Proportional Representation: House of Commons — [Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:33 pm on 23rd April 2019.

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Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Lords) 5:33 pm, 23rd April 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. Before I start, on behalf of the Scottish National party, I offer my warmest congratulations to English colleagues here, and wish them a happy St George’s day.

All of us in this room consider ourselves democrats, although we may have different interpretations of what that means. For me, two things stand out. First, the elected Parliament ought to, in the broadest possible terms, represent the people who take part in elections to it. Secondly, the country ought to be governed with the consent of a majority of its citizens. By any test, the current first-past-the-post system fails palpably on both counts.

I say that because I note that others who have spoken are from minority parties in the Chamber. They rightly feel aggrieved because they have been punished and penalised by the first-past-the-post system and are under-represented in the Chamber. I say that the system is wrong on behalf of a party that has probably been, in recent years, the greatest beneficiary of the distortions of first past the post. Mr Sweeney referenced the 2017 general election results, but remember what happened in 2015 when, with 50% of the vote, the SNP took 95% of the available seats in Scotland. I cannot defend that as a democratic system. My only defence is that we did not make the rules, and that we were playing by the rules that we were given. However, that is clearly not a sustainable system.

There are other drawbacks, as people have mentioned. First, many people living in a seat that might change hands—a swing seat—feel under a great deal of pressure to vote tactically, which means that they compromise their vote. They do not vote for the person or party who they think represents them, but for somebody who they agree with slightly more than the person they are trying to keep out. Those people do not, under this system, have the opportunity or right to express their political aspirations in an election. Of course, it is even worse in safe seats, where people feel that their vote is simply wasted—that there is no point to it. They could go out and vote for a lifetime—some do—and the party that they vote for will never represent them in this Parliament.

All that would be bad enough, but it cannot go on, because as more people see that this is not the natural order of things, and that people elsewhere in the world do things differently, it begins to fuel great disillusionment with our entire political process. In some parts, that results in people being apathetic and not taking part in the system. However, much more worrying is the building resentment that people feel about the futility of the system and the way in which it denies their democratic expression. That is why it is urgent that we begin to review, and to consider change.

I am pleased to note that, in comparison with many constitutional debates in Westminster Hall, this is a relatively well-attended discussion. It is also a thoughtful discussion, in that colleagues—I note, in particular, from the two major parties—have spoken about the need to consider change, and have said that things cannot continue as they are. Before we debate the practicalities of what system might replace the current one, we have to agree on the principles. I always find it strange that when we state the principle that a party’s representatives in Parliament ought to be in proportion to the votes cast for that party in the election, nobody disagrees; they tend to say that it is a noble idea, but that for various practical reasons, it will never work, so we should never bother doing it. If we believe that that principle is worth defending, it is incumbent on all of us, cross party, to begin at least looking at whether we could change the system in order to express that principle in our constitutional arrangements. I think that we could.

Some arguments about practicalities, when examined, are not the great hurdles that people pretend. People talk about a break in the constituency link, for example. There are proportional systems that explicitly maintain a direct link between a constituency and its representative. Indeed, we have that system—the additional member system—for the Scottish Parliament, and it works. One representative in the Scottish Parliament for the area where I live is Kezia Dugdale, an MSP for the Labour party. She is elected on a Lothian-wide list along with seven other people, but she has no hesitation in describing herself as the MP for Edinburgh, and in popping up everywhere, trying to represent and advocate on behalf of the city. That works with other parties as well. As Jamie Stone said, STV was a lifeline for the Scottish Conservative party, allowing it representation that it would not otherwise have had.

The argument is put about that PR leads to unstable government, but the last few years have shown that the current system does not do very well in that regard either.