HL Deb 11 February 1976 vol 368 cc86-104

3.6 p.m.

Lord BYERS rose to call attention to the rapidly declining efficiency of the British political system arising largely from the use of an electoral system for Parliamentary and other elections which does not represent the true wishes of those who vote; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I hope that this will not turn into a narrow debate on proportional representation. I would invite the House to go wider and deeper on this subject, which I believe is of vital importance to the future of this country. Traditionally, the argument for abandoning the present electoral system in favour of one which is proportionately representative has been the injustice suffered by minority Parties through their under-representation. Traditionally, too, the arguments in favour of retaining the present system have centred on the need for stable government. However, in the past two or three years new dimensions have been added to this whole subject as more people have come to study this matter in greater depth. These studies challenge the very premises on which the opponents of electoral reform found their arguments, and many of us now believe that there is a direct causal relationship between our social and economic crises and the system by which we elect our House of Commons.

For the last 10 to 12 years we have had neither proper representation nor stable government. Between October 1964 and October 1974 there were no less than five General Elections and three changes of Government. Only two of those elections produced a substantial working majority in Parliament for a single Party. But the frequency of those elections meant that the Government of the day were concerned primarily with their electoral prospects rather than with the longer term interests of the country. The result has been disastrous as far as continuity of management of the economy is concerned and is one of the major causes of the loss of confidence on the part of the industrial and business community.

The truth is that the present "first past the post" or "winner takes all" system of voting entrenches what has rightly been called adversary politics or, as some might prefer, the politics of the two-Party confrontation. This atmosphere in which the Parties have been working in the last decade has exaggerated the differences between Government and Opposition, with each of the two Parties when out of office committing itself so often to out-right opposition to Government proposals which differed only marginally from those which they themselves had sponsored when in offce. A classic example, one in which I have an interest, is the three attempts to introduce legislation concerning occupational pensions. Over a period of more than 15 years this has been a nightmare for the pensions industry and an extensive waste of valuable commercial, Civil Service and Parliamentary time and ability.

Similarly, over too long a period there was no consensus between the Conservative and Labour Parties on which to build an enduring structure of industrial relations. We have also witnessed the Socialist, Wilsonian, time-wasting farce over our membership of the EEC. The Labour Party created the opening for entry and then shuffled its feet in all directions for fear of the immediate electoral consequences. We now have the Conservative Party calling for substantial cuts in public expenditure which I do not believe they would ever consider if they were in office. We have the Labour Party incurring new expenditure of thousands of millions of pounds to fulfil what many of us consider an ill thought-out Party Manifesto. All this has contributed to a dangerous cynicism in the public mind about politics, politicians and democracy itself. The impact upon industry has been starkly set out in the recent report of the Financial Economic Development Council which said: The comparatively low level of investment since the mid-1960s has not been caused by shortage of funds. Instead, the prime constraining factors seem to have been a lack of confidence in the consistency of Government economic policy.

Much of what I have already said is taken from the evidence which my Party has submitted to the Hansard Committee on Electoral Reform. This evidence was produced by Mr. William Wallace and Mr. Tony Richards. The Hansard Committee on Electoral Reform is, as your Lordships will know, presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Blake. He has written me a letter—which I received this morning—in which he asks me to apologise to your Lordships for not being present today. He has commitments which he cannot get out of but he would have liked to take part in the debate if only to have said something about the Commission's progress and when it hoped to report. The noble Lord has asked me to say that the Hansard Committee is an informal body which was set up by the Hansard Society in the light of the uneasiness felt, at least in some areas of every political Party, about the existing system. It is not necessarily committed to the view that the status quo needs to be changed. Clearly, its members have misgivings about the present system but they might conclude that, for all its defects, that system was better than any alternative. What the Commission hopes to do is, first, to examine how those alternatives really work in practice and to dispel part of the cloud of prejudice, folklore and mythology which still surrounds them. Secondly, it hopes to see how some of them might be adapted or transplanted for British use and, thirdly, it intends to try to put forward an agreed recommendation. The noble Lord, Lord Blake, wishes the House to know that he hopes to complete that report by June of this year.

A number of people have come to similar conclusions and have expressed very real unease. For instance, Professor Finer, the Gladstone Professor of Government and Public Administration at Oxford, in his introduction to an important collection of essays on Adversary Politics and Electoral Reform, has clearly demonstrated how the present system in Britain gives far greater influence to the extremists in the two main Parties than to the moderates. Yet the percentage of extremists in the electorate and even in the Parties themselves is, as most of us know, relatively small. Under our present system, the fact is that we have had instability, the undermining of confidence and the exaggeration of the influence of extremists. That is one reason why a growing number of influential industrialists are demanding a change in our voting system.

For those who still prefer to maintain the present system, I would remind them that it has only been in operation since 1885 and that multi-member constituencies were the rule in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Moreover, from the beginning of this century European countries have moved one by one to the system of PR. In Britain, over the past two centuries, the voting system has been a frequent subject of questioning and doubt. In 1917, this House wanted to adopt proportional representation by the single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies, but the Commons objected and threw out the idea. They wanted to introduce election by the alternative vote in single member seats. In 1931, as the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, will probably remember, that method was very nearly passed through Parliament and fell only because of the imminence of a General Election.

There is nothing new about trying to improve our representative methods and institutions. We contend—and my colleagues will deal in some detail with different aspects of the problem—that the time has come to change, in the interests of democracy and national efficiency, to an electoral system which more truly represents the wishes of the people who vote. The country has been steadily moving in that direction for some time. The Conservative Government of 1970–1974, with Liberal and Labour Party support, adopted PR for the Northern Ireland Assembly. No one will deny that the result was far more representative than that at the subsequent General Election. Comparison of the figures is interesting. In 1973, the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, using single transferable vote in the 12 constituencies, gave the following result: the anti-Faulkner United Ulster Unionists received 44 per cent. of the votes and 35 per cent. of the seats—that is, 27 out of 78. In the 1974 General Election for the Wesminster Parliament, the anti-Faulkner United Ulster Unionists, using the method we employ at the moment, got 48 per cent. of the vote—that is, 4 per cent. more than they had had before—and 11 out of the 12 seats at Westminster. There was something rather disproportionate about that. As I said, we adopted the single transferable vote in a multi-member constituency by agreement with all Parties for the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Again, the Royal Commission on the Constitution recently unanimously recommended the use of STV for national and regional assemblies in both its majority and its minority reports. In 1974, an all-Party study group sponsored by the European Movement recommended a modified version of the West German system for the election of British members to the European Parliament. I believe that we should very seriously ponder what may well happen in the next Parliament if we continue with the present electoral system. We normally tend to think that the unfairness of the present system is that it under-represents minority Parties. It is equally true that it over-represents nationalist Parties at Westminster. The nationalist vote is heavily concentrated in one area while the other Parties' votes are spread evenly over the country. That makes a tremendous difference. That is clearly demonstrated by the fact that at the last election it took 76,000 votes to elect a Scottish Nationalist, 55,000 to get in a Plaid Cymru candidate and 412,000 votes to get one Liberal Member of Parliament back to Westminster. That is because of the over-concentration in smaller areas so far as the Nationalists are concerned. The result next time could well be that the Scottish Nationalist Party will hold the balance of power at Westminster much as the Irish did at the beginning of the century. Nothing could make for more unstable government and it might possibly lead to the break up of the United Kingdom itself. That is why the adoption of a more equitable system is a matter of extreme urgency. I believe that it must be dealt with before the next Election and should not be handed to some long-winded Royal Commission or other method.

Before we conclude that the reform of the electoral system is a mere academic exercise in political justice, I believe that we should do well to heed what Professor Wilson, the Adam Smith Professor of Political Economy at Glasgow University, has had to say about the economic consequences of the system. Having reviewed the considerable variations over the past 12 years in such matters as taxation, fiscal policy, hire purchase changes and regional policies, he says that a rapid alternation of Parties in power is bound to introduce a strong bias in favour of change. He contends that it is in the best interests of the nation that change should be tempered by stabilisation which, again, depends on a broad measure of political consensus, which the present electoral system discourages.

His conclusion is that a review of the post-war years leaves one dissatisfied with the way the traditional political machinery has dealt with economic policy. What is needed, he says, is strong government within an appropriately restricted field of State activity; and this, I believe, is what industry wants today—stability in the narrow field in which it is to operate and make changes. What is needed"— Professor Wilson says— is confident, courageous leadership. We need a wider understanding of the issues and a much wider consensus. We haven't got this and the prestige of Parliamentary government is declining rapidly. The explanation, in part at least"— he concludes, is our present electoral system which results in our unrepresentative Commons and a widespread political cynicism.

My Lords, we recognise, of course, that a more representative electoral system will make coalitions and minority Governments more likely, but certainly not inevitable. We do not regard this as a disaster. Indeed, we have in this country done far worse over the past decade than countries like West Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, which have realistically come to grips with the situation and have made democracy really work. The success or failure of co-operation among Parties depends in the last resort on the qualities of leadership and the respect for the wishes of the electorate shown by those of all the Parties involved. It is our contention, for reasons which will be advanced by my noble friends, that proportional representation enables quality leadership to emerge much more easily at all levels and in different institutions.

I should like to refer for a moment to the events in February 1974, when Mr. Heath made his offer of coalition to Mr. Thorpe. I believe that there are several lessons to be drawn from that political episode, and we should learn them if we are serious in wanting to achieve stability, consensus and genuine democracy. The first lesson is that a coalition is more likely to succeed if the Parties in it were broadly representative of the numbers of people who voted for them. In February 1974 the system totally distorted the mathematics. There were 12 million Conservative votes which produced 297 Conservative seats. There were 300,000 fewer Labour votes (that was, 11.7 million Labour votes) which produced 301 Labour seats—against the 297 Tory seats. The Liberals, with 6 million votes, got 14 seats. It takes 318 votes to produce an overall Parliamentary majority; the Tory and Liberal seats combined numbered only 310, so that was eight fewer than the quota required.

The only way to obtain the necessary 318 that we could see at that time would have been for both Parties to rely on the Ulster Unionists, whose presence at Westminster, if I may say so, is on major occasions fairly unpredictable. Therefore, this was not a viable situation. If, however, the seats had been proportional to the votes, with a Liberal Party of over 100 Members of Parliament strong, and the other Parties roughly equally divided—as they would have been on those votes—a combination of either of the major Parties with the Liberal party would have provided a strong, broad grouping, probably centre-inclined, representing 18 million voters and providing a solid basis of consensus on which to move forward without endangering stability or confidence.

The second lesson of that episode is that Parties must begin to think in terms of less legislation and be prepared to regroup from time to time behind limited aims over a longer period than we have been used to hitherto. I believe that this country needs something like 10 years of strong Government, broadly based, with a real consensus of about 18 or 20 million people behind it if it is to conquer some of the major problems we are facing today. One really would have thought that over the past 30 years most of us in these two Houses could have come to some agreement on general policies which would give us a high level of employment without inflation. It should not be impossible to get some agreement on that. One would have thought that we could have made a much better contribution to obtaining a stable balance of payments, and that we could have produced, over the period since 1945, a basic structure of industrial relations which would at least have confined strikes and industrial disputes to those which raise major matters of principle. There are many other fields in which we should have been able to produce a sensible consensus.

My Lords, I come to the conclusion that we have all failed. What has been lacking has been the long-term view and a series of steady goals at which to aim. Instead of that, we have had one instant policy after another, with one eye on the marginal seats and the other glued on the opinion polls. We believe that this is not just a failure of men and women, but that it is the result of able people being imprisoned within a totally unrepresentative democracy and that is why, in our view, it is high time for a change in the electoral system. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.26 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Byers, for having given us the opportunity of this debate in which to take a broad look at our Parliamentary system of Government. He has, as he always does, clearly and forcefully pointed out that our political system is under considerable strain. When he initiates a discussion he commands our full attention, speaking as he does with long experience in both Houses of Parliament and with a practical knowledge of industry. He is aware that our system should support the efforts of those who are earning the country's living in exports, and in goods and services. We share the aim that Parliament should assist in creating the most favourable conditions in which British business and industry can thrive. That is the way in which the whole country can benefit.

It was, however, no surprise to us that the noble Lord raised the question of proportional representation, which is a matter of consequence to the Liberal Party. Had he today spoken without mentioning it, it would have been like Boswell writing of his Highland tour without mention of Johnson, or as if Mr. Macabre had been speculating about the future without expressing the opinion that something would turn up: for the Liberal Party, like Mr. Macabre, is not completely disinterested. Changing the electoral system, as he proposed, would give more seats in the Commons to the Liberal Party if people continued to support that Party in about the same numbers at Election time as they have being doing, though I should point out that even that could change if a completely new system were brought in.

Your Lordships will remember that we had a debate on 23rd April last when my noble friend Lord Alport introduced a Motion on proportional representation, and my noble friend Lord Mansfield then spoke from this Bench. I will not go over all that ground again. I am well aware that some of my noble friends are in favour of proportional representation. Like the noble Lord, Lord Byers, they think that it would reflect more accurately the divisions of views in the country and, as the noble Lord said just now, some think that it would moderate extreme policies which they consider are damaging—extreme policies either of the Right or of the Left.

On this matter of proportional representation, the Conservative Party has proposed that a Speaker's Conference should examine our electoral system as a whole. It is a much larger and more complex subject than many realise. There are several kinds of proportional representation, and there is considerable disagreement on which is the best. The noble Lord, Lord Byers, mentioned some of them. Their advantages are naturally extolled by the Liberal Party, but the disadvantages should not be overlooked. The noble Lord, Lord Byers, eloquently spoke of the advantages and I agree with a great deal of what he said on them, but your Lordships will understand if I do not repeat them but instead point out some of the disadvantages.

First, any of the systems would be likely to lead to a permanent state of minority Governments or Coalitions. Cabinets would be formed after post-Election pacts which had been negotiated between Party leaders, sometimes over a protracted period. This would lead to compromises on the principal policies on which the Parties had been competing for support at the Election. Many of the electorate would be justifiably confused, having supported candidates and Parties because of the policies which they advocated. They would then find that these had been modified and merged with the alternative policies of their recent political adversaries. In some countries where such systems apply there have been intervals of several weeks. which have been regarded as normal, between an Election and the subsequent formation of a Government; during that time these negotiations have been taking place. In Holland, in 1972, there was an interval of six months between the Election and the formation of a Government. That is the kind of problem which has not occurred in this country before and which we must recognise we should have to face. I suggest that Britain is a country which ought not to be left for long after a General Election bereft of Ministers without any mandate from the people.

Perhaps I may consider very briefly the different systems which have been suggested. First, there is the alternative vote. That would retain single-Member constituencies. An advantage is that it would involve the minimum of change from our present system; but it does not reliably reflect the proportions of those voting, and it can produce arbitrary results. For example, the candidate apparently enjoying the most general support may not be elected. Then there is the single transferable vote in multi-Member constituencies, also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Byers. Here, four-Member or five-Member constituencies are needed to secure proportions with any accuracy. This method suffers the disadvantage that, of course, one loses the direct relationship between the Member and his constituency—something with which we have now become familiar in this country, although it was not always so. And, while it could be applied to a city or to a large town, or to a highly-populated county, it would produce constituencies of enormous size geographically in sparsely-populated rural areas.

Then there is the list system; that is, a completely nominated system where the names are provided by the Parties. Or there is the hybrid system, which is operated in Germany, where half the seats are directly-elected individuals and the other half are allotted from Party lists depending upon the results. That, again, would lose the direct relationship between a Member and his constituency for half the Members; in Germany apparently it is already creating two kinds of membership, a kind of first-class and second-class membership, of the Chamber. Lastly, of course, it puts more power into the hands of those who operate the Party machines, and who nominate names to the list. I should also mention the second ballot system, which has operated in France. This causes names to be eliminated after the first ballot, and there is usually a delay of about a week between the ballots. This produces complications and also produces extra expense, with two polling days instead of one. But this system, like the others I have mentioned, might prove to be an improvement which is eventually adopted in this country as a result of a Speaker's Conference examining the possibilities.

However, if any of these, or some combinations of them, were adopted, my Lords, it would profoundly affect the whole way in which Elections are carried out in this country. We would have to face up to the question of whether Central Government should mark time, perhaps for weeks, for a period after an Election while the Party leaders tried to form Coalitions, because no Party would be likely to win an overall majority in the Commons, or even be close to it, as happens under the present system. We would have to accept that policies would be stretched or bent, although they had been powerfully advocated over the recent weeks of an Election. Some may agree with this, and some may argue that this would be salutory and that it would tend to cut out some of the extreme policies of Right or Left; that if a new system were forced in this way, a Coalition might come into existence because there was no working majority—for example, a combination of the social democrats in the Labour Party in this country with most Liberals and Conservatives, who could agree on policies to govern effectively—and that this is what most of the electorate in this country would like; that is, that large majority of the electorate who are interested in seeing less bickering and more agreed action in Parliament.

I have a great respect for that view, and those of us who were campaigning in the "Britain in Europe" campaign last year found it refreshing—indeed, invigorating—to be on some platforms and engaged in some crusading expeditions, on a great issue of national importance, together with like-minded members of other Parties; I confess to some joint elation with some of them at the result afterwards. But we were like-minded on that single, dominating issue of the day. The concept of securing enough agreement over the whole area of political controversy today is easier to contemplate in the abstract than to put into practice. After all, the Liberal Party had their opportunity in March 1974, as the noble Lord, Lord Byers, mentioned just now, when there was a finely-balanced Election result which would have justified a non-Socialist majority in the House of Commons combining to form a Government.


My Lords, if the noble Lord will permit me to interrupt him, I think it is important for the record. I do not think he could have been listening to that part of my speech. I proved conclusively that the mathematics were totally against that, and if he reads Hansard he will find out why.


My Lords, I gave way a little too soon to the noble Lord, perhaps, though I would always wish to give way to him immediately, because I was just coming on to my version of those events. I listened very carefully to the noble Lord's version. As I understood it, at that time the Liberals felt unable to accept that offer—and I listened very carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Byers, said about how he saw such a Coalition operating in the House of Commons. But I saw at the time, and now can still see in retrospect, a different reason why the Liberal Party was unable, within three days, to accept that offer after an Election.

I think one of the main reasons was because most of the Liberal candidates who had been in the field had been contesting Conservative-held seats with all the vigour and emphasis on the differences in policies which the activists of all Parties in constituencies naturally are expected to display during Election campaigns. I understand the Liberals' difficulty in 1974. None the less, I am sorry that in that comparatively simple situation—because it was simple when compared to the kind of situation which would arise when several Parties would have to negotiate—it was not possible. I believe that the country might subsequently have been spared a 26 per cent. annual rate of inflation, 1¼million unemployed and months of uncertainty and loss of confidence in industry as nationalisation plans were being prepared.


My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me to interrupt him?


In a moment, my Lords. I just want to add—because I must not forget this—that we might also have been well ahead with winning oil from the North Sea if there had not been a year or more of uncertainty and loss of confidence there also while new policies were being prepared.


My Lords, the noble Lord has just been arguing against the single transferable vote on the grounds that, after an Election, it would compel Parties to come to agreements against the platforms which they had been putting forward during the Election campaign. Why does he think that it was so easy for this to happen in the absence of any electoral reform? And is not the kind of partnership that was then being offered by Mr. Heath rather like the partnership which was offered by the wolf to Red Riding Hood?


My Lords, I do not think that in anything I have said so far I have suggested that any of these matters was easy. As the noble Lord said, I was pointing to the fact that on the one occasion when, following a finely-balanced result in a General Election, it would have been possible for non-Socialist Parties with a majority to carry out certain policies together, that was not possible to accept. I am showing that this is a difficulty which we should have to face if we adopted a system of proportional representation. This kind of situation, the Parties having to discuss how they might form a Government together, would arise after any Election with proportional representation, unless there was a dramatic change in the views of millions of the electorate, causing a massive landslide for one Party. That is itself unlikely in practice, because proportional representation in other countries has had a tendency in the reverse direction; that is to say, it has encouraged a spread of support among several Parties rather than causing a great increase in support for one.

If in an emergency, or for some other reason, the political Parties or elements of them in this country were to make moves to co-operate in governing, that should surely originate from their convictions and not simply from a change of the machinery. It should be because they wish to explore these possibilities, because the situation required it or because of their latest or developing policies being mutually acceptable. It should not be simply because a new electoral system had forced them into an unwilling marriage.

My Lords, I have been concentrating on central Government, but the Northern Ireland precedent of proportional representation introduced in recent years was without prejudice to the system at Westminster. Many of the considerations to which I have been referring do not apply to an Assembly which is not the elected chamber of central Government. For example, two weeks ago we were discussing the Government White Paper on Devolution proposals and there it was proposed for the Scottish Assembly that the Executive should be appointed. Other variations were discussed, but in that situation there would not be the diffi- culties of forming a Government. I make clear that the Kilbrandon recommendation (which was for proportional representation for the Scottish Assembly) and the views of many noble Lords on that where a Scottish Convention is concerned, do not run into the difficult situations and the problems which a major change at Westminster would create.

I should like to turn for a moment to other ingredients of Government. Indeed, my concern about the declining efficiency of Government in this country is as much related to the non-elected area as to the elected. So much of our national life is now directed or influenced by nationalised corporations and similar bodies which ale only tenuously accountable to Ministers and Parliament. Chairman and members are appointed and not elected to positions controlling vast monopolies in goods and services. They command bureaucracies of their own.

Let us examine the latest crop of such public bodies, including the National Enterprise Board and the British National Oil Corporation. According to recent Press reports, the Enterprise Board already seems intent upon stilling enterprise, while the Oil Corporation contains almost no practical experience of the oil industry. What is common to both is the interesting phenomenon that the chairmen are Peers, Members of this House, as is the deputy-chairman of the Oil Corporation. Another Peer is designated to take the chair of the British Aerospace Corporation, if current legislation reaches the Statute Book. There is a strange paradox here. At a time when the Employment Secretary, Mr. Foot, has been a little critical of this House collectively when it was using its limited power of delay in a matter of wide concern, the freedom of the Press, individual Peers have found themselves being appointed to some of the most significant seats of power in the country. It is ironical that through these appointments the Barons will be holding more power in the land than at any time since Magna Charta. The new droit de seigneur is the opportunity to bestow the first attentions upon these State damsels as they appear blushing to the world.

Not only are these new forms of nationalisation likely to slow down and frustrate British industry, but they will be colliding with each other. Weeks ago we were promised in this House that there would be guidelines published on how the National Enterprise Board would operate. Nothing has yet appeared. We are still awaiting them. This cannot provide a climate for effort and enterprise in British business. In our community as a whole, the individual is feeling increasingly oppressed by bureaucracy and over-government; the talents of the entrepreneur and the exporter are needed more than the multiplication of officials.

In Parliament the machinery and the Parliamentary timetable have become overburdened. That is one of the reasons for the wide support in Scotland for an Assembly with devolved powers and functions. We debated the Government proposals two weeks ago. The system which for 60 years has enabled Scottish Members of Parliament to deal with Scottish business and Scottish Bills has become completely submerged and invisible to the public in Scotland. I must emphasise that the large majority of people in Scotland do not want independence and the breaking up of Britain. While many support the SNP as a Scottish pressure group, they do not share the proclaimed objective of the SNP which is independence within the Commonwealth. We must remember that the SNP activists themselves are opposed to devolution within Britain as an improved and settled system. They are only interested in it as a stepping stone to independence. The confirmation of this can be found in the SNP Whip's reported statement at their 1974 conference: I do not believe in devolution; I believe in independence. Change is needed there, my Lords, without repeating our debate of two weeks ago.

The additional burdens on Parliament, however, have included examination of Draft Directives and Regulations of the EEC, and here this House has in the last two years been carrying out a new and useful function. On several occasions our Select Committee has been able to consider a subject of importance to Britain and to report to this House which has then been able to debate it at short notice before a Council of Ministers has met to take decisions. Thus public debate, often with expert views expressed, has assisted the Government at times when there has been little opportunity for such debate in the Commons because of the congestion there. Examples are consideration of the EEC Regional Fund and Britain's anti-pollution system which affected industry. This is a constructive contribution which your Lordships have been able to make in this situation. In this connection I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lady Tweedsmuir of Belhelvie and the noble Lords and Baronesses who have assisted her on that Select Committee. I will not discuss the method of direct elections to the European Parliament because there is going to be an opportunity shortly for another debate on that.

My Lords, I should like to mention another fortress of power in this country, the trade unions. The method of election of their officers can greatly affect the general public because of the influence and authority of individual leaders. Our concern is that as many members of unions as possible should have the opportunity to vote. Voting which takes place only at branch meetings has led to presidents and general secretaries being elected on polls as low as 6 per cent. to 8 per cent. Therefore, the bringing in of a postal ballot and assistance, if necessary, from the Government could greatly improve the situation. If I may, I will refer to two recent elections to a union's executive committee where normally a 12 per cent. poll has been considered high. In the Midlands and Manchester area the poll, with a postal ballot, was 38.7 per cent. and in the area of Scotland concerned it was 37.4 per cent. The moderates were, of course, those who won in preference to the extremists. It is also of concern to the general public to eliminate ballot rigging and forgery. In the East Kilbride case three years ago there was proved to have been deliberate forging of signatures and the culprits were convicted and given prison sentences. Under the rules of that union, if action had not ben taken—beeasue those whose signatures had been forged spoke up—that union secretariat could have destroyed all the papers after six months and there would have been no possibility of pursuing the matter.

The initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Byers, is timely because of the widespread disillusion with our present system. I have much sympathy with the changes and suggestions which he has proposed. I believe there need to be changes of policy and direction. A two-Party system can, as he said, mean that one Party comes in and cancels out what another Party has done. My Party stands guilty of this as much as the Party opposite. But it is not just the Labour and Conservative Parties reversing policies which can cause confusion. In many cases there have been change by the Parties themselves. I refer to changes of attitude, too. In another place I and my colleagues opposed the nationalisation of steel and the Bill which brought in the British Steel Corporation. Only about five years or so later some of the Labour Members of Parliament who supported the Bill were most vocal in their attacks on the Steel Corporation, its decisions and plans, for the very reasons we had predicted.

There is a temptation to indulge in gimmicks: in 1964 the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources was created. Many of your Lordships may have forgotten it. That is a prime example of what I have in mind. The only apparent reason for proposing it was to give the impression that this was an important subject to which the Party concerned gave great weight. The Ministry lasted only two years. It was abolished by the same Party which established it, not by a succeeding Government. It was a nonsense from the beginning. It impinged hopelessly on other Ministries' functions; it did not apply to Scotland because the Secretary of State's functions prevailed there where there was nearly half the land and a great many of the resources of the country.

If confidence is to be restored, political Parties and Parliamentarians should exercise restraint in exercises of that kind, which in any case are likely in the long run not to bring support. Such upheavals—Ministries created and dissolved—impede good and orderly government if frequently indulged in. The electoral system should be examined from time to time and various improvements can be made. Through a Speaker's Conference a case might be made in due course, and then perhaps accepted, for some radical change in our system on the lines suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Byers. I do not believe that is likely to happen now or in the present circumstances.

As I have sought to show, there is much to be improved in other parts of our system in government. I hope that as Parliamentarians we will not relax from the tasks of adapting and rationalising our system and, above all, making government less oppressive in the eyes of the public.