[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 12:01 pm on 1st December 2009.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Secretary of State for Justice 12:01 pm, 1st December 2009

It is also the case that the that Labour party was in favour of PR when it was founded and has since abandoned that view for national Government. Let us get away from the history and stick to the question of what is a fair system. I am sure that if we based our answer on a neutral point of view that got away from party interest and if people thought about it honestly, we would not conclude that first past the post was fair.

My second point is about confidence. It is a crucial point because we are in a crisis of confidence in the political system. We have to ask ourselves whether we can carry on with an electoral system in which Governments are very unpopular on the day that they are elected. The current Government were elected with 35 per cent. of the vote. Almost twice as many people voted against them as for them. It is not surprising that the Government were unpopular from the start. Most Governments in this country are unpopular. That unpopularity is part of the crisis of confidence in politics, as people do not see their political views represented in the way that politics works nationally.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby mentioned the 1950s. There was a sense then that the main purpose of the electoral system was simply to choose a Government from the two options available. It did not really matter how unrepresentative the Parliament was. However, the idea that the House of Commons is here simply to choose a Government cannot survive the massive reduction in support for the winning party. The electoral college notion of what the Commons is for cannot survive the present situation in which the winning party is so unpopular at the start.

We need to get away from the idea that the only purpose of the Commons is to act as an electoral college and that we all may as well go away once it has done that. We need to come round to the idea that the purpose of the House of Commons is to be a representative assembly. The first virtue of a representative assembly is that it represents the political views of the electorate. At present, it does not and it cannot regain any place in public confidence as long as that is the case.

The arguments against PR always come down to its not working in Israel or Italy and its helping extremists and damaging the constituency link, and a Conservative argument, which goes back to Mrs. Thatcher, is that consensus politics is a bad thing. None of those arguments works; for every Israel, there is a Germany, and for every Italy, there is a Scandinavia. There are many examples of successful, stable countries that use proportional systems. In any case, for Israel-a country that has been threatened existentially every moment since to came into existence-to have survived using PR is an example of PR's success not its failure.

We have discussed the point that extremists get in at local level even with first past the post. As the percentage needed by the winning candidate drops, the chance of that happening increases. Moreover, if people feel excluded from a political system and unrepresented in Parliament, it breeds extremism. People have this the wrong way round: the failure to recognise the unrepresentative nature of this place breeds further extremism, and we must do something about it.

All the alternative systems put forward maintain the constituency link in some way or another, apart from the extraordinary system used in European parliamentary elections, which is the worst of all systems, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said. In the additional member system, half the seats are constituency seats. In STV, the constituencies are large, but because of the way that the system works, individual Members have to compete with one another in their constituencies to do their work better. If there is one disadvantage of STV, it is that it would make Members concentrate so much on their constituencies that the kind of ministerial candidates that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby mentioned might be put off. That is why national politicians in Ireland now and then suggest that STV should be abandoned. The people would not allow that to happen; they are convinced that STV is the best system for them, which is why it has won in all the referendums in Ireland on the electoral system.

The final point is one that always comes up from Conservative Members; it is always at the back of their minds: if we had had PR in the 1980s, Mrs. Thatcher would never have become Prime Minister, and all the radical reforms that she introduced would never have happened. I do not think that that is true; many of those reforms would have happened eventually, in a different way, with greater consensus and less social rupture than they did. We must ask ourselves whether we want further electoral coups d'état by minorities. Is that how to unify the country? Or given the crisis of confidence in politics that we face, do we need politics that is more consensual and based more on debate and agreement? We cannot have that under first past the post.