HC Deb 14 February 1985 vol 73 cc573-84

Again considered in Committee.

Question again proposed, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Bermingham


The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

I hope that this is an intervention and not a speech.

Mr. Bermingham

I always rely upon your ability, Mr. Armstrong, to see the difference between the two. How will the hon. Member for Mossley Hill define a community in rural and semi-rural areas? How many seats does he allot in such cases?

Mr. Alton

I should have thought that that point was obvious, given the hon. Gentleman's knowledge of boundaries and the many hours that he must have spent trying unsuccessfully to fight the last boundary proposals. Social communities in counties and geographical areas often have far more in common than Westminster seats. My constituency stretches from the inner city of Liverpool to the suburbs, through nine different postal districts. Anyone who pretends that there is anything in common, apart from the fact that they live in the same city, between people living in tenemant blocks in inner city Liverpool and those living in the leafy suburbs of the city is mistaken.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in counties such as Cumbria what he is proposing would be an impossibility? Does he realise that to drive from one end of the constituency that the Liberals wish to set up in Cumbria to the other would take nearly two and a half hours? Whilst that may be acceptable in parts of Scotland where the population is small, in the county of Cumbria, where we have historically relied upon intense representation, it would be impossible to represent 500,000 people in that way. What he suggests is nonsensical.

Mr. Alton

My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Johnston) will tell the hon. Gentleman that my hon. Friend would enjoy the opportunity of being able to drive from one end of his constituency to the other in two and a half hours. That also applies to a number of my other hon. Friends.

The subject of a coalition has been mentioned. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) talked derisively about the idea of parties working with one another. In the House in 1977 there was an alliance between the Liberal and Labour parties. Everyone derides that.

Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Look what happened.

Mr. Alton

The hon. Lady says, "Look what happened." Inflation fell from 19 to 8 per cent. and interest rates fell to 7.5 per cent. They are 14 per cent. today. Mortgage rates fell to 8 per cent. They stand at 12 per cent. today. Unemployment was half of what it is today. If that is weak government, let us have more of it.

It has been said today that we could not possibly move to the single transferable vote system and that the system we have is strong. Not only is the system weak; it is unfair. We do not get value for votes. It cannot be right that it takes 350,000 votes on average to elect a Liberal or Social Democrat compared with 30,000 or 40,000 to elect a Conservative or Socialist. It cannot be right if we believe in the adage that there should be no taxation without representation. In the tax cuts on 19 March the proper place to start might be to do something for the Liberal and Social Democratic voters who are grossly under-represented.

It cannot be right that the Labour party, with just 26 per cent. of the votes at the last election, got 209 seats whereas the alliance parties, with 25 per cent., only 1 per cent. less, got 23 seats. It is even worse that the Conservative party should get 397 seats with only 44 per cent. of the votes, having seen a decrease in its vote of some 700,000.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I want to give a brief illustration of the point. My hon. Friend knows that in Greater London, with 7 million people, the 500,000 people who voted Liberal have got but me to represent them. I am sure that they would like more Members.

Mr. Alton

I am sure that they get very good value in my hon. Friend, but it cannot be right that they should be so grossly under-represented.

The opinion poll published today in the Daily Telegraph shows that the Conservative party would now get 35 per cent. of the vote, yet it is here in vast numbers commanding a majority of over 140. The Labour party would get 32 per cent. and the alliance 31.5 per cent. That is a reflection of what happened at the last general election. Given the trends even under this crazy, Russian roulette system, the amazing thing is that we could end up being the beneficiaries. If we are the beneficiaries next time on the system of first past the post, we will stand by our word and make sure that there is a fair electoral system.

Mr. Winnick

The hon. Gentleman has told us what the Liberals will do if they win under the first-past-the-post system. Even if I live a long life, I doubt that I will ever see that. If the present system has all these terrible defects, why is it, no matter how many years ago it was, that the Liberal party did not change the system when it had a majority in the House of Commons?

Mr. Alton

When we had an opportunity we set up a conference in 1916—

Mr. Mellor

I am sorry to have to teach the hon. Gentleman history. What happened was that a Speaker's Conference was set up in 1917 to recommend the introduction of single transferable votes in parliamentary elections in borough constituencies. But on a free vote on the Representation of the People Bill in 1918, with many Liberals voting against it, the proposal was thrown out. It was only in 1922, with the Liberal party's unerring instinct for jumping on the bandwagon when it has left the station and is on its way well out into the countryside, that it became official Liberal party policy to have proportional representation long after it had become a practical proposition for it to do anything about it.

Mr. Alton

Just as a matter of accuracy, the conference was set up in August 1916, not 1917.

The present system is not only unfair but very divisive. My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said that if a line is drawn between Bristol and London there are no Labour Members of Parliament below that line. In Liverpool and Glasgow there are no Conservative Members. That means that ugly divisions are opening up. Because of our electoral system, there is a divide between urban and rural areas and a massive divide between north and south.

I shall give the figures for Liverpool. The Conservatives hold 30 per cent. of the vote, only one in three, and did not get a single seat. The Liberals polled 23 per cent., and we got one seat. Labour polled 47.3 per cent., and got five seats. In Glasgow, the Conservatives polled 18 per cent., but got no seats. The Labour party polled 51 per cent. and got 10 of the 11 seats. The Alliance polled 21 per cent. and got the other seat in that city. That demonstrates what can happen under this crazy, flukey electoral system of ours. Another example is Coventry, where there are four Members of Parliament. Labour polled 41 per cent. and got three seats. The Conservatives polled 46 per cent. and got one Member of Parliament. The Alliance polled 20 per cent. and got no Members of Parliament.

The system is divisive, and sets urban areas against rural areas. Let us look at how it reflects itself in the unemployment figures alone. The 100 constituencies with the highest unemployment are mainly in the north of England and industrial areas, and almost all are represented by Opposition Members. Inevitably, the 100 areas with the lowest unemployment are almost all in the prosperous south of England and represented by Conservative Members.

The new clause should commend itself to the Committee for another reason, which is that our present system is hopelessly unrepresentative. In Liverpool in the last municipal elections, 100,000 people voted against the present administration, and 90,000 voted for it. The council, made up of 99 people, comprises 58 Labour, 28 Liberal and 13 Conservative members. Those Labour councillors are not in the same part of the party represented by Labour Members in the Chamber. Most of them are members of the Militant Tendency, the very people that Labour is trying to expel. Indeed, some have already been expelled. Therefore, because of the election system, it is possible to get the extremism to which the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) referred. Militant Tendency members are on the council in the city of Liverpool today, with all the ugly consequences.

Nationally, the situation mirrors itself in a Government elected by one in three of the British electorate, 700,000 fewer than in 1979. An effect of the system is that we get the dogma that my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed talked about. Nationalisation is followed by denationalisation, with the Conservative party polling only 34 per cent. and the Labour party polling 29 per cent. when it came to office. What do we get? British industry is debilitated to the point of exhaustion. The new buzz words are: They will privatise, and the others will deprivatise. They will sell off the council houses, and the others will buy them back again. They will pump the money into assisted places at public schools, and the others will close them down. They will stop overseas aid, and the others will restart it. All that dogma is based on just one in three of the people voting for those things. It is the arrogance of the tyranny of an unelected minority. The first-past-the-post system is also archaic, anachronistic and full of many weaknesses.

Another effect is that in the House there is not a single black face. Increasingly large numbers of people in our community go without any representation. That is because the first-past-the-post system works against black people being chosen as candidates by the selection committees. How many Labour candidates were black or brown? How many Liberal, Social Democratic or Conservative candidates were black? The system works against blacks.

The system also works against women. At 51 per cent., they are the majority in the country, yet there are fewer women in the House than at any time since the second world war. That is because of the first-past-the-post voting system and our failure to have a fair electoral system through STV.

Another argument that we have heard in the debate is that we must maintain single-member constituencies under the present system because it leads to a unique bond between the Member of Parliament and the electorate. In fact it leads to a relationship that is not dissimilar to that of the British Raj with the people of India. It leads to people regarding their domains as safe seats. That is true in many cases. One person with a red rosette could be put up and one with a blue rosette and a donkey could be elected. Some might say that they often are. But the truth is that people do not care about their constituency if they believe that they are in a safe seat. The become arrogant.

We believe in proportional representation not only because it will give the people in the multi-member seats more choice but because it will also lead to more cooperation between parties in this House. One's opponents can sometimes be right. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. If we had a more co-operative system, where parties could learn to work with one another, it would be in the interests of the British people.

The system that we advocate is not only fair and representative but will unite people as well. The system that we have at the moment is like a loaded dice It is a corrupt, fraudulent and phoney electoral system. Although we know that new clause 1 will not be accepted by the politicians in this Chamber tonight, I can assure hon. Members that there will come a time when we will win by the first-past-the-post system and we shall change it and introduce a fair electoral system. The Conservative party will be sorry that it did not do it when it had the chance.

10.15 pm
Mr. Bermingham

I thought that the debate was on new clause 1. Perhaps we can return to that. The hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth) has left the Chamber, but perhaps he will read what I say tomorrow. I intervened in his speech for one reason only. I have read the document which is the product of the joint wisdom of the Liberal and Social Democratic parties. I read it because I am interested in Boundary Commissions and their activities. [Interruption.] Again, one of our latecomers is making silly remarks.

The hon. Member for Stockton, South rightly talked about communities. That argument has been at the heart of most Boundary Commission cases. He complained that Stockton was divided in two. I looked carefully at the document to see how communities could be calculated. If we are to have multi-Member constituencies across the country, they should, presumably, be roughly of the same size. How on earth does one equate the community of interest in Leicester which has three seats with the community of interest in Sheffield which has six with the community of interest in Liverpool which has six, with the community of interest in Birmingham which, if my memory serves me correctly has 12? There is no way in which the seats can be made the same size. If the London problem is added in, the situation then becomes absurd.

When I put that matter to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), he referred to the county councils. We changed those boundaries in 1974 and created all sorts of new things. We destroyed no end of communities of interests while we were at it and we still have not got it right. Where does the community of interest lie in the Oxfordshire-Wiltshire border? What divides the interests of one village from those of a village two or three miles away?

No matter how hard one looks at the idea of creating large conglomerate areas with multi-Member representation, there is no way in which those areas can be balanced in a country with some 50-odd million people with diverse social, cultural and work patterns. Compare Cumbria with Cornwall. The needs are different. The seats need to be smaller. I was once shot down by a Boundary Commission for suggesting that we should reduce the size of all parliamentary seats to 50,000. That would give us about 1,000 hon. Members. We cannot have 650, so I do not know what we would do with 1,000. But at least that was the only figure we could calculate where you could get real communities. That is the basic problem. That is why this new clause is really a load of rubbish from top to bottom.

It is easy to say that we will have a single transferable vote as a panacea for all ills. I do not for one moment believe that the system we have at present satisfies all the criteria of representation that one should perhaps have in a parliamentary democracy. It has ills, but of all the systems in Europe, the western world or the democratic world, at least this can be said for our system: it may have its faults but it is the best one we have. So let us not seek to replace it with a system that has as many flaws as any other system in the world.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Does the hon. Gentleman really believe that we have such a perfect system when a party can decrease its vote, as that party did at the last election, by 3 per cent. and put up the number of its members in this House by about 100?

Mr. Bermingham

I can answer that question extremely simply. If we have a boundary commission that produces a variation in seat size of from 48,000 to 49,000 in England alone up to some 80,000-odd or, if we take the Isle of Wight, over 100,000, and which quite arbitrarily takes as the envelope size the shire county or the metropolitan county and does not allow old communities to rejoin in crossing those boundaries, of course we get electoral distortion. If the hon. Member wishes me to spend many hours lecturing to him about this, I will do so with pleasure.

If we had had a commission that allowed us to go for comparative numeracy, we would indeed have got a very different result in the electoral voting system in 1983. If we take the London area as a small example of this and compare seats in Richmond and areas such as that with the larger seats in Tottenham and places like that, and allow the voting constituencies to cross the London borough boundaries, which are in themselves quite arbitrary, I think the hon. Gentleman will agree with me that the pattern of results within the London area, even on the same votes cast, would have produced a very different parliamentary result.

So our system is not perfect, but it is indeed the best system we have; and long may it remain so.

Mr. Mellor

By an interesting chance we are debating this motion exactly 100 years after it first became the general rule in this country that we elected our Parliament on a first-past-the-post system in single-Member constituencies. This system having been an ornament of our democracy for a century, I should have thought that a compelling and cogent case would need to be advanced before we would contemplate changing it. I do not think that there can be many people who arrived here this evening anxious to believe in the case for proportional representation, but sceptical about it, who would feel that the heavy burden of proof had been discharged by the Benchers opposite during this debate.

I will say one thing in favour of what we have seen this evening. It has been a very different Liberal party from that to which we are accustomed. We are accustomed in the House to debating some of the great issues that trouble our country—and, indeed, trouble many other countries of the world, including some of those with proportional representation systems—with the second Bench either empty or with one disconsolate, rather depressed-looking individual—

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)


Mr. Mellor

No. I am not going to give way until I have finished the point. I do not know where the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) has spent the evening, but it has certainly not been in this Chamber and it behoves him to keep quiet. There has often been just one disconsolate-looking Member, frequently making a low-key and inconsequential contribution to the debate. But what do we find this evening? They are as men rejuvenated, as if bottles of Phyllosan had been consumed before the great ordeal of delighting us all came upon them.

The smell of power — the thought of getting their noses into the trough of office — has so excited them that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) is waving his arms around like a windmill. [Interruption.] I shall not be bullied into giving way. Alliance Members are supposed to be the advocates of the new politics, but they are as boorish as some of us exponents of the old politics when enough of them are gathered together to give them a bit of Dutch courage. We are treated to the delightful prospect of the hon. Member for Mossley Hill behaving like a spring chicken and waving his arms like a windmill, but no amount of animation gives the case the intellectual substance that it so sadly lacks.

Mr. Beith

I hope that the Minister intends to address himself to matters of intellectual substance rather than continuing to make silly jibes. As he has his back to the Conservative benches he may not have realised that when I was addressing the Committee his party was represented by two or three or at most four hon. Members.

Mr. Mellor

I was talking about all the other evenings that we spend here, although I appreciate that the occasions on which Alliance Members are present 'stick more readily in their memories.

We have had no coherent explanation of the system which alliance Members wish us to adopt and no coherent defence of the manifest failures and inadequacies of proportional representation in so many other countries. Without the advantage of a briefing on the Fisher committee, by which the alliance sets so much store, although I listened with as much care as I could muster to the speeches today, I should have lacked any insight into the type of system which the alliance wishes to impose on us.

No answer was given to the question of numbers and the variation in the size of constituencies, although Labour Members asked pertinent questions on the subject. I believe that I can provide the answer, although it should not be for me to do so. According to the Fisher committee, some constituencies would have eight Members, others would have five and one or two would have just one. "There's a funny thing," as the late Max Miller would say. And blow me down, the constituencies to have just one Member under the Fisher proposals are the Isle of Wight and Orkney and Shetland. Why should that be? The answer is, of course, that those are two of the few constituencies already represented by Liberals, so there is no need to mess around with the boundaries there, is there? No, indeed there is not.

It has not been shown to anyone's satisfaction how eight Members with a large constituency will be better able to represent their constituents' interests in the House or that the links between the single Member and his constituency will not be severed. It is fatuous for the hon. Member for Mossley Hill to assert that one has to be in the same party to represent a constituent's interest. That is nonsense.

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

It is an insult.

Mr. Mellor

;: As my hon. Friend says, it is an insult. Either the link between the individual Member and his constituency would snap, or the result would be the situation that has occurred in the Republic of Ireland. The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross), who admittedly outstayed his welcome a little, was jeered when he brought the Republic of Ireland into the discussion, but the system proposed by Fisher is almost identical to that obtaining in the Republic of Ireland. Is that the paradise free from unemployment, inflation and all the other problems which the Alliance would have us believe have been brought upon this country by the first-past-the-post system? Again, Irish politics is riven by a parochialism made essential by the fact that each one of five Members is vying to persuade the same set of constituents that he alone holds the key to their interest and that he is capable of being even more parochial than the next Member.

10.30 pm
Mr. Alton

Does this mean that the Government are to bring forward proposals for a first-past-the-post system in Northern Ireland for the European Assembly elections?

Mr. Mellor

That is a flimsy red herring. The more that the hon. Gentleman laughs and thinks that he has been frightfully clever, the more convinced I am that he has raised a flimsy red herring. We have had the politics of the snake oil salesman and nothing of new politics. Do we want the panaceas for unemployment, nationalisation and incomes policy, all the vulgar policies to which we have been subjected, including bad weather and diarrhoea? It is argued that we must have something other than a first-past-the-post system and that without it everything will be so different.

I was fascinated by the intervention of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile). I note that he is hiding behind his brief, as well as he might. In an intervention by the hon. and learned Gentleman in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) we were informed that something other than a first-past-the-post system would cure all national ills. Although its aim is to give representation to minority parties, we are told that it is only minorities that everyone loves. It seems that only those minorities will be represented in the House of Commons. That is what the hon. and learned Gentleman told us without the flicker of a smile on his face. This is not the National Front—

Mr. Alex Carlile

The Minister is referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Johnston).

Mr. Mellor

I am not surprised. There is no question of the National Front and the British National party being represented. Those are minorities that are unacceptable and the system would be well capable, apparently, of weeding them out.

I do not think that the issue is quite as simple as that. We have been told about the way in which the proportional system of representation has worked in other countries, but the charges which have been made against its inadequacies are hard to laugh off. The state of Israel, for example, has the most perfect system of PR, short of the Weimar republic in the 1920s. Every minority that polls over 1 per cent. of the total is represented in Israel, but that does not produce the happiest example of a parliamentary democracy. However, Liberal Members say that their form of PR would not be like that. Of course it would not.

Mr. Beith

It would not.

Mr. Mellor

I believe the hon. Gentleman when he says that. The more tantalising example—it is the one which has made Liberal Members so animated this evening—is that of West Germany. In that country there are two parties which are both capable of polling well over 40 per cent. of the vote at most elections. However, there is a party which is the equivalent of the Liberal party. That party has a 10 per cent. share of the poll even at its best, and often its poll is nearer 5 per cent. That is the party which most West Germans do not want to vote for, but it is the one which is in government for most of the time. If a party is to form a Government in West Germany, it is necessary for it to do a little deal with the equivalent of the Liberal party. Liberal Members are thinking that it would be a lovely thing if that could happen over here. After all, it is so dull having to be an Opposition party.

The Liberal party wishes to cobble together an agreement with which ever party takes its fancy at the time so that it can remain in power. That is the final lie to the Liberal party's case of proportional representation. The Liberal party's argument is advanced as an enhancement of democracy, but in truth it is a negation of democracy. That is because the system which the Liberal party advocates takes the power to elect a Government out of the hands of the people and into the hands of politicians. It would be the decision of the politicians as to the way in which they would be prepared to coalesce within a multiparty House of Commons which would determine the Government, not the straightforward vote of the British people.

We have had a pretty sham debate this evening, which has not convinced anybody of the merits of the case. I urge my hon. Friends and the Opposition to reject the new clause.

Mr. Johnston

The Minister made the arresting and highly original argument that we are somehow now governed by the representatives of the people rather than the representatives or the politicians, and that this Government are genuinely representative of the people. That is not the view widely held now.

The Minister began with a cheap argument that there are seldom Liberal and SDP Members in the Chamber. My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), the Liberal Chief Whip, pointed out that when he opened this debate there were only two Conservative Members in the Chamber out of a total of 397. Considering the number of Liberal and SDP Members, we do very well indeed—especially considering what we have to try to do in representing both our constituents and the many millions of others who would wish to be represented by Liberal and SDP Members.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)


Mr. Johnston

I shall give way in a minute — it would be only fair to allow the hon. Gentleman to acclimatise himself to the debate.

Mr. Jessel


Mr. Johnston

The hon. Gentleman must not be so impetuous.

I wish to make some simple points. I do not want to delay the House, but, as hon. Members know, we feel strongly about this matter. Listening to some of the speeches tonight, I felt that I was at a mad hatter's tea party. I had seldom heard a more poorly argued case than that advanced by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth), until I heard the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels). Heaven knows, few could have improved upon his contribution.

The essential argument of both hon. Gentlemen—and it was touched upon by the Minister, when he paid any attention to the argument—was that coalitions are quite dreadful things.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

The hon. Gentleman and his friends cannot agree on joint selection.

Mr. Johnston

The hon. Gentleman has woken up.

Coalitions have clearly not been the downfall of Sweden, Finland, or—[Laughter.] What is so amusing about Finland? Do hon. Members find the Netherlands, Belgium or Germany amusing? Why did the new countries to emerge from dictatorship, Spain and Portugal, choose without any hesitation to have a system of PR? Surely that has some relevance and must be seen as having some importance by Conservative Members.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and the Minister argued that absolute majorities were vital. Mr. Stalin was very good at them. But clearly absolute majorities were much more important to those hon. Members than the representation of "dangerous minorities". The "dangerous minorities" that the hon. Member for Walsall, North foresaw—

Mr. Kaufman

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Johnston

I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman if he allows me to finish my sentence. The hon. Member for Walsall, North suggested that the great danger of PR was that Right-Wing/Fascist parties might obtain representation and that that would be very bad. The—

Mr. Kaufman

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Johnston

The right hon. Gentleman must wait until I have finished my paragraph.

The Minister did not say that he was afraid of Communists becoming Members of Parliament, but there was a feeling that that was what he was implying. What is wrong with Fascists or Communists openly standing under their own colours in the House, instead of standing concealed inside larger parties?

Mr. Kaufman

I simply wanted to make the following point to the hon. Gentleman. He spoke of the dangers of Stalinism, but surely the Soviet Union is a perfect example of PR—100 per cent. of the votes get 100 per cent. of the seats.

Mr. Johnston

That intervention was very much up to the mark for a former scriptwriter of "That Was The Week That Was". It was not an intervention of any substance, but it was entertaining.

I have three final short points to make — [HON. MEMBERS: "Hurrah!"] First, no one on the other side of the argument, which of course spans the Chamber, has answered the simple point that I put in an intervention. Is it fair or reasonable that a party should obtain 750,000 fewer votes and as a result obtain 58 more seats? I cannot see any justification for that. It is not democratic and it cannot be defended. The system should be changed.

My second point touches on something that should concern those hon. Members who think about these things. We know that in recent elections the turnout has fallen steadily. That is not happening where there is a system of PR, almost irrespective of what type of PR exists. That too, must contain some lessons.

10.45 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) developed well the argument about the capricious lack of representation of Labour and Liberal in the south and Conservative in the north and the dangerous effects that such a division is having on the country as a whole.

Local government was discussed briefly. The most appalling example of which I knew was the regional election before last in Scotland when, in the Lothian region, 17 per cent. of the electorate voted in the ruling Labour party, which was elected by one seat and then proceeded to pack every committee and run it on a very ideological basis.

That is the danger of the sort of system that Conservative Members are supporting. The new clause seeks to introduce into this country a better and fairer system of election and, as such, it deserves—even if it will not get it tonight—support.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 16, Noes 184.

Question accordingly negatived.