HL Deb 20 July 1983 vol 443 cc1155-8

2.47 p.m.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied that the present House of Commons fairly represents the opinions of the electorate; and what proposals they have for electoral reform.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the Government have no plans to abandon the simple majority system which is well understood by the electorate, provides close and direct constituency representation and contributes to stable government.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, will the noble Lords answer the first part of the Question? Do the Government reject the widespread view that the election result was unfair to the Alliance parties?

Lord Elton

My Lords. in this country we elect a Government. Under the system, or the variety of systems, which the noble Lord suggests, what is produced is a group of politicians who decide between themselves who shall be the Government. That is an answer which the electorate themselves have not given.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that anyone who played any part in the last election would recognise that the nation was satisfied that the present membership of the House of Commons truly represents the antipathy that they felt to the alternative policies offered by the Government in which the noble Lord served as a Minister and which his present party supported and sustained during a difficult period, and that this has to be in the real interests of this country?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his intervention. I would add that when the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, implies that a majority voted against the present Government, a very much greater majority voted against the Alliance.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that there are now 81 Peers on the SDP Liberal Alliance Benches and that this makes this House much more representative of the will of the people than the other place, with the distorted electoral system?

Lord Elton

My Lords. I shall not engage with the noble Lord on mathematics. But it is certainly the case that we are very glad to see the noble Lord where he is, although we think it is the wrong part of the House.

Lord Sudeley

My Lords, may I ask the Minister what his view may be of the relationship between the recent vote in the House of Commons on hanging and the opinion of the public at large on this question, bearing in mind the very pertinent article on this problem which appeared in The Times yesterday?

Lord Elton

My Lords. I think that that is another and very large question.

Viscount Eccles

My Lords, can my noble friend tell me what proportion of the total vote must the Alliance get for it to be sensible for them to abandon PR and rally to our single constituency Members?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I presume it is that which gives them a seat on the Front Bench of another place.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, would the noble Lord regard stability as a virtue if there were a Left-wing Labour Government elected on a minority vote?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I always regard stability as a virtue, provided that it is democratically arrived at, and it is my view that the system we now have is a practical, effective, popular and well-tried democratic system.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, would the Minister agree that it is not only consideration of any possible change in the electoral system that is so important to us, but whether or not such a change would interfere with our political system? Would he also agree that the political system is just as important as any electoral reform?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the political system is indeed important and I share the noble Lord's perception of it, though I do not necessarily share his view as to which party ought to come out on top. But there are other issues, since every variation of proportional representation weakens the link between the representative and his constituents, and we regard that as a fundamental and beneficial aspect of our system.

Lord Morris

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether he agrees that to complain about the rules of the game in defeat is almost as unattractive as to wallow in invective?

Lord Mayhew

My Lords. perhaps I may press the Minister on this Question. Will he give a straight reply and say whether the Government share the view, which is very widely held in this country, that the election result was unfair to the Alliance party?

Lord Elton

My Lords, we always sympathise with virtuous people in misfortune, But we believe that the misfortune was necessary as a result of the system. and that the system is an essential part of the democratic government of this country.

Lord Monson

My Lords, would the Minister agree that, if the electoral system were to be altered in the way that the Alliance wish, it might paradoxically lead to an even greater split than exists at present between the House of Commons on the one hand, and the majority of public opinion on the other hand, over such deeply felt issues as the right punishment for the worst forms of murder, and would not such a development pose a threat to democracy?

Lord Elton

My Lords, as I said earlier, a principal feature of the present system which would be weakened by any form of PR is the closeness of the link between the constituency Member and his constituents who are able to know him individually. On a multi-seat constituency basis, or on any of the other systems put forward, that link is not only weakened; it is often totally obscured. That provides a very dangerous barrier between the electorate and the elected.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that there is another element for which the British public appear to have shown complete contempt and that is where people enter either House under one banner and one political colour and then, when they are there, change that banner and that political colour because they do not have the courage to submit themselves to the electorate which sent them there in the first place?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I can only consider the Members of this House, of course, and I have generally supposed—and it has been borne out by experience—that changes in position in the Chamber are born out of wisdom resulting from experience.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that it is only since the Liberal Party were pushed out of second place into third place by the Labour Party that they have been objecting to the system?

Lord Elton

My Lords, that is so long ago that I have really forgotten.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, is not the position that the present electoral system is widely disliked, as the public opinion polls show—

Noble Lords


Lord Mayhew

My Lords, is it not a fact that it is widely disliked, as the public opinion polls show, except by the majority of sitting MPs, who owe their power to it and are determined to cling to it?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I disagree with the noble Lord's premises and thus, also, with his conclusion. I am not aware that it is generally disliked. I am aware that if the public are asked, "Would you like a fairer system of election?" they not unnaturally answer, "Yes". But they have not been asked which sort they would prefer, and if they were to examine them they would discover all the weaknesses to which I have referred, and would be entirely of a mind with the majority of Members of both Houses of Parliament in this.

Lord Davies of Leek

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that trying to control the eccentricity of an electorate by involving it mathematically is as impossible as it can possibly be? An example par excellence is Italy, which has had 40 different Governments since the war as a result of this folly of proportional representation.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I should be very reluctant to pass comment on any other country's system of government from these Benches. But I suggest to the noble Lord that it is not, in any case, the function of a system of election to control the eccentricities of the electorate. In fact, it is usually the electorate which has the function of controlling the eccentricities of the Parliament House.

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, I think that this Question has gone for some time and that your Lordships would feel it right to move on. Perhaps I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, that he will have a chance to joust—if that is the right word—with me tomorrow on a similar subject, and I am looking forward to it.