HC Deb 22 June 2001 vol 370 cc357-64

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

2.30 pm
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

As a member of the recovering Whips group in this House, may I say what a great pleasure it is to stand in the bosom of the Back Benches after four years serving Her Majesty's Whips Office? When one makes a second maiden speech, as this may well be portrayed, one thinks carefully about the topic. It could have been a constituency topic or one of great national significance. After the 2001 general election, no issue is more important than the health of our democracy, so I chose on this occasion to enter that topic in the Adjournment debate ballot and I was fortunate enough to have my name picked.

The issue is important because in the last general election the very underpinnings of our democracy were seen to be creaking—to some degree threatened not by the great landslide that the Labour party achieved again, but by the very low voter turnout. The bald figures are quite frightening: the overall turnout was down nationally to 59.5 per cent., while in my constituency the turnout was a shocking 46 per cent., which frightened me and other colleagues who were out on election night.

I pay tribute to those friends, colleagues and workers of all parties who participated not only in my general election victory in Nottingham, North but throughout the country. We shall come to rue the fact that political activists are disparaged, often by the media, because those people are the very life-blood of our democracy. We should encourage people from all parties who play their part in public life by engaging in political activity locally. We must ensure that they feel that what they are doing is important.

Our democracy is not a given; it is a fragile flower. It needs to be looked after—it needs care and maintenance. It is incumbent on the Government, let alone Parliament, to look at the underlying causes of the low voter turnout and consider future action. The problem is that many people voted with their feet, rather than with crosses on ballot papers, and we need to address that problem.

It is sad that such a debate has to be raised by a Back Bencher, however new and however fortunate, rather than by the Government. It says something about Parliament and the Government's control of it that the Government do not have a day when we debrief alter a general election and when, without votes or party acrimony, individuals across the spectrum—new and experienced Members from both sides of the House as well as Ministers—say, "How was it for you? How was the general election and what can we do to improve the next one?" We should look at all those matters. Perhaps our new Leader of the House might consider such an innovation after the next general election. We could have an open day, when people could express, perhaps under a 10-minute limit, what they feel could be done better next time for the health of our democracy.

We could take a number of steps straight away—we could certainly make a number of quick fixes. One of them is postal voting. I was delighted that the postal vote was more readily available this time around, as I have campaigned for that. However, there is still much more that we can do. The Home Office got its act together very late in the day, so there were varying interpretations of the vague guidance that it issued. Some local registration officers and local councils went to town and accommodated large numbers of people who wanted a postal vote, whereas others interpreted the regulations more strictly and the numbers of postal votes were not as great as they could have been. The Government, together with local authorities, could give clearer guidance, with a stronger and more powerful campaign to sell postal voting. Our fellow electors who wish to avail themselves of a postal vote should be enabled to do so.

Another old chestnut that is worth considering is compulsory voting. In Australia, there is a $50 fine for people who do not vote. It is perfectly acceptable not to vote if people have a genuine reason, in which case the fine is waived. Australia has shown a lead. I am not recommending that we go down that road, but the Government and the House should consider compulsory voting as one of the alternatives to the present system.

Other theories include weekend voting. There is no reason why we should have to vote on a Thursday, given the disruption it causes in schools and elsewhere. We could perhaps extend voting over a weekend. Experiments have already taken place with voting in supermarkets and other places. The ability to register more easily was also tried in the last Parliament. The innovative suggestion has been made in recent weeks to give either a tax credit or a council tax voucher to the value of a small sum by way of carrot, rather than the compulsory voting stick. All those options must be considered.

We must be careful not to seek a panacea. I hope that all hon. Members have matured enough over the issue of proportional representation to realise that there are no perfect systems, no panaceas and no cure-alls. We should examine the options that could free up people's ability to vote whenever they wish. No obstacle should be placed in their way.

The young are now into the electronic age, which is quite frightening for an oldster like me. We should consider digital voting, internet voting and internet registration. Experiments have taken place in the United States on those possibilities, and perhaps they would influence young people to vote more often.

Welcome and urgent as a review of such technical fixes may be—I urge the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), to press the case in his Department and in the Home Office—we must also look deeper into the reasons why so many of our fellow citizens decided not to bother to vote at the general election.

I was fortunate enough to speak to a group of students at the London school of economics on Monday. I asked them to help me to write this Adjournment debate speech and to come up with their thoughts on why people stayed at home. Their list of reasons was much the same as any list that would undoubtedly be drawn up if hon. Members got together in the Tea Room or colleagues in the constituencies got together around a table in the pub—it included the apathy that pervades British society. We all know that the day of the public meeting is pretty much dead.

There was also media overkill. We are constantly being told by the media that there is too much coverage, when they are responsible for the excessive coverage. The hon.

Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) takes a particular interest in the polls and whether we should consider a moratorium on polling within a number of weeks of election day, as happens in some countries.

Another factor was the cynicism that pervades our political life. We all enjoy an in-joke when we exaggerate and appear to be wounded by comments from the other side. We understand it, but people outside often do not, and they see our work, our jobs and our political life in a cynical light.

I also believe that because of the way the election was covered, and because of various other political circumstances, many electors felt that the result was a foregone conclusion. Voters in a number of areas felt that their votes would not matter: the polls were steady, and it was pretty clear that a significant majority would again back Labour.

Those are some of the possible reasons for the low turnout. We might all describe them as having variable degrees of validity, but we need to tackle them. I mentioned young people earlier. I do not know about other Members' experience in this regard, but I visited every polling station in my constituency, as I know others often do. I could count the number of people under 30 on the fingers of both hands. It may just have been me, and it may have had to do with the times at which I visited the polling stations, but I was worried by the age profile of those voting as well as by the overall totals.

Good work has been done in this regard by the National Youth Agency, which, along with the Local Government Association, is issuing standards in an attempt to involve young people in the electoral process. I think it is incumbent on us all to ensure—perhaps by pressing Education Ministers—that people are aware of the importance of our democracy and its fragility, and know that they too must be vigilant in its defence.

The National Youth Agency's key finding was that young people considered the election to be irrelevant, and felt that it would not make much difference to their lives. That is why we need to look again at the way we present ourselves, both in the House and when we are out campaigning. We need to ensure that people out there feel that what we do is important and relevant.

1 am afraid we have reached the point at which young people think that not voting is cool and fashionable. If I had said something like that to my father I would have had a flea in my ear very rapidly, and a lecture to boot about the suffragettes and other instances in which, over the years, people had fought for the vote. I dare say that other Members would have been given the same treatment. That feeling does not exist now, however: the cynicism of the media compounds the view that it is cool not to vote. We must make people believe again that voting is important.

How should we go about that? What we need is a fitness programme to restore democracy to good health. That means that the present position, in which a muscle-bound Executive or Government kick sand in the face of the six-stone weakling called Parliament, local government and regional governance, must be restored to some sort of balance. Responsibility for that now rests with Government. There is a growing consensus in this place that we need to hold the Executive to account, but, whether we like it or not—I speak as a recovering Whip—it is Government who control this place and its agenda. Only 10 per cent. of the agenda is devoted to private Members; the rest is allocated, in one way or another, as Government time.

My plea is not to colleagues present in the Chamber but to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House. Action is needed now. We must view electors as citizens, not merely consumers of an election campaign. There are a number of ways in which we can set about that.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is here. He has an impressive record in local government, he cares about local government, and he knows a great deal about local government. That is unusual in this place.

Our local parties are the life-blood of our democracy. If we allow our local activism—that sense of the importance of public service, public duty and community involvement—to atrophy, our national politics will eventually wither. I believe that one of the answers is to restore to local people the strength, resources and powers to enable them to make decisions that affect their own lives. All decisions that should be made locally must be made locally—1 am talking about the beautiful concept that is summed up by that ugliest of words, subsidiarity. As a Government, we need to strengthen our local institutions, so that the grass roots—the life of our politics—are sustained and enhanced. That involves a raft of things, which may be beyond the ambit of today's ministerial reply but is fundamental.

We need to make Parliament itself more relevant; it should not be just the creature of the Executive. Of course, as a member of my party, my desire is to use this place to get our manifesto commitments through the House. I will continue to support that day in, day out. However, because of the threat that low turnout poses, it is ever more vital not just for parliamentarians but for Government to tackle the issue of giving space inside this place to hon. Members so that they can express themselves, represent their constituencies, act as a sounding board and ventilate their views. They cannot do that currently with the limited space that is allowed for non-Government business.

We sit for a given number of days. There is space in the parliamentary calendar. If the will is there, this place, rather than the "Today" or "Newsnight" studios, could become the forum of representation and democracy. I hope that the new Leader of the House in particular will take those remarks to heart. The way we conduct ourselves in the House is now a Government problem, not just a parliamentary problem.

I could range wider and talk about the need to involve electors at different levels—at a regional level, through the second Chamber and elsewhere. We must get back to the idea that the electors own and control this system, that they do not have just one day once every four or five years, and that they are permanent and active shareholders in our system.

I hope that the Minister will consider at some point the possibility of having a public or parliamentary inquiry into how we can pull it all together. I was gratified to hear the remarks of the Leader of the Opposition—one gets only one farewell speech in the debate on the Queen's Speech. He chose to use it to outline a series of reforms for this place and was supported by the leader of the Liberal Democrats. An eminent bunch of Back Benchers have signed various motions and letters asking that we put together a package. Perhaps a number of the people who are no longer going to be that actively involved—the former general secretary of the Labour party, who has just resigned, eminent former Cabinet members such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), and the Leader of the Opposition—could form the core and nucleus, perhaps under a Speaker's Conference or some institutional arrangement, and look urgently at how to tackle the problem of very low voter turnout.

If that trend continues, our life could continue as it is—this little, isolated, esoteric life that we live here, immune often from what is going on outside—but my worry is that, in two or three elections' time, the participation rate will be very, very low. I mean no disrespect to the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) or to those who elected him, but we will see odd, independent, single-issue candidates coming through. As we saw in Oldham, parties may start from a very low base, but it does not take many thousands of disenchanted, alienated people to pose a serious threat to the stability that we have enjoyed in this democracy.

There are extremists, racists and others. I do not particularly approve of the British tradition of throwing eggs and tomatoes at leading politicians. However, it is more acceptable than throwing petrol bombs. If very few people feel that they own the process, more and more people will take ever more drastic action.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to the Front Bench. I hope that he impresses so much in performing his duties at the Department that he will be put in his rightful place of Minister for Local Government in the not too distant future. I also hope that he will not lose his radicalism; I am sure that he will not. However, I also tell him that if we get it wrong on this issue, not only will the electorate not forgive us but they will continue to walk away from us.

2.50 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) for initiating this debate, for his thoughtful comments on the subject and for his kind words to me. In the short time available, it would be difficult to do justice to a very wide-ranging and important subject. Moreover, as he demonstrated again today, my hon. Friend has a long and detailed interest in all aspects of the democratic process. His interesting thoughts about an open day in Parliament and a royal commission on voter turnout were typical of him.

We seem to have something of a turnout problem in the Chamber today, and perhaps we ourselves have something to learn about the need for participation in the democratic process. Nevertheless, it is useful to set the debate in context. The United Kingdom is not alone in experiencing declining turnouts, which are a feature in democracies throughout the western world. Turnout is declining across both Europe and the United States. In some places it is declining from an already low level. In others, such as in the United Kingdom, it is a shock to discover that traditionally high levels of voter participation are being reversed.

Turnouts in the United Kingdom remained remarkably steady until the 1997 general election. However, since 1992, when there was a reasonably respectable 77.7 per cent. turnout, the decline has been marked. There was a 6.5 per cent. decrease in 1997, and the provisional figures show a 12 per cent. decrease in the most recent general election. Although various pundits have already claimed to know the reasons for the decline, I think that the reasons are complex. Nevertheless, no one with the interests of the democratic process in the United Kingdom at heart can be at all happy about the decline. It seems that something is going seriously wrong in the relationship between voters and the democratic process.

We may not be able to say what causes low turnouts, but we know something about high ones. What emerges from the general election statistics and from similar statistics on local government is that a close contest is a good predictor of a high turnout. In four of the six highest election turnouts since the second world war, the difference in the vote between the two major contesting parties was either 1 per cent. or 3 per cent. They were very close contests. Additionally, Professors Rallings and Thrasher of Plymouth university have worked on turnout in local elections. They have shown that turnout is invariably higher in wards where the result is in doubt and the seat could go either way. We can therefore say both that voters are more likely to turn out if the contest is likely to be close, and that turnouts in safe wards or constituencies are getting lower.

It is clear that voters turn out when they think that the circumstances merit it. Nevertheless, it is arguable that circumstances always merit turning out, that the citizen's first duty is to participate in the democratic process, and that without that participation, the citizen is effectively reducing herself to the position of a serf. She is abdicating responsibility for the decisions taken about her life and future.

Conversely, democracy brings with it the right not to take part. I am not sure that compulsory voting sits easily with that principle. What should concern us is that the legitimacy of any Government is threatened when so many people are turned off and feel that they cannot or do not wish to take part. Ultimately, democracy could become meaningless. What is needed is for civic pride and responsible citizenship to be encouraged and nurtured so that the principle of democratic participation is valued for what it is—not only the most important duty of the citizen, but part of a wider process of personal engagement in the civic process.

My hon. Friend has mentioned several examples of the Government's efforts to encourage people to participate and to revive the democratic process. Indeed, the working party on electoral procedures that the Government set up after the 1997 general election under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) had a remit to review electoral arrangements and recommend changes in electoral practice that would result in fairer and more open procedures, command the trust of the electorate and contribute to democratic renewal.

The working party commissioned papers and received representations, and the result was the Representation of the People Act 2000, which contains various measures aimed at making it easier and more convenient to register and to cast a vote, including the introduction of rolling registration, provisions to help the homeless, postal voting on demand, and provisions to help disabled voters. All those changes make it easier to vote or to register to vote, the theory being that the easier and more convenient we make it, the more likely voters are to take advantage of it.

The most significant part of the Act in the context of turnout was the provision for pilot projects to test new voting arrangements, which took place in 32 local authorities and included early voting—opening polling stations at a couple of places in the local authority area for a couple of days the weekend before the traditional Thursday polling day—polling stations in novel places, electronic voting, mobile ballot boxes and all-postal voting.

Each authority was required to set up arrangements to evaluate its projects and make the results publicly available. I have to say that the general results were disappointing, showing only small percentage increases. However, as my hon. Friend said, there were dramatic increases in the all-postal voting pilots. The results should be treated with caution, because the experiments were run in only a few wards in a few local authority areas, and we certainly need some more experiments, perhaps on a larger scale, to see whether they might provide a basis for optimism.

Further pilot schemes are needed to test the new ways of voting more thoroughly. We also need more information about the security aspects of postal voting, and of course there are cost considerations. The Government will soon invite local authorities to submit applications to run pilots at next May's local elections, and I hope that many will do so, in an effort to encourage voter engagement.

It is clear that simply making the process easier to take part in is not the overall answer to falling turnout. Voter disengagement is wider than mechanical failure and, as my hon. Friend said, we must address the underlying factors and the wider issues.

How do we re-engage the electorate? I referred earlier to the clear indicator for higher turnout: a close contest. The common denominator of all close contests is intense interest, involvement and activity on the part of political parties. Of course, we cannot engineer close contests all the time. It is fair to say that it was not the Labour Government's fault that there was not a close contest at the general election.

Perhaps we are now trespassing on the lengthy debate on voting systems. The Government have given a commitment to keep voting systems under review, in the light of the different systems for election to the devolved bodies. Indeed, we have made a commitment that if proposals are made to change the voting system, we will have a referendum.

A more far-reaching way in which citizens can be re-energised is by their forming part of a community that is supportive, relevant and meaningful to them. I believe that the lessons of devolution apply here. Voters can see that their representatives are acting for them and taking relevant actions that have a local effect.

Local involvement is indeed the key. It may start with youth or voluntary groups, or with neighbourhood watch, but once citizens become engaged, voting becomes the natural thing to do to make the right things happen. We need to focus on making local democracy relevant to the lives of our citizens. We need to make active citizenship desirable, not a duty. We need to encourage supportive communities that people want to support.

Regional government may certainly have a role to play in increasing the relevance of government to the citizen. Our restructuring of local government can play a part by meeting the needs of local populations more closely.

I thank my hon. Friend for introducing this subject, which is one that we should not shirk. After all, our presence in the House is only as legitimate as the votes of the people who put us here, whatever party they support.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.