Democratic Reform

– in the Scottish Parliament at 10:22 am on 29th April 2010.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 10:22 am, 29th April 2010

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-6215, in the name of Robin Harper, on democratic reform.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 10:28 am, 29th April 2010

The Scottish people are about to go to the ballot boxes again and this time round they will vote in one of the most extraordinary elections that we have faced for some time. The sitting Prime Minister himself described the election as "wide open".

I hope that there is an open invitation for more diversity to be brought to the green benches of the House of Commons at Westminster. However, the voting system that is in use for the general election does not, cannot and will not reflect the true colours of Scottish opinion. We will be left yet again with a Parliament at Westminster that does not truly reflect how we cast our votes, because we cannot yet vote under a system of proportional representation.

The Scottish Greens have brought this debate to ensure that the Scottish Parliament speaks proudly and positively on the issue. We want to give the Scottish Parliament a chance to make a clear stand against the long-discredited system of first past the post and in favour of a fairer system of voting for the Scottish people in the Westminster elections.

More than that, we want to tell people throughout the United Kingdom that PR is already working, and working well, here in Scotland.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

I thank George Foulkes for that intervention.

During the past eleven years, Holyrood has matured into a successful, modern, European parliamentary democracy. PR has served us well and we should say so clearly, particularly at this time.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

I will not take an intervention from a member who has already indicated his view by describing my speech as rubbish before he even heard it. I advise the member to listen.

The mood of public opinion has turned firmly against first past the post. The polls have demonstrated an appetite for change and some of the most recent results show that public support for proportional representation is at an all-time high, with around two thirds of the public in favour.

In 1999 and 2003, I remember how many people felt that their vote had counted for the first time. I am quite sure that they included Conservatives who had not thought that their votes had counted for a long time.

Even Alex Massie, from that bastion of Conservatism, The Spectator, has questioned how sustainable first past the post is. He said:

"Electoral reform didn't matter a damn when the Big Two won nine in ten votes; if they only win six in ten then matters seem rather different and you have an awful lot of people sitting on the sidelines, frustrated and feeling ignored and shut-out from the conversation."

The current system of first past the post means that tens of thousands of voters see their votes go to waste. The Electoral Reform Society reckons that about 70 per cent of votes are wasted. The system allows a party that receives a tiny minority of votes to win a clear but undemocratic majority of seats. For example, in 2005 Labour won 55 per cent of the seats contested, with just 35 per cent of the popular vote. That was absurd. Most people voted against their local member of Parliament and barely a third of votes delivered Labour a whopping majority. It is no wonder that confidence in politics has fallen so low. An unfair electoral system mixed with an expenses scandal makes for a pretty toxic cocktail.

In Scotland there is a system of proportional representation for every layer of government apart from Westminster. Scottish voters are used to voting for different political parties in the constituency and list votes for Holyrood and, by and large, they understand well how to use their votes to get the results that they want—although the results are not necessarily those that members of the Scottish Parliament want. Westminster remains a political pariah, with its archaic system of voting, which was intended for a two-party state. The system is well past its sell-by date.

The single transferable vote system offers the best and fairest form of proportional representation, while preserving a local link between members and the areas that they represent. Every voter's preference counts. There is no need for tactical voting. Voters are likely to get at least one member of Parliament from a party that they support, even if that is not their favourite party.

Generations of establishment MPs have protected a system that favours their parties but which seriously disadvantages their constituents.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

I thank Robin Harper for his support for STV and for extolling its virtues, but will he say why he made a submission to the Arbuthnott commission in favour of the additional member system—and not STV—for the Scottish Parliament?

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

At the time it seemed the best system available to us, and there was a good record of it working extremely well in Germany.

As I said, generations of establishment MPs have protected a system that favours their parties but which seriously disadvantages their constituents. It must not be allowed to continue. Any Government should either be backed by a majority of the electorate or be prepared to work as a minority Administration. Fairer votes have worked at Holyrood and in Scottish local government, and the time has come to bring reform to the Westminster Parliament too. I urge members to back the call for Holyrood's successful use of proportional representation to be set up as an example to inspire reformers in that last bastion of wasted votes and overpowerful minorities.

I move,

That the Parliament believes that the current UK general election must be the last to use the discredited first-past-the-post electoral system and that the single transferable vote is the best way to ensure that the public receive the democratic representation that they deserve in future.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour 10:36 am, 29th April 2010

I have not been convinced by Robin Harper's arguments—he might not be surprised to hear that. I noted that, in his contribution, he did not use the word "constituent" or "electorate", which is telling. There was no evidence in his contribution that STV would ensure that representatives are more accountable to their constituents than to their party leaders. Robin Harper's contribution was flawed in that respect.

In the amendment in my name, we state clearly our position, which is that we should continue to maintain the constituency link. There are arguments for and against us in that respect, and the first-past-the-post system has many challenges, but we cannot move away from the fact that it has successfully provided an opportunity for communities to elect and deselect representatives on many occasions, sometimes to the detriment of members of this chamber. Local examples include Dennis Canavan and Jean Turner, in respect of whom communities in Falkirk West and Strathkelvin and Bearsden had an opportunity that would not have been afforded to them under the STV system.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

The point that the Labour Party must answer is that the first-past-the-post system also gave us Mrs Thatcher, despite the vehement opposition of two thirds of the electorate.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

I would not disagree with Robert Brown on the fact that we unfortunately had Margaret Thatcher for that period.

There is no evidence that the use of STV in local government has increased voter turnout. We have raised that issue in the chamber on a number of occasions. It is a fixation of the media that we have not been able to increase voter turnout, and during the recent local government elections there was no evidence that the introduction of the single transferable vote system had enabled us to increase voter turnout. I also note that STV for local government has created comfort zones in many multimember wards throughout Scotland. I cannot see how the electorate have benefited since we introduced the system for local government in 2007.

I am not one for defending the minority Scottish National Party Government, and I will not start this morning, but I cannot help but observe what the so-called proportionality of this Parliament has created. I ask members to recall the events of last year's budget, when the Green party had such a disproportionate effect on the outcome of the minority Government's budget. It should be noted that 4 per cent of the regional votes were cast in favour of the Green party, and nearly 1 per cent for Margo MacDonald. It was clear from the budget negotiations that those who were elected with the fewest votes were able to make their demands of the minority Government.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

It is arithmetical reality that the Green party in this chamber had two votes on the budget. Any other two members could have negotiated had they wished to. The question is one of the power of the whips, which controls back benchers. It would be a far better and more mature democracy if back benchers of all political parties threw their weight about.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

It is a mathematical fact that more than 10,000 votes were cast in favour of me in my constituency of Glasgow Springburn, while 10,000 votes were cast in favour of Patrick Harvie in the whole of the Glasgow region. Considering that, I think that the effect that Patrick Harvie had was disproportionate.

Patrick Harvie referred to The Spectator, so I refer him to an article in it by Fraser Nelson that is headlined, "The pitfalls of a minority government". He states:

"The Greens were bribing" the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth,

"asking for £22 million for some home insulation scheme, then upping it to £33 million. As always with the PR system, the tail wags the dog."

I could not have put it better myself.

I do not fault members for seeking to negotiate the position to their advantage; I simply point out that every system, including proportional representation, has its flaws. Surely it is unacceptable that those in the chamber who received the fewest votes can command such power during budget negotiations.

I note from today's Business Bulletin that the SNP is silent on the issue. SNP members may argue for a more proportional system—we will hear from them—and they may argue against the first-past-the-post system, but I must ask why so many SNP members seek the prize of the constituency MSP position. Many of them shadow constituency MSPs, and many have sought the prize successfully—Nicola Sturgeon and Bruce Crawford among them. They had such enthusiasm for seeking constituency representation during the previous session that they will surely continue to support that constituency link and the first-past-the-post system.

In conclusion, as I have said, there is no perfect system, but we need to be clear about the fact that we wish to retain the constituency link. We should reflect on the fact that the STV system is flawed and serves up many anomalies. I ask members to support the amendment in my name.

I move amendment S3M-6215.2, to leave out from "the current" to end and insert:

"there is no perfect electoral system, with each having advantages, disadvantages and the potential to produce anomalous outcomes; acknowledges the value of the constituency link in promoting and preserving accountability and the service of elected representatives; believes that democratic reform should encompass far greater change than simply potential changes to the system of election, and welcomes the significant progress in this regard, including devolution in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, the ending of hereditary peerages in the House of Lords and the enactment of the Human Rights and Freedom of Information Acts."

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 10:42 am, 29th April 2010

I welcome the opportunity afforded by the Scottish Greens to debate the topical issue of voting systems. I regret that that is where the consensus ends, because I do not agree with the terms of the motion that the Greens have lodged and the aim to introduce a single transferable vote for Westminster elections. Having heard Paul Martin's contribution, I think that there is a degree of consensus between us and those on the Labour benches, not least on the basis of the sedentary intervention from George Foulkes, with whom I have some sympathy—at least on certain occasions.

The first-past-the-post voting system has served us well over many years. It has delivered stable Governments at Westminster, with a parliamentary majority that has allowed them, whatever their political complexion, to tackle the difficult issues facing the nation. At a time of economic recession—the worst in recorded history—and crisis in our public finances, now is not the time to change the voting system to prevent any party from achieving an overall majority.

The great advantage of the first-past-the-post system is that it puts the voters in charge. When they feel that the Government has run its course, they can vote for it to be replaced in its entirety. Of course, that is exactly what happened in 1997, when, as my party knows to its cost, a Conservative Government that had been in power for 18 years was replaced wholesale with a Labour Government. Although that was a very uncomfortable experience for my party, I have no doubt that it reflected the mood of the country at the time.

The difficulty with proportional representation is that it transfers power from the people to the politicians.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I am sorry—I have only four minutes. Let me make some progress.

There has been much debate about the issue in the past few weeks and talk of the possibility of a hung Parliament. Let us imagine that we had proportional representation and were virtually guaranteed hung Parliaments in every election. If that was the case, we could even have a situation in which, post election, the Liberal Democrats do a deal with Labour, who might have come third in the election, and put it back into power. That outcome would clearly be unacceptable to the people, but that is what happens if we have proportional representation.

Robert Brown referred, rather inaccurately, to the history of Margaret Thatcher, who never obtained less than 40 per cent of the popular vote. Under proportional representation, we could face a scenario after the election in which Gordon Brown continues in office as Prime Minister with the support of the Liberal Democrats. Someone who has been rejected by the people could be propped up in office by the Lib Dems under PR. That is why PR is wrong.

The worst aspect of PR is that it has allowed the extreme socialists of the British National Party to gain a foothold in the European Parliament as representatives of English constituencies. Under the first-past-the-post system, those extremists would have no prospect of being elected, but under PR they have been given a leg up, which has provided them with a platform for promoting their pernicious policies. The election of two BNP members of the European Parliament is the best possible argument against the use of PR for Westminster elections.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

The member mentioned the European Parliament elections, but BNP candidates were elected because people voted for them, not because of the voting system. Why have many tens of BNP councillors been elected in England under the first-past-the-post system?

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

It is deeply to be regretted that the use of PR has resulted in the BNP being given a platform in the European Parliament. It was a mistake to move away from a first-past-the-post system.

We do not believe that the current system is perfect; indeed, we have called for it to be reformed. Far too many constituencies in which Labour MPs are elected have very small electorates in comparison with those in which Conservatives MPs are elected. We need a fairer distribution of seats, and we believe that the Boundary Commission should be given that remit. A more equitable distribution of seats would provide a fairer outcome for all and would mean that the good aspects of the first-past-the-post system in delivering strong and stable government would be preserved.

I move amendment S3M-6215.1, to leave out from "UK" to end and insert:

"first-past-the-post electoral system has delivered decades of strong and stable government in the United Kingdom; regrets that the adoption of proportional representation for European elections has resulted in the election of members of the British National Party; supports the retention of first-past-the-post for Westminster elections, and calls for the necessary reforms to be made to the system so as to ensure a fairer outcome in future UK elections."

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party 10:46 am, 29th April 2010

I begin by clarifying that I am pleased to support the Green party's motion, particularly as the UK general election campaign enters its final week. The campaign has raised many issues, not least the need for electoral reform. The Scottish Government supports Robin Harper's call for an end to the first-past-the-post electoral system and the introduction of proportional representation.

The advantages of PR are well known, but there are those who tell us that PR inevitably leads to unstable government—we have just had one such rant from Murdo Fraser. That is not true. There are examples of successful and stable Governments around the world that have been elected under various forms of PR. Germany is an example of a stable country that is led by a Government that was formed under PR. Elections in Germany are decided by the additional member system. PR is widely used throughout Europe. Outside the UK, every other European country, except France, uses it. In the European states, there are 15 coalitions, seven majority Governments, including Greece, and three minority Governments.

Paul Martin said that the system that is used for Scottish Parliament elections, the additional member system, encourages the behaviour that he referred to. The use of an STV system would knock that on the head. Where does Labour stands on the alternative vote system, which Paul Martin did not mention once? Where does Paul Martin stand on that?

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

We have not heard Bruce Crawford—or any other member—use the word "electorate". Is he suggesting that STV should be introduced for Scottish Parliament elections?

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

The SNP has advocated the use of STV for many a long year because it gives parties an incentive to present a balanced team of candidates to maximise the number of high preference votes that they receive, which helps the advancement of women candidates and candidates from minority groups, who might otherwise be overlooked in the search for a safe candidate in a first-past-the-post election.

The first-past-the-post system is implicated in many things that turn people off politics: safe seats that the campaign treats as if they were irrelevant; the targeting of swing voters in marginal seats that makes all parties sound alike; and the adversarial posturing that goes on between elections. There are no safe seats under STV, candidates cannot be complacent and parties must campaign everywhere, not just in the marginals. Reforming the voting system is part of the process of reconnecting the people to politics, and in that regard it could make a significant difference.

Since 2007, we have had a minority Government in Scotland and, prior to 2007, we had a coalition Executive. The combination of those factors has not led to instability, as the detractors of PR would have had us believe. PR provides a more accurate reflection of voting intentions and gives people the opportunity to elect a wider and more representative range of candidates that reflects the make-up of society, while still allowing candidates to maintain a close link with the communities that they represent.

In 2007, there were many who argued that the minority Government would not survive. Few would have predicted how successful it would have been three years on. It has meant that new ways of working together have had to be adopted, which have allowed us to deliver for the people of Scotland. I will take a moment to highlight the achievements of the minority Government, the list of which is comprehensive.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

Okay. I guess that I will conclude there, as my time is up.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 10:51 am, 29th April 2010

We have heard some extraordinary things so far in the debate. Paul Martin cited Fraser Nelson, of all people, in support of his proposition, while Murdo Fraser used the current situation under the first-past-the-post system and the prospect of a minority Government at Westminster as an argument against PR, which seems a bit peculiar to say the least.

It may not come as a surprise to the Parliament to learn that Liberal Democrats will support the motion on democratic reform, which is a timely call not just for proportional representation to be used in Westminster elections, but for the introduction of the STV system. I welcome Green support for the cause but, as Robin Harper fairly acknowledged, it has been the remarkable success of Nick Clegg in the prime ministerial debates and the surge in support for the Liberal Democrats that has put the issue smack in the centre of the political debate.

Social justice is a cause that Labour members go on about—they claim that it is close to their hearts. Democratic renewal is very much a social justice issue; indeed, it is central to the delivery of social justice in our country. I understand the naked political interest that causes Labour and the Conservatives to favour the first-past-the-post system that so favours their parties and to reject the fair system of PR that gives proper representation to other parties, but I find it extremely difficult to regard as a principled stance a position whereby one person's vote is treated as having three or four times the value of another person's vote. When the polls show that the three major parties all have support of around 30 per cent, the public are, I think, rather surprised to discover that that could result in the Tories and the Labour Party gaining 260 seats each and the Liberal Democrats getting only 90 to 100. Welcome to democracy, Westminster-style.

To be fair to Labour, it has played a major part in introducing PR to Scottish Parliament and Scottish local government elections—Paul Martin tried to expunge that record—but on voting reform at Westminster, it has been hugely evasive. As has been mentioned, Labour's last-ditch conversion to the non-proportional alternative vote system took place only when it became clear that it was going to lose the general election.

Of course, PR has a downside. It brought back the Scottish Conservatives from the land of the undead and it gave the minority SNP Government its chance—although there is an interesting twist to that, given that yesterday it was revealed that Alex Salmond has lost half the support that existed for independence when he became SNP leader for the second time: the figure is down to only 15 per cent.

There is another interesting aspect to the potential for PR at Westminster. Its use would destroy the artificial Conservative majority in England and the artificial Labour majority in Scotland, thus restoring a commonality to political trends across the UK and taking the sting out of the West Lothian question.

Those are interesting quirks, but STV PR would put the people and their concerns at the centre of the political process. The country has manifestly had enough of the two old parties; of the electoral pendulum swinging back and forth between them; of a war in Iraq that was entered into against the will of the British people; of billions of pounds of public money being poured into the banks without it being a condition that the obscene executive bonuses be ended; and of Mrs Thatcher and her destruction of society, which was carried out when the Conservatives had a majority of the seats but only a proportion of the vote and against the gritted objection of two thirds of the public. Labour's intransigence on voting reform has a great deal to answer for.

Voting reform at Westminster is not just a long overdue measure of social justice and popular empowerment in itself. It is central to a swathe of long overdue political reforms that are required to clean up the system, not least of which is the need to end the Prime Minister's ability to call a general election at a time of his choosing.

Something interesting is happening at this election. People—young people in particular—are reconnecting to the issue, girding their loins for something different and seeing hope, optimism and opportunities for the future. Much of that focuses around the boring, anorak, but vital question of fair and equal votes. Tonight the Scottish Parliament can play its part in the process by backing the motion.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party 10:55 am, 29th April 2010

I thank the Green party for bringing us the debate on STV PR. I confess that I was beginning to get withdrawal symptoms, because it must be at least two years since we had such a debate. As a self-confessed geek about electoral systems, I thank the Green party for providing me with a timely fix.

It is important for us to understand why we are debating PR today. It is because the Labour Government, in its death throes, is desperately trying to find a lifeline for when it is thrown out of office next Thursday. Labour members have watched the return of the Tories in the Scottish Parliament through PR, and they realise that the Labour Party might need PR for itself at Westminster in the future.

I agree with the Greens that STV PR is necessary for Westminster. There is no point in trying to renew that discredited institution by bringing in more new members of Parliament than at any time for about 100 years if we do not also renew the electoral system that encouraged some of the excesses. Channel 4 did an analysis that showed that those who were most at fault—those who made the most claims—were those who were in seats that had the biggest majorities.

STV PR puts the voter in charge and gives every voter a voice. Perhaps after yesterday's events in Rochdale, the Labour Party does not really want voters to have that voice. STV PR takes the power out of the hands of political parties. It allows the voter to choose between parties and between candidates in each of those parties. If women wish to vote for only women candidates, they can do so. If they want to vote for only male candidates, they can do that, too; STV PR allows them to do so. If people wish to vote only for their preferred political party and for no other, there is nothing to stop them.

STV PR will stop forever the obscenity of the only people who have an impact in a UK general election being a handful of voters in a handful of marginal seats that change from one election to the next. That is what determines the UK Government. STV PR will give everyone an equal vote, regardless of where they live in the UK. Everyone's vote is not equal while marginal seats and the support of people at the polls in those seats are, frankly, courted and bought by political parties.

At the moment, Scotland has four different voting systems—local government, Westminster, Europe and the Scottish Parliament—and that is unsustainable. I worked hard to ensure STV PR for local government, and I believe that it should be introduced for elections to the Scottish Parliament. It is imperative that the Westminster Parliament also introduces STV PR.

I want to pick up on a couple of points that were made earlier in the debate. I found Murdo Fraser's amendment and speech to be quite shameful. Although it is true that BNP members were elected to Europe under a proportional representation system, the fact is that people voted for them, and they did so because the Labour Party and the Tories have all but abandoned constituencies to the BNP. It is worth reminding ourselves that BNP members have been elected in council elections all over England under the first-past-the-post system. It is not the electoral system that is at fault for letting in the BNP; frankly, it is down to the other political parties.

I want to pick up very gently on the Greens—

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

The member should be winding up. Speeches are four minutes.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

On the Greens and Arbuthnott, I welcome today's conversion to STV PR. The Greens are coming home, and it is very welcome.

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour 11:00 am, 29th April 2010

The title of today's debate is "Democratic Reform", and that does not just cover the system of election to the House of Commons. First, we must reform the unrepresentative and unelected second chamber at Westminster: the House of Lords. That could be done by abolishing it, and for a while I was in favour of that; I voted for abolition when I was a member of the House of Commons. However, after further discussion and consideration, I am now in favour of a 100 per cent elected second chamber at Westminster, on the clear understanding that the second chamber be kept as a revising legislature. On that basis, the second chamber could be elected under proportional representation. There could be a very good argument for that, and the single transferable vote could even be used with, ideally, a third of the membership changing at every election.

The Lords would be the revising legislature, but the House of Commons would provide the Government, which needs to be stable. As Murdo Fraser rightly said, during most normal elections, the first-past-the-post system provides that stability. The first chamber would provide the Government and the second chamber would be the legislative chamber.

To achieve that, and to get some stability, we would need a written constitution to define the way in which both chambers would be elected and the respective powers of each. We need a written constitution anyway, because we now have the Supreme Court and the separation of powers needs to be more clearly defined. We also need it because we have devolved institutions, such as the Scottish Parliament, which need to have a clear role and their responsibilities set out in a written constitution. I hope that England will move towards having an English parliament sooner rather than later.

The electoral systems that I have described for both Westminster chambers are only part of democratic reform. I am in favour of voting at the age of 16, and I hope that the next Labour Government, to be elected next Thursday, will move in that direction. I am also in favour of compulsory voting, which Helen Liddell has recently been advocating, and which has been very effective in Australia.

I am also in favour of voting taking place over the weekend. Why do we vote on a Thursday? Except for historical precedent, there is no logical reason. It would be much better if people could vote over the weekend when they are not working. Elections could even be held over Saturday and Sunday to make it easier for people to vote. All that is part of democratic reform.

The Liberals say that our arguments in favour of the first-past-the-post system are naked political interest. What about their arguments in favour of STV?

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

No, no, no. I am in my final minute.

Are their arguments in favour of STV just pure benevolence? Are they doing it out of the goodness of their hearts? Of course not. That is naked political interest.

As for my good friend Robin Harper, whom I have known for decades, it is manifest rubbish for him to say that the system of election to this Parliament is great. We had a situation in which some man called Tymkewycz—no one knew who he was—got elected as an MSP for the SNP but then gave it up for some reason; Shirley-Anne Somerville, who was fifth on the list and had been rejected by the people of central Edinburgh then suddenly arrived as an MSP without any election whatsoever. That is not democracy. We have the craziest system for election to the Scottish Parliament, and if anyone thinks of adopting it, they are completely insane.

Photo of Rob Gibson Rob Gibson Scottish National Party 11:04 am, 29th April 2010

Presiding Officer, I plead insanity.

Some of the arguments that have to be made about fairness need to be explored from the point of view of the proposition of single transferable votes in multimember seats. In that circumstance, there is an open list. Reconnecting with the people and holding MSPs to account could take place in that system. People would have a choice of candidates from the parties and would not need to vote for the ones that they did not like. In multimember seats with open lists, people could hold their MPs, MSPs and councillors to account.

The additional member system is more proportional in Germany, where half the members are elected by constituency and the other half are elected from the lists. The Labour Party made sure that, in the arrangements for the Scottish Parliament, we had 73 constituency members and 56 top-up members, which is less proportional. It did not want full proportionality, which is where Labour members' arguments about the first-past-the-post system fall down. All the time, they have tried to keep things as undemocratic as they can.

British democracy is a contradiction in terms, but it is an idea on which we must take advice from people down south. Will Hutton, writing about the subject last Sunday in The Observer, said:

"Above all, if fairness is a value that we care about, the voting system is an offence to any conception of fair political representation. A state that can collude in this degree of unfairness in its electoral system is unlikely to be especially fair itself."

Having the debate about allowing people to be elected by a fairer system will change that state fundamentally. In fact, I believe that, once we do that, we will never again have majority government in the old form.

It is interesting to hear Lord Foulkes arguing for England to have a parliament of its own. That is fine. England's set of priorities may mean a different range of candidates getting elected there. However, what we have in Scotland is a four, five or six-party system that suits our needs.

It is of concern to me to hear the Labour Party and the Conservatives maintaining the argument that fairness is less important than majoritarianism. The SNP has long taken the principled position that votes must be fair and represent the views of the people, and we have championed proportional voting systems for decades. The only way of ensuring that the public's opinion is put into practice is to have the fairest system. Today's debate about STV in multimember seats addresses such questions for the first time.

As a Highlands and Islands member, I remember the Kilbrandon commission, which discussed PR for Scotland but found that there was some problem with very large seats with scattered populations. Nevertheless, it is possible to produce a variety of solutions to that, rather than have the whole of the Highlands and Islands as one seat.

The background against which we are having the debate is a British system that has been so unfair that, since elections became secret, the majority of people have probably voted against the person who was elected. Only once or twice in the past 100 years has the person who was elected belonged to a party that had a majority of the vote. That cannot be fair. We must move to multimember seats and STV.

I support the motion in Robin Harper's name.

Photo of Michael McMahon Michael McMahon Labour 11:08 am, 29th April 2010

From speeches that I have made in Parliament before, members will know that I have always wanted electoral reform. In previous debates on the subject, over the years, I have supported the basis for my position by quoting one of my Labour heroes, Aneurin Bevan, who said:

"The purpose of getting power is to be able to give it away."

I have also pointed out to colleagues previously that Labour was founded to break the established electoral system, as a modern, pluralist society requires that we reconcile the needs and desires of different sectors of society.

In this morning's earlier debate, Elaine Smith rightly referred to James Keir Hardie and the principles on which he founded the Labour Party. As the MSP for the constituency in which James Keir Hardie was born, I am proud to share his conviction in and support for electoral reform. Just as Elaine Smith was right to highlight Labour's views on the pay and dignity of working people, I agree with the words of the Labour Party in 1913, which stated that

"no system of election can be satisfactory which does not give opportunity to all parties to obtain representation in proportion to their strength."

To me, that is a matter of principle, and there is much about the outcome of PR systems that is flawed. For example, we have never been told what shady deal was done behind closed doors to get Patrick Harvie his convenership of the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee. However, every now and again we get indications of the outcome, and this debate might well be one of them.

Tricia Marwick says that she is getting withdrawal symptoms through the lack of discussion of the subject. Why has it taken three years from the first STV elections in local government for the issue to be raised again, especially since all of the pro-reform triumvirate opposite told us that the new system that had been introduced was insufficient to meet their demands and the principles of proportionality? Why have we never been asked, in the three years of this parliamentary session, to look again at the new local government system? I well remember the cries of the oh-so-principled parties opposite that we needed six and seven-member wards in local areas for STV to be acceptable to them. Yet, now that the new system has delivered SNP and Lib Dem councils all over the country and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities is weighted in favour of the SNP, they have all gone quiet. Because they now have the power that they wanted, the new system suits them just fine. They are doing well enough for the issue to have disappeared from the radar screen until now.

I cannot agree with Murdo Fraser that the debate is welcome. The timing of the debate, in the middle of a general election campaign, and the abandonment of a chance for the Greens to discuss environmental issues, for example, expose it for the opportunistic backroom deal that it clearly is. I suggest that Robin Harper and Patrick Harvie would have been better analysing the failures of the SNP on climate change rather than helping it out as part of their backroom deal.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

We did that two weeks ago.

Photo of Michael McMahon Michael McMahon Labour

The Greens could have used their time this morning to do that—it was not their debate a couple of weeks ago. This is their time, this morning, and neither of their two choices has been to debate climate change or environmental issues. They have clearly brought to the chamber a debate that suits their partnership with the SNP Government. I would have thought that, in the middle of a general election, the Greens would have wanted to talk about the environment in at least one of their subject debates. That just goes to show that, if we really want to hold the Government to account on its failings on climate change, we must look to Sarah Boyack and the Labour Party for a genuine commitment on the subject. I thank Patrick Harvie for giving me the chance to say that.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat 11:13 am, 29th April 2010

Like Tricia Marwick, I have had some withdrawal symptoms. However, the déjà vu that I sensed from listening to the speeches of Paul Martin and Michael McMahon has quickly reminded me why I wanted to get off the drug in the first place. Those of us who sat on the Local Government and Transport Committee when it introduced to local government elections the democratic reform that is the single transferable vote will remember Paul Martin's contributions to that debate, and he has still not learned any different.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

Not at the moment, thank you. I am just starting.

Paul Martin's amendment is, however, correct in saying that

"there is no perfect electoral system".

That is why we have every single system working somewhere in the United Kingdom. We have the first-past-the-post system for Westminster and English local government elections; the additional member system for the Scottish Parliament elections; a form of the alternate vote system for the London mayoral elections; STV for Scottish local government elections and elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly; and the list system for European Parliament elections. So, we have plenty of practice in using different systems.

There is no perfect system—they all have their advantages and disadvantages—but the advantage of the single transferable vote is that it transfers power to the voter, which is the one thing that the Labour Party and the Conservatives do not want. They do not want power to be transferred to the voter. Under STV, the voter has the choice of whom to elect, not the parties, and that is the huge advantage of the STV system over any other voting system.

Photo of Michael McMahon Michael McMahon Labour

My brief intervention is to give Iain Smith the opportunity to correct what he said at the start of his speech. He said that, having listened to me, he understood why the Labour Party opposes electoral reform. He sat on the Local Government and Transport Committee with me and heard me making those arguments. Will he retract his accusation?

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

I listened to Michael McMahon's speech this morning and I do not retract anything that I said.

The single transferable vote and proportional representation are, first, about accountability of members to the electors, because the electors have more choice in who they vote for and can therefore hold candidates to account at elections.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

I do not have time. I have only two minutes left.

They are also about accountability in the Parliament. The Conservatives and Labour do not want strong Parliaments. They talk all the time about strong Governments. Yes, we can have strong government but what they mean by that is a Government that can do anything it wants without proper accountability to the Parliament, which is elected. Proportional representation is about ensuring that Parliament properly represents the views of the public and is able to hold Governments to account and keep them in line. Strong government is all very well if the Government is doing things right. Unfortunately, time and time again throughout the last decades, we have had Labour and the Conservatives following each other in turn, doing the wrong things and getting away with it because there is no proper accountability in Parliament.

They can bury their heads in the sand. Things are changing and the electorate is waking up to the fact that it has the power. However, we must change the system, which can result in a situation where electoral estimates suggest that if the voters voted 30 per cent Labour, 30 per cent Tory and 30 per cent Liberal Democrat they would get a result of 306 Labour MPs, 210 Tories and 102 Liberal Democrats. How is that putting power in the hands of the voters to change the Government, as Murdo Fraser claimed in his opening remarks? Of course it does not put power in the hands of the voters. It puts power in the hands of a corrupt, potty electoral system. That is not acceptable and we must change it.

Finally, I wish to respond to Murdo Fraser on the issue of the BNP. The list system is not the best system to elect a European Parliament. It is more likely that parties such as the British National Party will get elected under a list system than under the single transferable vote. That is why I want to see a proper system that gives the voters power to prevent people from parties such as the BNP from being elected. However, as Tricia Marwick rightly said, it was not the voting system that elected the BNP, it was voters. That was a result of the mainstream parties failing to take the BNP head on and prove that the politics of hate does not work. We must ensure that we do that in future. All parties must do that. We must ensure that the politics of hate does not work and bring in a system of voting that allows us, perhaps, to talk about the politics of hope.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 11:18 am, 29th April 2010

The tendency of some politicians and parties to behave like the emperor Nero and fiddle while Rome burns never ceases to amaze me. Everyone knows that the major issues to be addressed at this time and in this election are the recession, economic recovery and the crisis in our public finances. The economy is the mother and father of all issues because everything that affects the wellbeing and welfare of the people flows from it. It is the overriding issue on which the Conservative and Labour Parties are focused, albeit from different perspectives and with different messages, as one would expect. However, we can always rely on the political Neros of this world to miss the point, and lo and behold, the Liberals, the Scottish National Party and the Greens have not disappointed us. We want to talk about the economy. They want to talk about PR and single transferable votes. How irrelevant! As Bill Clinton rightly said, "It's the economy, stupid."

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I am sure that David McLetchie will note with great enthusiasm the strong focus on economic policy in the Green party manifesto, but surely he is not saying that he does not recognise that there is also a fundamental crisis in democracy in the UK. Surely we cannot approach the UK election after the year that we have just had without acknowledging that crisis and its importance.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

We have a democratic system of government in all our Parliaments in the United Kingdom and every single adult in the country will have the opportunity to exercise their vote in the election next week.

We have been over the course on voting systems before, but it is worth while to say again that we are far more likely to see a change of Government in this country with a first-past-the-post system than we ever are with STV. STV would not have produced the political landslides that we have seen in recent times, whether for the Conservatives in 1983 or the Labour Party in 1997. There would be no more Portillo moments. Why? Because the single transferable vote in multimember constituencies gives even more power to the party machines than does first past the post.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I will explain it to the member. Under STV, what decides the Government is not the election but the backroom deals that are cut after the election. It is a not a system that asks the people to decide who governs. It is a system that shuts people out of decision making.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

No. I want to make some progress. I will come to the member's point.

In doing that at national level, it undermines the principle of consultation and community representation—the principle that the member that we elect, irrespective of their party, has a responsibility to all their constituents, as opposed to being at the beck and call of their party and its bunch of local activists. Paul Martin made that point well.

For proof of that proposition, we have only to look at what happened in our STV council elections. As we all know, we have three or four-member wards and all the political parties limit the number of candidates that they put up in each ward to the number of seats that they believe can realistically be won. In virtually every case, only one of the three or four seats is up for grabs and the election focuses on the battle between the parties for that one seat. Two thirds or three quarters of the seats in the ward can safely be predicted before a single vote is cast or counted. There are as many safe seats under an STV system of election as there are under first past the post. Arguably, there are more safe seats under STV. The argument that STV somehow promotes accountability or empowers voters is wholly false.

As George Foulkes said in his excellent contribution, and as is evident from the range of points in the Labour amendment, there is far more to democratic reform in the UK than arguing about one particular system of electing members to councils and Parliaments. We believe that we need democratic reform. We need fair and equal votes in fair and equal constituencies, with equal votes of equal value—a principle that is enshrined in the American constitution.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

We should enshrine that principle in our governance and the election of members to our Parliaments in the UK. It is something that we do not have at present.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

That demonstrates that we have a lot more to focus on than obsessing about a single voting system. There are many more important issues facing the country than how we elect the Westminster Parliament.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour 11:23 am, 29th April 2010

Reform of the voting system for Westminster is not a key issue for ordinary people who are considering their choice of party in the forthcoming election. I cannot confess to experiencing the withdrawal symptoms that Tricia Marwick mentioned. I have been out on the doorsteps and the subject has not been mentioned once.

Perhaps voters do want some renewal of the parliamentary system following the seismic events of Westminster expenses and the global banking crisis and a general desire for more accountability, but as David McLetchie and George Foulkes said, democratic reform is about more than just reform of the voting system. It is about devolving power from the centre, which the Labour Government has done through devolution; reform of the House of Lords; increasing voter turnout; and engaging with the electorate on decisions that affect their lives.

Labour has supported and benefited from the first-past-the-post system, but we gave up that vested interest when we took part in the Scottish Constitutional Convention and supported a proportional system for the Scottish Parliament. That system has been reviewed by the Arbuthnott commission, which supported the continuation of the additional member system and rejected the use of STV for the Scottish Parliament. There is a lot to be said for the system that we have.

The Scottish Green Party's motion focuses on a system of proportionality from which it benefits. Perhaps it would be fairer to the Green party to have STV, but that does not mean that it is the best proportional system. No system is perfect, but if we face a choice, we must focus on the principles that matter to us. The first-past-the-post system has provided stable government for the UK, people understand it, and I do not see any real demand to change it. An STV system means highly localised politics, and that is not best for government. There are serious weaknesses in an STV system.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

I will give way to Patrick Harvie, who supports the motion, but he should be brief, as I have a lot to say.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I understand the argument about stable government, but why is it right that a Government that does not have a majority of support among the public should have the right to a stable mandate?

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

There are weaknesses in every voting system. I will deal with the weaknesses of the STV system. I suppose that it depends on what matters to a person. The link between a constituency and its elected member matters to Labour, and an STV system seriously weakens that link. Commentators say that an STV system with multimember wards creates a pervasive clientism, and they talk about members becoming super-social workers as they compete with one another for profile. Even supporters of STV cannot deny that there are weaknesses in it. Ideas for government will suffer under such a system, as politics become more localised.

Trends in Ireland show that the STV system is not even necessarily proportionate. In 2007, Fianna Fáil received 41 per cent of the vote and 47 per cent of the seats; Fine Gael received 27 per cent of the vote and 30 per cent of the seats; and the Greens received 10 per cent of the vote, but got only 3.6 per cent of the seats.

Robin Harper said that voters are disillusioned because Labour and Conservative Governments have had large majorities, but there is support for majority government among voters. It is not true that everyone out there is demanding coalition Governments, which often result from STV systems. There are various views out there. Criticisms have been made of coalition Governments that Labour has been part of. Coalition Governments are criticised on the basis that manifestos are thrown aside, programmes for government are negotiated, and the voters do not get a chance to vote on those programmes. We must be realistic about the weaknesses in all the systems.

Minority government also creates anomalies. Smaller parties have a disproportionate influence on big decisions. The SNP Government can generally use the fact that it is a minority Government as an excuse for not implementing its manifesto. There are anomalies in every system, and STV is not the answer to the criticisms that have been made. The suggestion that PR would not have given us a Thatcher Government is questionable.

In its 2005 manifesto, Labour said that it has always said that it is prepared to consider change by way of a referendum. We support the first-past-the-post system and say that there must be consensus on any change. There are principles that we must stand on, and any change must be made only if it is supported in a referendum.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party 11:28 am, 29th April 2010

It is strange that the four Labour members who have spoken have not mentioned the alternative vote system. I wonder what they are running away from in light of their manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on that. Not one single Labour member has mentioned that system. George Foulkes made criticisms of the additional member system which Pauline McNeill defended, but not one Labour member has talked about—

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

I do not support AV; I support STV. That has been made clear.

There has been a great deal of focus in the general election campaign on the implications of a balanced Parliament at Westminster after the vote on 6 May. Many people, including members today, have tried to portray a balanced Parliament as a disaster waiting to happen, as if the only way in which a country can be run is by an election giving unfettered power to one party, regardless of the breakdown of votes. We should view the prospect of a balanced Parliament more positively. I say to David McLetchie in particular that, if no party has an overall majority, there will be opportunities for parties to work together to find common ground. An obvious example would be all parties working together to address the current economic crisis. Instead, the media, politicians such as Murdo Fraser, and others have claimed the economic crisis as a reason to fear a balanced Westminster Government. There has been much speculation that a balanced Parliament would lead to terrible consequences—that it would wreak havoc on the markets, and precipitate a sterling crisis and the intervention of the International Monetary Fund but the statistics and facts simply do not back up that view. Ten of the 16 countries that enjoy a triple A rating from the main credit agencies, including Canada, the Netherlands and Austria, have coalition Governments.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

Will the minister confirm which of Greece and Germany has a majority Government and which has a balanced Government?

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

There is a majority Government in Greece—we can see the economic crisis there—and there is a coalition Government in Germany, where there is relative stability.

History has shown that majority Governments in this country are not in themselves a means to economic stability. In 1976, the majority Callaghan Government called in the IMF as the value of the pound plummeted. In 1985, sterling fell to little over $1, despite the fact that Thatcher enjoyed a clear majority. A lot of nonsense has been talked about such matters in the chamber this morning.

Proposals for reforming the Westminster voting system are not without precedent. In 1917, the Representation of the People Bill included proposals for a mixed STV and AV system. The STV proposal was rejected by the unionists and supported by the Liberals—no change there then. That proposal, which would have dramatically changed the face of Government in the UK throughout the 20th century, inevitably fell following a long period of deadlock between the House of Commons and the unelected House of Lords, which we need to see the end of.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

What was so stable about January 2009, when the First Minister advised us that he would not be blackmailed by the Green party on the budget?

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

I will say what has been stable about the SNP Government. We have got three budgets through the Parliament and 1,000 extra police on the streets, the council tax has been frozen and taxes for businesses have been reduced throughout the country. That is what stability from the SNP Government means.

Let me deal with Murdo Fraser's view that STV allows members of extremist parties to be elected. PR is designed to provide representation to parties that achieve a reasonable share of the vote. That applies to small parties with democratic values, but I accept that it can also apply, particularly in some systems, to extremist parties. However, as other members have said, the voting system does not cause that. A first-past-the-post system can also let in extremist parties. Recent local authority elections in Barking, Stoke-on-Trent and Burnley are examples of that. There is a vital difference between representation and control. Obnoxious parties can be represented under PR, but it is almost impossible for them to gain control. By contrast, the BNP has all the borough council seats in part of Burnley despite having obtained nowhere near the majority of the vote. Representation is often a step towards political defeat for extremist parties. The public scrutiny that comes with being in office quickly exposes their inadequacy and the inadequacy of their policies.

A poll that was conducted yesterday by YouGov and The Sun shows that 37 per cent of people throughout the UK who were asked thought that a hung Parliament would be a good thing, whereas 47 per cent thought that it would be a negative thing. By contrast, 49 per cent of those in Scotland who were asked thought that a hung Parliament would be a positive thing, whereas only 40 per cent thought that it would be a bad thing. That is because minority government has been working in Scotland and the SNP Government has been delivering for the people of Scotland.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 11:33 am, 29th April 2010

I will start by addressing a point that Paul Martin made. When we have combined with the Labour Party and the Liberal party to defeat the Government in vote after vote in the chamber, I have not noticed any reluctance by the Labour Party to use the two Green party votes. Paul Martin made an entirely spurious point. Does Labour want us to hand over the government of this country entirely to the SNP for the rest of the session? I think not.

Tricia Marwick dealt with Murdo Fraser's point well, and I will say no more about that. However, his assertion about having fairer constituencies and ensuring that they are nearly precisely the same size is like shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic: it will achieve nothing. Neither he nor the other Conservatives have explained to me or to anybody else exactly how that would achieve more democracy.

Bruce Crawford made the important point that there would be no more marginal seats under STV. The other important point is this: the two major Westminster parties share between them 337 or so safe seats; that is, seats where the result of the vote can virtually be spoken for. Those parties want to keep that situation and the power that they have had over the country for generation after generation. They swap power between themselves and they do not want to let anybody else in. Pauline McNeill claimed that there is no lust for proportional representation among this country's population, but will she explain to me why the Liberal Democrats, who support PR, now lead the Labour Party in the polls? It is precisely because proportional representation is one of the Liberals' policies.

I liked Robert Brown's phrase about restoring commonality, because that is exactly what STV is producing in our councils. A restoration of commonality means that people know that they can take their problems to the councillor of their choice, by and large. That is one of the things that STV delivers at local level.

I mentioned Tricia Marwick's contribution, for which I thank her very much. George Foulkes will be absolutely delighted to hear that, like him, the Green party supports the abolition of the House of Lords and its replacement with an elected second chamber. Like him, we believe in having a written constitution. Like him, we believe in 16-year-olds having the vote. Those are all things that would improve democracy. I plead with George Foulkes to go one step further towards a democratic electoral system.

Iain Smith made a good point when he said that although the other two main Westminster parties, Labour and the Conservatives, want strong Governments, they do not want strong Parliaments. That has been clearly seen. Their idea of stability is to have Prime Ministers who, one after the other, surround themselves with a phalanx of special advisers who divide them from not only the people, but their own back benchers. Those Prime Ministers have ruled from behind a palisade, not letting even their back benchers into conversations with them, let alone hearing the views of Opposition parties.

David McLetchie said that everybody knows that the economy is the overriding issue. Yes, of course it is. The Green party has debated the economy every time that the subject has arisen in the chamber. We have also debated the environment every time that the subject has been brought to the chamber. Today we assert that, with an election shortly ahead of us—the result of which we do not know, but which will certainly not be helped by the first-past-the-post system—we must acknowledge that the electoral system is a problem. David McLetchie also said that there would be as many safe seats under STV as under first past the post, but that is not the case. There would be as many people who would think that they might be elected, but a greater variety of parties would be safely represented under STV. That is what we want—greater fairness of representation.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

No, I am sorry; I have about 20 seconds left.

We would like, as a result of STV, to see everybody's vote count: no more marginals and no more safe seats.