Sir George attacks Government dithering on Voting System
23 Jun 1999
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): I beg to move,

That this House, in the light of experience of recent elections held
on the basis of proportional representation, believes that this is not
an appropriate basis for election to the House of Commons; and
urges the Government to resolve the uncertainty it has caused on
this matter either by abandoning its commitment to hold a
referendum, or by holding the referendum forthwith.

Two weeks ago, before the European election results were known, I
asked the Leader of the House to find time for a debate on proportional
representation in the light of the experience of the three elections held
under the new arrangements. My request was refused so, not for the
first time, the Opposition have allocated some of their own time to
debate a matter of fundamental importance to the House.

An hour ago, when asked about this issue by my hon. Friend the
Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), the Prime Minister said that he
would listen to the debate. I note with some surprise that the Prime
Minister is not sitting on the Government Front Bench to listen to what I
am sure will be an interesting debate.

My view is that it is right to debate this matter while our recollection of
the campaigns and their immediate aftermath is relatively fresh. Also, by
having a vote at the end of the debate, we can end the uncertainty that
has been caused by the Government's commitment to hold a
referendum on PR for Westminster and their refusal to set a firm date.
Our motion allows either of two solutions. The one that we prefer is the
abandonment of the commitment to hold a referendum, and a
declaration that we will stay with the British first-past-the-post voting
system for Westminster. That would be the quickest and simplest way
to implement what I believe to be the majority view of the House.

However, the Labour party has a manifesto commitment to hold a
referendum, which it gave before the last election. Labour felt that it
might need the support of the Liberal Democrats after the election, but I
suspect that it may regret having made that commitment. Respecting
those sensitivities, and understanding that a referendum may be the only
way to resolve the split in the Cabinet, we offer an alternative, which is
to hold a referendum forthwith.

Jenkins recommended a two-vote, mixed electoral system with 80 to
85 per cent. of the House being elected by individual constituencies
using the alternative vote system and the remainder being elected by city
or countywide areas on a top-up basis from party lists. The impact of
the report was softened by the note of reservation of Lord Alexander,
who considered that the use of AV was not

"sound in principle, easy to understand and above all capable of
commanding the enduring respect of the electorate."

The debate on that report took place on 5 November. It was an
excellent debate, and I say that because I did not take part in it.
Rereading Hansard, I was struck by a number of points. First, the
balance of the contributions and the argument was against the Jenkins
alternative by a ratio of more than two to one: it was 24:11. The Home
Secretary made his position clear. He said:

"I therefore remain unpersuaded of the case for change",

although he went on to say, worryingly, that he was

"always open to higher argument" --

not a better argument, but a higher argument.

Secondly, I was struck by a point made by my hon. Friend the Member
for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who said:

"Electoral systems are not just about elections; they are about the
subsequent nature of representation."

Disaffection with the system, as expressed by a low turnout, is not just a
problem on polling day: it is a problem for a Parliament. If people do
not feel connected to an institution on polling day, they are unlikely to
feel connected to it after polling day. The electoral system is a type of
political glue between the voter and the institution he or she is voting for.
We have a strong glue at the moment, and we should be cautious about
using a weaker one.

Thirdly, the Government confirmed that the alternative to first past the
post to be put in a referendum is the Jenkins proposals. The
Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member
for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), who wound up
the debate on 5 November, said:

"If we are to have change . . . we now have an alternative,
whether we like it or not, alongside which the status quo of the
first-past-the-post system can be judged and debated."

So we now know what the choice will be between.

Fourthly, a number of hon. Members who spoke in that debate made
the point, confirmed by Jenkins, that there is no public clamour for
change. Only nine people attended the public meeting held in Northern
Ireland, and only 30 were at the one in Cardiff. I am sure that Labour
Members will confirm that focus groups are not focusing on this subject.

Finally, the Government were vague on the timing of the referendum.
The Home Secretary said:

"As to timing, we have always envisaged that the referendum
would be before the next election, and that remains an option." --
[Official Report, 5 November 1998; Vol. 318, c. 1033-1111.]

That is a weakening of an earlier commitment given in the debate on 2
June 1998, when the Home Secretary said:

"The plan is that the referendum should take place well before the
next election." -- [Official Report, 2 June 1998; Vol. 313, c. 190.]

More worryingly, the Home Secretary sought in the debate on 5
November to delay reform to the House of Commons electoral system
until after the House of Lords reforms were in place. He said:

"It would not be wise to embark on reform to the House of
Commons electoral system until we are more certain of the
changes that will take place in the other place."

That is not on. We cannot let the shadow of proportional representation
hang over this place until the Government have sorted out phase 2 of
the House of Lords reform, which could take for ever.

There was no opportunity to vote on 5 November, because the debate
took place in Government time on a motion for the Adjournment of the
House. We are offering the House that opportunity. Unlike the debate
in November, today's debate takes place after three elections held
under forms of PR, so we are better able to come to a judgment on
how the systems work in practice.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): I am sure that the right hon.
Gentleman remembers that in the recent Scottish Parliament elections
his party won not a single constituency seat, yet it managed to end up
with 18 representatives in the new Parliament. Does he think that that is
shockingly unfair?

Sir George Young: We do not approach the subject on the basis of
what is right for the Tory party. We are interested in what is right for the
House of Commons.

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood) rose --

Sir George Young: I should like to make progress. We have already
lost some of the time for the debate and there is a 10-minute limit on
speeches.

We have the experience of the three recent elections. Previously, many
people, including the Prime Minister, have said that they want to
suspend judgment until they see how the systems work in practice. The
Home Secretary said in our debate in November:

"We shall want to see how the various changes bed down and how
well the new electoral systems for the Scottish Parliament, the
Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament work." -- [Official
Report, 5 November 1998; Vol. 318, c. 1038.]

Quite so.

We have had the elections to the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish
Parliament and the European Parliament. The systems used have
common features with the Jenkins proposals of lists, multi-member
constituencies, proportionality and two classes of members, which can
inform us. Apart from the Greater London elections next year, we have
all the evidence that we shall ever have about the voting systems in
operation.

Let me start with the European elections and the low turnout. There is
no single reason why the turnout for the European elections was low.
The institutions of Europe are not popular, the campaigns of two parties
were lacklustre and there was an element of voter fatigue. I believe that
another reason was the system of voting. People want to vote for a
face, not a list. When I knocked on the doors in North-West
Hampshire or spoke to people on the phone, I had no candidate to sell.
I could call on the record of the sitting Member of the European
Parliament. It was an impersonal and rather anonymous process. Voters
want to know whom they are voting for or against. Our supporters like
to have a product that they can sell on the doorstep. Voters do not like
being part of a large region, particularly in the south-east region, which
has no regional identity. The voters want to have their own man or
woman representing the patch in which they live and they want to be
able to vote them out if they do not like them.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): We can discuss the
European elections if the right hon. Gentleman wants. He seems to be
saying that the electoral system was one reason for the drop in turnout.
How does he explain the fact that at the 1999 local elections there was
approximately a 13 per cent. drop in turnout compared with 1994, and
that at the 1999 European elections there was approximately a 13 per
cent. drop in turnout compared with 1994? One set of elections was
held under a first-past-the-post and the other on a proportional system.
Those figures do not add up to an argument that the electoral system
caused a drop in turnout.

Sir George Young: There was not such a drop in turnout at the local
elections in my constituency. I do not know what figures the hon.
Gentleman is quoting, but there was a good turnout for the local
elections in Hampshire, which has a hung council. The hon. Gentleman
should look at the difference in turnout between the 1994 European
elections, when people could vote for one candidate, and this year,
when there was a list. That shows a very large drop.

I attribute part of but not all the reduction in turnout to a change in the
system of voting.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): Will my right hon. Friend
give way?

Sir George Young: For the last time, in order to preserve some
proportionality.

Mr. Paterson: I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for his
balanced view on interventions. The sitting MEP for Herefordshire,
Shropshire and the Wyre forest was a Mr. David Hallam, who achieved
a certain popularity in the area. He was arbitrarily dropped down the list
to number five by the officials of the Labour party. I was at the count at
Wem and many spoilt ballot papers were marked, "We want Hallam".

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend reinforces my point that people
want to vote for a face, not a list.

The Government's response is to make it easier to vote. Of course it
makes sense to consider, on an all-party basis, how we can make it
easier to vote, but that is different from making people want to vote. My
guess is that any benefit that may be gained by making it easier to
access a voting booth will be more than lost if we introduce a voting
system in which the public have less confidence.

We tried to personalise the system by removing the closed list -- all
credit is due to the other place and indeed to many Labour Members
for trying to support the open list. Sadly, the Government insisted on
using the Parliament Act 1911 and overruled common sense.

However, even with all their deficiencies, the European elections had
one beneficial effect that Jenkins has not. All our MEPs were elected on
the same basis. They all went to Europe through the same door. Jenkins
preserves all the disbenefits of the list with the added disbenefit of a
mixed system of elections and two classes of MP, with those directly
elected through AV producing an even less proportionate result in 1997
than those elected under first past the post.

Others have their own analysis of the results of the European elections,
as we have heard. Apparently, the Liberal Democrats did badly not
because they fought a lacklustre campaign, but because the Labour
party did. One can only sympathise with the Liberal Democrats: if their
opponents fight a winning campaign, they lose; if their opponents fight a
losing campaign, they still lose. That is an important dilemma for their
new leader to address after a campaign that will set the Thames alight.

The Government said that it was all because of contentment. As my
right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler)
observed on the night of the count, that has the perverse implication that
if people become increasingly content with the Government, turnout
should continue to fall until it reaches the ideal of zero.

At the elections in Wales, for example, we were confronted by the
absurd spectacle of the Secretary of State for Wales hoping that his
party would do well enough to win an overall majority, but not so well
that he would not get a top-up seat. In the Welsh Assembly, the
Presiding Officer has stopped Assemblymen referring to the hon.
Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) as the Member for Cardiff,
West. The Presiding Officer, a former hon. Member, said that there is
not one but five Members for Cardiff, West -- the directly elected
Member and the four regional Members. So we see the beginning of the
end of the direct representational link that is the basis of our
membership of the House.

Despite the theory that all Members are equal, the facade is beginning
to crack. One Liberal Democrat Assembly Member, representing
Brecon and Radnor, insists on calling herself the directly elected
Member, with the unspoken inference that it is a better way of being
elected than any other.

After an election in New Zealand, the first question one new Member
asks another is, "Are you a real MP or are you a top-up?". I am not
interested in second-class Members. The strength of this place is that
we all got here through the same democratic process. We are all equal.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): Will the right hon.
Gentleman give way?

Sir George Young: No; I must make progress.

With additional Members, we would in effect have two political
currencies in circulation, one of which would be quickly devalued,
threatening the very basis on which the House works. There are also the
wholly predictable difficulties in Wales for regional Members who want
to hold surgeries. Without surgeries it is more difficult to maintain
democratic legitimacy -- the direct contact with the voter -- which is
also the basis of our membership here.

We must also consider the example of Scotland where the leader of the
Liberal Democrats, the hon. and learned Member for Orkney and
Shetland (Mr. Wallace), promised at the beginning of election week that
if people voted for his party on Thursday, tuition fees would be dead on
Friday.

By the end of the week, this was dismissed as mere "election rhetoric".
There can be no clearer example of how promises are broken,
manifesto commitments Tippexed out and voters betrayed under PR.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): Will the right hon.
Gentleman give way?

Sir George Young: So long as the hon. Gentleman is going to help me.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: The right hon. Gentleman referred earlier to
second-class Members being not directly elected. Does that mean that
all those Scottish Members who are not directly elected are
second-class Members -- nearly all of them Tories?

Sir George Young: That is exactly what a member of the Liberal
Democrat party said on election night. He said, "You Tories have only
got top-up Members." The fear that I expressed of having two classes
of Member is already gaining currency.

The fears expressed in this House last November have come true. We
have introduced a system that promotes coalition government at the
expense of single-party government. We have seen the need to form
those coalitions predicate intensive bargaining between the political
parties. Party mandates have become less relevant. Politicians, not
voters, choose Governments. The Jenkins system looks not outwards to
the voters, but inwards to the party machines. It is interesting to note
that the commission found a near-unanimous view of

"distrust of any electoral system which increased the power of the
party machine."

By contrast, the present system meets the criteria set out by Jenkins
better than his own suggestion. It ensures accountability, and voters
know who to blame when things go wrong. It encourages open debate
and decision making, and facilitates a change of Government and a
change of direction.

The Government are now acquiring a reputation for tinkering and
dithering: tinkering with things that work perfectly well, and then finding
that they do not really know what they are doing; and then dithering as
they seek to postpone or avoid awkward decisions. It is an affliction, as
we saw this afternoon, to which the Prime Minister is vulnerable.

We have an opportunity today to stop the tinkering and the dithering
with our voting system. In our hearts, we know that PR for Westminster
is dead. What this motion does is to facilitate a decent burial. I urge all
Members to support it.
 
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