HC Deb 05 November 1998 vol 318 cc1032-113

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dowd.]

Madam Speaker

Let me tell the House that I have had to limit speeches from Back Benchers to eight minutes. I know that about 50 Back-Bench Members wish to speak in the debate. It would be counter-productive for hon. Members to approach the Chair to ask whether they will be called and when they are likely to be called. Two hon. Members have already approached the Chair. I caution hon. Members not to do so for the rest of the debate. Let us get on with it.

4.49 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

I am glad to open the debate on a question at the heart of our constitutional arrangements. The choice of 5 November—Guy Fawkes day—for this debate is entirely fortuitous. However, it serves to remind us how long Parliament has been central to the life of this nation, and how, over time, this institution has carefully adapted itself to reflect the will of the British people.

Discussion of electoral reform is not quite as old as Parliament itself, but there were those who argued for elections by a system other than first past the post even before the franchise was extended in the last century.

The Spectator last Friday contained a fascinating article about Winthrop Mackworth Praed, a Romantic poet and Conservative Member of Parliament who, in 1830, bought a rotten borough, which contained seven voters, for £1,000. The following year, he proposed amendments to the Reform Bill to give more seats to the less successful parties.

For hon. Members who are not versed in the verse of Winthrop Mackworth Praed, I refer them to the site on the internet where his poetry can be found: www.geocities.com.athens.acropolis.poems.praed. His poetry includes the immortal lines:

  • "When Freedom sheds her holy beam
  • On Negroes, and the Press;
  • When there is any fear of Rome,
  • Or any hope of Spain;
  • When Ireland is a happy home,
  • I may be yours again!"—
not yours, Madam Speaker. I was quoting the poet.

In this century, the debate about the voting system has continued. It was your predecessor but 10, Madam Speaker—Mr. Speaker Lowther—who convened a Speaker's Conference towards the end of the first world war to consider the most appropriate voting system. That Speaker's Conference recommended a town and country solution—the single transferable vote for the big towns and cities, and the alternative vote for the rest of the country. Ironically, given recent debates, that was rejected by a House of Commons dominated by Lloyd George's Liberals.

In 1931, this House voted for the adoption of the alternative vote as the means of electing Members of Parliament. The Bill was supported by almost every Labour and Liberal Member, and opposed by virtually every Conservative Member, but wrecking amendments from the other place assured its delay and eventual demise.

The domination of British politics by the two major parties, Conservative and Labour, in the first 25 years after the second world war, to the near-exclusion of the Liberals, ensured that the debate over electoral reform then subsided. Over recent years, however, that has changed. As the Liberals, and their successors—the Alliance and then the Liberal Democrats—increased their share of the vote at general elections, so did the call grow to introduce some form of proportional representation. The idea also found favour with some in my party in the late 1980s.

That pressure led directly to the establishment of the Plant committee to consider the issue. That committee's recommendations prompted our late leader, John Smith, to propose a referendum on electoral reform. The proposal for a commission to recommend an appropriate alternative to first past the post sprang from the joint consultative committee between the Liberal and Labour parties, which reported in February 1997.

In all the debates about the appropriate electoral system for Westminster, I have personally taken one side of the argument—in favour of first past the post. That will come as no great surprise to hon. Members on either side. I therefore remain unpersuaded of the case for change, although I am always open to higher argument.

I have also long believed there should be a proper, informed debate on the issue. Indeed, at my party's conference in 1995, I spoke on behalf of the national executive committee to urge my party to back a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. For it was, and is, my belief that this is an issue that should ultimately be decided by those who matter most in our democracy—the British people.

Following that vote at the 1995 party conference, our election manifesto duly pledged us to create an independent commission to identify the best possible electoral system as an alternative to first past the post. We honoured that pledge within the first few months of taking office. The commission was appointed on 1 December last year, and began its work early this year.

As we discussed in the debate on 2 June, members of the commission were chosen because of their knowledge and expertise, because they were broadly sympathetic to electoral reform, and because they represented a broad spectrum of political views.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)


Mr. Straw

I will, of course, give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but given your injunction, Madam Speaker, I ask right hon. and hon. Members to bear in mind that there are 50 hon. Members waiting to speak, and if I give way to everyone, only about 10 of those will be able to speak.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

I am grateful to the Home Secretary. On the so-called independent commission—the Jenkins commission had the brass neck, and the Government were misguided enough, to describe it as such—the Home Secretary is on record as describing it as a "relatively independent" commission. Can he think of any commission set up by a Government since the war that was less independent?

Mr. Straw

I can think of plenty—a long list from the Conservative years—but I shall not go down that track. We discussed the matter at great length on 2 June this year. There was never any pretence that the people appointed to the commission were not in favour of electoral reform. Indeed, as I pointed out in the debate on 2 June, even if I had been available for the post, as many former Home Secretaries are, I would be disqualified from serving on the commission. Of course the commission is relatively independent, because in life almost everything is relative, apart from death.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

I know the right hon. Gentleman's position on the matter. I ask him not to make an assumption by referring to electoral reform. Reform means that things get better. Many of us on both sides of the House believe that we are discussing electoral change, not electoral reform. It is important to make that distinction.

Mr. Straw

I shall bear that in mind, but everyone knows what we are talking about.

Three of the five commissioners are members of another place—one was drawn from each of the main political parties. The terms of reference are set out in the first pages of the report. The report was published last Thursday. The Government and I are extremely grateful to members of the commission and its staff for their considerable work in bringing together the report in a relatively short time.

As hon. Members know, the commission recommends a two-vote, mixed electoral system. It proposes that between 80 per cent. and 85 per cent. of the members of this House be elected by individual constituencies using the alternative vote system. The remaining number of Members of Parliament—between 15 and 20 per cent.— would be elected by 80 or so areas on a top-up basis, in order, the commission argues, to mitigate the perceived disproportionality in the constituency results.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I am grateful to the Home Secretary. It might be helpful to the House if he could tell us roughly how many democracies in the world have a system like ours—first past the post— and how many have the precise system recommended in the report?

Mr. Straw

Sixty-two countries use first-past-the-post systems, which account for 1.85 billion of the world's electorate. That is about 45 per cent. of those who have a vote. If one includes majoritarian systems of the kind that operate in France and French colonies, a majority of the world's population who have elections use first past the post. Various countries, mainly Spanish colonies and others in Europe, use a variety of systems of proportional representation. I am happy to place in the Library of the House the full list in all its glory.

No country uses the precise system that is proposed, but that is not an argument against change. This country and this House have often been in the vanguard, doing what other countries have not done.

I draw attention to the table on page 46 of the report, which provides the projection that the commission produced on the likely results of the 1997 election—the one with which we are all most familiar—had the proposed system been in place, and using the median—17.5 percent.—of the range proposed. That shows that, on this system, Conservative representation would have increased from 165 seats to 168, an increase of three seats. Labour representation would have decreased from 419 seats to 368, a loss of 51 seats, or a reduction. Liberal Democrat representation would have increased by 43 seats from 46 seats to 89. It is estimated that the Scottish nationalists and Plaid Cymru would have increased their representation from 10 seats to 15. There are other exemplifications and other assumptions in the appendices to the report.

It is important to understand how the top-up element will be elected. In each top-up area, the commission proposes that each party will be able to put forward a list of names of up to three people to allow for "spares" in the event of deaths or resignations. [HON. MEMBERS: "Spares?"] This is rather like European elections. It is not really possible to have by-elections. The areas would either have one or two vacancies. They would have to have more people who were actually elected on this system than there were vacancies. [Interruption.] If the House could pay attention—

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Will my right hon. Friend say that again? I could not quite take it in when he said it.

Mr. Straw

I ask my right hon. Friend to listen carefully. As they say in management-consultant-speak, I would like him to park that point before I come on to— [Interruption.] I would like to describe the whole of this top-up arrangement before he asks me further questions, if that is all right.

Voters will then be able to cast their second vote either for those on the list as a whole or for one particular individual on it. Those hon. Members who have carefully followed the proceedings of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill may be reminded of the Belgian system; indeed, it is similar, but not the same. There is one key difference.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

It is double Dutch.

Mr. Straw

We shall come on to the Flemish-speaking Victor d'Hondt in a moment, because he features in the system.

Although all the votes, whether cast for individuals or the list as a whole, will be used to determine how many top-up seats a party wins—using the now favourite d'Hondt divisor—it appears, although the report is not entirely explicit on this point—

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

What else?

Mr. Straw

We could have Sante Lague simple or Sante Lague modified. As hon. Members will remember, the Sant Lague modified system starts with the divisor 1.4, which is the square root of two. For reasons of simplicity the commission has chosen the d'Hondt divisor, where the divisors go seriatim one, two, three, four, five. That is simple.

This is the important point—[Interruption.] I am seeking to explain what the commission says. As I have explained—

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the system that he describes as the d'Hondt system is the name of an inventor of a system that simply involves taking the average vote, and that the system invented by somebody called Sant Lague is simply one of rounding up or down?

Mr. Straw

Both systems are about rounding up or down when we do not have exact proportions of votes cast to the seats available. That is why a system of divisors is needed.

Given the number of hon. Members who wish to speak in the debate, I shall regard the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) as the last one in my speech.

I wanted to point out the difference between the system that was proposed and is used in Belgium, and the system that appears to be proposed in the commission's recommendation. It appears, although the report is not explicit on this point, that only those votes cast for individuals will determine which particular individuals on a list are elected. Votes cast for the list as a whole do not appear to enter into the equation as to who gets elected, as opposed to which party has those seats. In other words, it appears that those who cast a vote for the list as a whole will be abdicating responsibility for determining which of the candidates on a list should be elected, and leaving the decision to those who happen to vote for an individual on the list.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I took the view, which I hope had the approval of the House, that having a ministerial statement only a few hours after publication of the commission's report would not have given hon. Members sufficient time to read and digest it. We felt that a full day's debate on the issue was a better way to allow the House to consider it.

The commission's report is one of the best written official reports that I have read for many years, and our gratitude for that must go to its chairman, Lord Jenkins. The Government would now like to see a widespread debate about the merits of the report within political parties, in Parliament and among the public at large. Today's debate is an important contribution to that.

As to timing, we have always envisaged that the referendum would be before the next election, and that remains an option. However, plainly, in the light of Lord Jenkins's specific recommendations, this is less certain, because the new system cannot be introduced until the election after next. Nor, in our judgment, is there a need for the Government to come to an early view about the commission's recommendation.

There are a number of important points of detail in his recommended system which Lord Jenkins has left to be resolved. We have always believed that the referendum, whenever it is held, should be a choice of equals—a choice between first past the post and an explicit alternative. Parliament may take the view that, in order that the British people know exactly what they are being asked to consider, the exact proportion of top-up seats, the way in which the constituency and top-up area boundaries will be determined and the exact method of allocating votes for top-up seats should be determined in advance. It is a matter for Parliament, but if we were to do that, these things would plainly take time.

As I have already explained, the simple truth is that, with the best will in the world, the Jenkins system could not be in place by the next general election. That is because the system that is envisaged would require the number of constituencies to be reduced from the present 659 to about 530 to 560. Every constituency boundary throughout the United Kingdom would need to be redrawn, a process that would take the Boundary Commission some years. That is because the average number of eligible voters per constituency at present is about 72,000. If that number were increased by between 15 and 20 per cent., the average would increase to between 85,000 and 90,000. There are no constituencies of that size except the one that happens to be at Milton Keynes.

In opting for the system it did, the commission acknowledged that we cannot realistically expect our recommendations to be in operation at a general election in much less than eight years. I am not sure that it would necessarily take quite as long as that, but the process certainly could not be completed before the next election.

When we last debated this issue—it was in June, on a Supply Day, when the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) spoke first—I told the House: The plan is that the referendum should take place well before the next election.".—[Official Report, 2 June 1998; Vol. 313, c. 190.] I said that in good faith. It was open to the commission to recommend one or other of the well-known options to first past the post—the alternative vote, regional lists of the sort that we intend or propose to have for the European Parliament, and the single transferable vote in multi-Member constituencies.

For each of those, it would have been perfectly possible to legislate for the referendum, to hold the referendum and, if there had been a vote in favour of change, to implement it well before the next election. However, as I told the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) in response to an intervention, the system that Lord Jenkins has recommended, though ingenious, has no parallel anywhere in the world, so one may be forgiven for not fully anticipating its prospect.

There are two other important reasons why the Government will not rush into holding a referendum. The first is that the Jenkins commission is not the only independent committee headed by an eminent member of another place to have reported recently. The Committee on Standards in Public Life—the Neill committee—recently delivered its report on party funding. The Government have strongly welcomed that report, and, as the House knows, a full day's debate on it will be held next Monday.

The Neill committee made a number of detailed recommendations about referendums, the detail of which we shall want to study carefully before we take steps to provide for a referendum on the voting system for elections to the House of Commons. Obviously, we shall take full account of the feelings of the House next Monday in reaching our conclusions.

The second reason for not jumping to an instant conclusion on the Jenkins report is that the recommendations need to be seen in the context of the Government's wider, far-reaching programme of constitutional reform. We need to see how the new election systems settle down in Scotland, Wales, London and the European Parliament. It is particularly important that we look at the commission's proposals alongside reforms to the House of Lords, which will follow the removal of the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the other place. It would not be wise to embark on reform to the House of Commons electoral system until we are more certain of the changes that will take place in the other place.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

In 20 years.

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman says, in 20 years. We are advancing the programme for the second stage of that reform by establishing a royal commission.

Thus, a great deal of constitutional change is under way, and the British people would not thank us for moving too quickly without thinking carefully about how any changes fit into the whole. We shall want to see how the various changes bed down and how well the new electoral systems for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament work.

My main purpose today is to listen to the debate, but in so doing I wish to make the following points about the context of the debate and how it should be conducted, both here and in the country. First, in this debate, there can and should be no moral or constitutional absolutes. Each of the main British parties has, at various times in its history, or for various purposes, supported both first past the post and proportional representation systems. The Labour party was in favour of proportional representation for the first 23 years of this century, while the Liberals were against. Labour and the Liberals then changed places as the main opposition to the Conservatives, and in doing so changed opinions on PR.

Although the Labour party has not so far advocated a PR system for Westminster since 1923, apart from the alternative vote in 1930, it initiated and approved the introduction in this Parliament of PR for the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the European Parliament. In the 1970s, many Conservatives supported PR for this House. I have a long list of those, including the noble Lord Hurd, Christopher Patten, Lord Lawson, Malcolm Rifkind, Lord Younger and many other luminaries. Indeed, Lord Carr of Hadley, a predecessor of mine as Home Secretary, told his colleagues in the Conservative party in October 1977 that, with a PR system of elections for Westminster, the tide of socialism could be halted". I remind the Conservative party that it supported the introduction of PR in Northern Ireland, including the introduction of a closed list system with d'Hondt divisors for elections to the Northern Ireland forum.

The common thread through all that is that no electoral system can be best for all circumstances. We must seek a system that is most appropriate for the purpose and functions of the bodies in question. My second point flows from that. I am sure that the House will wish to consider the outcome of any change to the electoral system, not some of the more exaggerated claims about fairness and wasted votes. I believe that all sides in this argument seek fairness, but it is important not to disguise self-interest in the outcome of any electoral system by claiming that one side of the argument has a monopoly on morality.

Lord Jenkins was on strong ground when he said in his report: "fairness in representation is a complex concept". Indeed it is. For all the claims of "wasted votes" made by the opponents of PR, and their equally vociferous claims that PR leads not to wasted votes but to wasted elections, there is a simple truth about elections by any system: some people win and some lose—[Interruption.] As I spent 18 years rather than 18 months on the Opposition Benches, I had a long time to spot that consequence.

Those who win form a Government who have power over those who lose. Almost certainly, the Government will then do things to which those who lose take great exception. Those who have lost may well feel that, in the event, their vote has had no effect, and was therefore wasted. In one sense they are right, but that is inescapable so long as we determine elections by the weight of votes, however the elections are conducted or the votes counted.

We must ensure that our voting system is as fair as possible, but mathematically there can never be an identity between the proportion of votes cast and seats gained for a party, and the proportion of power that is then obtained. Proportionality must be measured not only between parties at any one point in time, but over time— over many elections. As a result, what is fair or unfair, and what is proportional or not proportional, can lead to many different answers.

At the beginning of my speech, I referred to the changes that the House has experienced over hundreds of years. It is a testament to the strength of this institution that its members have accepted the need to consider reform when and where necessary. In the 100 years or so after the first Reform Act, successive extensions to the franchise changed the character and position of this place. Many of the reforms to our procedures and rules that have taken place more recently—the introduction of departmental Select Committees and of Wednesday morning sittings, to name just two—have also affected how we operate. It is therefore entirely appropriate for the House to have a full and proper debate on this issue.

There are scores of different electoral systems, and, I suspect, just as many different views on the subject of electoral reform among hon. Members. The Government look forward to hearing some of those views expressed today. We are also keen to see a much wider debate in the country at large. As I have explained, there is no need to rush to a verdict on this issue; nor would it be desirable to do so. The Government want to hear what others have to say about the commission's proposals. The commission has performed a valuable service in setting an agenda for debate. Now let the debate begin.

5.16 pm
Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

As the Home Secretary knows, there are not many pleasures in opposition, but one of the pleasures is listening to an intelligent and articulate politician trying to square the circle between what he instinctively believes and what may ultimately be the Government's position. The Home Secretary did himself great credit today by not trying to pretend that he was entirely without a side in this argument. I noted that, at the outset, the right hon. Gentleman said that he was willing to listen to higher argument as opposed to better argument. That says a great deal about the functioning of the Government. Anyone who believed that the Home Secretary was open to persuasion on this particular matter would believe that a child welfare scheme put forward by King Herod carried political credibility.

There is always a moment in these debates when a word or phrase is uttered which shows the Government's real intention. When the Home Secretary uttered the word "spares"—genetically modified Members waiting to take the place of those who have popped off—it gave away the intentions behind his speech.

We must take exception at the outset to the title of the debate, which refers to the report of an "independent" commission. It could not have been less independent. It was a rigged commission—a sham process—which might as well have begun with its conclusions and worked backwards towards its remit. That is effectively what it did. It was a plan for an arranged marriage between a minority party and a section of the governing party—a relationship in of which neither side knows the outcome. What we can say is that the matchmaker was a self-confessed political colossus who was uniquely placed to judge the relationship between the two, having played a pivotal role in the near destruction of both. We saw today a bravura performance by the Home Secretary—a kicking into the long grass of Olympic standard, on which we congratulate him.

However, there were many things that the Home Secretary said today with which we agree, not least in what I thought was an honest defence of the British first-past-the-post system. As the right hon. Gentleman said, 62 countries use our system—almost half the world's population. Only 0.5 per cent. of the world's population use AV, and only 0.1 per cent. use STV.

We do not claim that our current system is perfect. We know that it is rough justice, and hon. Members on both sides of the House have experience of that. However, it is bizarre that we are accused of defending the current system because it suits us when we were slaughtered in the 1997 election by that system, and that Labour Back Benchers are accused of defending a system that works against them when they have a majority of 179 in the House. That is the sort of defeat that we could happily take. We could swallow a system that worked against us to that extent.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's numerical analysis of how many countries use the first-past-the-post system. Could he name one post-war emerging democracy which, on reflection, chose the first-past-the-post system?

Dr. Fox

I know that the Prime Minister recently described Germany as his model democracy. Perhaps we should look at the most stable, economically active and prosperous nation in the world—namely, the United States—which has chosen to use the first-past-the-post system. Why do all those who want electoral reform focus only on mainland Europe, rather than looking more widely?

There are four reasons why we believe that we should stick to our current system. The first is accountability. The advantage of our current system is that all constituents have Members of Parliament, but, more important, all Members of Parliament have constituents. We all know that what we do and say will be scrutinised by constituents who all have a vote to put us out at the next election. That would not happen under any form of top-up.

I hope that it is accepted on both sides of the House that we do our very best between elections to represent all our constituents and not just those who voted for us. I know that many hon. Members resent the suggestion that they represent only the people who voted for them at the ballot box on polling day. That is a gross misrepresentation of how most hon. Members see their jobs. Above all, our system—sadly, on some occasions— gives voters an easy way to send the removal vans to No. 10, as they did last year. We cannot resent that. One of the strengths of our system is the easy way of removing a Government whom the people do not want.

Our system also gives us stability. Our current Prime Minister is the 12th since the war. Italy has had 56. At the opening of Parliament, we know that the Government can be expected to last out a full term. Most systems with coalitions mean that people do not know whether the Government will last six months, one year, 18 months or whatever. That is not a good basis on which to plan for a stable democracy.

The Home Secretary referred, at the end of his speech, to another important issue. Proportionality is a much-distorted argument, and he was correct to look at the proportionality of power. If we define that as the ratio between votes gained and time spent in power, our system is better than many others. It is not a good measure of proportionality that the Free Democratic party in Germany, on 5 per cent. of the vote, should have spent almost 100 per cent. of the post-war period in power; or that the National Religious party in Israel, on 1 per cent. to 1.5 per cent. of the vote, should spend such a long time in power. That is not a measure of proportionality that I wish to see here.

One of the arguments used on 2 June was that our system is not responsive. Several Labour Back Benchers said, "How can we accept our current system when a Government could bring in something like the poll tax?" As the Home Secretary said, Governments will do things on which they will be judged at a subsequent election. I should point out that, because of the responsiveness of our current system, the Government of the day had to jettison the poll tax mid-Parliament, without having to wait for an election.

Mr. Kaufman

With regard to the poll tax, is it not a fact that, in the end, the Conservative Government abolished the poll tax after losing a safe seat in a by-election, whereas under the proposed system, there would be no by-elections for top-up seats?

Dr. Fox

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct and makes the point for me. I must say that if we had had to ditch a policy after every by-election disaster in 18 years, we would not have had any policies left.

Mr. Leigh

Although we should oppose proportional representation for the reasons given by my hon. Friend, will he—on behalf of the Opposition—say that we should not be complacent about the relative power of the Executive and Parliament; that Parliament needs to reform itself; that we must give increased powers to Select and Standing Committees; and that the Opposition will look at that problem?

Dr. Fox

There are many arguments as to why we need to check the power of the Executive and how we need to look at our practices in both Houses of Parliament. However, that gets to the nub of the argument. Changing the system will not change how the Executive are brought to account. That is one of the great red herrings put forward by those who believe in electoral reform.

Let me turn to the specific proposals by the Jenkins commission—I refuse to call it the independent commission. First, the AV-plus system with the top-up is a dog's breakfast. Hon. Members may be aware of the simple guide which has been produced, providing a simple explanation for voters of AV-plus. Mark your candidates in order of preference. Remember that your third preference for the candidate who comes third could be more important than your first preference for the candidate who comes first. The candidate who comes third could be eliminated and if their first and second preferences are for candidates who come fourth and fifth, then their third preference could transfer to the candidate coming second, defeating the candidate who came first but only as your fourth preference. If you want to vote tactically it may make sense to vote first for the candidate who you think might come third in order that they beat the candidate who comes second but who you believe your first choice would find it easier to beat. There will be some extra candidates who didn't win any preferences who are then elected because some other candidates from their Party did not get the right preference. There will be 17 per cent. of these candidates elected to make sure that things are proportional but not so proportional that they cancel completely the preferences of the other 83 per cent. Simple, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Will the hon. Gentleman do two things? First, will he acknowledge that he is not reading from the Jenkins report? Secondly, will he give a simple explanation—perhaps in one sentence—of the system by which the Conservative leader is elected by his fellow Members of Parliament?

Dr. Fox

I might as well have been reading from the Jenkins report—which was just about as clear as some of that paragraph. It is entirely up to the right hon. Gentleman to make his own case, and spurious points, later. No doubt he will, because he himself has said some interesting things recently. First, he has said that, under the AV-plus proposal, all votes would be equal. They will not be equal. A vote for the most fringe candidate—the most way-out or wacky candidate—will count more often than those votes for the first or second preferences. Vote wacky, vote often—get your vote counted as often as possible.

It is said that the winning candidate will always have to have 50 per cent. to win, and will be "less despised" by more than 50 per cent. of the electorate than successful candidates under the current system—some mandate! However, all candidates will not reach 50 per cent. Unless the voters are forced by law to rate all the candidates all the way down, the returning officer could run short of votes before he gets to 50 per cent. What do we say to voters—"Unless you rate all the candidates, your preferences do not count?" It is not clear in the report.

Mr. Linton


Dr. Fox

If the hon. Gentleman can tell me where it explains that point in the report, I will happily take his intervention.

Mr. Linton

Would the hon. Gentleman concede that the recommended wording in the Jenkins report for the second ballot paper is "Either put an X against the party of your choice OR put an X against the candidate of your choice"?

Dr. Fox

It would help if people had read the report. We are talking about the AV part—not the top-up part. The AV part will cause all the confusion with voters, and the matter is not at all clear in the Jenkins report.

The House should consider where the AV part might cause an even greater distortion than the current system. I wish to refer to the Scottish National party—I see a couple of SNP Members in their places.

As the Scottish National party has no policies at which anyone could take offence—and as the party is merely the political embodiment of the "Braveheart" video—people in Scotland might find it an easy second choice. What if everyone—Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats—made the SNP their second preference? It might start to win a disproportionate number of seats, and the Labour party might have to use the top-up system to regain some of the seats that it had voluntarily given away.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

Is not the problem that too many people may make the SNP their first preference in the near future?

Dr. Fox

Yes, that is a danger, not just for Scotland but for the United Kingdom as a whole. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to it.

The second item in the report that causes difficulties is the top-up system. One of the most disturbing aspects for Members of Parliament is the notion of two classes of Members. Our current system makes us all equal: we are all responsive and answerable to our electors. Under a top-up system, a new class of Members would be created—Members who would be answerable not to their electors, but to their party bosses. We should take that very seriously.

I was a Government Whip, and I know the pressures that Whips can put on Members of Parliament to persuade them to vote in a certain way; but what if the pressure exerted by a Whip consisted not of persuasion, but of the ability to remove a Member from a list and deprive him of his living because he does not vote as his party wishes at any one time? That is a real danger. Our democratic tradition, from Magna Carta onwards, has been about how power can be transferred from the unaccountable to the accountable. This proposal seeks to reverse that trend in our democratic process, and to give political power in the House to a group of people who are answerable to political parties rather than the electorate—to the party bosses rather than the voters. At present, every Member of Parliament is accountable to the voters; under a top-up system, they would be accountable to the party bosses who rank them and allow them to stand for their parties on a list.

There is also the problem of weak government by coalitions. Notwithstanding what some may consider to be the consensual benefit of government by coalitions, they tend to be more short-lived and less able to make decisions. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) has said, decision making in government is a first-past-the-post activity. I think that Ministers are increasingly understanding that.

Under the Jenkins system, there would have been nine coalition Governments since 1950. There would have been two Labour and three Conservative Governments. That has many implications for the way in which our country is governed. A coalition Government will necessarily mean disproportionate minority power—as it does in many countries.

In a television programme in which I took part the other day, a representative of the Greens said, "This system does not help us. We wanted proportional representation, but this system makes it too hard for us to reach the threshold. It will not help those of us who wanted PR." The proposed system is designed specifically to help small parties, but only big small parties: in fact, only one big small party. There is only one winner in this electoral lottery, and the winner is—the Liberal Democrats! What a sham, what a fraud, what a con trick it has all been.

We do not know when we will be given a referendum, although we were promised one. I accept the Home Secretary's arguments about the deeply confusing nature of the proposals that have been made, their unworkability in regard to the time scale required by an electoral commission, and so forth—all of which I welcome. But no doubt when the Prime Minister says, "It is an option in this Parliament", he is saying to the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), "Just concede on this sell-out and this principle. Vote with us on that. Get rid of the single transferable vote. Prefer closed to open lists", and who knows what else, while at the same time saying to those who prefer the current system, "Trust me. Keep quiet on this, bear with me for now. I will promise them anything, and dump them at the right time."

That is simply not good enough. We need clarity: we need to know where we are on this subject which is so important to the standing of our democracy. It is not a game. Strong views are held on both sides of the House, but we must do what we do not do often enough. We must hold true to what works, and has been developed in our country's interests; and, above all, we must put the people before the politicians.

5.34 pm
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) is a brilliant Home Secretary, but a lousy literary critic. He praised the style of the Jenkins report, which is, in fact, glutinously euphuistic as well as being intellectually shoddy.

As we have just heard, we have a system that is utterly clear and comprehensible. In exchange, the report offers us the following. First, it offers us a system that is hopelessly complicated. I suggest that hon. Members try to read points i to iii in paragraph 110, which explain the arrangements for allocating top-up members. Secondly, it offers a complex ballot paper with three confusing choices. Thirdly, it involves the alternative vote, which the report itself admits to be unfair, while also claiming that it enhances choice. The report is self-contradictory in the space of only three lines.

Fourthly, the numerical top-up allocation system is entirely arbitrary. The commission could have chosen any number; it chose any number, and it could have chosen any other number. An electoral system that is arbitrary in regard to selection by Government or anyone else is an unacceptable electoral system. Moreover, the top-up allocation system is not only arbitrary, but without any intellectual justification.

Fifthly, the report itself admits that the top-up system is unfair, because it requires—not "makes possible"— disparately sized and disparately elected top-up constituencies. It builds in unfairness, while claiming to get rid of unfairness. Sixthly, the report admits the existence of the potentially insoluble problem of filling vacant top-up seats, to the extent that it actually recommends leaving such seats vacant if they become vacant. Who will be represented with fair votes in a system like that?

Seventhly, the report admits that the new system may not even work. A recommendation popped in at the end suggests that the matter should be looked at, and that there should be another referendum. We do not need that with our current system: our current system works, and will go on working. Eighthly—I do not expect the Conservative party to make this point—believe it or not, I have been elected eight times as a Labour Member of Parliament. An anti-Labour bias is built into the proposed system. For one thing, the report admits in terms that Labour will not qualify for many seats under the top-up formula— [Interruption.] It is in the report. I suggest that hon. Members read it, as I have done several times from beginning to end.

Mr. Stephen Twigg (Enfield, Southgate)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Kaufman

No, I have only eight minutes in which to speak.

The basic formula for the alternative vote topped up makes it inevitable that there will be fewer Labour seats, and the extrapolations in the report show that the party will suffer more than any under that formula is the Labour party—just as Lord Jenkins's own party will enjoy the greatest enhancement.

As I said, I have been elected to the House eight times, sometimes during periods of immense electoral adversity. I have sat here for 28 years. I have not sought election 10 times and been elected eight times in order to support a system that is definitely intended to reduce the number of Members of Parliament from my own party. That may be regarded as self-interest, but I must tell my hon. Friends in marginal seats who floated in here, that they will not be here for 28 years with this system.

The report is deliberately aimed at reducing the number of Labour Members of Parliament through a referendum. I offer my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench a serious warning based on the past. They ought not to support this system when the referendum comes because, if they do, the Labour party will be split in a referendum campaign against a Conservative party that is united.

The Financial Times reported today that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will allow Cabinet Ministers to take either side of the argument in a referendum campaign. We had that in 1975 and the direct result was the split that developed in the party right through to 1980; it was Lord Jenkins who split the Labour party in 1980. In 1980, Lord Jenkins nearly inflicted a terminal split on my party and he is now trying to do that in another way. I recommend to my right hon. and hon. Friends that they should have nothing to do with the report, because it is a poisoned chalice being offered by our ex-colleague.

5.41 pm
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I do not think that the body elected by the present system is the most favourable one in which to get a sympathetic hearing for radical change in the system, but I had hoped for a little more objectivity, not least from the—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. I have heard the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) shout in this Chamber several times. He will not do it again or his feet will not touch the ground.

Mr. Beith

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said that he had been elected to the House eight times. I have been elected a few more times. On the last occasion that the electors of Gorton sent him to the House, nearly half of them did not bother to vote. That is a repeated phenomenon in his constituency because it is regarded as a safe seat in which nearly half the electors feel that their vote will not make any difference to the outcome. Right across the country, millions have voted, year in, year out and felt that their vote has made no difference to the outcome.

The first-past-the-post system give us huge majorities that the voters did not give to the politicians. Of course, politicians like it if they can drive through measures such as the poll tax, which the majority of people do not want. Lady Thatcher was able to do that, even though she had rebels in her own party, because she had an artificially large majority, far beyond that given by the voters. Indeed, she did not have a majority from the voters.

The system produces dramatic and exaggerated reversals between one Government and the next. I can tell Labour Members that it may feel comforting to have a large majority today, but previous Governments have seen what they thought was good work built for the future undone, because the next election resulted in a complete reversal of power, brought about not by the voters but by the vagaries of the electoral system. Some of the Governments whose work has lasted the longest and been most successful have been those who have had to look beyond their own ranks for support. The wartime coalition produced measures such as the Education Act 1944, which lasted for decades because it was built on more than the supporters of one party.

The first-past-the-post system produces perverse results, such as that in February 1974 when the wrong party was elected, and it under-represents minorities on a drastic scale. In 1983, Labour got just over a quarter of the votes and a third of the seats. We got just under a quarter of the votes and a 30th of the seats. That is not fairness by anybody's standards. More than that, it denies some parties seats in vast areas of the country where they have support. There are no Conservative Members in Scotland, Wales or any of the major provincial cities of Britain. The reason for that—

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the fact that there are no Conservative seats in Scotland and Wales means that the Conservative party is likely to change its opinion when it starts winning them back under proportional representation?

Mr. Beith

I have heard no offers from Conservative Members to decline to stand under the proportional system or not to take the seats given to them by the proportional system in Scotland and Wales. Similarly, the Labour party—

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Beith

I have promised to limit my speech and I must try to do so.

In the southern counties of England, the Labour party has been almost totally unrepresented in most elections. That is not good for the party.

Dr. Fox

On a logical point, if the right hon. Gentleman makes that argument about Conservatives in Scotland and Wales, are we to assume that, because he stands under the first-past-the-post system, he somehow approves of it?

Mr. Beith

I have made it pretty clear over the past 25 years in the House that I seek a change in the system.

The system proposed achieves a much higher level of proportionality while not making coalitions inevitable. It retains constituencies, but uses a system that ensures that Members have to command majority support in the constituencies. It gives the voters a say on who the top-up Members are. It cannot be fixed by the parties—the voters decide which top-up Members come higher on the list. It provides satisfaction for the criteria that the commission has set.

Hon. Members, in both the Labour party and the Tory party, who are opposing this move and who have been elected to this place under the present system, must think about what they are doing. They are campaigning to keep out of here members of their own party in other parts of the country. When north-east Labour Members such as the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) argue that the system should not be changed, they are condemning Labour voters in many parts of the south of England to never having a Labour Member of Parliament. When Conservative Members insist that the system should not be changed, they are telling the whole of Scotland and the provincial cities of Britain, "Do not bother voting Conservative there because we will never win." That is no way to treat the voters.

What are the objections? The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) claims that it is too complicated. The Conservative party elects its leader by a complex system designed to ensure that he has a majority. If that were not the case, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) would not be the leader of that party now. If the election had been carried out under a first-past-the-post system, the leader would be the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke).

Most other parts of the United Kingdom use proportional systems. Such systems are used in Northern Ireland and are to be used in Scotland and Wales. They are used in the Republic of Ireland and all over Europe. What is it about the Conservative view of the British people that makes them believe that they cannot fill in a ballot paper that people throughout the rest of the world can fill in?

The Conservative party says that the system would produce coalitions, which produce bad government. There would not always be coalitions. The recommendations in the report would have given one-party government in 1983, 1987 and 1997 but, rightly, not in 1992 when no party was anywhere near having a majority of the vote.

Most of Europe operates stable coalition systems of government. We cannot talk about the rest of Europe in the presence of the Conservative party or some elements of the oldest of old Labour because it is foreign and anything that happens in a foreign country must be wrong. However, the Conservative party has suddenly switched the argument and said that we cannot have the proposed system because it is not used in any other country. It will have to make up its mind where its argument lies.

The Conservative party says that there are too many small parties. Ten political parties were elected to the House at the last election under the present system because that system favours small parties that are regionally concentrated, such as Sinn Fein. Two Sinn Fein Members were elected to the House under the present system.

The Labour party has a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum in this Parliament on Lord Jenkins's proposals. That commitment was that it should be before the next election.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

The right hon. Gentleman has told the House, correctly, about the number of parties elected to the House. However, he neglected to say that most of those smaller parties operate in very circumscribed areas of the United Kingdom and, therefore, represent not the broad mass of the British people as a whole, but their own local electorate.

Mr. Beith

The hon. Gentleman is right, but I thought that I had said that. I was making the point that small parties are elected if they are geographically concentrated, but that much larger sections of opinion that happen to be spread across the whole country are not represented.

We should have a referendum during this Parliament. The Prime Minister has confirmed in this House and elsewhere that it is what the Government continue to envisage. That is our view and we see no persuasive reason for delaying it until early in the next Parliament. It will be necessary to introduce the referendum legislation in this Parliament, at least in the Session after next, in order to keep those options open.

It would be desirable for the boundary commission's work to be under way before the end of this Parliament to ensure, in the event of a yes vote, that the system would be in place for the election after next. The Home Secretary recognised that it would take some time for the system to be established, but I do not agree that it would necessarily take eight years.

Hon. Members would do well to remember that the coalition outside the House for reform of the electoral system is broad. People outside the House are less ready to justify unfairness or absurdity and they are less likely to be resistant to change at any cost. The diehard opponents of change do not represent the breadth of opinion, even in their own parties.

I believe that the British people will welcome change and a fairer system, in which their votes count. Electoral systems exist not for the benefit of parties but to give democratic power to voters. That is what the proposed system does, and that is why I believe that the British people will vote for it when they are given the opportunity to do so.

5.50 pm
Mr. Giles Radice (North Durham)

I entered Parliament as an unquestioning supporter of first past the post, as I understood its simplicity and the fact that it led to regular changes of Government and to Governments who were, by and large, stable. During the 1970s and, in particular, the 1980s, I changed my mind for several reasons. First, the Thatcher Governments were elected on a minority of the vote—43 per cent. was the most that they won—but with large majorities that exaggerated the movement of opinion.

Secondly—this is an important point—the system became extremely unfair to the Liberal party, which improved its share of the vote but only marginally increased the number of seats that it won. The system seemed to become even less fair.

The third argument is geographical. After the 1983 and 1987 elections, the Labour party held only three seats in the south of England—we were becoming a regional party. The same applies now to the Conservative party, which has no seats in Scotland or in Wales. That is not good for democracy.

I believe that the system needs to be reformed in such a way as to take account of the strengths of the first-past-the-post system and our traditions. I supported the establishment of the Jenkins commission and I welcome its report, which is extremely well written. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) on many subjects, but I think that he has allowed his prejudices to overwhelm his usual objectivity and fairness about the quality of writing.

The commission has come up with some subtle and well-argued proposals. Many of the arguments of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) were directed not against those proposals but against any reform of the system. That is not good enough, and the hon. Gentleman will have to hone his arguments before the referendum.

All Labour candidates are elected by an alternative vote system, so Labour Members should not say, "This is something quite extraordinary. We have never heard of it." The system is linked to single-Member constituencies, so that the vast majority of Members of Parliament will be elected in constituencies.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Radice

I have only eight minutes, so I think that it would be unwise to give way to the hon. Gentleman.

There is an element of proportionality in AV-plus, but that element is quite small and is designed to make the system fairer. Because AV-plus is not strictly proportional, the traditional criticisms of proportional representation are irrelevant. We are not talking about the Israeli or Weimar systems—AV-plus will not create unstable Governments. Indeed, under AV-plus, the elections of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s would have produced Governments with workable majorities in every case except the 1974 and 1992 elections, which certainly did not lead to stable Governments. Moreover, the fact that, under AV-plus, most elections would not produce a coalition answers at a stroke the argument about the third-party hinge—Conservative Front Benchers can no longer use that argument.

AV-plus gives voters a bigger choice. They can express a preference and they have two votes. Their second vote need not be for the same party; they may decide to vote differently—and why not, if that is what they want? We are offering voters a larger preference, especially as AV-plus can also operate with an open list system.

No system is perfect, and I agree with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that there are no absolutes in this matter. AV-plus would create two classes of Member of Parliament, and that is a serious fault. However, under AV-plus, the vast majority of Members of Parliament would represent constituencies, whereas the top-up Members would represent small county areas.

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden)

Since when has south-west London been a county?

Mr. Radice

I should say that most top-up Members would represent small county areas.

Areas such as Surrey, which have never had a Labour Member of Parliament, could have one under AV-plus. [Interruption.] Labour Members may not represent Surrey now, but Labour voters in Surrey would like to have a Labour Member of Parliament.

I support the Jenkins proposals and I look forward to hearing the Government's eventual reaction to them. I also look forward to campaigning and voting for them in a referendum.

Mr. Forth

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you confirm that, under new Standing Order No. 47, which was passed by the House in June, it is in your discretion as occupant of the Chair to allow extra time so that interventions may be made and taken during time-limited speeches?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Madam Speaker has ruled on the time limit, but I take the right hon. Gentleman's point. It has been agreed that there will be—for want of a better phrase—injury time for interventions. I do not want to waste the time of the House, but I remind hon. Members that all interventions take time away from the total number of Members who want to speak, of whom there are about 50.

5.56 pm
Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

It is a pleasure to speak in a debate on this subject, as I am one of the few Members of Parliament to have been elected by a system other than first past the post—I have experience of the single transferable vote, proportional representation system.

The Jenkins inquiry was given a restrictive framework—it had to produce an alternative to the current system but preserve what are generally perceived as the merits of the simple majority system. The remit was interesting. First, the constituency link between the Member of Parliament and the electorate was to be retained. Secondly, the system was required to create stable Government—I assume that that means stable Government for the duration of the Parliament rather than the long-term continuation of one party in government.

Thirdly, there had to be broad proportionality of Members to votes and, fourthly, an extension of voter choice. Indeed, the Prime Minister set out similar arguments in his article in The Economist in September 1996. I believe that the current system does all that fairly well, so precisely why a change is required to achieve the same result raises some interesting conjectures.

As the criteria were so clearly and narrowly drawn, it is no surprise that the commission reflected the view that change was necessary. I must protest against the denial of an open and fair appraisal of electoral systems. The simple majority system was denied a hearing—it was condemned, hung, drawn and quartered without mercy or thought about its merits, and it was not allowed to stand comparison with the commission's ideas. This has been our first opportunity to make such a comparison.

On 12 March, I attended the commission's hearing at Queen's university, Belfast. As I noted at the time, the proceedings attracted so much public attention—even in a place such as Northern Ireland—that only nine people attended, one of whom was Mr. Patrick Bradley, the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland. His interest was purely professional. I was moved to ask how many had attended the previous meeting, which had been in Cardiff. The answer was 30 or thereabouts. I do not know what was the attendance at subsequent meetings—I hope that it was somewhat better—but if ever there was a case of silence giving consent, I would suggest that the electors of Wales and Northern Ireland have shown that they are content with the present system.

In a matter of such fundamental importance to the government of our country, it is simply not good enough to draw up the guidelines so tightly and appoint a commission membership that is perceived to be in favour of change. The House demands fairness in appointments to every imaginable quango. No lower standard should have been applied in this case. The Jenkins commission should have included those who are prepared to defend the simple majority system and criticise the PR case.

No effort is ever made to seek out the views of people in Northern Ireland, who have lived with PR for many years. There was, as always, no real desire to learn from those with hands-on experience of the system in action.

We all know that, in our system, very few people vote for an individual. The presence of the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) is an exception to the general rule. He is one of those—notably the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley)—who appear because of a conjunction of events in a constituency or a community, but in general individuals rarely endure in the House unless they create or represent a body of opinion that finds expression by evolving into a political party—either that, or they are absolute political geniuses and giants.

People vote for a party largely on the basis of their general approval of the main course of action that it represents. Personalities and minor themes in a party's structures can affect its standing, but very few individuals survive the sea change of perception of a party and the resulting tidal wave of public disapproval, as was proved only last year.

Much is made of the stability created by coalitions, which are the consequence of PR voting systems. It is said that they are effective and consistent. I consider them, and especially the pernicious system of power sharing proposed for Northern Ireland, not to be consistent but to allow the persistence in government of a particular theme, party or group of personalities long past its sell-by date.

All political parties are coalitions grouped around their natural political, ethical, social and economic centres of gravity. In my opinion, the present system means that people are forced into general political coalitions, to the good of the country, and that is a uniting influence, not a divisive one as PR is.

Owing to their common themes, parties possess a unity that is not possible in the shotgun marriages of convenience and necessity that force disparate groups into the same sardine box after an election. I am a proponent of the simple majority system for many reasons, many of which have been, and will be, rehearsed today. We are all equal in status here, and, despite the protestations of Lord Jenkins, we would not be under the proposed system.

How is there to be an equal work load? How can there be equality in the constituency? How can the additional top-up Members avoid treading on the toes of the constituency Members in the areas that they represent? How is a chosen party hack to have the same status as the Member who had to do the hard, dirty work on the ground before he got elected?

Mr. Beith

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ross

No, I have only two minutes left.

Mr. Beith

I gave way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Ross

I know, but I have only two minutes left.

We must also consider the simple matter of by-elections, which would be conducted under a form of the single transferable vote system that governs elections and by-elections in Northern Ireland and that is so familiar to us. The simple majority system has much to commend it for the election of constituency Members. It is the experience of all hon. Members that the supporters of other parties approach us with problems and expect—and, I believe, usually receive—the same courteous treatment from their parliamentary representative.

We would all reject the idea that we are partisan between electors who share similar difficulties with public bodies and/or Government. It is our duty to represent them all, and I believe that we do. Indeed, we generally have no way of knowing for whom they vote. I agree with much of what Lord Alexander says in his note of reservation.

The only real power of the electorate over Government is the capacity to put the rascals out of office. I object strenuously to any effort by politicians or parties to diminish the capacity of the electorate to take vengeance on those who have disappointed them, something that the alternative vote system would do. The power of dismissal under first past the post is simple to understand, brutal, merciless and terribly effective.

The effect is a sobering element in the thinking of any Government—or should be, if they have the wit to realise it—or, more likely, on their Back Benchers; that was evident among those on the Conservative Back Benches in the previous Parliament. There is a pressure on Government at all times to explain and to convince their supporters and the wider electorate.

The cleansing effect that first past the post makes possible should not be underestimated. It is cruel, painful to many and brutally effective. It allows the defeated party time to think, to revitalise itself and eventually to return with fresh ideas and new people able to pursue radical policies. No other system would create such opportunities. For that reason alone, it is worth while—indeed, necessary—to retain it.

6.4 pm

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

This is an important debate, whatever view we take, because we are discussing the basis of our authority. I will have been here 48 years at the end of the month, and it seems to me that people want a representative when they vote. The idea that every Liberal or Labour voter supports every item of Liberal or Labour party policy is absolute nonsense. People want to be represented. Introducing proportionality completely destroys the idea of representation.

When we discussed the subject in the Labour party's national executive a few years ago, when Neil Kinnock was leader, I said to Neil that I had a feeling that if we had a party list system my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and I would be at the bottom of the list. He laughed, but in a funny sort of way. That is the direction in which politics is going.

No doubt, all hon. Members will go to their constituencies this weekend. Every person whom we meet in our constituencies is our employer—the bus driver, the street sweeper, the home help, the policeman—and has the power to remove us. Our constituents expect to be represented. They decide whether they agree with our views and whether we have done a decent job.

Any element of proportionality, which destroys that link, could lead to people being governed by a Government whom nobody had voted for, because nobody would know the basis of the coalition on polling day. At least the coalitions of the parties are transparent: people can see them developing and know what they are voting for and what their own Member thinks.

I do not intend to waste much time on the Jenkins report because, candidly, I do not think that it has a cat in hell's chance of succeeding. The idea that the parliamentary Labour party would go through the Lobby to destroy 50 of its own Members, to redraw all the constituencies and to introduce a new group of piggy-back Members is ludicrous. I heard it said by one cynic that the Labour party is so loyal that, if chimney boys were brought back in the name of modernisation, we would all go through the Lobby; but turkeys do not vote for Christmas. I do not honestly think that this is a serious plan.

The real issue is one that Jenkins neither considered nor was asked to consider the power that people have over the government of their country. This is the beginning of a debate about democracy generally. Unlike almost every other country, we have no vote over the head of state. We have no vote over the second Chamber. If my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reintroduces Edward I's method of appointing peers—when peers began in 1295, they were not hereditary—we will be modernising ourselves back to the feudal period. There will be absolutely no popular control.

The House of Commons has very limited power. After all, the Prime Minister derives his legislative majority from the people, but most of his executive power from the Crown. That is why the Prime Minister has put a spin doctor into Buckingham palace. If the Crown is not popular, the Prime Minister might lose the power to appoint bishops, judges, commissioners, peers and so on. That is how the system works.

It amazes me that the British people put up with that system. What is it about our training and breeding that makes us think that we are not fit to elect the second Chamber or the head of state? Jenkins does not deal with that, because he is an Asquithian Liberal. We have to be very careful.

People ask whether the proposals would lead to a coalition; but they are all about getting a coalition. Those who advocate the proposals favour a coalition. I do not want to be too political in a debate of this character, but it is worth noting that there is a big Labour majority and the leader of the Liberal party is on a Cabinet Committee, but I am not. I met him voting against the lone parents provisions last December. I was threatened with disciplinary action, but he knew that he would be at the Cabinet Committee the next day. There is already a broad perspective of views. For example, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), the former Deputy Prime Minister, has been given a job and the former Chancellor has been given a job. The former chairman of the Conservative party is in Northern Ireland, clearing up the RUC and David Mellor is in charge of football. When we talk about inclusiveness, I just wish some of us were part of it.

In future, unless we are clear about stopping it, all candidates will be vetted by the party machines. That is not about the power of the Prime Minister, but the power of the party leader. All the European candidates have been vetted and put on a list, as have all the Scottish candidates. My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) was left off, because he was thought less suitable to be a Scottish candidate, although the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) has suddenly given the Labour voters there a Member of Parliament by changing sides. Candidates for the Welsh Assembly will also be vetted. So the language of devolution is accompanied by the centralisation of power.

I do not wish to overdo the point, but as a Minister I visited the Soviet Union and Brussels many times. In the Soviet Union, we used to meet the central committee, which had not been elected. We met the commissars, and they had not been elected. I went to Brussels and met representatives of the central bank, and that had not been elected. I met the commissioners, and they had not been elected. The truth is that capitalism and communism have one thing in common—they do not want the people to have a choice of system, only a choice of management. That is the problem that we face. I have not heard anybody suggest that it would be a good idea for the Governor of the Bank of England to be elected, even by first past the post, and he has more power than any of us here. He is appointed, so he depends, like the bishops and the judges, on patronage.

We must face the problem that government now is less about representation and more about management. I get my fax from the party headquarters every morning, with quotations already attributed to me—"Mr. Tony Benn welcomes compulsory homework for pensioners", or whatever it is, and I am supposed to put it back in the fax machine to send to the Derbyshire Times. I feel less and less like a representative and more and more like an Avon lady, who is told what to say when she knocks at the door. If the Liberals had joined the right end of the Labour party, we might have had a progressive party, but the trouble is that they joined the wrong end of the Labour party. I will not go into that now.

Direct representation is the delicate thread that links the people with their Government and the basis of it is that they elect a man or woman they know, can argue with and can get rid of. Do not think that minorities remain minorities for ever. After all, 10 years ago, the environmentalists were bearded weirdos, but it will not be long before Swampy is in the House of Lords. The Dunblane massacre led to the previous Government changing their policy and apartheid ended by popular pressure. Democracy is not what somebody does to us if we vote for them but what we do where we live and work, and Parliament then gets the message. After 48 years here, I can say that Parliament usually gets the message last. We must listen to the people and not try to impose on them a pattern that will provide a permanent coalition and remove real choice from the electors.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) was so interesting and entertaining. May we vote for extra time for him?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I call Mr. MacGregor.

6.13 pm
Mr. John MacGregor (South Norfolk)

As I read the Jenkins report, I became more and more convinced that proportional representation is an idea whose time has gone. Of course, the report contains some good things. At the beginning, it states: We all of us believe that any system has defects as well as virtues. That is a crucial point, because it is easy for the Liberal Democrats to point to some of the defects of first past the post. The real issue for the referendum, if we have to have one, is which system has the greater virtues and the fewer defects. I am glad that the Jenkins report at least recognises that.

In paragraph 19, the members of the commission admit that "there is no surging popular agitation for change. They can say that again. I cannot recall ever receiving any representations from any of my constituents about changing the system. In paragraph 7, the report states that the commission, in its hearings around the country, found a near unanimous opinion of distrust of any electoral system which increased the power of party machines. That is a relevant point to the debate that we are having with the other place on the closed list system for election to the European Parliament and is also why the Jenkins report is in favour of an open list.

The majority report continues with two criticisms of the German additional member system. First, it substantially increases the power of the parties at the centre and, secondly, it gives too much power to minority parties— the report refers specifically to the Free Democrats. It is interesting that the Jenkins report makes that criticism of the additional member, or alternative vote, system, because it draws attention to the fact that the result of the Jenkins system would be more coalitions. No wonder the Liberal Democrats are the only people to have come out strongly in favour of the system: they are the only ones who would benefit. That is why they have always been in favour of coalitions.

The Jenkins report also makes some excellent criticisms of the single transferable vote and rightly comes down against it. After all its criticisms of PR systems around the world and how they might be applied here, what are the report's conclusions? It suggests a system based on the alternative vote whose defects even the majority report acknowledges. However, Lord Alexander's minority report is devastating in its criticisms of the alternative vote. He makes it clear at one point that he believes that it is neither fair nor sound in principle. I hope that all hon. Members will read his report, because his reasoning on the unfairness of the alternative is impeccable and very difficult to refute. He describes the alternative vote as "wholly illogical." In a marvellous phrase, he asks why the second preferences of only those who have supported the least successful candidates should be taken into account. Lord Alexander also quotes Winston Churchill describing AV as the most worthless votes of the most worthless candidates".

Mr. Bradshaw


Mr. MacGregor

I shall not give way, because I do not have long left.

The report recommends a system that is difficult to defend and also even less proportional than first past the post. Lord Alexander also makes that point. The commission therefore had to add a top-up system to try to avoid the danger of recommending a system that is even less proportional than that which we have already. I beg all hon. Members to read paragraphs 116 and 117 because they contain three substantial criticisms of the top-up system in Germany and why it would be wrong to introduce it here. The report appears to conclude that it is a rotten system, but just a little of it might be all right here to prevent us from producing a system that is not as proportional as our current system.

The report also did not deal adequately with the question of two classes of Members of Parliament. I once had a constituency with 110,000 voters, and I know what a heavy burden that is. The Jenkins system would take us back to those days and it also does not deal with tactical voting.

This afternoon, in a delightful speech, the Home Secretary killed the Jenkins report with kindness. If we are to have a referendum, I hope that he will take into account the recommendations of the Neill committee, about which I hope to say more on Monday, and the Jenkins report's remarks about the conduct of a referendum. However, it would be much better if we were not committed to holding a referendum, because the best thing to do with the report would be to drop it now.

6.17 pm
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

I welcome the Jenkins report as the start of a healthy and much-needed debate on the way in which we elect our Members of Parliament. It has been my belief for some time that we need a fairer system under which Parliament better represents the views of the voters. It is shocking to think that nearly half the people who voted in 1997 might as well not have bothered, because their votes failed to elect anyone. That state of affairs is very bad for our democracy. In areas of the country with a large majority for one party or another, a large proportion of the votes do not count. That deters people from participating and reduces the turnout. It is an unhealthy democratic situation. We must consider how political parties respond to that situation. In 1997, my party concentrated on seats that could be won on a swing of up to 6 per cent. The Liberal Democrats have long since realised that their lack of people on the ground means that they have to concentrate on seats in which they are in second place, and which they therefore have a chance of winning. That means that only a small proportion of the electorate effectively decides the outcome of a general election.

That situation encourages tactical voting, a sophisticated expression that we have heard in recent years. Large numbers of people are voting for candidates who are not their first choice, in order to keep out the candidate they hate the most. I admit that that has resulted in some spectacular victories for Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates. The success of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) in beating Michael Portillo was an outstanding example. Tactical voting at the last election apparently produced around 30 more seats for Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates than would have been the case had there been a uniform swing. That was unfair to the Conservative party. On other occasions, it could equally be unfair to other parties. There is no doubt that the electorate is becoming increasingly sophisticated, and is beginning to use tactical voting more than it did previously.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Campbell

No, I have only eight minutes.

The first-past-the-post group of Labour Members has sent me a document, which was written by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), a long-time supporter of the system. The document says that the link between a Member of Parliament and his or her constituency will be preserved by a first-past-the-post system. I agree that that is important, but Lord Jenkins has cleverly devised a system that will preserve the constituency link while also enabling voters to have an alternative representative.

I represent a Labour seat in the middle of a Conservative area. I know from experience that many people feel uncomfortable about contacting an MP whom they know to have no sympathy with their views. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] I say again that I represent a seat in a part of the world in which it has been rare for Labour voters to be represented by a Labour Member. Throughout the 1980s, and until 1992, the voters of Cambridgeshire were represented solely by Tories. Under the Jenkins system, the constituencies may well still have returned Conservative Members, but the additional MP would have been Liberal or Labour. That would have enabled people who wanted to make representations about the poll tax or fox hunting or any of the other issues that Tory MPs felt unable to speak out about, and to ask the alternative MP to raise their views in Parliament. That would have been healthy.

We have heard it argued that the first-past-the-post system is simple, and that is so. However, are that system's supporters going to tell voters that filling in a ballot paper on which they must list candidates in order of preference is too complicated for them? We are talking about an electorate that regularly does the lottery. If voters can fill in lottery tickets without turning a hair, it is not too much to expect that they can vote under a preferential voting system. I would not advise supporters of first past the post to tell the voters that they are not clever enough to vote under an alternative system. The voters would be less than impressed.

Supporters of the first-past-the-post system also argue that it produces stable government. It has undoubtedly produced stable Conservative Governments in the past, which is why one party here is so opposed to Jenkins. The Conservatives want to shut down discussion before it begins. They are terrified that if people start to see the advantages of a better voting system, they will never be elected again.

First past the post does produce strong Governments, but they can implement policies that should never get through any democratic system. The poll tax once again springs to mind. It also produces a system in which there are only two political views—those in favour, and those against. The adversarial system is extremely off-putting to a large proportion of the electorate, particularly women. Parties and politicians spend too much time bickering and attempting to undermine each other.

There is no room in the system for taking on board someone else's view, or to consider a range of opinion. Being in government means taking all the decisions and trying to make sure that they are sold to the electorate. Being in opposition means little effective participation. All the Opposition can do is make a noise and hope that it will convince people to vote for them next time so that they can have the golden prize. That is not grown-up politics. No one is right all the time. Our political system should be sufficiently grown up to recognise that. Many of my constituents would prefer to see an end to the schoolboy slanging match that so often demeans debate in the House.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Sexist rubbish.

Mrs. Campbell

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to make his own points later.

The document that I was sent also says: In casting their votes, voters may show a preference for a particular party which has no likelihood of forming a government, but they have nevertheless participated in the democratic process as much as a voter who does not cast his or her vote at all and stays at home. I profoundly disagree. I do not believe that a voter who stays at home has contributed much to the democratic process. For goodness sake, let us have a change of system.

6.26 pm
Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

I cautiously welcome the Jenkins report's conclusions. The underlying basis of the system that it proposes has been Scottish National party policy for many years, and it formed the substance of our submission to the Jenkins commission. We did not adopt that stance out of self-interest—the SNP's tactic in the United Kingdom Parliament has been to gain a majority of Scottish seats, and it is far easier to do that under a first-past-the-post system than under any system of proportional representation.

No electoral system is perfect, and none will give us all we want, but the combination of alternative vote and additional Member will balance the needs for proportionality and for the constituency link. I begin to disagree with Jenkins, however, on the number of top-up seats proposed, because that figure is not nearly sufficient to ensure proportionality. The report seems to say that first past the post gives unjustified majorities in many Parliaments, and that that should be corrected if it is a small unjustified majority, but not if it is a large one.

I welcome the split proposed in the top-ups within the electoral regions and the four nations of the United Kingdom. That will allow for regional and national diversity. It will assist proportionality. I welcome, too, the fact that the regions chosen for Scotland are the same as those for the top-up seats for the new Scottish Parliament.

However, there is a substantial difference between the Jenkins model and the Scottish Parliament proposals in the Scotland Bill. At Holyrood, there will be seven additional Members for each region of Scotland, but under Jenkins there will be only one or two. In a three-party system, the availability of one or two extra seats might with a lot of luck just go towards proportionality. However, that certainly will not be so in the four-party system that exists in Scotland.

At the 1997 general election, the Conservatives got 17 per cent. of the vote in Scotland, and no seats at all. In the Scottish Parliament, they would get 17 per cent. of the seats on that vote, but under Jenkins they would get only 8 per cent of the Westminster seats. My own party got 22 per cent. of the Scottish vote at the general election, but only 8 per cent. of the seats. In the Scottish Parliament, we would hope, if that vote were repeated—and we expect to gain substantially more—for 22 per cent. of the seats, but the Jenkins proposals would give us only 15 per cent. of the seats for Westminster. It seems strange to say that one system is unfair yet to correct only a little bit of that unfairness. The Jenkins report is an improvement, but it is a compromise in an attempt to appease those who are against any kind of change.

My last word on top-up Members is that the proposal does not seem to be such a radical innovation. We have it now in Scotland. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who opened the debate on behalf of the Conservative party, was appointed some time ago as the Tory top-up Member for Scotland.

Jenkins also proposes, or seems to recommend, a reduction in the number of Scottish Members provided for in the Scotland Bill. I accept that the number of Scottish Members at Westminster should be reduced, but I cannot accept the Government's proposal that the link should be maintained between Scottish Members of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Members of the Westminster Parliament, so that, when the number of Scottish Members at Westminster is reduced, the number in the Scottish Parliament should also be reduced. In the light of Jenkins's endorsement of the reduction in Scottish representation in this House, there is no longer any justification to maintain a link between the two Parliaments. There is no longer an argument that the two Parliaments should maintain parallel constituencies. I look to the Government for assurance that they will not try to overturn the amendments that have been passed in another place which seek to sever the links between the two constituencies.

We look to the Minister to ensure that there will be a referendum before the next election. If not, the procedures necessary to put these recommendations in place, were they to be approved in a referendum, are such that we could not get to the proportional system at the election after next. There would need to be a Bill to set up a referendum, a Bill to change the voting system, and a Boundary Commission investigation.

My final point is a small one. Is there any reason why we cannot have the alternative vote part of the recommendations now? Is there any reason why we cannot have AV at the next general election?

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

The answer is obvious. The top-up is designed to correct the distorting effects of AV. Therefore, to implement merely AV would make our electoral system even less proportional than it is.

Mr. Morgan

The distorting effect is because we have single-Member constituencies. That is where the main problem arises. The argument used in the minority report is spurious. It is that a vote is worth less if the voter happens to vote for the candidate who comes third—not that the voter knows that his chosen candidate will come third when he votes. I would prefer that the second vote of a voter who voted for the third candidate was taken into account than that all the votes of, for example, 74 per cent. of the voters are ignored, as happens now. That is what happened in the Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber constituency at the 1992 general election. The winner was elected on 26 per cent. of the vote.

That is the kind of nonsense that we need to get rid of. That is why I recommend that we consider having AV on its own at the next election. I suspect that we would need only a one or two-clause Bill to introduce that part of the proposals.

6.32 pm
Mr. Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath)

I am a strong supporter of electoral reform, but not of proportional representation. The Jenkins commission did the best job it possibly could, bearing in mind that it was set an impossible task of reconciling the irreconcilable. I say that because the criteria that it was set were fundamentally flawed.

The main part of the recommendations refers to the alternative vote, which I strongly support. It is an improved version of the first-past-the-post system. It is not proportionate, and was never intended to be in any shape or form. It allows, for example, Labour supporters living in Newbury who know that their candidate will not come first or second, to vote for the candidate of their choice first and to indicate their second preference. Under the present system, they have to make a choice for one of the other candidates, or vote in the knowledge that their vote will be wasted.

In addition, AV does not force people to mark their ballot paper 1, 2, 3, 4, but allows them to put a 1 or an X against their preferred candidate. The vote would be treated in exactly the same way as it is now. The AV proposals are well argued by the Jenkins commission, and are worthy of support.

The second part of the recommendations refer to the additional member system elected on a county, city or geographical area. As I have said, the commission has done the best it can working with flawed criteria. The report states clearly: "The Commission shall observe the requirement for broad proportionality, the need for stable Government, an extension of voter choice and the maintenance of a link between MPs and geographical constituencies. It would have been much better if it had stated that the commission shall observe the requirement for the maintenance of a link between constituency Members of Parliament and their constituency.

Let me explain what I mean. Because of the criteria that were laid down, the noble Lord Jenkins and his colleagues have come up with what he has called a "unique British solution". One of the members of the commission, Mr. Lipsey, is reported in The Observer as saying that the commission rejected "importing foreign muck". I find it surprising if Lord Jenkins takes such a xenophobic attitude towards the British electoral system, given that throughout his political life he has championed everything European. That is by the bye. One of the members of the commission said that and no doubt Lord Jenkins went along with it.

Let us move on to what this unique British top-up system would mean. I shall cite three examples. In Birmingham at the general election, 10 Labour Members and one Conservative Member were elected. Under the Jenkins proposals for AV, there would be eight Labour Members and one Tory Member. The percentage votes were 56 per cent. for Labour, 27 per cent. for the Tories and 11.8 per cent. for the Liberal Democrats. Under the top-up system, both the Conservatives and the Liberals would have an extra seat.

I mean no disrespect to the Liberals, but I cannot understand how a Liberal Democrat could be called the hon. Member for Birmingham when he has been elected on 11.8 per cent. of the vote. It is illogical. If one wants to give more seats to the Liberals, so be it, but there are other ways of doing it. That is essentially what this is all about, but it is nonsense to give them localised democratic legitimacy in this way.

At the general election, every seat in the county of Surrey was held by the Conservative party. It is a rock-hard Conservative area. Under the Jenkins proposals, there would be seven Tories and two Liberals, with a top-up of one Liberal Member and one Labour Member. Much as I respect the work of Labour party members and candidates in Surrey, I cannot accept that a Labour candidate could be the hon. Member for Surrey, because he would not have been elected by any of the 11 constituencies in that county.

Finally I come to Durham, which is an interesting county. It has seven seats. Under the Jenkins proposals, there would be six Labour Members, with one top-up Tory. As my hon. Friends from the north know, with the exception of Darlington, those seven seats are as rock-hard as ever there will be. They have been Labour for time immemorial. In the county of Durham, every vote cast for the second candidate—the list candidate—by Labour supporters would be wasted. It would not matter if the Labour candidate at the top of the list in Durham got 99.9 per cent. of the votes, he or she could not be elected. That is nonsense, and a betrayal of democracy.

I do not oppose giving the Liberals more seats, but if we are going to do that, let us be honest about it and give them seats. We should not make out that we are imposing democratic legitimacy by aligning such seats with a localised area. It will not work, and it will be deeply resented by Members of Parliament who are elected for constituencies, whether by first past the post or by the alternative vote system. That proposal is the flaw in the Jenkins proposals, and I hope that the Government will not go down that path.

6.40 pm
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

We have heard many theories about how our electoral system should be conducted. Theories are all very well for academics, but they do not work in practice. Our first-past-the-post system has developed over centuries, and does work in practice. I am fed up with hearing how there are no Conservative Members in Scotland or Wales. The reason why there are no Conservative Members in Scotland is simply that the people of Scotland, or the vast majority of them, did not want any Conservative Members. They got what they wanted. I am not happy with that, but I accept it, just as the people of Surrey have no Labour Members; long may that remain so.

The talk of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) of wasted votes is nonsense. A vote is never wasted. The talk of safe seats where one's vote does not count if one does not support the party likely to win is also nonsense. I can name at least 100 former Conservative Members who would testify to that, because they thought that they were in what are called safe seats. The people voted against them. I am sorry that they did, but that is what democracy and giving power to the people is about—not the gerrymandering that would become part of our system if the Jenkins report were implemented.

We must not be so arrogant as to sit in academic rooms and examine theories while ignoring the lessons to be learned from other legislatures. With several other hon. Members, I have just returned from New Zealand. Lord Jenkins mentioned in his report the mixed member proportional system introduced in New Zealand for the 1996 general election. He is dismissive of the difficulties that the people of New Zealand are experiencing as a result of its introduction.

I want to present evidence from someone who really knows about the system, the Speaker of the New Zealand Parliament, Mr. Doug Kidd. He explains some of the difficulties in the New Zealand Parliament, and says that proportional representation "involves members being elected for individual constituencies and also from party lists. Its essential feature is that the overall party composition of Parliament is the same as the proportions of the national vote that parties obtain at the election. That is all very well in theory. He continues: "From having a well-established, two party parliamentary system. New Zealand has moved to a multi-party system. There are at present six parties represented in Parliament, with no single party having an overall majority. Coalition or minority government has now become the norm. Lord Jenkins suggests that coalition and minority government would not be the norm under his system.

Mr. Radice

It is a different system.

Mrs. Laing

Labour Members say that it is a different system, but a proportional system produced that result; it always does. It is arrogant only to look at theories and ignore practice. It is clear that some Members want to stay in the ivory tower of academia. I am talking about what happens in practice, and I am bringing news of exactly what happens in New Zealand.

The Speaker of the New Zealand Parliament adds that the introduction of the system. "has involved a massive culture shock for politicians who were used to the old system and … for society as a whole which had clearly not appreciated the implications of it and which now appears to be a little uncertain about the results. That is putting it mildly.

The first question that everyone asks New Zealand Members of Parliament is, "Are you a real MP or were you elected on the list?" That is what happens in practice. It is insulting, because introducing two classes of MP means introducing a difference between them, and one group will always be second-class MPs. The other problems that arise from the New Zealand system are well documented by their Parliament's Speaker, and I should be glad of another opportunity to tell hon. Members about them.

Another problem arises from coalition government. As the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) said, the people get a Government whom no one elected. As happened this year in New Zealand, the parties that come first and third in the polls are the ones that matter, because they do a deal to form a Government. Their manifestos are merged, and the people get not what they voted for in the majority, but a mish-mash of the manifestos of the first and third parties. What of those who voted for the party that came second? They do not count at all. It is nonsense to suggest that a so-called proportional system is fairer; it is not.

Our system is not only fair, but one that people understand. People can vote tactically if they wish to. I was amazed that the hon. Member for Cambridge was so dismissive of the electorate's ability to vote tactically. They are entitled to if they wish. We have an intelligent electorate, who understand how best to cast their votes. They know that their votes are not wasted. My party supports our traditional system, not because it is good for our party—clearly, looking at the Conservative Benches, it is not—but because it is best for our country and for democracy. We put first not the party's interests, but those of the country.

6.47 pm
Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), who made a point different from that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). He gave a clear view of where the Labour party stood and she finished her speech talking about where the national interest lay. I shall speak briefly on the national interest. I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) that the debate will be constructive, not destructive. We will not fall out on the issue but join the debate, talk to each other and reach conclusions that will eventually be put to the country.

I want to refer to criticism of the Jenkins report from a party that is not represented in the House and therefore has no voice. It writes: "the use of the Alternative Vote will create as many anomalies as at present; two types of Member of Parliament will be created, one with a larger constituency to look after, the other free to swan around Parliament furthering his political career; the proposed party lists will put words into the mouths of the voters; there is in-built discrimination against independents and minority interests. In particular, independent candidates will not be able to stand for the "top-up" ballots … If there is to be a referendum on these proposals", the party will campaign against them. As one who will participate in the national campaign, taking up the offer of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and the statement of the Home Secretary that we should take the campaign to the country, I welcome the Liberal party to our debate.

Mr. Beith

They are the Wee Frees—the few who did not join us.

Mr. Bell

It is the genuine Liberal party, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) referred to the German situation. Many of us hear that Germany is a stable democracy with a powerful economy. We ought not to relate the two. One can have a stable Government and an economy that is not stable, or a stable economy and a Government who are not stable. After the last election in Germany, it took a month for the German Parliament to come to a conclusion between the red-green parties and the Social Democrats. I picked up a statement made by the German president, Roman Herzog. He said that the new Government must find the courage for "vital change." He said: "We need reforms and we don't have that much time. The world won't wait for us. That does not seem to me a ringing endorsement of the coalition Government who have now been turfed out of office.

We all enjoyed the vignette of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). Literary criticism has been rife in this debate, so it is quite nice to say that it was a vignette. It was a wonderful speech from a right hon. Friend who has been in this Parliament for 48 years. I am glad to be joined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) because he and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield share a common experience. They were in the minority Government from 1978 to 1979—a Government who fell when the Liberals withdrew their support for the Labour Government. The Liberal party refused to support worker participation in the Bullock report. Lord Callaghan, who was the Prime Minister at that time, told me specifically, "We could not get worker participation through that Parliament because there was no support from the Opposition party." We were supposed to have the Lib-Lab pact.

The right hon. Member for South Norfolk referred to a statement made by Winston Churchill in 1930. Jenkins in his report says that the House of Commons accepted electoral reform in 1930. It did so because the minority Government of Ramsay MacDonald had their arm twisted off. They were told by the Liberals that unless he gave them electoral reform, they would not support repeal of the Trades Disputes and Trade Unions Act 1927. The Liberals even then were dictating terms to a minority Labour Government. In the end, MacDonald agreed in order to get two more years in office. He was overwhelmed by the catastrophic international crisis of 1931, and we had to wait until 1945 to see a repeal of the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act 1927.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) said in an intervention that all the emerging countries of Europe had chosen a system of proportional representation. Let me simply quote what the shadow Foreign Secretary of the Czech Republic has said in a letter to The Times. He says: "We have found that PR leads to an unhealthy, inequitable, fragmented political environment, with larger parties subjected to blackmail by the smaller parties. That is a statement from a new republic that went down the road of PR and is looking to get back to a majority or first-past-the-post system.

The point has been made often—the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) referred to it—that Lord Jenkins did not have the courage of his convictions. If he had, he would have taken up the proposals of 1917, to which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred. Jenkins said that he accepted them and wished that they would be accepted. The proposals were for a transferable vote and an alternative vote throughout our land. He might have given minority parties a 5 per cent. threshold. The Liberal party, which has had scorn poured over it from the Opposition Benches, might have had a chance of being represented here. The Green party, to whom my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield referred, might be represented in the House. Even minority parties such as Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour party might be here, but Lord Jenkins did not go down that road because as president of the Liberal Democrat party, he is trying to increase the number of Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament.

We have heard a lot about the alternative vote. If the alternative vote had been extant at the last general election, it would have reduced the number of Conservative Members to 62 and increased the number of Labour Members to 450. It would have added volatility to the system. The top-up is needed to rectify the volatility. Lord Jenkins's report would create volatility. It is nothing to do with first past the post. He creates volatility through his alternative vote and then seeks to stabilise it with a new system of top-up Members of Parliament.

The first-past-the-post system has given us stable government. It gives us the constituency link. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge referred to accountability; it provides accountability. It also gives us the doctrine of mandate; we have not heard too much tonight about the doctrine of mandate. Every party puts forward its proposals in a general election and the country votes on them. The manifesto is there; we are there to fulfil the manifesto commitments. If we fail, we should say why. If we are not successful, the public have a chance to turn us out.

Our campaign will go to the country. We will debate this issue. We will campaign on it on a party basis in the sense that all those who are opposed to the changes will join together. We will campaign with trade unionists, academics, and business men. We will let the people of our country know what the alternative system means. We believe that when the people can see what is on the table, they will support the present system.

6.55 pm
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) covered a good deal of recent history, or relatively recent compared with the history of the barons with which we were regaled by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). The hon. Member for Middlesbrough demonstrated how wise the Labour party was before the election to enter into an agreement that the issue of the electoral system should be put to the electors for their decision during the lifetime of this Parliament. For history, and recent history is no exception, suggests that when parties enter Government under a system of election that has favoured them, they are reluctant to alter that system by simple fiat. The hon. Gentleman is in the line of that historical tradition.

It is highly encouraging that so many Labour Members, many of whom have spoken in the debate and many of whom will not have the opportunity to speak because of the duration of the debate, take a more principled view and have argued strongly the case which, although headlined by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield, was not developed quite with the logic that it deserves. The right hon. Gentleman, with great passion, reached the climax of his speech with a declaration that "The people want to be represented." To that I say yes. He is entirely right, and that is the justification for the Jenkins commission's report.

It is the people's interest with which we ought primarily to be concerned, not putative views about what the impact of change might be for people who have shown an ability to adjust to some extent to whatever system they have. The capability of the present system to adjust to take account of people's views has been stretched beyond breaking point. The time has come to recognise the appalling distortions that the first-past-the-post system has caused in our democracy. Those distortions have made the system so incredibly unrepresentative in so many large parts of our country that at this time, there is no voice for Conservatives in any of the great cities in England.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maclennan

No. I, too, am obeying the rubric about brevity so I will not take interventions on this occasion, although I hope that we shall have other occasions on which to deploy these arguments.

The Jenkins commission was set up wisely and in fulfilment of the pre-election undertaking of the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party. In that sense, it is clear that the commission had two parents. It could also be said to have achieved legitimacy of support when, at the general election, the electorate backed those two parties to the extent of 64 per cent. of the vote. The commitment to hold a referendum within the lifetime of this Parliament was part of that undertaking and we look to the Government to fulfil it. I heard what the Home Secretary said about the complexity of the issues, but no one doubted that they would be complex when the two parties reached the agreement to which he put his signature, along with four other current senior Cabinet Ministers.

If the system is to be tested by the people, it should be tested close in time to the raising of the issues by the Jenkins commission, so that the arguments advanced are germane to the circumstances in which we live today.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maclennan

I cannot give way, for the reasons I have already given.

The geographical rubric and requirement that the Jenkins commission had to take into account was a wise one, given the extraordinary distortions that the present system has produced. By its compromise, the commission has resolved that difficulty far better than any of the other systems that have been proposed would have done. The Liberal Democrats proposed a single transferable vote, and to those who say that Lord Jenkins was a kept chairman, I can say that he has robustly rejected the arguments that I advanced on behalf of the Liberal Democrats and explained why our proposal would not meet the criteria set down by the Prime Minister. That is undoubtedly true.

There has been a trade-off between proportionality and maintaining the constituency link. On reflection, I think that Lord Jenkins was probably right to take the view that, for many British people, the constituency link remains extremely important. It is the place in which they see their Member of Parliament acting to represent them, which the right hon. Member for Chesterfield regards as being of vital importance.

Now that the right hon. Gentleman has returned to the Chamber, may I take him up on one issue? He suggested that Lord Jenkins's proposals would give enormous power to political parties, but that is not borne out by the recommendations of the Jenkins report, which has clearly avoided the trap of the closed electoral system. Nor can it be argued that the proposed system is in any way worse than the existing system.

In the early 1980s, the right hon. Member for Chesterfield devoted considerable effort to ensuring that Members of Parliament who were not of a like mind to his could be, would be and, in some cases, were deselected by the Labour party. That was a highly controversial matter and it had nothing to do with the electoral system; it had a great deal to do with the centralising tendencies of the Labour party at that time. It is those problems on which the right hon. Gentleman should focus, if he genuinely wants power to be dispersed. The undoubted strength—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)


7.3 pm

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Earlier, two arguments were advanced of which the House should take no notice. The first is that more than half the electorate at the last election had no hope of electing anybody. If we introduce any system with a threshold of 50 per cent., the 50 per cent. who did not vote for the person who gets 50 per cent. cannot elect anybody either; therefore, the argument is nonsense. The second argument is that we are childish and this place is noisy because we have an adversarial system. I invite my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) to go and watch the Dail Eireann, the American Congress, or Italy's Parliament at work. Be realistic: wherever there are a Government and an Opposition, there will be a row, so that argument does not wash.

Let us look at the proposals. What is proposed is a system that elects Members of Parliament. Good, say I. However, some say that we have to have a system that irons out the imbalances. Well, last night I rang up a mate of mine who lives in Mountain Ash in Wales. I said, "You've got Assembly elections coming up and we are having a debate on Jenkins," and asked his opinion. He is a shrewd old lawyer and he replied, "Yes, after we get a two-tier system in Parliament, I'll have three community councillors whom I can ask for advice; I'll have several county borough councillors; I'll have my Assembly man and my top-up Assembly man; I'll have my Member of Parliament and my top-up Member of Parliament; and finally I'll have my MEP, and sure enough they'll give me a top-up there as well." He went on, "And you know something? They can belong to five or six different parties." That, in a nutshell, is the lunacy of the proposed top-up system.

What is a Member of Parliament meant to do? He is meant to represent his people. He or she is not a servant of his party, but a servant of the electorate and his or her first loyalty is owed to the electorate. If we adopt the proposed system, there will be a group of Members of Parliament who are not the servants of the people, but the appointees of the party. I am sorry, but that is not democracy by any definition.

Let us have a debate. I might be accused of being a dinosaur because I am over 35 and have been through many elections that were won by the first past the post, but I would remind my accusers that, when I was first elected in the bad old days of 1983,I had 46 per cent. of the vote; I did not have the magical 50 per cent., although I have a lot more than that now. Since 1983, my party has looked at itself and realised that the party we had in 1983 was one of which none of us were proud. In the intervening 16 years, whether we come from the left or the right of the party, we have worked on the electorate, sold our policies, refined our policies and asked the electorate what they wanted.

Eventually, all our efforts came good, but it took a long time. We had once written the longest suicide note in history. The Conservative party took 18 years to write its suicide note and, when it was delivered, the party was executed. I hope that it takes the Conservatives 28 years to listen to the people and rewrite their policies. Perhaps they will win again, but that is democracy; that is the will of the people, and if the people want to get rid of someone, they do so. If we adopt the proposed system, how are we to get rid of the top-ups? Incidentally, how do we hold a by-election during the lifetime of a Parliament? The answer is that we cannot. Are the people to be told, "Mr. Smith has been appointed your Member of Parliament"? Get off with it.

Mr. Swayne

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bermingham

No, I cannot.

That is not democracy; it is electoral dictatorship. How are the electorate to overturn a Government in the middle of their term of office if they cannot boot out the Government party at a by-election?

I looked at the list for Merseyside to see how we would be topped up. I am supposed to be grouped with Bootle and Southport—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth)

And Knowsley.

Mr. Bermingham

And Knowsley, God help me. In fact, Knowsley and St. Helens have a natural affinity with Warrington and the surrounding area, or west Lancashire. In short, there are natural affinities between certain areas, so the proposed system will lead to the sort of rows with the boundary commission that we had in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I should declare an interest at this point: I was the solicitor to the parties who fought the boundary commission in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and I was solicitor to the Labour party. I realised just how difficult boundary-drawing exercises are. Can we not remember that sometimes simplicity is best? We have simplicity in our system, and it is the best.

7.9 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

This is a well-attended debate, I think because we are talking about first principles. [Interruption.] I have attended economic debates with fewer Members present. We are talking about how we derive our authority and do our job. When it comes down to it, we probably all have quite strong opinions about how we want to represent people in our areas.

The key point about the first-past-the-post system is that, far from being a withering, minority system around the world, it is used in 62 countries, by nearly half the world's electorate. It is simple and quick. It is all very well saying that members of the British public can use complex systems, but there are many elderly and near-sighted people and others who would find it difficult to adjust to a new system. Sadly, even under our simple system, votes are wasted because some people cannot use a ballot paper. I fear that under Jenkins's proposal we will have far more wasted votes from people who cannot understand how to fill out both ballots.

The key point about our current system is that we have coherence and transparency in public policy. Parties coalesce in advance of elections to agree a platform that they put to the public, who then choose whether to back them. In government, that platform—the manifesto—is carried out. After a period, people decide whether they wish that party to continue in office. Under our system, it is possible to elect Governments on a platform which they carry out and on which they are judged. If the judgment is that the Government's performance has been poor, our system is decisive in turning that Government out.

The most valuable aspect of our political system is the power of the electorate to dismiss a Government who lose their way—as the British electorate periodically do dismiss Governments, resulting in the appearance of furniture vans at No. 10. My party was, to some extent, on the wrong side of that last year—quite rightly, because that is democracy—when the electorate gave us a good hiding, but, as a democrat, I have to accept that that was what the electorate wanted. Given that the current Government have only 43 to 44 per cent. of the vote, under any kind of proportional system, we might have stayed in office if we had done a deal with the Liberal Democrats. The reality is that we have a system that can push unpopular Governments—Governments who lose their way—out of office.

We also have a system, rooted in the individual based in a constituency, that tempers party control. We must all be careful that we allow people to be elected to the House who are lone voices; who are out of favour with their party; who can make a contribution with which the majority of us may not agree. Even Winston Churchill was out of step with his party in the 1930s, but he knew that, if the good burghers of Epping Forest supported him, he would be returned here and he could give voice to his views. That is the key.

Jenkins's proposals devalue the constituency link because they create two categories of MP. They would increase the size of constituency—and hence the work load—of geographically based Members, but would reduce the work load for those swanning around, as was said earlier, looking for preferment.

There are times when we all get lots of letters and have to work hard for our constituents. We may think it would be nice not to have any constituents. In reality, however, much of my education comes from my postbag and from meeting and visiting my constituents. That is an important part of our political system.

Over the years, proponents of proportional representation have always said that it would be fairer and better. The real test, and the test of Jenkins, was to come up with an alternative system. Jenkins has come up with an alternative system and has failed the test. The proposals are a ragbag. The alternative vote, as was pointed out earlier, is a volatile system. So we end up with a more volatile system, trying to balance it with a list system. There is no logic in that.

Of the five members of the commission, one produced a note of reservation, which, in a political party, would be called a split. Even the committee does not have a united view. Lord Alexander's comments were perfectly sensible, and attention should be paid to them.

Why the magical 50 per cent. in the alternative vote? Each vote is equal, no matter whether the vote is for someone's first, second, third or fourth choice. Why should someone's fourth choice outweigh someone else's first choice? Votes could be weighted so that someone's second or third choice was worth less and then topped up, but why equal them out? Under the proposed system, the least worthy candidates—the second, third and fourth preferences—outweigh the most worthy candidate, the first preference.

One of the best jokes in the Jenkins report was the suggestion that, because people would need second preferences, the alternative vote would mean that people would be kinder to each other and that there would be a less adversarial system. In the Australian system, which uses AV, water is occasionally chucked across the table— a robust system. No one who knew that system would think that the alternative vote led to kinder politics.

With the list, we would have the unusual system whereby a Government with a majority of one would hope that any death would be of a Member from the list, which would mean no by-election, rather than of someone who represented a constituency where the Government might lose their majority. There is no equity in that at all. At the moment, we are elected on an equal basis. We might argue about the size of our constituencies or the geographical areas that we represent, but in reality we are here on the same basis. There is equality. We speak with the same authority. The proposal diminishes that.

I am strongly opposed to the arrival of a day when we refer not simply to the hon. Member for Poole or North Wiltshire, but to an hon. Member for the list from Birmingham or the list from Sussex. That would be a retrograde step.

Lord Jenkins has not come up with a workable, sensible alternative to the first-past-the-post system. I support the current system. It is not a system under which my party is prospering. There is an argument that because we do not distribute our vote equally, we are deficient. It is for the Conservative party to sort out its policies, to persuade the electorate, to target and campaign and to try and win a majority of seats in the House. If we cannot do that, we do not deserve to be on the Government Benches and to have a majority in the House. That is what we have to do, and that is the thought that we need to hold on to.

7.16 pm
Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

I am not in favour of the Jenkins report—for reasons entirely different from those cited by Conservative Members. Many of the arguments were eloquently made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff), but there are no absolutes in the debate. There is no perfect system and, to be honest, we are probably the worst people to debate this subject. After all, we are not exactly impartial.

There is a case for change, however, and we should not diminish the arguments of those who put forward the case for change. Yes, the first-past-the-post system is simple, but the electorate are capable of listing people: 1, 2, 3. As was said in The Guardian recently, most four-year-olds make a more complicated decision when deciding on their breakfast cereal each morning. Some arguments put by Conservative Members against the alternative vote are spurious, to say the least.

The first-past-the-post system is simple, but it produces a confrontational style of politics, and politics is not only what takes place in this Chamber. If the United States is held up as an example of stable government, as a model for us to follow, I would cite yesterday's congressional elections. A 36 per cent. turnout is not something to which we should aspire if we want a participative democracy.

There is the oft-quoted example of the Member who was elected in Inverness—I cannot remember quite when—on 24 per cent. of the vote. More than three quarters of his electorate did not want him as their Member of Parliament. That makes a powerful case for change. But the problem is that Lord Jenkins had four criteria. To hear the howls of protest from Conservative Members one would think that there was some conspiracy at work. But Jenkins had to come up with a system that gave us broad proportionality, retained the constituency link, extended voter choice and produced stable government. There is no conspiracy; those criteria are simply not achievable. No one could come up with a system that met those four criteria—so let us give the noble Lord a break on that one.

The Jenkins report has blown it. I support electoral reform, but not proportional representation. The breaking of the constituency link makes the Jenkins report unsupportable. That constituency link is the foundation stone upon which our system of representative democracy is built. It gives us the authority to speak on behalf of ordinary people in the Chamber. Without that constituency link, we have no authority. Hon. Members have made clear the absurdity of having two classes of Members of Parliament. Whatever happened to first among equals?

Mr. Alan Johnson (Hull, West and Hessle)

It is a rubbish novel.

Mr. Salter

No, it is not. I also believe that the system is a recipe for civil war inside the Labour party. The constituencies of many Labour Members are surrounded by those of other Labour Members. Will we spend the next three, four, five or eight years deciding which of our number will be chopped? I think not. This system is not a recipe for a cohesive parliamentary party.

It is time to destroy some myths about the alternative vote. The Conservatives attack it for not being proportional enough, yet you use it to elect your leader, do you not?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) that he is addressing the Chair.

Mr. Salter

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was addressing the Chair in a roundabout way.

Conservative Members use the alternative vote system to elect their leader. They reject more proportional systems and then attack the alternative vote for not being proportional enough.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Salter

No, I do not have time. The alternative vote is important because it enshrines honest, tactical voting. We have tactical voting in our present political system, but it relies on our second guessing how our neighbours may or may not vote. Politicians play an absurd game of double bluff.

AV has distinct advantages: it rewards parties that work together, punishes extremists, provides Governments with clear, workable majorities and meets three of the four criteria set down for the Jenkins commission. I agree with the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) who said that we could introduce the alternative vote system now. I would prefer to take this debate even further and examine both Houses of Parliament. I think that there is a compelling and powerful case for using the alternative vote—with its clear majority and clear mandate and its generation of stable government—in this place and a pure proportional system in a second Chamber.

I believe that, by breaking the link between a Member of Parliament and his or her constituents, Jenkins has become unsupportable and will be consigned to the dustbin of history.

7.21 pm
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Using a rather unfortunate simile, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) compared voting under the Jenkins system to filling in a national lottery ticket. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that that comparison is all too accurate. If the Jenkins system were implemented, instead of voting for what they knew they would get if enough of them voted in the same way, people would be voting for a mish-mash, for confusion, splits, backroom deals and for an outcome that no one could predict in advance.

If ever there were a case of "physician, heal thyself, it is this report. All five members of the commission were committed to electoral reform, but they could not reach a unanimous verdict among themselves. Various right hon. and hon. Members have referred to the dissenting report by Lord Alexander, and I shall put a little of that on the record in the short time available to me. In the second conclusion of the main report, the Jenkins majority admitted: "On its own, AV would be unacceptable because of the danger that in anything like present circumstances it might increase rather than reduce disproportionality". The commission drew attention to what is called in the overall report a Note of Reservation by Lord Alexander. Anyone else would call that a minority or dissenting report. However, these guys do not believe in minorities and majorities, let alone—heaven forbid—dissent. So it is a "Note of Reservation". In that note of reservation, Lord Alexander says: "AV comes into play only when a candidate fails to secure a majority of first preference votes. It does not, however, then take account of the second preferences of all the voters, but only of those who have supported the least successful candidates. So it ignores the second preferences of the voters who supported the two candidates with the highest first preference votes"— in other words, the parties that came first and second— "but allows the voters for the third or even weaker candidates to have their second votes counted so as to determine the result. I find this approach wholly illogical. Why should the second preferences of those voters who favoured the two stronger candidates on the first vote be totally ignored and only those who support the lower placed and less popular candidates get a second"— he could have added third, fourth or fifth— "bite of the cherry? Let us move from the alternative vote to the actual Jenkins formula. That formula would create a situation whereby coalition became the norm—it might not always happen, but it would happen much more frequently than in the past. The central question is not whether this system is better than that system which is better than the other— which might be worse than a fourth, fifth or sixth system—but whether a coalition result is a better outcome than a decisive result and single-party government. That is the key to the whole debate.

If we believe that it is more important to have single-party government than coalition government, there is no need to change the present system. However, if we believe that coalition is better, we must defend the disproportionate amount of power that is granted to parties that come third, fourth or fifth in the election result in persuading them to join the Government. That issue is not tackled properly in the report. The commission cites Germany as an example. Paragraph 56 of the report says that, in Germany, the single transferable vote has "undoubtedly made coalition the norm, but not inevitable. I would reply that the British system makes coalition the rarity, but not impossible.

Lord Jenkins explains in the report how 13 years of coalition between the Free Democrats and the Social Democrats in Germany were succeeded by 16 years of coalition between the Free Democrats and the Christian Democrats. If we had seen then the result recently achieved in Germany—and the Greens instead of the Free Democrats had held the balance of power—what would have happened at the height of the cold war? This is one of my hobby horses. What would have happened if the Greens had been in the position of the Free Democrats? During the cold war, the Free Democrats were able— using a small minority of votes—to command the foreign and the defence ministries. The Greens have now done much the same. With less than 7 per cent. of the vote, the Greens command Germany's foreign ministry. Is that democratic? Is it proportional?

The reality is that coalition government makes up for the increase in proportionality between the votes cast and the members elected with a decrease in proportionality in the actual distribution of power between the parties. The minority partner in the coalition has a stranglehold on the majority.

I conclude by giving an example using the system that was forced upon the newly emergent democracies. In Slovenia in 1992, a centre right coalition comprised of about six parties was forged after a general election. However, an issue arose that split off the Social Democrats and the Greens. Those parties decided that they did not want to play any more and would take the ball from the field—in fact, they wanted to take the ball and join the opposing team. So the people of Slovenia went to bed with a centre right Government in power, and awoke the following morning to a centre left Government comprised of the Greens, the Social Democrats, the former communists and the socialists. There was a total change of government, and not one vote was cast in an election.

I discussed this question a few years ago with a distinguished British psephologist, Dr. Robert Waller, who encapsulated the essence of the argument more concisely than I ever could. He said that the introduction of proportional representation into this country would be the largest single transfer of power from the people to the politicians in British political history. That says it all, and that is why we must reject that system.

7.29 pm
Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

Like other hon. Members, I apologise in advance for the fact that time will prevent me from taking any interventions.

We have had a thoughtful debate. I particularly enjoyed the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). I agree with him that we are discussing the nature of our democracy. That is the key question before us. Before we become too sanguine or too complacent about our electoral system, it is worth reflecting on the disconnection that so many of our citizens feel from the political process. The turnout in the last election was the lowest since the 1930s.

Many factors contribute to that sense of disconnection. The electoral system is an important part of the political landscape. Polls taken recently show a great deal of support among large sections of the British people for changing the system. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) was right when he said that the important debate is not the one in this place, but the one that takes place outside. We must listen to what the people say.

Time is short, but I shall comment on three parts of the Jenkins report. Many of the media attacks on the report have been attacks on things that are not in the report, but I do not find that surprising from Opposition Members. When I turned up for the launch of the Jenkins commission, I was ushered into a room where a Conservative party press conference was taking place. All the pitfalls of the Jenkins report were being pointed out. There was just one problem: the report had not yet been published, and those at the press conference did not know what was in it.

The three issues that I shall address are the constituency link, the top-up and, if time permits, coalitions. On the constituency link, it is true that certain proportional systems abolish that link. The Jenkins system is no such system. If the Jenkins recommendations were implemented, every elector in every constituency would be able to elect a constituency Member of Parliament. That important principle is retained by the Jenkins commission.

Although we in the House value the constituency link, it is worth while listening to what the people say about it. We do not always get the form of the constituency link right. We need to consider how the hours of the House and our resourcing work with the constituency link. I believe that there is room for improvement. Let us be clear that the Jenkins report retains the constituency link.

The second point concerns top-ups. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) spoke about the New Zealand experience. I have some differences with her analysis, including the fact that the polls in New Zealand do not show support for the return of first past the post. She is right, however, to say that there is dissatisfaction with the mixed member proportional system there. The Jenkins system is not the same as the New Zealand system. It is important to put that fact on the record.

There have been several comments about centralisation in political parties. Those concerns are legitimate. I am also worried about centralisation in political parties, but there is no God-given law decreeing that that happens only under proportional systems. It is political parties, not electoral systems, that centralise power. If we were introducing the first past the post system, hon. Members could argue that that would centralise power, because it would require parties to contest elections with closed lists of one candidate. That is what the first past the post system involves.

Under Jenkins, we are not dealing with straight party lists. The commission makes it crystal clear that the top-up Members of Parliament will be from an open list system. Electors will have the right to vote for candidates, and they will therefore also have the right to remove those top-up Members. The open list system will be used. It is not a centralising mechanism and will genuinely empower the voters.

Another criticism of the top-up system is that it will produce two classes of Members of Parliament. It is true that, under the Jenkins system, there will be more than one person who can call himself or herself the Member of Parliament for a particular area—the constituency Member and the top-up. However, the top-up will not be a floating Member, as has been suggested; he or she will represent a clear geographical area.

Some of us may feel that our constituencies are our personal property and that no one else can have a say in them. I do not feel that. If I did, I do not know how I would work with councillors in my constituency or with Members of the European Parliament. When regional government comes, it will force us to confront the issue. I see no problem in more than one person representing an area.

If it is suggested that there would be two classes of Members of Parliament, let us consider what we have at present. It is true that we all arrive at this place by the same route, but can we honestly say that there is only one class of Member of Parliament? Can we say that the job of constituency caseworker, law maker, member of the Executive, Opposition spokesperson and Government spokesperson are all the same job? They are not. Members in safe seats are not subject to the same pressures as Members in so-called marginal seats.

Mrs. Laing


Mr. Burden

I am sorry, I cannot give way. I must stick to what I said earlier.

I shall deal briefly with the third point—coalitions. It has rightly been said that, under the Jenkins system, many of the elections that have taken place since the war would have resulted in single-party government. It is not true to say that the Jenkins system would automatically lead to coalitions.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said that the Jenkins proposals will split the Labour party. I do not believe that. In the Labour party, we have a body of principles and policies that we share, under whatever political system we operate. However, it is true that every political party in Britain, unless it is a party of one, is a coalition. There are different views in every party.

I ask hon. Members to ask themselves whether it is healthy for coalitions of political parties to operate under an electoral system that forces them all to address the concerns of a few hundred thousand voters in about 100 marginal seats, rather than the concerns of the electorate as a whole. Whether coalitions are good or bad depends not on the electoral system, but on whether the electorate gives a clear view and whether the coalitions are honest, open and transparent. The Jenkins system offers a far greater chance of achieving that than the present system.

The debate will go on. It must take place outside, as well as in this place. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) that we should conduct the debate in a grown-up atmosphere, so that it informs the British people and they can choose the democracy that they—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member must resume his seat.

7.37 pm
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

On a point of frustration, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if you will indulge me. The points that I shall make could easily have been dealt with in interventions, if Labour Members had been a little more generous with their time. I know that the time available is limited, but the Chair has some discretion. This business is killing debate.

Had I been allowed to intervene, I would have dismissed the argument—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member will be allowed injury time as a result of my intervention. May I point out that interventions are perfectly permissible. They do not take time away from the hon. Member who is speaking. It is entirely at the discretion of the hon. Member whether he or she gives way. The point made by my predecessor in the Chair was that interventions simply take time out of the debate as a whole.

Mr. Swayne

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

First, I dismiss the notion that the leader of the Conservative party is elected by some form of alternative vote. If any analogy is to be drawn, it would be to the French system of run-offs, which is much closer to the British electoral system than to any form of alternative voting. The choice of system is a matter of horses for courses. Members of the Conservative party elect a leader, not a Member of Parliament. Those are entirely different things.

Secondly, it is interesting that, as the debate on proportional representation has unfolded during this Parliament, the position of the Liberal Democrats has changed somewhat. We began by being told that, in principle, Liberal Democrats were in favour of the single transferable vote. Interestingly enough, they were given the opportunity in the other place last week to vote for the STV for the European elections. Instead of voting for that in Committee, they voted against it. We were subsequently told, or have subsequently been told—

Mr. Donald Gorrie (Edinburgh, West)

What the hon. Gentleman says is untrue. The single transferable vote was not on offer in the other place. What he says is just not true.

Mr. Swayne

That is not my reading of the debate, but I am sure that an examination of the record will prove whatever is true.

We were told also that the hon. Gentleman's party was in favour of open lists as opposed to closed lists. When it was provided with the opportunity to vote in favour of open lists, it voted against them. It boils down to the fact that the Liberal Democrats are interested not in grandiose principles of fairness but in bottoms on seats. That is what this is all about.

Mr. Gray

Will my hon. Friend note that, if the Liberal Democrat party is interested in bottoms on seats, the seats on which it is putting its bottoms now are at restaurants and bars throughout the land and not in the Chamber? That is extraordinary given that the subject that we are debating is one of key interest to the Liberals, of all people.

Mr. Swayne

My hon. Friend makes an effective point. I shall move on to turnout at elections.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Swayne

I shall not give way because I have moved on.

I shall deal with the issue of low turnout. I think that our turnout, despite the most recent election, is pretty healthy, even for a seat such as mine where the winning candidate commands more than 50 per cent. of the votes. My seat is regarded as rock solid for the Conservative party and, typically, the turnout is still 80 per cent. I reckon that that is pretty good.

I suspect that low turnout is a worldwide phenomenon. I suspect also that it will, as a consequence of frustration at not being able to change the Government, be a rather greater problem with systems that are more proportional. The result of the voting systems elsewhere is that, irrespective of the way in which the votes are cast, politicians stitch up a coalition subsequent to the election. The same faces always appear in government. That engenders cynicism and indifference among the voters.

That brings me to my final point, which is the constituency link. The system proposed by the Jenkins report undermines the constituency link by creating top-up Members who have not effectively been elected by anyone. [Interruption.] I agree to differ with Labour Members on that. Of course I accept that there are arguments to the contrary. However, as no one has voted for those candidates specifically—[HON. MEMBERS: "Yes, they have."] To an extent, the electorate will have done so in an open list. I grant that. However, given that they do not geographically represent a constituency in the same way as other Members, they lack a legitimacy. I believe that that has a corrupting effect on the entire polity.

I take Germany as an instructive example. As an aside, I thought that it was grotesque, watching the results of the German election, when Chancellor Kohl, rejected by his constituents and turned out by the voters in precisely the way in which voters in this country can turn out someone, appeared again as a Member of the German Parliament as a consequence of his place on the list. It is something of a sport on election night in this country to be able to knock off the leading lights of the various parties and to gloat over their fate. It is perhaps not an edifying sport, but it is one that voters enjoy. It would be denied them under proportional systems, as it was denied to the German voters.

It is instructive that, under the German political system, a large proportion of the population has been deeply sceptical, troubled and preoccupied for years about the notion of abolishing the deutschmark. However, that attitude has not been reflected by German politicians. It is extraordinary. The answer, I believe, is that, under the list system, politicians have to address the preoccupations of the party managers and not those of the voters. That leads to a division between the voter and the political class. That is profoundly unhealthy. To prevent that, we must hold fast to the constituency link and the British electoral system.

7.45 pm
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

I am grateful to have the opportunity of making a few comments in an important debate. I am a strong supporter of the present first-past-the-post system. When we come to the referendum, I shall be campaigning for that system. However, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) that, if we are to ask the people to tell us the way forward in our democracy, we must also link in the other place and the way in which people should be elected to it. I do not necessarily reach my hon. Friend's conclusion, when he said that there should be proportional representation. We must recognise that this is an extremely difficult debate. Once we give the other place a mandate, it will argue that its mandate is equal to that of this place and it will therefore not want limited powers. That in itself raises an extremely difficult argument.

Clearly, there are different views on the changes that should be made and I have grave doubts about the nature of the referendum that we shall put before the electorate. Should there be only one alternative? Should the electorate not have a wider choice than that with which the Jenkins committee has come forward? That issue should be examined carefully as we proceed along what I consider to be a dangerous path. As I have said, I want to remain with the present system.

For those who argue that every vote should be an equal vote and want proportional representation, the Jenkins recommendation is not the answer. If we say that 43 per cent. of the electorate vote one way and that those electors should have 43 per cent. of the seats, it is clear that the system that Lord Jenkins is proposing will not produce that result.

I have been in the Labour party for more than 40 years and I was a party organiser. Against that background, I find it extremely strange that it is being argued by some Labour supporters and Members that we should adopt a system that will produce fewer Labour Members. I can understand the Liberals, who will be clear gainers under almost any new system that we might adopt, wanting change, but not the Labour party.

We should remember the closest election result in terms of numbers of seats that we have had since the war, which was in February 1974. The same sort of result could be the outcome if we adopt the sort of change that is proposed. The Prime Minister of the day was defeated in February 1974, having been rejected by the electorate. However, he hung on in power for a few days trying to do a deal behind the scenes with the Liberal party. In the end, the Liberals, to their credit, said no. They said that it was a defeat and it was Harold Wilson who was finally called to the palace to form a Government.

A more recent example has been presented to us in Germany with Chancellor Schroder, who had to do deals to get a coalition Government in place. We have read reports of that in our press. In the German press, there have been more reports than in ours. However, we do not know what has gone on behind the scenes in dark, smoke-ridden rooms where deals have been done to produce a coalition. I have grave fears about such a system and now we have the Jenkins proposal. It seems to be trying to maintain the link with constituencies, which I believe is crucial. Lord Jenkins has tried to move towards proportionality, but only marginally. He has also tried to propose a system that will avoid too many coalitions, and thus too many of the problems to which I have just referred.

The report is a poor fudge, as it deals with none of the problems with which it was supposed to deal. The system that it proposes is nonsense. It plucks 15 or 20 per cent. out of the air to provide a limited combination of an additional member system and a top-up system. It seems crazy. As for vacancies or deaths in that top-up system, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred to "spares" being brought in to fill gaps. If there were no spares, seats would be left vacant. That is nonsense.

I remind hon. Members that by-elections can change a Government's policies. Let us remember the by-election results after the poll tax. Ultimately, the by-election in Ribble Valley next door to my constituency made the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), decide that the poll tax had to go and that council tax legislation had to be introduced. Despite an overwhelming Conservative majority, that by-election changed the poll tax policy. The Conservatives knew that the election could not be delayed beyond 1992, and they feared the consequences. I accept that, if it is a direct election, there will still be a by-election, but it could just as easily be within the 15 or 20 per cent. top-up. Again, that must be nonsense.

New Zealand has been referred to. I went there just over a year ago. In New Zealand, the National party won 44 seats out of 120—New Zealand First, led by Winston Peters, won 17 seats. It did a deal, part of which was that it was over-represented in terms of both ordinary and Cabinet Ministers. It dictated the terms. Some people have moved away from that party since, and other changes have taken place. New Zealand First is certainly cracking up and the coalition no longer exists.

Although the prospect of having a system that is fair to minority parties may be the basis for our debate, ultimately, the tail always wags the dog. The minority dictates the terms and gets more than its fair share. That is nonsense. We may look at what has happened in New Zealand and other parts of the world, but our system has worked well. I strongly support it and hope that the House will not go along with change. If we choose to hold a referendum, I hope that people will say that we should keep the system as it is because it has worked well for many years.

7.52 pm
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

There has been much talk tonight about stable government, which has been produced by the first-past-the-post system. Appropriately, there has also been talk about the possibility of coalitions.

The Liberal Democrats, though, have talked less than one might have expected about Lord Jenkins's failure to come up with a proportionate system. Advocates of proportionality in electoral systems—principally the Liberal Democrats in modern times—have not been true to their history and their principles. No one would argue that, even with a top-up, AV is a proportional system. We have had some honesty from those on the Labour Benches tonight. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) was honest enough to acknowledge that the system was not proportional and to give an empirical analysis of it. However, we have heard little from the Liberal Democrats, who seem to grasp at any alternative to the current system, regardless of its merits.

I want to speak not about coalitions and stable government but about a subject referred to by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn): this debate is, above all, about power and the people. It is about the relationship between the elected and electors. Electoral systems are not just about elections; they are about the subsequent nature of representation. Their effect is to establish a relationship or partnership between politicians and the people.

Being a Member of Parliament is about making laws, but it is also about speaking and fighting for ordinary people, and I am not ashamed to say that I have a disproportionate responsibility to speak and fight for those who are least able to do that for themselves. I am surprised that more hon. Members do not regard that as the most significant and rewarding part of their job.

As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) said, there are many types of politicians, both in government and on the Back Benches, but a unifying, binding factor is their common accountability to their constituents. They must all hold a constituency surgery and go to boring as well as interesting meetings in their constituencies.—[Interruption.] The meetings that I go to are implicitly less boring. Politicians have to open fetes, visit hospitals and schools, and are in touch with their electorates, all of which informs them and keeps their feet on the ground. Heaven knows, many people who are attracted to politics find it hard to keep their feet on the ground. That constituency link—the communication and contact with the average elector—is the principal means by which politicians retain their ordinariness.

Roy Jenkins does not appear to value that highly. We can see from his political background that he is a different type of politician. He is certainly very different from me. Although he is not quite a carpetbagger of Gladstonian proportions—Gladstone represented six seats during his political career, one of which he is reported never to have visited—Jenkins was certainly never in tune with what electorates now expect of their representatives. More than ever before, people want a Member of Parliament to whom they can relate and with whom they can empathise—someone who lives in their community and shares their interests. A Member of Parliament totally unlike Lord Jenkins one might argue. A story persists about Lord Jenkins holding his constituency surgery at the railway station because he did not live in the constituency.

We should move away from such politicians, but those on a top-up list would be of exactly that type. Although those politicians may have some notional connection with the county—Jenkins has given us that palliative—imagine a county like mine, Lincolnshire, with an extra top-up Member floating about somewhere between the Isle of Axholme and the Fens. Would he go to those boring meetings with boring people, or would he be down here hobnobbing and fine dining with the Westminster cognoscenti at one of Lord Jenkins's six London clubs? I think I know where he would be, and it would not be in Lincolnshire.

Mr. Maclennan

I was brought up in the Glasgow constituency to which Lord Jenkins was twice elected. He was not a native son of Glasgow, but he was more than acceptable.

Mr. Hayes

Lord Jenkins never lived in Stechford when he represented it for 27 years and he never lived in Glasgow when he represented it either. Many hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber moved to their constituencies when they were elected because they believed that they should be at the heart of the area that they represented. I am not impressed by Lord Jenkins's track record. Given that he has been outside mainstream politics for some 15 years, that he is 77 years of age, and that his best political days were when he was a member of the Cabinet a generation ago, he was an odd choice— I put it no higher than that—as chairman of the commission.

This debate is all about power and people. A factor that has only been scantily mentioned is that, if the system were introduced in a constituency like mine—assuming that the boundaries were redrawn and I were reselected—I would represent a constituency that was 15 or 20 per cent. larger than my current one. In a seat like mine, which covers 350 square miles, I could not do that without delivering a lower quality service to my electorate. I would be taking on an extra 20,000 people. We have moved away from that. The idea of constituencies of 100,000 people was abandoned by the boundary commissions because they believed that constituencies should conform to a uniform smaller size. The current proposal is surely a step in the wrong direction. Perhaps the commission underestimated the impact of that.

Mr. Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth)

It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman has chosen to argue ad hominem, which undermines a debate which is long overdue in this House. Is the hon. Gentleman frightened of having the support of 50 per cent. and above of his electorate? It sounds to me as if he would benefit from the top-up Member to assist him with his work in Lincolnshire.

Mr. Hayes

I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman thinks that I am not making a useful contribution to the debate. Being a Member of Parliament is about representing people and caring for people. It is about articulating people's needs, fears, aspirations and hopes. That is more important to me than the machinations of the Westminster cognoscenti, of which the hon. Gentleman is clearly fond.

I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman thinks so little of my contribution to the debate, but I can tell him that for myself I am frightened of nothing. I got 49.5 per cent. of the vote, and I am confident that I could have picked up a few of the second choices from some of the other candidates. I am frightened for the British people though because I care about them being properly represented in an informed, modern democracy.

The debate is about power and people, and the Jenkins proposals would take power further and further away from the British people. That has been recognised by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield, by myself and by many people who are better informed than myself. I will fight hard to retain power with the people by retaining our current electoral system.

8 pm

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

I do not believe that the debate is about the report of an independent commission. Frankly, how can a Liberal Democrat Lord chairing a commission offer us an independent outcome? I do not blame Lord Jenkins, however, who has jumped at the chance afforded to him to have the floor and to argue his case at length.

Some of my hon. Friends have expressed fear about the list system. Some people have said that Jenkins is not talking about a closed list, but an open one. Nevertheless, the introduction of the top-up system for the Westminster elections would make it far easier for party headquarters to centralise the decisions about the selection of candidates, whether it was an open or closed list.

I do not fear coalition Governments. Every Government in this country is a coalition one. The Tory party is a coalition, as is the Labour party. Any wise party leader recognises that his party contains a right wing and a left wing. That is why Attlee chose to accommodate both Aneurin Bevan and Ernie Bevin in his Cabinet when he became Prime Minister in 1945. However, Jenkins is proposing to create a situation where coalition Governments of more than one party would be more likely to be in power more often—and would, very often, be inevitable.

If we moved to the proportional system, as recommended by Jenkins, it would be true to say that whichever major party was in office, the Liberal Democrats would always be in power. It is no wonder the Liberal Democrats favour proportional representation, although there is no record of the Liberal party supporting PR in 1906 or in the days of Gladstone. I do not blame the Liberal Democrats. They are politically motivated, as are we all to an extent.

Under our system, the voters vote for the coalition with which they are familiar—whether it is Labour or Tory. The voters understand that. PR would mean coalitions being cobbled together in back rooms by politicians. It is an electoral system for politicians. The first-past-the-post system is an electoral system for the people of this country.

Some new Labour Members may not recall the history of the Liberal Democrats. It is often assumed that if we moved to a proportional system, the Liberal Democrats would always support the Labour party. That is not true. We have seen what has happened in Germany. Helmut Kohl became Chancellor in 1982 not because of an election, but because the Free Democratic party—a party which, with the exception of four years, has always been in government in Germany—chose to move from supporting from one Helmut, Schmidt, to another Helmut, Kohl.

The Liberal party in this country has switched support as well. I recall the elections in 1951 and 1955, when Conservative candidates stood down to allow Liberals to win seats in Bolton and Huddersfield. I can even remember the day when The Guardian—which was then thought to be the house magazine of the Liberal party— called on people to vote Conservative in 1950. That was despite the fact that the Labour Government after the war had created the welfare state and maintained full employment—the sort of things which the Liberals should have supported.

In 1979, we had the Lib-Lab pact. The Liberals' opposition to the Labour Government on a confidence motion helped to give us 18 years of Tory Government, many under the extremism of Thatcher. Is it fair to Labour and Tory voters that the minority who choose to vote Liberal Democrat should nearly always be in a position to determine who should govern? Following electoral defeats in the 1980s, many Labour activists thought that we should perhaps look at changing the electoral system. In 1983, it looked as though we had a mountain to climb; in 1997, we did not just reach the summit—we touched the stratosphere with the result.

Jenkins has made a number of errors in his report. On page 13, paragraph 47, the report says that there was no certain control of the Attlee Government from 1950 to 1951, or of the Wilson Government of 1964 to 1966. How many times did those Governments lose in the Division Lobby? The answer is that they never did. If we had had PR in 1964—when the Labour Government had a tiny overall majority—Wilson would have been unable to exercise the option to call an election in 1966 and to come back with a stable, overall majority of 100 for the Labour party.

We should fantasise just a little. Imagine if, in 1997, the Labour party had been elected as the largest single party, but in a hung Parliament. Who would have had to give way to accommodate the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown)? Would it be the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs? Would it be the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Maybe it would be the Secretary of State for the Home Department.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The hon. Gentleman's time is up.

8.9 pm

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

I do not want to confront others with errors, but I think that the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) crammed more errors into his speech than any other Member who has spoken tonight—although there have been other errors. But I want to spend my allotted time speaking up for disfranchised voters, and especially for disfranchised Conservatives. I am not going to talk about those who have been disfranchised in Scotland and Wales, because, as has been pointed out, a top-up Member has been appointed for them by the Conservatives here; but in my region—and in the northern region, where there are no Conservatives—there are serious problems.

Greater Manchester has 28 parliamentary seats. The Conservatives have two of those 28 seats, although they have 25 per cent. of the popular vote across Greater Manchester. It takes 154,000 Conservative electors in Greater Manchester to produce one Member of Parliament, which should certainly not be the case. Mention has been made of Surrey, which has the opposite problem.

In the general election of 1997, those 28 contests in Greater Manchester had one feature that is common to all the elections in the present first-past-the-post system. Each involved a closed list of one candidate per party. Those who fulminate against the idea of a proportional system and the control of parties have clearly failed to observe the present circumstances. As is so often the case, it is easier to look out of the glass house than to spot the glass that surrounds us.

In last year's general election, the election results in Greater Manchester had one unusual feature compared with results elsewhere. In 25 of those 28 contests, the winning candidate gained more than 50 per cent. of the vote. It should be borne in mind that 44 per cent. of hon. Members sit here having received less than 50 per cent. of the vote in their constituencies.

I must say that I look forward to a referendum campaign in which Conservatives visit my constituency— where I did receive more than 50 per cent. of the vote— and try to persuade my voters that they are so dumb that they cannot understand any alternative voting system that is put to them. I hope that those Conservatives will make clear their belief that voters in my constituency are dumber than the Germans, dumber than the French, dumber than the Italians and dumber than the Spanish— because I have a feeling that my electors will reply, "We were smart enough to see through their arguments at the general election, and we are smart enough to see through them in a referendum campaign."

It has been alleged that one of the consequences of the proposed change would be weak government. Let us take the period between 1945 and 1998. In that period of 53 years, we have had 35 years of Conservative government and 18 years of Labour government—strong government, provided by the other parties, as I am sure they would agree. In that time, the Germans have overhauled us and taken on East Germany; France has overhauled us; Italy is snapping at our heels; and the Spaniards, who have had only half as much time in a democratic system, which took over from a dictatorship 25 years ago, are now very close to us. All that has been supplied by "weak" coalitions—by the proportional government that the Conservatives so despise.

It has been said that the proposed system is a recipe for minority government. Anyone who observed the Major Government may have wondered exactly who was wagging the dog. Was it the Europhobics? Was it the Ulster Unionists? And what about the mysterious change without an election? What happened when the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) took over from Mrs. Thatcher? Let us not concern ourselves with the nature of the Conservative party's voting system; what about the votes that were offered to the people of this country? There were none at all. We do not need lectures about parties changing course in midstream without elections.

Let us be clear about one thing: the Jenkins proposals would not produce the results cited by their opponents. It is evident that many of them have not even read the report. They have not read the academic evidence in the CD-ROM—because, I imagine, they are still using quill pens. If they did so, they would learn that, in four of the last five elections, a majority party would have been elected.

There is a saying that those who live by the sword must die by the sword. The Conservatives have adopted a different policy: they have decided that those who die by the sword must die by the sword. They have a system that is destroying them in Parliament and in local government, and they are urging us all to stick with it. Some of us are almost tempted to say yes to that.

Let us have a look at this business about strong and weak government. We need not look to France or Germany; we can look to Doncaster and Westminster to see why powerful single-party domination of any political culture leads to more corruption and worse government than a more representative system. [HON. MEMBERS: "Like Italy."] Like Italy, which, in fact, has pulled up its economic bootstraps over the last 50 years, and has developed its political culture. I gather that the view is that Italian voters are so stupid that they cannot run the system.

It is said that we have one class of Members of Parliament in the House. Only three months ago did we finally and formally get rid of the distinction between right hon. and hon. Members, and anyone who believes that there is no class distinction or separation of powers between different Members of Parliament here has been living in a dream world.

I do not think that the Tories' big fear is of being replaced by Liberal Democrat or Labour Members. I think that their fear is of being replaced by Tory Members of Parliament from Scotland, Wales and Greater Manchester. There would be more Tory Members of Parliament as a result of a new voting system; but they would be more representative, they would know what they were talking about, and they would be in a position to serve the country far better.

8.16 pm
Ms Claire Ward (Watford)

Some hon. Members may well feel that the report, and the debate, have been long awaited—especially those who stand to gain most, the Liberal Democrats. Surprisingly, however, the Liberal Democrats have been unable to muster even a 50 per cent. attendance.

I believe that those who claim that there is a great desire for change are talking nonsense. In the 18 months that I have been a Member of Parliament, and during the many years in which I have campaigned with the Labour party—both before elections and in the interim periods— not one person has said to me, "I will vote Labour because I want proportional representation," or, "I will vote Labour because I want to change the electoral system."

Let us be honest: people do not vote for a political party because they want a change in the electoral system. They have much higher priorities, as I am sure most hon. Members can tell us on the basis of their surgeries and constituency correspondence. I do not believe that there is any real clamour for change. I think that the 1997 election result showed us that the current system can deliver huge swings, and that people are capable of making up their minds to get rid of a Government, or a Member of Parliament, whom they do not believe to have represented them adequately.

It is wrong to believe that proportional representation— or, indeed, the Jenkins report—will bring more democracy. The truth is that democracy ends the moment the ballot box closes. When people have voted for a party, they may well end up with a Government who are a coalition of parties none of which they supported. Under proportional representation, there is a much greater risk of a mish-mash of policies and deals done in back rooms after the people have had their say.

We need only look at other countries in which the system is operating to see that that is so. The most recent example is Germany, where the smallest party has held the balance of power for many years. Even at the last general election, it took nearly six weeks for the Germans to agree on a coalition Government for whom the people had not voted, although more people voted for Schröder's party than for any other.

I shall deal now with some of the specific issues in the Jenkins report. I am surprised that those who support proportional representation support the Jenkins report, because it does not meet the criteria set out by those who believe in PR. The use of the AV system does not give equal weight to votes. If an elector votes for the Monster Raving Loony party or the Let's Have A Party party or any other fringe or minority party, in a seat where there are two main parties, the second preference will be taken into account to determine the overall winner. A person voting for either of the main parties will have only their first preference taken into account. How can that be democratic? How does that give equal weight to votes? It will inevitably give undue weight to minority parties.

The AV system has a tendency to produce random results depending on which party is placed second in the first count. One party may gain far more first preferences than its main rival, but second, third, fourth or even fifth preferences may carry that second party over the winning line. I do not believe that that is democratic. The Jenkins commission has failed to fulfil its terms of reference.

Mr. Andy King


Ms Ward

I will not give way, because of the time.

Jenkins was told to come up with a system that kept the constituency link, but he has failed to do that. The top-up breaks the constituency link and creates two types of Member of Parliament. It does not matter that Jenkins recommends that those Members of Parliament should be treated the same in the House. We all know that, in reality, that will not happen. One type will be elected on an expanded constituency boundary and one type will be elected on a top-up, on a county or city list system.

We would need to increase the size of the constituencies, which I believe are large enough already. Members of Parliament have enough responsibility serving 70,000 or so electors without increasing that to an average of 90,000. Also, those top-up Members would have no direct relationship with the people voting for them.

I shall take as an example the constituency area that Jenkins has suggested for Hertfordshire, in which Watford would be one component part. The people in Hertfordshire already have no real direct contact with the county council. They have no idea what the organisation is or what it does. The notion that they will have any more idea about the top-up Members of Parliament on a county-based system is nonsense. They want a local Member of Parliament whom they can hold accountable, who knows the area and who will be waiting to listen to their views. Top-up Members will be floating around the county and, in Watford, we will never know where on earth they are.

Mr. Hayes

They will be down here in the Tea Room, dear.

Ms Ward

Yes, more than likely.

Where vacancies occurred in the top-up list, there would be no opportunity for a by-election. Parties would simply put forward their next highest placed candidate to take the seat. Surely voters are entitled to elect their representatives and not to rely upon parties to put up whomever they choose without any endorsement. It has already been said that it is important to have a system in which by-elections can cause changes to the Government so that it makes them sit up and listen.

The Jenkins report is a half-baked plan. It requires an electoral commission to fill in the details that he has been unable to provide. In my view, we should stick with a first-past-the-post system, which is simple in concept— one cross, one vote. It is easy to count and it is clear. The electorate vote for a party and a candidate to form a Government.

I do not believe in the concept of a wasted vote. The important principle is that a voter has his or her say through the ballot box. It is a fact of life that some parties will not win and that some people may feel that they have not voted for a party that will win. That does not mean that we should change the system. Just because minority parties have been unable to convince the electorate of the value and credibility of their policies is no reason to change the system.

Labour Members who have fought for many years for a Labour Government believe that we should stick with a system that will be representative of those we serve. We want a Labour Government who will be implementing their policies, not forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and doing nothing to tackle the issues concerning most people in my constituency.

8.24 pm
Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

The first question that comes to my mind this evening is why the noble Lord Jenkins is not in the Gallery listening to this debate. My suspicion is that he is being topped up in another place.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Although we are debating the Jenkins report, we should remember that the noble Lord Jenkins is a Member of the other House. It is usual to refer to all Members of the other House with courtesy.

Mr. Fraser

I shall take that on board, Mr. Deputy Speaker. These are serious issues.

The first-past-the-post system has served the country well and has generally provided what I think we all believe has been stable government. It has the confidence of the voting public. I am curious as to why the Jenkins commission has not been allowed to consider the advantages and disadvantages of our current voting system, which has served our democracy in this country. After all, as has already been said in the debate, 62 countries around the world have the same system, and they represent about half the world's electors.

Why did the commission come up with a complicated system that is not used anywhere else in the world? Seven alternatives exist, but none was good enough for Jenkins. We must ask why not. It is yet another excursion into the unknown. I believe that this is Jenkins's revolution, but it is certainly not evolution. I believe that it is change for change's sake. Without being too disingenuous about the noble Lord, I suspect that it is an old man in a hurry, trying to make a mark. That is a pity, because, with the Jenkins commission proposals, the voter and democracy will be poorer. His proposals do not do what he set out to achieve.

How can voter choice be extended in a system in which votes for the least popular candidate can be more important than votes for the most popular? How can voter choice be extended if voting for one's preferred candidate can harm his or her chances? How can voter choice be extended if a large number of so-called top-up Members are selected from closed party lists? Some may even have been rejected by the electorate in their constituency, but may enter Parliament as if appointed by a quango. How can voter choice be extended if Liberal Democrat Members become established by default, irrespective of their performance on election day?

None of us in the House would argue against the case for stable government, but we would not argue for stable government at all costs. Under the current first-past-the-post system, the voter understands that the Government can be called to account at the polls if they fail to deliver. The Government of the day have the support of Parliament for their policies and promises. They have the ability to carry forward those policies and there is a clear-cut accountability to the electorate.

What happens under the proposed system? As was eloquently pointed out by the hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward), after an election, policies would be cobbled together in smoke-filled rooms in the pursuit of power and the interests of survival. What seems compatible at the outset may turn out to be wishful thinking when times get tough, particularly if expediency results in a coalition with a political party some way down the voters' preference list which has extreme or single-issue views. Small parties would enjoy disproportionate influence.

Policies would be muddled, accountability would be obscured and the ability to remain in power would be a matter of compromise. The classic criticisms of proportional representation have not been addressed in the hotch-potch system that has been advocated in the Jenkins report. That concerns me at constituency level as well as at national level. The direct link with the electorate on which our Parliament is based is understood and appreciated. Our constituents may not entirely understand our role, but they do understand that we, and we alone, represent them and their interests. A Member of Parliament is a single point of contact for every person of voting age.

As Members of Parliament, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by diligence and service to the local community and the individuals that we represent. We work directly for the whole constituency, not only for those who voted for us. We know and understand the complexities of our patch, and we speak in the House against that background. Our constituents judge us on what we do in and for the constituency, at least as much as on what we do in the House.

Candidate selection—in the Conservative party, at least—remains largely a local matter. Every vote at every level counts. If we fail at local level, we pay the price, and someone else will be found to take on the job.

The proposal for top-up Members should be thought through carefully. What is their remit? Whom do they represent? I believe that they represent no one. How are they to be judged? How can voters identify with then-work and their performance? How can they be called to account? How can their performance in the House serve democracy?

Lord Jenkins's support for proportional representation is long-standing and well known. He has at last found a Prime Minister who might be prepared to listen and be swayed by his enthusiasm for coalition politics.

The commission was not allowed to consider the advantages of the current system, so we must voice them in this debate. Under first past the post, Government stability is almost always achieved. There is a close link between voters and their elected representatives. Electors understand the system, and have confidence in it. A party in government ignores the electorate at its peril. The fate of the Government is in the hands of the voters.

Even the Jenkins commission has acknowledged that there is "no surging popular agitation" for change in this country. It has failed to make a compelling case for forsaking a system that has served us well, and I do not support it.

8.31 pm
Mr. Alan Keen (Feltham and Heston)

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice) said that, if Labour voters in Surrey were asked whether they wanted a top-up Member of Parliament, they would say yes. I have lived and voted in Surrey, but I have still felt exhilarated in the polling booth when I voted—despite the overwhelming majority against Labour and despite the fact that, when I stood for the council, I was roundly beaten. I think that we know what the answer would be if Labour voters were asked the whole question—"Do you want a Labour top-up Member even though that means that there would be 50 fewer Labour Members of Parliament?"

If this debate were about a choice between the Jenkins proposals and a fully proportional system, the people who are arguing for the Jenkins proposals would be ridiculing them, saying that they were unfair and ludicrous. I do not expect hon. Members to admit to that, but they know, when they think quietly, that it is true.

Those people who claim that it is easy to vote cannot have met people like the ones I have met during the past two elections—perhaps about 10 of them—who have not voted before and have no idea what to do. I tell them how to vote, saying, "Go and give your name. Tell them where you live and they will give you the ballot paper. Go into the box and put a cross against the name of the person you want to vote for." We should not forget the fact that many people are frightened and have never been in a polling booth before.

Any major change to the system is serious. If there is no demand for a change, why should we cause such chaos? The demand comes not from the people, but—of course—from politicians. Some hon. Members—from both sides of the House—have so many axes to grind that it is surprising we can hear the debate for the noise.

If a perfect system existed, there would be an argument for ditching first past the post, but we know that such a system does not exist. People who have argued for proportional representation over the years would call the Jenkins proposals ridiculous if they had a more proportional system to support.

To change to the proposed system would be damaging. It would damage relationships between people in the same political party and it would be costly in time for party workers, who keep our political parties going and get us into Parliament.

If we accept the proposals, what would we lose? The public understand the current system, for all its deficiencies. As I said, when I voted in Surrey, I did not mind that my vote would not count. I was happy to let the people of Wales, the north-east and Manchester make my vote count—

Mr. Kaufman

Hear, hear.

Mr. Keen

Especially Manchester.

Governments are invariably thrown out; the electorate do not really vote for us. At the general election, people may have found the Labour party's proposals acceptable, but, on the whole, they wanted to throw the Government out, as Conservative Members have been honest enough to admit. People vote largely to get rid of politicians. I do not think that they like or trust us, and I do not blame them—if they have been watching this debate, their views will have been confirmed.

Proportional representation will make it more difficult for the electorate to throw politicians out. Even if, under AV plus, only one election in the past 25 years would have resulted in a coalition, that is more than enough to make me want to throw out the proposals.

The report is flawed. Paragraph 7 of chapter two says that the "unanimous opinion…expressed…distrust of any electoral system which increased the power of party machines", yet the commission still recommends AV plus.

Moreover, paragraph 10 of chapter two—this is worth mentioning, as it highlights what other hon. Members have said—states that the role of Members of Parliament is "to represent their constituencies". I want to change that slightly; instead of "constituencies", it should say "constituents". That shows the difference in philosophy between the Jenkins commission and me.

The commission is described as independent, but I remind the House of what Lord Cocks said in early October: People asking for information about the electoral system are referred"— by the commission— to the home page of the Electoral Reform Society. Surely this organisation has a massive vested interest in the whole subject. That is hardly independent.

Lord Cocks also described the consultative meetings that were held. He said: I drew attention to the average attendance of 80 and said this represented 0.0000625 per cent. of the electorate. Even this figure is doubtful. At the recent Labour Party Conference I collected the annual review…of the Electoral Reform Society. There I see that, apart from society members writing to the Commission, 'a large number have also attended the Independent Commission's hearings to present their arguments for change and in particular STV'."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 October 1998; Vol. 593, c. 684.] Again, that is hardly independent.

The other day, I heard someone trying to justify the role of top-up Members by arguing that they would be more in touch than directly elected Members. I am nothing special, but to serve my constituents, I hold four advice surgeries a month in different locations. I am worried about the people who do not have their own transport, so I travel to them.

Feltham and Heston is a small, suburban constituency, but for top-up Members to give the same service, they would have to attend 36—four times nine—locations, from Cranford by Heathrow to as far away as Carshalton. Not that I know where Carshalton is; I know it is past Kingston somewhere, but I do not want to offend anyone who represents it. [Laughter.] I doubt whether even 1 per cent. of the people of Feltham and Heston would know where Carshalton was. If they went there, they would probably love it. They would probably love it more than they love Feltham. That is why there are lots of problems in Feltham.

The report talks about better representation in Parliament of women and people from ethnic minorities. If we are serious about electoral reform, perhaps we should go further and consider term limits. That is turkeys voting for Christmas. Term limits would give a more rapid turnover and we would get a more representative—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. I call Mr. Gerald Howarth.

8.39 pm
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

We have seen the House at its best today. I hope that the hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward) will wait a second before she disappears. When the public see us debating issues that concern the House, they see us at our best, arguing with passion about important issues that affect everybody in this country.

This fascinating debate was well opened by the Home Secretary, to whom I pay tribute, and my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) responded well. There was a splendid contribution from the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). I agreed with virtually every word that the hon. Member for Watford said. I say that with no deliberate intention of harming her career. She made a good speech, and I think that she was absolutely right when she said that the Jenkins report was fundamentally flawed.

The remit that the Prime Minister gave Lord Jenkins was to examine all the alternatives to first past the post and to recommend one. The report is a wonderful grand tour, as one would expect from someone so versed in claret, of not only Europe but the whole world, and it gives us some marvellous cameo histories of various countries. It spends about two pages on the present arrangements and goes on for no fewer than 17 pages, seeking to demolish the case for first past the post. The document is not an independent report recommending one of the alternatives to first past the post. Its objective is to destroy support for first past the post and only then to come up with a proposal to put to the Prime Minister.

I cannot promise any great new illuminations, but I hope that, in reinforcing points made by others, I will be able to advance the cause in which I believe. The new system is complicated. As the hon. Member for Watford said, the present system is easy, it does not take long to count, and one does not end up having to work out who will form the Government. As we have heard, it has taken six weeks to form the Government in Germany. It is a good job that there have been no major crises in that time.

It is not sufficient to say that we should rule out a system merely because it is complicated. There are other grounds on which the system should be ruled out. It gives disproportionate power to small parties—that is the inescapable logic—and that is why the Liberals want it. In Germany, the Greens, whose vote went down at the most recent elections from 7.3 per cent. to 6.7 per cent., ended up as the power brokers.

It has been said many times tonight, but it bears repeating, that the Free Democrats in Germany were able to remain in office while the main party changed. The tiny FDP stayed throughout and was never subjected to being booted out. The report is interesting on that. It says: Mostly the FDP has been the hinge, and has done very well out of the role. Lord Jenkins got it in one. The hinge—the disproportionate power of a small party—in this country would fall to the Liberal party, which would do very well out of it. The House is entitled to ask whether it is no accident that Lord Jenkins is the man who started up the Social Democratic party and then merged it with the Liberal party.

I resent the way in which the Liberals parade themselves as not being involved for party political reasons. They rise above the dirty business of politics in which we and the Labour party are engaged, because they are interested only in the principle. Garbage: every single alternative system that is produced for our consideration results—lo and behold—in their party doing extremely well, thank you very much indeed. I do not mind, but why do not they simply own up to it and say, "Yes, we do rather well out of it"? That is what Lord Jenkins says, in any case.

I know that the Conservative party does not enjoy the unmixed support of Fleet street these days, but let me quote from The Times, which, in an editorial on 30 October, headed "Too clever by half, said: There is every chance that the Liberal Democrats would hold office on a semi-permanent basis regardless of their performance at the polls. I am more inclined to believe The Times than the Liberal party, which is trying to seduce us into the new arrangements.

The new system would unquestionably create two classes of Member of Parliament. I say earnestly to those who are new to the House: beware. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) was absolutely right when, in his letter to The Daily Telegraph, he pointed out that the voters had booted out Mr. Kohl, but that he was back a few hours later because he was top of the list. What kind of democracy is that?

I see that the hon. Member for Enfield, Soufhgate (Mr. Twigg) is present. I lost a very good friend at the election, when his predecessor, one of the finest of Members of Parliament, was defeated. He and I had about the same notional majority, and he had a safe seat. It is not true that it is not possible to remove people in so-called safe seats, and the hon. Member for Southgate is the proof of that pudding.

We need to be careful about the top-up Members of Parliament. The Home Secretary wonderfully described them as "spares", and I think that it was the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) who called them "clones". The spares will be in our constituencies. If the arrangements go through, we shall have two in north Hampshire. They will have no constituency responsibilities, and they will not go even to the exciting events, let alone the boring ones. The spares will be there, undermining the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) and seeking to take her seat from her. That will be the effect of the system that she supports.

I believe that the report is fundamentally flawed. It is an exercise in posturing by Lord Jenkins. Hon. Members should guard jealously their freedoms and responsibilities and should not lightly give up their direct connection with their electorate.

8.47 pm
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

It is a special pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth). I defeated him in 1992, in a fairly muscular first-past-the-post election, which is almost enough evidence to make me think that it is a rather interesting system—but not quite.

I think that it was Adlai Stevenson who said that a politician is a person who approaches every question with an open mouth. Some of our debate has been interesting, but some of it has been as though the Jenkins report had never been written. Some hon. Members simply rehearsed positions that they would have held anyway. The real challenge of Jenkins is to invite us to get into some new and interesting territory. Either we respond to that challenge or we think that we can simply go on rehearsing the old arguments.

On the first page of Jenkins, in typical Jenkinsese, it says: we have endeavoured to seek relative virtue in an imperfect world. Incidentally, there are some lovely examples of Jenkinsese around. I know what "fissiparous" means, but I am not so sure about "inspissated". Perhaps it is what one becomes if one spends an evening with the claret.

Hon. Members should approach the subject with some humility—although those who have protested how excellently they do the job have not shown much. No doubt they are excellent, but we should have some realism, too. Hon. Members puff out their chests and say that they represent all their constituents, but in at least half the cases, most of their constituents have voted for other parties. Members of Parliament go through the Lobbies night after night, voting with their party. If they were representing their constituents, they would vote for the views of the majority of their constituents who have supported other parties, but they do not do that. Under our system, with all its merits, we first get ourselves selected—the selection is far more important than the election—by a very few people. We are not selected by first past the post but by some other system. We then get ourselves elected, often by a minority of the electorate, and we then claim that we represent everybody, even though by our behaviour we do not. Then we invent conventions that tell everybody else to keep off our patch. That is an interesting system, but we need to be honest when we describe it. Although I enjoyed the speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), whom I respect greatly, I could not help remembering that he and his friends opposed the extension of the vote to all members of the Labour party so that they could choose their representatives. It is a funny kind of democratic argument that leads to such conclusions.

The Jenkins report has managed to square a difficult circle. It makes it difficult for those who have supported other systems and for those who want to defend the old system. Lord Jenkins was given criteria to meet, and he has met them. In particular, he has confronted the question whether it is possible to combine more representative government with effective government. Traditionally, we have thought that that was not possible. In devising a home-grown British system that combines the disparate criteria ingeniously and imaginatively, Lord Jenkins has managed to strengthen the constituency link in many ways while adding some fairness. That is a considerable achievement that takes us into new territory.

Where do we go from here? The Government gave the commission the task of devising a concrete alternative to the existing system, so that we did not carry on a debate about some unimagined alternative that might be better. We now have that concrete alternative which we can discuss, as we have tonight.

I regret that the Government now appear to say that we will not have a referendum on the matter, having told the people that we would have a referendum and having made it central to the rest of our constitutional reform programme. It would have been the only referendum in which my constituents and the people of England would have voted. People in Scotland, Wales and London have had a referendum, but the referendum on voting reform was the one that everyone was to have.

It is ludicrous to propose more debate, because we have had a debate on the subject for most of the century. We have now at last been offered a concrete alternative to run off against first past the post. The Jenkins report makes it clear that there are good arguments on both sides and we should not be ideological in our approach. What are we afraid of in turning the matter over to the British public for them to decide? We could finally resolve an issue that has gnawed at British politics for decades and we might end up giving a little more energy and strength to our democracy.

8.54 pm
Mr. Donald Gorrie (Edinburgh, West)

I have great pleasure in following the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and some of his arguments. The voters will choose in a referendum, so the argument that the commission is biased is irrelevant. The commission was not a royal commission tasked with producing a great new method of running social services or whatever. It was asked to propose an alternative proportional system to set against the status quo, and it has produced a compromise. The idea that the report is some sort of Liberal Democrat stitch-up is complete rubbish, because the commission has not proposed a fully proportional system. If the Liberal Democrats had had their way, the commission would have recommended a single transferable vote system that was fully proportional. Lord Jenkins and his colleagues have tried to take account of different points of view and have produced a system that is more proportional than the present one; gives more voter choice; and has retained the link with the constituency. It is not a fully proportional system and, therefore, coalitions are not inevitable. The report makes it clear that the majority of elections since the war would not have produced a coalition. It is not true that the system would produce a permanent coalition and give the Liberal Democrats an easy ride.

Mr. Hayes

If the hon. Gentleman's principal argument against the current system is that it is not proportional, and the Jenkins system is, as he has just said, not proportional either, what is the incentive for change?

Mr. Gorrie

The system taken as a whole, with the AV members and the list members, is much more proportional. Lord Jenkins and his colleagues had to balance the desire for proportionality with the desire for a personal link with the constituency. They have produced a compromise that is acceptable to the Liberal Democrats because it is a great step towards proportionality.

Much of the argument tonight has centred on the allegation that the alternative vote system is wrong and unfair and that the worst votes for the worst people somehow decide the outcome. AV is not at all like that and is in fact used in many internal party elections. The system requires the voter to mark the candidates in order of preference. If someone has voted for candidates C or D and the contest ends up being only between candidates A and B, the person's preference will be taken into account. Ultimately, the whole electorate decide the run-off between candidates A and B and it is all done at one time, instead of coming back a week later—or two weeks later, as the Conservatives do in their leadership elections. The suggestion that some votes are more equal than others is not true—and nor is the idea that the constituency link would be lost. All 100 per cent. of the voters would still have a personal constituency link, and they are the people who count. Eighty per cent. or more of Members will still have a constituency link. The link has been kept, and it has been strengthened.

The idea that Members vote for the benefit of then-constituents is complete rubbish. They vote as their Whips instruct. I am sure that some Members here tonight have constituents who were not in favour of fees for students or altering benefits for single parents. Members voted as the Whips directed.

Mr. Hayes

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me a second time. Surely he will acknowledge that the vast majority of our case work and the letters in our postbags have nothing to do with issues that divide the parties. Most of our work is about solving individual problems for individual people for whom those problems, which may to others seem trivial, are the biggest thing in the world. It does not matter to those people whether their MP is a Liberal, a Tory or a socialist. What matters is that the MP cares and helps them to solve their problems.

Mr. Gorrie

The new system does not alter that one bit. Members will still represent the constituency. They will merely have a greater degree of proven support than they do now.

The proposals will increase voter choice. The idea that it is too complicated to ask a voter to put 1, 2, 3 and 4 opposite names in one list and X opposite a preferred person on another list is ridiculous. Filling in a football pool or doing the national lottery is much more complicated.

Lord Jenkins has suggested that the top-up should be on a local basis so that top-up candidates are also chosen by the people in a county or a city. To argue that we would not have the fun and games of by-elections is rubbish. Eighty per cent. of Members will be elected in constituencies that could require by-elections.

Do the Conservatives seriously believe that it is good for the democratic health of Scotland that there are no Tory representatives of Scotland in Westminster? I believe that that is bad. Any Members who say otherwise should look into themselves quite seriously.

The question is whether the new system would improve democracy. We seem to have a hatred of coalitions, but we might reflect that the occasions on which the country has been faced with the gravest problems—the two world wars—produced coalitions, and the country came out of those wars successfully. We might learn from that success.

The Conservatives should consider the graph on page 11 of the Jenkins report which shows that the present system builds in disadvantage for them. They must obtain 6 per cent. more votes than the Labour party to get the same number of seats. There are serious defects in the present system. We want a referendum. Those who want change can argue for it; those who want the present system can argue for that; and the people can decide. That is what democracy is about.

9.1 pm

Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North)

It is difficult to join the debate at this stage because most of what I wanted to say has been said. However, I will emphasise a few points as quickly as I can.

No one believes that the first-past-the-post system is perfect. However, I believe that of all the different systems on offer, first past the post is the best. Is proportional representation on offer? We have heard that it is not. We are being offered a mixed bag of proposals that the Jenkins report has pulled together, but they cannot be described as PR.

It is not really for those of us who support the first-past-the-post system to make a case against the Jenkins report. A system exists, and it is up to Jenkins's supporters to make a clear case that deals with the positive issues that have been raised in our debate. There can be only two reasons for changing the present system. First, we should do it if there were an overwhelming wish for change among the general public. We all know that that is not so. I have been in politics for 35 years, and I have knocked on doors up and down the country. I have never met anyone who has demanded a change in the electoral system. Jenkins admits that there is no demand for change.

The second reason to change would be if change would improve democracy. I find it hard to understand how a system that would leave 20 per cent. of Members accountable to no one other than their party would be an improvement. I have heard no argument in defence of that position. It would mean that 20 per cent. of Members were no longer directly accountable to voters. The centralisation of power and control of Members would take a step further forward. I believe that the vast majority of the general public do not want that. Constituents expect us to speak on their behalf and to be as independently minded as we can. That would be less likely if Jenkins were adopted.

We must ask ourselves whether the proposals have met the criteria laid down. As I understand it, Jenkins was asked to come forward with a fairer, more democratic system that enhanced choice. I have not heard any Member argue today that that is what has happened.

As people look in more detail at the report, they will worry increasingly over other issues. We have heard a great deal about what the outcome of the past few elections would have been had the system been in operation. How are the estimates in the report made when it cannot be known how people would vote for their second preference? That would alter the outcome dramatically. There is much in the report that is supposed to be fact but is not.

A further practical problem is that the recommendations will lead to fundamental boundary changes. Many of us are being lobbied over the 1974 boundary changes even now and referendums have been held up and down the country. Only about six months ago there was one held on Merseyside about changing boundaries and structures. We would get even more of that.

In one constituency in Liverpool, the Member would represent a Liverpool seat, yet some of his constituents would be over the water in the Wirral. The River Mersey would divide the constituency. The system, then, would not connect that Member more closely than the present system does to his constituency. It is important that the Member is accessible. Most of us have a constituency office which many constituents visit. Will the proposals mean that a constituent in the Wirral would have to take a boat over the Mersey and then catch a bus to raise a matter with the Member? Such practical problems will not be welcomed by voters.

There have been a lot of red herrings about whether PR will improve the economy, yet there has been no evidence that it will.

The recommendations are nothing other than an attempt by some politicians to win seats. The Liberal Democrats support the proposal, not in principle, but because they see it as a way of getting more seats out of the system than they do at present. I am a practical politician and I have never met someone from another party who wants to give away their seat. Throughout my political life I have tried to defeat the Liberal Democrats and the Tories. I do not believe that politicians will willingly give them their seats. That is not a practical possibility.

7 pm

Mr. Alan Johnson (Hull, West and Hessle)

I came to praise Jenkins, not to see the report buried. It has been unkindly, indeed scurrilously, said by Tory Members that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will try to do both. That is not possible. As President Nixon famously said, "Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it is impossible to get it back in again."

As we approach the 21st century, we are having a debate on our democracy. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright)—I am surprised at some of the comments from this side of the House—that, if we are committed to reforming the second Chamber, decentralisation, a Scottish Parliament, devolution for Wales and incorporating the European Bill of Human Rights into British law—something, incidentally, similar to a freedom of information Bill, a matter that has never been raised on a doorstep with me anywhere—we cannot just screech to a halt when it comes to the system for electing Members to this Chamber.

This can be a healthy debate. There is no need for any rancour or divisions. We can change the system devised by a small political elite at a time when working-class men, let alone all women, did not have the vote. For the very first time, we shall give the British people a say in the type of voting system that is crucial to our democracy. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) said, it is a foundation stone of our democracy.

In this debate, we must accept that the Conservative party will be united against us on the referendum. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said that would be terrifying. I do not find it so, but of course they will be against us. That is the stance of the Conservative party. It is against all constitutional change, conservative in every sense of the word. Labour can have a healthy debate because we are committed to moving it forward.

I go some way along with it, but it is depressing to hear the argument that we are dearly loved by our constituents and that they elect us because of our special skills and talents. I arrived in my constituency 18 days before polling day, halfway through the campaign. The posters for the previous candidate were in the windows but I was still elected. The preening, self-regarding argument that everything in Parliament is perfect has come up again and again. It is suggested that new Members who come in on the top-up will spend their time in the Tea Room, that they will be lesser politicians than us, as if none of us ever went near the Tea Room.

The argument, especially for Labour Members, must be about whether we are committed to change and whether there is a case for change in the Jenkins report. Jenkins is not the only one to examine our system and come out for change. There was a Speaker's Conference in 1917 and a Hansard Society commission on electoral reform in 1976. Labour set up the Plant commission. Plant did not convert to electoral reform and proportional representation until he had been through that process. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that we should change.

I do not accept that narrow party political advantage should colour our judgment. As others have said, turkeys do not vote for Christmas. We are the first party in power to decide to go to the country to give it the chance to change the system that gave us power.

There is an important lesson for Labour Members. Not only votes for women and the universal franchise but electoral reform were founding principles of our party from 1900. We sought electoral reform until 1945, when our landslide—the precedent for our general election victory last year—led to a sudden loss of interest. We thought that, if we could win Hastings, and Hove, we had no need to worry about electoral reform. However, in 1951 our Government received the largest vote ever for a political party in Britain—250,000 votes more than the Conservative party got—yet lost the election by 26 seats and spent 13 years in opposition. That is why I want us to address the issue properly and give the people a chance. Let us start the debate in the right way by accepting that, while there will be different points of view, in the end, we shall agree that there must be a referendum of the British people because it is their decision.

9.12 pm
Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree)

I am glad to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle (Mr. Johnson). When he talked of a scheme devised by a political elite, I assumed that he meant the Jenkins committee, but he was referring to our forebears.

Jenkins is being misjudged in many ways. He was not asked, as though he were King Solomon, to devise the perfect electoral system; he was asked to present an alternative to our system. His alternative greatly flatters our present system because, whatever else it is, it is not proportional representation. There may be a hint of proportionality, but that is like saying that a man is a little bit honest. It is not what the Liberal party has campaigned for from about the time that the Labour party took the other side of the argument. In the end, all the arguments about proportionality are based on electoral calculations, although I concede that political principles run through the system.

I am surprised that the Liberals are prepared to go with the Jenkins recommendations. Ever since I can remember, the Liberal party has supported the single transferable vote, and, whatever the Jenkins system may be, it is not that. I have a feeling that the Liberals have been hoist by their own petard. Having supported the single transferable vote for so many years, and having now won some seats by tactical voting, they would rather like to jump to the alternative vote, but it is very difficult to eat 60 years worth of words, is it not?

So the Jenkins position is neither proportional nor anything else. I do not blame the noble Lord for that because, within the terms of reference, it was impossible to produce something that was broadly proportional while retaining the other features that he was asked to include.

There is a case for the alternative vote in single-member seats, but I do not endorse that for the following reason. We should not be seen to be playing politics with the electoral system to our own advantage. If the voters perceive that we are coming along with calculations for different systems, they will lose even more faith in our democratic process than some of them have already lost. I would sooner quote Adlai Stevenson, but my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle (Mr. Johnson) mentioned Richard Nixon. A famous quotation from Richard Nixon is, "Winning is a lot more fun". I think that that is what all those calculations are about, but we should not base our judgment on that. I am wedded, as other hon. Members are, to the single member seat so that a Member represents an individual division, irrespective of who voted for him or her. That is the kernel of the argument. That can be retained with the alternative vote, but I believe that it would be wrong to be perceived to do that.

I come to the ultimate danger of the proposal before us. At the start of the debate, we heard about the Conservative romantic poet—that is like the Jenkins system, something that is almost impossible to combine—who was the Member of Parliament for a rotten borough. The rebellion that produced the Great Reform Act was, among other things, against the fancy franchises. I fear that the Jenkins system is the fancy electoral system, rather like the curry dinner that one has stiffened up or weakened down, depending on one's taste. One can increase the proportionality or diminish it according to the party political calculation of the result.

I can only think that the noble Lord had asked focus groups about what would have happened in the 1950 election had we had various systems. We do not know, and, in view of the risks inherent in change, I wish to stay with the system that has served this country well for so many years.

9.17 pm
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden)

This is only the second time that I have spoken in the House since the election. I come tonight to speak just because I feel so strongly about the issue. I find it difficult and off-putting, but in considering the role of the Member of Parliament in the past 18 months, I should like to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle (Mr. Johnson) that I represent a constituency in which I was born and brought up, a constituency that I fought three times. I would not want to represent anywhere else in the country. So, for me, the local link is incredibly important.

I am worried about top-up Members of Parliament because I see a society in which people feel more and more alienated from what is around them. Young people feel alienated. Banks, building societies, the Post Office and the benefits system are removed from our high streets, more distanced and moved further away from people. The journey towards top-up Members of Parliament strikes me as going in that same direction. People are finding themselves further away from the Members of Parliament whom they want to represent them.

I do not believe that I am anything wonderful. I do not believe that most of the people here are anything wonderful, but I believe that, whatever party they represent, they represent their constituents and listen to their constituents' problems. I am sure that no one here asks, "Who did you vote for?", before helping them with their housing inquiry or benefit inquiry. That lie has to be nailed because we shall get increasing alienation if that sort of image comes across.

What will top-up Members of Parliament do? Lord Jenkin outlined two roles. The first was that they could liaise with local authorities and Whitehall. Do we not all represent our local authorities? Do we not all get our council leaders in to see Ministers when there are problems? Do any of us want to delegate that job? No, we do not, because we live in our area and we know our local councils. I do not know Sutton as well as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), nor any of the other boroughs included in the area into which my borough is to be put as well as the local constituency Members of Parliament. How will the top-up Member of Parliament know the five boroughs better than any individual Member of Parliament? If that is the best system for top-ups that the noble Lord Jenkins can come up with, it is doomed from the start.

The top-up area containing my constituency is a bizarre and wholly arbitrary construction, covering Feltham and Heston, Brentford and Isleworth—areas north of the Thames and those out in west London. It happily tramples over the huge distinctions between inner and outer London as though they do not matter. It ranges from deprived Mitcham council estates to leafy Surrey suburbs. It is a totally artificial construct, which fails almost every test that any self-respecting boundary commission would set. It adds nothing to local democracy and accountability and takes no account of the needs of the people it contains. It has been brought into existence purely to fulfil some psephological criteria and, as such, should be strangled at birth.

The second justification for the innovation is that it will guarantee a greater political spread of parties represented. Thankfully, the commission rejected the German level of top-up Members and in doing so attempted to avoid the scenario of a rival and equally active Member of Parliament of an opposing party being on the scene. However, that is precisely what the proposed system will deliver, and it takes no great leap of imagination to envision top-up Members of Parliament being played off against constituency Members of Parliament. I would find it extremely difficult if a top-up Member of Parliament who had been elected by people who, in the main, lived 15 or 20 miles away from my constituency set him or herself up in opposition to me—the Member of Parliament directly elected by the people of Mitcham and Modern—over a local issue that directly affected my constituents. What possible democratic justification could there be for a system that enabled that to happen? Such a system would remove accountability.

How would voters get rid of an individual top-up Member of Parliament whom they disliked? If Michael Portillo had been a top-up Member of Parliament, he would still be sitting on the Opposition Benches, instead of making television documentaries that nobody watches. The people of his constituency replaced him with my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg), which was an excellent decision, even though my hon. Friend is wrong on this particular issue. The people of that constituency had the power, and democracy worked.

The introduction of top-up Members of Parliament is a step in the wrong direction and, yet again, highlights the essential absurdity of the so-called compromise. Lord Jenkins has produced a system that is neither one thing nor the other. He calls it "unique" and says that it is the "best solution for Britain". However, the only reason why the report shoehorns an entirely arbitrary number of top-up Members of Parliament into the system is to give it a veneer of proportionality. Removing the top-up element leaves a system that is hardly proportional at all.

It is wrong that a major constitutional innovation, containing all the inherent weaknesses that I have described, has been proposed, purely to graft a proportional element on to an otherwise modest set of reforms. It is not the best solution for Britain. It is a report which, to coin a phrase used by the noble Lord Jenkins, plays the fuddled fiddle in the muddled middle. I, for one, would have great difficulty giving it my support.

9.22 pm
Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington)

In a sense, those who speak in this debate should declare an interest: we are all the product of the current system, so we all have an interest in it. However, it is not our system, it is not our democracy and, as some speakers have said, they are not actually our constituencies. We need to raise our sights above self-interest and party interest, which is something about which we have heard a great deal in the debate. We have to look critically and objectively at the system that sent us here and we need to test the reform proposal, not against our interests, nor those of our party, but against the public interest. That is where we find the current system wanting and why we should reform it.

Three groups of arguments against reform have been used and I might have time to look at each of those. The first argument—that the proposed system is too complex—is the one that I find the least reputable of all the arguments ranged against reform. Voters are asked to complete two ballot papers—well, they often have to do that already. In addition, they are asked to rank candidates in order of preference—it really is as easy as one, two, three. The hon. Members who have argued that the system is too complex are insulting the electorate's intelligence.

The counting may be complex, but voters will not be asked to do that. The transition may create upheaval, but, again, voters will not be involved in that. Different electoral systems exist throughout Europe and all have higher turnouts, but in none do the voters complain that they are too complex. I do not understand why that argument is being wheeled out.

The second argument is that reform leads to coalition politics. The Jenkins report aptly reminds us that, for 43 of the past 150 years, first past the post has delivered us coalition government, and for a further 34 of those years, Governments were propped up by minority parties.

If the past four elections were rerun on the Jenkins system, three would have had clear winners and only the 1992 election would have had an indeterminate outcome.

Another point to consider is that voters might want cross-party co-operation. Why should they not? That is a perfectly legitimate choice. Who are we to deny them that choice if that is what, in certain elections, they want?

Related to that is the argument that a reformed system would offer too much power to minorities. In many senses, so does first past the post, especially if the minority is geographically concentrated. At the 1974 election, the Scottish National party, with about 1 per cent. of the national vote, had almost as many seats as the Liberal Democrats with 19 per cent. of the national vote. Therefore, small parties can hold the balance of power under the first-past-the-post system.

The criticism of reform is that it would give too much power to minorities. That charge could be brought against the first-past-the-post system. It delivers outright wins and total power to parties which have secured less than 40 per cent. of the vote at a general election. That is what I call giving too much power to minorities.

The third argument is that electoral reform is irrelevant and that there are more important things to do. I would argue that electoral reform is important. It is about a greater maturity in, and greater credibility for, our democratic process. It is not acceptable to cling to a system that is unfair and that distorts people's choice.

We did not hear much about electoral reform between 1945 and 1970 when two political parties garnered between them about 95 per cent. of the vote, but that was an unusual period in British politics. For most of the 19th century, for the first half of this century and for the past 30 years, British politics has been a multi-party system, which first past the post does not fit in with and which leads to distortions.

We should have a system that aspires to be democratic, to make votes count and to make them count equally. I commend the Jenkins report. Some proportional representation systems are terrible. They create instability, fracture the political process and foster extremism. I welcome the Jenkins report because it steers us away from those failed proportional representation systems and offers instead a system that builds on what is best in British electoral tradition—constituency links, local identity and ease of use.

9.27 pm
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

I shall be brief because many of my colleagues want to speak.

We hear much about the third way. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister tells us that the third way is work in progress. Nothing could illustrate that more than what is happening in the sphere of constitutional change.

Proposals for a reformed other place should link in with proposals to change the electoral system. We now have a multiplicity of voting systems in the United Kingdom. We have the supplementary vote for the London mayor and other city mayors and the closed proportional list system for the European Parliament, and we still have first past the post for local government. So it goes on. We have the single transferable vote in Northern Ireland and the first-past-the-post additional-member system for the new Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. There is no coherence there.

Commentators rightly say that we do not have the faintest idea of where the dismantling of the British state is taking us. The Prime Minister has an obligation to start painting the big constitutional picture. I have no idea yet what that big constitutional picture is. I want to know whether changing the voting system is part of the project, because I do not yet have a clear idea what the project is. If we are turning completely on its head the way in which this country is governed, Members of Parliament, members of the Labour party and people in the community must have a vision of where those changes are taking us.

I wish to raise a point that has not been made in the debate so far. I refer hon. Members to the Plant report, which was published in 1991. In that report, Lord Raymond Plant says that there is no ideal electoral system and each one has its defects and its drawbacks. That is a statement of the obvious, but he continues: but it has to be understandable. We believe it is important for citizens to be able to understand the electoral system in which their democratic rights are exercised. I have read the Jenkins report several times, and I do not think that most people will understand it. In an article in The Daily Telegraph on 30 October, Lord Alexander, a member of the Jenkins commission, wrote that the alternative vote is no alternative. However, he was describing the supplementary vote. So a member of the Jenkins commission, writing in The Daily Telegraph, has completely misunderstood what the Jenkins report says. If a member of the commission can get it wrong, I am sure that the rest of us can do the same.

9.30 pm
Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

If I had realised what a memorably splendid speech the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) would make, I would have requested that he be given more time in which to do so.

In 1917—which, I admit, is a long time ago—the subject of proportional representation was debated in the House. A splendid figure named Colonel Sanders told the House that "extraordinary people" are returned to the House of Commons. The Home Secretary is indeed an extraordinary person. His brilliant stratagem of ministerial charm—I do not know why more of his ministerial colleagues do not follow suit, but I hope that they will not—was exercised tonight highly destructively and to great purpose.

The Home Secretary told us at the beginning of the debate something of which the whole House needed to— and, on the whole, did—take account. He said that we ought not cynically to decry the motives of people on either side of the debate. During the progress of the debate, we were given ample reason to follow that advice. Tonight, a combination of Conservatives, who lost abundantly the last election, sided with Labour Members, who won abundantly the last election. It is difficult to construct a single interest that joins those two groups who take a common view. We opposed Labour Members, who won the last election, joined with Liberals who have never won any election.

Mr. Straw

Early in the century.

Mr. Letwin

I apologise. I mean that they have never won anything as the Liberal Democrat party. The real Liberal party opposes the whole scheme in any event. I admit that the Liberal Democrats have a self-interested reason for proposing the scheme. However, Liberal Democrat Members offered some real arguments in favour of the scheme, and I do not think that we should decry their motives either.

There are principles at stake, and the debate revealed two clear principles: one positive and the other negative. The positive principle is that the current British system— the simple majority system—has inestimable advantages. As we were reminded frequently during the debate, the system is used in half the world. Why? It is used in half the world because the system affords clear government and clear and robust debate—which is a central part of the political and judicial culture of this country. We believe in debate in the law courts and in Parliament and also in clarity, and our system delivers those things. The hon. Members for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), and for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) made that point most clearly this evening.

Secondly, our British system ensures that all Members of Parliament represent all their constituents. That point was emphasised over and over this evening. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)—in what was a splendid performance, even by his standards—told the House what that meant to someone who has been here for a very long time. My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who made a characteristically robust speech, emphasised the same point, as did the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), from whom we might have heard more with great pleasure.

There is a third inestimable advantage attached to our British system. Again and again this evening the point was made: our system delivers coalitions, but it delivers them before elections. It forces politicians in the great parties to join together and argue the toss, and then to put to the electorate a single platform and programme, which the electors can accept or reject. That is known as voter choice.

The point was made repeatedly and forcefully by my hon. Friends the Members for Poole (Mr. Syms) and for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), and by the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross), for Burnley (Mr. Pike) and for Watford (Ms Ward). I hope that I have not forgotten any other hon. Members.

Mr. Kaufman

The hon. Gentleman says that parties are elected on manifestos and are expected to carry out their manifestos. Is it not interesting that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) asked us to hold to our manifesto by having a referendum before the next general election, whereas when the Liberals had power during the Lib-Lab pact in the 1970s, they prevented us from carrying out our manifesto?

Mr. Letwin

Indeed. With his customary acuity, the right hon. Gentleman makes a point that is deep, as well as amusing. It is a function of post-electoral coalitions to muddy the waters. As many hon. Members pointed out, they create manifestos for which no one has voted, and they end up by preventing either of the parties in the coalition from fulfilling its manifesto. We should add that the Liberals during that period also did not fulfil their manifesto. That is par for the course.

There is a fourth feature and a further inestimable advantage of our simple British system. It delivers what has been christened "removal van democracy." We know that—we were in the removal van last time, hundreds and hundreds of us.

Mr. Graham Allen (Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household)

Not enough.

Mr. Letwin

Even the hon. Gentleman ought to have been satisfied by the scale of that removal.

Our system allows the British people to make a choice to get rid of their Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) made the point strongly, but before the debate began, someone else made it to me even more poignantly. That person will be recognised by Labour Members, some of whom worked with him.

I spent a little time this afternoon with the noble Lord Callaghan. He told me what he thought about the elections going back a long time—longer than I had imagined anyone could—since 1935. He pointed out the striking feature that even in the cases where there was an apparent disproportion between votes cast and seats won, if one asks the historical rather than the statistical question, "Did the product roughly correspond to what the people of this country wanted to bring about?", broadly it did. That was a grand old Labour politician speaking, who has won and who has lost.

Mr. Allen

He was pulling the hon. Gentleman's leg.

Mr. Letwin

Contrary to the hon. Gentleman's statement, I do not believe that Lord Callaghan was pulling anybody's leg. He spoke with passion and from conviction.

The argument is not based solely on the inestimable advantages of our system. If it were, we would be on weak ground. Although I have described the great advantages, there are of course arguments against our present British system which, like any system, has its defects. The strength of the argument relies on the fact that allied to the real advantages of our present system, the system proposed by Lord Jenkins has grotesque disadvantages.

First, as one of the members of the Jenkins commission pointed out, its report is self-contradictory. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) made that clear. The report contains abundant contradictions, above all because it starts out by establishing one part of a system—AV—only to find that that contradicts the essence of what the commission is trying to achieve, and therefore has to add a contradictory system of top-up. That is an odd thing to do.

Secondly, critically and ironically, the proposed system is not a proportional system. It does not even claim to be a proportional system. It is what the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) described as a fancy franchise. The hon. Members for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Keen), for St. Helens, North (Mr. Watts) and others pointed out that the proportionality in the proposed system is strictly limited. AV-plus it may be; proportional representation it is not.

It has another feature. I agree that it is not compelling by itself but surely it is one that is enough to make one have doubts. The proposed system has never been used anywhere else in the world. However, that is less remarkable than the fact that so far as our researchers have been able to unearth it has never even been proposed for discussion anywhere else in the world. People have been talking about proportional representation for more than 200 years. There are—I have so far been able to count only a portion of them—more than 120 books written in the English language on the subject yet no one has ever come up with the system that has been proposed. That must give one cause for thought.

Mr. Linton

Even though the proposed system is put forward as a unique British system to suit British conditions and therefore does not purport to be like some other system, does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are 27 countries that have mixed proportional and majoritarian systems, that seven of them are additional Member systems, including Germany and Italy, and that one of them uses a preferential system combined with a majoritarian system? To say that the proposed system is unique is not quite true.

Mr. Letwin

The hon. Gentleman, alas, neglects the fact that one half of the proposed system has never been combined with other half in any other place; nor has it ever been proposed that it should be so combined. Most of the problems with the system arise from that very combination.

Thirdly, like every other proportional representation system known to man, to the extent that it is proportional it has another tendency. That is inevitable. It is the logic of the thing. It tends to produce weaker coalition Governments. It has been said that the present British system can also produce coalitions. That is true but a proportional representation system is likely to produce them more of the time.

It has been said that in three of the past four elections the proposed system might not have produced a coalition. That is slightly untrue because it probably would have in two. Even if three of four were true, that hardly makes the point. Of the past 15 elections, seven at the very minimum, eight probably and possibly nine would have produced coalition Governments under the proposed system. It has a greater tendency to coalition and hence to weakness than our current system.

Next, and most importantly—indeed, to my mind conclusively—the proposed system would create coalitions in the opposite way to that under which our present circumstances direct us. It would create coalitions after elections. The politicians would create the coalitions and not the voters. The proposed system denies voters choice.

I regret to say that that does not worry Lord Williams of Mostyn, Minister of State, Home Office, who in the other place was defending the Home Secretary's splendid proposals for a closed list, when he said that the open list would give voters too much choice. That is one of the most remarkable statements ever made in any parliament. It was something that worried the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) and it also worried Ramsay MacDonald. All those years ago Ramsay MacDonald, well known to some Labour Members, of course, said: The present method, at any rate, compels candidates, whilst they are still candidates, to declare where their cohesion is, who their colleagues are, and what party they have got to work with, so that, on the whole, the majority in this House is a representative majority and not a scratch majority."—[Official Report, 22 May 1917; Vol. XCIII, c. 2232.] I could not have put it better myself.

Mr. Beith

I do not remember that at the start of the Government led by the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) he announced to the world that to get the Maastricht treaty through he would have to seek the support of another party—the Liberal Democrats—in order to do so, but that is what happened.

Mr. Letwin


Mr. Bermingham

The right hon. Gentleman paid the price.

Mr. Letwin

The hon. Gentleman says exactly what I was about to say and very well. My right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) paid the price.

Irony of ironies, and finally, the proposed system of Lord Jenkins of AV-plus produces a disproportion of power. It may produce proportionality to some slight degree in seats and votes but far more powerfully it creates a disproportion, I think uniquely among all the systems of proportional representation proposed anywhere. It excludes all the tiny minorities and gives permanent or near-permanent position of power to one party, a party which by pure coincidence is the party of the chairman of the commission.

I have only a minute or two left so I shall bring my remarks to an end. This has been a good debate and, I think, a fair one. I think that it has been one in which the arguments have been put well. On the whole, as a matter of fact, the right side has won, but that is not my point. It has been a fair debate because it has been conducted by the rules and because the House has rules that we all observe and respect.

My final plea is directly to the Home Secretary. I am sure that he is a decent man. He has a reputation for integrity. His position on this matter is well known, though it is not entirely shared by the whole Cabinet. Let us have, in this and all cases, a fair referendum, which is also conducted by the rules. Those rules should be settled by a genuinely independent commission, appointed by the Speaker or some other utterly independent person. They should govern access to the media, and funding so that we do not have a one-sided campaign. They should ensure that the people of this country genuinely decide, on the basis of real understanding, with the arguments made fairly on both sides. If the arguments that I have put forward do not win the day, as democrats we shall accept that. I expect that, on the contrary, we shall overwhelmingly win such a referendum.

9.45 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth)

It is traditional to say so, but this has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate. As the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) said, we see the House at its best when we debate a subject which, for once, we all understand. The prospect of any change to the way in which we are elected to this House is of fundamental importance to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. If my mathematics is right, 38 hon. Members have spoken in the debate. There are few debates in which so many hon. Members have has the opportunity to speak.

In opening the debate, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary typically kept us guessing throughout his speech about his point of view on this subject. He made a plea for as wide a discussion as possible to take place, not just in the House but throughout the country. Today's debate has been an excellent starting point.

Before dealing with some of the points that have been raised, I should like to say a word about the report, its purpose and the process that it has triggered. Like others, I pay tribute to the commission and its chairman, the noble Lord Jenkins, for the manner in which they have conducted their inquiry and the result, which, as many hon. Members have said, is both readable and faithful to the terms of reference that were given. Some might disagree that the report is readable, but I shall return to that in a moment.

During the debate, and in comments in the media, for example, much has been made of the role and motivation of the noble Lord Jenkins. Those who made such comments include the hon. Members for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) and for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin).

It is both unfair and short-sighted to malign the character or motivation of Lord Jenkins. It is certainly unfair to those who sat on the commission with him, as it implies that they played only a passive role. From what I know of those concerned, it is unlikely that they would behave in that manner. Baroness Gould is the commission member I know best. I have known her for many years, and on several occasions have really feared her—she was formerly general secretary and a senior official in my party. Anybody who knows her will agree that she is the last person to be used in such a way.

The prose style of the report bears all the hallmarks of Lord Jenkins. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who had to leave early, mentioned some of the words used in the report. I looked up one in the Oxford dictionary, but could not find a definition. Nevertheless, the report was extremely readable. The analysis and thinking in the report, with the possible exception of the note of reservation from Lord Alexander, was the product of a consensus between the members of the commission as to how the terms of reference could best be met.

Leaving aside my views, my reading of the report suggests—several hon. Members have taken issue with this—that the members of the commission have arrived at a recommendation which comes as near as possible to meeting the terms of reference that they were given to work with. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) made that point, as, implicitly, did my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst).

If we are to have change—and ultimately that will be, quite properly, a decision for the voters—we now have an alternative, whether we like it or not, alongside which the status quo of the first-past-the-post system can be judged and debated. In that important sense, the commission members have done us a service.

The report gives us an excellent starting point for a debate which can take place, hopefully—as, for the most part, it has done this afternoon and this evening—in a considered manner as part of the process leading up to the referendum. Surely—as has been pointed out—this is a grown-up way of doing things, and I hope that we can continue in that way.

Some aspects of the report will excite those of us who stand for election. There is no question about that. These are important issues, and strong views are held on all sides. However, that is no reason to stop us having a proper and informed debate on the subject. In order to have that debate, it is necessary to have a considered alternative to the status quo. Otherwise, we will end up debating the first-past-the-post system against all other systems. Frankly, that will take us nowhere.

Mr. Bermingham

Let me ask my hon. Friend a simple question. When the referendum comes, will it be a question of Jenkins or the status quo? Could it be that a new way will emerge?

Mr. Howarth

Certainly the referendum question will be drawn from Jenkins, but it would not be sensible to say at this point quite how it will be framed. The hon. Member for West Dorset referred to the issue, and Neill had something to say about it. We will debate that on Monday. For the moment, it is best to leave the question in that setting. It is not that I do not wish to engage in debate, but it would not be right to hurry into such a dialogue.

Perhaps I could briefly cover some of the points raised in the debate. I wish to refer in particular to the speeches by my right hon. Friends the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). Both have wide experience of this House and of the process of government, which gives added weight to their arguments. It has often been said in the debate that not all Members of this House are equal. In an important sense, the kind of experience that both my right hon. Friends have had makes them slightly more equal than others.

Knowing the strong views of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield on many subjects—particularly constitutional issues—I wonder if it gave him pause for thought to find so many right hon. and hon. Members from the Conservative party agreeing with every word he said. That phenomenon has not always been familiar to him.

Mr. Benn

It's the third way.

Mr. Howarth

My right hon. Friend calls it "the third way". My right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton has, on many occasions, expressed his displeasure in a very elegant way—a way that I have often admired. He did not let us down on that score today, and he has wide experience that he brings to play.

I wish to single out two speeches by Opposition Members—the hon. Members for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) and for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). The hon. Member for New Forest, West made a speech—I say this in a true spirit of friendliness—which was one of the most surreal I have ever experienced in this House. In an eight-minute speech, he had to concede that almost every one of the points that he made was wrong. Indeed, he conceded that on more than one occasion. I suspect that, if the hon. Gentleman is completely honest—which I know him to be—he will have to agree that he has not read the report as thoroughly as he might have. The hon. Member for New Forest, East, however, has at least read some parts of the report. We know that for certain, because he read them out to us.

I am worried about one aspect of the report. Paragraphs 114 to 116 discuss, in terms, the concern that the proposed system would create two classes of Members. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) mentioned that when he opened the debate for the Opposition, and it was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and others. Having been a Member of Parliament for some 12 years, I—like many other hon. Members—would take some convincing that a system involving constituency Members and top-up Members representing larger sub-regional areas would not turn out to be a recipe for local instability. It might well produce greater national stability, but at local level it could create problems.

Let me put it bluntly. The proposals contain the seeds of a system that could lead to permanent electioneering at local level, not only between political parties—which, of course, is very healthy—but between elected representatives within parties. That is a real fear, which must be dealt with in the debate that we will have in the future.

A further issue that arises from the proposed new role for top-up Members of Parliament is accountability. Several speakers have raised that issue. The report itself makes it clear that all Members of Parliament take pride in, and bear in mind, the fact that, once elected, we represent all our constituents, irrespective of whether they voted for us. My hon. Friends the Members for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and for St. Helens, North (Mr. Watts) made that point very effectively, in their own way.

Between elections, however, we are held to account in various ways. There is the pressure of local opinion; there are our surgeries; the way in which we perceive policies may affect our constituents. There is also the oft-quoted postbag. Several of my colleagues have developed novel ways of being held to account, such as forums and question times. Tomorrow night we are holding a Member of Parliament's question time in my constituency, in Knowsley village, for the first time. I am interested to see how that will work, and I consider such experiments to be useful.

However, one of the main ways by which we are held to account is through our constituency parties or associations. In some important respects, between elections, local party members and organisations stand proxy for the wider electorate. They hold us to account. In my experience, that is not a means by which the party machine subverts us in smoke-filled rooms; it is a more subtle, but nevertheless important, process. Inevitably, top-up Members would not readily have such means available to them. I fear that, in trying to establish themselves, they would step on the toes—or even, dare I say, more sensitive parts of the anatomy—of those representing constituencies. That brings us back to the problem that I mentioned earlier.

We are all aware that the Government are embarked on a process of enacting major constitutional reforms, and it is important for us to see that as part of a bigger picture. The real issue, however—as many hon. Members have said—is that the final decision should not be made by politicians, or even by the House of Commons. Whatever prejudice, or whatever objective view, some of us may or may not hold, the people should make that decision. It is appropriate that there should be a referendum at the right time. It will be a big decision, with far-reaching consequences.

I believe that this has been a useful debate. The House has started a process. All the arguments have been rehearsed and, in a real sense, the House has performed a useful function. As many hon. Members have made clear during the debate, in due course it will be for the electorate to decide, and rightly so.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

With the leave of the House, I will put together motions 2, 3 and 4.