HC Deb 14 June 1999 vol 333 cc9-12
10. Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea)

What measures he proposes to increase participation in elections following the result of the European elections. [85574]

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

The turnout for most countries in Europe fell significantly for these elections, including in some countries—notably Austria, Finland and Germany—by a greater margin than that in this country. Disappointingly, the United Kingdom level was none the less the lowest of any member state, reflecting in part a wider problem with turnouts in the UK. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), has been chairing a working party on electoral procedures, on which the main Opposition parties are represented. That will be making a number of recommendations that are intended to improve turnout.

Mr. Linton

Does the Home Secretary accept that Britain is now the apathy capital of Europe, with the lowest turnout in Europe and, indeed, in any European election, ever? Does he also accept that that cannot be blamed on the voting system, since on the very same day, we had the lowest by-election turnout since the war—the lowest peacetime by-election turnout since 1919—and only a month ago, we had the lowest local election turnout for at least a quarter of a century? None of the major parties can draw any comfort from the results, since all voting figures were lower than those for the previous European election. Indeed, the votes for Labour and the Conservatives were the lowest ever in a European election. Even after the counts in Northern Ireland and Scotland, the Tories will have had their lowest vote ever. So, every party should support the measures—

Madam Speaker

Order. Does the hon. Gentleman realise that he is supposed to be putting a question and not making a statement? I should be glad if he would pose his question to the Home Secretary—and immediately.

Mr. Linton

Will my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary make proposals to encourage voter participation through measures including early voting at any time in election week, personal and proxy voting on demand, all-year voter registration, weekend voting, citizenship education in schools and perhaps also lower council tax for those who have voted?

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend is entirely right—there ought to be consensus on this among all parties—that, irrespective of the voting system used, there is a need for us to ensure rising participation in British elections and British politics. I am pleased to say that the working party chaired by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is not only considering, but will be making recommendations on, a more imaginative approach to election systems. We must remember that arrangements for the current electoral system were set in the 19th century and have hardly been altered since then. We must bring them up to date for the 21st century.

Recommendations will include ideas about voting in supermarkets, railway stations and shopping centres, the possibility of weekend voting and the much more extensive use of postal voting, including electronic voting as well as use of the Post Office. All such proposals require very careful examination and support from all political parties if we are to raise participation in British politics.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

In the spirit of cross-party consensus and co-operation engendered by the introduction of the dreadful proportional representation system, may I give the Home Secretary a tip for free? If he wants to increase participation in future European elections, let the Labour party take a leaf out of the Conservative book and bring its position into line with the views of 60 per cent. of the people, who do not want this country to enter the single European currency.

Mr. Straw

As ever, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his gratuitous advice—[Interruption.] I quite understand Conservative Members' excitement. In Labour's 18 years of opposition we had such moments, when we thought that victory had finally arrived, and all too often we discovered, the next day, that life returned to normal and we faced another 17, 16, 15 or 14 years of Conservative rule—so I sympathise with Conservative Members. I congratulate them on their victory in these European elections; they should savour the day. Meanwhile, we will return to the business of governing the country.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

But would it not be wise of the Home Secretary to learn the lessons of what happened on Thursday? There were several. One is that it is pretty clear that proportional representation is not a very good idea in Britain, even if it is in some other parts of Europe. I know that my right hon. Friend is not a paid-up member of those who are for proportional representation. He should also remember that the British people do not go a bundle on the Common Market. The third—and perhaps the most important—lesson is that it is high time that the Labour Government paid a little more attention to their hard-core working-class old Labour vote and perhaps not so much to those who live up long winding drives with pampas grass 12 ft high.

Mr. Straw

I pay considerable attention to the first category of Labour voters that my hon. Friend mentions. There are not many gravel drives in Blackburn—although there are some—and there is certainly little in the way of pampas grass. On systems of proportional representation, I believe that the House must take note of the fact that, following decisions in which the previous Government were complicit, this country has been required to introduce a common system for elections since 1979 and, following the treaty of Amsterdam, has been required to introduce—[HON. MEMBERS: "That's yours."] Hang on; I know that it was our responsibility, but I do not recall any objections being raised by Conservative Members—[HON. MEMBERS: "What?"]—to this bit. Common principles have been introduced for elections, but scope remains for adjustment of the systems used. As I told the House during the passage of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill last year, we shall establish a review of electoral arrangements—quite apart from the working party chaired by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, which will obviously examine those arrangements.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Is the Home Secretary aware that among the highest turnouts last Thursday were those in the elections in Wales, but that they were also far from satisfactory? Does he recognise that turnout was higher in those constituencies where parties were proactively involved in campaigning? In his review, will he consider having an open list, not a closed list, because the identification with an individual certainly leads to a higher turnout? Finally, will he bear in mind the need to consider the requirements of disabled people in particular, so that they can turn out to vote more easily, not only in European elections but in all elections? I believe that the Home Office has a meeting on that subject this afternoon.

Mr. Straw

The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to draw attention to the relatively high turnout in Wales, which, at 28 per cent., was the highest of any part of Great Britain—we do not yet have the Northern Ireland results. That was impressive. The nature of the list system used is a matter for the House. We had many debates about that before the passage of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999, and I rather expect that those debates will continue.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of making it easier for disabled people to vote. That is one of the reasons why I believe that there is a strong case, although it may require legislation, for greatly extending the facility of postal voting, including electronic telephone postal voting.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

The Home Secretary will remember that he promised us a review. We think that it is an excellent idea, and we hope that he gets on with it and throws out most of the rubbish that we are stuck with at present. Will he bear in mind the fact that there is no doubt that the British voter positively dislikes closed lists? Voters want to know which representative they are voting for. Some of us who voted Labour were strongly, strongly tempted to strike out one or two names on the list, and had great difficulty resisting that temptation.

Mr. Straw

Even had my hon. Friend done so, it would not have spoilt her paper. She should bear that in mind.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Now he tells me.

Mr. Straw

Without reworking old arguments, which will clearly become new arguments, it is worth pointing out that even under the closed list, people knew who they were voting for, and that each of us, including my hon. Friend, was elected under a closed list, if by that she means a system whereby the party puts forward the candidate for election, not the individual voter choosing the candidate from a particular party.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

There will be a great deal of sympathy with the comments of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) about the Government's policy. May I make it clear to him that there is an open door to new recruits, from wherever they may come.

On the voting system, will the Home Secretary confirm that had the elections been on the first-past-the-post system, Labour would have lost even more seats last night than it did, which is why so many Labour Back Benchers are so twitchy today, and that the Liberal Democrats would have been entirely wiped out?

Mr. Straw

That all depends on one's assumption. Others on the Conservative Benches, and probably even the right hon. Gentleman himself, were arguing that first past the post would have led to an increase in turnout, in which case Labour would have done better under the closed list, rather than worse. Whatever else one says about the closed-list system, never in the history of British politics has there been an act of greater generosity by a governing party to both opposition parties than our introduction of the closed list.

Sir Norman Fowler

The right hon. Gentleman has obviously misunderstood what happened in the elections. If they had been conducted under the first-past-the-post system, the Conservatives would have won more, not fewer, seats, and his party would have lost more. Does he not understand that?

The answers to my questions, which the right hon. Gentleman was unable to give, were yes and yes. Will he concede that we had debate after debate on the Floor of the House in which, although we opposed the closed-list system, the Liberal Democrats did not? I believe that they will concede that. [Interruption.] Do they have loss of memory, as well as loss of seats? Is it not clear that the closed-list system has been rejected by the public, just as certainly as they have rejected the Government's policy on Europe?

Mr. Straw

I am confused by the right hon. Gentleman's question. If he is claiming victory for the Conservative party's results under the closed-list system, it is difficult for him also to argue that the Conservative party has somehow been rejected, having been elected under that system. He is right to say that the Conservatives opposed the closed-list system. So far as I recall, so too did the Liberal Democrats. That is a matter of record, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) will remember. There were many arguments in favour of the closed-list system, and he will recall that I advanced them to the complete satisfaction of my right hon. and hon. Friends.