my normal practice in your Lordships’ House of not getting involved in devolved matters. It is time for our electoral systems in England to return to their roots and for the first past the post system to be the default for national elections and all English elections.

Photo of Lord Moore of Etchingham Lord Moore of Etchingham Non-affiliated

My Lords, I have been affected by the debate this evening. I was intending to speak—if I was going to speak at all—in a rather different way, because I have anxieties about the way that the Government introduced this legislation, at the point when they brought in all the material about the form of election. But I have been stirred by the other side of the argument, because something that I feared has definitely now come about: the people arguing against the Bill are really trying to bring back proportional representation, as a much wider piece of argument, into the whole of our public life and our electoral system—

Photo of Lord Moore of Etchingham Lord Moore of Etchingham Non-affiliated

I thank the noble Baroness for that and accept what she says. I am thinking more widely of the debate—

Photo of Lord Kerslake Lord Kerslake Crossbench

Does the noble Lord agree that I also made no argument to extend proportional representation? My specific concern was about this change and it being made without consultation.

Photo of Lord Moore of Etchingham Lord Moore of Etchingham Non-affiliated

I listened closely to the noble Lord’s speech, and it is perfectly true that he made a very long and important argument about the specifics, but he also expressed a general preference for proportional representation.

I wish to make a very simple point, which I think came across very well in what the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said. He described how, even under the strict chairmanship of Lord Jenkins, it took 12 months of what he called “immense complication” to look at these issues. That is precisely the problem with all this. It is dangerous to confess to ignorance in this very learned and expert House, but despite covering politics in various ways for 40 years, I have never been able fully to understand or explain all the different voting systems that clever people keep coming up with, and that is an argument against them. If somebody who is paid a salary to try to understand these things still finds them complicated, there is something wrong with them. All right, I am stupid, but I make the point that it is very important for the buy-in of a democracy that people can understand what is being said, what is being offered and how to perform the operation they are invited to perform. They can do so under first past the post, but under proportional representation they cannot, broadly speaking. Therefore, I oppose these amendments and support the Bill.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

My Lords, I used to be a full supporter of first past the post, very much in the spirit of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, in relation to accountability. However, over recent years I have started to see a problem that I wanted to raise—I am not just doing this as counselling. Because of the whole of Clause 11, we have been invited, in a way, by the Government to discuss electoral systems, and that is one of the problems with the way it has emerged. I would not be discussing it if they had not brought it in, but now that everyone else is discussing it, I will join in.

I was minded to support Amendment 136 until I realised that it was an amendment that would overturn a referendum, which struck me as not a good idea and not likely to fit in with my general position on these things. It is perhaps ironic to those people in this Committee arguing for proportional representation that I was elected using that method in the European elections and came top of the list. I do not know if people think that was a fully democratic system, because a lot of people did not think that I should have been there at all, or elected in that way, when I stood only for very particular reasons, as we know.

These are the problems with first past the post in 2022 that I cannot get my head around. Through this Bill, we want to reassure voters that elections are watertight in terms of fairness and that they represent what they want as voters. In a number of debates, we have discussed our worries about different clauses that might be seen to be disenfranchising voters—sometimes I think these are overwrought worries, but they are worries none the less. It seems to me, however, that first past the post, in lots of ways, makes many people’s votes redundant and represents a frustration with what is happening politically.

I remember that before the 2016 referendum I was invited to a think tank gathering at which most of the people were supporters of remaining in the European Union. They assumed that I was as well, because that is what nice think-tankers did. They said that one problem they had was that the referendum would not be taken seriously if they did not get a big turnout, so what could they do to get a big turnout? The consensus in the room was that it must be emphasised that a vote in the 2016 referendum was a once-in-a-lifetime vote where, for once, every single person’s vote would count. They went out and argued that very successfully and the nation said, “My goodness, for once my vote really will count.” As a consequence, people took it seriously that they were being asked to make a big constitutional decision and that this was one election where every individual vote meant something. In the build-up to the referendum, it led to grass-roots discussion groups being set up around the country, family conferences and people getting together with their research. People took the whole thing extremely seriously and there was an atmosphere of vibrancy and buzz, with people saying, “What should we do?” as they assessed the pros and cons. People rose to the challenge that their vote counted, an idea which I think really resonated.

This was particularly true after the 2015 election. Something peculiar happened in that election which should concern us, and that is the story of what happened to the Greens and UKIP, two parties I did not and do not support but they were ill served in that election. One of them won 12.5% of the national vote, nearly 4 million votes, but got only one MP. The other got 1,157,630 votes, and got one MP. If PR had been used, they might have got over 30 MPs. That must mean that millions of people will have felt disfranchised and not represented, because those votes had practically no impact on the political make-up of Parliament. This is not the same as voting Labour and losing to the Conservatives, or voting Conservative and losing to Labour, or loser’s consent. I am talking about parties that cannot find a way of getting represented in a political system because they cannot break through the way that first past the post works. It therefore challenges my commitment to one person, one vote. I am worried about locking people out and neutering their views, telling them that their views do not matter and do not make any difference. I worry that the two-party system permanently ossifies political division into the two main parties. But over recent years we have seen new and real political divisions emerge; how do we allow voters to feel as if their collective democratic clout can represent those different divisions?

One argument that I often hear about PR—I have used it myself—is that it would lead to unstable coalitions and a never-ending process of principle-light horse trading. Having been involved, close-up, in parliamentary politics over the last year, principle-light horse trading is not confined to PR. It seems to me that both main parties are, in a way, made up of coalitions. If you look at the modern-day Conservative Party or the modern-day Labour Party, they are full of factions, and sometimes I do not understand how they get on as they seem to be arguing completely different things. We can all see it. It is a kind of a coalition politics that is not openly acknowledged, but it is there, and on that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, made something of a point. I do not think they are full of extremists; it is just people with different politics all stuffed into the two main parties. That does not seem to represent what the voters might want.

Regardless of how it is done, it seems obvious to me that if Parliament and local politics are to be properly representative, and civil society is to become more engaged and energised, we need to find ways that allow for the creation of new parties that can break up a consensus and represent new ideas and concerns. I worry about the danger of a zombie Parliament and an electorate who feel unrepresented and who will turn to cynicism and disillusionment if they believe that their vote cannot count in the way that it should. Having an Elections Bill in which we keep talking about the voters and how to make them feel included will be a waste of time. There is a problem here.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat 6:15, 23 March 2022

My Lords, I rise to speak on behalf of my noble friend Lord Shipley, who has Amendment 144C in his name, but he is in Grand Committee and unfortunately cannot be here to speak to it. In so doing, I declare my interest as laid down in the register, both as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and as a trustee of Make Votes Count.

The amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Shipley would implement PR in local government—not a system for proportional against the whole district, but a system for each ward based on the one-two-three model. This keeps the ward as the basis of the representative district but makes sure that the system is more representative of the majority views of the electorate.

That would avoid councils being heavily dominated by one party that secures less than 50% of the poll, in the vast majority of seats. At least each councillor would have the support of 50% plus one after the transfers at second preference. If I apply that to my own city of Sheffield, 29 seats were up for election in 2021 but in only seven of them did someone get more than 50% of the vote in the ward. The figure for the candidate who got elected with the smallest percentage of votes was 31.7%. That happened to be a Liberal Democrat, so this is not a political issue; as a matter of principle, I do not think a system is fair when 29 seats are up for election but only seven of them are elected on the basis of the majority of people who decide to go out and vote. So I support the amendment in my noble friend’s name.

I turn to the wider argument about how Clause 11 came about. Having listened to the last hour and a half, I say to those noble Lords who are not normally invited to Liberal Democrat ward meetings that it has sounded a bit like a Liberal Democrat ward meeting. Some people in this Chamber who are not Liberal Democrats seem far more technical and geeky than some Liberal Democrats on voting systems. I have heard many arguments about why we are talking about voting systems. Let me be clear: we would not be talking about voting systems at all if the Government had not tried to push through this clause as they did in the House of Commons.

It is quite insulting for an elector back in South Yorkshire, who has voted for a metro mayor, who was asked whether we wanted one and then told what the voting system would be—or at least we were asked about how we wanted a mayor and a voting system—to be told now that that voting system is somehow too complicated for us or not relevant to our local area. This has been pushed through without any consultation at all with the areas that have metro mayors. We have had no say back in our regions about whether we want this change. That is not the way to bring about change. It is for that reason more than anything else that I do not think Clause 11 should stand part.

I turn to some of the other arguments. I have to point out very gently to some noble Lords that this is not 2011; we are now in 2021.

Noble Lords:


Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

Sorry, 2022. It feels as if this debate started last year.

The YouGov tracker looks at a number of issues. One issue that it has been tracking for 10 years is people’s perceptions of voting and voting systems. The question it asks is:

“Some people support a change in the British voting system to proportional representation, where the number of MPs a party wins more closely reflects the share of the vote they receive. Other people support retaining our present voting system, First Past the Post, which is more likely to give one party an overall majority in the House of Commons and avoid a hung Parliament. Which voting system would you prefer?”

In March 2022, the latest figure—and this has been a trend for over 10 years—the vast majority of people who give a preference support PR, with 44% in favour of PR and 27% in favour of first past the post. Among Liberal Democrat voters, 62% support a PR system while 21% are in favour of first past the post. The party with the highest number of people who support first past the post is the Labour Party; 64% support PR and 13% support first past the post. I accept that among Conservative voters there is a small majority for first past the post.

We should look at the Red Wall seats. This is really important because a lot of people really feel that their vote does not count, that they do not have a voice and that in some constituencies there are MPs for life. In certain parts where I come from, people say, “No matter who you put up, if they wear a certain colour of rosette then they will get elected.” This is not a middle-class or a southern debate; in the north, 43% support PR and 28% do not.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour

Could the noble Lord remind us of his sample size? Mine was 19.2 million.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

That was 11 years ago. I am trying to point out to the noble Lord that people’s views change. I am not prepared to accept that 2011 is still how the public feel.

Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

Could the noble Lord answer the second question, which was: what type of PR was wanted? That is the problem. It is not just about saying “We like PR.” There is a huge gamut of options. Unless you are clear about what is actually being offered to people, you will get that answer but then, when they have to make a choice, first past the post comes back to the front.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

I support Amendment 140, which is about setting up a citizens’ assembly to go through this question so that citizens can come to a view about the best voting system that they would wish to see if we moved to a PR system. I would therefore like to leave it to a citizens’ assembly rather than dictating it. I have my own personal preference, which is STV, but I do not think it should be about my personal preference; I think it should be down to a citizens’ assembly.

I do not think the British public are stuck back in 2011. I think we have moved forward and people feel that PR is the future. That goes across all parties and social demographics—apart from the Conservative Party voters who support first past the post—and all regions of the UK.

The way that Clause 11, regarding mayors and police and crime commissioners, was introduced by the Government in the other place, and the very fact that those people who were offered a mayor on a system of voting that was not first past the post have not been asked, is not levelling up; it is pushing us down and completely ignoring the voice of the people back in those regions who now have a metro mayor.

Photo of Lord Kilclooney Lord Kilclooney Crossbench

My Lords, back in the middle of the last century when I was Minister of State for Home Affairs in the old parliament in Northern Ireland, I had the task of reforming the local government system in Northern Ireland, which was then first past the post. This meant that in the west all the councillors were Irish nationalists and in the east all the councillors were Ulster unionists. Against some opposition from my own party, I introduced a Bill that included STV for local government. This resulted in the unionists in the west, who are the 40% minority, having representation for the first time, and they have it still today. Likewise, the Irish nationalists gained seats in the east that they would not have had under first past the post. So there was fair representation of Catholics and Irish nationalists in the eastern part of Northern Ireland and fair representation of unionists and protestants in the western part.

When it comes to UK elections, of course we still have first past the post because that is the UK law. What does that result in? It results in Sinn Féin/IRA winning many seats where they get less than 50% of the votes cast in their constituencies, and the result of that election is that they boycott the House of Commons. If we had STV or some other kind of proportional representation system in UK elections in Northern Ireland, I think we would have very few Sinn Féin MPs in the House of Commons.

Photo of Lord Framlingham Lord Framlingham Conservative

My Lords, I want to make one very simple point related to what we are talking about. I agree entirely with the words of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and my noble friend Lady Noakes. I really believe that first past the post has stood the test of time. I think that all the other ideas are more complex and more difficult, and that if the general public were asked and thought it through again, they would still vote for first past the post. What worries me is this. If it is true that most people out there still want first past the post, but the general feeling in here is that they should not have it, we ought to think very carefully about what that says about your Lordships’ House.

Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Labour 6:30, 23 March 2022

I should confess to having been a supporter of electoral reform for many years—since the 1970s, when I was working for the Labour Government. The reason I became a supporter of electoral reform was that I felt our society was becoming very dysfunctional, our way of government was very dysfunction, and the Labour party was essentially two parties forced together into one and was not really working in the best interests of the country.

The essay question I would love to debate with the noble Lord, Lord Moore, and that has to be addressed, is this: in the post-war period, particularly given the troubles we have been through in the last 10 years, has Britain had a more satisfactory system of governance than Germany? Germany has been so successful, with its proportional representation and federal system—a system, incidentally, in which British advisers and British politicians played a very important part in ensuring in the democratic part of Germany after 1945. For me, that is the big essay question. I know what I think about it, but it would be worthy of debate.

However, we are not debating that general question this evening; we are debating the specifics of whether the supplementary vote system should be changed. I have been sitting for an hour and 43 minutes through this debate, and I should think that less than a third of it has addressed that specific point, and so I do not want to detain the Committee for long. I accept all the arguments that have been made about the undesirability of this proposal emerging at a very late stage in this Bill. I do not think changes in electoral systems should be introduced in an arbitrary way, or as my noble friend Lord Lipsey said, as Tony Crosland would have said, in a frivolous way; they ought to be seriously considered.

It is possible to have different electoral systems for different purposes; we do not have to have the same electoral system for everything. We now have a great variety of electoral systems. I am quite interested to know why the noble Lord, Lord True, thinks it is desirable to go back to first past the post for the Mayor of London elections but to retain the proportionally elected London Assembly. It seems to me that if, as a result of that action, the mayor’s political base is significantly lower than it is under the present system, then there is the possibility of real dysfunctional government when agreeing budgets and other questions where the London Assembly has a say. That is a very serious point.

I think that devolution has been a success, certainly in Scotland and Wales. I even think that what the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, said about Northern Ireland was very interesting. The success of devolution has depended on a proportional system, and on the additional member system in Scotland and Wales. Look at how support for devolution has grown, particularly in Wales, since it came about in the late 1990s. It would be difficult for the Government—even this Government—to try to abolish Welsh and Scottish devolution. One of the reasons it has such strong support is because it is seen to be very representative across the community. There is an understanding between Plaid Cymru and the Labour Party in Wales. Similarly, despite disliking the thought of an SNP Government, they do show that a proportional system enables change to happen. Labour showed great foresight in devolution, in agreeing to a proportional system. For that purpose, it has been very successful.

On the question of the supplementary vote, particularly for mayors, one of the arguments—as I remember it from when I was in No. 10—for introducing this arrangement was that we wanted to encourage the possibility of diverse and independent candidates coming forward who might challenge the established parties. That is quite a good argument.

Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Labour

It was said in the councils of which I was part that it would be a good idea to shake up conventional politics at the local level. That was the argument.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour

I do not normally draw attention to this but my noble friend and I were both working in No. 10 at the same time. I would say two things: first, if that was ever discussed, I never heard it; and, secondly, if I had heard it, I would have been ferociously opposed to it.

Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Labour

I have no doubt about that; that is why we would not have mentioned it to my noble friend. I am trying to make the point that there is an argument for something that opens up politics a bit more.

In the case of mayors, it is not like voting for an MP, where you are basically voting for who you want to be Prime Minister or which political party you support. It is very much about who you want to govern your local area, and they should have the widest possible base of support.

Photo of Lord Murphy of Torfaen Lord Murphy of Torfaen Labour

My Lords, it is a great pleasure always to follow my noble friend Lord Liddle, even though I would not agree with an awful lot of what he said; it is a great pleasure to follow him, nevertheless.

I absolutely think that there is no case at the moment for changing the electoral system for police commissioners. We have no directly elected mayors in Wales but we have police commissioners. There is a very strong case for trying to increase the turnout and the interest in elections for police commissioners. I am reminded of the fact that, in the very first election for police commissioners in Gwent, my own county, there was one notorious ward in the city of Newport where not a single person turned up to vote—no one at all. We are deluded if we think that changing the electoral system will improve interest. We look forward with great interest to the Minister telling us why we need to change the system.

I refer now to Amendment 136, and the very interesting debate we have had on first past the post versus proportional representation. This is not a wide debate—it would take days, weeks and months to do that—but rather one on the nature of the amendment we have been asked to consider. The amendment says that the House of Commons should be elected by PR, full stop. My noble friend Lord Grocott, in a fine speech, referred to the fact that these things cannot be changed unless there is a referendum on them. It is a rather unusual argument to suggest that because we had one in 2011 it is no longer relevant. Of course it is relevant, in the sense that we should have another referendum if that is required and should not change things unless the people are asked.

In my political lifetime, I have fought 11 elections. I served as an elected representative for 49 years, 28 of them in the other place. The great advantage of our system is that there is a marvellous link between the elected representative and the people whom he or she represents. It is unique. I was always referred to as “my MP” or “our MP” in the possessive case because they thought that. The contrast, for example, with the change that took place when we altered our electoral system for the European Parliament was immense.

Of course, the constituencies for Europe were very large—grotesquely large in some senses—but I bet your bottom dollar that people knew who their Member of the European Parliament was. I bet your bottom dollar, too, that they did not when the new system came in. I did not know who mine was, and I was an MP for the area towards the end of that system. We completely lost that link between the elected representatives and the people whom they represented. That is the greatest aspect of our system, which we must not do away with.

Of course, we have different systems in different parts of the United Kingdom. I was partly instrumental in bringing about the system in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, was right. He was very advanced and forward-looking when he made that change all those years ago. The only way that the partisanship in Northern Ireland could be destroyed was to have that system changed. It is very different there from the rest of the United Kingdom. It is not the same as Wales or Scotland or England because, by voting the way they do in Northern Ireland, they express a very different view from that expressed by the rest of the United Kingdom. That was a very significant change indeed. The Assembly is elected by STV; local government is elected by STV, but, of course, the MPs in the United Kingdom Parliament are elected by first past the post.

Scotland and Wales are different. They have top- up systems, known as AMSs. They are entirely incomprehensible to the voter. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Moore, that if the voter cannot understand what they are voting for, it is a very poor system. Indeed, in Wales, a commission has been set up to investigate changing to a different system, although I do not think they will change completely to first past the post. There is some merit in having different systems in different parts of the country—in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland for their own assemblies—but they have to be comprehensible to the voters who use them. At the moment, that is not the case.

The biggest flaw, of course, in this amendment is that it does not seek proper legitimacy for the change. It is not just the 2011 referendum, but in every case—in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland—referendums were held for the new systems of government, and that included the way those Governments and Assemblies were elected in every single case. In Wales, of course, when they wanted extra powers some years ago, they went for another referendum to get that legitimacy which lies behind every change. So, for me, the great weakness of this amendment is not just that I do not agree with PR, but rather my belief that the way in which the change would be introduced has to be done by asking the people. If you ask the people, you must also say to them: “Do you understand what it is you are voting for?”

Photo of Lord Hacking Lord Hacking Labour

My Lords, as a very new Member of the House, I had not intended to take part in Committee on this important Bill. However, I need to do so to make a confession. Under the hereditary by-elections, in which I participated quite recently, the process is one entirely of proportional representation. That will open up my noble friend Lord Grocott to argue that this is a further reason why the hereditary Peers’ elections should not take place. He could add that it is a further reason why I should not be here at all.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat 6:45, 23 March 2022

My Lords, I want to make a brief contribution on Amendment 144C in the name of my noble friend Lord Shipley, relating to proportional representation in local government. My noble friend Lord Scriven, the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, and others have spoken on it as well. I want to pick up one remark made by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, that the problem with, for instance, the European elections and the nature of the voting system for them was that those elected were too distant from the electors. I will make a couple of points relating to local government, which I think might be relevant.

Last May, in the local elections, 3.2 million people voted Conservative but still found themselves in a local authority that had no Conservative councillors at all; 40,000 of those were in Manchester, the neighbouring authority to my authority of Stockport. Those 40,000 people voted Conservative, but they did not get one Conservative councillor elected in Manchester. In fact, there has not been a Conservative elected to Manchester City Council since 1992. There are actually a large number of local authorities where one or the other of the two big parties does not have any representatives at all in that area.

The Conservatives have no councillors elected in Newcastle, Norwich, Newham, Oxford or Cambridge. There is a list, but I will not go on any further than that. Conversely, of course, there are plenty of Labour voters who are not represented at all by a councillor in the authority in which they reside: 5.8 million Labour votes were cast for candidates in local authorities where no Labour councillor at all was elected. When it comes to being distant from the electors, we need to bear in mind the very polarising effect of first past the post in quite a number of our local authorities.

One place where Labour has no councillors is the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames in London. Labour had 36% of the national share of the vote at the last round of elections but no Labour councillor was elected. That was a Liberal Democrat stronghold, but in Harrogate, 23.4% of people voted for Labour candidates, but none was elected. That is a Conservative stronghold.

It is not just whether people have representation at all in a local authority; it is whether they have appropriate representation, depending on the strength of the electorate who supported them. I picked out just one local authority—not completely at random—the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, where in 2018, 78,491 votes were cast for Conservative candidates, and that resulted in the election of 11 councillors. In fact, they lost 28 seats as a result of that. They should, in fact, have had 20 seats, had there been a more proportional system.

I will not detain the Committee any further on that but point out simply that this amendment would introduce a change to local government in England which would be very much to the benefit of local democracy and the fair representation of people. It would give people a voice or a channel of communication, at least, for their point of view in practically every town hall in the country.

On the much wider debate that has opened up, I say simply to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that in 2010, when he stood for election on the Labour manifesto, he stood on a commitment to introduce the alternative vote. Indeed, I remember, as one of those who took part in the negotiations with the other parties in the start-up of the coalition Government, having a discussion with senior members of his party about that proposition.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour

If I heard aright, the noble Lord said that I stood in the election of 2010, but I am afraid that I was in the House of Lords by that stage.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat

How very wise the noble Lord was to miss that particular commitment, is all I can say. A number of his colleagues were blessed by that promise.

To return to the substance of Clause 11 and the amendments moved by the noble Lord, Lord True, I remind the Committee that the Law Commission said that there should be a comprehensive overhaul of election legislation brought forward in a proper Bill. The Committee on Standards in Public Life produced 47 recommendations for change. Both those ideas have been rejected by the Government on the grounds that there has not been enough time, it needs more consideration and there would have to be wide consultation before they could be brought in. Finding that this proposition has been dumped into the Bill is inconsistent with that view against having a comprehensive reform of electoral law, along the basis that independent sources strongly recommend.

I was impressed by what the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said about the views of the Mayor of Greater Manchester and his reasoning. That struck me, as someone who lives in the area over which the mayor casts his eye, more powerfully than it probably did other noble Lords. There is no element of self-interest in what the Mayor of Greater Manchester said. It grieves me to say that in the May mayoral election, Andy Burnham, the mayor, won a plurality of votes in every ward in every borough in Greater Manchester, including all those which at the same time returned Tory, Liberal Democrat and, in one or two cases, independent councillors. There was a clear view from the electorate that they wanted this personality as the Mayor of Greater Manchester. Whether we like to believe it or not, it clearly transcended people’s normal political convictions to say, “In this case, I am voting for this person.” That characteristic of the mayoral election frankly surprised me, because I am not a supporter of mayoral systems, but I must admit there was a powerful advert for it in that election.

There is also a powerful advert there for the retention of a first and second choice. It was not called into play in Greater Manchester so we do not know what the figures would have been, but we know the result in those places where it has been called into play, and people have quite easily adopted the idea that they have a preferred candidate but, if it cannot be that one, there is another who would do as their second best. That development of an overall mandate is a powerful benefit of the present system, whatever its authorship might be. It might well be the first time that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, and I have been on the same side of any discussion.

I strongly support the view that we should delete Clause 11 and retain the current system of electing our mayors in the big cities.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, it has been a lengthy debate. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, that I have not presented any amendment. I am presenting to your Lordships’ House a Bill which has been passed by the elected House, and your Lordships are expressing opinions on it. It is certainly not the Government who have sought to Christmas-tree the Bill with a generalised debate on proportional representation. The actors in that are elsewhere than at the Dispatch Box.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, the amendment which was introduced in the Commons and is now Clause 11 was a Christmas-tree addition to the Bill by the Government.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I will come to that, my Lords. If the Committee will be indulgent, I think it has heard quite a lot of debate on this subject and I will try to come to the point. As I see it, this very lengthy debate boiled down to two things. First, do we like first past the post? Regrettably, a lot of your Lordships who spoke do not seem to like it, although, like the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, having fought a few elections myself, it seems pretty simple and clear for electors to stick a cross on a piece of paper and get a result. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, was not impressed by that, but the simplicity and clarity of first past the post has a lot to say for it. The second issue in the debate was: should we do this now, in this Bill and in these particular elections? I shall seek to address both of them.

It is irresistible to contemplate the thought of the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, poring over his opinion polls about how popular PR is. I remind him that, before the referendum in 2011—you can look it up on Wikipedia if you like—the opinion polls said how rapturously enthusiastic the majority of the British public were about PR. When the actual argument came along and it was put, they voted for first past the post by—I cannot remember the figure, but I think the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said it was 68%. I would not advise the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, to put too much faith in his opinion polls, although it is a characteristic of that party.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

I just make one point of clarification. It is not an opinion poll but a tracker of opinion over time. If the public should be asked about changing the system, will the Government ask the people in the areas with police and crime commissioners and metro mayors to have a referendum to see whether we want to change the system that we already have?

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, whether it is a poll or a tracker, the noble Lord is welcome to look at it. I will persist with my remarks, which will address the point he just made.

Another argument put by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, was that new parties could not arise. A very great new party arose under the present system: it is called the Labour Party. It supplanted the other party, and it did so because it was popular. As we will see on a later group, one problem is that the parties that want to make the change are those that are not popular, or generally less popular.

That is what the debate was about. I listened with great respect and persistence to the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake —he spoke for nearly 20 minutes. It could have boiled down to one sentence: he did not like first past the post and he wanted your Lordships to stop this proposition. I will now try to address both those points.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

If I may say so, the noble Lord had a good go. I will give him one go.

Photo of Lord Kerslake Lord Kerslake Crossbench

If you make a comment about what somebody said, you need them to be able to come back and say you have got it wrong. The precise point I was making in my speech was not that I favoured PR—although I happen to—but that, irrespective of whether you support PR, the way the Government are doing this and what they are doing is wrong. That is exactly the argument I am making. It is really important not to distort what people are saying in their speeches.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

One might have thought, listening to the noble Lord, that he was talking about his liking for PR, but I will read very carefully what he said in those 17 minutes.

There is one specific amendment that I should like to address, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, spoke on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Mann. Although he is not in his place, a specific question was asked on Amendment 144D. That amendment would allow returning officers to establish polling stations for five days ahead of the day of a poll. Although advance in-person voting is not available in the UK, voters are already able to cast their vote in advance of the poll by post. The amendment would pose significant logistical challenges for returning officers, including the need to prevent double voting, and could create an inconsistency across the country as to when and where people were able to vote in person, so I would not be able to accept that amendment in this group.

I will address the broader PR question at the end because I am obliged to in that amendments are before the Committee. One reason why these proposals are in the Bill is that it is actually an elections Bill, so it is quite a logical place to include provision relating to elections. Clause 11 moves the voting system for elections for police and crime commissioners in England and Wales, the Mayor of London, combined authority mayors and local authority mayors in England to the simple majority voting system—first past the post. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, whose efforts in Northern Ireland I profoundly respect, that the proposals before the Committee do not affect Northern Ireland. The position within Northern Ireland to address the particular nature of that polarised society is outwith this piece of legislation.

The first past the post system is robust, secure and provides strong local accountability. I have listened with interest to the exegesis of successive Conservative manifestos, and it is no secret that the Conservative Party supports first past the post. That is our position. In the 2019 manifesto, we said:

“We will continue to support the First Past the Post system of voting”.

We do and we are, and we believe that moving to first past the post will make it easier for the public to express a clear preference.

Even the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, was telling us about the tremendous complexity of these forms that came in that made people confused. He says they can be changed but first past the post is simple and easy. It is well understood, trusted and will reduce complexity for voters and administrators alike.

We have an Elections Bill. We have a party committed to the promotion of first past the post. What happened? What happened was the 2021 election. The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, was kind enough to refer to comments I made at an earlier stage. Perhaps I could remind the Committee—I think he did give these figures; they are correct and they bear hearing again—that the overall rejection rate in the May 2021 elections was 0.8% in local council elections, 2.7% for police and crime commissioners and 4.3% for the Mayor of London.

In the 2021 London mayoral elections, with this supplementary vote that some who have spoken are so keen on, almost 5% of the total votes in the first round were rejected. That is 114,201 ballots rejected. On second preferences, 265,353 voters were invalidated because their second preference was cast for the same candidate as the first, so they were not particularly bothered about having a supplementary choice, one might infer. Some 319,978 second preferences were unmarked and 7,000 people voted for far too many candidates.

Given that, it can hardly be contested that the system that we have did not cause confusion. These figures are significantly higher than at elections run under first the post. We had this 4.3% rejection but at the last general election under the tried system that some of us prefer, just 0.36% of ballots were rejected, including, no doubt, some that were deliberately spoiled. That is the circumstance that has changed. There is an elections Bill, there is a Government who have given a commitment to promote and support first past the post and there is clear evidence in the Electoral Commission report that came out in September that there are problems with the supplementary vote system.

Clause 11, as well as reflecting those things—and I am sorry to say this to some noble Lords who have spoken; I know that they do not like it—reflects the preference of British voters as expressed in the 2011 referendum. I am sorry this is the case. Two-thirds of people voted in favour of retaining first past the post for parliamentary elections in the 2011 referendum. Faced with that—

Photo of Lord Davies of Brixton Lord Davies of Brixton Labour 7:00, 23 March 2022

The noble Lord is characterising my vote. It was against the alternative vote system and not for first past the post. We voted on an alternative vote system. That is not what the Minister is suggesting the vote was on.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I do not know whether the noble Lord has been here all through the debate, but I maintain the position that the Electoral Commission has reported. I have given the facts to the Committee on the problems that arose under the supplementary vote system.

Photo of Lord Kerslake Lord Kerslake Crossbench

My Lords, with respect, the Minister partially reported what the Electoral Commission said. It pointed to the fact that the level of rejections in the 2016 election was 1.9%. It said the single biggest issue in the 2021 election was the design of the form. Those are critical factors in forming a judgment about the voting system.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, the noble Lord says let us have a look at 2016. The noble Lord also said not to pay any attention to the 2017 Conservative Party manifesto which is explicit on this point before the Committee. He wants to go back to 2016 for one thing and not back to 2017 for another. I think the noble Lord is rather picking and choosing his arguments. I wish to make progress—

Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Labour

The Minister made an important point in his argument about the 2011 referendum. That was on first past the post for Westminster elections. Is the Government’s contention that they want to see first past the post for all elections in the UK, including the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and the London Assembly? If that is so, why have they not introduced that in this Bill? Why pick on this particular electoral choice?

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I am speaking to what is before the Committee at the moment. As far as the Scottish and Welsh elections are concerned, the noble Lord knows very well that there is devolution, which this Government respect.

I will respond to what the noble Lord said about the London Assembly. It involves rather more complex issues in terms of the Assembly’s potential make-up. We will be considering further how these principles could be applied to the London Assembly and perhaps promoting the use of first past the post, but we are open to representations on how that could be implemented. For the moment, the proposition is on these specific elections, against the background I have described: the Government committed to first past the post, the Elections Bill and the evidence of problems in 2021.

I turn to the broader amendments—which I must because they are before the Committee—from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. It is always the less popular parties which clamour for PR. They want to introduce a new clause abolishing the use of first past the post at parliamentary general elections held more than six months after the passage of the Bill. For the reasons I have already discussed, we cannot accept that. First past the post ensures a clear link between elected representatives and constituents in a manner that other voting systems do not. The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, was compelling on that point.

The new clause proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, is not clear even on what sort of electoral system he wants to introduce—that is the most bizarre thing about the amendment that he is asking your Lordships to agree with. He wants to get rid of the present system within two years, but he does not say what would happen if an election came along before that or in the period where there was uncertainty because a new system would require further primary legislation to enact it. There is a real risk, if we went down the road proposed by the noble Lord, that we might not have an established legal method as to how Members of the other place were elected. To be confronted with this question mark of an amendment when the Government are charged with being frivolous—I think the proponents of this amendment are frivolous. All we know from the noble Lord’s amendment is that he wants a system that would have had, over the past five parliamentary general elections, a mean average Gallagher proportionality index of less than 10—that will get them jumping around in the pubs in Saltaire and Moulsecoomb, I am sure.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am sure that the Minister knows that this is copied from the SNP amendment in the Commons. One may talk about umpteen different proportional systems—and no electoral system is perfect, of course—but there is a choice to be made, putting it simply, between the Irish and the Scottish and Welsh systems. I prefer the Irish, but I think it would be appropriate to have some consultation among parties before a decision was finally taken. The point that a number of us have been making throughout the Bill is that, on constitutional matters such as this, it would be appropriate to aim for some consensus among the parties, rather than have each party—as in our aggressive two-party system—changing the rules to favour itself.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

The noble Lord has completely failed to answer the core question. He has thought about this amendment and tabled it, it is here on the list and in it he says:

“The simple majority system must not be used for any Parliamentary general election after the end of the period of six months beginning on the day on which this Act is passed.”

Who knows when the end of the Session will be, but let us say that this Act is fortunate enough to get on to the statute book, that means that for any election in 2023 or 2024, we would not be allowed to use first past the post—if your Lordships agreed to the amendment that the Liberal Democrats have put before the Committee, supported by the Green group—but would have to flounder around to find some other system, which the noble Lord will not specify, which would have a mean average Gallagher proportionality index of less than 10.

I am accused—the Government are accused—of coming to this Dispatch Box arguing for first past the post, which people understand, while the people on the other side come forward with a kind of canard of nonsense, such as in the noble Lord’s amendment. We are also asked for citizens’ assemblies, but I can only repeat what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott said, with much greater eloquence than mine, that we did have a big citizens’ assembly of nearly 20 million people who decided this in 2011.

I am not convinced by the arguments that I have heard on proportional representation; I do not believe that this is the appropriate Bill in which to try to change our system from first past the post within six months, as is proposed. But, returning to the core of the question, I do believe that it is reasonable to have a simpler system than the system that proved so confusing and led to so many wasted votes in the London elections and that we should go for first past the post, as the Government have maintained very clearly. I ask the House to reject the amendments that have been tabled.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I do not want to get into any discussion at all about what sort of electoral system is best because, to me, that is not what this clause is about. It is about changing the system without any consultation at all. Much of this Bill has had no consultation or pre-legislative scrutiny. Our concern—my big concern—is that lack of consultation, working with local people about the proposals. With the changes to the mayoral system and the PCCs, but the mayoral system in particular, it is extremely disappointing that the Government decided to bring these in—very, very late and after they had been told originally that it was out of scope. That, to me, is the big problem with Clause 11. I am disappointed that the Minister did not address my concerns around the fact that it was disrespectful to the House and that an Elections Bill should have more consideration.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 7:15, 23 March 2022

I am sorry that the noble Baroness—for whom I have the greatest possible respect, as she knows—feels that way. The House of Commons did not seem to regard it as disrespectful. I have submitted that there is nothing novel or unusual about first past the post. It is not one of the kinds of systems that is suggested. The Government have made it clear to the electorate that they wish to maintain and support first past the post. We have an Elections Bill, we have the evidence of the difficulties caused in the London mayoral elections, and I think it is reasonable for the Government to seek to address that. Others may have different opinions, but I think Parliament would be remiss in not considering whether there is a better system than that which led to hundreds of thousands of wasted votes in the London elections last spring.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I have the greatest respect for the Minister but—with the greatest respect—that really did not address the issue. However, in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 134 withdrawn.

Amendment 135 not moved.

Clause 11 agreed.

Amendment 136 not moved.