Electoral Reform

– in Westminster Hall at 1:29 pm on 14th June 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West 1:29 pm, 14th June 2005

I very much welcome this albeit brief opportunity to discuss electoral reform and where this country should go following the recent general election. I accept from the outset that the issue of electoral reform is far from the top of the electorate's list of priorities, and certainly far from the top of the Government's list.

One problem of electoral reform is that all too often the issue gets bogged down in detailed conversations for—dare I say it?—anoraks who go on about the merits of one electoral system versus another. Which is the most proportional? Which keeps the constituency link? Is the d'Hondt formula really fair? To me, all those miss a more fundamental question, which all of us who are involved and interested in politics must ask: what sort of Parliament do we want to represent us and what sort of Government do we want to rule over us? In this country, unlike in the United States, our Executive and legislature are inextricably linked, so those two aspects are in effect one and the same.

I place on record my appreciation for the work of the all-party group on electoral reform, which is chaired by Richard Burden. The group has done a power of work for many years and, having attended its first meeting of the new Parliament last week, I can tell the Minister that it is reinvigorated and ready for the debate ahead. l do not want to use this debate to extol the virtues of any particular system. I have my own views—indeed, my party has a very clear and long-standing policy in this area—but today I am arguing for an open debate, not just in this place, but throughout the United Kingdom. I hope the Minister takes the desire for that debate back to her Department.

As the Minister will be aware, this Labour Government were re-elected on the smallest share of the vote in UK electoral history. As the Electoral Reform Society has said, no Government in our history have had such a flimsy base of public support on which to rule. Surely, questions must be asked when a party can win a majority of 66 seats with only 35 per cent. of the vote. In finding answers to these questions, we need a reasoned and sensible debate in which people's differing views are respected.

The Government and this Parliament cannot shy away from that debate. The House of Commons has often been called the mother of Parliaments. Rather than being the loved mother, however, we are in real danger of becoming the embarrassing relative.

The Government have stated that there is no groundswell of support for changing the system. I accept that electoral systems may not be the talk of the steamy, as we say in Scotland, but there is no question but that more and more people of great reputation are coming round to the idea. Professor Patrick Dunleavy of the London School of Economics has described a change in the electoral system as inevitable. I share his sentiment, but cannot, at this stage, share his optimism. There is a great deal of work to be done to win this argument.

It goes almost without saying that any change in the electoral system should be made for the right reasons. It should not merely be mooted by certain members of certain political parties, only when their position under first past the post begins to look vulnerable. It should be a principled decision, based on a desire to improve democracy.

Any electoral system should work for the benefit of the public, not necessarily of the politicians, but the current system fails on that most basic of aims. The British public deserve far better from the system that they use to elect their representatives.

As the Minister will be well aware, The Independent has launched a major campaign for electoral reform entitled "Campaign for Democracy". It has already been backed by leading figures across the political spectrum, and when I last checked more than 36,000 people had signed up. This is an excellent campaign, which seeks not only support, but to educate people about the realities of our electoral system. I pay tribute to all those involved and to the work that they continue to do. To have gathered so many names in a relatively short time is very impressive. I have no doubt that the campaigners will be listening to the debate and that they will be listening particularly intently to the Minister's remarks.

The figures showing the extent of the unfairness built into our electoral system have been well documented, especially in the past few weeks, and I shall revisit some of them. In the general election, the Labour party was rewarded with 55 per cent. of the seats in the House of Commons on a mere 35 per cent. of the vote. The picture is even worse when one considers the percentage of the overall electorate. Labour was given a solid parliamentary majority despite fewer than 22 per cent. of people in the UK voting for it. It received 9.6 million votes from an electorate of more than 44 million.

I remember election night, when it was clear as the votes came in that the agreed line from the Labour party was that people had wanted the return of a Labour Government but with a reduced majority. That mantra was chanted by the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, but I believe it is plainly false. Only 35 per cent. of those who did vote voted Labour and 65 per cent. did not want a Labour Government at all, yet that is exactly what they ended up with.

If first past the post is used for the next election, it will be interesting to see what the electoral lottery produces. Under our current system, it is perfectly possible for the party with the most votes to come second in seats—indeed, that is what happened in 1951 and 1974. In fact, the detail of the 2005 election result shows that we faced exactly the same electoral quirk. In England, the Conservative party won 50,000 more votes than Labour, yet Labour won 92 more English seats than the Tories. I challenge anyone to defend that ridiculous situation.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Whip

Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation is equally ridiculous north of the border? The Member of Parliament for Glasgow, North, the constituency next to mine, was elected by less than one in five of the registered voters. Across Scotland, Labour won over 70 per cent. of the seats with less than 40 per cent. of the votes. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is unfair?

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a very good point. While there is an established three-party system in England, in Scotland we have four well-established parties and, in many areas, five. So, the situation is worse north of the border.

Under our current system, the job of government and the powers that come with it can be awarded exclusively to a party that enjoys the support of scarcely one in three of those who vote, and just over one in five of the electorate. That cannot be acceptable. It seems that it is no longer a case of parties winning an election, as winning is about who can work the system best and who can use the vote to greatest effect to win the greatest possible number of seats.

It is clear that, this year, the Labour party did not win the great debate of ideas. Rather, it was able to use the quirks of the system to deliver a parliamentary majority. If the same number of votes had been distributed differently, the general election result could have been completely different.

The current system is also unfair—in many cases grossly unfair—to smaller parties, as in many Scottish seats. There is an undeniable trend towards multi-party politics in the UK. The day of the two big political parties fighting it out among themselves is over. It took just 26,000 votes to elect a Labour MP at the general election, but 40,000 votes to elect a Conservative. Taking the number of people who voted Liberal Democrat and dividing it by the number of Liberal Democrat MPs, it took 96,000 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat.

At the other end of the spectrum, the UK Independence party received no representation whatever for its 610,000 votes. Similarly, the Green party polled over 250,000 votes and did not win any seats in Parliament.

First past the post may have been acceptable in a two-party culture, but the UK is now unquestionably a multi-party democracy. We urgently need an electoral system that reflects the political climate in exactly the same way as happens with the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the London assembly, Northern Ireland councils, the European elections and, soon, Scottish councils. How much longer can Westminster be ring-fenced from such reform?

My party is often charged with proposing electoral reform because we would benefit most from it. There is no question but that the current system acts as a major barrier to my party, although, slowly but surely, we are overcoming that barrier. It is wrong to suggest, however, that we are acting in self-interest. In Scotland, where some of the most vocal proponents of a fair electoral system for electing the Scottish Parliament were Liberal Democrats, that system delivered 17 Liberal Democrat seats in Holyrood. Under first past the post, it is likely that we would have got 21 or 22.

Similarly, we are two years away from the first ever Scottish council elections under proportional representation. All the independent projections show that if PR had been used for the last council elections we would have ended up with fewer councillors. In my own seat, 70 per cent. of councillors are Liberal Democrats on 40 per cent. of the vote, yet we are still saying that this is an unfair system—that it is wrong. We argue for electoral reform because we believe it to be right and fair. We do not propose it for our own narrow gain. We are its advocates because we believe that it can produce a fairer and better parliamentary democracy.

No system is perfect; it would be wrong for anyone to pretend otherwise. All systems, whether proportional or not, have their advantages and disadvantages. Those of us who support PR have individual preferences about which system is best, but the inherent unfairness of the current system unites us in our belief. No electoral system can ever be perfect or hope to please everyone, but there are many better electoral systems out there that do not produce such unrepresentative results.

The decline in voter participation is as much a concern for me as it is for many other Members of the House.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

My hon. Friend may be interested in research that I have done on the G8 countries, which identifies a turnout of 80 per cent. in Germany and Italy, for example, where proportionate electoral systems are used, whereas in Britain and Canada the turnout is about 60 per cent. The evidence is quite clear: electoral reform results in an increase in turnout of 20 per cent. Does he agree?

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said. I am sad to have to admit that there are cases where that has not been quite so successful—I am about to touch on those—but anything that re-engages the public is definitely worth doing.

I was delighted to see turnout in my constituency rise at the general election from 64 to 69 per cent., which is an increase above the national average. However, in too many constituencies the turnout is still dire—below 50 per cent. in more than 30 seats. A problem arises when seats are regarded as safe, although I accept it is becoming more difficult to define what a truly safe seat is.

Under the current system, some two-thirds of seats are unlikely to change hands irrespective of the overall result, which is hardly an incentive for voters in those seats to vote. That argument is backed up by the figures. At the last general election, turnout in marginal seats was almost 69 per cent., compared to an overall turnout of just 51 per cent. in relatively safe seats. Putting it bluntly, many votes in safe seats around the country are counted but do not count.

At the last election, the majority of votes went to losing candidates. If we are to re-engage the population at large in the political process, we must convince people that their vote really counts. However, under the current system, the power rests in the hands of a few key voters in swing seats around the country, which leaves most people in the majority of seats facing little or no contest in their area. Little wonder so many of them are increasingly apathetic. It is clear that turnout at the general election was strongly influenced by the degree to which there was a genuine contest in the area.

Changing the electoral system will not solve the problem of low turnout, but it is a logical place to start. I agree with my hon. Friend John Hemming: PR is not a panacea for that problem, but it could make a key contribution to re-engaging the unengaged.

I accept that there is evidence to suggest that moving towards PR does not bring with it an automatic increase in turnout. In the 1999 European elections—the first to be fought under PR—the turnout fell compared with 1994, and in the last Scottish Parliament elections the turnout was just under 50 per cent., but, although I believe that both those events were the result of serious underlying issues, I do believe that the problem was caused by the proportional system. In fact, I would even argue that the turnouts may have been even lower if those elections had been held under first past the post.

I want to give the Minister as much time as possible to respond to the points I have raised. I hope that she considers my arguments and the countless representations she will receive over coming weeks and months. Whether one is in favour of or against electoral reform, this important issue needs to be addressed urgently, and the Government cannot keep their head in the sand any longer in the naive hope that it will go away.

The Prime Minister promised that this Government would be more listening and inclusive following the reduction in their majority. I hope the Minister will listen to the growing and widening body of opinion that is promoting electoral reform, which she and the Government can no longer ignore.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 1:44 pm, 14th June 2005

I congratulate John Barrett on securing the debate and on attracting his colleagues here; it is good that a number of them are interested.

I shall pick up on some of the points that the hon. Gentleman raised, say where I believe there is common ground and tell the Chamber what the Government are doing in that respect. He started by saying that electoral reform is sometimes seen as a matter of great interest to anorak-wearing obsessionals, but that it does not have a wider interest. I agree with him in two respects.

First, the technicalities of the various voting systems and the arguments for reform mean that the subject often passes over people's heads. None the less, I agree profoundly that our democracy is at stake. Fairness, legitimacy and turnout form the basis of our representative democracy so, like the hon. Gentleman, I will be undeterred by suggestions that those who focus on the issue have somehow lost the plot and that we should be talking instead about the health service or the economy. The subject is technical, but it is hugely important, and I welcome the fact that he chose the subject today.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman was right to say that there are many deeply held views, not only in the House but outside. We hold our views strongly because, apart from the independent Members, we are all members of political parties; we have all been elected and we all have a big focus on the system. However, we are not the only ones who feel passionately about the subject and who want to engage in the debate.

Many people are concerned to be involved in the debate more widely, and the hon. Gentleman asks whether we are prepared to listen and to respect the views of those who participate in it. The answer must be yes, not least because, as he said, we must take a principled approach to a debate about improving democracy. It would be okay to talk about what suits our party, or what might suit two parties but not the others, but if there is one thing that the voting public would run a mile from, it is the idea that, having got into power, we would rig the system in our favour and that party political interest would somehow override the principled issues. We must always be vigilant about that.

As party creatures, it is sometimes difficult for us to disentangle the issues; it is often easy to think that we have argued something from principle because we feel it hugely strongly and because it happens to help our party. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the principle that should underpin our debate is that reform should mean an improvement in democracy and not a fix for one party or another.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that no system is perfect. None of those who support any of the range of electoral systems that operate here and abroad would ever claim that one system hits all the objectives. Otherwise, all elections would be held on the same basis as here. The point is that, despite the fact that no system is perfect, we want to have the best system that we can.

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

When the United Kingdom is recommending different electoral systems around the world in our quest to spread freedom and democracy, will the Minister say which countries we have advised to adopt the same system that we have in Westminster?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I have just returned from a trip during the recess to Tanzania, the country of origin of many of my constituents. That country is about to hold elections in October and I was asked how we felt comfortable when, although we had a falling share of the vote, we still had a large majority. It thinks that it will face a similar situation. In response to that, we urged the country to continue with its commitment to multi-party democracy, but it must decide on its own systems for elections in order to command the confidence of its people. We do not go around the world lecturing people on voting systems, although we closely examine systems that operate in different parts of the world.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West said that a fundamental problem was that people did not get what they wanted from the 2005 election. I think that I am right in saying that the opinion polls broadly showed that the centre of gravity of public opinion was that there should be a Labour Government with a reduced majority. In that respect, I did not get what I wanted because I would have preferred a Labour Government with a large majority. Not everyone gets what they want—perhaps that is a facile and self-evident thing to say—but that was generally what the opinion polls showed. I will not quote any more opinion polls because we are trying to have a discussion about principles.

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

Does the Minister genuinely believe that the people of the United Kingdom got what they wanted when only 35 per cent. of them voted for the Labour party but they got a Labour Government with a large majority?

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

Does the Minister believe that we should be governed by opinion polls or by the secret ballot?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I am going to steer straight off opinion polls. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West asked whether people had got what they wanted.

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I will make this my final intervention. How does the Minister think that people can vote for a political party to have a smaller majority? Someone can vote only for who they favour to be the Member of Parliament for the constituency in which they live. They cannot influence the overall outcome of the election.

Will the Minister also tell me whether she thinks that 35 per cent. of the vote is sufficient to give a Government legitimacy with an overall majority? What percentage figure does she think would be too low to give a Government the legitimate authority to govern even if they had an overall majority in the House of Commons?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

That returns me to the original point, on which I agreed with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West, of what the best system is that commands support, has legitimacy, is seen to be fair and simple, and yields what we want, which is a representative Parliament that can hold to account effective Government. I think that hon. Members will agree that the Government have engaged in a great deal of reform since 1997 of the constitution more widely and also of voting systems. We have not been sitting on our hands, refusing to engage in debate or change things. There has been a huge change, including devolution to Scotland and Wales.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Whip

Although I admit that the Labour Government have achieved a great amount in terms of constitutional reform and devolution, the voting system in Scotland under the devolved Administration is a proportional system. Would the Minister not agree that it is about time that we moved into the 21st century and did the same in Westminster? If it is good enough for setting up a new Parliament with a modern voting system, why can we not do the same in Westminster?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

In addition to devolution in Scotland, Wales and London, we have brought about other constitutional changes through the Freedom of Information Act 2000, regarding transparency and how government works, and with the Human Rights Act 1998, regarding the holding of the powers of the Executive to account in the courts. We have been constitutional reformers.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

Does the Minister agree that it would be better to hold the Executive to account in the legislature rather than in the courts, and that having to rely on the courts because we have a flawed electoral system is not the best way forward?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

We want a good electoral system and for the Government to be held to account under the rule of law; we should not have to choose one or the other. However, I should like to respond to the hon. Lady's points about the voting systems.

The new constitutional arrangements mean different systems for elections to the European Parliament, and a different election system for Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. The single transferable vote system has been used in Northern Ireland for the past 30 years, except for elections to Westminster. We now have the Greater London authority and the additional member system, which we brought in with the 2000 elections, and, of course, the mayoral elections with the supplementary vote. It is only right, having introduced such a large range of new election systems, that we should take stock of the effect of those systems and how they have worked.

John Hemming said that the key to turnout is proportionality. We need to look at our systems and understand not only the level of turnout for elections to each institution, but the trend, and we must also consider the effect of different voting systems on turnout both abroad and here. I think that he would agree that turnout is affected by many more factors than just the clarity or fairness of individual voting systems.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I return to my point about G8 countries and the clear 20 per cent. increase in turnout. I accept that many factors affect turnout, but does not the Minister agree that there is a clear distinction between the G8 countries that have proportional electoral systems and those that do not?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

We are looking at UK elections that use a proportional system to assess both the level of turnout and trend, because we are concerned about turnout that is on a falling trend. I say this only to report it to the Chamber, but the trend in turnout in elections with proportional systems in this country seems to be no better than that with first past the post. That is why we are doing what we said in our manifesto that we would do: reviewing the experience of the new electoral systems that were introduced for the devolved Administrations. We also said that if we were to recommend a change in the system of election to the House, there would have to be a referendum to agree the right way forward. At the very least, we need to review the effect of the current systems while we discuss issues such as public confidence in politicians, availability of information to citizens and accessibility to the vote.

Many factors other than people's opinion of the voting system dictate whether they are enthusiastic about politics and are prepared to go to the ballot box and vote. We all want a high turnout, as that is key to legitimacy, but we must consider the many factors that affect it, rather than single out the electoral system. Would that it were so easy that we could fix the problem of legitimacy simply by changing the voting system. I strongly believe that it is more complicated than that. We must consider not only the voting systems—which we are looking at—but all the other factors that affect turnout.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Two o'clock.