HC Deb 14 February 1985 vol 73 cc546-73

'In Schedule 1 of the Principal act, for paragraph 18 ("Poll to be taken by ballot") there shall be substituted:

  1. "(1) The votes at the poll shall be given by ballot, and the result shall be ascertained according to the principles of proportional representation, whereby the proportion of votes cast for each party approximates to the proportion of seats won;
  2. (2) The rules by which sub-paragrapgh (1) above shall be implemented shall be specified by order made by statutory instrument by the Secretary of State; but no such order shall be made unless a draft has been laid before and approved by resolution of both Houses of Parliament; and each such order shall expire at the commencement of the parliament next after the one in which it was made.".'.—[Mr. Beith.]
Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Beith

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Bill is titled "Representation of the People Bill" and it seeks in a variety of ways to improve the representation of the people. However, it fails to improve their representation in the most fundamental way of all. It does not ensure that the votes cast are reflected in the seats allotted in Parliament at the end of the day.

The Bill takes a variety of actions to tidy up and improve our electoral procedures. Most of it I welcome, and some of it I disagree with. The drift of its provisions is to ensure that the voter has the full facility to vote, is able to go to a polling station and cast that vote—or, if he is abroad or on holiday, to cast his vote by post—has the facility to vote in secret, is assured that when the vote is placed in the ballot box it will not be interfered with but will be taken under careful guard, and that the votes will be counted under the strict supervision of impartial returning officers who have a reputation for the fair way in which they conduct the procedures.

In every possible way the Bill seeks to ensure that the vote is cast in a way which confers no undue advantage on individuals who stand or on the parties they represent. However, it is as if, at the end of the day, everything is tipped out of the ballot box in a heap and the votes are picked out like raffle tickets at a constituency bazaar. That is the degree of relationship that we are now getting between votes cast and seats won. As the Representation of the People Bill, it fails to meet the criteria of its title.

We need only look back to recent general elections to see how what I have described is the case. For example, at the last general election—this is but one of many examples of the situation — the Conservative party received 42 per cent. of the votes and has 61 per cent. of the seats in the House. It received fewer votes than it did in the previous election, but it has 58 more seats that it had before.

Many of my constituents find this state of affairs baffling. The question is usually expressed by them in the most simple terms: "How is it that Mrs. Thatcher has such a big majority? Why did all those people vote for her?" I do not need to explain in detail why some people voted for her. It is sufficient to explain to my constituents and others that nothing like that proportion of people voted for her.

A substantial minority of the British electorate voted for the right hon. Lady and her party at the last general election. They are fully entitled to the substantial representation that 42 per cent. of the votes accords them. It is reasonable that, as the largest party represented in Parliament, it should have first access to the reins of Government. But let nobody pretend that the Conservatives have anything like the command of the electorate that they have of the numbers in this place. It is a total distortion of the way in which people voted at the last election.

Another example is the position of the Opposition parties in this place. The Labour party and the alliance each received about a quarter of the votes. The Labour party received slightly more votes than we did, yet it finished the election with 200 seats, while the alliance won only 23 seats. [Interruption.] There is no immediate evidence in the Chamber of the vast numbers that were accorded as an additional increment to the Labour party. There are a small number of Labour Members and few Conservative Members here now.

Dr. Marek

I do not wish to make a party political point, but I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman should get away with that. During most of the debate on this Bill there has been only one alliance Member in the Chamber. For this clause, the hon. Gentleman has somehow managed to rustle up four alliance Members. If the hon. Gentleman is proud of that, he is satisfied with the position.

8 pm

Mr. Beith

I cannot remember many debates in Committee on the Bill when one twenty-third or one twenty-fourth of the membership of the parliamentary Labour party has been present. I cannot remember many occasions when one twenty-third or one twenty-fourth of the membership of the Conservative party has been here, except during a Division. A small band of entertainers of sorts from the Conservative Benches have taken part in these proceedings. Assorted dilators and the type of people who might suitably attest a passport application have given their views. One or two of them are still here. The attendance during this Committee stage on both sides of the Chamber has not been great. I acquit of that charge the Under-Secretary of State. He and I have been present during almost the whole of the proceedings.

The outcome of the last election was that the Labour party and the alliance won similar proportions of the vote, but one group won only a tenth of the seats won by the other group. That is another respect in which the voting system distorts the effect of the votes cast and fails to represent in Parliament those whom the voters sought to elect when they went to the polling stations.

The system has other curiously unrepresentative effects. The Labour party is in such a bad way in the south of England that there is not one Labour seat south of a line from London to Bristol. The whole of southern England has no Labour Member of Parliament. That is a mark of the drastic decline of the Labour party in the south of England. I must concede, however, that the Labour party's decline has not reached the point where it is totally extinct in that spread of country. Under any proportional system, there might be a handful of Labour Members of Parliament representing that vast area in which they are now totally unrepresented.

The Conservative party has no Members of Parliament in Glasgow or Liverpool, and only one Member of Parliament in the whole of Manchester.

The Conservative party's representation has fallen, especially in Liverpool—my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) is one Liverpool representative—but not to the point where it deserves to be wholly unrepresented on the basis of the votes cast during the last election. The same phenomenon is found in relation to my party in most parts of the country, where our number of parliamentary seats does not reflect the proportion of votes cast.

The authority of the Government is undermined by the way in which we place in office minorities which then behave as though they are majorities. I was interested to hear the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry re-read a comment that he made in March 1983. He said: What distinguishes a democracy is that there are free and fair elections and that the majority control the Government. The majority do not control the Government. A minority has assumed the total authority of the Government and in the House of Commons has been given a degree of power that should be attracted only by a large majority of the votes. It is, therefore, no longer possible to conclude, as the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry concluded: That is why this Government have the right to legislate in accordance with the proposals that they put before and had endorsed by the people".—[Official Report, 8 March 1983; Vol. 38, c. 695.] The people do not endorse the Government's programme in this grand way. The degree of support enjoyed by the Government comes from significantly less than half the electorate.

When the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) was in opposition she asked the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan) what right he had to continue to govern. She answered her rhetorical question by saying: The right of a minority Government; the right of a supposed mandate based on 38 per cent. of the votes cast or 29 per cent. of the electorate? They govern by no right except the arrogant right of Socialism."—[Official Report, 23 March 1977, Vol. 928, c. 1285.] What ringing words from the right hon. Lady, but they apply with the same force to her Government, with only a slight adjustment in the figures. By what right does the right hon. Lady continue to govern the country? She governs by the right of a supposed mandate based on 42 per cent. of the votes cast. The Conservative party governs by no right, except the arrogant right of Toryism—that is but a small change in the words which the right hon. Lady so grandly uttered from the Opposition Front Bench.

The authority of the Government is substantially undermined when we pretend that minorities are majorities. There is nothing to be ashamed of in the Conservative party being but a minority, but it is no basis upon which to found the assumption that Conservative Members, and they alone, should have the unrestricted direction of the affairs of state. Parliament exists to control Governments, and Parliament's ability to control Governments is undermined by the fact that it does not represent the votes cast by the electorate.

There are other ways in which the system makes Parliament unrepresentative. Although they are not the main thrust of my argument against the system of government which now operates, I think that they have significance and relevance. One of the features of our electoral system is that it tends to discriminate against certain groups of people. The system has had the effect of making it more difficult for women and ethnic minorities to gain entry to the House of Commons. That is a consequence of a combination of the electoral system and the processes of selection.

Compared to other countries, we are well down the league when it comes to the representation of women in Parliament. The proportion of women in this Parliament is far smaller than in most other countries. One of the merits of the single transferable vote system which we advocate is that it makes it much easier for electors to ensure, so far as they can, that a person from an ethnic minority or a woman is elected. Our system makes it easier for electors to express that preference, while still having the opportunity to express their wider party preference and ensure that their preference—for example, for a woman candidate—is not turned into an unalterable preference for the party from which that candidate comes.

Mr. Forth

Will the hon. Gentleman tell us the extent of his party's dedication to the cause of women by enumerating the number of women in the House who represent his party?

Mr. Beith

The hon. Gentleman has walked into it. If he would be kind enough to provide us with the system that I advocate, he would see the serried ranks of women Liberal Members of Parliament among the more than 100 Liberal Members who would be sitting here as a result of the general election. I could take the hon. Gentleman around the country and show him some of the women who would now be Liberal Members of Parliament if we had had a system that ensured that the votes cast were reflected in Parliament. That is an extraordinary argument to advance against a party which has been so grotesquely unrepresented in this House. My right hon. and hon. Friends are but a fraction of those who should be here and of the numbers who received the electorate's support at the last general election.

The weaknesses of the system are not confined to their effects on central Government. They go to local government as well. The Bill seeks to draw together considerably the electoral rules applying to Parliament and those applying to local government. It is, therefore, relevant to consider, at least in passing, that the absence of a fair electoral system for local government has an even more exaggerated quality of distortion.

During the present Parliament the Government have taken away more and more of the powers of local authorities and have restricted their freedom. They are abolishing local authorities, on the ground that they do not like the people elected to run them. It would be wrong in principle under any system for central Government to abolish local authorities, or to take away their powers, because they do not like those who have been elected. However, the Government have only themselves to blame, because the power enjoyed by some of those whom they most dislike in local government was bestowed on them by the unrepresentative nature of the electoral system in local government. If local government had a fair and representative system such as the single transferable vote, there would not be minorities in local government wielding the power of majorities. There would not be single-party local authorities, or local authorities in which the Opposition consist of a handful of Members who are unrepresentative of the much larger proportion in the community of opponents of the party in power.

Weaknesses in local government are glaringly apparent. The Government could have saved themselves a great deal of trouble, and saved our constitution a great deal of damage, if, instead of taking power away from local authorities and abolishing authorities such as the GLC on the ground of party political disapproval, they had simply ensured that the votes of the electors of those places determined the shape of the council that governed them. That would be the way to ensure responsible conduct, responsible financial control and responsible behaviour in local authorities. By their attitude to local government the Government have moved in completely the wrong direction. By centralising—by garnering more power to the centre—they have permanently harmed the system.

Unless there is a proper relationship between votes cast at elections and representation, whether at local or national level, the country will continue to suffer. At national level, we have only to look back over the years since the war to realise how damaging the system has been. By, time and time again, giving a minority the power of a majority, the system has allowed party preference and the prejudices of one minority to be imposed on the country, only to be replaced shortly afterwards by the prejudices of another minority.

Over the decades there has been nationalisation and denationalisation, nationalisation and denationalisation again, as in the case of the steel industry. Prices and incomes policies have been imposed and lifted again and again. Such have been the activities of alternating Governments not one of which have had the support of the majority. If the Government had to depend in the House of Commons upon the support of a majority that was genuinely representative of the majority in the country, government would be sounder and better, and would command the confidence of the people.

Those who argue that it is a mark of strong government to have a large majority in the House of Commons are thinking purely of what can be done in this place. It is certainly true that a large majority enables a Government to ram through large amounts of legislation. Incidentally, although when in opposition the Conservatives opposed such behaviour, they have sought to add hugely to the statute book since they came to power, encouraged by the freedom provided by a large majority.

Strength in government does not repose in the ability to put large numbers of hon. Members through the Division Lobby at 10 o'clock at night. It reposes in the ability to bring into force measures which command the confidence of the people of the country, and command it so well that they will not be overturned by the next Government, who will be equally dependent upon the support of the majority and will wish to retain legislation built on such firm foundations. That was the experience of the wartime coalition. Much of the legislation produced in that period, when historic circumstances brought the parties together, lasted far longer than any of the legislation of the post-war Governments. I suspect that it will also outlast much of the legislation brought in by the present Government.

The Government's ability to use their voting majority to push through their prejudices does not represent strength of government. Strength of government rests in the ability to unite the country. Under the present electoral system, I see no sign that that can be done.

8.15 pm
Mr. Forth

In the context of the Bill, it was inevitable that there would be a re-run of the proportional representation argument. I am pleased to have an opportunity to participate in that argument, because it is important that it should be heard and considered from time to time. I am confident that PR will be rejected tonight as it has been in the past.

I have always been puzzled by the obsession of the proponents of proportional representation with the need for the number of seats in the legislature slavishly and arithmetically to reflect the number of votes cast by the electorate. That idea has a certain neatness and symmetry. It has a certain aesthetically pleasing quality. However, I suggest that it means nothing at all in terms of political legitimacy, or of political sensibility in terms of running the country and legislating properly.

The proponents of PR must provide not only a coherent argument for the principle but a coherent system or approach. They rarely do so. There are almost as many different systems as there are proponents of the principle, each of which, incidentally, would provide a quite different result in terms of seats. It is well known that, if one hypothecates the results of the 32 or 33 known systems of PR, they all provide quite different party representations in the legislature.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

With respect, the hon. Gentleman is talking absolute nonsense. It is absurd to say that there are 32 systems of PR. Secondly, when the hon. Gentleman talks about political legitimacy, is he not affected at all by the knowledge that we are the only country in western Europe that operates our kind of system and that all the other Governments are elected by proportional systems that despite what the hon. Gentleman has said, all produce approximately the same results?

Mr. Forth

The hon. Gentleman would say that, would he not? I do not share the hon. Gentlmen's obsession with matters European. I had the honour of serving for five years in the European Parliament, and I will shortly talk about my experience there. First, however, I draw attention to the United States of America, a great bastion of democracy that shares our Anglo-Saxon traditions and does not have a proportional system of elections. Why should we look eastwards to the continent of Europe for inspiration? We are equally entitled to look westwards to the United States for a reaffirmation of the fact that an electoral system need not be proportional to be effective and legitimate.

Recently there was a good illustration of one of the main problems that arises with a proportional system of election, and one of the great strengths of our own system. In the elections to the European Parliament last year, the National Front party emerged from France and gained strong representation in the European Parliament. It did so on the basis of a proportional system.

The proponents of proportional representation must address themselves to the problem of that system giving an opportunity for extreme parties to be represented.

Mr. Beith

Is the hon. Gentleman arguing that, in determining what electoral system we should have, we should have regard to the extent to which a system will enable us to prevent the election of parties with whose views we disagree?

Mr. Forth

I did not say that. I said that those who argue for proportional representation must accept that the legislature will include political parties which they may find unpalatable. I did not say that I prefer a system that excludes such parties.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

Does the hon. Gentleman think that the number of Marxist or neo-Marxist hon. Members would increase if we had proportional representation?

Mr. Forth

It is idle to speculate, but I shall take the hon. Gentleman's question at its face value. I suspect that there would be many small parties, many of which would express views that the hon. Gentleman would find difficult and distasteful. That might or might not be a good thing, but it would be an inevitable result of proportional representation.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

The hon. Gentleman said that there are many forms of proportional representation. I oppose the list system such as that which operates in Italy or Israel as, in Britain, it would be destabilising and would result in parties being elected on a tiny number of votes. With a single transferable vote in multi-Member seats, however, what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting would not happen as an hon. Member would have to get at least one sixth of the votes to be elected.

Mr. Forth

That is possible under one of the systems of proportional representation, but even then the size and geography of the area might alter the results. There might still be extreme representation from some areas.

In regard to the stability of Governments elected by proportional representation, we can look to continental Europe for examples. One of the great strengths of our system is that it provides a predictability and stability which many people have come to value. An inevitable result of proportional representation is a greater incidence of coalition Governments. That gives rise to many new possibilities—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—which I would find undesirable. If, under PR, neither major party got a working majority and one had to seek coalition with a third or more parties, policy would be dictated by back-room wheeling and dealing such as most people would find repugnant and unpredictable.

Alternatively, we might have the type of Government found in West Germany, where a tiny and unrepresentative party can dictate policy to parties with much greater electoral representation. The result is the exact reverse of what the now absent hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) argued for. He made great play of the unrepresentativeness of what he called minority Governments on the ground that they are supported by a minority of the electorate. In Germany, a party that represents as little as 7 per cent. of the electorate can dictate policy.

Mr. Alton

Can the hon. Gentleman give an example of the FDP dictating to the Government, whether to the Social Democrats for 13 years or now to the Christian Democrats? Does he agree that there have been good examples of parties working together in Britain in the interests of the country, especially in wartime?

Mr. Forth

I should be pleased to give an example which affected politics in Germany and the rest of Europe. It is well known that the West German Government's obsession with the common agricultural policy and their unwillingness to reform it arose directly from the fact that a tiny minority party—the Liberals—held the agriculture portfolio for many years. Because they believed that their representation depended largely on the rural and agricultural vote, the Liberals refused to countenance any reform of the CAP. That is a classic example of the disproportionate effect of a proportional system.

Mr. Hogg

If my hon. Friend wants another example, he need look no further than Israel where the extreme religious parties influence the policy of the Likud to a wholly unacceptable extent.

Mr. Forth

If hon. Members bent their minds to it, they could come up with many examples of proportional systems producing difficulties such as instability, unrepresentativeness and not being understood by the electorate.

Mr. Johnston

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that our system, under which the Conservatives obtained 750,000 fewer votes and 58 more seats, is fair?

Mr. Forth

Yes. I am saying that we must look at all of the factors and weigh them up. Proponents of proportional systems are obsessed with the arithmetical reflection of votes in seats. [HON. MEMBERS: "It is fair."] It is not necessarily fair. It is an arithmetic point and there is no point in arguing about it. Our system scores highly on the comprehensibility of government. Proportional systems are poor on that and for stability and predictability.

However, the most damning feature of proportional systems is their tendency to produce coalition Governments. The Liberal party has lived through the Lib-Lab pact and suffered from it. I should have thought that Liberal Members would understand better the difficulties of coalition as, even now, Liberal Members have to look shamefacedly at what happened during that coalition. If they are offering an electoral system that would give nothing better than what we had under the Lib-Lab pact, they are deceiving themselves, the Committee and everyone else if they believe that it will receive serious support. For that reason, I am confident in suggesting that, although the Committee will reconsider that possibility this evening, it will inevitably come to the conclusion that a proportional system has no support in the country, and will not benefit the country, and for those reasons the Committee will reject it.

Mr. Winnick

This subject is one of the Liberals' hobby horses. Indeed, it may be the main one. There are others, such as site value rating, but certainly new clause 1 has brought Liberal Members into the Chamber. We have not seen them in such large numbers in Committee. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where were you this evening?"] I certainly know where I was. I was speaking and listening to debates on many clauses. The Liberal Chief Whip knows the position well.

8.30 pm

The present electoral system has its faults. I shall not argue that it is accurate and faultless. However, it is tried and tested, and far superior to the system with which the Liberals seek to replace it. One of its strengths is the way in which a Member of Parliament is linked to his constituency. No matter what system of proportional representation were adopted, that linkage would not remain the same. The link between an hon. Member and his constituents is important for both the Member of Parliament and those he represents here. Hon. Members hold constituency surgeries, and constituents know who their Member of Parliament is. If the hon. Member holding the surgery is not a person's Member of Parliament, he will pass the case on to the appropriate colleague.

Mr. Alton

Like the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth), the hon. Gentleman is advancing arguments and then tilting at them and telling the Committee that those arguments are the reason why proportional representation will not work. The system of proportional representation that we advocate is based on multi-Member seats and single tranferable votes—we have made that case again and again to the electorate and during the debate this evening — and the linkage between the elector and the member of Parliament that the hon. Gentleman rightly said should be retained would be retained.

Mr. Winnick

The Committee is not likely to come to the conclusion that the present linkage between an hon. Member and his constituency will be maintained in quite the fashion that the hon. Gentleman suggested under a multi-Member constituency system. At present we have one hon. Member per constituency, about which the hon. Gentleman knows, although he does not believe in its retention.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

May I illustrate the breakage of that vital link between an electorate and its hon. Member by illustrating what happens in my old constituency of Antrim, South, which I and nine others represent in the Northern Ireland Assembly? When I hold my surgery and a constituent is departing, if he is truthful—many are not—he will say, "By the way, I have been to nine other surgeries." The Minister responsible will then reply to nine Members who have fed different aspects of the information to him. It is a complete muddle.

Mr. Winnick

I much appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's comments, which I certainly believe to be valid. There is no doubt that if the same system operated on the mainland, we would have a similar experience.

Mr. Beith

Does the hon. Gentleman think that the system should be abandoned in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Winnick

Northern Ireland is undoubtedly a unique case—[Interruption j It would have been quite simple for me to bolster my argument by saying that I did not agree. Then Liberal Members would not have been able to ooh and aah. The nature and unique position of Northern Ireland, which fortunately does not apply to the mainland—and, I hope, never will—demands something different. I do not know why Liberal Members ooh and aah as though they are pleased at the position in Northern Ireland — [SEVERAL HON. MEMBERS: "Come on."] Whatever line we take on Northern Ireland, that position causes all hon. Members anxiety, as it must do, including Liberal Members, I assume.

As the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire said, proportional representation would make it virtually impossible for any one party to form an Administration, and coalition government would be permanent. When he said that, Liberal Members seemed extremely enthusiastic. Let there be no doubt that, in effect, they are saying that there should be permanent coalition government. Whatever the system of proportional representation, the Committee can reasonably conclude that after an election it would be virtually impossible, except in the most unique circumstances, for any one party to form a Government, and we all know what would then happen.

Mr. Johnston

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right. The only country that operates proportional representation and where a majority Government have operated since the war is Sweden. Coalition Governments have operated in every other country in Western Europe that has a proportional representation system. In the hon. Gentleman's opinion, has that resulted in poor economic performance or bad administration?

Mr. Winnick

I am not in favour of coalition Governments, and I shall explain why. After an election in which no party has a majority, all the back-room intrigues would have to take place behind the electorate, and some sort of agreement would have to be reached to cobble together a Government. Sometimes it takes weeks before sufficient agreement can be reached to form a coalition Government. That happens in virtually every country that operates proportional representation, and it is the almost inevitable result of it.

Mr. Barron

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Does he agree that we have glaring examples of that in the so-called alliance party? The differences between Liberal Members and Social Democratic Members on many major issues of British policy are all too glaringly obvious. When the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) read a list of hon. Members who supported his ten-minute rule Bill, it included only Liberal Members, and not one Social Democrat.

Mr. Winnick

I do not know one Social Democratic Member who defected from the Labour party who urged on the Floor of the House a change to proportional representation. As in other matters, such as industrial relations, their present line is very different publicly from that which they took when they were Labour Members. After they defected they became, like Liberal Members, the most enthusiastic supporters of this proposed change in the electoral system.

I am not in favour of what I can only describe as the shabby and cynical deals and arrangements that inevitably occur when no party can form a Government after an election under the PR system. I was asked whether I approved of coalition Governments in Europe. It is interesting to recall the recent uproar, and rightly so, in Austria about the Defence Minister. All the details are not relevant at this moment, so I shall not go into them. However, after he did what he did in such a shameful manner—it is most unfortunate that he can retain his office—it was made clear, when calls were made for his resignation, that if he resigned, his party, which is included in the coalition, would walk out. Therefore, PR introduces that element of blackmail.

It is not just Austria. Let us take Israel. Apart from all the other matters, recently we have had the shameful experience of a person who is clearly a Nazi—I cannot see any distinction between other kinds of Nazis and the one who has been elected to the Israeli Parliament—winning a seat. Of course, Liberal Members say that that is a different form of proportional representation from the one that they want. However, it is a form of proportional representation. It is a system that allows a hate merchant to put across his point of view in the Israeli Parliament. The same is true in other countries, but fortunately to a more limited extent these days.

Israel's proportional representation system also permits blackmail by religious parties. Other parties have had to give way time and again to such behaviour, because it is impossible for any party in that country to form a majority Government on its own.

France has been given as an example. Fascists have been elected to the European Assembly. When the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire gave what happened in France as an illustration of the defects of proportional representation, Liberal Members said, "What is wrong with that? They were elected." No one denies that they were elected, but unfortunately France has an electoral system which allows hate merchants to be elected in such numbers.

Why change a well-tested electoral system for one which, apart from the other reasons that I have given, gives greater opportunities to the hate merchants who have been elected in France, Israel and in other countries? If Liberal Members are genuine, as I hope they are, whatever disagreements we may have, in our common detestation of Fascism, it is not a serious argument to say, "So what if the system is changed and some Fascists are elected? If they are elected, so be it." Is that all that we have learnt from our experience of the 20th century in Europe?

Mr. Alton

The hon. Gentleman is putting up arguments which are self-defeating. The Liberals have already made it clear that they do not favour such a system. Does he accept that people can be elected under the first-past-the-post system whom he might describe as hate merchants? What about people like Mosley and some of the Members of the present House of Commons?

Mr. Winnick

I do not believe I am defeating my argument, but the hon. Gentleman has clearly defeated his. His interesting intervention is self-defeating. He said, "What about Mosley?" We should appreciate the common sense of the British people. Once Mosley left the party to which he unfortunately happened to belong at the time—

Mr. Forth

He belonged to the hon. Gentleman's party.

Mr. Winnick

Yes, unfortunately he did belong to my party. I cannot deny the obvious. Before he belonged to my party he was however, in the Tory party —[Interruption.] Hon. Gentlemen on the Liberal Benches should listen.

Mr. Alton

I am listening.

Mr. Winnick

Mosley was never in the House except as a Conservative or Labour Member. When he tried to form his own kind of Nazi movement—

Mr. Alton

Mosley was here.

Mr. Winnick

Mosley was not here after 1931. The strength of our electoral system is the very point about which the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) is misleading the Committee. Whatever the faults of our electoral system, it did not permit Mosley to come here after 1931. Is it not far more likely that if we had had the PR system in the 1930s Mosley would have stood a greater chance of being here? Presumably Liberal Members would have said, "If he were elected, so be it."

Mr. Alton

Under the system that my right hon. and hon. Friends are advocating, it is highly unlikely that Mosley would have been here if he had run under the type of colours ascribed to him by the hon. Member later in his political life. Under the present system people like him can be elected to the House. Is he saying that he does not regard any of the present hon. Members as being from the extremes of politics?

8.45 pm
Mr. Winnick

I was saying—the hon. Gentleman has not contradicted me—that Mosley was never elected to the House after he ceased to belong to one of the two main parties. Neither he nor his cohorts ever succeeded in having any of the blackshirts elected to Parliament. The National Front has not been able to secure Members, unlike the examples that I have given of France in the Euro-elections, Israel or one or two other countries.

Of course, it is possible under our present system for extreme racist organisations to win seats, but that is part of the argument that I was advancing in earlier debates about thresholds and other matters, to try and ensure that that does not happen.

I do not believe that any case has been made out for a change to a different type of electoral system. I can assure Liberal Members—if they are in any doubt—that no party is more keen than mine to relieve the country of the curse of this Government. We want to get the Government out, but we do not want to be bad losers and change the electoral rules because we happened to have lost two elections. We have sufficient confidence in ourselves and the country to be sure that we will have a different Government. When we can secure a majority we will be able to form an Administration on our own. The Conservative party succeeded in the last two elections and formed the Government. The answer is to ensure that we do not have a Tory Government elected next time.

This proposal would mean a change to a system that has all the defects that I have outlined. It would make it easier for the parties promoting race hatred to be elected and it would undoubtedly weaken the link between a Member of Parliament and his constituency. For all those reasons, I hope that the new clause will be voted down by a large majority.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

Thank you for calling me, Mr. Lamond, in this cheap party political debate on new clause 1. It is clear that the new clause is a phoney way to try to promote the Liberals. I have listened, as I am sure you have, Mr. Lamond, to what the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has said. I had been expecting massive Liberal party propaganda, but I have not heard it. All I have heard is, "We was robbed." That is the point that comes through clearly.

I must pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). Unlike him, I am fully confident that the Conservatives will be returned with an even greater majority at the next election.

The arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed were phoney. I have agreed in the past with some of the points that he has made. I am disappointed that the consensus in the Committee this evening has been thrown suddenly into a panic by Liberal Members appearing in their droves. They have not been in the Chamber for much of the debate. There are many more present now compared with earlier.

After considering the new clause carefully, as we all have, I see no description of the rules that the Liberal party wants to see played. It has not recommended an electoral system. If it is to be the single transferable vote, everyone's second choice will be the result. Such a system brings about an indecisive Government. What kind of an electoral system is that? Conservatives will vote first for a Conservative, second for a Liberal and third for Labour. A Labour supporter will vote Labour first, Liberal second and Conservative third. A Liberal would obviously vote Liberal first. The Liberals would come out as everyone's second choice because the other two parties are not too bad. That does not seem the right way to control or help a Government. It does not bring about a clear result.

Who would be the real Member of Parliament after such an election? Will there be a regional list with no direct connection between the newly elected Member and his constituents in the region?

In Israel they do not have constituencies. When the Likud Government was in power the Members did not feel that it was necessary to vote when there were divisions in the Knesset because they were not answerable to anyone. The National Front and the British National party together in the 1983 election got about 41,500 votes. Under PR that would have given them a number of seats in the House. I do not want extremists here under any circumstances. The Liberal party is trying to create a dangerous precident, but it is not on.

Mr. Alex Carlile

Does not the hon. Gentleman understand that under the single transferable vote system, which was advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), the National Front and the British National party would not have won even one seat? I think that the hon. Gentleman was present when my hon. Friend was speaking. Did he not hear my hon. Friend say that he was advocating an STV system? Does he not understand the difference between STV and a regional list?

Mr. Bruinvels

I have been in the Chamber throughout the debate, which is more than the Liberal Members have been; most of them have not been here at all. I understand the system. This new clause does not explain the procedure that the Liberal party wants. It is a disgraceful clause.

In regard to the danger of coalition Governments, which could be the result, I can quote Israel, Italy, West Germany and France. All those four countries have suffered greatly the abuse of the little parties trying to tell the big parties what to do; to a great extent, they control the big parties. We do not want to see any party in government dictated to by other parties.

Mr. William Powell

Particularly small ones.

Mr. Bruinvels

Particularly small ones, as my hon. Friend says.

The Committee should look to the European Assembly and take warning that proportional representation could be not too far off. That worries me greatly; I am sure that it worries many hon. Members on both sides of the Committee. One of the daft ideas of the European Assembly is that there should be a common system of voting. As most of the other member states of Europe have a PR system, there is a risk that it could come into force here. I will oppose it with all the force I can, as I am sure most hon. Members will. In this country we have our own system and our own ways of working and we will not be told by Europe what to do.

We have the example of the proportional representation system in Northern Ireland in the recent Euro election. The Members with a dual mandate are not even here. The system has not worked and it is not a good one, as the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) confirmed earlier.

When the Liberals and the SDP get together they can be effective, even with their number of 23 which they very occasionally muster in full. When they have had those 23, plus the hon. Member who got in at the Portsmouth, South by-election, they have delayed the proceedings of the House, as they are trying to do now. They have spoken from the Dispatch Box, they have submitted many amendments to Bills and they have a large say in the running of the House. I have never heard them complaining about that. I have seen them taking the greatest possible advantage of our system.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred to the lack of women Members in the Liberal representation in the House. I made a quick check to see how many women were put up as candidates by the Liberal party at the last election. It put up 32, the Conservative party put up 40 and the Labour party put up 78. The Liberals have one or two safe seats, particularly Truro. If they want to hand it over to the wife of the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), that might be a solution.

Let us consider how the votes were cast at the last election. The Conservatives got 13,012,316; the Labour party got 8,456,934; and the Liberal-SDP alliance got 7,780,949. The Liberals were prepared to fight that election. They have contested elections for many years and have never complained about the system. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]. I should have thought that they would have preferred to say that they would not fight elections because they did not think the system was fair.

Let us consider the policies that the parties put forward. The Conservative party looks for a property-owning society, proper defence and law and order. The Labour party looks for more nationalisation, more public expenditure and no nuclear deterrent. We do not know what policy the Liberals and the SDP have because they do not always agree. That is why they are not getting more seats and more votes. That is where they have gone wrong.

It is interesting to note that the new clause has been tabled first in the name of the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) and that the second name is that of the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen). Now we know who is running the alliance.

At the turn of the century the Liberals did extremely well at all elections. They kept winning and had mammoth majorities. They did not complain about the system then. I am told that Lloyd George was a good Prime Minister. At that time they did not want women to stand for Parliament.

If we move forward to February 1974 when the Conservative party lost the general election, we had 297 seats, the Labour party had 301 and the Liberals had 14. They could have controlled the Government of the day. They were offered the chance of power. My right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) and Jeremy Thorpe met to discuss the matter and Jeremy Thorpe ducked out of the deal. The Liberals shied away from taking the power that they are now calling for. Then they had the opportunity of gaining experience of ministerial responsibility. If they had taken the opportunity then, they might have had more seats today because they could have said that they had had control and knew how to run the Government.

The then Liberal party joined with the Labour party and propped up the Government of the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan) for years on policies of extreme Socialism, with no disrespect to some Labour Members. The Liberal voters had not voted for those policies. Presumably those out in the sticks had voted for a Liberal Government, but the policies on which Liberal Members supported the Labour party were nothing like what Liberal voters had wanted. They let their voters down.

Where are the chances for the Liberal party? It had its opportunity and did not take it. When it has real policies, it will deserve the power for which it is calling today. Real power will come only with real policies. As it stands, the new clause would mean that power would be given to people with no real policies. That would defeat the electoral system. The new clause is a farce and should not be accepted.

Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Stockton, South)

I should like to speak in support of the powerful case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), for two reasons. First, despite what the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) has just said, and despite what others have said in the debate, a fundamental principle is involved. It is simply that the number of representatives in the House and in any other elected chamber should broadly reflect the proportion of votes cast for their parties at the election. Under the present voting system that fundamental principle is not being upheld.

When the broad majority of the electorate supported the Conservative party and the Labour party in the 1950s and early 1960s, the House was broadly representative of the proportion of votes cast for those parties. That is no longer the case. It is wrong that not only in the elections to this Chamber but in elections to other chambers around the country that fundamental principle is being breached.

9 pm

That leads to the other important argument in favour of a system of proportional representation, which is that if we have that system, we then have minority Governments and minority councils in proportion to the votes cast by the electorate. This is a minority Government. It is not supported by well over 50 per cent, of the electorate. The previous Government before 1979 were not supported by an even more substantial proportion of the electorate. That inevitably leads to bad government by parties which do not reflect the views of the majority of the electorate. Those who have spoken against coalitions might dwell for a moment on that point.

Surely it is fairer and better for the country that we have Governments who represent the views of a majority of the people. The compromises that are necessary in a coalition Government lead to the Government pursuing policies which represent the views of the majority of the electorate. Although we would not advocate the system that is now in operation in Israel, one could clearly claim that the present Government in Israel, who represent a substantial majority of the people of Israel, are working effectively for that country and pulling it out of the difficulties in which it found itself before that Government took office.

There are other practical points that hon. Members should consider. Some conservative, dyed-in-the-wool remarks are being made by both Labour and Conservative Members, which demonstrate that they have not thought through the system proposed in the new clause. For example, there is the matter of the ties between the Member and his constituency. Of course, the links between a Member and the constituency are a bit of a farce anyway. For instance, I represent half of Stockton-on-Tees. The boundary of the constituency runs right through the middle of the high street, so that one side of the street is represented by one Member of Parliament, and the other by the second Member of Parliament. The boundary runs through the middle of the runway of Teesside airport. Half the airport is represented by one Member of Parliament and half by myself.

What is the community of interest if I can say that half a street is in my constituency? When there is a closure of a factory in the Teesside area, my constituents are affected, as well as others in Stockton, North and Middlesbrough, which is in part of my constituency. No community of interest is represented by the artificial boundaries that happen to be drawn up. I have experienced three sets of boundaries over 12 years in my area, which I have sought to represent. It makes no sense to say that a constituency has a mythological link with the Member of Parliament.

My constituents work in Imperial Chemical Industries and British Steel, miles away from my constituency. Their interests are determined by what is happening to those industries in other people's constituencies. When there is a closure of a plant in which thousands of my electorate work in another constituency, of course I take it up with the firm, even though the plant is not situated in my constituency. It would make much more sense if we had one constituency—as, indeed, our proposals suggest—for the community in each area and a number of Members of Parliament representing that constituency, so that the true interests of that constituency could be represented by those Members.

In addition, that would provide constituents with the possibility of voting for Members of Parliament from different parties, or, indeed, from different shades of different parties. There is a tremendous difference between the views of the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) on the far Left of the Labour party, and the views of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) who is on the so-called Right wing of the Labour party. There is as much difference between those two views as there is between the views of Conservative and Labour Members.

It would be much better if the electorate in the Teesside area were able to vote for the different shades of opinion of Members in the Labour, Liberal, Social Democratic and Conservative parties and exercise their preference in that way. They could go to whichever Member they preferred if they had a problem or issue to raise, as they do in the wards which are represented by more than one member on councils in multi-member wards all over the country.

Mr. Bermingham

I have listened most carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said. How would the communities in new clause 1 be drawn and by what method would the new clause be put into effect, particularly bearing in mind the considerable power that seems to be put into the hands of the Secretary of State? By tradition, boundary commissions, whether we like them or not—the hon. Gentleman and I may well have the same views about how boundary commissions work —have at least had some semblance of independence.

Mr. Wrigglesworth

We made clear and specific proposals in the joint commission report which the Social Democratic and Liberal parties published before the election and in the election manifesto. If hon. Members are interested, we shall be only too pleased to sell them copies of both so that they can read the proposals in detail.

Let me briefly tell the hon. Gentleman that we proposed communities which are multi-Member constituencies which represent real communities, without artificial boundaries. Considerable detail was given. Obviously, those boundaries would have to be drawn up in the same way as the present boundaries are drawn up by an independent body. Clearly, such a system would not be introduced without consultation, a Speaker's Conference and the normal procedure that is gone through.

That system of STV, with multi-Member constituencies around communities, would provide the accurate representation of the parties in this place which we think necessary. It would also retain the links between the community and hon. Members and provide a compromise, with a total national list system which would give an accurate representation of the number of votes cast for each party. There are other ways of achieving that, as in Germany—

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)


Mr. Wrigglesworth

No, I must not give way because many other hon. Members want to speak. The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to explain his case in a moment.

I simply want to add my voice in support of the clause. It would give a fairer system of representation in the House and better government in Britain. A tremendous number of myths are paraded around—we have heard quite a number of them in this debate—about the operation of systems in other countries. If we had had the same success as most of our partners in the EC—

Mr. Barron

And in Italy.

Mr. Wrigglesworth

Yes, and in Italy. If our economy had been as successful as Italy's in the past few years, the hon. Gentleman would have something to crow about.

Mr. Barron


Mr. Wrigglesworth

The hon. Gentleman can make his own speech in his own time.

We must ignore the myths about the operation of proportional representation in other countries, and we must also ignore the myths which are then erected for the variety of systems which other people suggest, which are not the systems which we have suggested for this country. We hear all those cockshies about extremists being elected, when in fact extremists in both the Labour and Conservative parties are sitting in this place at present, masquerading under the labels of those parties, whose views are as extreme, if not more so in some cases than those of organisations which most civilised people in Britain would have nothing to do with.

Let us have nothing to do with these myths that are erected. Let us look at the facts and support the amendment, which would give us much better government in this country and also much fairer representation for the electorate in the House of Commons.

Mr. William Powell

The hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth) has tried to make the best of what, alas, is a very bad case indeed. I understand that his occupation before he came to the House was that of research officer. It is perfectly apparent that he has not researched history. If he had done so, he would have a deeper understanding of what the function of the House and of Parliament is and realise that the proposal which has been put forward is designed to undermine the entire history and development of our Parliament.

An argument can be made, but let us be perfectly plain that this is what is intended, and before we go down that path we must be very careful and think long and hard about its implications. If the hon. Gentleman had his way it would be necessary for this Chamber to be stripped and redesigned so that it looked like a European Assembly chamber, in a horseshoe shape, because it would simply not be possible to accommodate within the design and structure of this House the representatives of the different parties which would emerge.

We are the trustees of our past which we must hand on for the future. The hon. Gentleman says that it is a fundamental principle that membership of the House should reflect the proportion of votes cast for individual parties at the preceding election. I could not agree with him less. He is wrong about that. He asserts that as a principle but it is utterly unhistorical. I hope that in 500 years, when our successors look back upon these days, they will still recognise it to be unhistorical. Certainly to try to make the change which is proposed on that basis, which really has nothing to do with the constitutional history of our country, is a travesty, and I hope that the House will quite unhesitatingly reject it.

The hon. Gentleman and members of his joint parties try to ascribe the difficulties this country has had to face in the last generation to the absence of proportional representation in the conduct of our elections. That is the most preposterous argument I have heard in a long time. If it is to be asserted that, if we change the electoral system, with a wave of the wand all our troubles will disappear, he must not expect anybody to take him seriously or believe for a moment that we think that even he is convinced by that kind of argument. It could not be more false. The fact is that we have to grapple with our problems in the context in which we are operating. If we try to change the context, we shall still be left with the problems and no progress will be made.

What is proposed in this new clause is a new method of fudging our problems. It is fundamental to the hon. Gentleman's party's policy in most areas that a fudge is the best solution. Its members can argue that course. Let them go openly to the electors and say, "We want a fudge. Vote for us and we will fudge." The electorate can then decide on that proposition.

If that is the way that the hon. Gentleman wishes matters to be conducted in the future, I must say that it is not a sensible way to proceed. Our elections in this country are and always have been designed—certainly since the abolition of dual-Member constituencies, but allowing for that exception going right back into our history—for the election of an individual Member to represent all his constituents. I assert as loud and long as I can that I represent all the electors in my constituency and I hope that I shall continue to do so without fear or favour. I could not care less whether they support the Conservative party, the Labour party, the Liberal party or the Ecology party. They are entitled to individual treatment and representation. That is the historical principle on which the House is elected and, I hope, always will be elected.

9.15 pm
Mr. James Nicholson (Newry and Armagh)

Does the hon. Gentleman extend that principle to all elections in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Powell

I do indeed. When delegated legislation was introduced to apply proportional representation to European Assembly elections in Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) and I had the rare privilege of joining Northern Ireland Members to vote against that proposal. I see no reason why Northern Ireland Members should not be elected on the same indivisible basis as Members from the rest of the country. I am confident that every Northern Ireland Member has the same uncompromising attitude to all his constituents as have Members from the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Johnston

The hon. Gentleman is confusing two important matters. He is quite right in saying that a Member seeks to represent and deal with the problems of all his constituents irrespective of party, but his constituents also have an interest in the policy pursued by the Government and if a large proportion of them are denied any influence on that it reflects badly on democracy.

Mr. Powell

I cannot accept that contention. Constituents of mine who do not agree with proposals that I support may lobby me and write to me and I make representations to Government Departments on their behalf. I am happy to represent their views in every way that I can. At the end of the day, I have to answer to my constituents. If they do not like the way in which I have done my job, they are entitled to vote against me at the next election. They can judge me on my performance. That is how it has always been.

I see no reason to change a fundamental principle on which our parliamentary system is based because the Liberals and Social Democrats did rather better in the last election than they did on previous occasions. There is no reason why we should change our electoral system just to suit them. I may be wrong, but I believe that our political system is going through a period of transition. There have been other periods of transition in the past. The conjunction of the Liberals and Social Democrats—the alliance, as it has hitherto been called — may well become the second or even the first party in the state. If that is what the electorate wishes, I do not see why we should compromise that possibility by bringing in a new electoral system which would create a permanent veto on prospective changes in policy for a party rapidly being reduced to third place in the nation — the official Opposition, as it is now described. If such a system of change is taking place, it does not justify the change in our electoral system. Our system has worked well down the centuries.

Once upon a time the official Opposition were the third party. In those days they favoured proportional representation. When they became the second party and then the first party, they realised that there was good sense and firm historical basis for the system which was then in operation, the system which we still have. I know that Members who represent the Liberals and the SDP up and down the country extol the virtues of a proportional system of representation. But, in my judgment—and people can make of this what they will— if in due course they become the first party and then the second party in the state, they will not still be proposing proportional representation.

The argument for proportional representation is historical nonsense and a sham, and it deserves to be exposed for the nonsense that it is.

Mr. William Ross

I have not been present in all the debates, but I attended a considerable number yesterday and some today. One of the points that pleased me and hon. Members on this Bench in those debates was the evident willingness of the Government and Opposition Benches to extend parity throughout the United Kingdom. That of course includes Northern Ireland. One is grateful that both Front Benches and, indeed, both major parties in Parliament, should come to the conclusion that the electoral system should be the same throughout the United Kingdom.

Listening to the debate and hearing the exposure of the absurdity embodied in the proposed new clause, one discerns the slow learning process in regard to proportional representation coming to full flower, except on the Benches of those hon. Members who support the proposed new clause.

If there is a party in Parliament that understands proportional representation and its shortcomings, it is the party of hon. Members who sit on this Bench. We are the only Members present in the Committee who have fought elections under proportional representation, who have won elections under proportional representation and who have represented people under that system. Therefore, the only real experts present in the Committee, made so by experience, are the hon. Members who sit on this Bench.

The Liberal spokesmen have talked about the STV system, but the new clause mentions that not at all. It has merely emerged in debate that that is the system that they desire. However, they have made it clear in discussing proportional representation that it is the single transferrable vote system that they wish to come into operation. It is also clear from the proposed new clause that they would seek the periodic expiry of the order bringing that system into operation. The truth is that, unless there was a party with an overall majority in Parliament that was against proportional representation, we would be going through a one-way choke point: once one has it, one will never get rid of it, and one will be stuck with it for ever. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Hon. Gentlemen say, "Hear, hear." However, if they are as willing to learn as many other hon. Members, by the time that I have finished and exposed to them the weakness and foolishness of their case, they may not be so ready to say, "Hear, hear," but will hang their heads in shame for having been so grossly misled for such a long time.

I listened with care to the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth), who was so unwilling to give way. If he had given way, I would have asked him to tell us how many seats—[HON. MEMBERS: "He has gone."] I know that the hon. Gentleman has departed, having made his speech, but his hon. Friends are present and no doubt if they catch your eye, Mr. Armstrong, they will be able to answer the question that I put to the hon. Gentleman and to the party of which he is a member. The question that the Liberal party must answer tonight is, how many seats does it see in each multi-Member constituency. It has not revealed that critical point. Having thought about this matter for so many years, it must now be able to answer that point. It will then show how small a minority it wants to make a fulcrum of power in the Chamber.

I have been elected to a local council under the PR system. It is a system that I detest; I have never seen any good in it. It is a divisive and dangerous system. It is foolish to believe that it has anything to offer to good government in this country.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Will my hon. Friend deal with the line adopted by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth), who spoke about mythological boundaries and how the larger constituency provided under PR would make a community of interests? I represent a constituency in another place under the PR system, and I believe that it is a false division that would be parlous for the nation.

Mr. Ross

I shall come later to my hon. Friend's point. When I began to compose this speech, I tried to make it as simple and as short as possible. As the debate has proceeded and as many foolish views have been put forward, I have added to it. I cannot allow the foolishness to pass simply because others do not have the experience to deal with it.

Mr. Johnston

I do not understand how the hon. Gentleman can stand there and say openly and brashly that all of western Europe is mad and foolish for having PR and that only Britain is wise.

Mr. Ross

I will not deal with western Europe as a whole, but only with the one country with which we should all be familiar and which has PR, the single transferable vote system. I refer to the Irish Republic, which time and again has tried to get rid of that system and failed. The people who have lived with that system have recognised its shortcomings.

Mr. John David Taylor (Strangford)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is dangerous to look at precedents in western Europe because the major nation on the Continent prohibits parties with less than 5 per cent. of the poll from having any members elected? That is certainly a threat to the Liberal party.

Mr. Ross

That is an interesting point, and I have no doubt that the Liberal party will reflect on it. Perhaps it should also reflect on the fact that, when talking about minorities and extremists being elected, it forgets a very simple matter—once we have the PR system, we are not in the same political world. We will have passed into a wholly different set of circumstances and rules. The number of electors casting their votes for different parties will not be the same. The extremists will increase in number. That is the inevitable result of PR. Every country that we study closely knows that fact, unless it is so minded in its own attitude and so isolated from the mainstream of politics that the normal pressures of international politics do not impinge upon it. When there is PR, it is the extremists who always increase their vote.

9.30 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ross

I have already given way quite a lot, but I shall give way again.

Mr. Hughes

Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that it is often better that extremists should appear under their own colours and stand for parties that properly represent their views than that they should hide under the colours of another party so that they conceal what they really stand for? That is what happens when there are fewer parties and when there is no proportional representation. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman was as much aware in Northern Ireland of that serious consideration as I am in England.

Mr. Ross

Whenever extremists stand under the colours of a major party and so conceal their true natures, we find that their opportunities for wickedness are diminished, because they are subject to party discipline. All major parties, especially those in this House, know that that discipline is much stronger than the Liberals seem to realise.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said that he wanted the National Front to stand in order to show how small support for it was. Yesterday, the hon. Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) pointed out that 15 candidates lost their deposits at the Chesterfield by-election. Thus, 15 parties had only a few votes cast for them. However, I have not found out exactly how many votes were cast.

Let us consider how the system of STV works in practice. I have with me the results of the district council elections for Northern Ireland in 1981. In Coleraine, in my constituency, the chairman of the Democratic Unionist party obtained 3,203 votes, and his fellow runner obtained 69 votes. Both of them were elected. That is STV in action. It seems ridiculous, but the record is available to those right hon. and hon. Members who wish to examine it. Perhaps they should all do so in some detail.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and his colleagues supported the introduction of proportional representation in Northern Ireland. It is used for the Assembly elections, for the European elections and for council elections. Just before Christmas the same party tripped through the Division Lobby with the Government on Northern Ireland election orders and so helped to enact a law that was designed to stop Sinn Fein from obtaining any more support. But it is clear to those of us who live in Northern Ireland that Sinn Fein would not have its launching pad, if it had not been for the introduction of proportional representation. That shoots down the speech made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who defended the use of the system in Northern Ireland. The plain truth is that Sinn Fein's success in Ulster is proof that that system helps the more extreme parties—

Mr. Simon Hughes

Gerry Adams.

Mr. Ross

Gerry Adams obtained a minority of the total vote. But he gained a launching pad because of the votes that he had obtained earlier in west Belfast under the PR system. He had to get a start somewhere. He would not have got anywhere against Gerry Fitt had he been starting cold. He got a launching pad, took off and succeeded.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I recall being in a television studio when, in the last election, the result for Belfast, West came through. It was clear that the much respected former Member for that constituency, who was not elected, would have won the seat under a system of proportional representation, as opposed to the present hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) who was elected on a minority of the votes.

Mr. Ross

By his intervention, the hon. Gentleman demonstrates his lack of understanding of the system. That seat would not have existed in its present form under PR.

Rev. Martin Smyth

It might refresh my hon. Friend's memory if I recall that in a subsequent by-election for the city council in that constituency, the SDLP, then the party of the former Member for Belfast, West, was eliminated. In other words, one cannot deduce that, had it been a PR election, Gerry Fitt would have won. As my hon. Friend pointed out, under PR a launching pad is given to extremists.

Mr. Ross

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for making that point, and I shall return to that aspect of the problem.

Reference has been made to the system in France. I may be wrong, but I believe that the system there is not proportional representation in any true sense of the term. It is a system of exhaustive voting under which the candidate who gets 51 per cent. of the votes is elected. That is not a good system because it creates the worst factors of the STV system. It allows everyone to stand, to bring their divisiveness and extremism before the electorate and to build on it.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Will the hon. Gentleman explain how, under the French system, extremism is allowed to surface if, as is the case, after the first ballot those candidates are dropped from the ballot paper?

Mr. Ross

The hon. Gentleman is forgetting human nature. It is the desire of every minority grouping to get a place in the chamber or assembly to which it is seeking election so as to be in a position to express its view to a wider public.

At election time, all the small groups have an opportunity to seek election. They can put forward their views by dividing their general grouping in society. They can thereby test the water, discover where their strength lies and build on that at a future time, perhaps in slightly different places. Under PR, a minority which gets a quota, gets a representative elected. Groups of which the Liberal party do not approve—such as the National Front—are elected.

In an eight-seat constituency one need receive only one ninth of the vote. In a seven-seat constituency, one need receive only one eighth of the votes in theory, but in fact one needs considerably fewer votes. In such a case there would be an enormous number of splinter parties. It would be Chesterfield all over again, but much worse. The votes for all those small groups would be taken into account whenever the quota was decided. Even if the votes for those groups disappeared, the quota for the seats would be much less. It is possible in a seven-seat constituency for a person who receives an eighth or ninth of the votes to get himself elected. This has happened repeatedly in Northern Ireland elections. It will always happen under a proportional representation sysem.

In certain circumstances the PR system gives a person with a small minority the power to make or break a Government. That could happen even in as large an establishment as the House of Commons. The system gives power to a minority to dictate Government policy.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said that he would like the system to operate in local government because it would prevent the majority party from putting its policies into action. That is the only construction I can put on what he said. I believe that he said that no party could form a majority.

Mr. Beith

I have been misunderstood. On several occasions I have said that, under a reformed system, a party would not have indefinitely almost all the seats on a local authority council when it did not enjoy a commensurate level of support from the voters.

Mr. Ross

That would not mean any change in the political control of that particular council, because, if any party is so strong that it can win nearly all the seats under the first-past-the-post system, it will almost certainly form a majority under the proportional representation system. Therefore, that party will be able to put its policies into action. The use of proportional representational would have no real effect on it.

If there is no overall party majority, there will be demands for deals. Hidden deals will be done. Because no party has a majority, deals must be done. That means that there will always be a coalition. I suspect that a coalition in the House of Commons would always have to include one of the larger of the small parties. One party would always have a toe in the Government door and the two large parties would alternate in government, depending on the type of deal they were prepared to offer to the minority.

Mr. Wigley

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the great needs of local government is to have an effective opposition as well as a switch between governing parties? The danger in those areas that have one-party control is that there is no effective opposition. There needs to be a change of system to get such opposition.

Mr. Ross

In my experience, when there is overwhelming one-party control, the majority party contains a large number of different strands of thought and opposition tends to rise within the party. The party's policy then changes. If it does not change, it is up to the electorate to change it. After all, the electorate are our masters. If they decided to go on with one-party rule, that is their affair, and I see no reason for complaint.

The question of the number of representatives has been raised a number of times today. If there are about seven or eight — usually about seven is the maximum —representatives for a constituency, the electorate will travel around from one person to another, as my right hon. Friend the Member from Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) has illustrated. The electorate is extremely large and because at least seven-eighths of the members of the electorate can turn to a member of the party that they personally support, the cohesion that should exist in any constituency is destroyed.

9.45 pm

The situation is divisive. Whenever a small group of people find that they have managed to get a candidate elected, they immediately start yelling their heads off at everyone else in order to get a few more people elected. That is the reason why people go into politics. They want to get control of the body in which they have representatives. It is simply a matter of using the position and the personality of the various members elected to try to gain control.

Proportional representation is a fudge. It has been disastrous in Northern Ireland. It would do the House no good. We should never accept it here, and I hope to see it ended in Northern Ireland as soon as possible.

Mr. Barron

I want briefly to take up one or two comments that have been repeated in successive speeches.

New clause 1 ducks the issue. It tries to cloud the important principle that was put by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth), who has now left the Chamber again. The alliance parties seem to be saying that, because they received a lot of votes at the general election, they should have more seats. That seems to be the only principle that they are prepared to debate. New clause 1 does not attempt to present proportional representation in any practical manner or to approach the problem of how it would affect hon. Members or, more importantly, the electorate of Great Britain. The alliance Members have done both themselves, and the proponents of proportional representation in the country, a great disservice by ducking the issue of debating specific points.

The hon. Member for Stockton, South and the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) seem to suggest that what they really wanted to debate was the findings of the joint commission. I assume that the joint commission was a commission of the Social Democratic and the Liberal parties. We would have been pleased to be told in detail about that joint commission. As many hon. Members know, joint commissions do not always see eye to eye as far as the policies of the respective parties are concerned. It may be that there is agreement in this case, but it is a great pity that the alliance lacked the political sense to present the findings in a form in which they could be debated, so that we could have considered the effect upon our electoral system. As they did not, I shall not support new clause 1.

In many ways, my heart goes out to the hon. Member for Stockton, South. He said that his constituency is divided from a neighbouring one by the Teesside airport runway, half of which is in his constituency. I should not have thought that that would pose any problems, but if it does he should have a chat to a few other hon. Members. The river Rother — a beautiful river — divides my constituency from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy). Half is in my constituency and half is in his, but until half of the river Rother turns up at my Saturday morning surgery to see me about the problem, I do not think that it will bother me too much. I have always thought that parliamentary representation was about representation of people, not water or tarmac.

I cannot imagine multi-Member seats going down too well. As the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) said, people in such constituencies wander around various surgeries in the hope of finding the person who represents them. Even if they do not, they have nine bites at the cherry. We are discussing no more than a theory. The theory is that everything about PR is good and that we should no longer have minority Governments. Presumably people who live in countries that have PR think that minority Governments are bad. Italy has already been mentioned. The hon. Member for Stockton, South declined to give way to me, but all I intended to ask him was whether, leaving aside Italy's economics, he thought that the electors wanted more than 19 changes of Government since the war. I suspect that they do not think that that has been beneficial.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Does my hon. Friend agree that Italy is no longer run by government and has not been for the past 20 years? It is run by civil servants. Politicians are almost incidental to the system.

Mr. Barron

I can believe that. Perhaps the hon. Member for Stockton, South is suggesting that the Civil Service should run the country.

It is a pity that new clause 1 does not set out what the joint commission said so that we could have a serious discussion about PR. Some of my right hon. and hon. Friends will disagree with me, but I should be prepared to discuss PR in single-Member seats to see whether it would benefit the electorate. Unfortunately, it seems that new clause 1 is intended solely to provide a system that will enable the alliance to gain the seats that it feels that it should have won on the 1983 poll.

Mr. Alton

We have heard much about coalition today. There has been an extraordinary coalition between the Labour and Conservative parties, both of which want to maintain the present system. That is not surprising, and I do not suppose that any of my right hon. and hon. Friends expected otherwise. The Labour and Conservative parties have a vested interest in keeping things as they are.

I was pleased when the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) said that his mind was not totally closed on the matter. I would be happy to make available to him a copy of the commission's report so that he can read the details about the single transferable vote system. I am sure that it will give him many happy nights of reading.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) almost answered Ins own argument when he said that he would like to turn the clock back and have the first-past-the-post system at all elections — Assembly and European elections, as well as Westminster elections. In his constituency there are 59,000 electors. About 49,000 people did not vote for him at the general election. That demonstrates the point that many hon. Members would wish to make, especially in relation to Northern Ireland, which is that inevitably if we return to the first-past-the-post system at Assembly elections, the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland would be grossly under-represented. The implications of that are obvious to all hon. Members.

The hon. Gentleman was fundamentally wrong when he said that the emergence of Sinn Fein was due to proportional representation. The reason for its emergence was intransigence and a failure to accommodate the democrats in the Social Democratic and Labour party, and the democrats in the Fine Gael and Irish Republican parties. The failure to accommodate those people led to the emergence of Sinn Fein.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I am at a loss to see how representatives of a foreign nation could be incorporated within a political party, even under proportional representation, in the United Kingdom. That is one of my difficulties. The hon. Gentleman referred to Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, and they are part of a foreign nation. Does he recognise that the Alliance candidate at the local government election in Coleraine who had 500 votes did not get elected, whereas the second Democratic Unionist party candidate with 69 votes did? Does he recognise that, contrary to his statement, the Roman Catholic people in Northern Ireland under the other percentage voting system in Stormont elections were better represented than they are now under proportional representation?

Mr. Alton

The hon. Gentleman will accept that that was a speech rather than an intervention. However, I shall try to deal with the points that he raised. He talked about the influence within Northern Ireland of Irish parties in the Republic of Ireland. As I said, the failure of Northern Ireland politicians to respond to the democratically elected Government in Dublin was a reason for the lack of moderation in Ireland today and for the emergence of extreme groups.

The hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) said that we would have to redesign the Chamber if the electoral system was reformed. I am in favour of seeing the parties in the House coming closer together. If we have to bring in the carpenters to achieve that, I shall not be opposed to it. However, historically he is wrong. After the first world war Liberals and Conservatives sat together in the Government. There are many examples throughout our history of parties sitting and working together.

The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) and others tried to attribute to us forms of proportionality for which we have not argued. Hon. Members have said that we would have a regional system, the Italian system or, even worse, the Israeli system, and that they would lead to dire consequences. We have not proposed those arguments. None of us has advocated that the party should be given greater power. We have argued for community-based proportional representation based on the single transferable vote and multi-Member seats. That would both link an hon. Member with a community and provide proportionality.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), on an interrelated point, talked about the valued link between an hon. Member and his constituency. I also value that link, and regard myself as a community politician.

I have spent 13 years representing people at one level or another. The system that the Liberals advocate would mean that in a city such as mine, which has six Westminster seats at the moment, there would be six seats but each Member would represent one city. That could have many desirable consequences for the electors.

At present there is no Conservative Member in the cities of Liverpool or Glasgow. All those electors are disfranchised in terms of their own party. Many of them do not like the idea of having to go to members of the Militant Tendancy, or even the Liberals for that matter, to have their cases or complaints taken up. They are deprived of good constituency representation.

Mr. Bermingham

The hon. Gentleman raised the point that I sought to put to the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth). He offered to sell me copies of a report that I have already read. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) might tell the Committee—I speak with some experience of boundary commissions, their hearings and machinations, as he is well aware—how big will the communities be? The city of Leicester has three parliamentary seats—

It being Ten o'clock, THE CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

Committee report Progress.

Ordered, That, at this day's sitting, the Representation of the People Bill may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour—[Mr. Durant.]