HC Deb 23 February 1977 vol 926 cc1416-90

3.43 p.m.

Mr. John Pardoe (Cornwall, North)

I beg to move, That this House believes that Great Britain's economic performance is gravely hindered by a system of government which grants majority power to alternating minority parties; and calls for the reform of the voting system so that Parliament can represent and give effect to the wishes of the people. It is entirely appropriate that this subject should have been chosen for the first debate in the aftermath of yesterday's great victory for representative parliamentary democracy by one of the parties that has no part in the two-party system in this country. I call it a victory for representative parliamentary democracy and not a defeat for the Government because that is the way I believe that parliamentarians should view last night's proceedings. Indeed, it is the case that, if the reform that I am proposing today were to be implemented, last night's vote, last night's victory for representative parliamentary democracy, would become again the natural order of things.

Governments ought not to consider that being beaten by combined votes in the House of Commons is a disastrous defeat. They should accept it as being part and parcel of the job of a legislative chamber. But if this is a legislatve chamber, and we are legislators, we need to go further. We have a right to participate. There is an acceptable devolution Bill somewhere in this House; there is a majority for an acceptable devolution Bill somewhere in this House. But, because of the conventions of government, the House was dished up with a mess of pottage, without being given a choice of menu without even being asked whether it wanted its steak overdone, medium rare or rare. We simply had to take it or leave it. I hope that the Government will learn the lessons of last night and that we shall operate in future more as a proper legislative chamber.

There may be many reasons for wanting a change of method of government, but most important, and a pre-condition of all the others, is the general awareness that there is something wrong with the present method. If there is not that awareness, both in this House and, more particularly, in the country, there is no point in carrying on an argument for reform, but I believe that we fool ourselves if we think that the awareness does not exist. Whatever may be thought in this House about the adequacy of the present system of government, there is great scepticism outside.

The Kilbrandon Commission had a detailed attitude survey carried out. It was very well summarised in the minority report. It revealed a very high level of discontent with our political process. If one asks when the British people last felt themselves to be citizens of a well-governed nation, or when they last believed that their democracy worked well, one sees, from even more recent attitude surveys and opinion polls, that almost universally outside this House the trade of politics is held in general contempt. The reputation of Parliament and of parliamentarians is low.

It will be said, and I am sure the Leader of the House would say it if he were here, that it was always so. But that is an easy but dangerous answer and too complacent by half. Is it really an inevitable part of representative parliamentary democracy that its practitioners and its institutions should be held in such low esteem by the electorate at large? I do not think that it is and it is to that end that I wish to make some fundamental reforms.

Part of the problem we are facing is not unique to Britain. Professor Dahren- dorf, in his Reith lectures published as "The New Liberty", said: The progress of citizenship, of the right of association, of the autonomy of many social organisations and institutions, has led to a fragmentation of the political public so that representative democracy has been transformed into a gigantic and confused bargaining process between organised groups. That is part of the problem that this House ought to face. How far are our institutions and our political system capable of dealing with it?

Faced with this massive change, our representative parliamentary democracy is impotent. That is not just a Liberal view but one that is widely shared by a whole range of political commentators, whether they look down on us from the Press Gallery in our daily deliberations or write in the more esoteric and academic journals.

I do not want to oversimplify the problems we face or their solutions. Both problems and solutions are highly complex. But I do not think that it is going too far to assert that a great deal of what is wrong with Britain today lies with her method of government, and that Britain is in a very similar situation to that which she experienced before the great Reform Act of 1832.

We have a system of government which does not measure up to the realities of a modern State or to the aspirations of our people, and we have to usher in a period of political and constitutional reform similar to that which occupied the half century following the 1832 Act. The reforms necessary are widespread, but this afternoon I intend to deal with only one—electoral reform. It is not necessarily the most important, but it is the key to all the others. Just as, in a chemistry experiment, a catalyst is need to bring about a change and to get a reaction between various chemicals, so electoral reform is the factor needed to break the constitutional log jam which is causing a great deal of our poor performance as a nation.

There may be many reasons for supporting electoral reform. The first, of course, is that it would do the Liberal Party a favour, and I do not deny that. It is an undoubted fact. Had proportional representation been in operation at the last General Election, there would now be 117 Liberal Members of Parliament. That is a consummation Devoutly to be wish'd", as Shakespeare said. He did not actually say it about proportional representation but he would have if he had known about it.

The second reason for advocating PR is, of course, that it will be fairer. That is something which the British people understand. When they are asked whether they want a fairer electoral system, the vast majority of them say "Yes".

In a debate in this House on 25th January the hon. Member for Renfrew-shire, West (Mr. Buchan) said: fairness can be said to be the last refuge of the wet."—[Official Report, 25th January 1977; Vol. 924, c. 1277.] That is a notable remark in the annals of representative parliamentary democracy. But I wonder what the hon. Gentleman would think of, say, a Communist country which announced that it had just held an election and boasted that its Government had secured a mandate because three out of 10 of the citizens had voted for it. I ask the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members to consider that. We talk a great deal about East European Communist dictatorships. We know exactly what we mean by that. We know what we mean by the words "dictatorship" and "tyranny". But I wonder whether there is a Communist dictatorship, apart perhaps from Czechoslovakia and Poland, where, if a free election were held under the auspices of the United Nations, the present Government would get a lower percentage of the votes than this Government got in the last election. Does not that say something for our standards of democracy and their standards of dictatorship?

Hon. Members


Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrewshire, West)

The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that I was making an analogy with Dr. Johnson when he said: Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel". I did not do so for the reason that Dr. Johnson rejected patriotism. On the contrary, he was a very sturdy English patriot. But he said that it was used and abused by the scoundrel. In the same way, I said the new level of com- plexity was the last refuge of the wet because they in no way thought beyond that into all the other complex arguments which I adduced in the debate.

Mr. Pardoe

It strikes me that a better anology is the remark by Joseph Stalin when he asked: How many battalions has the Pope? because both convey that extreme totalitarian arrogance towards the wishes of the electorate at large.

Fairness is one reason why people might support electoral reform. There is certainly more support for it on that score outside the House. I ask hon. Members to consider whether a system can be said to be fair when it took 35,915 votes to elect a Labour MP at the last election; 37,771 votes to elect a Conservative MP; 40.777 to elect a United Ulster Unionist MP; 55,440 to elect a Plaid Cymru MP; 76,328 to elect a Scottish National Party MP; and 411,288 to elect a Liberal MP. I am aware that hon. Members who sit on the Liberal Bench are worth two or three other hon. Members in this House. But the proportions given in those figures are way beyond even my estimation of the qualities of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

The third reason which might be advanced for electoral reform is that it is more democratic. What is representative democracy but an idea which is intended to ensure representation of the national will? That must mean that all views in the country are represented in this House in proportion to the votes cast in the country. The arguments advanced by many Labour MPs, particularly in the debate in January, amounted to saying "I know I cannot persuade the majority of my countrymen to vote for what I believe in. Therefore, I shall maintain an electoral system which allows me to do what I want." That is a negation of democracy.

The Leader of the House is fond of quoting John Stuart Mill. It was he who uttered that triumphant cry: If you can inform the passion of the multitude against the self-interest of the few, you have the right to await the outcome with confidence. I would suggest that many Labour MPs have changed that to "If you can rig Parliament so as to use the passion of the few against the interest of the multitude, you have the right to do any darn fool thing you like whether the multitude likes it or not."

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

In present circumstances, the likelihood is that an election would result in there being a large Labour Party, a large Conservative Party and a large, but perhaps smaller, Liberal Party in this House. Therefore, the Liberal Party would always be in power in association either with the Labour Party or with the Conservative Party, even though they had minority support. Although there are elements of unfairness, as the hon. Gentleman has said, in the present arrangement, is the hon. Gentleman saying that it would be fair or democratic for the Liberal Party, as a result of that system, to be permanently in power?

Mr. Pardoe

It is not true that electoral reform, PR, or whatever system one chooses, always produces coalition. I advise the hon. Gentleman to read "Adversary Government and Electoral Reform" edited by Professor Finer. The hon. Gentleman will find that there are many countries which have PR where coalition has not been produced. I agree that in the majority of cases it does indeed lead to coalition, and it is because it often leads to coalition that I support it. I support it because I believe that it is better that this House should perhaps suffer an undue influence by a moderate minority than an undue influence by an extremist minority.

Indeed, what the present system does is to hand to the extremist group, particularly in the Labour Party, a totally undue influence although, if they had to stand under their own semi-Marxist colours, they would never achieve a vote which would get them into this House at all.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can answer one question that has always puzzled me. If all these arguments are valid, why is it that the Liberal Party did not introduce this reform in the years between 1906 and 1914 when it had an effective majority and could have done so?

Mr. Pardoe

I would again ask the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members to read the record of history carefully. I would ask them to read the book "Adversary Government and Electoral Reform", particularly the second chapter, to which I have already referred. That looks at the history of this matter carefully, and it is quite clear that a whole series of initiatives was taken by Liberal Governments in the early years of this century to get PR on to the statute book.

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)

Will my hon. Friend also remind the right hon. Gentleman that perhaps in one of the most important parts of the United Kingdom—Northern Ireland—this system was introduced by a Liberal Government, abolished for extreme sectional reasons by a Tory Government, and reintroduced by the Tories in 1973 with the full support of the Labour Opposition of the day? In one of the most crucial places where minorities should be fairly represented, the Liberal Party was in the vanguard in insisting on PR.

Mr. Pardoe

We cannot allow the debate to be conducted between two right hon. Gentlemen. But I would say to the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) that Asquith was perhaps very sensitive about making constitutional changes without all-party agreement. His leaning over backwards to try to get all-party agreement on this was the reason why it did not get through the House of Commons at the time.

I also ask any hon. Member who believes that the present system is democratic whether it is democratic that there should be 380 hon. Members out of 635 in this House who are in A. P. Herbert's phrase "Non-MPs", and who, whenever they look at a group of their constituents, are unhappily aware that more than half of them voted against them.

Another reason in favour of electoral reform is that perhaps it is what the people want. I do not suppose that would be the view of many hon. Members in this House. But the fact is that since 1974 the opinion polls have shown a massive support in this country which has always been over 60 per cent. In the latest poll in The Sun, published only two or three weeks ago, 70 per cent. of the British people supported a fairer system, and indeed did so even when asked the supplementary question "Would you continue to support electoral reform and a proportional representation system even if it meant that the party you support were not able to get an overall majority?"

I know that the Leader of the House is not particularly taken with opinion polls. All right. Let us have a referendum on this matter. It is a great constitutional issue. Incidentally, there is a danger in referendums being held if the only body in the country to decide when and what question is the Executive. It is a great instrument of power in the hands of the Executive, as de Gaulle showed.

One point which must be faced is that the two-party system is breaking up. The first-past-the-post system may have been appropriate as long as the two-party system dominated this House. But in 1951 the two parties polled a combined vote of 27½ million—79.9 per cent. of the electorate. That was their high point. In 1955 they polled a combined vote of 25½ million—73.7 per cent. of the electorate In 1964 they polled 24.2 million—67.4 per cent. of the electorate. The average for the two elections in 1974 was 22.7 million—56.9 per cent. of the electorate.

The two parties hope that the trend will not continue. They hope that the collapse of the two-party vote and the rise of a third force in politics is a temporary phenomenon. But I see no evidence that that is the case. I believe that it is a question of the two-party system being dead, but not lying down.

All these are reasons for electoral reform, but I wish to argue in other terms today. The essential link between poor economic performance and our electoral system is the one which I particularly wish to stress. The link may not appear direct or close to some—certainly not to those who wish to ignore it—but it is accepted by many people in this country who are not imbued with the political process.

I should like to quote from an article by Samuel Brittan "A Manifesto for 1975" in a publication by the Institute of Economic Affairs called "Crisis 1975". He said: I make no apology for starting with proposals to reform the political market place which is now the main weakness in our national life. On the one hand, a dominant minority of the electorate has too much influence. On the other hand, voters as a whole have too little choice. The first two of his major recommendations for facing up to the economic crisis he went on to list as a change in the electoral system and fixed-term parliaments.

In an article in the Financial Times on 11th November, Samuel Brittan interpolated into a mock article—on what the Chancellor should tell the House as part of his budget—a firm recommendation on this point.

For those in the Conservative Party who may still have doubts, I propose to quote from a source nearer to home for them. Aims for Freedom and Enterprise issued a pamphlet entitled" Industry and Electoral Reform" by Sir John Foster, QC. In that article, he said: Britain, the country with the most primitive electoral system, is also the country suffering the gravest economic problem in the industrialised West. The link is clear for all to see. I do not claim that proportional representation is a cure, but the reform of our electoral system leading to the end of adversary politics is a pre-condition for economic regeneration. The problem with the adversary system is that winner takes all and that loser plays no part other than to criticise. There is, indeed, therefore an inbuilt temptation to manufacture disagreement and dissension even where it does not exist. We have seen that happen all too often, particularly in industrial and economic policies. Moreover, it does allow extremists in both parties to have undue influence.

Social Democrats in the Labour Party, who are not themselves red in tooth and claw, find it hard to understand how their Government can be considered extremist. This matter has recently been debated in the columns of The Times between the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) and the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph). Basically, it goes like this. The Social Democrats in the Labour Party —say, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Education and Science—are precisely the kind of people one could take to any multinational company's boardroom table and nobody would be scared by them. That is quite true. But they are being continually manoeuvred by their own Left Wing towards the Left. That is especially true in opposition.

The cycle of political extremism in Britain goes like this. Labour goes into opposition. Most of the sensible people get on with doing sensible things. Only the very boring people are prepared to be bored by sitting on Labour policy committees toying with Marxist theories. The conference therefore receives nothing but the lunacies from the Left, and it passes them.

The Labour Party then comes back to power. The Social Democrats have committed themselves to the manifesto, because that was the only way in which they could preserve party unity. It usually takes a couple of years to get the lunacies out of the system and to get on with the job of sensible government. That is why we got into the nonsense of 25 per cent. VAT and then got out of it. It took the Labour Government about 18 months to learn that trick. Even so, the balance is continually being moved to the Left.

The right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East was right to point that out, but his answer is no answer at all. The right hon. Gentleman's answer is to create an extreme Right-wing or laissez-faire Conservative Party so that, by a series of lurches from left to right and right to left like a drunken sailor, somehow the Aristotelian golden mean will be kept. But that leads to total chaos. We change one policy for another. We have seen that with investment incentives, taxation, regional policies, pensions and, of course, local government reform. Not all that is in the past, because we are moving into another phase of incomes policy.

In the "New Inflation" Aubrey Jones wrote: Clearly no policy will be effective and no organisation as the vehicle for carrying out a policy can survive unless there is broad acceptance by both the main parties in a two-party system. But can that be under the existing rules? I doubt it.

I remind Conservative Members of a quotation from the Economist of June 1968 which referred to those who cynically oppose incomes policy in order to embarrass the Government—we mean the Conservative Party". We have seen incomes policy over the years as a ghastly tribute to the adversarial two-party system. I hope that we can stop the process dead in its tracks here and now.

Late last year the CBI published a document called "The Road to Recovery". Under the heading "The Role of Government" it stated: There is a ground rule which is important above all others. In few industrial countries in the free world has trade and industry been subjected to such violent reversals of industrial and economic policy as in the United Kingdom. The prime ground rule must be the continuity and consistency of Government policy towards trade and industry whatever party may be in power—a bipartisan policy. The Government's strategy depends on this, because, unless we can fill industrialists and potential investors with the confidence that these policies and this taxation are here to stay, we shall not get any of the investment that the Government so urgently require.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that if the Liberal Party had been in a more influential position it would have substituted consistency over the last five years? If so, why did the Liberal Party vote for Second Reading of the Industrial Relations Bill but against Third Reading, and, if it was in favour of a statutory prices and incomes policy, why did it support the miners in 1974 in trying to defeat that policy?

Mr. Pardoe

The reasons that we voted against industrial relations legislation on Third Reading were explicitly spelt out in speeches from the Liberal Benches on Second Reading. We made clear that we were prepared to vote on the principle of the reorganisation of industrial relations law, but we felt that certain important changes were necessary in the Bill. We said that unless those changes were made, we would not vote for the Third Reading. We were utterly consistent in our views. It is not inconsistent for a party to state its reservations on Second Reading and then, if those reservations are not met in debate, to vote against the measure on Third Reading.

Our nation's poor economic performance and our electoral system appear to be intrinsically bound up. Even if the Leader of the Opposition hopes to obtain an overall majority for the Tories at the next election, I must tell her that that will not solve the problem. Even if I believed that Conservative policies were right, which I do not, that would not solve the problem. To a certain extent, the Tories are condemned by their own document "The Right Approach". In that document, the Tories said, To make the structural changes that are necessary to restore the dynamic of a mixed economy will need a settled approach over a long, hard haul. Later the document suggests that it will require a 10-year period for the strategy to be successful and that is right.

It is said in the CBI document "The Road to Recovery" that industrialists need more long-term consistency but even if the Conservatives come to power they may not obtain the required investment. They did not do so when they were in power in earlier years.

The reason for that situation is clear. Unless the Conservative Party poses the possibility that the nation will become a one-party State, industrialists, investors and landlords must think in terms of an alternative. As long as this system lasts, the alternative may be a swing to old-style Socialism—perhaps far more to the Left than is the present Government. Therefore, the Conservative Party will have to accept our approach in the long run. Although the Conservatives were in power from 1951 to 1964, investment, particularly in the steel industry, did not appear because it was always considered to be a political risk. Even if under a Conservative Government there is a review of housing policy to assist private landlords and to bring capital into the private housing market, landlords will not invest because they will fear a return to another type of government.

How are we to change the system? It will not be done in this House—for the obvious reasons that individual Members will suffer from the introduction of proportional representation. It stands to reason that if there are to be 117 Liberal Members there will be 50 or 60 fewer Labour Members and 50 or so fewer Conservative Members. Each Member will have over him an unhappy question mark. Members will not support electoral reform. It will be done eventually because enough people will follow Joe Rogaly's advice and become militant democrats.

There is a breakthrough point for the Liberal Party. It involves 23 to 28 per cent. of the electorate and about 7 million votes—in other words, 7 million militant democrats voting in the next election as though they were casting votes in a referendum for proportional representation. They will recognise that the only way in which they can vote for proportional representation is by voting Liberal. Then 7 million militant democrats will lead to the end of the adversarial two-party system. That will lead to a different kind of government for Britain.

4.16 p.m.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

I am pleased to speak following the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe), although I wish to clarify one or two points that arise from his speech before I advance certain thoughts of my own.

I suggest that we are facing, not a situation of merely looking forward to a coalition of different parties if the projected electoral reforms envisaged by the hon. Gentleman come into effect, but a coalition now. We know—and certainly the hon. Gentleman should know—that each party in this House is a coalition of many disparate parts.

Secondly, I wish to question the direct link that the hon. Gentleman seeks to make between economic performance and the effects of our electoral system. He said that he did not claim electoral reform as a cure-all, but I suggest that that could be read into the motion and what he said about it. It would be misleading the country to suggest that, by a wave of the constitutional reforming wand, our desperate economic problems will go away.

The third point involves the Liberal proprietorship that was sought to he established for the idea of electoral reform as a whole.

Mr. Pardoe

No, I was not suggesting that was the case.

Mr. Rathbone

The hon. Gentleman says that he does not make that claim for the Liberals, and I am grateful for that. Constitutional reform and political evolution has emanated from all parties over the years. In 1950 we saw the disappearance of the last piece of proportional representation represented by the university seats, and it was only in 1969, that votes at 18 were introduced. There has been concern in all parts of the House, with many wishing to bring about some reform of our constitutional system.

I wish to express my admiration to the Liberal Party for espousing this cause. I do not accept that a great influx of Liberal Members of Parliament will be brought about by such change. As many other parties espouse a commitment at least to investigate a reform of our electoral system, the support attracted to the Liberal Party, because only it advocates such reform, will ebb away. Obviously hon. Members are prepared to take a risk and I am delighted that they should do so in electoral terms.

In Westminster we can now find more than sufficient horrifying reminders of the state of rot and decay that now affects what we could, until quite recently, claim as the great British parliamentary democracy which has been revered and often copied through the world. For years Britain could tell the world the meaning of democracy. Now we are in a constitutional mess.

That our present Government is acting in a way that represents only a minority of the people in the country hardly needs repeating. The fact that fewer than 30 per cent. of the electorate voted for the Labour Government speaks for itself. The fact of the present Government's doctrinaire Socialist legislation only too dramatically negates any claim that government now reflects majority opinion. Choice at the hustings is no choice at all if it is not reflected in a Government which represents reasonably accurately the choice that has been made.

Equally, it can no longer be argued that our present electoral method is particularly well-designed to sustain a Cabinet Executive through a reasonably long government, although the happenings of yesterday evening went in a different direction from this line of argument. I would rather deal with the issue on the basis of recent experience.

The Executive now is maintained in power only in so far as it can count on support for its policies from various disparate groups inside and outside Parlia- ment and within its own and other parties here and elsewhere. This is true now, and surely it will become more true in the future, because the first-past-the-post method encourages those small parties which can concentrate their support in a small number of constituencies. We see that in the growth of nationalist parties. The first-past-the-post system, as it encourages those parties, discourages other parties that seek support throughout the country.

Whether we like it or not and whether we change the electoral system or not, the days of the basic two-party system have probably gone for ever. This is marked by a loss in votes for the two major parties which leads to a Government who lack the legitimacy and moral support that they should have and that they desperately need today.

What is to be done? Several possible solutions have been offered. Most of them are complementary, and some have emanated from the other place. A written constitution is one possibility, but, with all its merits, it brings some problems in its train and could lead to a vast increase in governmental bureaucracy and interference by legal intervention, as we see in America and France. A new Bill of Rights is another possibility. But the preparation of such a Bill and adherence to it must require more political consensus than exists between the party battle lines today.

Another suggestion is reform of the second Chamber. Reform may be needed if only to protect our two-Chamber system from the threat of abolition, which appears to be supported by some senior members of the Government party. Necessary though that reform may be, it is peripheral to the real problem.

The real need—and it is the reason that I support the motion—is a reform of the House of Commons, not just by the introduction of a fixed term of government—although that has its attractions and merits investigation—nor by greater use of referendums, which are an unattractive prop to our present wobbly parliamentary system; nor by increased reliance on Committee work, which the Secretary of State for Education recently advocated —although that might be an improvement to procedures. I advocate reform at the core of Parliament, reform of our electoral system by substituting for our present first-past-the-post system—which leads to inequitable and undesirable representation—a more proportional system, through which the innate good sense of the majority of the people can be reflected in the composition and therefore on the actions of this country's Governments.

We debated proportional representation all night the other Tuesday. That debate was not about our national Parliament; it was about Scotland and Wales. That was a particularly appropriate subject for debate, because the most astonishing aberration of the last General Election happened in Dunbartonshire, East, where the Scottish National Party candidate was elected by only 31 per cent. of those who voted—the lowest proportion of support in any United Kingdom constituency. In that constituency three-quarters of the electorate did not support the SNP candidate as their Member of Parliament, yet here the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mrs. Bain) usually is. It is noteworthy that there is no hon. Member from the Scottish National Party in the Chamber today. That is an indication of their lack of concern with democratic processes. The hon. Lady is now at Westminster demanding the most extreme action—a separate State for Scotland. What more dramatic illustration can there be than that of the inequity of our present system?

Mr. Richard Wainwright (Colne Valley)

Does the hon. Member agree that although it was a remarkable election result to which he refers, it was symbolic, in that the 31 per cent. which brought the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mrs. Bain) here is virtually the same as the total percentage of the electorate which installed the whole Government?

Mr. Rathbone

The hon. Member makes my point well.

It is against that background that I urge the House to consider how to reform the system. That could be done perhaps by establishing a Speaker's Conference or perhaps by a special independent commission set up to study speedily the whole question of constitutional and electoral reform, and quickly to recommend action to improve our electoral system.

I urge this in the belief that such reform is needed by our country and would be good for it. There is a growing wave of opinion that appreciates the need for change, that would support it, and that would support any candidate or party which advocates consideration of such reform.

I urge such reform because true conservation—I take literally my own party's name—can often be achieved only by carefully conceived and planned evolution. Such constitutional evolution is long overdue in Britain.

I urge this because I belong to a party which prides itself, with justification, on being the party of the constitution. Only a Government supported by the majority of the country, elected through a more proportionately representative system than the present one, can protect us from the one-party State which might so easily be the outcome of a successful confrontation with Parliament by far Left-wing or Right-wing forces outside our parliamentary system.

I urge this because, under our present system of parliamentary democracy, Parliament cannot protect the legal rights of individuals from arbitrary Executive decisions. Therefore, the system must be reformed. Let the party of freedom lead that reform; I hope that the Conservative Party will do that.

I urge this because a more proportionate electoral system should ensure that we never again have a leftwards-leaning Socialist Government for ever kow-towing to its most radical elements.

The argument that the first-past-the-post system ensures strong government, representative government, or moderate government sadly should be stood on its head. The sooner we realise that and take action the better it will be for Parliament and for people.

4.28 p.m.

Mr. Reg Prentice (Newham, North-East)

I did not intend to speak in the debate, but I was partly inspired to do so by the feeling that the Benches on both sides today, particularly on this side, should contain more hon. Members who are ready to participate in this fundamental discussion. I congratulate the Liberal Party on initiating the debate.

If tomorrow morning the Government make the sensible decision and drop the Scotland and Wales Bill entirely, the 20 days that will be saved could be well spent on a long discussion in depth on this subject, which can be discussed only briefly this afternoon. The background to the debate contains a number of important and hopeful tendencies. One is the unusual rigidity of the party system in the past 30 years.

I say "in the past 30 years" because in earlier periods of our history Parliament was more flexible and there was more inclination for people to cross the Floor and for groups to form and line up on various issues. In the last 30 years the main parties have taken on the form of well-drilled armies. They got through the Lobbies at the crack of a whip, with virtually every vote a foregone conclusion. We ought to reflect once in a while on the fact that Mr. Gladstone started life as a Tory and became a Liberal, Mr. Joe Chamberlain started life as a Liberal and became a distinguished Tory, and Sir Winston Churchill crossed the Floor twice in his lifetime. Many others whose names are not so well remembered were much more flexible.

The rigidity of the system has meant that the three main parties have become more and more detached from the body of the electorate. A further background to this debate is the growing disenchantment and disillusionment with party politics that we have seen growing rapidly, especially in the last decade or so. Anyone who went canvassing in an election 15 or 20 years ago, certainly for the Labour Party, could go down a street and mark fairly accurately whether people were for or against. If some said that they were doubtful, it was usually only a polite way of saying that they were against.

These days there are many more genuinely doubtful people among the electorate. When I speak about people being doubtful I mean not apathetic people but people who care about the issues and the future of their country and who do not see that the existing system of government provides any answer to the problem worrying them.

To some extent this is happening throughout the world. This feeling of disenchantment was present in the recent American election and in the German and Japanese General Elections. It is probably a factor throughout the free world and, I daresay, in the totalitarian world also, although we shall never know because people there cannot express themselves.

This feeling is partly due to the increasing pace of events and the complexity of the issues, coupled with the almost inevitable failure of politicians in government to fulfil expectations in a rapidly changing world. There is also a peculiarly British dimension to this. There are many ways in which our complacency about our institutions has made our problems worse than those of other countries. I wish to underline three points which have already been touched on.

My first concerns the selection of candidates and within that I include the "de-selection" of sitting Members. Of course I should declare an interest here. If I illustrate this in terms of the unhappy history of Newham, North-East in the past 18 months I do so only to make a particular point relevent to the debate. I do not come to weep on anyone's shoulder.

It so happens that in the last General Election I was opposed by an extreme Left-wing Socialist, Miss Vanessa Red-grave, who ran under the banner of the Workers' Revolutionary Party. I give her all credit for running under her banner for her own principles. She polled 500 votes and I got nearly 23,000 votes. That was the verdict of the electorate.

But because of the way in whch we do things in Britain, the proposition of people who at the moment have a majority in my local general management committee is that the politics of Vanessa Redgrave should be imposed on the people of Newham by the back door. I believe this to be an extreme although not unique illustration of the way in which our present system not only enables minorities to govern the country but any minorities within a minority to exercise a disproportionate influence.

President Carter is now the President of the United Sates and I hope and believe that he will be a great President. I feel optimistic about the prospects.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

It would be quite amusing to suggest that Vanessa Redgrave's party had been a major force leading to my right hon. Friend losing the support of his management committee. It would be misleading to suggest that. It was not Miss Red-grave's party which predominated in that action.

Mr. Prentice

My hon. Friend has not followed my point. I paid tribute to Miss Redgrave for standing under her own party banner and for facing the electorate with a policy, which was decisively rejected. I respect people who hold such a minority view and stand under their own colours. What has happened in my constituency party, and within the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Sandelson), and in some others, is that there has been an influx of people who, rather than run under their own colours, join the Labour Party because they believe that they can get more power that way than by facing the electorate under their own banner. That is a different proposition.

President Carter was selected as a presidential candidate as a result of a process in which millions of American citizens took part. If he had had to rely upon the inner workings of the Democratic Party, he would never have been a candidate. We have a lot to learn from the American system. I am not suggesting that the British people are ready to accept the primary system as it stands, but I believe that it has merits that ought to be examined by us with care. Either the primary system or some version of it might well be adopted in our case.

My next point is that the system of adversary politics dominated by two main parties leads to actions at election times that are profoundly unhealthy for democracy. If we look at the election manifestos of all parties for the two 1974 elections we find that they were quite good on the first two or three pages. They all recognised that Britain faced a difficult economic situation and said that the first priority was to work our way out of it. When we move to pages 5, 6 and 7 and read the chapters on housing, education, pensions, or the health services we find that all political parties were offering to do things, making promises and proposing to spend resources that the country had not earned. In the process of doing so they were devaluing not only themselves but democracy. It is this constant repetition of election promises that are not fulfilled that is leading to a growing disenchantment with the whole democratic process.

My third point was well made by the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe). Our present system prevents the degree of continuity in policy that we must have in view of our desperate economic situation. Most of us would say that when we speak of continuity we are not asking for genuine differences to be disguised or fudged. We are not suggesting that the House of Commons should always pretend to agree about everything. What is unfortunate about our present system is that we seem to feel a compulsion to exaggerate our differences, to have a parliamentary row about three times a week, to pretend to differences that do not exist.

That attitude is translated into the manifestos and into a situation in which an incoming Government feel bound to tear up much of the structure they inherit and to try to start again. Then, a couple of years later, they have to do a U-turn. The whole history of prices and incomes policy in the past 12 or 14 years is an illustration of this. If there had been a commonly accepted policy, a continuing approach to prices and incomes during that period, while we should still have had inflation, I am convinced that we should not have had as much. The extent of inflation is due to the stops and starts and the U-turns that have been part of our system.

I close my remarks on an optimistic note derived from my experiences this week. The first was an experience I had on Monday night, which hon. Members did not share, and the second was the experience of last night, which we all shared. The night before last I was the guest speaker at the annual general meeting of the Lincoln Democratic Labour Association. It was an exciting, invigorating meeting, the most invigorating local political gathering that I have visited for many years. The LDLA has won two elections out of the last three in Lincoln and is confident that it can win the next. It controls the city of Lincoln, is represented on the county council and is a leading political force in the city.

Its active membership includes people who have been members of the Conservative, Liberal and Labour Parties and, perhaps most important, it also includes people who had found no political outlet until the LDLA was formed. In other words, it includes people who wanted to do something on local and national issues but who could not find a natural home in the existing political parties. Now they are finding their natural home and are giving service to their city and, by example, to the nation.

We temporarily saw something of that spirit in the referendum campaign. Like many other hon. Members, I was speaking in towns throughout the country and meeting local leaders of the Campaign for Britain in Europe who were saying to each other "We Conservative, Labour and Liberal people are finding that we have more in common with each than we have with many extremists in our own parties. We are happy working together in this cause, but we are afraid that we shall lose touch when the referendum is over." What has happened in Lincoln could potentially be happening throughout the country and is long overdue.

What happened in the House last night should also give us some reason for satisfaction. It was a victory for Parliament. Hon. Members from all parties except the nationalist parties were in the "No" Lobby last night. We were emphasising what is too often forgotten under our present system—that no Government can govern without the consent of Parliament. In doing so we were striking a blow for Parliament and for democracy.

Whether or not we have a fundamental reform of our constitution—and I believe we should have—there should be more occasions like last night when hon. Members judge issues on their merits and do not simply do what their party Whips have told them to do.

Mr. Eric Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

My right hon. Friend must be aware that over the years many of us have judged issues on their merits. I have certainly done so for the past 10 or 11 years, and for that I have been regarded as a Left-wing extremist, a rebel wanting to rock the boat, and so on. My right hon. Friend cannot have it both ways. Many of the people in the "No" Lobby last night do not share his views one iota, except perhaps on devolution. That is not an argument that political debate and discussion and argument should cease, because that is the essence of democracy.

Mr. Prentice

My hon. Friend and I have had strong disagreements, sometimes deep disagreements, on various issues in the past, but I hope that he will accept that I have always respected the way in which he has stood up for his principles. My hon. Friend has said that he has, as he put it, rocked the boat. I think that he is entitled to rock the boat. I think that people throughout the political spectrum should do so, although, as a footnote, I would add that some people on the left wing of the Labour Party—and I do not include my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer)— seem to apply double standards. They believe that it is right for members of the Left to say exactly what they like and to make vigorous attacks on the moderates in the Labour Party, but if the moderate part of the Labour Party does the same thing in return, that is rocking the boat.

Now that I am free from the shackles of being in office, I find that I have the same kind of freedom as my hon. Friend the Member for Walton has exercised. I believe that other hon. Members throughout the House should exercise that freedom.

I do not believe that we should abandon the party system or go as far as the American Congress in this respect. There is much to be said for party cohesion a good deal of the time, but we should have a healthier democracy if there were more free votes and more occasions when hon. Members could abstain or vote against their party because of the merits of a particular issue. If the Government of the day had to win the vote through argument and had to convince hon. Members instead of taking their support for granted, they would more often carry the country with them, and the quality of government would be better.

I thank the Liberals for choosing this subject. I have been able to make only a few brief, unrehearsed remarks, but I believe that we should return to this subject at greater length in the months ahead.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. Emlyn Hooson (Montgomery)

So far today in this debate we have listened to three profoundly interesting speeches, not least that of the right hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Prentice), who referred to last night's vote. The significance of the vote was that, quite exceptionally, it was not a matter of ritual, as votes have become in the House. It is a strange reflection on our democracy that serious political writers can say—and hon. Members can repeat it in the House—that the only weapon in the hands of an Opposition is time.

It is significant that last night's vote was concerned with time. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) was so moved that he carried his convictions to the extent of abstaining. I understood that he always stood up for his convictions in these matters.

I wish to touch on a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) when he said that electoral reform was not an overall answer to the country's problems but a catalyst, something necessary to bring about a profound change in our political attitudes. In this country we are suffering from the adversary system of politics. We all know that there is an enormous amount of synthetic indignation engendered in the House on various issues which does not reflect the true feelings of hon. Members or the electorate outside. The right hon. Member for Newham, North-East said that one of the great faults of our system was the "bargain basement" attitude towards elections. When the history of the present period is written it will be seen that the worst part of the last Conservative Administration was the first 18 months, and when we look at the history of the present Government we shall see that it was also the first 18 months that were worst. The Government have been struggling in a variety of ways to put right the wrongs which they committed in the first 18 months. The respective Governments were both trying to fulfil promises that they had made to secure victory, not to serve the best interests of the country.

I turn now to the kind of reform that we can achieve in our present system of government in this House. A matter of great anxiety to those who run the country is the mass of ill-digested legislation that is passed. The interests of those who are affected in today's highly sophisticated modern world are insufficiently consulted. Bills are often badly drafted and do not do what Ministers say they are designed to do. I was a member of the ill-fated Select Committee on agriculture which had the temerity years ago, under the chairmanship of the then hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor, now Lord Watkins, to send for various civil servants and to interrogate them about price reviews in agriculture and so on. The Committee was scrapped when it was found that our inquiries were going too far, but that Committee illustrated for a short time the sort of thing that could be done if the Committee system in the House were changed.

In the book by Griffith and Perry covering scrutiny of Government Bills, in the period considered the authors found that 3,510 amendments had been moved by Back Benchers and that of these fewer than 5 per cent. were agreed to. Govenment Ministers moved 2,710 amendments in the same period, and of these all but one were passed. Back Benchers withdrew 1,797 amendments on the usual fraudulent undertaking given by Ministers that the matter would be considered and that appropriate amendments would be introduced at the Report Stage. This makes a farce of parliamentary democracy, because of the undertakings given in 1,797 cases, only 365 amendments were made or introduced by the Government.

The authors came to the conclusion that on only 25 occasions were Governments forced to make any significant changes because of Back-Bench pressure, and that general situation applies in this House whatever the complexion of the Government. Once they occupy the Front Bench, Ministers, with very few exceptions, seem to be completely controlled by the thinking of their civil servants and no longer reflect the views of the House of Commons or the electorate which put them in power.

I should like to see, as a reform of our system of government in this House, a change in our system of Committees. For example, I think we should have subject Committees sitting in advance of legislation which should consider consultative documents presented by the Government. As an example, let me take two subjects in which I have been particularly interested over the years. They are agriculture and defence. Everyone knows that this country has an annual price review when various interests such as the NFU are consulted by Ministers or civil servants. Members of Parliament are never consulted on these matters. These days our Minister goes over to the Common Market and has to make representations to his EEC colleagues about what the EEC agricultural policy should be.

There is, however, no means of consultation with the elected Members of Parliament here, who represent consumers, farmers and so on, and nor is there consultation with the various interests. I declare an interest as a farmer, but why should the farming unions be consulted yet the consumer associations are not? It is important that a Select Committee should have power to ask various bodies to come before it and to consider a consultative document put before it by the Government. The Committee should be able to call and interrogate civil servants and various interested groups, and it should be able to prepare an advisory report for the House of Commons. All this should also happen before legislation is introduced.

The same thing could happen with a defence Committee. There should be a permanent defence Committee which should be able to call various experts before it as well as calling in the civil servants before any legislation is considered by the House.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

I am not sure that the hon. and learned Member is on such a good point as he thinks, apart from the fact that there is not often legislation about defence. If he looks at the minutes of the Defence Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee he will find that anything of real significance is denoted by asterisks only.

Mr. Hooson

The hon. Member will appreciate that this is because of the very nature of what is being considered. I gave defence as an example simply because I have been interested in the subject, and it is a very good example of the kind of sphere in which there should be a permanent Committee with wider powers than are possessed by the Corm- mittee on which the hon. Member sits at present.

Thereafter we should have the Committee again sitting to consider legislation after Bills have been given a Second Reading. This Committee should have the power to examine Ministers, civil servants and outside bodies. Each such Committee should have its own research staff, independent of other research staffs in the House. I do not suggest that there should be an excessive number of such Committees, but I am sure there is room for half a dozen of them, with Members sitting around a table, not on the old basis of adversaries across the floor making repetitive speeches but inquiring of experts. We live in a highly sophisticated country. Modern life is becoming more and more complex. There are various interested groups which know far more about a subject than any one hon. Member can hope to know.

It is necessary to marry our deeply-established political system, which has evolved over a long time, with modern industrial society. In order to do that we can adapt our Committee system to a system better suited to modern times. That system would also provide Back Benchers with a much clearer and more useful rôle. It is ridiculous that the only weapon of an Opposition is time. That results in all-night sittings, wasted time and repetitive speeches, and we should clear up our procedure to make sure that we can have much better means of being a more effective opposition.

This system would also produce much more effectively the desirable check on Government activity and would lead to a much closer examination of legislation than is made at present. We know from experience on many Committees that a few Members do a good deal of work and that many Members are just passengers. It would be very much better, and hon. Members would themselves learn much more about their specialist spheres, if they sat on a different kind of Committee in considering legislation. This would also streamline the passage of legislation through the House and cut out a great deal of duplication. The Report stage would probably be much more important. There could be an advisory report from the appropriate Committee to the House before Report stage. It would involve outside interests very much more in the formative stages of legislation. It would also bring about much more consensus politics, not in the political sense but in the industrial sense, in this country.

The vote last night, as I have said, has attracted such a great interest because it was not a repetition of the usual ritual through which we go in this House. It illustrates, by the very interest that it has engendered, one of the tremendous weaknesses of our modern parliamentary democracy.

4.58 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)

I am about to inject a discordant note into the debate in being the first Member to speak against the motion. Before 1 am suddenly identified as an unexpected political ally of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) as a wrecking extremist, perhaps I had better describe briefly the position from which I speak.

When I hear people talk about the Centre in politics, I always believe that to be something to which I personally belong. If I am ever pressed to define my position in politics, it perhaps begins to date me when I call myself a Butskellite, and I continue to use that phrase even though it has gone out of fashion for the time being. I remain a believer in consensus politics. It is the duty of a Government to achieve consensus so far as possible. Perhaps to relate myself to this debate, and for the satisfaction of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson), I agree that the worst period of office of the last two Governments—Conservative and Labour—was the first 18 months of each of their terms of office. That was because of the pressures to which they had succumbed before they came to power and before reality set in.

Speaking from that position, I find myself a little isolated from my political friends in the House who seem to have taken up electoral reform as a passionate cause and are pressing it strongly for what they believe to be desirable constitutional purposes. I exempt from them, although its members are often my political friends, the Liberal Party because alongside its genuine constitutional motives is the underlying feeling that there would be a substantial increase in the number of Liberal Members in the House if only electoral reform could be achieved.

The reason why I am against reform from my essentially centralist position, however, is that I believe that the system of election in this country still exercises desirable pressures—from my point of view—upon the practice of politics in this country, and I believe that it should continue to do so.

First, I should make it clear that I am trying to identify the pressures imposed on politics and politicians by our electoral system. I do not intend to go into a great discourse on the present state of politics and the reliability or otherwise of politicians, because politicians are basically what they make themselves. This Parliament is basically what hon. Members make it. The system exercises certain pressures that are on the whole beneficial, and if there are failings they are the failings of the people who are practising politics—their failure to respond to the pressures.

The main pressure that our first-past-the-post system exerts is that it tends to pull politicians and politics towards the centre. The victor in electoral terms in British politics is the man or woman who strives to get as near as possible to 50 per cent. of the popular vote and who strives to occupy the middle ground. Victory has always gone to the political party that succeeded in getting closest to the middle ground. This has been a beneficial influence for a considerable length of time.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

Would the hon. Member describe for me—and I am an hon. Member with a majority of only 464—what pressure he can possibly experience with a majority of over 15,000?

Mr. Clarke

At least, at the General Election I sailed in with more than 50 per cent. of the popular vote. Therefore, I have no personal vested interest in advocating electoral reform. I think that some of the advocates of electoral reform find themselves elected on narrow majorities by our present system and then realise that a change in the system would make it virtually impossible for them to be removed.

Nationally speaking, victory goes to the party which occupies the middle ground, and I do not believe that circumstances have changed. But at the moment, uniquely, we have a Government in power who have been seen to vacate the middle ground, and I believe that the next General Election will give victory to the party which most successfully occupies it.

The second influence of the present system is that it tends to give us a coalition system of government. We do not have the post-election coalitions formed by agreement between different parties which stood separately at elections. Instead, we have big parties which are themselves coalitions. They have formed themselves into these coalitions to present themselves to the electorate in order to have a prospect of success under our electoral system. There are wide ranges of opinion within the big parties at the moment. To present either big party as a monolithic bloc representing certain interests is total mythology.

Those coalitions are formed and held together by the present electoral system, and if the parties did not respond to this pressure they would have no chance of success. We achieve unity because we agree on a programme to present to the electorate, and we maintain our unity in order to convince the electorate that we can offer some cohesion in Government. We present ourselves as a broad-based bloc in order to win power, and we realise that there is no hope of victory in pursuing sectional interests.

Proportional representation would fragment those coalitions and divide the existing parties. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) will not be offended if I say this, but I think it is inconceivable that he and I would be in the same political party under a multi-party system. I do not think for one moment that he would disagree with that. But he and I are held together in a friendly coalition in exactly the same way as members of the Labour Party are held together by the electoral system.

Mr. Cyril Smith (Rochdale)

Both hon. Members fought on the same manifesto.

Mr. Clarke

In a coalition Government formed by separate parties all the members pursue the same policy in power irrespective of their manifestos. In this country, there is an amalgamation of respective beliefs before an election. It is quite different in a multi-party system because the coalition is formed after the election by secret deals in smoke filled rooms between parties which can form a majority but which did not coalesce before the election.

That leads me to the third consequence of our present electoral system which I believe is beneficial. It gives the electorate an actual choice of the Government who will govern them for the next four or five years. Members of the public can protest and say "A plague on both your houses", but they know that they can vote both for the Prime Minister and for the Government of their choice. Under a multi-party system they could not do so with any certainty.

Mr. Nicholas Scott (Chelsea)

Does my hon. Friend release that at no time since the Second World War has the majority of the electorate ended up with the Government for which it voted? Experience generally is that coalition Governments are formed not as a result of deals in smoke-filled rooms after an election but as a result of compromises by the parties concerned before the election, when they commit themselves to saying during the election compaign with whom they will coalesce. The electorate are well aware of the sort of Government for which they will be voting.

Mr. Clarke

With respect to my hon. Friend, there are endless examples of Governments in Europe being formed by a coalition of parties which do not command the support of 50 per cent. of the electorate. No American President has been elected by 50 per cent. of the total population. Under the European system, many Governments are not supported by 50 per cent. of the voters. Nor is it true that coalition deals are done in all cases before an election. It is true that the coalition in Germany was reached before the election, but one could contrast that with the situation in Holland where, after every election recently, it has been unclear who could and would form a Government for some months. During that time secret deals are formulated, even to the point where everyone is haggling over who will hold what portfolio and which regions will be favoured in the subsequent programme.

In our present system, the electorate vote for the Government and the Prime Minister. In one sense that weakens our position as Members of Parliament because we know that in our constituencies, while there are those who actually vote for ourselves as individuals, there are those who are exercising their right to have either Mr. Callaghan or Mrs. Thatcher as Prime Minister or one or other platform, knowing that their Member will support that platform when he is elected. As a balance to that, once the Government are elected the Member has the satisfaction of knowing that as the constituency Member he is a representative of the Government to whom the constituents have practical access for their own personal problems. That concept would be thrown out completely by the introduction of electoral reform.

The opportunity to vote for a Government also has a certain disciplining effect on the electorate—and I do not mean to sound patronising in saying this. It has this effect because there are those who at an election will turn away from the possibility of pursuing limited sectional interests—

Mr. Cyril Smith

Now we know what is behind it.

Mr. Clarke

I do not know why the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) Keeps interrupting everything I say. He has been here only a few minutes. The position is that under a multi-party system there are sectionalists, regionalists, Poujardists and, in other countries, confessionalists and religious elements. In this country, under our system the electorate face a choice between two realistic alternatives for Government for the next five years. Normally they must decide between the lesser of two evils. That is the reality of politics which, I trust, the hon. Member for Rochdale is following in his judgments in this House. No man ever reads a party manifesto and believes every word of it—or, if he does, he is some sort of automaton employed in Central Office or Transport House.

Politicians and the electorate face a choice between the lesser of two evils—between two realistic and working coalitions which have formed themselves to hold office. Therefore, they plump for a party to form a Government. It has a disciplining effect on the electorate in that it makes them use their votes for a serious purpose. It has an effect on the Government in that it discourages them from using their power for purely sectional, fringe, regional or confessional interests. In any multi-party system an anti-abortion party would be a strong runner in some parts of this country, and the effect on the electorate would be to deflect them into a small issue and away from making a realistic choice of the Government of the day.

Having defended the present system in a House apparently composed mainly of those prepared to change it, I turn now to its defects. The argument is that it is unfair because it disfranchises 3 million electors who, in the Liberal case, as it were, throw their votes away and are not represented in this House—

Mr. Pardoe

It is 5½ million.

Mr. Clarke

Yes, 5½ million including the other parties.

Mr. Pardoe

No, 5½ million for us.

Mr. Clarke

You get 5½ million?

Mr. Pardoe


Mr. Clarke

When the hon. Member hears what I am about to say about his party's vote, he will understand my amazement that the Liberal Party gets 5½ million votes.

The Liberals' case on the wasted vote is that they represent this vote as being somehow the silent centre ground of politics which is not represented here and is excluded from the adversary politics of the great parties. With respect, that is a complete myth carefully calculated by the Liberal Party and does not represent that nature of the Liberal vote in the country at all. Otherwise, I as a centrist politician would be happy to welcome 5½ million recruits to the causes that I hold dear.

The vision of the two major parties as the parties of, in one case, big business and, in the other, the trade unions, with the little man in between never represented, is a myth. They are both broadly-based, overlapping coalitions. The Liberal vote is not this centrist ground arguing for continuity and the other things that it is represented as being. It comprises largely protest voters voting against the party for which otherwise they would tend to vote.

In my constituency—surveys have shown that my situation is not unique—my Liberal opponent, who is slightly to my right on economic policy but otherwise holds views completely indistinguishable from mine on every major issue, gets a large number of votes from Right-wing electors who are voting because they agree with the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) on immigration or because they are against our membership of the EEC. They vote Liberal in order to teach people like me a lesson. It is mainly a protest Right-wing vote.

The other element in the Liberal vote is the totally non-political Poujadist vote which votes Liberal because it does not regard Liberals as politicians and protests against the general failure of politics and our present economic malaise, saying, in effect, "To the devil with the lot of you." That vote has nothing to do with positive support of a programme. However appealing—I do not believe that it is appealing—the Liberal programme might be to some, its programme is almost a complete irrelevancy. The people who vote for this reason do not know what the programme is and they do not want to know what it is. This is a large nonpolitical vote.

I fear that a change in the electoral system would unleash that Poujadist, nonpolitical vote, that protest vote, and would give it extremely dangerous sectional channels to support. It would turn this Parliament into one which, although under our present system it is becoming multi-party, might then become multiparty with the National Front and other undesirable fringe groups represented. I do not think that the Liberal Party would necessarily succeed as a result.

One must accept that the Liberal Party gets the votes of those who vote for small parties because of a protest against the performance of Governments over the last few years and an expression of some disillusionment with the working of our politics. One must search for the causes of that disillusion but not attribute them all to the electoral system. The pressures of the electoral system are wholly beneficial upon our politicians and our political parties. If we have not satisfied the electorate, the failures lie with the politicians and the parties in failing to respond to those pressures.

When one considers what is going on with the supposed inflexibility of the present parties—the right hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Prentice) gets on to such matters as the selection of candidates—one sees that the situation within the Labour Party currently relates to matters entirely within the constitution of one of the major political parties and has nothing to do with our electoral system.

Indeed, I would say that the electoral system is on the side of the right hon. Gentleman's views, even if it is too late to rescue the right hon. Gentleman from his own party executive, in that those who move to extremes within his party will at least pay the electoral penalty. The extreme Left-wing candidate who succeeds him will lose electoral appeal in consequence of taking an extremist position, and the system will tend to pull matters back towards the middle.

The parties must respond to the system by satisfying the public and seeking to appeal to the moderate centre of public opinion which is dominant in this country. As one part of that appeal, we must therefore seek to avoid the ping-pong of politics and adversary politics. A party will win support if it can commit itself to the minimum of repeal of what its predecessors did and the minimum of institutional change and reform, if it can show that it has been made responsible by the experience of government. A party must resist pressures from its own doctrinaire elements to pledge itself immediately in opposition against all those things which it found itself obliged to do when it was itself the Government.

But that is something for the parties to respond to, and the present system of election helps to influence the major parties, in Government and in Opposition to do that, and it does not work in the reverse way. Changes of the kind advocated would weaken our democracy by turning the formation of Governments into deals between politicians. They would weaken Parliament by making it a multi-party institution enabling Governments to manage it on the principle of divide and rule. Even worse, it would encourage what I think is perhaps the most dangerous tendency in the country at the moment; it would help to divide the country further into warring sectional interest groups, competing regional rivalries, fragmented political interests and extremes which are already being given more of a separate platform. It is a mistake to pursue this fashion for electoral reform in the belief that it has anything significant to do with our present political malaise.

5.17 p.m.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Judging from the speeches rather than the motion, there are three subjects covered in this debate. One is proportional representation, the second is parliamentary procedures and the third, which is the main one in the motion, is the state of the economy. Much has been said about parliamentary procedure. It is interesting to reflect that what we are supposed to be doing today is considering the Estimates for expenditure upon the public service. There could be no better reflection of the inefficient way in which the House does its job than to know that that is what we are supposed to be up to.

At least the Liberal Members are to be congratulated. They have hardly put down a substantive motion for discussion, but at least we are not having this debate upon a motion for the Adjournment, which is the motion that the official Opposition more often than not chooses for the use of its Supply Days.

The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) suggested—I can hardly believe that even he believes it—that all the ills of our governmental, or rather our parliamentary, system derive from the absence of proportional representation. He acknowledged that the Liberal Party has great self-interest in the introduction of that system. I take the view that there is practically everything wrong with the way in which we do our work in Parliament except the necessity for proportional representation.

If we had that system, the inevitable result—as I tried to point out in an intervention—for the foreseeable future at any rate, is that there would be three principle parties. Two would be largish parties—not on the extremes: we have no extremes of any political significance in this country—Labour and Conservative, roughly equal in size, and in the middle the Liberal Party, with a much greater representation in the House than it has now.

The only consequence of that is that either before or after elections there would be a deal between the Liberal Party and the Labour Party or between the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party. It would be up to the Liberal Party to choose one of those parties. The Liberal Party would be permanently in power, and we would not have an opposition which by appealing to the electorate could realistically expect to secure power. I can think of nothing which would be more weakening to the proper function of parliamentary democracy than that kind of coalition in power all the time with an opposition which could never expect to be in power. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Let other hon. Members say how it would work if not in the way which I have described.

Our parliamentary habits are wrong. I stress the word "habits" because there is nothing wrong with the system. I include such secondary aspects of it—important though they are—as the Committee system to which the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) referred. Of course we should have subject Committees like every other legislature in the world. Of course we should have a better method for the scrutiny of expenditure, such as we are supposed to be doing now, and for the scrutiny of legislation.

Those of us who serve on the No. 1 Procedure Committee are hopeful —we hope; we do not believe—that perhaps the consequence of that Committee's proceedings will be to place before the House some procedural changes which could greatly improve it. But I do not believe that the procedures or the structures of the House are the main fault. The fault is the attitude of Members. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Prentice) said, the trouble is that Members are simply not prepared often enough to vote the way they think.[HON. MEMBERS: "Last night."] The day after last night is perhaps not the day to take the view that everything will change for the better, but we shall see.

I do not think that it would make for a good Government or a useful Parliament if Members were on every vote to scratch their heads to decide with which grouping they would vote each time and on which individual basis they would vote each time. Like every other group of decision makers, we must compromise with each other and trust each other's judgment on things. I might defer to another person's judgment on certain subjects, but on other subjects that other person might defer to my judgment. But in the end the responsibility whether I compromise is mine and I am not responsible to my Whip for the manner in which I discharge that obligation—as my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Harrison), one of our Whips, who has just entered the Chamber, well knows. I am answerable only to the electorate which sent me here.

Those who tend to speak in this manner tend also to say that what is wrong with Parliament is the Members, not the electoral system and not the public. I regret to say that the public escape a wee bit too lightly. In this the public has something to answer for. There are not many countries where an MP can receive a letter from a constituent saying that it is a disgrace that such-and-such a Minister is allowing his MP a free vote. That has happened to me.

If there is to be a change inside the House, the change of habit must be in the hearts and minds of the Members and the change of procedures must be devised by Members. On this issue I have changed my mind since coming into the House. The force of the change upon Members must come from outside the House. The public must expect its Members to be answerable for what they do in the House. The electors must expect their Members not to say "Well, I voted such-and-such a way because my party voted that way". People will say they are not interested in that but in why their Member had voted that way.

As far as I can judge the attitude of my constituents, they want me to support solidly the continuance of a Labour Government. That is the principal reason why they sent me here. But on individual issues they expect me to use a considerable measure of independence of judgment. Unless that is done, this whole place might as well pack up. The lack of that sufficient measure of individual judgment weakens and practically paralyses the House of Commons at present.

The hon. Member for Cornwall, North suggests in the motion that the introduction of proportional representation would somehow transform the British economy and would remove the English disease—or what it is that is wrong with our economy. That argument is slightly valid. The notion in the minds of many people that the country faces a political divide perpetually, and may go along one path or another, carries over into economic affairs and industrial relations. But for the most part I think that the political situation is irrelevant to economic affairs.

The British disease, which is diagnosed as things basically sophisticated, and worth writing a book or even an article about, is nothing more than good plain old-fashioned inefficiency. At present, the British are colossally inefficient. We could not organise a raffle. That situation exists in private and public industries. It exists in the Government and in the House of Commons and it exists certainly in all the political parties as machines. Perhaps it exists in political parties as machines more than it exists in most other places. I do not know the solution to that problem except perhaps exhortation. It seems an extremely weak remedy for such a killer disease. But I do not think that there is anything we can do except to recognise that the fault lies in the attitudes and efficiency of people, and by at least mentioning it all the time we stand a chance of its being cured in time.

It would be wrong to lead people to suppose that the introduction of a new system of electing Members to this House would suddenly make boardrooms find viable projects which they cannot find at present, or that it would lead trade union representatives to see the advantage in certain innovations which they do not see at present. It is implicit in the motion that the activities or inactivities of Government are extremely important in determining economic success or failure. I do not accept that. If we have a system where the Government are interventionist—as it is in all Western countries at present—that interventionism continues to be a fractional element of the total decision-taking process whether in operations, investment incentives, taxation or whatever. It is all marginal compared with the efficiency and enterprise —the two EEs—of those conducting the business.

Over the past decade we have failed because business men in Coventry have not seen the opportunities which business men on the other side of the world in Japan have seen and exploited. It is nothing to do with the notion that these days we cannot sack people. People are never sacked in Japan and Japan gets by without that device almost entirely. We suffer from a lack of efficiency, which means using three people to do the job of two, and a lack of enterprise, which is the failure to find work for the third man.

If we manage simply to recognise that fact, in the end we might manage to climb back out of the rut into which we have fallen, and if the procedures in this Chamber become more related to the real effects in our economy and our politics, that, too, will help to diagnose the real difficulties from which we suffer.

5.30 p.m.

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)

I should like, first, to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) on introducing this subject and on his speech, which has certainly stimulated an excellent debate. I am delighted that the Minister of State, Home Office, will be replying to the debate, because he and I have sat on the Select Committee on Direct Elections to the European Assembly and I know him to be a good democrat. Likewise, I am delighted that the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) will be winding up the debate for the Opposition, because as a member of the Crowther Commission on the Constitution he has a close interest and an informed view of constitutional matters in the House and, indeed, in the country generally.

The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) made a very reasoned and well argued case—if he will allow me to sound patronising, which is not my intention. When he rightly says, even in the presence of the Whip sitting in the Patronage Secretary's place, that he is answerable to no one but his constituents and that he is not answerable to the Whips and acts according to his conscience, I am sure that that is so. However, history shows that the sanction for that is having the Whip withdrawn, which under our present system means certain defeat, as many people, such as Dick Taverne, Christopher Mayhew and a whole list of those who have shown such independence, have found out.

The hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) says that at every election there is this great swarm to the middle ground. You could have fooled me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when some 380 Members managed to get here with less than 50 per cent. of the vote. One does not swarm to the middle ground. One swarms to the selection committee that selects one. If one is in a safe Tory seat or a safe Labour seat, one gets in. The hon. Gentleman puts a higher value on his own moderation than is perhaps the case. He says that proportional representation will lead inevitably to a whole series of coalitions. I can see that it might do that. It would not necessarily do that, but it might. However, if it did that, it would be because that reflected the wishes of the electorate.

I cannot accept that one should say "Because we never want to have coalitions, we must therefore have a system that distorts the wishes and the votes of the electorate so that we do not get one." One cannot say "We believe in democracy and the process of counting heads", and then cook the books. That is the fallacy.

The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury said that he had had a letter to say that it was a disgrace that we were allowed a free vote on something. He put that matter humorously, but it indicates the adversarial side of our politics. When we have a free vote, which simply means that the Whips allow hon. Members to exercise their consciences and think for themselves, that is regarded as a very remarkable parliamentary event.

I shall not spend much time on the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Rushcliffe, save for the idea that we must discipline the electorate and that they must make a serious choice. What the hon. Gentleman is really saying is that we must get them to vote not necessarily for what they want but for the lesser of two evils. That is the sort of discipline that the electoral system has on Labour voters in my constituency. There are probably 10,000 committed Labour supporters in my constituency. The Labour vote is never more than 5,000 or 6,000, because Labour voters feel compelled to vote for me not because they are liberals but in order to prevent the Tory candidate from getting in.

That is an appalling discipline in an advanced democracy. I should like those Labour supporters to vote according to their convictions, and if then there was no clear majority betwen myself and the Tory candidate, they would have the opportunity to express a second preference. That would be democracy. The authoritarian ring with which the hon. Gentleman is advocating discipline is not the sort that I came here to advocate.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

Surely the single transferable vote system, which the right hon. Gentleman is advocating, seeks to strengthen just those pressures. If the second preference vote were permitted, it would mean that the Liberal Party would be greatly strengthened because the Liberals would hope to get the second preferences of all those in those constituencies in which no one appears with a clear 50 per cent. majority. They hope to get in on the second preferences of Socialists who would vote for anyone other than a Conservative, or of Conservatives who would vote for anyone other than a Socialist. The second preference system advocated by the Liberals aims to capitalise precisely the influences that the right hon. Gentleman claims to deplore in North Devon.

Mr. Thorpe

The fact that the hon. Gentleman did not know to within the nearest 3 million the Liberal Party vote and his view that we are in favour of the second preference system, known as the alternative vote—which we are not and never have been—shows that he has his facts wrong. Secondly, he does not appear to understand how the single transferable vote works. It is simply that if one has a three-Member or a four-Member constituency, any candidate who gets one-quarter of the votes gets one of the seats. In other words, one is represented in proportion to the strength of one's party. If two out of every four votes go to the Conservatives they would have two out of the four Members. They would be the two most popular in the opinion of Tory voters.

If I have assisted the hon. Gentleman by a preliminary dissertation on the subject, I hope that he will be grateful.

The hon. Gentleman goes on to talk about what it would really lead to. This was one of his great fears. Those who say that there shall be only two parties are only one stage removed from those who say that there shall be only one party. The principle is the same. What the hon. Gentleman is really worried about is sectionalist parties and regionalist parties. Is that not exactly what we have in this country? Do we not have a system, as shown by the UUUC, Plaid Cymru and the nationalists, in which anyone who can concentrate support in a particular area finds it much easier to get elected? Is it not within the whole system that Plaid Cymru and the SNP, with 1 million votes get 11 seats when a widely based national party with 5 million or 6 million votes, because it is widely based, will get only 13 seats?

Therefore, although it is said that the system that we advocate would produce these terrible effects, they are with us already. Changing the system is the one way of ensuring that we would not get them. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will do some more thinking on the matter. He says that it would be terrible because we might get National From Members and Communist Members. However, if there is a substantial minority of such people in this country, it is better that people like that are represented here. For example, I think that it is much better that people from Northern Ireland with whom I find myself in tremendous disagreement are in this Houes. It is much better than having them driven underground by the system.

I want briefly to turn to three points. I want to illustrate why the electoral system that one uses is of tremendous constitutional importance in this country. When the Government of Ireland Act was introduced in 1920, the then Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was determined on one thing—that the Catholic minority in the North and the Protestant minority in the South would be fairly represented. He was also determined that the religious affiliations of the citizens, North and South, would not polarise, so that if one was a Catholic one belonged inevitably to one party and if one was a Protestant one belonged to another. To achieve this he introduced proportional representation.

That system has endured very well in Eire. I have no hesitation in saying that it is one reason why religion plays no part in determining the political affiliations of the electors in Eire. There has never been a Cabinet in Eire that has not contained Protestants. Some of the most distinguished Presidents of the Republic of Eire have been of the Protestant faith, the most recent being Erskine Childers. In the North, the system was introduced, and for very narrow reasons it was abolished by the Unionists in the late 1920s—frankly, because Lord Craigavon said that unless it was abolished, after the next election the Opposition would be returned with more seats than the Government. What he meant was that the Unionist Party was in danger of splitting—it would probably have been the best thing for Irish politics if it had—between a moderate Tory and extremist Tory party.

Be that as it may, the system was abolished, and from that moment the Catholic minority, partly by the gerrymandering of boundaries, was permanently under-represented. That was one of the causes of frustration. Much more important, because it was frustrated in this way the electorate polarised on the basis of religion. If one was a Roman Catholic one became a nationalist or Republican and if one was a Protestant one automatically became a Unionist.

In 1973 the then Secretary of State reintroduced PR long before the Sunningdale package, with the full support of the Labour Opposition of the day, in order that we might try to end that polarisation and have all shades of opinion represented. I emphasise that it was because there was a fair electoral system that we were able to have a convention representing all shades of opinion, as a result of which, following Sunningdale, we were able to get a power-sharing Executive going. The reason it fell to pieces some six weeks later was that, whilst there was a fair representation of all shades of opinion in Ulster, there was then a Westminster-type election under the first-past-the-post system, and although only 51 per cent. of the vote was against Sunningdale, 11 out of 12 Members were returned for that 51 per cent. and those 11 immediately claimed a mandate for saying that there was no support for power-sharing. The effect of that election was to frustrate the first hopeful signs that a meaningful degree of power-sharing could be brought about. Therefore, I believe that the electoral system has a profund effect. I want to put this in the context of Scotland and Wales in particular, where there is another great constitutional problem that the House will ignore at its peril.

Mr. McCusker (Armagh)

The removal of proportional representation in the 1920s did not radically alter the composition of the House of Commons of Northern Ireland. Whilst there may be arguments for proportional representation, they de not include the argument that it should be used as a device to thwart the will of the majority.

Mr. Thorpe

No one has ever suggested that proportional representation is a device to thwart the will of the majority. As far as I know, no member of any political party in Northern Ireland wishes now to revoke it. That is a great tribute to the efficacy of the system.

However, I do not want to become too enmeshed in Irish history. Being half Irish— [Interruption.] The better half, from the South—I could go on for ever.

The Tories abolished PR simply because the Unionist Party was splitting into two halves, between the moderate Tories, the Faulkner-O'Neillites of today, and the extremists of the Lord Brooke-borough type. Changing the electoral system meant a change in the whole system. Northern Ireland politics became far more monolithic than ever before when the first-past-the-post system was introduced.

This leads me on to the one unanimous recommendation of Kilbrandon, that we should have the PR system for the election of the Assemblies in Scotland and Wales. Why? Let us look at the example of Quebec. The Quebec separatists, albeit saying that they were in favour of secession from Canada only after a referendum. but clearly a secessionist party, had four pro-Canada parties against them, and so the pro-Canada vote was split four ways. Under our glorious system, that meant that the separatists needed only two-fifths of the vote to secure two-thirds of the seats.

Precisely the same thing could happen in Scotland. It will not necessarily be the nationalists who gain. It may be the Labour Party, or any other party. In the first Assembly election a party securing only 30 per cent. of the vote could have the majority of the seats and say that it had a mandate for secession or watered-down devolution or for saying that the system did not need amendment. That is the worst possible way to start off devolution. Therefore, we ignore the importance of the electoral system used for the Assembly elections in Scotland and Wales at our peril.

The Government have come up against the problem elsewhere. They secured an extra seat for the European Parliament—81 seats instead of 80—so that the Catholic minority could be represented in the European Parliament. They said "It is terribly important", and our European partners replied" We'll give you another seat". Then some of our partners said "We have given you an extra seat. What makes you think that even if the Roman Catholics get a third of the votes under your system—".

Mr. McCusker


Mr. Thorpe

"—under your system of gerrymandering"—I give that to the hon. Gentleman—" they will get one-third of the seats?" The Government said "We can't guarantee it under our system." Some of our European partners are rather fly, and they understand these matters now. Therefore, the Government considered PR simply for Northern Ireland, a three-Member constituency, on the basis that they wanted the minority to be fairly represented. That is the only minority that matters. Under-representation of minorities does not receive much notice unless they resort to violence, and then they are listened to very quickly. I hope that there is not a moral there.

The Government thought the position slightly illogical. They could not say that that minority mattered, that under the system minorities were underrepresented, and they would have PR there but not in the rest of the United Kingdom. Now they are having to think of a national list system, which is very difficult even for the Leader of the House to sell. The basis of his argument is that the people of this country are incapable of understanding any system but the first-past-the-post system, that they are not nearly as intelligent as, for example, the people of Northern Ireland, Southern Ireland and other parts of the world. The right hon. Gentleman will have a rather difficult time.

I would like to go along with the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone), who made an extremely important speech, in being opposed to referendums, but in this country there must be referendums on certain issues, because there are certain issues which cause divisions within parties as well as across parties and which cannot be put to a General Election. For example, if I were a Labour anti-Marketeer, how would I vote at a General Election if the Labour candidate in my constituency was in favour of the Market? Would I vote for a member of another party because of the cause or would I vote for my party and against the cause?

The problem shows why one cannot have an election on the Common Market issue. How would a Labour pro-Marketeer vote if he had the distinction of living in the constituency of the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson), who spoke against the Market with great sincerity and clarity?

The great thing about proportional representation is that a much greater choice is given to the electorate. Not only is there a guarantee that a percentage of the vote is fairly represented but one can choose between varying shades of opinion within one's party, whether one is on the Left or the Right, whether one is for or against the Market, whether one is for or against devolution.

When the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury asked whether we really thought that if we changed the electoral system different decisions might be taken in the boardrooms, he over-dramatised, but I do not over-dramatise in answering in the affirmative. The reason why people do not invest in this country is that there is a lack of continuity. Let us take prices and incomes policy, for example. The Labour Government introduced a statutory prices and incomes policy in 1966–70, so the Conservative Party opposed it. We voted for it. In 1970 the Conservatives said that they were not going to have a prices and incomes policy, but they introduced one in 1973, and so the Labour Opposition opposed it. We supported it. When they came to power, the Labour Government said that they would not have one, but they introduced one in 1975, for which we voted when the Tories abstained.

One needs only a 1 per cent. swing in this country, under our crazy system, to have a totally different Government who will nationalise or denationalise, change from investment allowances to investment grants, and make the most dramatic changes. I believe that there is a majority in this country for certain guidelines. People in business in West Germany know that, although there may be a change of Government, accepted guidelines will be followed, that there are certain rates of tax upon which one can probably base one's investment decisions, that certain forms of industrial democracy may well be implemented and continued. That is the sort of continuity that the PR system would give, not because one creates coalitions but because there is probably a majority for moderation.

Under PR, there might well be different emphases and different agreements. If a minority party found itself holding the balance of power and abused it, it would be cut to pieces in the next election. It is dangerous to phophesy, but I do not believe that either of the two major parties will have a majority after the next election. I think that the Liberal Bench and the Benches behind will hold the balance of power after the next election, under the present system. Therefore, the idea that we get strong government under the present system is wrong. The "discipline" of which the hon. Member for Rushcliffe spoke has already produced six parties. I would have thought that that was enough to go on with, but the hon. Gentleman thinks there may be more.

We have a system which gives a minority of 38 per cent. the right to rule, a system in which a 1 per cent. swing can make the difference between this or that Government, a system in which 6 million people can vote for a political party yet be virtually disfranchised. As a Liberal Member, I, of course, protest against that system, but not on behalf of Liberal MPs. We are here—we got here in spite of the system. I remember in February 1974, my great anger when I went to see the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) because although he had 11 million votes and 296 seats, and was trying to form a Government, I had 6 million votes and an additional 4 million voters but that gave us only three more Members of Parliament. I was not angry for myself. I was angry that in an advanced democracy millions and millions of people could be denied what they had voted for.

It does not matter if the hon. Member for Rushcliffe disagrees and thinks that we are wishy-washy because we were in favour of Europe before the Tory Party had even heard of it or because we were in favour of devolution, on which the Tory Party is still somewhat tremulous. It is basically for the people to decide. I am not so arrogant as to say that people who vote Tory or Labour are wrong. They may be misguided, but they have as much right to be wrong as we have right to be right. A little more of the humility that I have just shown would come well from the hon. Member for Rushcliffe.

All I am saying is that we have an electoral system that, quite clearly, does not reflect the wishes of the majority and therefore the Government of this country do not have that authority behind them to rule. The system frustrates not only minorities but the will of the majority as well. There are large artificial changes from one Government to another and the system increases the concept of adversarial politics. On those precious occasions when the House acts collectively, as it does on many Select Committees, including the PAC and the Select Committees on Estimates and Nationalised Industries the legislature is often highly critical of the Government of the day even though the majority of Members are Government supporters. We deny that sort of spirit from breaking out in the country and in the legislature by this crazy archaic electoral system which no other advanced democracy in Western Europe would dream of using and which will make us the laughing-stock of Europe if we use it for the European Parliament. It could lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom should we be assinine enough to use it for the Assemblies in Scotland and Wales if that Bill is passed.

5.53 p.m.

Mr. Cranky Onslow (Woking)

I shall not be long and I shall not yield to the temptation to follow the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) into some of the byways that he explored. The thing that bothers me about this debate—though I am glad that the subject was chosen—is the way in which speakers from the Liberal Bench have tried to establish a link between the poor performance of the country and the electoral system. I do not think that they have succeeded. I share the view put from both sides of the House that the Liberals have tabled a motion which contains a fundamental non sequitur. The Marxists would call it a dialectical leap. I am glad that they are not here today. but that is what it is. The assumption that because things are wrong with government, proportional representation would cure them, is a simplistic one. Even if the Liberals have correctly identified some of the symptoms, their treatment is wholly wrong. And in any case we are really only dreaming, because whatever happens, we shall fight the next General Election on the rules that we have got now, and any sort of proportional representation is strictly for afterwards.

Nor has anyone who has spoken today in support of proportional representation been able to show how it would increase the power in the hands of Parliament in the realities of today's political situation. I do not see, for instance, how choosing Members of Parliament on the basis of proportional representation would do anything to tackle the problem of the power that is concentrated in the hands of non-representative trade union leaders. A proliferation of parties must weaken Parliament and hand yet more power over to the non-elected elements in our society.

What has also been depressing is the way in which we have heard speakers fail to identify the way in which individual Members could use the power that is already in their hands. The advocacy of the Select Committee system, by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson), was uncon vincing and muddled. He might have made a beter point had he said that we have a Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, that these industries spend enormous sums of money, wield enormous influence and employ vast numbers of people, yet Parliament has virtually no control over them at all. We can of course read the Reports of the Committee, and the House has actually debated one of them in the last four years, but there have been about 20 Reports in all in that time. We know how busy the Committee has been. Its members have been to Sweden, to the West Indies, to Australia, to Japan and to the United States. The Committee's motto ought to be "Join the Nationalised Industries Committee and see the world". But for all the influence it has on the nationalised sector of our economy, we might as well spend the money on something else. And yet it is in our power to make this a great instrument of parliamentary authority, and we should, surely seek to do so.

Then again, this week we have all rightly mourned the loss of the most distinguished advocate of democratic socialism on the Treasury Bench, Anthony Crosland. I was immensely depressed to hear his friend and colleague, the Secretary of State for Education, say that it was Tony Crosland's habit to stay in the House until 2 a.m. to vote and then to work on dispatch boxes for an hour. It ought to be possible for people who are in the business of government to organise their lives more effectively than that. Frankly, I was profoundly sad to hear that, because the one thing that a Minister must not do is overwork.

We feel that because we arc here we must be busy, should we be here at all? Should we not be out in the country, trying to learn at first hand what goes on in the real world outside? And of course there is too much legislation, and too much bad legislation. Civil servants make more work for busy Ministers. I have had exchanges with Home Office Ministers on this subject before. It is tragic that in Parliament's attempt to perform the task of governing the country through the Government it exercises so little discipline over Ministers. There are lessons that we should learn from recent experiences.

Perhaps, again, the people of this country do not care enough about the economy and they vote for daft things that are fundamentally unfavourable to the health of the economy. To some extent, the electors have the Government that they deserve now, but they certainly wish to be rid of this one at the earliest opportunity.

The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) complained that Members of Parliament are unpopular. They always have been unpopular, and they always should be viewed with suspicion, but if it is the hon. Gentleman's objective to be always popular, does he really think that that is the right course?

The Liberal Party wants to be popular, but where does that get it? It is in a populist position, where it is all things to all men. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) says "Stop the world; I want to get off". I do not accept the proposition advocated from the Liberal Bench this afternoon that if we change the rules and get everybody's second choice into the House in vaster numbers than those now on the Liberal Bench, this will be a better place and we shall have a better-governed country. That is not true. The country does not want more weak or more bad government; it wants better government and less government, and that is what my party and the people of the country will be supporting in the next election. That is the purpose to which we must change and adapt ourselves.

Ultimately, we all have to submit ourselves to the test of elections. That is a good thing, and we should do it more often. Governments should not be allowed to choose when elections take place, and they should not have so long a tenure of office.

In his many quotations, the hon. Member for Cornwall, North missed one. Rousseau's judgment on the scene in Great Britain was that the British people think that they are free, but in reality they are in chains. The only time that they are free is when they are electing their representatives at General Elections. The sooner that day comes, the better for us all.

6.0 p.m.

Dr. Colin Phipps (Dudley, West)

On Monday, I shall have been a Member of Parliament for three years. That is not quite long enough to have become embittered by lack of preferment nor too short a time for me to have a view on the way this place works.

My three years can be broken down into three phases. In the first six months I was so suffused with self-satisfaction at having got here that I viewed everything through rose-coloured spectacles and was prepared to take a panglossian view of its imperfections. I think that this attitude is shared by most new Members.

In the second phase I took a closer look and slowly, by a process of osmosis throught the pores, I became astonished at the systems within the House. It struck me that most of my colleagues who had been here much longer than I seemed to be putting up with it, presumably out of utter conformity or resignation with the system or because they had learned to work it. I assumed the latter and this phase lasted for about 18 months.

It then became quite clear that my colleagues had not learned how to work the system. This phase was helped when, for reasons that escape me, I was made a member of the Select Committee on Procedure, which was almost totally inhabited by Dr. Panglosses of various parties, all of whom seemed to believe that we were living in the best possible of worlds.

Having decided that my colleagues were not satisfied with the system, I asked why they were not making an enormous row and bouncing up and down saying that this hotch-potch should be changed. The answer for a Government Back Bencher is simple. We have an Executive chosen from a legislature which is largely composed of people who want to be members of the Executive. If I may use the vernacular without causing offence, the Executive has hon. Members by the short and curlies and the people who are used for that purpose are the Whips.

It was a long time before I appreciated that I had to shake off the Whips if I was to have any independence and freedom in the House. As long as we have a system in which the Executive rules hon. Members because they desire to be members of the Executive, all Governments will get their legislation through, no matter how ludicrous, ill-thought-out, or ill-prepared it may be. Having reached this view, I began to consider whether our electoral system was necessarily the best. I believed that it was a splendid system; it was the system that got me here and I had a vested interest in it. However, when one examines the power that it gives to the Executive, might not another system which does not give that power be exactly the sort of change that we need?

With due respect to the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), he enumerated all the virtues of our system and the vices of the Continental system. I am not convinced that we are better governed than other European countries, despite all the virtues of our system. In fact, it could be said that some European countries have done better than we have in the last 25 years—only marginally maybe, but nevertheless better. It does not follow that our system, whatever its virtues, produces the best results.

If it is not the case that reforming ourselves will reform the rest of the country, why are we setting about such things as the Bullock Report and industrial democracy? If we are not prepared to look at democracy here and if we do not set about reforming ourselves, why should we expect others, whether in the boardroom or anywhere else, to reform themselves?

I recognise that the main parties have a vested interest in the current electoral system. I have a vested interest in it because if it is changed I might find myself out of Parliament. However we must look clearly at the system that we must use in Europe and that must be used if we devolve powers to Scotland and Wales or to the whole of the United Kingdom.

I accept the contention of the Liberal Party that it is impossible to think that we could have 81 Members in the European Parliament with none of them being a Liberal. That would clearly be ludicrous. The smaller the number of Members being elected, the more ludicrous that system becomes and the more likely it is that only major parties will be represented. We have to rethink our electoral system.

We must look at our own procedures and do something to ease the pressure on hon. Members and particularly on Ministers. It is ludicrous that the payroll vote, which comprises the people who govern the country, should be the vote that spends the longest hours here into the early hours of the morning, because those hon. Members have to do so. In Belgium, all votes, except for committee stages, take place at 2.30 on Thursday afternoons. There is no reason why we should not adopt that system. It would allow Ministers to work proper hours and we should have time to do the things that really matter in our constituencies and in the House. The country would be no worse governed. It would not make a jot of difference.

6.8 p.m.

Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)

I hope that the hon. Member for Dudley, West (Dr. Phipps) will allow me to express some envy of him. On Monday, he will have been here for three years. I have to confess that I am in my thirty-second year in the House and it may be that my views will be slightly tinged by my experiences, which have been fairly varied.

I did not agree with everything that the hon. Member said, but I do agree with him that we should examine our democratic processes from time to time to see whether they can be improved. The method by which we are elected cannot be exempted from that scrutiny. That is why we should all be grateful to the Liberal Party for having chosen this subject on their shared Supply Day. It has been an interesting and stimulating debate, though it seems to have been a debate largely about a choice of evils.

The right hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Prentice) has pointed out what may be considered to be the danger of the present system—that it enables the extreme Left inside the Labour Party to dominate what is otherwise a coalition of that party. Also, the Labour Party received only 38 per cent. of the votes polled at the last General Election, and 28 per cent. of the support of the whole electorate, yet we have seen something approaching a revolution in social and economic policy in the past two years.

I say that it is a choice of evils because, as was pointed out by the Hansard Society's commission on electoral reform, about 300 systems have been put into practice or considered. Some are better than others. Some have been mentioned today. None is perfect. I shall say something about several of them.

The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) was candid in implying that there is a choice of evils. He was also candid in saying that proportional representation, whichever form it takes—he did not specify a particular form—is no cure-all for our economic ills. I was, however, surprised when he pleaded that we should get away from the adversarial system. If any Member would be miserable under any system that was not adversarial, it would be he! However, I take comfort in the fact that when he dealt with the Conservative Party he praised us with his faint damns.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) said, our democratic processes, including our voting system, are evolving. For example, we had the Speaker's Conference, presided over by Mr. Speaker King, and of which I was a member, which considered electoral reform in the late 1960s. The change in the voting age resulted from its recommendations. The only method of election that we were asked specifically to consider was the single transferable vote. Having done so, we recommended, by 19 votes to one—that one being the Liberal member of the conference—that there should be no change.

Speaking for myself, I am still opposed to that system for elections to this House, but it may be suitable for other Assemblies. The last Conservative Government introduced it for the Northern Ireland Convention, and the Kilbrandon Commission recommended it unanimously for the Assemblies for Scotland and Wales.

Britain's economic performance under the present Government has been tragic. In spite of all the pretension and all the hopes thrust upon us by the Government, inflation is rapidly worsening again; unemployment continues at a high level, causing misery and waste of manpower; we owe to our friendly capitalist competitors vast debts which it will take years to repay; and last month we had the worst trade deficit in our history. Indeed, I think that it is appropriate to say that we have never had it so bad in peacetime.

The motion says that our economic performance is gravely hindered by a system of government which grants majority power to alternating minority parties;". I think that for the words "system of government" the motion should have read "system of voting". They are not exactly the same thing, but we know that the Liberal Party is referring to the system of voting from the second part of the motion.

When more than two parties are competing for votes, no party is likely to get a majority of votes under any voting system. The best way in which we could be sure that the party with the majority of seats in this House had the support of the majority of the people would be to have only two parties—a situation that could be achieved by the Liberals doing what I and some of my hon. and right hon. Friends have done. We joined the Conservative Party. We were not only welcomed but—if I may reveal my immodesty—we were, indeed, respected, and I hope that we still are.

Mr. Thorpe

I shall not go into the period when the right hon. and learned Gentlemen was nationalised as a National Liberal, and subsequently denationalised, but I must point out to him that even in an election in which there are only two parties it is still possible for the minority party to become the Government. The most tragic example of that is South Africa. In the General Election there, in 1947, the Nationalists got a minority of the votes but a majority of the seats. From that has flowed many of the problems of Southern Africa today.

Sir D. Renton

What the right hon. Gentleman says can happen, but only in the event of an exceedingly close result, such as the one we had in 1951. Then, the Conservative Party got six more seats than the Labour Party but 0. per cent. fewer votes. There was also the occasion, which the right hon. Gentleman will remember better than anyone—the February 1974 General Election—when the Labour Party got four seats more than the Conservative Party but 0.8 per cent. fewer votes. Thus, what the right hon. Gentleman says can happen, but only with these fantastically close results, and it will not always happen even then. There was a very close result in 1950, for example, but it did not happen.

One is bound to say that if a different system of voting had nevertheless produced a Socialist Government, our economic performance would have been just as bad as it has been because it was a Socialist Government. They would have introduced nationalisation, State control, high taxation and vast public expenditure, like all Socialist Governments do. Therefore, I feel that there is a fallacy in the motion, and that it does not necessarily follow that economic performance is hindered by the system of voting, even if it does grant power to alternating minority parties, as another system might also produce minority Governments, including, alas, possibly, on the swing of the pendulum, another Socialist Government.

The second part of the motion calls for the reform of the voting system The Conservative Party has an open mind on this and is not unsympathetic to further consideration of the matter, but on an all-party basis. At both the General Elections in 1974 we committed ourselves to having a Speaker's Conference on electoral reform, and that remains our position as a party. We are not prepared to commit ourselves at this moment to any particular system of voting, and it is significant that the motion does not do so. I was glad to learn that the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) was clear that the alternative vote is not the most favoured system among Liberals. It used to be at one time.

Mr. Pardoe


Sir D. Renton

I am glad to hear that. The Liberals have a most convenient way of covering every situation. I have heard Liberals argue in favour of that system, and in my constituency, and I am glad to hear that it has not officially ever been party policy. For the sake of the record, it is worth repeating what that great former Liberal who became the greatest Conservative once said—that the system of alternative voting was "the worst of all possible plans", adding: The decision of 100 or more constituencies, perhaps 200, is to be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates."—[Official Report, 2nd June 1931; Vol. 253, c. 106.] I hope that thereby he damned forever what must, I agree, be an exceedingly bad system.

Mr. Hooson

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman inform us who that was?

Sir D. Renton

I thought that I had done so. It was Sir Winston Churchill.

A few weeks ago, we had a most interesting discussion, late at night, in Committee on the Scotland and Wales Bill, on a proposal to apply the additional member system to the Assemblies. That is certainly worthy of further discussion by a Speaker's Conference. There is also the present French system of the second ballot. I concede that that is not PR, but it has brought remarkable stability and decisiveness to French politics after years of frequent changes of Government and political instability and turmoil. I would have thought that that was also a system which should be considered.

Out of the 300 systems that I have mentioned there would no doubt be others—which are perhaps well tried and are in force abroad—that are also worthy of study.

This is an important issue, on which strong opinions are held, as has been shown by this debate. It will not vanish merely by being ignored or somehow wished away, and the Conservative Party certainly does not pretend that that can happen.

We expect to win the next General Election decisively under the present system of first-past-the-post. In doing so we shall again undertake to convene a Speaker's Conference, so that the matter can be fully and fairly considered in the light of modern experience. Therefore, although we do not agree with the exact wording of the motion because of the fallacy in it that I have mentioned, and because of some of the implications which have been dawn from it in the course of the debate, we do welcome the discussion on this matter which the motion has provided. We shall take note of the views expressed in this debate and we stand by our commitment to another Speaker's Conference.

6.22 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Brymnor John)

Perhaps I can redress the balance, because the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) alleged that all Ministers were programmed by the box. Perhaps I shall make less of an ex cathedra speech than that of the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton).

The debate has ranged widely over a number of issues that arc not within the terms of the motion. Many of them reflect the responsibilities of my right hon. Friend the Lord President. I was asked to answer the debate in the mistaken belief that the motion meant what it said rather than its being a vehicle for a wider debate.

In common with the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow), none of us who witnessed the tragic death of Anthony Crosland, and many other facets of our Government, would be so arrogant or presumptuous as to suggest that our present system is ideal or that it did not need to be looked at.

Although people outside may espouse this cause we must have due regard to the complexity of the subject, because reform of Government is not solely a matter of remedying the voting system and, thereby, remedying other matters of government. I do not believe that it would be anything other than a serious disillusioning if people were led to believe that a reform of the voting system would lead to a reform of every other facet of our life.

I stand beside the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) who warned about the danger of denigrating the present system too much. I accept, and I have acknowledged, its imperfections But it has proved to be a resilient and adaptive system, which does not deserve the denigration and over-statement that has been characteristic of some statements from the Liberal Bench this evening.

I want to mention the moving tributes paid to the power of the House of Commons, and its power over the Executive. I remind the Liberal Party that when the House of Commons considered PR in the most recent debate it rejected that system by a large majority. [HON. MEMBERS: "On a three-line Whip."] If 221 votes to 25 is the result of a three-line Whip I should be a little frightened of one-line Whips.

I should like to deal with the end of the motion before I refer to the beginning. It states that the reform of the voting system gives effect to the wishes of the people. That presupposes that there is only one wish of the people when electing a representative. I concede that some people think that the electoral system is unfair. But I do not believe the public opinion polls which state that the majority of people take that view even at the moment.

The second thing that people are looking for is the election of an individual to serve their constituency—a man to be their MP. The connection between an MP and a district is not only an invigorating part of our democracy but it also reduces disillusion in the democratic process and reduces the estrangement that people feel with the democratic process and enhances their involvement.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro) rose

Mr. John

I shall not give way. I started my speech at a late hour and I understand that another Member of the hon. Gentleman's party wishes to wind up. The next point I wish to make is that the single transferable vote system, so beloved of the Liberal Party at the moment, is one that would lead to large multi-Member constituencies.

Mr. Thorpe

What about Northern Ireland?

Mr. John

I shall come on to the right hon. Gentleman's interjection. I was saying that in any part of the mainland of the United Kingdom this would lead to a number of effects. It would weaken the geographical connection which most constituencies have with their Member of Parliament because it has been calculated on the Scottish basis that everything north and west of the Great Glen would be two constituencies if one is to have equality of representation and roughly the same number of people electing their Members of Parliament.

Secondly, because a constituency had a number of Members, there is no longer an individual with whom an electorate has any connection. That may not affect the central party machine, but it must enhance the power of regional party executive rather than the individual because many of the selective processes for candidates would take place in areas which did not have the faintest idea about people from other areas and one small area in a large constituency could easily dominate the representation.

The third thing that the electorate wants is some sort of certainty about its government.

Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)

The Minister expressed the view that the STV system had disadvantages and that that system is not relevant. What about the additional member system which is in existence in Germany and which has been suggested by the Commission sitting under the chairmanship of Lord Blake? Would the Minister care to comment on that?

Mr. John

I am commenting on the terms of the motion. I do not think that any system is free of difficulty. The additional Member system, in particular, divorces the additional Member from the electorate. Some people have suggested that he might be free to take into account wider considerations, but the fact is that the additional Member system does contain many of the difficulties that I have described.

I was talking about certain government. I am saying that although the narrow majority tends to militate against my argument, I believe that the probable result—this is where the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) and I disagree—rather than the possible result of PR would be a coalition government. I believe that would lead to a number of ills.

The right hon. Gentleman made the point that if people vote in a certain way that must be what they wish. Although they may vote for the Liberal Party they are not necessarily expressing a wish for coalition government. I do not think that his logic on that point is right.

Certain ills flow from having a coalition Government. There is the question of negotiation of portfolios and particularly the blurring of the responsibility that an electorate can put upon a Govern- ment. It hardly needs to be said, in view of what the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire said in his party political broadcast about the shortcomings of the Labour Government and the great future that he foresees for a Conservative Government, but I agree that in the present system it is easy for the electorate to fix responsibility upon the Government.

Where a coalition Government exists, particularly if more than two parties form the Government—it might easily be so—the cross-blame and assumptions of virtue that occur at an election as to what went right or wrong in the last Parliament would mean a blurring of responsibility of which the electorate could not make use in forming a reasonable judgment of what happened.

That process leads to the country not getting the measures that it needs. I think that we have all approached this matter in a moderate way. But there is an assumption that there must be a watering down of anybody's proposals if they are to be right. I do not think that that assumption in economic terms is necessarily right. In a coalition Government we are likely to see not measures which the country needs, but measures which everyone in the coalition can agree upon, which are likely to be the lowest common denominator. The coalition Government will proceed at the pace of their most junior partner. That is precisely the wrong kind of approach.

Another point concerns the diminution in the quality of the vote which is cast. I acknowledge that the quality of the vote cast may be diminished by the fact that many people vote for a party and may get a disproportionate number of Members of Parliament. But the quality of the vote is also diminished if, having voted for a candidate—heaven knows why people vote for candidates; often they vote against other candidates—because of the policy or a combination of policies which he espouses, a coalition is to be entered into. In that event, the reason why an elector votes for a party may be abandoned not because of the test of the ballot box, but because of the negotiation for compromise in joining a coalition. In other words, it will not be amenable to the test of the ballot box, but will be susceptible to abandonment in the negotiations in some back room to form the Government.

Having dealt, I hope sufficiently, with the point that the wishes of the people are not necessarily coincidental purely with reform of the voting system or "fair" electoral system, I turn to the first part of the motion which is an unsupported assertion. It states that Great Britain's economic performance is gravely hindered by a system of government". No real connection has been adduced between those two matters. Certain examples have been produced, but no clear connection has been adduced between those two elements. I do not believe that they have a particular connection.

The right hon. Member for Devon, North said that lack of continuity is the great evil, and that is the evil to be overcome. The right hon. Gentleman said that investment was frightened off by a lack of continuity of government. A more stable pattern of government would produce a better result.

The hon. Member for Woking put forward a different view. The hon. Gentleman said that we should have more frequent elections and should not leave the power in the hands of the Executive. That seems dangerously close to inviting the same lack of continuity of which the right hon. Member for Devon, North complained.

Mr. Onslow

I did not have time to expand my argument. One of my beliefs in more frequent elections is that governments would then have less time to do bad things.

Mr. John

The hon. Gentleman seems to think that the ills of the Government are put right more by the sins of commission than of omission. I am not sure that is right. Governments of both major parties since the war have wrestled with an intractable series of economic problems. That does not mean that the Government who carry out policies are necessarily to be held in less esteem than the Government who do nothing and hope that the problems will go away. The lesson of the modern world is that problems of that kind do not go away.

Dr. Phipps

That is the view which I should have taken in the past. If there is no correlation between our system of government and economic performance, what are the arguments against changing the governmental system?

Mr. John

I remind my hon. Friend that I was dealing with a change in the voting system and laying in the hands of the electorate all the economic ills of this country. I accept that we can then consider the rights and wrongs of the system on their merits, but we cannot do so under the imperative of economic ills which probably have not flown from that particular system. We need to consider the system of government on its own merits rather than as the cause of our economic ills. I think that my hon. Friend and I would probably reach agreement on that matter.

Economic troubles and the voting system are demonstrably unconnected. For example, the United States and Canada have first-past-the-post systems and they have not performed badly in economics. In some countries which have proportional representation economic performance is not good.

Mr. Hooson

Name them.

Mr. John

I think that it would be unkind in our new European rôle for me to name partners, despite what the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery may try to attract me into doing.

Let us consider the convolutions undergone in forming coalition Governments. There are occasions when coalitions take a very long time to form in some countries. There may be months of negotiation. Two or three people may be asked to form governments, but they may have to confess their failure. What do the Liberals think would be the effect on the pound of such protracted uncertainty and evidence that nothing was happening in the country? I think that it would have the most devastating effect.

Mr. Hooson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. John

I should like to develop this point before the hon. and learned Gentleman exercises extra-sensory perception about what I am going to say. A coalition Government, which would be difficult to form and take months of negotiation, would have a bad effect on the economic performance of this country. So far from the present system hindering economic performance, the suggested alternative might have an equally ruinous effect.

Mr. Hooson

Will the hon. Gentle. man give an example of a country where this system has had an adverse effect on its currency? For example, has the mark ever been adversely affected during the forming of a coalition in Germany?

Mr. John

The hon. and learned Gentleman quotes the example of a coalition which is announced in advance of an election. That is the exception. I do not think that examples such as Italy or the Netherlands, where there have been protracted negotiations for coalitions, have been particularly attractive in that respect.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

Does the Minister accept that it would be better if we took longer in forming new Administrations? Perhaps we should take the example of America, where the incoming President has two or three months to build up his team. Often the mistakes in government are made in the first two or three days when the appointments are announced. I think that is a good argument for taking longer in discussions when forming a Government.

Mr. John

In fact, I was not chosen within the first two or three days. It may be that the hon. Gentleman has me in mind when he gives that example. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, because the example of the United States is that of a lamed and enfeebled outgoing Administration and an incoming Administration that has much glamour but does not enjoy any power. At the time of the hand-over—despite the rather greater efforts that have been taken on this occasion—there is a sudden realisation that responsibility rests upon the new administration. Mistakes are just as likely to be made by an Administration formed over a fairly long period as by an incoming Government who are formed rather more quickly.

I agree that the motion has sparked off a most interesting debate but I believe that it should not be accepted by the House. I submit that it is wrong in its premises, deficient in its logic and misleading in its conclusons. As a consequence the motion might be read as yet one more conjuror's illusion, giving the impression that if we change one thing everything else will follow. It would be harmful to follow such a course.

I hope that the House will recognise that everyone desires to have the most efficient legislature with tolerable conditions for Members of Parliament and Ministers. We are not masochists. We believe that sometimes intolerable strains are put on all sections of the House. It is because we do not believe that what the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) has said is necessarily a solution to the problem that I hope the House will not accept the motion.


Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)

For a Liberal to find himself debating electoral reform twice within a month in the House is quite a remarkable experience. In a sense the debate, which has been in the main extremely constructive, has been a continuation of the debate of 25th January. For that reason I think it is a good beginning to what I have to say to refer to the speech of the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) on 25th January. The hon. Gentleman knows that I intend to refer to his remarks. I do so because it was generally agreed that he made the most effective case against proportional representation that was made that day on either side of the House or, for that matter, on either Front Bench.

The hon. Gentleman advanced four principal arguments. First, he said: it will not advance the cause of democracy in the United Kingdom That, of course, is not an argument but an assertion. However—and it is something that has not been mentioned very much this afternoon—we would surely be foolish to ignore that only France and Britain of all the democracies in Europe do not have a proportional system of voting. France will introduce such a system very soon for its elections to the European Parliament. Secondly, it is worth noting that the countries now returning to democracy after the experience of dictatorship—for example, Greece, Portugal and Spain—all intend to employ the proportional system. Greece and Portugal have already done so and Spain will do likewise.

What happens elsewhere is relevant. It was a sad moment when the hon. Member for Dudly, West (Dr.Phipps) referred to what is done about divisions in the Belgian Parliament. Everyone laughed heartily. Why was that? Perhaps it was because they did not know anything about what happens in the Belgian Parliament. Perhaps it was because they are not very much interested in what happens in any Parliament other than the British Parliament. It is about time that we stopped being so insular in our approach to constitutional matters.

The second argument that the hon. Member for Derby, North advanced in his criticism of what he referred to as "fancy franchises" was put in this way: But it is not the sole or prime function of the United Kingdom Parliament to represent a microcosm of the nation. If it is not, what is the point of this Parliament? What is its function? Is it to govern without concern for its own representative character? It is not enough to say, as the hon. Gentleman went on to do, that many Members stand out against their constituents in supporting policies that would be opposed by 60 per cent. or even 80 per cent. of the constituents. When such stands are taken they are almost always on social issues and not matters of party policy. On matters such as capital punishment and abortion the parties have traditionally avoided taking official views. That argument is not only incredible but quite untenable.

The hon. Member for Derby, North raised a third argument that has been advanced today by many hon. Members including the Minister of State. It is said that a Member of Parliament forms a precious and vital link with his constituency. What form does this great link take that everyone talks about continuously? Obviously there is a geographical link in that each of us, in a sense, is involved in trying to get a fair share, or possibly more than a fair share, of the national cake for the bit of land that we represent and the people who happen to live in the area. Secondly, there are those who come to us with complaints about the wrong working of the system in any particular sense. But in my experience—I have spoken about these matters with other hon. Members—the public do not go to Members of Parliament on a great many occasions to argue about policy.

I do not think it is very likely that Labour Members, or Liberal Members, bombard the Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Science to urge the virtues of comprehensive education. That is for the simple reason that everyone knows his attitude on the matter. It is known already and, therefore, it would be a waste of time to take such an approach. In the same way I am sure that the Secretary of State for Education and Science does not find her postbag full of argument about the link that Members form with the public to be dubious.

In my experience people do not write a great deal to criticise federalism, for example, although it is known that this is the view that I take. I find the argument about the link that Members form with the public to be dubious.

The second contention in respect of the relationship between the Member of Parliament is that of identity. On both sides of the House we know of examples of hard working Members who have had a good record of dealing with constituency cases who have been swept out on a tide one way or the other. This happens repeatedly. If it is so important for the elector to relate to his individual Member, why does that so often happen? I should argue as have others—indeed, it was argued by the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke)—that it is because most voters are more interested in the Prime Minister and in the Government of the country than anything else.

If the relationship between Member and elector is so important, why is it that the turnout in the British General Election is lower than that in countries that apply the proportional system? In the previous General Election in this country there was a 72.8 per cent. turnout whereas there have been turnouts in the 90 per cent. in Austria and Italy. In the 1972 General Election in Germany there was a 91 per cent. turnout.

Mr. Bidwell

How far is the hon. Gentleman discounting the aspect of personal following that a Member must inevitably build up if he is as diligent as the lion. Gentleman suggests most of us are? Surely the personal following that is built up over a longish period has a bearing on the result. Surely that applies particularly to some of his Liberal colleagues who have sat on the Liberal Bench from time to time. Is it not the case that they have been elected as individuals rather than on the basis of being attached to a Liberal Party that very few people understand these days?

Mr. Johnston

I regret that the hon. Gentleman's understanding of these matters does not extend to the Liberal Party.

I do not deny that individuals do succeed in holding seats that otherwise would not be held. I accept that that would not happen if they had not been of such effective calibre, but that does not deflect me from my argument.

The fourth argument that the hon. Member for Derby, North advanced on 25th January has been used again and again throughout this debate: The essential problem of democracy is how to face up to hard choices. That is what the hon. Member for Rushcliffe was also dealing with. The hon. Member for Derby, North said a little later: If we have a belief, we have to take sides in the argument."— [Official Report, 25th January 1977; Vol. 924, c. 1316–21.] At that time the hon. Gentleman was attacking the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley), and it is noteworthy that there are no nationalists present for this debate. The hon. Member for Derby, North mentioned the question of nationalisation of steel and said that he did not know whether the nationalists were for or against it. He excluded the idea of any compromise approach. That is not true because we remember the days when gas was nationalised by the first Labour Government after the war. There was then an opportunity to introduce co-ownership of a kind because there was a considerable degree of co-ownership within the gas industry. Apart from the exclusion of any compromise, what the hon. Gentleman and others appear to be saying is that it is more essential to democracy that a decision is made than any question of how many support such a decision. We reject that view. It is of the utmost importance to have in mind how many people support a decision.

I turn to a number of points made in the debate. I refer first, almost reluctantly, to the archaic argument put forward by the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay)—because it is typical of many points of this nature made in debates. The right hon. Gentleman asked why the Liberals did not do something about the situation when they were in power. I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Liberals were last in power almost half a century ago, and that at that time there were even members of the Labour Party who did not favour votes for women. We are now dealing with affairs half a century later.

It is worthwhile recording the actual record of the situation. In 1909 Asquith appointed a Royal Commission to investigate the electoral system. The Commission reported in 1910, but its recommendations were not considered because of the major constitutional crisis which then arose over the House of Lords and also because of the Irish question. The war then intervened. The main reason that this matter was not pursued, apart from the fact that the Liberals lost office afterwards, was that electoral reform before the war was not so pressing and urgent because there were only two main parties. When there are two main parties in evidence, the first past-the-post system works to a degree. If there is evidence of a third or fourth party, the system ceases to work in the same way. Also, it was the practice at that time to have a free vote on constitutional issues.

In 1916 a Speaker's Conference took place and a Bill was carried in the House by Lloyd George and Asquith in 1917 calling for legislation on the recommendations. The whole thing foundered because of the dispute between the Lords and the Commons over the respective merits of the alternative vote, which the hon. Member for Rushcliffe, from the profoundity of his knowledge, equates with the single transferable vote, and STV itself.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) suggested that my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North was suggesting that economic problems would go away with the coming of proportional representation. That is part of the ridicule type of argument—I am not suggesting that the hon. Member for Lewes was ridiculous—which runs "How is your rheumatism? Have you tried PR?" Certainly economic problems will not go away with the coming of PR, but we con- tend that such problems would be easier to tackle. That the hon. Member for Lewes emphasised the geographical nature of politics produced by the first-past-the-post system was most relevant.

The right hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Prentice) emphasised the necessity in this House of repetitive war dances. His references to the history of prices and incomes policies were most apposite.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) exposed the illusion of Parliament as a place for genuine collective capacity for changing the views of the Executive, and he quoted interesting figures to back his argument. I believe that that is the case because the system artificially gives to one group complete power.

The hon. Member for Rushcliffe was largely dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe). Essentially what the hon. Gentleman did was to make a series of points and reached conclusions that were totally different from those arrived at by all the major commentators on the political scene. He said that the present system resulted in a pull to the centre. That is not a general agreed view. He said that coalitions were formed by large parties, whereas PR would result in pork-barrel politics and fragmentation and the atmosphere of old smoke-filled rooms. The fact is that it is the secret internal coalitions of the great parties in which the smoke-filled room atmosphere operates. Where one has open coalitions between two different parties, one has to justify what one does to one's supporters and the public. That is a far more open and satisfactory way in which to operate than the present system.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

Surely what cannot be refuted is that the Labour Party, in its internal attempts to come to a coalition solution and its attempts to reach agreement on policy, certainly does not conduct its affairs in secret or in smoke-filled rooms. Those affairs are only too public. On the other hand, when an attempt was made to form a coalition between the Liberals and the Conservatives in February 1974, there was something of a mystery. Indeed, that still remains a mystery and it is still disputed.

Mr. Johnston

I do not dispute that for a moment. I am sorry that the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) is not present or on terms of conversation with the hon. Member for Rushcliffe, because otherwise he could explain the matter clearly.

The hon. Member for Islington, North and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) seemed to suggest that the only reason we were interested in this system is that we would be in a state of permanent coalition. The plain fact is that where coalition operates it is enforced because of the pattern of voting in the country.

The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) accused us of a dialectical leap. The fact that the hon. Gentleman was unable to perceive my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) seemed to suggest that the hon. Gentleman's powers of observation are not particularly acute. My hon. Friend has argued the link between the economic and voting system in terms of continuity, decision-making, investment and the creation of an atmosphere of reconciliation. All this will not happen immediately.

It is often said that in Northern Ireland where the PR system has been introduced the problems did not go away. Of Course they do not go away immediately, because these things take time to establish themselves, but this system has been established elsewhere with success.

The hon. Member for Dudley said that our system had virtue although not necessarily, if I may paraphrase the hon. Gentleman, all that much virtuosity. I thank him for his reference to the European Parliament. In terms of elections to the European Parliament we shall he compelled by virtue of cur agreement with the Community to have a proportional system of election.

The right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton), summing up for the Opposition, made a cautious contribution, that was perhaps indicative of the years to which he drew attention. If the Conservative Party is so anxious to discuss this matter, why has it not so far raised the subject in the existing discussions in the Speaker's Conference? I understand that the Conservative Party is not encouraging or pressing discussion of electoral reform in present circumstances.

Mr. Thorpe

The Conservatives have refused to do so.

Mr. Johnston

I do not wish to eat into the time of the next debate, and I conclude by saying what was repeated by my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North. Our case is based on three points. First the Liberals believe in representative democracy. The present system produces a Government and Parliament which is unrepresentative and grossly so. More than 70 per cent. of the population voted against the Government or did not vote. That equates the number of people who said in the Sun opinion poll that they favour electoral reform.

Secondly, Liberals believe that only a system that reflects the majority of public opinion can truly claim to have a mandate and be able to govern effectively. We have a situation now where small swings produces big policy changes and instability.

Thirdly, Liberals believe in the need for compromise and they see the present system as making compromise more and and more difficult to achieve by artificially excluding those who seek change and encouraging those who do not. We have a Parliament in which debates are rituals and where the Whips rule. We have a polarised, class oriented two-party system which is increasingly out of touch with reality.

The hon. Member for Rushcliffe said that the Conservative Party was a broad coalition representative throughout the country. Why then did the Conservative Party have only 11 working-class candidates in 1964 and only five in 1974? A total of 85 per cent. of the funds of the Labour Party come from the unions.

The Lord President when answering the debate on 26th January, made a deeply disappointing contribution, but at least from the Minister we have not had jokes about Gladstone and Disraeli. That is something for which we should be grateful. But we have had a profoundly Conservative approach and a repetition of old arguments heard throughout the debate which is why I shall not deal with them separately. The Minister's contribution can be summed up in his own phrase that we must have due regard to the complexity of the subject. What dynamism and drive that represents! If that is what we are to expect from the Government we have little hope. But, the need for electoral reform is increasingly seen throughout the country. One day soon we shall have it.

Mr. Pardoe

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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