HL Deb 23 April 1975 vol 359 cc897-947

3.2 p.m.

Lord ALPORT rose to call attention to the desirability of inviting a Speaker's Conference to examine and recommend the form of proportional representation best suited to maintaining the traditional independence of a Member of Parliament as the representative of a territorial constituency and to provide a more equitable distribution of Party representation in Parliament; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to propose the Motion which stands in my name on the Order Paper. Proportional representation has been regarded for many years past as either the private reserve of the Liberal Party, or as a happy hunting ground for constitutional theorists. It has now become in the minds of many people in Parliament and outside it a major political issue in Britain. I confess to your Lordships that my own concern with it is of very recent date. I know and shared in the House of Commons the strong prejudice of Members of Parliament against the change in the present form of constituency representation. I am well aware, as your Lordships will be, of the attitudes, up to now, of both the Conservative and Labour Parties to electoral reform, which may seem to them to deprive them possibly of the chance of assuming power on a single Party basis. I know that the singlemember territorial constituency, like the geographical parish of the Church of England, has come to be regarded as a peculiar virtue of the British Parliamentary system.

Let me emphasise that I am not claiming in my Motion that proportional representation in any of its many forms is the proven remedy for our present problems. What I propose is that the many variations in existence should be examined and the one considered most appropriate to our style and traditions be recommended to Parliament; that Parliament itself should tackle this on an all-Party basis through a Speaker's Conference, and that Parliament itself must decide whether or not to change the present system as a result of the Speaker's Conference Report. I have stipulated in my Motion only that the system recommended should, if possible, preserve the identification of Members of Parliament with the people who dwell in the immensely varied and consciously different parts of Great Britain. I believe that the strength and balance of our nation derives from the vitality of its provincialism. I find it difficult to support anything which might obliterate within Parliament the motivation which a Member of the House of Commons derives from the feeling that the people of Cornwall, Cumbria or Caithness are his people and he is their man.

The reason why I submit this Motion to your Lordships at this time is that, in the first place, I believe the authority of Parliament, and public respect for it, has been dangerously eroded during the past decade. I believe that the economic health of Britain depends on its political health, and the political health, in turn, depends upon the degree to which the great mass of the people, and the groups into which they organise themselves, are prepared to recognise the authority of free institutions such as Parliament. They will do so only if they are persuaded that these institutions fairly represent their cherished values and profound aspirations. I do not think that this is true of Parliament today. I could give plenty of evidence to support this view. The concentration of power in sectional hands has sometimes been able to unhorse Governments in the past. The real danger today is that power, irresponsibly exercised, may destroy Parliament itself, and with it the basic freedoms of a democratic society and, even, the unity of Great Britain.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, last week said: Millions of people will not be coerced. If, however, they reject the disciplines of Parliamentary law, they must find some self-discipline to take its place or we will sink into anarchy or the perils of … dictatorship…"—[Official Report, 15/4/75, col. 307.] It is not only from certain sections of the trades union movement, to which the noble Lord was referring, that this threat comes. There are other anti-Parliamentary forces active or lurking in the back-ground of our national life; and who knows whether such a dictatorship might not come as easily from the Right as from the Left? The aim must be to restore the authority of Parliament today, and if this is to be done I believe we need to embark on a new era of Parliamentary reform. Let us consider, then, whether the road to reform might lie in the direction of a new and more equitable electoral system.

My second reason is that the assemblies for Scotland and Wales, when they are established, will almost certainly be based upon proportional representation. It will not be possible to ignore the recommendations either of the Kilbrandon Report or of Lord Crowther-Hunt's Minority Report that the basis of election to the Scottish Assembly should be by proportional representation. This has already been applied to Northern Ireland. I believe it inconceivable that there should be one form of election to West-minister and another to Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff. I know, of course, that the present Government has so far inclined towards the single-Member constituencies for Scotland because, as they say they are simple to operate and easily understood. I do not think the British electorate is any more stupid or unsophisticated than, for example, the Australian, whose Constitution has operated proportional representation successfully and with remarkable stability for the most part of this century. Cynics sometimes say that the British have imposed proportional representation on overseas countries, but have rejected it themselves.


My Lords, I wonder whether I may interrupt the noble Lord; in case anybody should think that this goes unchallenged, the Australians do not have proportional representation, they have a preferential system.


My Lords, they have one form, not proportional representation in the strict sense, but certainly, as I understand it, in the Senate they have a form of representation which is not a single-Member constituency.

Is it possible, as I was suggesting to your Lordships, that we can make use of this system in our own interests at the present time? My third reason, is that the present single-Member constituency imposes such intolerable strains and pressures on a Member of Parliament as to distort his judgment, undermine integrity and deprive Parliament prematurely of too many experienced and able men and women. Many good men have recently left the House of Commons long before they have reached their full potential in the public service, and they cannot easily be replaced. Moreover, I think the two-Party system dangerously magnifies political differences and gives exaggerated influence to unrepresentative minorities of Party zealots on their extreme wings. I believe this is why the moderately inclined mass of the British nation has lost confidence in the representative character of Parliament and is increasingly losing respect for its authority.

It is not my intention today to advocate any particular form of proportional representation: that would be a matter for the Speaker's Conference to propose. There are many variants to be thought of, from the single transferable vote or the alternative vote to other systems such as exist in Australia. But I should like to refer briefly to one or two misconceptions regarding proportional representation. First, the multi-Member constituency is not new in this country. There were two, three and even four-Member constituencies in this country for the greater part of the 19th century. Secondly, a Parliament based on proportional representation does not lead to governmental instability, unless there are social and economic factors creating tension and disorientation within the body politic. It was inflation and social collapse, leading to the undermining of Parliamentary institutions and to the emergence of anti-democratic minorities, which destroyed the Weimar Constitution. We, frankly, are not at the present time enjoying political stability here, and I would suggest that unless by reform we strengthen the institution of Parliament, we could suffer the same fate ourselves. Thirdly, proportional representation does not make coalition Government inevitable. True, it provides greater political flexibility; true, it cuts the overpowering Party organisations down to size; true, it provides the, to me, welcome opportunity for independence, but it can provide just as stable a one-Party Government as the present single-Member constituency system.

What it does is to ensure that everyone, or nearly everyone, has a man or woman who goes to Westminster because of his or her own vote. At the 1970 Election, of the 28 million who voted, 16 million elected 630 Members, and 12 million elected no one. At the October 1974 Election, of the 29 million voters, 14,300,000 elected 635 Members and 14,750,000 elected no one. In Sussex, a Labour voter is unlikely ever to be able to send a Member to Westminster to represent his views, and the same applies to a Conservative living in the County of Durham. I suggest to your Lordships that this situation is no longer acceptable to what the Prime Minister recently described as "the most clear-headed and sophisticated electorate of any democracy."

My Lords, what I am asking your Lordships to support is a new movement for Parliamentary reform. I would say to my Conservative friends that our Party has always stood for the maintenance of our institutions, but this can only be successful if we are prepared to accept the constant process of adaptation to meet new social and political conditions. Conservatism is not simply a creed based on a stubborn defiance of change. To the Liberal Party, I would say: "You have laboured long in this field of electoral reform. There are reinforcements now at hand: I suggest we can well work together to achieve something which is essential not only for the 5 million who voted for the Liberal Party at the last Election, but for Britain as a whole." To the Democratic Labour Party, I would say this: "Join us in this movement for Parliamentary reform. I believe that of all the Parties in the State, the present system poses the greatest threat to your prospects of continuing to be able to make your historic contribution to the political life of Britain."

Only lethargy, compounded by cynicism and sectionalism, stands between us now and the restoration of Britain to prosperity and political strength. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, in a speech last week, used the sinister words "civil war". Even a decade ago, such words would have been unthinkable from a statesman of long experience and proved moderation. As I have said previously to your Lordships, I as an historian, have been haunted by the political parallels between the first half of the 17th century and the second half of the 20th century. If history seldom repeats itself, its themes constantly recur; and today, as on many occasions in our history, the theme is the ability of a free Parliament, however composed or elected, to exercise its authority as the representative institution of the nation.

Since 1832, each Party has made its contribution to the cause of Parliamentary reform. Today, all the three historic Parties at Westminster have a common interest in safeguarding the health and restoring the authority of the British Parliament. It cannot and will not be done on the strength of any one Party acting alone. It is for this reason that I believe the initiative for this debate comes properly in your Lordships' House, where Party differences are least in evidence; and it is for this reason that I seek from all quarters of your Lordships' House active support for the Motion. My Lords, I now beg to move for Papers.

3.18 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alport, has argued the case for electoral reform with all the fervour and ability of a recent convert, and I suppose I should begin by saying that there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner who has repented, than over the 99 others who perhaps still remain in your Lordships' House unconvinced of the powerful case advanced by the noble Lord. I suppose one should welcome this Motion, if only on the grounds that it has been virtually unheard of in my lifetime for anybody other than a Liberal to question the virtues of the electoral system we have at present, which we describe as the "first past the post" system of election. The advocates of electoral reform have been treated as harmless and rather amusing cranks, like nudists or the eaters of nut cutlets. They do nobody any harm, but we need not pay much attention to them. Now that all of a sudden others can see plainly what the Liberals have been pointing out for many years— that is, that a Government can be elected to power with a practical working majority when it has the support of only just over one-third of the people — they begin to consider whether, after all, we may not have developed the most perfectly democratic system in the whole world.

I have two reservations about this Motion. First, although the noble Lord, Lord Alport, said he thought that it was properly brought forward in your Lordships' House, I think there is always a risk that by discussing a matter which principally or solely concerns another place, we may antagonise those who would have to make the decision to change, and I think we have to be very careful about what we say to prevent that from happening. Of course, we are all entitled to our opinions, but if we are seeking to convert those with real power to make those changes we shall have to be very tactful as to how and where we express those opinions. I. appreciate that many of your Lordships have fought Elections in the past and may therefore feel entitled to say something on the subject. However, considering that we belong to a House which is composed entirely of nominated and hereditary Members, that may not be the spirit in which our deliberations may be viewed in the House.

Secondly, with great respect to the noble Lord, we have had rather a lot of Speaker's Conferences over the last 50 years. The device has not been a successful one and cannot supply the political will to reform when that political will is lacking in the two major Parties. Conversely, when the House of Commons has the political will and is able to take action, then it does so without needing the advice of the Speaker's Conference and, indeed, sometimes does so in direct opposition to the advice which it has received from one of those bodies.

I can illustrate those propositions by two examples. The first Speaker's Conference, which was held in 1916 and 1917, unanimously recommended the introduction of the single transferable vote— that is, preferential voting and quota counting — in all boroughs entitled to return three or more Members each, including London outside the City. The House of Commons rejected that proposition by 201 votes to 169. Then in the Conference of 1964 to 1967, which is the converse that I mentioned, the enfranchisement of 18-to 21-year-olds was rejected by a decisive majority, only three Members voting in favour of it—myself, Mrs. Lena Jeger and Mr. John Mendelson. Yet when the proposal came before the House of Commons in the form of the Representation of the People Bill 1968 it was carried with very little dissension, in spite of the fact that only the year before the Speaker's Conference had recommended by an over-whelming majority that it should not be done.


My Lords, will my noble friend allow me to say that I was also a Member of the same Speaker's Conference. To be fair, the noble Lord will remember that the majority of that Speaker's Conference recommended that the voting age should be 20, not 21. This was to take advantage of the fact that everybody who was likely to be 21 by the time the next Election came would be enfranchised— which previously they were not until they were 23.


My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord in his recollection that that proposal was put. Prior to the Representation of the People Act 1968 the register was divided into two halves. Depending upon where your birthday happened to fall in the year, you were enfranchised in the first or the second half of the year. After long discussion, it was agreed by the majority of the Speaker's Conference that the age should be reduced to 20, the object being that whenever your birthday fell during the course of the year that the Electoral Register was in force, by the time you were 21 you were bound to have a vote.

That was one proposition. But then, as I was saying, and as the noble Lord will recall, there was the more radical proposition which was put by the three Members whose names I have just mentioned, that the age should be reduced to 18. This was the decision of the House of Commons, coupled with the simple device of putting the month and day of birth on the Electoral Register so that somebody could vote immediately they reached the age of majority. I think that was a much more sensible solution and one which, as the noble Lord will recall, I had advocated in the Speaker's Conference. I am only telling this story to illustrate my proposition that sometimes a Speaker's Conference makes recommendations for reform which are subsequently rejected by the House of Commons, while at other times the Speaker's Conference is the conservative body and it is the House of Commons which makes progress towards the enfranchisement of other sections of our population.

I was going to say that one might conclude from these examples, and from many others of lesser importance which I might have quoted, that electoral reform of all kinds only makes progress when it is taken up as the official policy of one or other of the major Parties and that the House of Commons will never allow powers to be exercised on its behalf by a supposedly representative group of its members, however prestigious they may be. I think that the arguments for electoral reform can only be thrashed out within the Parties first and then later on the Floor of the House of Commons.

Furthermore, I would assert that changes affecting the most fundamental democratic rights of the citizens of this country ought to be examined in public, whereas, for reasons that have never been at all clear to me, and which I was unable to discover when I was on the Speaker's Conference, those bodies have always carried on their proceedings behind locked doors. Although a verbatim transcript of the proceedings of the Speaker's Conference was provided for the Members, it never saw the light of day and, believe it or not, we were not allowed to see the transcripts of the proceedings of Speaker's Conferences which had been held in previous years. So the same arguments were no doubt rehearsed that had been most thoroughly ventilated by our predecessors of 1916 and 1917, 1929 and so on.


My Lords, I think this House should be advised that the Speaker's Conference invites representations from various organisations and that some of them attend and give evidence. Therefore, there is some consultation with the public.


My Lords, the Speaker's Conference invites evidence from outside bodies and receives a good deal of evidence, and those persons who submit evidence are free to publish it. As the noble Lord will recall, some of them produced versions of the evidence that they had given to the Speaker's Conference—the Electoral Reform Society in particular. However, I am referring to the arguments which took place subsequently after the witnesses had left when Members of the Speaker's Conference were reviewing what had been said to them and reaching conclusions in the light of their internal arguments. Those deliberations are not known to the members of the public, or even to the House of Commons. When it came to look at the Representation of the People Bill in 1968, it could not see why a decision had been made, for example, only to reduce the voting age to 20, not to 18, because the transcripts of the discussions in which those matters had been decided were not available to our colleagues. This is the argument which I am putting against the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Alport, that we should tackle this matter by means of a Speaker's Conference. I was going to say that perhaps the security risk against which these extraordinary precautions were supposed to guard was that dangerous, revolutionary ideas calculated to give the individual elector more power might escape, thus undermining the hegemony of the political Parties.

What are those ideas? If I may consider for one moment the defects in our present methods of election— none of these in any way new but they need to be stated again—a Government may be elected to power by a minority of the votes cast and even with fewer votes cast than its main opponents, as happened both in 1951 and in the first Election of 1970. But the results of Elections would be the same if something like 40 per cent. of the voters who support losing candidates stayed at home and did not bother to go to the Polls. Thirdly. the individual elector has no say in the process of selecting his Party's candidates, which is the prerogative of a tiny caucus of activists. Following on from this, the elector has no chance at all of expressing an opinion on the conflicting strands of thought within his or her own Party, between Marxist and Social Democrat, comprehensive versus selective education, the nursing of lame ducks versus non-interventionism. statutory versus voluntary incomes policies, and pro-Europe versus anti-Europe—all of which issues have cut across Party boundaries. However, if you have a candidate of your own Party who is on one side of the argument and you happen to be on the other, you have the invidious choice of voting for a policy which you do not support or of deserting your Party at the Polls. Indeed, although the Common Market has been an issue at every one of the last six General Elections, there is no guarantee that at any stage during those six Parliaments the House of Commons has reflected the views of the people. That is one of the reasons why we have been forced to adopt this alien device of the referendum which was discussed in your Lordships' House yesterday.


My Lords—

Noble Lords: Order!


My Lords, as I was on the Bishops' Benches I must thank noble Lords very much. I hope they will not overlook such a point of Order in the future. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. We are all colleagues. But I was rather interested when he said he was deserting his own people, his own constituents. Is he not overlooking the fact that a Member of Parliament is not there as a delegate; he is there as a representative of all the people within his constituency, whether Conservative, Liberal, Communist, or whatever the nature of their political belief may be? Therefore, I suggest he ought to have a further look at the statement he has made, because in my opinion he has fallen down.


My Lords, I am sorry I did not make myself absolutely clear to the right reverend Prelate! Perhaps I may go back to the point I was making and try again. If I were a supporter of the EEC and at the same time was a staunch and paid-up member of the Labour Party, and I lived in a constituency where the Labour candidate was anti-Europe, I should have to make an invidious choice between standing up for my European convictions and voting against a Liberal or a Conservative, and standing up for my Party convictions and voting for a man whose views on Europe were anathema to me. That is the point I was making, which I am afraid is one of the defects inseparable from the present electoral system.

It was always claimed in the past that, no matter what the demerits of our system might have been, at least it ensured strong, stable government. In the last few years we have had Governments with very small majorities and the beginnings of the multiplicity of small Parties, which is said to be a feature of the foreign electoral systems that we have always eschewed. In 1964, and again in February last year, Mr. Wilson became Prime Minister with a majority too small to sustain for the full Parliamentary term. That cannot be very many people who believe that the present Government will last anything like five years. At the same time, we have the Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, the Ulster Unionists, all gaining a toe-hold in Parliatment, which is the very phenomenon which our electoral system is supposed to be intended to avoid.

The remedy for these defects is obviously the introduction of the single transferable vote in multi-Member constituencies as recommended by the first Speaker's Conference over 50 years ago and as practised by the Republic of Ireland ever since independence. The constituencies under this system would return from three to seven Members each depending on geographical considerations and electors would vote by placing one, two, three and so on, against the names of the candidates in order of their choice. In this way, electors are able to express their preferences not only between different Parties but also between different shades of opinion within the Party they most favour, thus getting over the dilemma which I was attempting to describe a few minutes ago.

The criticisms of proportional representation which are heard so frequently relate not to this method, but to the so-called list systems which operate in some other countries such as Israel or the Netherlands. It is true that in those countries one finds that a plethora of small Parties comes into existence, and that the Parties have even greater power to determine who is finally elected than they have in Britain. But it is the inability of our opponents to distinguish between the various forms of proportional representation which has prevented any rational discussion of the alternatives, as I found when I was a member of the Speaker's Conference, because members of that Conference were fond of quoting the Weimar Republic or the Third Republic in France as an example of the evils that we had to avoid, when that was not the matter under discussion at all.

I do not go along with the noble Lord, Lord Alport, in believing that we have to examine all these various forms of proportional representation. One kind is so obviously superior to the rest. Those who have had the opportunity of examining the case obviously think so as well; otherwise, we should not have the single transferable vote in Northern Ireland and have it advocated by Kilbrandon for Scotland, so that, as the noble Lord, Lord Alport, said, we finish up with the absurd situation of the single transferable vote operating in elections for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies, but a totally different system in Westminster. If we are thinking of adopting some other variation of proportional representation for Westminster the same argument applies: Why is the system that suits the people of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland also not good enough for those who live in England?

The only major objection to the single transferable vote which may have some validity, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alport, is that it could weaken the association between the Member and the geographical area with which he has always been associated. But I would ask: is this such a unique and precious feature of the electoral system that it must be preserved at all costs? First, it is of a precarious nature in the marginal seats, and where any Party has a continuous measure of support throughout a larger area the security of tenure of a Member would, in fact, as Lord Alport mentioned, be enhanced with the single transferable vote. Secondly—and this is something he did not mention—with periodic boundary changes the constituencies themeslves are impermanent and therefore the association between a Member and his constituency is by definition also impermanent; whereas what happens in a multi-Member constituency is that the boundaries can remain the same with a change in representation and the number of Members of Parliament which that multi-Member constituency returns can correspond with movements in the population.

Thirdly, the activities of the Member of Parliament as a supernumerary mayor and glorified welfare officer of last resort might be reduced. We must be honest enough to admit—and Lord Alport touched on this point as well—that these functions have become so great a burden on the conscientious Member of Parliament that he is left with insufficient time to deal with the examination of national issues. If one has 150 letters a week from constituents; if one has the weekly advice bureau; if one has every single Saturday and Sunday occupied by fetes, jumble sales, church services—the lot—so that one is working seven days a week, 12 or 15 hours a day, how can it be truly said that Members of Parliament are able to give proper attention to the national issues for which they were elected in the first place? I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alport. I do not suppose that many of our colleagues in another place will admit there is some force in this argument, but now that we are no longer there it is easier for us to say it. We demand a great deal, far too much, from the conscientious Member of Parliament and if we are to have good Government that burden must be reduced. If by changing from single-Member to multi-Member constituencies indirectly we lessen the burden, that is a great advantage.

Yesterday it was said that we had spent a great deal of time going backwards and forwards on Europe and the moment had come to reach a decision. I believe that the moment has come to reach a decision on electoral reform. Furthermore, I believe that recently the noble Lord, Lord Crowther-Hunt, in his capacity, as it was then, of constitutional adviser to the Prime Minister, made the report which dealt with electoral systems and their virtues and defects. As yet no word has reached another place, so far as I am aware, of the Prime Minister's consideration of that report. I hope that to assist Parliament and the country in reaching a conclusion there might be some possibility of its being published. In the meantime, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alport, on bringing the Motion before your Lordships' House, and say that I hope that as a result of what is said this afternoon we shall reach a decision without the Speaker's Conference, which is unnecessary, if we are to make some progress towards a more democratic system in the country.

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alport, admitted that he was a convert to proportional representation, and I do not suppose that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, will take it amiss if I describe him as almost the high priest of the religion; but I have to admit that over this matter I regard myself as an agnostic. I am ready to be convinced, but I am bound to say that I have not so far heard any truly cogent evidence. Nevertheless, I am sure that the House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alport, for providing an opportunity to discuss this matter; indeed, alternative methods of the expression of democratic opinion are in the air. We are, after all, faced with the referendum. Some of us believe that it is not strictly necessary to have one, but I shall not say any more about that. Many more of us, I think, are mightily hopeful that it will not be repeated. Therefore the question of expressing the will of the people and turning that expression, expressed by method of votes, into the choice of Members of the House of Commons, I suppose is something which goes along with the present sense of unease in our democratic processes.

In any discussion as to how, and by what method, votes shall be cast, and the effect of them, it is not at all easy to avoid playing what I might describe as a "numbers game" which involves relatively complex calculations and nightmarish jargon for anybody who is not one of the esoteric circle of devotees of this form of election. I do not intend to go into the various different methods of proportional representation, except in so far as may be necessary by virtue of the terms of the noble Lord's Motion. This is not said merely because it is relatively easy to get into a muddle. Confusion is in fact compounded, because those who use various names and terms for the different methods of voting sometimes use the same terms to mean different things. Therefore, I shall resist the temptation to discuss, or perhaps pontificate about, what is known as the "droop quota" in these circles, merely leaving noble Lords to muse upon its meaning themselves. I suppose it could mean anything, from something to do with the nose of Concorde to the ladies' foundation garment industry.

This Motion is happily worded because it mentions the traditional independence of a Member of Parliament as the representative of a territorial constituency. This therefore would exclude the adoption of what is sometimes described as a "pure list system"; that is to say, where each Party produces a list of candidates, either for the country as a whole or possibly for a region. As I understand it, under that system the seats are allocated by a form of mathematical formula, and the inevitable result must be a more tenuous and certainly less territorial relationship between the Member of Parliament and his constituents. For myself, I would not favour such an electoral system, which although I believe it to be mathematically fair would produce an entirely different system of government from anything that we have known so far.

I suppose when one mentions mathematical formulae and mathematical fairness at first blush anyway, mathematically and politically our system is unfair. I had rather expected the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, to produce the figures for the October 1974 General Election, to the effect, as I believe, that it took 36,000 votes to elect a Labour Member of Parliament, 38,000 votes odd to elect a Tory Member of Parliament but 411,000 votes to elect a Liberal Member of Parliament. There cannot be anybody in your Lordships' House who is not made at least uneasy by such statistics. I will not produce further figures, but perhaps most of your Lordships will agree that figures like these show that there is a need to examine our methods. Whether such an examination will produce results which are acceptable to ail of us as citizens, no matter from which House of Parliament or anywhere else we come, is perhaps debatable. What is certain beyond a peradventure is that if we had had some form of proportional representation since the War, our political scene would now be quite different.

In the past we have prided ourselves on what, we like to think is our strong government, and of course whether a Government is strong or not depends on what it is, and no doubt on what it does. Certainly, although we have had stable Governments and relatively few General Elections over a period of 20 years, we have had many Chancellors of the Exchequer. Doing the sums, so far as their tenure of office is concerned, it averages out at about 18 months per Chancellor; and one wonders, and indeed questions whether that tenure of office can be enough for any man.


My Lords, will the noble Earl agree that, judging by their achievements, they were in office far too long?


My Lords, 18 months sometimes can be a life sentence and, with respect, we are rapidly approaching it now. At any rate, I do not think the noble Lord would quarrel with my theme that it is not exactly strong or efficient government to have one's Minister of Finance—for want of a better term—changing with such frequency, if not regularity. Whatever form of government we have had since the war, it certainly has not been very successful in economic terms. Economically, one is bound to admit that as a country we are now weak, and compared with other sophisticated countries in Western Europe we are growing weaker all the time and have been getting weaker for years. But as to the causes of this, they are not nearly so easy to define. Is it in fact because our system of government (as some would have us believe) through our system of election produces the wrong sort of government, or is it in fact that we are a rather complacent and idle race which has taken too much out of our economy over a great number of years? For myself, I do not think the answer is easily come by.

But again, in the country at large one has to face the fact that Parliament itself does not command the respect that it once did. Many reasons may account for this, but the effect is that sections of the community feel that Parliament is not looking after them or their interests, and as a result they do not feel over-respectful of the law which emanates from Parliament. I hope I am not being over-contentious, still less provocative, if I point to the trade unions in this respect—and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, in recent speeches in your Lordships' House, has said as much. I do not seek to apportion blame for this; it is merely a fact of our modern Parliamentary life. Whether therefore a different system of voting—some form of proportional representation—would not have let the situation, civically speaking, deteriorate into what it has now become, or whether if we now adopted proportional representation immediately in the future, or even at some distant time in the future, the position would be ameliorated, I am afraid I do not know.


My Lords, before the noble Earl leaves the economic scene, would he perhaps comment on the fact that under our present system the great industry of steel has been nationalised, denationalised and renationalised (three operations in all) since the war, and whether this would have happened under a system of proportional representation? I think it is enormously important to the economic scene to look at this particular industry. Would the noble Earl care to comment?


My Lords, no, I would not care to comment. This is a matter of hypothesis, and how one can say that the will of a series of executives is reflected in the form of voting by which they reach power is, I think, a leap into the dark, and I certainly would not go along with it. What would happen if one had proportional representation politically, I do not know. Perhaps I can answer the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, in that way. It might be that the steel industry would never have been nationalised at all; it might be that it would have been nationalised and stayed that way—I cannot possibly conjecture.

My Lords, from such researches as I have been able to do, no Party since 1935 has had an overall majority of votes cast. It follows therefore, and I hope reasonably logically, that since the war, if we had had proportional representation, we would have had a series of coalition or minority Governments. Presumably the Parliamentary Liberal Party would have been engaged in a series of what I might term "horse deals", as a result of which there would have been a coalition of one kind or another of the two main Parties with the Liberals. There might well also have been a proliferation of smaller Parties with a possibly divisive effect upon our body politic and, in fact, on the nation itself. Certainly the power which our system gives to the electorate to choose a Government directly, instead of a Government brought into being through one or more deals, would have been much less. That may be a good thing or a bad thing. Whether the mechanical rearrangement of votes would give us a Government which is more, shall I say, sensitive to the needs of all people is again a matter of argument. I would say that those of us who are unionists—and I say "unionist" I hope in its best sense, that is to say believing in the union of the various countries which make up Great Britain —must be worried about the separatist movements which have started and gathered momentum in Scotland and Wales.

As I understand it, this Government, at least in Scotland, are committed to the establishment of some form of Scottish Assembly. What form of voting is used to elect the members of that body is rather wide of the terms of this Motion; but the noble Lord, Lord Alport, mentioned it and so, perhaps, can I. As I understand it, the Government at the moment want to retain the same number of Members of Parliament at Westminster as exists now and, secondly, wish the Members of the Scottish Assembly to be elected by our present "first past the post" principle. The Royal Commission on the Constitution recommended a single transferable vote and, on reflection, if there is not to be a permanent inbuilt Labour majority in that body some form of proportional representation will have to be used. Noble Lords opposite might be delighted if there was a permanent inbuilt Labour majority in the Scottish Assembly. They might. Equally, if they are good democrats, they might take note of what has happened in Ulster; they might pay heed to the local inbuilt Labour majority in Glasgow and wish no such fate upon my poor country. But if that is not to be there will have to be some form of proportional representation. It is fair to say that Ulster is now going along the proportional representational road, and one hopes for every success in that unfortunate country.

I have at times, I fear, argued against myself, because it seems to me that this is a difficult question. I fully agree that it needs to be considered. Indeed, in the Manifesto of the Conservative Party for the last election in October 1974 we said that we would propose the establishment of a Speaker's Conference to examine our electoral system and to make recommendations. Further than that we did not go, and in my respectful submission it was not for us to do so at that stage.

The Manifesto also made reference to the European Parliament, and I should like to close on that note. By 1978 the European Parliament is to have direct elections, and each country will decide upon the form of its delegation. If, as most of us fervently hope, we are still in the Community in 1978, as things stand at the moment we shall, unless we change our rules, be the only country not sending a delegation to the European Parliament by some form of proportional representation. It may be a good thing to stand apart; it may not; but that is the situation as it will be. By way of summary, my Lords, I remain, as it were, unconvinced. I remain ready to be convinced, and I rather suspect that that is a frame of mind which probably commands the support of most of your Lordships' House.

3.57 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to make a brief contribution to this debate, if only to express my gratitude to the nobe Lord, Lord Alport, for raising this most important matter and giving your Lordships' House an opportunity to debate it, however briefly. I think it is significant—at least, I hope it is significant—that for the first time so far as I am aware an initiative of this kind has come from the Conservative Benches and not from the Liberal Party, who have for so long been—as I think the noble Lord opposite said—the high priests of the religion of proportional representation. I think this is an extremely important matter and one which is becoming more and more urgent. Perhaps I might say, however mildly, that I was therefore rather disappointed at the somewhat lukewarm, and dare I say desiccated, response that came from the Front Bench opposite. I believe that this is a matter which we must follow not, if I may suggest, in the manner of a leading article in one of our famous daily newspapers—on the one hand and on the other—but rather in a spirit of appreciating the urgency of a situation in which it now seems to be obvious that the relative majority of the single Member constituencies, which is the current method of election in this country, is— as I think has been realised since the middle of the 19th century—inconsistent with truly representative democratic government. But I now believe this matter is becoming one of more immediate and urgent political import.

I said that the inequity, the unfairness, of the relative majority system has been recognised for some time. It was recognised first, I think, by the Danish political scientist, Andre. Then in the 19th century it was, of course, John Stuart Mill who was for a brief period (three years, I think) a Member of another place, who first enunciated the principles upon which most doctrines of proportional representation have since been based. Those of your Lordships who follow this subject with any great care will know that it was Mill's great friend, Thomas Hare, who first enunciated the principle which has led to the rather refined concept of the single transferable vote. Perhaps I may say here at the risk of undermining the little quip of the noble Lord on the Front Bench opposite about the nose of Concorde, that the Drope factor—named after the distinguished Continental political scientist who discovered it—is extremely important, and is a crucial factor in determining the calculations of the single transferable vote. So I hope we will not dismiss things of that nature too lightly.

The single transferable vote has been in operation in a number of countries for some time. It has been in operation in Ireland since 1922. As I believe I am to be followed by the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, I shall leave him to comment, if comment is needed, upon the effectiveness there of the single transferable vote. I shall say no more than that I think it was introduced there for the express purpose, in accordance with the doctrines of John Stuart Mill, of ensuring that minorities were fully represented, and that electoral systems were not deformed and distorted by such things as religious prejudice and persuasion.

The single transferable vote has been in operation in Tasmania and Malta. Although it seems presumptuous to take issue with such a distinguished Antipodean expert as the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, I have to say that it is my opinion that the noble Lord, Lord Alport, is quite correct in saying that in the Australian Senate proportional representation in the form of the single transferable vote is in operation, although not in the other House of the Australian Parliament. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said, there are many other systems of proportional representation all over the world. Perhaps the most notable is the mixed system operating in the Federal Republic of Germany, one which I think it would repay us very well to study in this country.

My Lords, having made any kind of study, however superficial, of the way in which this system operates in other countries all one needs to say is that it seems to be the ideal way of ensuring an equitable system of representation for minority groups, especially for minority groups in a Parliamentary democracy. The present system which we cling to in this country, in common with one or two other Parliamentary democracies, has two major defects. The first is that it tends to create large monolithic Parties with narrow power bases. Certainly it has done so in this country, where we have two large Parties. The Labour Party has as its major political base the trade union movement and organised labour. The Conservative Party has its base in industry and business. These are narrow power bases, but under our present electoral system they enable these two Parties to remain in power alternately, while smaller minorities seem to remain unrepresented, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said.

My Lords, the other defect of the system—and this has already been mentioned—is that it enables Government to be elected on minority votes. The noble Lord who spoke from the Front Bench opposite gave some statistics about the last Election. Perhaps a very vivid statistic is that the present Government —and this applies not only to the present Government, but to past Administrations as well—sits in Office on a vote of 28 per cent. of those who are entitled to vote in this country. This seems to me to indicate that there is a very urgent need to examine the possibilities of electoral reform.

We have a new and dangerous situation emerging in this country, for various reasons which I will not adduce now. I believe we are seeeing an erosion of the power of the Legislature. We are seeing a diminution of the powers of Parliament. We are seeing a gradual flow of power away from the elected representatives of this country into the hands of what one might call extra-Parliamentary institutions. Power is passing on the one hand into organised labour, into the hands of the major industrial trade unions; and, as a reaction to that, a great deal of power is beginning to pass into the hands of multinational industrial corporations. I believe that this is a dangerous tendency in a Parliamentary democracy, and we should be doing all we can to restore the power of the elected Legislature.

The need for electoral reform and the possibility of a system of proportional representation seem to me to be demonstrated. It is fairly obvious that that system should be the single transferable vote, but one would not wish to go to the stake on that. The question is: how do we get from where we are now to where we quite clearly should be? In some quarters it has been suggested that the right way to go about this is to appoint a Royal Commission. In normal circumstances if this matter had not been fully argued, fully analysed and fully researched in the past, there might be something to be said for that. However, in the present circumstances, I think possibly not. There are very few new facts to be adduced. Various systems of proportional representation are well-known. The effects it would have on the system of this country are well-known. While it would certainly be impartial, much more so than a Speaker's Conference, the appointment of a Royal Commission would create a delay which, in the present circumstances, is not to be contemplated.

There is then the proposal put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Alport, that a Speaker's Conference should be convened. I have some doubts about the need for a Speaker's Conference to establish the principle. Indeed, I think that previous experience of Speaker's Conferences is not very encouraging. Noble Lords may recall that in 1965, the then Government Chief Whip of the Labour Administration said: The Government take the view that the time has arrived when we must examine in depth methods of electing Members of Parliament other than the present straight majority method. The present system obviously does not give a fair deal to important minorities like the Liberal Party. So said the Chief Whip of the Labour Government in 1965. As we have already heard, this was followed by a Speaker's Conference which decided, I think by a majority of 19 to 1, to make no change. It decided that the present electoral system was the best. Since then, of course, things have changed very considerably. I have very little confidence that a Speaker's Conference convened tomorrow would come to a very different conclusion.

My Lords, there are, however, some rays of light to which we might turn. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Crowther-Hunt, is not able to be in his place at present, because he is rather a crucial figure in all this. In the first place, your Lordships will recall that in his Minority Report on the Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution, when referring to the setting up of a single Chamber assembly specifically in Scotland, the noble Lord, Lord Crowther-Hunt, said that it should consist of 100 Members. The noble Lord went on: They will be elected on the single transferable vote system of proportional representation. If this is so, we can be sure that minorities will be fully represented. I do not think I need repeat at any great length what has already been said. If it is necessary to protect the interests of minorities in Scotland and in Wales, then it is equally necessary to protect minorities in England. There are minorities in England who are not represented and I refer not entirely—although I do include it—to the Liberal Party.

Therefore, it seems to me that if the noble Lord, Lord Crowther-Hunt, made that recommendation in his Minority Report, I should also say that one of the very few matters upon which the whole of the Kilbrandon Commission was unanimous was that whatever assemblies were set up in Scotland and in Wales, whether executive or legislative, they were to be elected by proportional representation on the single transferable vote. It therefore seems important that we should now treat the English at least as well as we propose to treat the Scots and the Welsh.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Crowther-Hunt, comes into the picture again, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said, because he was very recently invited by the right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister to do some background research into the possibility of reopening the question of electoral reform. I recognise that when he was asked to do this he was an adviser to the Government and acting as a civil servant, and the Government are, therefore, quite within their rights, and indeed are acting in a constitutional sense quite properly, in saying that his findings need not be made public. I believe, however, that in a matter of this kind, which is of such enormous political importance, it would be a very great help if, in some form, the findings and recommendations of so distinguished a political scientist as Lord Crowther-Hunt could be made available, so that those of us who have not had the opportunity to do these researches ourselves might take advantage of them in making up our own minds. I should, therefore, like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, when he comes to reply, whether he can give us some encouragement, whether he can say that the report of the noble Lord, Lord Crowther-Hunt, or at least certain relevant passages, may be made available publicly and in your Lordships' House, so that our further deliberations on this subject can have the benefit of his research.

It seems to me, however, as I hinted earlier, that we certainly do not need a Royal Commisssion, and I do not know that we need even a Speaker's Conference to establish the principle. It seems to me quite clear that there is a need urgently to reform the electoral system. It may be that a Speaker's Conference would be necessary to examine the modalities of this, how it should be done, what form of proportional representation should be employed. What is now needed is that one or both of the major political Parties in this country should commit themselves openly to the principle of electoral reform, to the introduction of some form of proportional representation. I believe that whichever of the great political Parties did that would not only be doing a great service to the nation, would not only be providing a guarantee against what seems to me to be the creeping disintegration of our political system, but they might be surprised at the enormous electoral advantage that they themselves would reap from such a commitment.

I should like, if I may, before I conclude, to read two sentences which John Stuart Mill, whom I have mentioned more than once in this short intervention, wrote in his Treatise on Representative Government in, I think, 1859. He was talking of proportional representation as a means of protecting the interests of minorities, and he said: Unless this happens, there is not equal government but a government of inequality and privilege. One part of the people rule over the rest. There is a part whose fair and equal share of influence in the representation is withheld from them, contrary to all just government, but, above all, contrary to the principle of democracy, which professes equality as its very root and foundation. I believe that those words are as true today as they were when Mill first wrote them, and perhaps of even more immediate impact, because I believe we are moving into dangerous waters in our political life in this country. I believe that the erosion of the authority, prestige and reputation of Parliament is a dangerous phenomenon. I believe that we should do all we can to restore that reputation and prestige, and I believe very sincerely that one of the ways of doing that is an intelligent programme of electoral reform.

House adjourned during pleasure and resumed by the Lord Chancellor.

4.14 p.m.

Lord O'NEILL of the MAINE

My Lords, I was very heartened when I heard that the noble Lord, Lord Alport, had put down this Motion for consideration this afternoon, and I have great pleasure in making some rather disconnected remarks in support of his thesis. At first I was slightly disheartened when Lord Avebury did not appear to welcome this as much as I expected him to, but, equally, at the end of his speech he really came round to support what Lord Alport was trying to do. And the same, I think, goes for the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, who at first I thought would turn the proposition down flat, but who then appeared to give it a certain amount of faint praise, so there is always hope for the future.

My Lords, I am speaking as someone who comes from the periphery. I feel that there is a slight British tendency to imagine that the system under which we operate is always best. Proportional representation could be forced on Ireland in 1921, or on Northern Ireland in the 'seventies, but, my Lords, it is not for us. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, said that I might like to expand a little on proportional representation in the Irish Republic. I should like to do so very much indeed, because thereby hangs rather an interesting tale. It was, of course, proposed by the British Government of the day and instituted when the Republic of Ireland got its independence. But they of their own volition had a referendum on the subject some nine or 10 years ago. Admittedly, this referendum was introduced by the governing Party—I might be getting on to rather tender ground now—and they hoped that it would produce a certain result. There were two questions on the paper: No. 1, would you like to have Mr. de Valera as your new President; No. 2, would you like to alter the system of proportional representation? Anyway, the way it was framed—I think I have got it slightly wrong—it was hoped that the less educated members of society in the Irish Republic having voted Yes for their President, they would also vote Yes for a change of the electoral system. But the Irish were not to be conned. They voted Yes for Mr. de Valera as President, and No for a change from the system of proportional representation. So thereby hangs an interesting tale.

If I may digress back to my original theme of how the British always think they are right, of course I am one of these people myself, and I always used, when I was speaking in America in the old days, to praise the system of Question Time in the House of Commons; I always said that it was one of our great British safeguards. As the fourth Question was being asked, and perhaps not entirely answered, today, I could not help thinking something I have now come to think in the last two or three years; that any Minister worth his salt, with the short time available for Question Time in the House of Commons, can succeed in not answering the Question. Therefore, a Congressional Committee of Inquiry in America can get to the bottom of something far better than Question Time does under the British system. I digress, I admit, but it is part of my theme that we always believe that what we do is right and best for us and that nobody else really understands our wonderful system.

Today policies are being carried out for which a considerable majority of the British people did not vote. I would hope that with some form of proportional representation the moderates would have a greater chance of success. Your Lordships may well say that this is not the case in Northern Ireland. You may well say that proportional representation does not really seem to have changed the situation, and, indeed, if all the gloomy forecasts in my part of the world are true, this Election which is to be held on 1st May will produce an unprecedented number of extremists in the new Constitutional Convention. You may say that, but that is the exception which proves the rule, and thank God! in Britain, on this side of the water, people do not vote on sectarian lines. Therefore, anything that happened last year in the Assembly, and is to happen again this year in the Convention in Northern Ireland, does not really apply, thank God! to Britain, and people should not be misled by that.

Some noble Lords have been worried about sovereignty, but, surely, what we want to see is the sovereignty of our Parliament reestablished over the increasing powers of outside bodies—and the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, has spoken much more ably than I can about that. Burke, who I am glad to say was an Irishman, once said that Members of Parliament should be representatives and not delegates. I fear that increasingly a modern Member of Parliament tends to be, because of the great power of his Party machine, a delegate, and he should be a representative. He should be able to take his own decisions. I know that these things are very difficult. It is easy for us in this House to talk about another place, but once again one would hope that an alteration of the electoral system would make it easier for Members of Parliament to stand on their own feet.

If we merely look at these things from the point of view of Party solidarity, then of course we shall never change anything; but if other systems can work well in other countries, then we should have the humility to investigate them. May I suggest to noble Lords on this side of the House who still feel that the present system is best that they would do well to read the article which Harry Boyne wrote in the Daily Telegraph on 2nd April. He is a man I have known for many years and for whom I have some considerable feeling of support. This is what he said: That there is scant enthusiasm in the Labour Party for electoral reform is scarcely surprising. Labour has now been in office for roughly 13 of the last 30 years, and aspires, not without reason, to become the 'natural' majority Party under the present electoral system. Including the 1945 Election, it has 'won' six, against the Conservatives four. I merely mention that so that certain noble Lords on this side of the House who feel that our present system suits the Conservative Party best might read Harry Boyne's article of 2nd April.

I have the fear that if we continue with the present system, the moderates in the Conservative Party and the Social Democrats in the Labour Party will slowly be squeezed out, and we shall then face the real possibility in the end of having either a Left Wing or a Right Wing dictatorship. I apologise for these rather unconsidered words, but I am very quick to support the noble Lord, Lord Alport, in the Motion which he has enabled us to discuss today. I was, if I may say so, slightly heartened by the speech from our Front Bench. I did not feel that I was listening to a closed mind. I therefore hope that, with the passage of not too long a time, thoughts on this side of the House may change.

4.25 p.m.


My Lords, I should first like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Alport, for introducing this Motion. I have had one down on rather similar lines for a matter of months, and this debate has therefore enabled me to take it off the Order Paper. I shall say a great deal that will echo what the noble Lord, Lord Alport, has already said. I see the danger of not making reforms now. As I think that action is even more urgent than do some noble Lords who have already spoken, I may make my points rather more tersely and a little more extremely than they have done.

On 22nd May last year I was fortunate in being able to initiate a full Wednesday debate in the House on a Motion to consider: what changes could usefully be made to our Party and Parliamentary system to bring it into line with present day needs and improve the functioning of our democracy. I then mentioned several areas in which I thought changes should be considered. One of these was, of course, proportional representation. I adhere today to everything I then said.

The time for doing something about it is running out. There is doubt in my mind whether any form of democracy as we know it will endure in this country unless we heed the warnings now. A recent leading article in The Times made this quite clear. It pointed out that with our present system it was possible, and I would say even quite likely, that the extreme Left of the Labour Party, supported by the trade unions, might succeed in completely wrecking and changing our society out of all recognition against the wishes of, perhaps, 80 per cent. of the electorate. Not only for this reason, but because of the contempt in which many people now hold the working of our Party system, some proportional representation, and probably a multi-Party system as in Germany, would be far preferable.

It has always surprised me that, when one comes into Parliament, somehow or other its Members seem to be almost insulated from the criticisms made from outside. It seems that after a time they believe that what they have been doing in the past cannot be bettered, and that there can be no criticism or need for change. I must say that it surprises me. It would seem that we have come to regard the present detailed version of government which we call "democracy" as something above criticism: a sacred cow, if you like. It does not seem to matter how inefficiently it functions; principles are said to be at stake. Our present system is certainly not that of Athens, where the majority view of the people prevailed. The so-called mandates for a Party—if "mandate" means a demand—have become sheer hypocrisy, because in a large number of cases the vast majority of the nation do not agree with them.

Nowadays we have an effective choice between only two Parties, and many of the cynics say between two evils. The definition of democracy as "Government by the people for the people" is not very enlightening when one considers its working in detail. It is, I am sure, a truism that however perfect a system of government appears to be initially, it will, in time, become debased and changes in society will mean that reforms are necessary if the original ideals are to be maintained. We have only to look at the theoretically once perfect system of electing American Presidents to see the force of this argument.

In spite of major dissatisfaction with our Party politics, it seems that we are only just beginning to realise that some changes are needed if any form of democracy is to continue. To fail to make the reforms in time can only mean that all we have created in the past, and which most of us hold dear, will be swept away by a radical reform to another and almost certainly autocratic form of government. The writing has been on the wall for some time. Today it should be clear enough for all those who wish to read it.

Finally, I am sure that, privately, many of those in this House who were previously union leaders see this issue and more pressing problems of wags inflation much as I do. I appeal to those who are not in favour of completely and immediately demolishing our present society to stand up and be counted. I know this is difficult because of previous union loyalties, but the nation's future is at stake and their voice at this time could carry great weight. Very soon it may be too late. That, I am afraid, is a brief and depressing picture. Nevertheless, I believe it to be true and I think it is right, if that is what one feels, to rise in your Lordships' House and say it unequivocably.

4.31 p.m.


My Lords, I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Alport, for having initiated this debate. I am sorry that so far no person has spoken from the Government Back-Benches, but I hope there is still time, because I think every true democrat, wherever he may sit in this House or in another place, must be anxious about what is happening to our whole Parliamentary system, the way it is falling in the respect of the people and the way it is operating. Anything we can do to strengthen moderate opinion, both in the House and in the country, would seem to be wholly desirable. That is why I shall argue that a revision of cur electoral system towards some form of proportional representation is urgently necessary and why I so welcome the initiative of my noble friend.

I think the country as a whole feels, as other speakers have said, that it is unfair and unjust that it needs some 400,000 Liberal votes to elect a single Liberal members of Parliament and rather less than one-tenth of that amount to elect a Conservative or a Labour Member of Parliament. I think also that one should remember, as one speaker has already reminded your Lordships, that the present Government, which must be one of the most extreme political Governments, certainly of the last 50 years, was elected on 28 per cent. of the total electorate, and only 39.3 per cent. of those who voted in the last Election. I would remind your Lordships that it was in 1933 that Hitler came to power on 39 per cent. of the votes of the German people.

Sometimes people elected on a minority vote do not seem to be inhibited by any desire to be moderate and to carry the nation with them but embark on more extreme measures. I am not for a moment suggesting that this Government is tending towards Hitlerism, but I think we have to study the lessons of our life-time and see that sometimes people elected on a small vote stay there until their country is damaged irreparably and no one has another chance of electing a successor. I believe that our Parliamentary democracy is really in extreme peril. We have always adapted our institutions. Those of us who attended in Westminster Hall the 700th anniversary of Simon de Montfort's Parliament, must have reflected at that time how much we have changed our system in 700 years to produce our present one. I cannot see why we should not continue to change with advantage to the institution and to our system.

I cannot help feeling that, as we slump with increasing inflation—while our competitors are solving their problems in that area—with increasing deficits in our balance of trade, with enormous public services and enormously swollen public expenditure, and with the starving of our wealth—creating industry, which, incidentally, is our exporting industry, all these happenings may lead to extreme measures, and that there will be those from the extremes of all political Parties who will be pressing, and who may play comes about. I believe that, if we do not have a coalition or an amalgam as a so disproportionate a part if this tragedy result of some form of proportional representation, then we shall slide inexorably into more serious trouble. Those who have much more seniority than my-self in the political field, and those, perhaps, who thought out their problems in past decades and are not of a mind to think them out again, tend to say that coalitions are ineffective and unsuccessful. I believe we are coming to the stage in this country where the choice may well be between a loose coalition—not necessarily a formal coalition—of political Parties, or a neo-Communist Government. If the choice is between those two, surely every democrat would come to support a loose coalition and any form of proportional representation which might bring that about. I do not wish to discuss the merits of the various forms. Once we start discussing them we should keep your Lordships longer than is necessary and we should get into long and technical arguments.

I see no demerit, certainly in our towns and the surroundings to our towns, to multi-Member constituencies. For 20 years I sat in the highly marginal seat of Hendon, North, a borough divided between Hendon, North and Hendon, South. I was surrounded on one side by Harrow, East, West, and Central and just below that by Wembley, North, and South. I think in all those cases one could have a two-Member constituency without the constituents feeling any divorcement from their representatives. Quite honestly, in suburbs of London they know they live in NW7, Mill Hill or NW11, which is Colindale in my area, but they do not feel any intense loyalty to something which is described on the map as "Hendon, North", "Hendon, South", "Wembley, North" and "Wembley, South".

So I see no merit, certainly in the conurbations, if we swing towards multi-Member constituencies. I would suggest two or three Member seats as a compromise number. We have done this in the past not unsuccessfully. I see the merits, of course, in county seats, like the noble Lord, Lord Alport, who sat for Colchester, and I see it being simpler if you have just one representative in a county seat when everyone is clear about who is their representative.

The noble Lord, Lord Alport, mentioned in his opening speech that the overworking of Members of Parliament was one of the reasons leading to the breakdown, to some extent, of respect for our Parliamentary system. Certainly, I acknowledge that in marginal seats one is overworked. In my 20 years I spent two occasions every week visiting my constituency. When you remember that about half the electorate move between every General Election, you have to run —like Alice in Wonderland—like mad to stay where you are in getting to know those who move in and sadly forgetting those who move out. So there is overwork. I stress that, and the load of Parliamentary work gets greater and greater. But I should have thought that there was some merit in the French system where they have an understudy to Members of Parliament called a suppléant. It seems to me that this would be quite a good provision, a training period for someone who wishes to serve his country in Parliament and get to know the system by serving in that manner. This is something which again I think could be examined in the context of electoral reform.

I must confess I did not expect a wild support from my Front Bench, and I was pleased to see that at least a chink was left open in the speech which the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, delivered. I find this kind of subject is not popular with the two Front Benches. The Government of the day are inevitably over-worked, this one particularly, because they have to bring in a Budget every few months, and, therefore, there is a permanent Finance Bill rumbling through either the House or the Committees upstairs. On top of that they have many contentious measures, the Industry Act, nationalisation of aerospace and shipping, and goodness knows what else thrusting behind them!

The Opposition Front Bench have problems, too. They have to earn a living, they do not get much pay and they do not get the help which the civil servants provide so admirably for the Government of the day. In any case, the two big Parties seem to think that because they thought out this problem some time ago they do not need to think it out again. I urge noble Lords to accept that it is necessary to think it out again, because the rigid two-Party system is inevitably breaking down, and really it did not exist for very long, less than 100 years as I read my history. One sees it breaking down not only with the emergence of the Liberal vote but with the Scottish Nationalists, the Welsh Nationalists, the Ulster Nationalists—if I may use that term—and others. I believe that this process will continue as provincial and national strength, and nationalism, grow, and it would be much better to adapt our system now than to pretend that the rigid two-Party system will stay the same as it has in past decades.

It is also argued by those who have experience of the 'thirties that the Coalition of that time did not work very well. It did at least enable us to win the Battle of Britain and the war and to do rather better than most of the other industrial countries in solving the desperate unemployment problems we had, so I would not condemn it on those scores. Like the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, I believe that a Royal Commission—and I am sitting on one—is too slow and ponderous an organisation to deliberate this matter. I think that the Speaker's Conference, as proposed in this Motion, again would take a long time and, as others have pointed out, its recommendations are not always adopted by the Government of the day. I therefore urge my Party or the Labour Party—the Social Democrats in the Labour Party—to consider what is happening and to consider whether this is not the kind of measure, the kind of action, which should be brought about in a sincere and desperate effort—and urgency is the need—to strengthen the moderates at the expense of the extremists.

4.43 p.m.

The Earl of DUNDEE

My Lords, I have spoken twice already on this subject, once at the beginning of the last Parliament, in March of last year, and again near the beginning of this Parliament, last December, and I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, would describe me as one of the repentant sinners or as one of the 99 who went not astray. I intend to be brief and to make only three points. The first arises from the terms of the Motion, and I very much agree with what my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing has said on this subject. It says that we should: … examine … the form of … representation best suited to maintaining the traditional independence of a Member of Parliament as the representative of a territorial constituency… I am all in favour of local loyalties of every kind, but constituencies in Britain have been changing continuously, in terms of their size, shape ad the kind of people they cover, for the last 300 to 400 years, and the moral imperatives of loyalty are not quite the same as they are in the case of loyalty to one's country, family or home.

When William Pitt died at a very early age, because he had worked too hard for his country as Prime Minister, he is reported by a favourable source to have exclaimed, "My country, how I leave my country", and by a less favourable source to have said, "I really think I could eat one of Bellamy's pork pies."Whichever is the right version, I am sure he would never have said, "My constituency, how I leave my constituency." There were cases in the 18th century, and even later, when Members who did not represent rotten boroughs nevertheless knew almost everybody in their constituencies, and sometimes some of them would say, "If you elect me, I will go into Parliament without accepting the Whig or Tory ticket. I will wait awhile and see which Party is likely to do the most good for all of us here and possibly join it."Anybody who tried to get elected on that ground today would be sure to lose his deposit.

I thought Winston Churchill, who was always in favour of proportional representation, put this point very well when he gave Leeds as an example of a moderate-size, fairly large industrial town which had five single constituencies and which would, under proportional representation, be one constituency returning five Members. Winston used to say, "I would very much rather be one-fifth of the Members for the whole of Leeds than be the whole of one Member for one-fifth of Leeds." I think that all your Lordships who have served in another place would agree that all Members, whatever their Party, are always very diligent in attending to the personal affairs of their constituents who write to them. I think your Lordships might also agree that if single-Member constituencies were replaced in some parts of the country by five or even six-Member constituencies, the five or six Members would be perfectly capable of dividing among themselves the individual work which all Members have to do for their constituents, and they would probably divide it in such a way among the group that it would be done more quickly and efficiently than it is now.

The other two points I wish to raise arise from the remarks of my noble friend Lord Mansfield. He made an excellent contribution and I was delighted to hear him say that he was an agnostic. That is far better than saying—and he could not possibly have said it speaking from the Opposition Front Bench—that he was a convert. It would be utterly premature for any Front Bench speaker to say that now; and therefore the next best thing is to say one is an agnostic as the great Saint Augustine was before he became a Christian. He was an agnostic for a long time and he used to pray, "God make me a righteous man, but not quite yet if you don't mind." What my noble friend said was decidedly encouraging to those of us who believe that a change in our electoral laws is to be desired.

My noble friend gave an interesting example of the electoral results for the whole country at the last General Election. As he is a Scotsman, and so am I, may I give a shorter extract which is confined to Scotland and which I believe is of particular relevance, because in the case of Scotland it is not merely a question of whether we can get a Speaker's Conference to recommend something. We have already had this recommended by a Royal Commission— not only by the Royal Commission of the noble Lord, Lord Kilbrandon—but also in the equally powerful Minority Report by the noble Lord, Lord Crowther-Hunt, which recommended almost exactly the same thing. In view of that, I think that perhaps the electoral figures for Scotland may by themselves have special significance, especially as the Government have in their White Paper, to the great regret of most of us, turned down the proposal for proportional representation in the election of a Scottish Assembly.

I shall give the figures as quickly as I can. The total number of people in Scotland who voted at the last Election was about 2¾ million—the exact figure was 2,758,000. The number who voted Labour—this makes it all very simple— was almost exactly 1 million. It was 1,000 over the million. So 1 million voted Labour against 1¾ million for all the other Parties put together, of which the Conservatives had 681,000, the Scottish Nationalist Party 840,000, the Liberals 229,000 and other Parties 8,000—making a total of 1¾ million votes, compared with the figure for Labour of almost exactly 1 million. But, my Lords, the Labour Party which had only 36 per cent. of the votes got 57 per cent. of the seats, amounting to 41 seats against 30, giving them a majority of 11 in a total of 71 seats, although they got only 1 million votes out of 2¾ million. When your Lordships study these figures, you may realise why the Government have stated in their White Paper that they intend to reject the recommendation of the Royal Commission because, as they say, everybody is accustomed to the present system and it is nice and easy to understand.

I turn now to the question of stability which was also mentioned by my noble friend Lord Mansfield. Will we get more or less stability by having a different system of electing the Members of another place? My noble friend Lord O'Neill of the Maine sitting behind me pointed out that since the war all the Government majorities have been elected by a minority of the voters, which is very true. One might add that the majority of the electors voted the same way every time, but under our present system of voting—with single Member constituencies with one vote— two, three or four per cent. can easily make a difference of 80 or 90 seats in the final result. Sometimes a very small percentage of the whole number of electors can make a difference of perhaps 100 seats in the Party composition, with the result that we continually get single Parties—Conservative or Labour— returned alternately on a minority vote. We get this not on the votes of 95 or 96 per cent. who vote more or less the same every time, but on the remaining two or three per cent. who change their minds every time. Some of them may be very wise and thoughtful, but they may not necessarily be the wisest and most reliable section of the electorate.

Is it not a little blind on our part to assume that because single Party governments do not have all the business of trying to get a coalition, they are therefore more stable than governments who have to do this? Particularly since the war, when it was being generally recognised that financial policy is so important in relation to everything else, is it not a very great temptation to any government to do, as an Election approaches, not what they think is right, but what they think may be approved of by the two or three per cent. of the not necessarily most wise and clever of the electors, who can make all the difference when the Election comes between the victory or defeat of either of the two great Parties?

Some noble Lords on the Benches opposite may not disagree with me or, at least, may not object, if I say that I think that the Budget presented by Mr. Roy Jenkins in 1970 was not nearly as bad as some Budgets have been since the war, and it may fairly be claimed in some respects to have been better than most of them. I would also suggest, in addition, that future historians writing of our time may conclude that it was because of the more sensible and consistent parts of the Budget presented by Mr. Roy Jenkins that the Labour Party lost the Election in that year. I think that it is very possible that that may become the verdict of history.

My Lords, I do not intend to spend time in drawing comparisons, which is so easy to do and which is very well justified, between the economic progress made by Britain and that made by some of our neighbours who have a different electoral system, and who do not continually have big changes of extreme Party government. Instead, I shall merely suggest to your Lordships that it ought to be recognised that one does not get more instability— one probably gets much greater stability —by having a continued representation in one Parliament after another of the 96 or 97 per cent. of the electors who vote the same way every time, although they do not give an absolute majority to any one Party, than by a continuously changing, but unrepresentative majority whose victory or defeat depends on the swing of 2 or 3 per cent. of the electors.

4.59 p.m.


My Lords, I intervene briefly to remind the House that I have sat on Speaker's Conferences from 1964 until I left the other House in 1970, and therefore I know something about the long, laborious processes of arriving at a decision to make a recommendation. I want to take this opportunity to protest strongly at some of the dismal Jeremiah speeches that have been made today about the British Parliamentary system. It is rather strange that this always arises when a Labour Government are in power. When the Party opposite is in power it seems to be O.K.; there is a wonderful Parliamentary system in operation. But immediately a Labour Government come into power the British Parliamentary system is all wrong.

The British Parliamentary system is the best in the world. If your Lordships look around the world at other countries, and visit them, as some of you have done, can anyone say that there is a better Parliamentary system than we have, despite some of its minor defects? At least in Britain we have true democracy, and no man can be bought in the representation of the people in this country. This is our proud boast. But look around at some of the so-called democratic countries and see the picture. Let us be realistic with ourselves. It is strange, as I have said, that the question always arises when a Labour Government are in power. When a Labour Government are in power many of those representative here and in the Commons are among our best British democrats and patriots. As an example of a patriot, my noble friend Lord Shinwell is the greatest waver of the Union Jack in this House.

I want to refer briefly to what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said. I do not agree with what he said. He talked about a multi-Member constituency. It is vital to preserve personal contact with the electors. He referred in scathing terms to glorified welfare officers. The very basis of Parliamentary representation in the Commons is based on personal contact with the people one represents. The "weekend surgery"—I never use that term—is the intimate contact with the problems of the people; it sends that Member, a little tired, back to the House the following week refreshed by human contact and sharing human problems. Multi-Member constituencies would wipe out the very basis of our Parliamentary representation, the real value of the personal contact.

I accept that changes are necessary, but I do not think the changes should come by recommendations from the Speaker's Conference. I think it is time that we had a change. First of all, it is an intolerable burden on Mr. Speaker that he has to spare the time to try to keep his Members on long, wearying debates, discussions and interviews. Therefore I think the time has come for reforming the system of deciding on changes in our Parliamentary legal system. It is true—and we should remind ourselves of it—that not only is there a Speaker's Conference operating at the time but a Home Office Committee as well; so that the Speakers' Conference does not take all the decisions. I think an independent body should deal with the changes necessary, and then, again, they must recommend because the final decision must be taken by the people affected; namely, the Commons.

Today, at times, we were straying on to some very dangerous ground because we are dealing with something which vitally affects the other place. One knows from previous contacts and from life in the other place how jealous the other place is of your Lordships' House. We here have to be very careful indeed in what we say. That is why I regret some of the speeches that have been made. The noble Lord, Lord Alport, has done a service. He has raised an issue which is important, but, I repeat, please let us stop this running down of our Parliamentary system. We are playing into the hands of people outside and some of the media as well. It is time that we pointed out to the rest of the world that our Parliamentary system is the best in the world. If we can improve it, so be it; but the responsibility will be ours.

5.4 p.m.


My Lords, I rise merely to dispel one particular nostrum which is always advanced. It was advanced today by the noble Lord, Lord Alport, who tended to suggest that we are not the men our fathers were. He spoke about the falling off in the public standards of Parliament. For an historian that seems pretty bad. He said he was an historian. Writers—any writer since the time of Pepys—have always denigrated Parliament. Parliament has always been held in affectionate contempt by the British people. Pepys referred to the bad and wild young men that have now got into the House. Stephenson said of Parliament that we are all ashamed of it. Carlyle wrote that Parliament mirrored the weakness of the State and not its strength. Dickens always referred to it with contempt. There is not one character in any of the works of Dickens that touch on the House who does not refer to it with contempt. Dickens was a shorthand reporter. He always referred to it as the great dust heap of Westminster. Hazlitt, the noblest of our essayists, said something about Parliament being like a cockpit in all its glory, or like Billingsgate on market day. If the noble Lord, Lord Alport, re-reads (as I am sure he has read) Rhodes James's book on Churchill, A Study in Failure, 1900–1939 he will read about the despair that Winston Churchill felt about Parliament in 1934—and that was only three years after a noble coalition.

How old is Parliament in its present system? The great Reform Act of 1832 gave only 4 per cent. of the electorate the vote. There is no use quoting John Stuart Mill in this context. It was a different kind of Parliament, a different electorate. It was an élite.


My Lords, may I interrupt—


My Lords, I would prefer not to give way. The noble Lord has a right of reply.


My Lords, does not the noble Lord feel that there is a difference between the attitude of people to Members of Parliament as individuals and the powers and prestige of Parliament as an institution?—which is quite a different kettle of fish.


My Lords, I do not know. I was always treated with great respect in West Leeds. I am sure the honourable gentleman's experience in Colchester was the same. The weakness of his speech is that he thought that when he retired from Colchester the Lord Almighty "busted" the mould and those who came after him were lesser men.

If you take the whole period of the 19th century, you find that it was a smaller electorate, where the squire was equated almost with the Member of Parliament of the time. As a matter of fact, we never did achieve full democracy in this country until 1950 with the abolition of the university franchise and the business vote. That was the first time that we had "one man, one vote; one woman, one vote" across the board. This cry always comes up whenever there is a Party on the Left—even referring to the radicals. You can see the upsurge with the great Liberal majority in 1906.

I asked the late Richard Crossman— who often advanced this argument—what was the greatest period of Parliament, when it was at its pinnacle. He paused, hesitated, could not immediately give a date; and then he mumbled something about 1880. I could tell you something about Parliament, about the Commons, in 1880; something about the place and the men born to the job here. Even when I got to Parliament in 1949 I could see still the sinecures and the ideas which the Stokes Committee did something to abolish—and I have done my share in that place. This House of Parliament had no lease at all, no rights at all; it was just a tenant at the caprice of Her Majesty until 1965, when I was the Minister instrumental in shifting this. The honourable gentleman would be better to pin his case——

Several Noble Lords: Noble Lord!


My Lords, he is an honourable gentleman as well as a noble Lord; but the House ought not to be so fastidious. The noble Lord would have been better off to rest his case on its strong points, the emergence of the Nationalist Party in Scotland and the Nationalist Party in Wales. Something must be done for those. The point on which I would agree with him is that one can hardly have a system of voting for those places that is denied to us.

5.9 p.m.


My Lords, it was just over a year ago that the House debated a Motion by the noble Lord, Lord Wade. His Motion was that the electoral system should be changed so that the number of seats obtained at General Elections and at local government elections should reflect more accurately the number of votes cast for each Party. In the light of that debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Wade, I find myself in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, in being slightly surprised at the coolness in the response of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, when he spoke this afternoon about the debate.

On the occasion when the noble Lord, Lord Wade, initiated his debate last year, your Lordships had a full and thoughtful debate on the subject of electoral reform; and the same has been true today. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alport, for the way in which he has introduced his Motion, and for giving us the opportunity to discuss this matter again. I think the noble Lord has recognised that a matter as important as the one he has raised today might most appropriately be discussed by a Speaker's Conference. I think that is a far more appropriate place in which to discuss it than a Royal Commission, which is one alternative that has been suggested today. The noble Lord said that the problem should be tackled on an all-Party basis and suggested it should be done by a Speaker's Conference. Therefore, I think it is appropriate that I should first of all discuss this specific matter before speaking more generally about proportional representation itself.

As your Lordships will know, the work of the last Speaker's Conference was interrupted by the General Election of February 1974. In the short time that it was at work, the last Speaker's Conference produced a number of important and valuable recommendations. These covered such things as electoral registration, the minimum age for election and the timing of by-elections. They also gave some consideration to the question of the maximum permitted expenditure for candidates at Elections, and their recommendation on this was implemented by the Representation of the People Act 1974.

There were also a number of important matters that the Speaker's Conference was unable to consider and which a reconvened Speaker's Conference would no doubt wish to take up. Among these are the question of the franchise, and the conduct of Elections, particularly in relation to candidates' descriptions, absent voting, polling day and polling hours. There is also the question of candidates' expenses at Elections which is particularly relevant at this time of high inflation. The last Conference said that they felt that this whole matter should be the subject of a more detailed examination later. I mention these things to provide the context in which a Speaker's Conference might also consider the matter to which the noble Lord, Lord Alport, has drawn attention. Clearly, if the question of electoral reform were to be referred to a Speaker's Conference it would form a most important and substantial subject for consideration.

This brings me to the question of the timing of a reconvened Speaker's Conference. As your Lordships will know, the convening of a Speaker's Conference is normally a matter for the leaders of the main Parties in consultation with Mr. Speaker himself. I cannot anticipate what the outcome of those consultations would be, but I should be surprised if it were not the general wish that a Speaker's Conference should be reconvened as soon as could be conveniently arranged once the referendum on our membership of the EEC was over.

I should now like to turn to the issues raised directly in the noble Lord's Motion. The House will know that our system of Elections has been considered on a number of occasions in the past. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, went through a catalogue. The Royal Commission in 1910, the Speaker's Conference in 1917, the Conference of 1930 presided over by Lord Ullswater and the Speaker's Conferences of 1944 and 1965 to 1968 have all considered the matter. It is a measure of the complexity of the questions involved and of the fundamental principles at stake that, in that time, no generally acceptable basis for change has emerged. The main argument for change is that our present electoral system discriminates unfairly against the smaller Parties.


My Lords, with great respect, the noble Lord is wrong. The 1916 to 1917 Speaker's Conference recommended that the single transferable vote for the multi-Member constituency should be adopted, and that recommendation was unanimous.


My Lords, the conclusion of Parliament on these matters was not as unanimous as the recommendation of the Conference, and that is the point to which I am addressing myself. I was trying to say to the House that the main argument for change is the position of the smaller Parties. As we know, the Liberal Party consider that it is unfair, that the 5 million votes they received at the October Election should have produced only 13 seats. On the other hand, the present system is simple, rapid in operation and straightforward in the result. Furthermore, the present one-Member constituencies provide a certain diversity of representation. The system clearly contains an element of rough justice—sometimes very rough, as in October 1951 when the Labour Party secured 230,684 more votes than the Conservatives, but found itself in opposition. I cannot remember the same enthusiasm for electoral reform on the Benches opposite on that occasion, and, following the interesting speech of the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, I cannot recall that the then Prime Minister felt particularly inhibited at proceeding to implement his Election Manifesto.


My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me to intervene. Regarding Manifestos, did not the late Sir Winston Churchill use the famous words: There is no reason why because you stick a thing in a Manifesto you should carry it out"?


My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend's recollection of the words of the late Sir Winston Churchill are more accurate than my own; I would not dare correct him even if, by chance, he was wrong. The noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, spoke movingly about the evils of one-Party rule, and he instanced Glasgow. But I can recall, without a great deal of difficulty, a substantial number of local authorities controlled by his Party where his Party went to considerable lengths, when the aldermanic system existed to ensure that the aldermen of the minority Party found it extremely difficult to secure election at a local authority. I can recall a number of instances. We should not be too self-righteous on either side of the House about the conduct of political Parties on local authorities.


My Lords, would the noble Lord claim that the rate of civic progress in Glasgow is as much as any Tory-controlled borough?


My Lords, although the instance the noble Earl gave as to Glasgow is true, that it has been largely one Party, in fact it has not been wholly one Party as he will recall. The problems of South coast watering-places are perhaps not so difficult as they are in the town constructed at the height of the Industrial Revolution, which has been shamefully neglected by Governments for over a century.

If I may return now, having strayed from the path of righteousness myself, to the subject of proportional representation, a large number of different schemes have been proposed by their adherents. A number have been proposed this afternoon. In the debate today, the advantages of some of these systems have been discussed. For some of us, there might be some difficulties about having the very large constituencies (with between five and seven Members in each) which would probably work best for the single transferable vote system. Some people, too, would see difficulty in the development of a situation where very small Parties could hold the balance of power.

But there is, as many noble Lords have pointed out, no unanimity on the method of proportional representation that might be chosen, should Parliament be minded to change the system. Indeed, I see from recent newspaper reports that there is some movement within the Conservative Party for the introduction of a system which, while retaining the traditional single-Member constituency, would give additional seats to Parties that were found to be unfairly represented in the light of the total number of votes cast on a national basis.

In passing, I found it interesting that the only "agnostic" on the Benches opposite was the noble Earl who sits on the Front Bench. All the other speakers —and this should give pleasure to the noble Lord, Lord Alport—speaking on the other side of the House have recommended a change in the existing system. I should like to allude to the precise proposal which has been advocated by a number of friends of the noble Earl outside the House. I have not been able to give this proposal any deep consideration, but I think there would be some significant difficulties in its operation. If there were to be no increase in the total number of Members returned, such a system would require larger constituencies than those we have at present, because something like one third of the total number of seats would have to be reserved for the allocation process at the conclusion of the Election.

Two rather important aspects of our traditional system of representation are, I think, the link between a Member and his constituency to which the noble Lord referred, and the effect of the system on the Election of a Government. On the first point it has, I believe, been a matter of some pride to us that an MP should represent all the electors in his constituency, both those who voted for him and those who did not. This has led to the development of a close link between the elected Member and the total electorate for which he speaks. We should need to give very careful thought to any proposal that would directly or indirectly break this link.

The other question is the effect of electoral reform on the formation of a Government. Under our present system, the electorate, although voting for an individual candidate in a particular constituency, know that they are in effect electing a Government to carry out a certain political programme. Clearly the result of some forms of proportional representation might well be that a Government would necessarily consist of a coalition of Members formed after a General Election. Under such a system the electorate could not know at the time of the Election what programme or policies such a coalition might follow. Similarly, if a Government had lost the confidence of the country, there might be difficulties at a subsequent General Election for the electorate to express their views effectively by means of their votes.

All this, however, is merely to echo the views expressed by many noble Lords that this is a difficult and serious topic. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alport, for initiating this debate, which I hope he will agree has been useful and constructive. When the time comes for consultations to take place about the reconvening of the Speaker's Conference, I am sure that those concerned will take fully into account the views that have been expressed in the debate this afternoon.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I asked him a specific question during my brief intervention. I do not wish to press him for an answer now if he is not ready to give one, but may we have some kind of encouragement about the Report of the noble Lord, Lord Crowther-Hunt?


My Lords, I will look into the point raised by the noble Lord.

5.23 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say just one or two words of thanks to noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. First, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for the very helpful and sympathetic reply he has given to the initiative which we who have been discussing this have taken in preparing this debate. I take it that when the consultations for the Speaker's Conference are undertaken, the question of electoral reform will be one of the matters to be considered.

I should like to say to the noble Lord, Lord Pannell, who has been a colleague of mine in another place for a long time, that I think he did me a slight injustice. It was very far from my thoughts to suppose that those who are in the other place at present are any less men than we were, or indeed than were our fathers and grandfathers. I would say that I personally was glad to leave the House of Commons, because I found the pressures and strains of being a Minister and a Member of Parliament as well as being the father of a moderately large family, were more than I could reasonably put up with. I have never gone back there, nor do I wish to; but that does not mean that I have not the greatest respect for those who are bearing those strains and pressures at the present moment I was making the point that I think those pressures are too great to render life tolerable at the sort of age when a man should be making his best contribution— say, between 35 and 50—to the work of the House of Commons and to Parliament generally.

I am extremely grateful to my noble friends who have supported me today. I wanted to put down this Motion—which I confess was done entirely on my own initiative—simply to show to people out-side Parliament that at any rate one House of Parliament, containing very many experienced politicians, contains Conservatives as well as Liberals who now recognise the importance of electoral reform to the future of Parliament. I would say, if I may, that even the noble Lord, Lord Pannell, and one of his noble friends who spoke from the Government Benches, in the end seemed to be agreeing, if rather grudgingly, that there might be something to be said for considering this problem at present.

I personally believe in my heart that it will be very difficult to move Members of both the great Parties in the House of Commons, unless there is some external pressure and representation made to them which shows that public opinion generally, and perhaps the rank and file of their respective Parties, are interested in securing some change of this sort. Therefore, I felt this might be an opportunity here in our House, which is not limited by the normal restrictions of the tactics of Party struggle, to take the initiative and thereby to encourage those outside the walls of Parliament who are also interested in this subject. It is a complicated subject and, for many people, a rather tedious and boring one.

But I think from the debate we have had today that your Lordships will agree there is a very great deal of interest in and a great deal of support for, at any rate, an examination of this subject in whatever may be the most appropriate manner, to see whether it can contribute to the restoration of the authority of Parliament. Here I make the distinction that I made in my intervention in respect of what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Pannell; that is, the distinction between flesh and blood Members of Parliament, who arc always the subject of criticism though they may receive dignity and respect in their own constituency, and Parliament itself as an institution.

It is my observation, rightly or wrongly —and I have been supported in this by many of your Lordships this afternoon— that the authority of Parliament has been undermined during recent years. I would strongly emphasise that I am not talking simply in terms of a Labour Government being in power. I was conscious of this and said exactly the same thing when a Conservative Government was in power before 1974. This is not a matter of minor "back-chat" of Party politics. It is an issue for all of us who are concerned not only with Parliament, but with the good government and prosperity of Britain. It is something to which we should apply our minds and, if possible, contribute to its progression.

As I say, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I hope they will have had at least some impact outside, although one cannot always hope for that in a short debate in your Lordships' House. In accordance with our custom on these occasions, I will in the nick of time request permission to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.