Sir George initiates debate on Electoral Reform
17 Jan 2001
Electoral Reform
9.30 am
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): My purpose in initiating today's debate on electoral reform is not so much to discuss which system for electing Members of Parliament is the best, but to try to bring some clarity to the Government's proposals for electoral reform--a matter on which they have become, at best, confused and, at worst, evasive. While other systems may be appropriate for other institutions, I believe that first past the post is right for Westminster.
There are many issues in which the House has a legitimate interest, but where the Government's policy is less than clear. However, nothing affects us all more than the method by which we secure election here, and it is particularly difficult to find out what is going on.
Today's debate shines a torch on that murky area of policy making and, in order not to take the Government by surprise, on the day that I knew this debate would take place--last Thursday--I wrote to the the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), to gave him advance notice of seven questions that I wanted to put to him. I wrote to the Home Office because electoral reform is its responsibility, but also because an official from the Home Office had telephoned my secretary to establish the purpose of the debate and whether it would be more appropriate for a Cabinet Office Minister to reply. We made it clear that we expected the Home Office to reply.
Last night, I discovered that the Home Office asserted that it had not got my letter. It passed the chalice, not to the Cabinet Office, but to the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, who has some acquaintance with these issues having played a key part in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. I gave him a copy of my letter and I now see in his place the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Lord Chancellor's Department, the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Lock). He will not be offended if I say that the Lord Chancellor's Department was no one's first choice, but as this is a debate on PR perhaps that is appropriate.
Constitutional reform has not been the Government's strongest card. Reform of the House of Lords appears to have stalled, although only two years ago we were told that stage two could happen in this Parliament. There is no sign of the promised joint committee a year after Lord Wakeham reported. Devolution has left an imbalance so far as England is concerned, which the Government pretend does not exist. An internal argument about elected mayors or elected regional assemblies has led to yet more stalling and, so far, they have not embarked on electoral reform for Westminster, and I hope they do not. So, what are they up to?
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The history, briefly, is that the manifesto gave a clear commitment on a referendum on voting systems. It said:

We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the post system. I note at this stage the use of the word "proportional". Anyone reading that sentence would conclude that Labour believes that first past the post is not proportional and the alternative should be. The Minister may tell us that that commitment was undated, but in another sentence at the beginning of the manifesto the Prime Minister addressed the need to counter cynicism about politics, saying:

I want to do it by making a limited set of important promises and achieving them. Later, he said:

That is why we have made it our guiding principle not to promise what we cannot deliver and to deliver what we promise. To put the matter beyond doubt, on BBC Radio 4's programme, "The World at One", on 6 January 1997, the Home Secretary said:

What we are committed to is having a referendum on voting systems ... this is a major advance for any party to be able to offer the British people that choice and then for that choice to go forward during the course of the next Parliament That strikes me as unequivocal.
When elected, the Government established the Jenkins commission. In the 2 June 1998 debate, before the report was published, the Government were still telling us that a referendum would be held in this Parliament. The Home Secretary said:

I shall go through the expected time scale for the referendum. The Jenkins commission hopes to report in October. After that, primary legislation will be needed to permit a referendum to be held. The plan is that the referendum should take place well before the next election. It will offer the public a clear choice between first past the post and an alternative, drawn from the recommendations of the commission.--[Official Report, 2 June 1998; Vol. 313, c. 190.] The report was published on 29 October 1998 and it recommended a mixed system, that it described as limited AMS or AV top-up, but is now popularly know as AV-plus. Between 80 and 85 per cent. of Members would be constituency Members, elected by AV, with the balance elected through open lists using small top-up areas based on cities or counties. Voters would have two votes, one for the constituency and one for the top-up area. It is worth looking at paragraph 82 of the report, Cm 4090-1, to read what the Jenkins commission says about AV on its own. That is important in view of signs that the Government are now moving towards AV. It said:

Beyond this, AV on its own suffers from a stark objection. It offers little prospect of a move towards greater proportionality, and in some circumstances, and those are the ones which certainly prevailed at the last election and may well do so for at least the next one, it is even less proportional than FTPT. Simulations of how the 1997 result might have come out under AV suggest that it would have significantly increased the size of the already swollen Labour majority ... The overall Labour majority could thus have risen from 169 to 245 ... The Conservative 30.7 per cent. of the votes should strictly have given them 202 seats. Instead FPTP gave them 165, or 25 per cent. of the seats, whereas AV would have given them on one estimate only 96 (or 14.6 per cent. of the seats).
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Paragraph 85 continued:

far from doing much to relieve disproportionality, it is capable of substantially adding to it. My first question to the Minister is, "Does he agree that AV would not deliver the manifesto commitment of a proportional alternative to first past the post?
On publication, we saw the first signs of equivocation and the Government taking cover. The Home Office press notice on 29 October 1998, stated:

Fourth, the Government will want to take account of the radical and ambitious programme of constitutional reform that is taking place, particularly the reform of the House of Lords. It will want to consider how the new systems of election soon to be in operation in Scotland, Wales and for the European parliament settle down. The constitutional reform programme should be looked at as a whole prior to any decision being made on this issue. It is worth pausing to consider the appearance of this new alibi. There had never been any hint that the manifesto commitment was to be qualified in that way. Only a few weeks earlier, the commitment had been reasserted--I quoted the Home Secretary-- although it was known at that time that elections for Europe, Scotland and Wales would be held using a different system.
Further evidence of the change of heart came in the debate on the Jenkins report on 5 November 1998. 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. However, plainly, in the light of Lord Jenkins's specific recommendations, this is less certain, because the new system cannot be introduced until the election after next. Nor, in our judgment, is there a need for the Government to come to an early view about the commission's recommendation.--[Official Report, 5 November 1998; Vol. 337, c. 1036.]
The wordsmith had been hard at work with those three sentences, which deserve close analysis. I have three comments. First, an event to which the right hon. Gentleman was "committed" on 6 January 1997, namely a referendum in this Parliament, became an event that he "envisaged" on 5 November 1998. A commitment had been demoted to an option. Secondly, he asserted that because the new system could not be introduced before the next election, the referendum on it need not be held before it either.
The manifesto commitment was never to introduce a new system in this Parliament. Indeed, if the referendum on the alternative were defeated, it would clearly not have been introduced. The commitment was on the referendum, not the introduction of a new system and the Home Secretary conveniently, but wrongly, elided the two. Finally, he asserted that there was no need for the Government to come to an early view on Jenkins. However, an early view was necessary if the Government planned to keep their manifesto commitment. It was ingenious to reverse the argument: to assert that there was no need to come to an early decision and from that assertion to conclude that the referendum should not be held.
I would ask the Minister whether he accepts that the commitment at the election to hold the referendum on PR will be broken. The question is appropriate today because I woke up to a Home Office Minister boasting on the "Today" programme of how the Government
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were carrying out their commitment on hunting. The debate produced one other quotation that is relevant to our debate this morning. Winding up the debate, the Under-Secretary said:

If we are to have change--and ultimately that will be, quite properly, a decision for the voters--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. In that important sense the commission members have done us a service.--[Official Report, 5 November 1998; Vol. 318, c. 1110-1111.] In other words, when we have a referendum, it will be first past the post against AV-plus.
Will the Minister confirm that the statement made on 5 November is still the view of the Government? I see from the briefing supplied for this debate by Charter 88 that at last year's Labour party conference, the Minister for the Home Office said that he expected that AV-plus would be the alternative to the status quo.
On 23 June 1999, the Opposition initiated a debate on PR, inviting the Government to hold a referendum or to ditch the commitment. A plausible speech was made by the then shadow Leader of the House of Commons. The Government amendment declined the invitation, but welcomed

the Government's approach which allows for a full debate in the country on the merits of the Jenkins system before a referendum is held. There was the sound of long grassing opening up to embrace that difficult question.
We can now pass to last year and the concern behind today's debate. The Sunday Express on 23 April, stated:

Tony Blair and Charles Kennedy are close to a deal on voting reform aimed at keeping the Tories out of power forever. The Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat Leader are moving towards a compromise they believe they can sell to both their parties. The deal, discussed by the two in secret talks, is for a stop-gap voting system known as AV. The Times ran a similar story on 1 April, stating:

This would not be PR and would preserve the traditional link between MPs and their constituencies, but would give the Liberal Democrats dozens more seats.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Does my right hon. Friend agree that for many years the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors have argued that what comprises fair votes is a system that would give proportionality between the votes cast and the number of MPs elected? Is it not remarkable that they should therefore be willing to consider AV, which as my right hon. Friend pointed out, would give a disproportionate result, but which--it just so happens--would enable the Liberal Democrats to get many more seats?
Sir George Young : We look forward to hearing the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan)--I hope that he may catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker--denouncing that squalid deal to which I referred and which my hon. Friend criticised so perceptively.
By 8 July, events had moved on. I read in the The Guardian:

Tony Blair's allies last night brokered a deal on electoral reform which will lead to a commitment in Labour's next manifesto to hold a referendum on modernising the system of elections to the House of Commons. The deal, which will lead to the party
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embracing the alternative vote (AV) system, will end an internal Labour row between supporters of proportional representation and traditionalists who want to maintain the first-past-the-post system.
The national policy forum in Exeter--an event that we know the Home Secretary attended, as he made his way there at some speed--retained the commitment to hold a referendum, without specifying a voting system to put to the public. However, I understand that the party refused to give its support to AV-plus. By 31 August, The Times tells us that Lord Jenkins was reconciled to Labour ditching AV-plus and quoted the great man, as saying:

He was disappointed but not surprised. On 5 September, the Financial Times reported:

Given the hostility of many Members to a complex voting system proposed by Lord Jenkins, any referendum would almost certainly be confined to a reform that involved the election of all MPs on a constituency basis. Sir David Frost can help us a little on that issue, as he examined the Foreign Secretary on the subject on 26 October, asking:

Do you feel, in terms of PR that having made the general promise of a referendum on PR, not hinged absolutely on this Parliament, but that next time you'll need to make a pledge for a referendum on PR within the next Parliament? To which the Foreign Secretary replied:

That is our policy, David. Commitment to consulting the public on an alternative to the present voting system is one that has been endorsed by our party twice in the course of this past year, and it will be the policy at the next election. David Frost, then said:

It will be, that, that's an important clarification there, people were concerned that might not happen. The Foreign Secretary replied:

Well David the manifesto hasn't been written, but that is the commitment of the party and that is the policy of the party.
That leads me to my next question. Was the Foreign Secretary correctly setting out Government policy in committing them, if re-elected, to a referendum in the next Parliament?
To understand what is going on behind the scenes we need the help of the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), who I am delighted to see in his place. On 4 November, he issued a press release that says it all:

There are twelve Tory seats where, if fewer than one in ten of the voters who voted for the third place candidate had voted differently, we could have seen seven more Labour MP's and five more LibDems. All it takes is for a couple of hundred voters to vote tactically and we can push the Tories to the margins of British politics.
Developing the theme, the hon. Gentleman said:

To achieve this, we need to show that we are keeping the door open to electoral reform. He spoke approvingly of the system in France, where the social democratic and labour parties vote tactically, saying:

In France, it is called the republican tradition so that in the two round voting system they have there, the best placed non-Conservative candidate gets the votes of the third place party. That is exactly what the alternative voting system does. That is not a fair or a proportional system; it is simply a system that seeks to scupper the Government's principal opponents.
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I shall quote from a speech to Make Votes Count by the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson),who deplored that cynical approach. He said:

However any change of voting system must be made for national, not party reasons. It is my dearest wish as a Labour politician to dish the Tories and to create in the 21st century a progressive century, in the way the Conservatives, against a divided centre-left opposition, dominated the last. But the case for electoral reform cannot be advanced as a private arrangement that suits Labour and Liberal Democrats. If it is, in a referendum, the cause will surely fail. The case has to be made on grounds of national interest and the solution must be one that lasts.
On tactical voting, for which the hon. Member for Rotherham has high hopes, it would be helpful if the Minister would confirm that the Labour Government, when they seek the endorsement of the electorate, will be offering every voter in Britain the opportunity to vote for a Labour candidate. If he cannot give that assurance, the House will be entitled to conclude that some covert deal is being concocted. Colleagues and hon. Members may have seen The Independent on Sunday that had a headline: "Lib-Lab poll pact aims to crush Tories. Secret 'hands-off deals' could cost Conservatives up to 100 seats." The article went on to say:

Sources close to the Leaders of both parties acknowledged that in many of these seats local arrangements had been made to ensure that there would be a "candidate, but no contest" ...It is proposed that no central resources will be directed into those areas.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): In my remarks, I said, as a Labour Member of Parliament, that my duty is to urge all people and all Labour voters to vote for a Labour candidate. I regard Liberal Democrats, especially at local level, as little more than genetically modified Tories. However, as the Conservative party is now so ideologically extreme, so far to the right and so racially opportunistic, it is everyone's duty to defeat the Conservative party at every possible moment in parliamentary elections.
Sir George Young : The hon. Member was not born yesterday. He must have realised that when people read the totality of his speech they would have seen it as an inducement to vote for the third candidate, or for the second candidate, if that displaced the Conservative. That is a clear consequence of the course that he was advocating, and he has no one to blame but himself if his remarks have been misconstrued.
Sources close to the leaders of the two parties are here this morning and we look forward to hearing that there is no covert deal of the type mentioned in the press. My party proposes to contest every seat in Britain and will not be taking part in any behind-the-scenes fixing.
The issue was raised on 15 November at Prime Minister's questions by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who asked the Prime Minister not to support AV. He got an equivocal, but interesting reply:

In relation to PR, however, I am not in favour of any system that breaks the link between constituency and Member of Parliament.--[Official Report, 15 November 2000; Vol. 356, c. 930.] That rules out AV-plus and the Jenkins system.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock ): It does not.
Sir George Young : It does, because under the top-ups there is no link between the constituency and the Member of Parliament, and that is the alternative system on which the Government are committed to going into a referendum. The Prime Minister has not ruled out AV but he has ruled out AV-plus in that reply, which underlines the importance of my second question to the Minister today.
It would be helpful to have the Minister's thoughts on one matter. How does the Labour party plan to spend the £5 million that it is allowed on a referendum on PR? We have never had a satisfactory reply to that question. We are aware that the Labour party is split on the issue--there is nothing wrong with that. Does the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 allow the Labour party to spend the £5 million in proportion--spending £2.5 million for those who want to keep the first part of the vote and £2.5 million for those who want to change? Who is going to make the decision? Will it be the leader of the party, the national executive committee, or a membership-wide ballot? Who will be disappointed--the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg), or the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell)?
That question has been mentioned many times. I hope that we may have an answer this morning. In short, what we have had so far is a manifesto commitment that is not to be honoured, then a commitment to a referendum between first past the post and AV-plus, which has apparently been broken. We have seen a move towards a system--AV, which is not proportional, but which happens to make life difficult for the Government's main opponents-- and, finally, equivocation from the Prime Minister when he is asked to make his position clear.
What has happened to the Prime Minister's ambition to realign the centre-left of British politics? Is it, as the leader of the Liberal Democrats said,
gently residing in a coma? The Minister has an opportunity to clarify and define the Government's decision, which is a matter of interest to all hon. Members, and we will hang on every word.
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