HL Deb 20 January 1993 vol 541 cc894-933

3.7 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy rose to call attention to the case for and against adopting a system of proportional representation; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

I put this subject down when Parliament returned after the general election in the hope that I would be successful in the ballot within a few months. My intention is to initiate an informed and analytical debate, unaffected by immediate electoral considerations or temptations.

In the first months of last year, during the pre-election skirmishing, at the hustings and in the media reporting, an impression was given that a change to proportional representation (PR) was a fairly simple operation and that a formula for counting votes in a different way could be quickly adopted, producing fairer results. It was of course only one of many subjects at the general election and could be given only brief mention and superficial consideration. PR deserves better than that because such a change requires other important changes in our political practices which have not yet been taken fully into account by many commentators or the general public.

For example, PR would involve the acceptance of coalition governments from time to time because it would be much less likely that one party would gain an overall majority. In Britain coalitions have occurred rarely—in wartime and in perceived national crises. "Hung" parliaments, now regarded as awkward and to be avoided, would be common rather than exceptional. Only if adversarial politics had been replaced by consensus attitudes would the description "hung" no longer apply and would be dropped. However, I suggest that it will not be easy for the other place to change quickly from its present adversarial traditions. There would often be lapses of time after elections before results were known or governments formed. The very recent situation in the Republic of Ireland is relevant. It was six days before final results were known and seven weeks before a government could be formed. I suggest that the British public would find that disturbing unless they were well prepared for it.

Another change to be foreseen is that programmes adopted by governments after elections are likely to be modifications of the pre-election proposals of those political parties involved; they may be compromises agreed in post-election negotiations. That is very different from our present practice. At present it would be open to the objection that commitments were being abandoned. Party manifestos would probably disappear.

There is a bright side to this. The programme adopted by a government might then have the support of as much as 80 per cent. of the voters rather than about 40 per cent., as can happen now. In case any noble Lord thinks that I am about to present all the possible objections to PR and to reject it, I should make it clear that I favour change to such a system. That is largely because I am an optimist. I hope that our present adversarial system will be modified in time.

Time is needed to choose the most appropriate system of PR for the United Kingdom and to prepare the public for the consequences which would be very different from what they had become used to. That requirement for prior work, consultation and dissemination of information has been underestimated by some strong supporters of PR.

Our present system which is known as "first-past-the-post" should not be abandoned until the circumstances for change are suitable, and the public have been prepared. The present system helps to provide strong government because it produces the executive within Parliament besides Members being elected. Particular attributes of our present system are that it is simple to understand and only one vote per person is needed. There is a single Member for each constituency who can identify with it personally. The results are known within a few days and a government can be formed immediately.

I now turn to the subjects of strong government and stability. With regard to strong government, no government in the United Kingdom since World War Two has received more than 50 per cent. of the total vote although that was near at times. However, several had overall majorities. For example, in 1987, the Government won 42 per cent. of the vote and had a majority of 102 seats. They were fully able to govern without making pacts.

Our present system is based on very large parties —usually two. Unless a party is above a certain size in membership and support, it has no prospect of becoming a government on its own. Foreign observers sometimes comment that our two largest parties are in essence themselves coalitions, combining their left and right wings, and, a topical example at present, their pro and anti-Europe factions. Given the evolution of those elements of our present system, the system works, is understood and should not be discarded lightly.

It has some less favourable characteristics which changes could improve. It now matters more where a party's votes are cast or concentrated than how many there are. Conservative votes in strongly held Labour constituencies do not carry the smallest weight in the UK results as a whole. The same is true of Labour votes in strong Conservative constituencies, usually in the South. I regret that this accentuates the North-South divide. If one considers the figures as a whole, the country is not as polarised as it appears to be from first-past-the-post results.

Our present system also encourages tactical voting in which the voter deliberately votes for a candidate who is not his first preference. In contrast, most PR systems give some weight to the first preference. It has some effect, although it may be small on the overall results. While our system is simple, it can thus lead to cynicism in voting intentions.

On stability, the first-past-the-post system gives the winning party an advantage of more seats than its share of the total vote would apportion under PR. That assists stability even in adversarial circumstances. But for how long, my Lords? It is for not more than five years—until the next general election. When the government's majority has been small, as in 1951, 1964 and 1974, another general election has followed within a year and a half. When parties in government have changed, major reverses of policy have taken place. Those have been signalled beforehand by the main party in opposition. Industry, commerce and financial firms do not regard that as stability. They have to look ahead for much longer periods than four to five years. It is not surprising that the CBI has publicly favoured PR for several years, although with many of the qualifications that I put forward today.

There is then the important question of choosing the system of PR to be adopted. There are many systems, but I believe that only four are suitable for any reform in this country. That decision is not one that can be taken overnight. Some leading supporters of PR disagree among themselves on what would be the best system. There must be time for discussion and consultation. I remind the House of the four likely possibilities.

The first—it is not strictly PR, although it is included in electoral reform options—is the alternative vote. By use of a second round of polling, and eliminating losers, it ensures that the elected person has been supported by at least 50 per cent. of the final vote. France is the prime example of that system.

The second is the additional member system (AMS). That is practised in Germany where half the representatives are elected directly by the first-past-the-post system. Voters have a second vote for a party. The other half of the chamber is composed of names from party lists, proportionally taken on a regional basis. There are no by-elections. Mid-term vacancies are filled from the party lists.

The third possibility is the single transferable vote system (STV). Several members represent each constituency. In the Republic of Ireland there are usually three to five members in each constituency. Voters mark preferences for any or all of the candidates in order. The thorough reallocation of preferences which follows is complex and slow.

The fourth system is party lists. That also entails multi-member constituencies. In Sweden the average is 11 members per constituency. That is the most used system in Europe, including Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway. The votes are for parties, not for individual candidates. There are variations, but the principle is that seats are allocated to parties according to the amount of support in the election. The parties, having put forward their lists, assign seats to individuals, taking account of preferences indicated by the voters where the system so provides.

Those are the four main options. In some applications, thresholds are included to avoid large numbers of small parties. For example, a party must obtain at least 4 per cent. to 5 per cent. of the total vote, either in a country or in a region, to be considered.

Noble Lords will have observed that there are two further novelties for the British public in two of these systems, in addition to those which I mentioned earlier. The first is multi-member constituencies. We have not had them in Britain since 1885, except for a very few which were abolished in 1950.

The second is lists, produced by parties, of candidates who gain seats without having stood in constituencies during the general election. That is a completely new notion for British electors and likely to be objectionable to some, although it has been accepted before long in other countries. My point is that it needs to be thoroughly explained and understood beforehand.

The Hansard Society in the 1970s commissioned an inquiry into electoral reform in the UK and its report was published in 1976. The chairman was my noble friend Lord Blake who, I am glad to know, is to speak today. He was well qualified to chair the commission: besides being an eminent historian and commentator on constitutional and very recent political matters, he is highly numerate. I am well aware of his numeracy because, as he has told the House on a previous occasion, I once had the privilege of instructing him in mathematics. That was in mathematics and gunnery when he was an officer cadet at Larkhill in 1940 and I was a captain instructing his squad. Other members of the commission were the noble Baroness Lady Seear and my noble friend Lord Holderness who, I am also glad to see, is down to speak.

The commission recommended change to proportional representation, both for the other place in the UK Parliament and for the European Parliament. But it also made most of the reservations about adversarial politics and the need for preparations beforehand that I have been making today. The commission would have used either AMS or STV. The majority preferred AMS, but the noble Baroness opted for STV and that was recorded.

The kind of AMS advocated was as follows: three-quarters of the Commons in single member constituencies (first-past-the-post); there would be one vote for candidate and party; a quarter of the Chamber would be from the additional seats to be allocated within regions, to redress distortions and approach the proportions of votes cast in accordance with a formula. There would be a 5 per cent. threshold in each region. This was a modified version of the German system. Although in Germany there have been coalition governments for most of the post-war period, they have not been weak. PR does not automatically mean coalitions; it just means that they are more likely.

Changing to a system of PR is less difficult where elections are to an assembly from which a government or executive does not also have to be formed. Questions of hung parliaments, coalitions and compromising on programmes do not arise.

The European Parliament is a particular case of this kind and a challenge for the UK. In this House, a sub-committee of our Select Committee on the European Communities examined the possibilities and presented a report in January 1983. I was a member of that sub-committee and I am surprised to see that I was able to attend almost all its meetings. Although it did not make a recommendation, I believe that its report and minutes are useful to anyone studying those matters.

There was also a recent exercise in the United Kingdom—although unofficial—on the possibility of a Scottish Assembly by a body calling itself the Scottish Constitutional Convention. It recorded less than a year ago broad agreement on PR. There is nothing surprising about that. There was little agreement, however, on the system—and there is nothing surprising about that either. But I should relate that the convention's deliberations were complicated by another factor not expected when the work began. There emerged a requirement that the assembly should contain the same number of women as men. Admirable as that concept may be, it makes the procedure even more difficult. I make clear that in this debate I do not regard the gender factor as a necessary one for PR and I hope that I shall not be accused of sexism in saying that.

If PR is eventually adopted in this country, I suggest the following basic requirements: the system must be acceptable to the electorate and not too complicated to understand. The close relationship between a member and the constituency should be maintained and the aim should be to minimise the occasions when a government's programme has the support of considerably less than half the electorate.

When politics are less divisive, all this will be more acceptable, so providing conditions for political parties trying to put together those policies upon which they broadly agree, rather than emphasising and campaigning on the differences.

Until that time arrives, I hope that there will not be a repetition of the paradox last year. Before the general election, voices were heard warning of a hung Parliament which would paralyse the effectiveness of a new government. The same voices proposed that a new government in that situation should then do a deal to introduce PR immediately. With what result? It would have had the anomalous result of hung parliaments for ever more.

I hope that attitudes and circumstances will change in ways which will make PR attractive and not too difficult to adopt. Until then, a measured approach to PR is advisable in this country, if the necessary changes are eventually to be carried out successfully. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.29 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, with the agreement of my noble friend Lord Shackleton I have exchanged places with him on the list of speakers. I add that this was not at my instigation in case it should be thought that I am trying to get in early! We are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for initiating the debate. The subject is nothing new; it is therefore interesting to find out why at this stage there should be increased interest in it. Last year there were two polls, MORI and ICM, both of which declared in favour of a change from our present system to one of proportional representation. It could, of course, be argued in the light of the poll experience last year that it all depends on how the question is put.

It is not my intention in seven minutes to go in detail into all the various systems that would be possible in our electoral system. They have been debated a number of times over many years. Pamphlets on the subject have appeared throughout the past century. The earliest publication I have is a Fabian document on objections to proportional representation, published in 1924. The arguments have continued since that time. We have had these discussions and debates over a long period.

Why, then, the current interest? First, I believe that there is growing support for the view that seats gained should have a relation to votes obtained. It is increasingly recognised that that does not apply in the United Kingdom. There is also the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, that at no election since 1935 has a single party obtained more than 50 per cent. of the overall votes. For all those years, no government in the United Kingdom have secured a majority of the votes cast.

It has also been stressed that, at the general election last year, 40 seats were won without the successful candidate having an overall electoral majority. In 1987, 43 per cent. of candidates did not have an overall majority in the constituencies for which they were elected.

On the redistribution procedure for constituencies, the objective is for constituency electorates to be as equal as possible and the intention is that each elector's vote should be equal to another's, no matter what the constituency.

As the noble Lord stated, there are areas of the country where no matter what efforts are put in, no matter how many votes are secured by a particular party, it has very little effect on the number of seats gained. The only effect is that the party does not gain many seats at all. Is that a situation we desire to perpetuate? I give two constituency examples. In last year's general election there were five candidates in Inverness. The MP was elected with only 26 per cent. of the votes. At Islwyn, which had five candidates, the MP was elected with 74 per cent. of the votes. How does one relate those two examples?

There is also the matter of developments within the European Community. Of the 12 member states the United Kingdom is the only one which does not have some sort of system of proportionality. We are the only one which has a first-past-the-post system.

There are, therefore, two particularly important questions: what would be the advantages of any change from the present electoral system; and what might be the consequences of any change? The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, endeavoured to describe some of the consequences that might ensue from any change. It was those questions which prompted the Labour Party to set up its working party—the Plant Commission—to examine electoral systems. It is not my intention, and I would not be permitted, to report on the work of the Plant Commission. I am very pleased that my noble friend Lord Plant will speak towards the end of the debate. The committee has not come to any conclusions. But it analysed in some detail what political representation is. The interim report published in July 1991 (consisting of 109 pages) is one of the best records of a discussion of these problems. I felt very privileged to be a party to those discussions.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, asks the House first to consider all the functions of the various institutions of our representational system and then to assess and look very carefully at the various electoral systems, the problems that they could introduce and the problems that could also arise in a different way in different institutions. There is not just the House of Commons to consider. One has also to consider the future of the second Chamber; possible regional assemblies in Scotland and Wales; possible regional assemblies in the English provinces; the position in local government; and representation in the European Parliament.

Some systems appear to, and perhaps do, provide greater fairness than the present system. But a number of those systems are in no way proportional. They institute a different type of system from first-past-the-post without having any proportionality.

In considering the systems, we are not helped by those who have endeavoured to put forward PR by concentrating on one system alone. That is why on many occasions in this House I have criticised the single transferable vote. It contains some anomalies; it has some iniquities; and, if we are talking about a change, we should not be considering just one system.

In seven minutes, one cannot say a great deal. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, dealt with the possibility of governments not being effective or firm. If one looks at the international scene, one can pick out countries where quite definitely the PR system has led to weakness. Israel is one, Italy another. But one could pick other countries where, under the PR system, there are firm governments, sensible governments and governments that get on with the job.

The position of hung parliaments has been mentioned. I understand that a quarter of our present county councils have hung administrations. Some 100 district councils also have hung councils. It would be interesting to know from the experiences of people who serve on those councils what the result is.

There is no perfect system. I recognise that. But despite what I have said on previous occasions, and despite my background, I believe the time has come seriously to consider whether we should not change from first-past-the-post. That means, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Campbell said, analysing very carefully exactly what different systems would entail. Any change should come from a consensus. I believe that the public in this country wants a change of some kind. I hope that this debate may assist in getting on with the job of discussing possible systems.

3.35 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, the whole House will wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, not only for choosing this extremely important subject for debate this afternoon, but for the admirably clear and cogent way in which he introduced it. I must say that his revelation that he was himself in favour of proportional representation did not come as a surprise to me, as I have happy memories of working with him on this very subject long before I had the honour of being a Member of this House.

There are two cases for electoral reform. One is the narrow one; the other is the broad one. The narrow case is that of unfairness and misrepresentation. It is not just a question of party misrepresentation—although it is a very serious anomaly that it takes about 42,000 votes to elect a Conservative or Labour MP and nearly 300,000 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat. It is not just geographical misrepresentation—although it is a very serious anomaly that two-thirds of Conservative MPs of the governing party come from a line south of the Wash to the Severn, and that Glasgow, Liverpool, Newcastle and Manchester are entirely Conservative-free cities, albeit many thousands of people in those cities vote for the Conservative Party. One can make a very noticeable comparison with 1951, when there was a rather comparable Conservative majority of 17. Yet at that time the broadness of the base of the Conservative parliamentary party was such that it represented all parts of the country and all classes of people rather than preponderantly suburbia and the rural areas. No other comparable democracy has a system which draws its fault line exactly down the line of socio-economic disadvantage. Truly, Disraeli's "two nations" are still with us.

It is not just a matter of misrepresentation in terms of MPs. The noble Lord referred to women MPs. We have fewer women MPs than most other democracies. Switzerland and Italy, which are two countries far from being politically correct and socially progressive in terms of their attitudes to women, nevertheless have many more, and a much higher proportion of women MPs than we do. That is a product of the electoral system. But the case is overwhelmingly one of personal misrepresentation. The majority of people in this country do not get the government they want; and a very substantial minority—over 40 per cent., as the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, said—do not get the MP they want. The consequence is that there is a very low level of ownership in the political system. Very many people do not feel that the system is theirs and that Parliament belongs to them.

The broad case for changing the electoral system —for which, incidentally, there is support in all parties, and one of the most impressive things about this debate this afternoon, as has been the case in previous debates in your Lordships' House, is that support comes from across all paths of the political spectrum—is, in the end, about the health and quality of our democracy. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, referred to the issue of strong government. The ultimate strong government is perfectly simple: you have a dictator. Is it not time we started to think in terms of good government? We could do with a bit more good government in this country, government whose policies rested unequivocally on the support of the majority, policies that persisted over time because they commanded popular assent: less of the poll tax.

It is probably not too fanciful to suggest that we are faced with something of a crisis of confidence in our institutions as a whole and hence this is a timely debate. Neither the Crown nor the courts, neither Whitehall nor Westminster are immune from legitimate criticism. There is now an unequivocal case for us as legislators to look at the case for democratic renewal and regeneration in this country. The first indispensable step is to reconnect people to their Parliament; to achieve for ourselves in Britain what we have prescribed and sometimes achieved for others —self-determination and self-government. That means electoral reform.

I realise that at the end of the debate this afternoon the noble Earl will play a straight bat. We have a majority in the country for electoral reform but it will not suit the Government. I should therefore like to address myself to my friends in the Labour Party. There are extremely welcome signs of progress on the issue in the Labour Party. In a slow but evolutionary way, over a series of debates, the speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, have moved closer and closer to outright advocacy of electoral reform. We on these Benches welcome that.

There are other welcome signs of progress from the Transport and General Workers' Union to the engineering union; from the Scottish Labour Party to the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform; from a two-thirds majority of new Labour MPs who support reform to Mr. Robin Cook. The support is swelling in the Labour Party for a fair electoral system. The puffs of smoke that are being emitted from the Plant Commission appear to be promisingly drifting in the right direction. But I wonder where stands the inscrutable Labour leadership on this important issue.

Some leading Labour figures—I understand why —say that for the party to support electoral reform would be an admission that Labour cannot win on its own. I know that that argument bulks largely in the calculations of those who perhaps approve of electoral reform but do not feel that the Labour Party should come out for it. But I must tell my friends on these Benches that should Labour not support electoral reform, and thereby offer this country the prospect of a broadly-based alternative to this endless Conservative Government, they will never win at all.

I believe that it is make-your-mind-up time for the Labour Party. Do they want to put themselves firmly, as I hope they do, in the camp of reforming our democracy and of becoming a modern European society? Or do they prefer to continue to dwell endlessly with the Conservatives in the run-down Ruritania which Britain has sadly become? I urge the Labour Party to embrace this cause.

3.42 p.m.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, this is a subject which will not go away it seems —surprisingly because it has never won acceptance by the majority of opinion. That is largely because the ins and outs of Parliament have never managed to arrive at the same point at the same time. It is also probably the case that opinion in the country at large still prefers the simple majority system which is judged to have and deliver an approximate kind of political justice; or, what is variously called stable or strong government. Those may be two rather different commodities but we all feel some sense of attachment to them as a distinctly-felt part of our national tradition.

I do not dissent from the idea that the simple majority system has served the nation rather well in the past, on the longest perspective. It has contrived somehow, and perhaps in defiance of logic and mathematical probability, to give us a series of workable political results in a crucial period of our history—that is, the two centuries of gradual transition from the politics of patronage and privilege to parliamentary democracy.

All the same, simple majority has considerable disadvantages. First, it shows a definite bias in favour of two dominant parties in the House of Commons. That may not greatly matter if both parties are close to the centre of the political spectrum at large. But there have been moments in the past 20 years when that essential condition was not met, and when both parties in succession occupied positions closer to the political fringe. By happy chance that did not occur simultaneously, and self-interest and logic having prevailed over ideology, both parties have now returned closer to the centre. Your Lordships may feel that the mechanism is thus self-correcting, and I agree that it may look like that. But experience and caution suggest to me that we cannot always rely on that result. Ideologists are often, by their nature, blinkered in pursuit of their goal.

The second large disadvantage of simple majority is that the entry of a third party as a serious contender is rendered extremely difficult. In our system it is hard for a party which has lost its way, or its relevance, to be replaced by another. The long period—say three decades earlier this century—which it took for the Labour Party to supersede the old Liberal Party illustrates the point.

I suggest that those shortcomings are increasingly evident to many people. It is not difficult to understand why PR systems have attracted continuing interest in this country from the days of Bentham and Mill to the present. We should not allow the apparent acceptability of simple majority to serve as a kind of permanent certificate for the future. Such a rough and ready method of conducting our political affairs could easily produce a false and misleading result.

My suggestion is a modest one—thatthere is a case for some careful and limited experiment with alternatives. We have already begun to do that in Northern Ireland; and if we find PR acceptable there, there is no reason why we should regard it as permanently off the agenda in the rest of the United Kingdom.

We should not forget that the progenitors of PR in the last century were British, and as a principle it was approved by a Speaker's Conference as long ago as 1918. We used it for 30 years from 1918 as a method of electing Members from university seats to the House of Commons. I suggest that the obvious step is to sanction its use for elections to the European Parliament. I recall that we are committed by the Treaty of Rome, Article 138(3) to that principle and also by the terms of the Council decision of 20th September 1976, which binds us to find a uniform electoral procedure. I believe that we came close to reaching agreement on that, using a PR system, 10 years or so ago. I hope that we can arrive at that point again.

I should like to say something about the experience of PR in Italy. That is often, I believe, misunderstood in this country, where the Italian example is cited as a reason for rejecting PR here. It is commonly said that PR in Italy has caused weak government and constant changes. That is a very topsy-turvy way of looking at it. The problem in Italy was to devise an electoral law appropriate for a country where there were two large political parties—the Christian Democrats and the communists—each holding around one-third of the national vote.

Had Italy practised a simple majority system since the war, I have little doubt that the communists could have won an election, and in the days of the cold war, one such victory would have been enough. The purpose of the Italian PR system was to enable the non-communist majority to win sufficient seats in Parliament to enable them to form a non-communist coalition. Seen in that light PR was the saviour of parliamentary democracy in Italy. Of course, it brought troubles in its train, and I shall not dwell on them. I note that communism having evaporated in Italy as elsewhere, there is now a move to reform the Italian voting system. I expect that they will retain a substantial element of PR, whatever system they adopt.

I have examined the Government's position on the question of the European Parliament elections. So far as I can make out, the last authoritative statement from the Government Bench was given by the noble Lord, Lord Reay, on 12th March 1991, (at col. 71 of Hansard) when he told the House that, The Government will consider any proposals for a uniform procedure for the European Parliament whenever such proposals are put forward". That is not such a forthcoming statement as it might appear, as this country is seen abroad as being responsible for blocking proposals in the past. I hope that the Government will feel able to look at the question again, perhaps after the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty is completed. An indication of willingness to proceed would open the door and help to repair the damage done to our reputation in the European Community, which resulted from the lengthy procedures for ratification which we are now employing.

If we wish our electoral system to reflect both our political convictions and the desirability of broad consensus of action, PR is much the most likely method to produce the result we want.

3.50 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, the one thing that has become very clear indeed from this debate is that the adoption of any of the various methods of PR—my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy in his admirable speech indicated that there are at least four of them—would undoubtedly be highly complicated and almost certainly not fully understood by the great majority of the electorate.

The electorate today understands our system, the system of single member constituencies, with whoever achieves the heaviest vote in a constituency being elected to represent it. Whatever view your Lordships take of the merits, that is a concept which is very easily and fully understood. Your Lordships must face the fact that to move to any of the other systems about which we have been hearing this afternoon would produce a situation in which very large numbers of the voters would not understand what was happening and what it was all about. If one happens to believe in the working of a democracy, that would seem to be a considerable disadvantage flowing from that system.

The great advantage of our system is that it gives strong government. The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, seemed to think that strong government is equivalent to dictatorship. I do not believe that many of your Lordships think that. But what is important in these very difficult times, when the handling of the British economy involves skill, determination and courage, is that one should have strong government. Our electoral system helps to conduce to that because, as we have seen in the years since the war, it provides in general that one will get governments with a complete overall majority able to govern and governments who, though not supported by a majority of the electorate, are supported by very substantial elements in it, governments who have more public support than any of the other parties which are against them. That is a very important aspect of our present system which I feel we should be very hesitant in any decision to discard.

Our system results in governments who can govern and governments who have no alibis if they make a mess of things. If a government do not have a majority in Parliament, there is every excuse if things go wrong for that government to say, "We would have got things right if we had been allowed to, but our allies, colleagues and temporary supporters would not allow us to". Under our system a government have no such alibi. A government, supported by a majority in another place, are answerable, without excuses, for what they do or what they do not do. That is a very valuable part of our democracy.

After all, what is one seeking from a general election? I do not think one is seeking a mathematically exact indication of the views of different political parties and different voters. We arc seeking a government who can govern, and can govern with the support of at any rate a very substantial element in the country. That is a product of our system which we should be very cautious indeed in deciding to discard. It works; and it works on the whole very satisfactorily and very sensibly.

It also works so as not to have frequent general elections. If one has a government, as one undoubtedly would under PR, who in most cases have no overall majority, one would have frequent dissolutions of Parliament when that government lose control of the legislature or lose what they regard as vital measures. Instead of having, as we have under our system, a Parliament that generally lasts for four years or so, one would have quite frequent elections. Is that an advantage? Is that what we really want? Will that help the working of this country? What we are concerned with above all is a system which will help the efficient administration of this country, help it towards prosperity and help it to do its job. To dismember it and substitute a system in which no party has a majority, in which there is no strong central element of government with public support, would be to sacrifice the reality of that for what seems to me, with due respect to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy, a rather theoretical advantage.

In the minute that remains to me I have only two other points to make. First, our system of single member constituencies is an extremely good one. One has an individual member of another place with knowledge of his constituency after he has been there for some years and answerable individually and personally to the electors. It would be a great mistake to substitute for that a number of separate members, all of whom jointly represent that constituency. My other point is that one would have, as I have already indicated, frequent elections.

We have evolved in this country a very good system. It has reached its present state of evolution with universal franchise only in this century. It works. With all the other problems that we face, in the economy, in finance and in government, to discard that system in favour of one or other of what are thought theoretically to be more justifiable systems of proportional representation would be, in the view of many of us, a terrible mistake.

3.57 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, an old friend associated with the Oxford Union for many years told me that in his time the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, was the finest orator he recalled. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, another fine Oxford speaker, will confirm that verdict, but at any rate I bear that in mind in listening to him. It leads me to view the noble Lord's remarks with great suspicion. I am nervous of fine oratory, which is often indistinguishable from rhetoric. We all recall that Saint Augustine was professor of rhetoric and later described himself as having been a professor of lies. So I view the noble Lord's remarks very carefully.

One of the noble Lord's remarks was so feeble that no one but a fine orator could have offered it and made it sound fairly good. It was the suggestion that the British public, alone among the peoples of the world, is incapable of understanding proportional representation. Speaking as an Irishman, one is well aware that the Irish people have understood it perfectly well for many years, and Ireland is not the only country. That remark was not tenable.

I have toyed with the question of PR for many years. I toyed with it as a student and I toyed with it when I was teaching pupils such as the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, and others. I have always recognised the abstract argument that PR produces the best reflection of public opinion. On the other hand we all agree that an abstract argument is not all that should be taken into account in making political decisions. However, after all these years I have come to the conclusion that proportional representation should be adopted in this country. I say frankly that that is in the interests of my own party.

Although there is some prejudice against interrupting speakers in these short debates, I do not mind being interrupted on this point. Is anyone going to say that it is not the duty of a party member to consider the interests of his party? If he believes his party to be of great value to the country, it is his duty to consider such matters. Therefore, if one is a public spirited person, one must consider, among other factors, how change will affect one's own party.

When I joined the Labour Party more than 50 years ago, having belonged to something else unmentionable before, I said that I believed that all human beings are of equal and infinite importance. I said that then and I say that now. It is a view which may be held within the Labour Party and also outside it. Not all my socialist intellectual colleagues thought that that was the most important thing. Some of them spoke in terms of the class factor. I remember one very gifted professor of philosophy addressing a middle-class audience in this way: "Well, comrades, they tell me there is a boom on. What does a boom mean to working chaps like you and me?" That was distorting the working class appeal. Others found in nationalisation the salvation of everything.

I still stick to the idea that we are all of equal and infinite importance. Is there any chance in the foreseeable future of the Labour Party winning an election on that issue and with that doctrine? I do not agree that the Labour Party can never win an election. It could win an election but it could only do so by seriously diminishing the doctrine which is its essential raison d'être. I believe that I have quoted before the poet Crosland, who had nothing whatever to do with Mr. Anthony Crosland. The poet said, "I have trod the road to hell. There are things that I might have sold, and did not sell". If the Labour Party were to win an election there would be a great danger to its soul. That is my point of view.

One might ask what bearing that has on PR. As regards who would benefit from it, palpably it would be the Liberal Democratic Party, which would become much stronger. The Conservative and the Labour Parties would lose something. Therefore, the chance of any party winning a clear majority would be much diminished. We have to look at that scenario from the point of view of the Labour Party, although everyone can look at it from his or her own point of view. I believe very strongly that the Labour Party would have more chance of retaining its essential doctrine if it remained as it is now, and not in power. I hope that in time to come it will be the largest party. It may have a minority party to assist it—I must not call it a junior partner.

That is the situation in Ireland today although PR has worked very well in that country. I believe that the Labour Party will retain its essential message more clearly if it remains as it is; namely, dedicated to the principles which I have mentioned rather than striving desperately to win on its own at all costs. That is my attitude. It is a fine calculation. I believe that, in the interests of the Labour Party and also in the interests of social morality, PR should be adopted in this country.

4.4 p.m.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for initiating this debate and, with others, thank him for the extraordinarily lucid and cogent introduction which he offered us. I do not propose to follow the noble Earl, Lord Longford, in his rather theological discussion of the precise benefits which various electoral systems might or might not bring to the Labour Party. It would be intrusive for me to enter into that particular controversy, although I am delighted with the conclusion to which it led him as it is one with which I wholly agree. Nor do I propose to take on board all the arguments deployed by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, because I believe that that will be done by my noble colleague Lord Tordoff later on.

However, one of the most strange arguments I have ever heard for the first-past-the-post system is the handling of the British economy which the noble Lord seemed to think was proof that all was well with our electoral system. Nor did I feel that the argument that it works was a very good one since what is palpably the case today is that under the present Government the system does not work.

I wish to concentrate on a rather narrower point and in that follow the noble Lord, Lord Bridges. Almost three years ago I introduced a Bill in your Lordships' House for introducing electoral reform in the election of members to the European Parliament. That Bill was passed by this House and received overwhelming Cross-Bench support. The Bill was designed to bring this country's electoral system into line with that of all other members of the Community and to bring it into accord with Article 138 of the Treaty of Rome which reads: The European Parliament shall draw up proposals for elections by direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all member states". So far the European Parliament has not done that. The liberal democratic parties of the Community have brought a case before the European Court of Justice against the European Parliament for dereliction of its duty. That came before the European Court of Justice yesterday and it has not yet given a ruling on the case.

However, that injunction in the Treaty of Rome has now been reinforced, while we await the ruling of the European Court of Justice, by the De Gucht Report which was presented to the Institutional Committee of the European Parliament in November last year. It was adopted by 18 votes to two. It insisted on the introduction of PR for the next European Parliament. It is important to note once more the consequences in this country and in the European Community of the way in which our system works. As people will remember, at the last election the Conservative vote in the European election dropped by 5 per cent. and the number of seats dropped by 29 per cent. That is not a very sensible way of running a shop—that is to say, that a 5 per cent. loss in votes leads to a 29 per cent. loss in seats.

As a consequence, there is no Conservative MEP in Scotland or Wales, and if one draws a line between London and Bristol there is no Labour MEP south of that line if one excludes London and Bristol. There is no member of the Liberal Democratic Party in the European Parliament at all. That has had consequences not only in this country but also in the European Parliament. It has led to the socialist group being the largest single party and to the communists being the third largest party which it would not have been if the British Liberal Democrats had been represented proportionately.

Therefore, it is not a question to which we can plead that our electoral system is purely a matter for us; it is a matter which affects other people. For that reason the Community has a very real interest in pressing us to conform with a proportional system in accordance with the recommendations of the De Gucht Report. The problem came before the European Parliament on Monday. It is to be deeply regretted that it postponed a decision on that report until the summer. That means that any change cannot be made in time for the 1994 election. That postponement was due, I regret to say, to the lobbying of the Labour Party which still cannot make up its mind on the central issue. The Labour Party also persuaded its colleagues that it was better to take no decision rather than to take a decision which we hope very much will emerge from the lengthy consideration being given to this subject by the noble Lord, Lord Plant. I must confess that I look forward with the greatest interest to hearing what the noble Lord, Lord Plant, has to say, in what way his mind is moving on the matter after his long and no doubt systematic consideration, and what kind of advice he is thinking of offering to his colleagues so that this business may be brought to a conclusion.

This is a matter where even the most cautious of your Lordships may feel able to take an experimental step (if you feel it is too early to plunge the whole way) by changing our electoral system, as I and my colleagues would advocate, and by moving to a proportional system in the election of MEPs. That is something that we shall be forced to do, something which I think we should do and something which I am sure would be of benefit to the European Parliament.

4.11 p.m.

Lord Holderness

My Lords, I have so far listened to seven very distinguished speeches and I admired the balanced introduction of the debate by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy. I enjoyed the robust expression of view by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. I was not wholly surprised by it. However, I was most intrigued by the sympathetic approach shown by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, particularly when I remembered the comparative lack of interest of the party opposite at the time of the Hansard Commission 17 years ago, although it is fair to say that Mr. Gwyn Morgan, with his close connections with the Labour Party, was one of the commission's members. I was another, as my noble friend said, under the benign and wise leadership of my noble friend Lord Blake. I remember wondering at the time about the source of his skill in mathematics. I now know.

The commission, as your Lordships will know, strongly recommended some form of proportional representation. I am not going to rehearse the arguments because my noble friend spent some time on them. However, we agreed generally that it was contrary to the spirit of a reasonably sophisticated democracy that a large number of the votes cast at any election should be without any value at all. I cannot say that the commission's recommendations were greeted with a wild burst of unbridled enthusiasm: they were not. There was the additional member system, which the majority recommended, and the STV method, suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear.

My noble friend has already talked about the various alternatives that were produced or might have been produced, but in fact the opponents of both the single transferable vote and of the additional member system united in claiming, as they were justified in doing—as I am sure my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter would entirely agree—that the first-past-the-post system, although not demonstrably fair to put it mildly, at least had the merits of simplicity, clarity and comprehensibility. People knew where they were, as I think my noble friend said. They argued that the additional member system in particular would destroy, or at least undermine, the close relationship between a Member of Parliament and his constituents. It would put unwelcome power in the hands of the political parties, who would become collectively responsible for completing the list of additional members. Even more seriously, it would or might often leave doubt, as my noble friend mentioned, after an election for days or even weeks, about the shape and composition and perhaps also the policy of the new government.

I can remember the tales, apparently designed to chill the commission's blood, which were told of the likelihood of protracted post-election discussions, held in rooms which were always, for some reason, apparently filled with smoke, leading eventually, as the electorate anxiously waited, to a bitterly fought and not always admirable compromise.

In spite of the commission's recommendations, the first-past-the-post system has already lasted for another 16 years. Under that system, at the last four general elections since it reported the Conservative Party has gained and maintained its ascendancy. I am sure that calculations of past election results under different electoral systems—that is, what would have happened under the additional member or the single transferable vote systems—are not only well beyond my intellectual capacity but are probably unrealistic anyhow.

I think the only safe conclusion which is almost, if not completely, platitudinous is that the adoption of any system of proportional representation would lead to a fundamental change for better or worse in our national affairs. But I would argue that platitudes are not always entirely to be despised and the very uncertainty of the consequences of change strikes fear into the hearts of party organisers. That fear is perfectly natural, perfectly reasonable and perfectly justifiable. However, if the fear is rooted, as I think it is, in the knowledge that under the proportional representation system the party of one's choice might have to summon allies in order to form a government, or even to watch other parties coalesce against it to do so, there still remains a field, which has been significantly mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, and, more recently, by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, where the introduction of proportional representation would achieve the object of fairness without introducing any of these unpalatable uncertainties.

The prospect of the European Parliament forming the basis of a centralised European government is, I believe and certainly fervently hope, exceedingly remote. Therefore in this field the arguments about uncertainties, coalitions, smoke-filled rooms, and so on, have no force or relevance. In this context, the results of our present method of electing members of the European Parliament must arouse a little flush of shame in the mind of a democrat. Certainly it provides reasonable representation for my party and the party opposite, but not for the two smaller parties with about a quarter of the votes cast yet having not a single seat at Strasbourg.

I suspect that when my noble friend replies to this debate, he will in some ways follow the argument that others of my noble friends have made in the past. However, I beg for consideration of this strong plea that where members chosen in an election will have no part whatever in the formation of a government, we should try to move a little closer to the heart of the democratic principle which would allow—if I can use simple although unrealistic figures—20 million, 10 million, 5 million electors of all parties to choose representatives approximately in the proportion of 4:2:1. That would cease to deny the parties supported by a considerable fraction of the electorate any representation at all.

4.17 p.m.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, in this debate I start from the premise that all people are important. Democracy is the ability of people to control their own destinies. It is not the ability of one small group of people to control the destinies of a larger group of people. If I say that PR is good, it inevitably raises a question mark. I remind your Lordships of the debates we had several years ago, when I stood up from these Benches and declared that I was in opposition to terrorism but objected to the Prevention of Terrorism Act. One has to be careful about the words one uses. I would say that yes, I am in favour of proportional representation but I am not in favour of those systems which are called proportional representation and are put forward by minor parties for their own specific advantage. Here I am talking about the Liberals and the Communist Party, both of which have espoused PR because it was the only way they could achieve power over other people.

If I may make just a small digression, one thinks in terms of how the Liberals achieve representation and what they do with it. I think that it was David Alton, in his campaigns in Liverpool, who used to throw a dirty old mattress into someone's front garden and then bang on the door and say, "We'll get the council to shift it for you, dear". He would, indeed, get the council to shift it; but then he would get another dirty old mattress and throw that into the front garden next door. That, to my mind, is not the kind of—

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I know that it is not usual practice to intervene in a timed debate; but I think that, in your Lordships' House, to cast such an aspersion on a Member of another place is unfortunate, to say the least.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I am only repeating that which I read in the Observer a few years ago, which was not challenged by the Member of another place, so I can only assume that it was true and that he was, in fact, proud of it. I happen to think that that is the kind of despicable political act of which no Englishman should be proud.

What do Liberals do when they get into any position of influence or power? There was an occasion shortly before Christmas when the Conservative Government—the Tories—were being challenged. There was a marvellous opportunity for the Liberal Party, the SDP or whatever they call themselves now, to join the anti-Tory alliance—something that they have been saying that they favoured for years—and to attack the Government. But what happened? They did not do so; they sided with the Tories. Those are just two examples of the problems that we face when dealing with the particular political systems that the Liberals, the SDP and the Communist Party seek to inflict upon us for their own advantage.

I said that I was in favour of proportional representation and I shall try to explain the ways in which I think that our current systems can be improved to become more proportional of the people who live in this country. First, we need to ensure that all constituencies are as near equal in size as possible. One only has to look at the electoral map of Britain to realise that there are some very large and some very small English constituencies, each of which sends one Member of Parliament to Westminster. We also have the anomaly of the electorate in Scotland sending, collectively, more members to Parliament than they actually need. So, there are inequalities and unfairnesses with the size of the electorate.

Secondly, we should ensure that every person in a constituency is counted and is allowed to vote. I shall give three examples of where people are not counted and not allowed to vote. The first is the mechanism of the compilation of the electoral register. It is compiled in October and it comes into force in February. It remains in force for the rest of the year, having been compiled the previous October. An election may be called at any point during a year and it has been judged that the register may be between 10 and 30 per cent. inaccurate. Therefore, in practice, between 10 and 30 per cent. of the electorate are disenfranchised either because they have moved out of the area or for some other reason. The second problem, which has become much more relevant during the past few years, is the underclass, the people who are not part of the system and who do not appear on the lists. That section of society has grown bigger over the past few years as a result of the poll tax. The residue of the horrors of the poll tax will stay with us for a number of years yet, I am afraid.

The third problem is that some people who live in a constituency are not permitted to vote because they are nationals of another country whereas other people are permitted to vote even though they do not live in the constituency. Recent changes in electoral law have permitted foreign nationals to vote in our elections, which seems anachronistic.

The third area in which we can improve matters is in the area of holding our representatives accountable. Here, we must recognise that one of the problems with the very existence of your Lordships' House is that we distract people from holding the House of Commons accountable. We are somehow thought of as a backstop, a control, over the excesses of the elected Chamber.

My time has run out; but I should like to make a final point: whatever electoral system we have, it does not relate only to our national Parliament. We have local assemblies, national assemblies and international assemblies. I hope that we shall eventually have a world assembly. I hope also that the system that I propose, which is basically to improve our current system, will work at the local, national and international levels.

4.25 p.m.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, when I saw in a newspaper —not, I hasten to add, the Observer, which is a curious source of information for anyone—that the Plant Commission had been appointed, I thought that it had something to do with the Rio Conference and was to be a commission to discover how we could preserve biodiversity. I was then taken aback to discover that I should have known that it was named after the then professor, now the noble Lord, Lord Plant of Highfield, and that its business was to examine proportional systems of election. However, there is a connection with biodiversity. Many of the plants that one was hoping to catalogue and preserve would have been very good for human beings (they might produce valuable medical or other products) whereas it can be said of all the electoral systems other than first-past-the-post that there is ample evidence that they are wholly deleterious to human beings.

That is not an argument about theory. It is something that we have established by practice. Various countries have been mentioned as having had various such systems. But what do we find if we look at the recent experience of any of them? Ireland has been mentioned. An Irish general election was held prematurely because the then Prime Minister was rude to the leader of his principal coalition partner. Ireland went to the polls and, as has been said, it took quite a time to work out the figures. However, when the figures were produced all the commentators said, "Well, at least the Irish people have been able to indicate their wishes. They want to get rid of Mr. Reynolds and the rule of the Fianna Fail Party." After seven weeks of negotiations, the Irish people find themselves landed with Mr. Reynolds with a larger majority than he had before. So much for the single transferable vote.

My noble friend Lord Blake is the great exponent of the additional member system—the German system —and will no doubt argue in favour of it. I do not think that it is altogether appreciated—or not often appreciated—that the three-party coalition which governs Germany (and has for some time) puts the Chancellor and his colleagues under considerable constraints. Not only must the Chancellor provide Cabinet posts for the two minor parties, but he must also allow them to decide who shall fill those posts. The Free Democrats, who have suffered in terms of personnel in various ways which we need not go into, found it very difficult when the last reshuffle came along to find five more or less acceptable members for those Cabinet positions.

If Mr. Smith goes along with the Liberal Democrats and we have a coalition of that kind, then, looking along the Liberal Democrat Bench in the other place, I think that Mr. Ashdown might find it quite difficult to produce five suitable members for a Cabinet. Of course, distinguished members of the Liberal Democratic Party are Members of your Lordships' House—and most of them are speaking today—but it was certainly not the intention of those who advocated proportional representation either to make the changes which my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy outlined, or to transfer much of the weight of government from the other place to your Lordships' House. That would upset the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, no end.

One could go on. I have often referred to the great tragedy of Israel. It has been and remains an obstacle to the peace process that under proportional representation all governments depend on small minority parties whose seats are guaranteed under the electoral system and which make up a parliamentary majority.

The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, spoke with great authority about Italy. However, it seems that in recent months and years, whatever may have been the justification for a measure to prevent the arrival of a Communist government, Italians have been extremely fed up with what they have. If one talks about electoral reform in Italy one means exactly the opposite of what is meant in this country; one means getting rid of proportional representation.

Other countries can be cited. In Belgium and Holland there are long intervals of time while ministries are formed and then uncertainties about their survival. In Denmark the presidency of the European Commission has been thrown into doubt by the operations of a parliament formed under a system of proportional representation.

I do not wish to be anti-European today and so I shall give something to the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter. On the whole I am in favour of PR for the European Parliament. It seems that in what is, after all, a vast boondoggle the spoils should be fairly shared among potential beneficiaries. It is of no political significance and therefore it does not affect what we think about the main issue.

Let us get down to what will, in fact, happen. The Labour Party is being asked by the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, to adopt proportional representation as part of its platform. As the party cannot make any change before the election it will adopt the policy only in the hope that it wins it enough Liberal votes in certain constituencies to give it a majority. It is the hope of the Liberal Democrat Party that, bolstered by those votes, the newly-elected Labour Government will then proceed to enact proportional representation. I shall let the Liberal Democrats into a secret; nothing of the kind will happen.

4.32 p.m.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, who changed places with me in the list. I had hoped that if I spoke later in the debate I should be clear in my mind about what I wanted. The answer is that my mind is no clearer and that I could have spoken earlier. Therefore, I shall speak no longer than I would have done in those circumstances.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, because the issue will not go away despite the eloquence of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and others. We must face proportional representation in some form. The noble Lord nods his head in a negative sense—

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, shakes not nods.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, the noble Lord is an eloquent speaker. I know that because I heard him speak as President of the Union at Oxford. In this House we are able to reach a rational conclusion but unfortunately I cannot do so. It is as well that I admit that, which is probably the view of a number of other noble Lords.

The issue will not go away. The minority parties will not accept permanent disability. Nor is that acceptable to the Labour Party whose attitude hitherto has made electoral reform impossible. I hope that on other occasions we shall attempt to repeat the efforts made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy. I look forward to the publication of the report prepared by the noble Lord, Lord Plant, in the hope that he will make up my mind. After all, he is an important professor at Southampton University and I hope that his report will be conclusive. Until then I and many other noble Lords are inclined to share the views of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. If they do not and if they want a permanent Conservative Government, which is what he really prefers and believes can be achieved under the present first-past-the-post system, we are rather doomed. I support any step towards electoral reform taken along the lines expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy.

4.35 p.m.

Viscount Caldecote

My Lords, we are all grateful to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy for his clear, well-balanced and interesting speech on such a complex issue. In the interests of true democracy surely the case for some form of proportional representation is unassailable. However, as other noble Lords have made clear, there is no perfect system and there are many practical difficulties.

I was first attracted to PR many years ago and for a few years I was a fairly active member on the National Committee for Electoral Reform. I was attracted for two reasons. The first was the tremendous damage that had been done to industry by the wild swings in policy between the two parties. One party carried through Acts of Parliament in one direction which affected industry. However, after a change in government the next two years would be spent by the opposing party going in the opposite direction and changing the legislation.

I remember in particular the position of steel. It was nationalised, denationalised, renationalised and then again denationalised. How can one wonder why there was not sufficient investment in steel and not understand the troubles that it faced? The same applied to fiscal policy, defence procurement and many aspects of industrial life. Perhaps those factors are now less important because there is less difference between the two major parties; the party opposite has virtually given up any idea of more nationalisation. However, the issue remains important.

The second reason I was attracted to PR was that I had always been anxious that, with our unwritten Constitution under which Parliament is supreme, it would be possible for a government elected on a minority vote of, say, 40 per cent. of the votes cast, to carry through far-reaching changes. In my view that would be against the interests of the country. That could happen in the case of extreme Right-wing or Left-wing governments.

I believe that in principle the case for PR is unassailable. However, there are objections which have already been mentioned. It is said that PR would lead to coalition and to weak government. However, as my noble friend Lord Campbell made clear, all parties are to some extent a coalition, and compromise is not always bad. Strong governments based on substantial majorities in the other place are valuable when big changes are needed, as they were in 1945 and 1979. However, such strong governments can easily deteriorate into dogmatic governments, which is not in the interests of the country.

Between 1945 and 1950 there was a spate of extreme measures. If there had been restraint through some kind of coalition or the balance of a Liberal Democrat Party, we might have avoided the dogmatic nationalisation to which I have referred. Between 1985 and 1990 we experienced similar problems from a strong government which had a large majority in another place. If there had been balancing opinions which were able to exert influence, we should probably have avoided the disasters of the poll tax and the absurdities of the privatisation of water.

There has been considerable opposition to change from the two large parties. It seems that they fear that they will never have the opportunity to have effective power. But if hopes were dupes, fears may be liars. Many believe that proportional representation would give real hope of improved government. That is what we all seek.

There are agreements on many issues and objectives between the parties. Sound policies command support when they are cogently argued, as they must be when there is not an overriding strength in one party. As my noble friend Lord Campbell said—and very wisely said in my view—if we are to have PR, there must be big changes elsewhere in our outlook on how we govern ourselves. That will take a long time.

For those reasons he advocated—and I agree with him—that we need a measured and careful approach to any change in our electoral system, however good PR may appear to be in theory. I agree with that, but I hope that the measured approach will not be so measured that it means that we shall make no progress at all. This subject has been in the air for a very long time. It needs further consideration. Perhaps a commission could look into the matter and put forward clearly all the pros and cons so that a better judgment could be made for the future.

Above all, I hope that we shall not reject PR for the reasons which my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter gave; namely, that the electorate are not clever enough to understand it. I really do not believe that that is true.

4.41 p.m.

Lord Kagan

My Lords, it is extremely heartening to hear the widespread support in all parts of your Lordships' House for the need to review and reform the electoral system. The first-past-the-post system is defended on account of it having been there for a long time and having been effective and fair. Fair it is not and its effectiveness must be judged by the performance of this country in the past 50 years, because the governments that we have had are due to the electoral system that we have.

Just after the war we were the fourth largest industrial power in the world, and now we are somewhere near 25th. In Europe we have slipped below Italy and Spain and we are just above Portugal. Unemployment is rising and there is a whole generation of young people looking into a bleak future. Millions of householders are worried about whether they will still possess a roof over their heads. They fear repossession. The savings of people who have worked all their lives are jeopardised by a pound which has slipped from 12 marks to the pound in 1952 to 2.45 marks or 2.50 marks, and the pound is still not secure.

We are debating and wondering whether we are in a recession or in a decline. Is that a record that justifies the system? The electoral system is not the only reason for what has happened but it is a major reason. As the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, pointed out, governments have not enabled industry to perform and to see what its future may be. The system has produced short-termism in everything.

This country is in as mortal peril today economically as it was during the war when Churchill led us. Churchill felt that the national problems could not be solved on a one-party political basis because he needed support not only for the easy measures but also for the difficult measures, for his blood, sweat and tears. That is what we must look forward to in the future if we wish to avoid becoming a second-rate or third-rate nation.

We have been endowed with raw materials—oil and coal. We are the only country in Europe, apart from Norway, which has that. We have more than the Germans, and yet under proportional representation —although not only because of it—they have progressed from total ruin to where they are today.

The German ship of state has a keel with minority parties at the centre. That produces exactly the same result as does a heavy keel in any ship. It prevents the lurches to which the noble Viscount referred so eloquently. For 10 years German politics have had a consistently firm financial and foreign policy, in spite of the fact that it was represented by Ministers of minority parties. Genscher was for 10 years Federal Germany's Foreign Minister despite the fact that his party represented only 5.7 per cent. of the national vote.

We do not need reminding in what peril we stand. It is not unlike 1933, 1934 and 1935 when all the bush fires were going up. Dictatorships have failed and it took 70 years to realise that. However, democracy as we practise it is also on trial. While we have governments which make extravagant promises in their manifestos which cannot be fulfilled, we shall not be able to correct or deal with the problems which arise.

Recently in America we have seen a new era: Clinton and Bush conducting a policy and supporting each other. I know that it will take a long time to review electoral reform but in the meantime, we need a truce where not only defence and foreign policies but also the economy must be taken out of the political playing field. We must stop those policies being used as a football.

On 5th December 1991 this House debated the same issue. The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, asked the Government whether they could now see the need for reform. The Minister of State, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, on behalf of the Government gave a terse reply. He said, "No, my Lords". I hope that this time he will not give the same reply.

4.48 p.m.

Lord Blake

My Lords, along with many noble Lords, I should like to express my gratitude to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy for introducing this debate. He did that with admirable clarity and expounded the issues in a way which shows how good he was at instructing me in gunnery in 1940 at Larkhill. Indeed, he even instructed me in mathematics, which is not a subject of which I am naturally fond.

I was, as has been said, chairman of the Hansard Commission on electoral reform on which two noble Lords served with enormous success. They gave us great help. I am also president of the Electoral Reform Society, but I shall not presume on the strength of those qualifications, if they are such, to speak on this occasion at any length. Most of the arguments have been rehearsed during the course of our debate and it is superfluous to repeat them.

I merely wish to make three points. My first point is important and it is that the case for proportional representation depends very largely on what kind of proportional representation one adopts. There are many different kinds and one of the vital features of a system which might work is to have what is called in the jargon "a threshold"; that is to say, to have a system whereby, if a party obtains fewer than a certain proportion of the electors, it does not obtain any seats at all. That is what happens under the German system with its 5 per cent. threshold. There is under the system of single transferable vote in Ireland a de facto threshold of somewhere between 5 and 10 per cent. I shall not explain the arithmetic of that as it would be tedious to do so at this juncture. Noble Lords can take it from me that that is the case.

The two systems which achieve a threshold and are viable are the German system; that is, the additional member system, and the single transferable vote. The Hansard Commission came down in favour of a modified version of the German system, the AMS, but was evenly divided on the merits of that and of the single transferable vote, which the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, favoured.

I believe those are the only two possible serious runners for proportional representation. I consider the various other systems to have such defects that they should not be adopted. I believe, for example, there is no case for a system such as the Italian or the Israeli one. They were naturally prayed in aid, as always, by my noble friend Lord Beloff. He is quite right to say they work badly but the point is they have no threshold at all and give ample scope for minute splinter parties to control the fate of governments. The other systems do not do that. Whatever the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, may say, the German system has worked very well. One might say that Germany has flourished a great deal more in one way or another than Britain has under our system.

The second point is that proportional representation is often said to be too complicated. My noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter made that point. He said that the electorate would not understand the system. I do not believe that is the case. I think my noble friend underestimates the intelligence of the electorate. Does he really think the British electorate is notably more stupid than the Irish electorate or the German electorate? That may be the case but I do not like to think so and I do not believe it.

The point about systems of PR is not that they are complicated for the voter. In the case of STV one merely puts 1, 2, 3 or 4, or whatever the case may be, against the names, and in the case of the additional member system that can be carried out under our recommendations with just a single vote, or in the German case with two. The system is not complicated for the voter. I accept that it is more complicated for the returning officers but that need not affect the voter. Therefore it is not valid to argue that the systems are complicated.

Thirdly, I think the case for PR in national elections is a strong one. I shall not go into the arguments for that. I believe the case for PR as regards a European Parliament is very strong and indeed almost overwhelming. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, who made that point forcefully. I believe my next point has not yet been made. PR in local government would be an enormous asset. It would prevent tyrannical single party groups controlling various cities and counties for years on end. For that reason alone, some system of PR would be invaluable in local government. That is the end of what I wish to say.

4.55 p.m.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, we, too, are extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for introducing this debate. In many ways it is a pity that we do not have more time to speak to enable us to debate in more detail the various systems which are available and the merits and demerits of those systems. That would be a useful teach-in for Members of your Lordships' House.

Many of the merits and demerits of the various systems have already been mentioned. I shall touch again on one or two of them. We in this party are undoubtedly firm supporters of the single transferable vote. As we have heard, my noble friend Lady Seear stood out for that measure in the Hansard Commission. I do not wish to give a long eulogy on STV nor do I wish to suggest we would not consider other systems in certain circumstances as it would be foolish to do so. As the noble Lord, Lord Blake, has said, there are many merits in the German AMS method. My problem with that is the one I have with any list system whether it be national, regional or AMS, in that it leaves too much power in the hands of the political party. The great virtue of STV is that it puts the power to select the candidate in the hands of the elector which is where it should be.

The matter of single Member seats has been mentioned several times. Single Member seats are well recognised in this country. Members of Parliament in another place seek to represent all their constituents, but in the days when I had a vote there were times when I would not have gone to my sitting Member of Parliament with any issue that I wanted to discuss simply because my political views and his political views were so widely divergent that there would have been no meeting of minds. What I would have liked is to have been in a multi-Member constituency where I had a choice of perhaps four or five Members of Parliament to consult and where I could have found someone who was much more to my political taste. That would be the case in a multi-Member constituency.

The noble Lord, Lord Kagan, and the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, have dealt admirably with the effect of the present system on industry and the economy. I thought the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, was panglossian. I do not think I am going too far in saying that. He talked about everything being for the best and the best of all possible worlds. There are many of us who would dissent from that view.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I hope the noble Lord will allow me to interrupt him just for a moment. I did not say that everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. I said this was a system which had considerable practical merits. However, that is quite a different thing and the noble Lord has no right to misrepresent me.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I am sorry if I misrepresented the noble Lord but that is what it sounded like to me and from the look on the faces of other noble Lords in this House I believe some of them would agree with me.

The present system has not produced the best possible government over the past 40 or 50 years. I am reminded of a remark by Hans-Dietrich Genscher who said to my right honourable friend Sir David Steel that after the war the British were generous to Germany as they gave Germany three things: industrial trade unions, a federal system of government and a proportional electoral system. He said those were the three things on which Germany had built its strength since the war. He went on to say that the British had been so generous they kept none of those things for themselves.

The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, in a customary knockabout performance this afternoon, has dealt with Italy and Israel. However, I believe the noble Lord, Lord Blake, has already explained the problem in those countries is the fact that there is either a low threshold or no threshold at all and therefore the splinter parties which can be at the extreme ends of the political spectrum get a much bigger say than they would do under AMS or STV.

There seems to be a general agreement that the elections to the European Parliament should be at the top of the agenda. I am glad to hear that said on all sides of the House. It is quite clear that there is a democratic deficit in Europe. That can only be put right by strengthening the power of the European Parliament. The European Parliament can only be strengthened if it is seen as being truly democratic and representing the whole of Europe. The distortions to which my noble friend referred in the electoral system in this country are distorting the balance of the European Parliament to a serious extent. I do not believe that Europe will allow us to continue to do that for very much longer.

On that subject, an opportunity presents itself immediately for the Government to make at least a modest experiment. We know that as a result of the Edinburgh Summit there will now be an extra six seats for Great Britain in the European Parliament. I am depressed and upset by the reply that was given on 14th January in another place by Mr. Peter Lloyd, the Minister of State at the Home Office, who said: We are urgently considering how to take forward the question of adding six additional seats for the next European elections in 1994. We intend to keep the existing voting system but to have the existing Euro-constituency boundaries independently re-drawn".—[Official Report, Commons, 14/1/93; col. 1046.] There is very little time to do that. Are we to suppose that all the European constituencies will be redrawn? In that case, when will we know the results? People will want to know what their constituency boundaries are in good time to fight those elections and will certainly want that information before the back end of next year. If the Government suppose that they can put that measure through in that kind of timescale, they are sadly mistaken. Here is an opportunity to inject a system of additional member seats into the existing system as an experiment. I commend that proposal to the Government.

I have just come back from Kenya where I was a member of the team of Commonwealth observers who tried to define whether the elections in that country were free and fair. I hope that our report will be published within a few days and I hope to have the opportunity to bring it before your Lordships for discussion at a later date. I find it somewhat ironic to have to go to a country such as Kenya to pronounce on whether its elections are free and fair when it is quite clear that the elections in this country while they may be free are certainly not fair.

I also believe that in Kenya proportional representation might have helped. It might well have overcome the tribal problems which were reflected in the way in which the results emerged at the end of the day. We introduced PR for the European elections in Northern Ireland to overcome tribal problems, and that is a suggestion which we might hand on to the rest of the Commonwealth.

At the end of the day there would be many changes as a result of introducing PR, but there have to be changes. We have to move away from the adversarial, confrontational politics that we have had in this country if we are to have a democratic process which is at all creative. The way to do that is to introduce a proportional system of representation. That will not lead to soggy compromise. As my noble friend Lady Seear said, compromise is what one's opponents call it; common sense is what one calls it when one is in favour of it.

I am grateful for what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, said. We look forward very much to hearing the noble Lord, Lord Plant. I do not suppose that he will unveil his magnum opus, but I hope that he will give some hint of the direction in which his working party is moving.

5.3 p.m.

Lord Plant of Highfield

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for facilitating the debate today. There can be nothing more important in a democracy than the way in which representatives are elected, and it is right that we keep our electoral system under review.

As the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, said, I am the author of something that has come to be called the Plant Report. I am sorry that he thought that it might be a botanical catalogue. I have realised since I entered politics that I have a rather unfortunate name. Noble Lords will appreciate that I am rather pleased that my university's botany department has just closed down its plant improvement unit! Speaking as chair of the Labour Party's working party on electoral systems, I wish that the debate was to take place in a few week's time. My working party is due to report to the National Executive of the party in April and, while I suspect that most members of the working party have made up their minds, as I certainly have, we do not formally finalise our recommendations until March. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for me to give a collective view on behalf of the working party or my own personal point of view, or indeed that of the Labour Party which will have to respond to the working party's recommendations when they are made to the National Executive in April. What I shall try to do in the very short time allotted to me is to say something about the framework within which the decisions of the working party have been developed and its recommendations will be made.

It is important for all sides in the electoral reform debate to recognise, as has been said by noble Lords, that there is no ideal system of election. That can be shown mathematically, if that is to your taste, via Kenneth Arrow's impossibility theorem. More importantly, it can be shown in practical ways by suggesting that when we come to judge the electoral systems we usually have in mind quite a wide range of criteria which we use in arriving at a judgment about the merits or demerits of a particular system. The criteria we use in that judgment cannot be developed in a uniquely satisfying way and the criteria themselves are subject to dispute and interpretation.

In our first interim report we argued that the criteria of assessment in terms of which electoral systems are judged could broadly be divided into procedural criteria and those concerned with outcomes. For example, procedural criteria will be concerned with issues such as fairness, wasted votes —a concept which I do not believe can be given any clear meaning—the channels of accountability between representative and electorate, the degree of political participation which an electoral system encourages, and the degree of proportionality—because no one argues that proportionality has no role to play at all—together with a view about the extent to which the election of a government should be in the hands of the electorate and the extent to which it should emerge out of political negotiation within a proportionally elected parliament.

Those are the procedural criteria. Outcome criteria will concern such matters as the stability and effectiveness of government and the impact of electoral systems and the governments they produce on such matters as economic management and the degree of continuity of policy. Those are points which have already been made by noble Lords.

It is clear that there is no unique way of ranking those criteria in order of priority and thus no settled way in which electoral systems can be judged, and thus no ideal system. They all vary according to the view one takes about the importance and ranking of those criteria. Furthermore, as I have said, the criteria can be variously interpreted. Take for example, the notion of fairness. An electoral system cannot just be fair; it has to be fair to something or to someone—for example, to the voters, to parties, to regions or to under-represented groups. Different choices about what one is to be fair to will lead one to evaluate electoral systems in different ways. Therefore, for example, it might be argued that STV is fairer to voters than list systems whereas under-represented groups such as women and ethnic groups might do better under list systems. Similarly, list systems might be fairer to parties while a mixed member or additional member system might be fairer to regions as well as to women and ethnic minorities.

Therefore, in judging electoral systems one has to cope with that type of complexity and make judgments about it. In our working party we are not dealing merely with proposals for the House of Commons: at the NEC's request we are dealing with an electoral system for an elected second chamber, the European Parliament, regional assemblies in England and Wales, a Scottish Parliament and local government, as well as bringing forward proposals for changes in electoral law and electoral practices. So we have a complex task. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, will accept that that complexity has accounted for the length of time we have taken over it.

In addition, the electoral systems—both majoritarian and proportional—imply different things for the role of parties and constituencies and for the nature of representation. Proportional systems tend to favour a microcosmic view of representation in which a parliament should be seen as a microcosm of the political forces at work in society as a whole. Majoritarian systems tend to adopt what is sometimes called the principal/agent view of representation in which a representative is elected to speak on behalf of a whole constituency once he or she—and of course it is generally he—is elected.

Therefore a change of electoral system is not just a technical change, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, rightly said, but involves assessing some of the deepest components of what constitutes a democratic society. I wish that that factor were more appreciated by those keen on proportional representation. Many supporters who have written to me treat the issue of elections as though it were a purely mathematical exercise. Indeed, returning to the exact wording of the Motion before us today, which by convention calls for papers, I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, that if he wants papers, I have filing cabinets full of them. They have been sent to me over the past 18 months mainly by mathematicians who treat the issue of elections as a neat way of providing a mathematical solution. It is rather like fretwork in the late 1930s: it keeps people busy on dark winter evenings.

The electoral system should depend on function to some extent. Political bodies such as the House of Commons, an elected second Chamber, the European Parliament, or devolved assemblies, have different functions. There is no reason why they should be elected by the same method. Obviously there is a limit; but several countries have two electoral systems: one primarily for legislative bodies and another for deliberative and revising bodies.

It is also true to say that to put the choice as between first-past-the-post and proportional representation misdescribes the nature of the choice. There are other majoritarian systems besides first-past-the-post, such as the alternative vote or a second ballot. That needs to be taken into account.

In the working party we have come to the view that clear constituency accountability should be ensured. We are still committed to the idea of retaining some notion of community in the electoral system. We do not want an electoral system that undermines the already rather tenuous links that bind people together in modern society. We also believe that every person elected to a legislative body should have stood before the electorate. In so far as we have developed an idea in relation to the additional member system as one of the alternatives that we wish to consider and make recommendations on in April, it is quite close to the Hansard Society proposal where every member would in fact have stood for election and would not be determined by party lists.

We are not too keen on STV. That is not one of the systems for the House of Commons that we now have under consideration. We believe that it dilutes constituency accountability and the idea of community too much, and replaces it by group accountability which can lead to clientism. We also believe that in a democracy people should not only know how to vote, as they undoubtedly do under STV, but that the citizen should also understand the relationship between the casting of the vote and how that affects the result. We believe that that is too complex within STV. We accept the view of Professor Michael Dummet in his review of the working party's interim report in the New Left Review of midsummer 1992 that the accounting system and the apportionment system under STV is chaotic.

We have rejected pure list systems because they diminish constituency accountability sometimes to vanishing point. Therefore our choices will be made between first-past-the-post, the alternative vote and a mixed member system under which all members stand for election. That system was chosen recently in the referendum in New Zealand as the preferred alternative to the first-past-the-post system. Those proposals will be made in a report to the Labour Party in April. I hope that noble Lords will be interested in the proposals that will be made in that report.

5.14 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, it is always an alarming prospect to follow one so knowledgeable on these matters as the noble Lord, Lord Plant, who, as well as being a professor, is engaged in deep study of electoral reforms for the party opposite. He stated that he has an unfortunate name in the political world. That may be so. I can only say that he is a much coveted intellectual.

Debates in your Lordships' House on proportional representation are always interesting. They are full of knowledge, depth and great sincerity. It is not surprising that there is not necessarily unanimity of view but the debates are always of great interest, as has been the discussion today. Such debates are also complicated. They take one down such routes as the likelihood and effect of hung parliaments, coalitions and mathematical formulae, transfer votes and so on. I have listened with interest and the Government will take note of what your Lordships said. I do not propose to answer each noble Lord's points, because that would be too complicated, might be somewhat adversarial and might take too long. However, I propose to give the Government's views on what is a complex and sensitive issue.

The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, said that he had not been able to make up his mind when he spoke. I hope that I shall be able to encourage him to make up his mind. I was encouraged that one of such political experience found it difficult. That gives me great comfort because I find it difficult every single day to make up my mind on any subject. To find that the noble Lord has had such a difficulty even once gives me great encouragement.

The House will be grateful to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy for introducing the debate today. I have no doubt that those noble Lords who sit on the Liberal Benches were particularly glad when they read the Motion. The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, did not miss the opportunity to try to woo the Labour Party about proportional representation. As the noble Earl, Lord Longford, said, "He would, wouldn't he?" because it would benefit the Liberal Party to have proportional representation. All I say to the Labour Party—it is not a political point—is, "Watch out for Little Red Riding Hood, in particular when she says that she has come down from a rundown Ruritania".

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, that we have to start from the basic fact that no system is perfect. Were there a perfect system, there would be no cause for a debate like this, nor indeed for any other system. Democracy means the rule of the people. It is a fine theory, but it is very difficult to find a system which puts it irrevocably into practice. Every system has its advantage and every system has its disadvantage.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter that the unique advantage of the first past the post system which we use in the United Kingdom is that it is simple. It is familiar. Everyone understands it. The person who gains more votes wins, and that is that. There is a great deal to be said for that. The member represents directly the interests of his electorate—both those who have voted for him and those who have not.

One other great advantage of the system is that it is much more likely to produce an overall majority for one party and thereby to provide stronger and more stable government, whether that is at local or national level. The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, did not find that factor particularly attractive. He said that he wanted good government and implied that he had not had it. That is a personal opinion. We all want good government. One does not achieve that by choosing weak or unstable government. The question that is asked of the voter under the first past the post system is simple. It is, "Who do you want to represent you on the council or parliament?" The candidate who gains more votes—even one more—wins. The question and answer are simple. They are both clear.

There have been many speeches in favour of proportional representation. My noble friend Lord Caldecote said that the case is unassailable. I question that. Proportional representation is not a system of election. It is a type of election. There are many different varieties of it. People sometimes talk of proportional representation as though it were an alternative to the first past the post system. However, it is not, because it is not a single system. There are many different varieties. There is the single transferable vote system; the party list system; the additional member system and the alternative vote system. Within those systems there are many different methods of application. All are different. All produce different results. There is no uniformity either in practice or in result in proportional representation. People often think that proportional representation is fairer. I venture to suggest that it is not. As each system of proportional representation will produce a different result, each system will differ in its degree of fairness or unfairness as against the first past the post system or any other type of proportional representation.

I did not go along with my noble friends Lord Caldecote and Lord Blake, but I agreed with my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter when he said that many of the systems were completely incomprehensible to the ordinary person. I am bound to say that in that happy bracket I include myself.

Of course people know how to cast a vote. What they do not necessarily appreciate is how the machine will throw out the results. Many of the systems result not just in the counting of votes but in the subsequent re-allocation of the votes cast according to some complicated formula.

Because systems of proportional representation rarely give a single party an overall majority, they often result in some form of coalition government, as has been said. Coalitions, by their nature, have to compromise. As a result, governments can be formed on the basis of a programme of which the electorate has not even had the opportunity to approve or disapprove. The programme emerges as a result of horse-trading behind closed doors between the different parties.

In an election, therefore, voters can only guess what kind of coalition their party might have to enter into after the election and what new policies it might have to adopt and what compromises it might have to make in order to keep the coalition in existence.

We need look no further than the Republic of Ireland, which has been mentioned today, where it has taken seven weeks to put together a coalition government, to see the difficulties which can be caused. Or consider Italy, which has had 50 governments in 45 years since the Italian republic was established in 1948. I can only say: heaven keep us from such a fate. Oddly enough, that is exactly what the Italians are now saying. They realise that they must change their system to something better.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, will the noble Earl take an interruption?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I have already done so.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, perhaps he will take another. Is he aware that proportional representation has been a great success in Ireland and that no one there would dream of changing it?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, Ireland is a special case for special reasons. I could deal with it, but I do not think I shall do so. There are various reasons why that has applied there, not least because of the religious divisions which prevail in Ireland. I should prefer not to take any more interruptions. I took one but, in order to keep within the timescale, I should prefer not to pursue them.

Very often—as has happened in Italy and, indeed, in Germany—parties which poll few votes can exercise on government an influence which is quite out of proportion to the number of people who voted for them. They can keep on exercising this influence despite the fact that they regularly come low in the polls.

These, as I see it, are pretty fundamental objections to proportional representation. There is also the practical difficulty, were we seriously to consider such a change, of finding a system which would suit the United Kingdom. Proportional representation comes, as I have suggested, in many guises, none of which the Government regard as a satisfactory replacement for our present system.

That is why the Government's position on proportional representation has always been, I think, well known. We have always made it clear that we have no plans to introduce any form of proportional representation for local government elections in Great Britain, nor for elections in the United Kingdom to another place. That remains the case today. I hope that at least I have been able to satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Kagan, by giving him more than a monosyllabic answer to a similar question which I was asked at Question Time, even if the result is the same. We are always happy to listen, I have listened, and the Government will take heed of what your Lordships have said.

Your Lordships have sometimes said that we are the only country in the European Community which does not have proportional representation—and I remember the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, saying that to me at Question Time—as if we were the odd man out. But there is no conformity or uniformity among our European partners. There is a whole host of different systems. Spain and Portugal use a list system which does not allow the voter to express a preference between candidates, but only between parties. The list system does away with constituency representation, which is one of the main strengths of our arrangements.

Belgium also uses a list system, but a different variety. The elector either votes for a party's list or for one candidate from a list, so that he can show that he supports that party but that he prefers his chosen candidate to others on the list. In Italy, the vote can indicate a preference for three or four candidates. In France, one of the systems used—and they keep changing them—provides that, if there is no outright winner, the election is re-run a week later with the candidates with the fewest votes eliminated.

Then there is that curious hybrid system, the additional member system. Germany uses it, as my noble friends Lord Beloff and Lord Blake reminded us. The effect of that system is to create two classes of member of parliament. Some members are elected by constituencies, as we do now, but others are drawn from among the defeated candidates—the ones who have not won—in order to bring the total into line with national voting patterns. As a result, some candidates who had actually been rejected by the electorate would be returned as members. That seems a funny system.

The alternative vote system is another version, but it is not used in Europe or, so far as I know, anywhere else in the world. It does not achieve the aims of proportional representation because there is little relationship between the votes which have been cast and the number of seats which are obtained. The system is much more complicated than ours and it offers no advantages.

Then there is the single transferable vote system, which is used in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland for elections other than for Westminster. This requires the formation of large multi-member constituencies, but it distances the member markedly from his or her constituents. It relies upon quotas and the redistribution of votes which are surplus to the required quota, together with the redistribution of votes for the eliminated candidates. The General Synod of the Church of England uses that system too, I believe.

There are many other variations upon those systems, but they all have the same serious drawback. It is that too much control is vested in the hands of the central party organisation which draws up the list. I always think that the best example of the disadvantages of proportional representation, or at least one version of it, is the experience in Sweden. There was an election in 1973 and a system of proportional representation was used. The result was that 175 members were returned from the right of the political spectrum. These were what I would call Conservatives and others. The same number of members were returned from the left of the political spectrum, from among the Social Democrats and the Communists. If anyone were absent for a vote in Parliament he could be replaced by an alternative. There was no provision for by-elections. The parliament ran for three years and the result was that, whenever there was a vote, there was always a tie. The speaker had to give the casting vote on each occasion and he had a black velvet bag by his side in which were two balls. One was black and one was white. He used to put his hand in the bag and pick out the appropriate ball. Accordingly, that was how the country was governed for three years.

Oddly enough, it is interesting that in the United Kingdom the system which we have allows a recently-formed political party to disintegrate because it achieves insufficient support from the electorate. Yet all its leaders end up in Parliament, in your Lordships' House. I am sure that the party, Parliament and your Lordships' House are all the richer for that.

Some of your Lordships may say that these arguments against proportional representation apply with less force or do not apply at all in the context of elections to the European Parliament. That was my noble friend Lord Beloff's view, not because proportional representation was better but for the rather extraordinary reason, it seemed to me, that the European Parliament was, as he described it, a "boondoggle"—whatever that is—and that PR would not make any difference. That was certainly one form of logic—though not the usual kind—from my noble friend.

The European Parliament, of course, does not support a government in power and its functions and powers are different from those of a national parliament. The role of its members is also different. A member of the European Parliament, therefore, does not and cannot represent his or her constituents in quite the same way as his or her counterpart does at Westminster. The link is inevitably more tenuous.

Any system of proportional representation which might be adopted for the United Kingdom for election to the European Parliament would involve substantially larger constituencies and I think this would destroy any notion of local representation.

It would also make it much more difficult for a member of the European Parliament to identify himself or herself with his or her constituency—of which he or she would be but one representative—or to retain links with his or her constituents. Of course, that would apply vice versa. A change in the electoral arrangements for the European Parliament would tend to make the member of the European Parliament an even more remote and faceless individual by destroying the direct one-to-one relationship between a member of the European Parliament and the recognisable geographical area which he or she represents.

The European Parliament has, for some time, been pressing for the introduction of a uniform electoral procedure throughout the Community. The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, reminded us of that today. He told us that the Treaty of Rome requires the European Parliament to draw up proposals for such a procedure. That is perfectly true. It also requires the Council of Ministers, acting unanimously, to recommend to the member states an appropriate procedure for adoption. He said that the United Kingdom had blocked that process. I do not think that is quite so. No agreement has yet been reached on a proposal to be put to the Council of Ministers. Only at that stage would any blocking mechanism come into play.

So far, the proposals have been for a list system of proportional representation with multi-member constituencies. Those would require changes to the procedures of all the member states and they raise substantial difficulties for several of them.

The fact is that, in a simple but quite understandable way, each member of the Community agrees that there should be a common system. They are all agreed on that. But curiously enough each country considers that the system should be the one which that particular country uses. So, there is a not inconsiderable impasse here. The difficulties could not be overcome in time for the 1984 elections, and since then there has been no real progress towards the introduction of a uniform electoral procedure. The procedures for elections to the European Parliament vary widely between the member states. All, except the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, use list systems of proportional representation.

The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, is concerned about how the European parliamentary constituency boundaries will be drawn to accommodate the extra six seats. Consideration is being given at present to how to accommodate these additional seats in good time for the 1994 European parliamentary elections. We are not proposing a different system for the six extra seats.

The systems used in Europe are of many different kinds. No two are identical. Some involve regional multi-member constituencies; others use national lists. Some allocate seats proportionately within regions; others do so at national level. Some allow the voter to choose between different candidates of the same party; others only allow the voter to choose the party. And so it goes on. There is no uniformity, nor even a vestige of conformity, within the European Community at present. And we do not yet know what fresh proposals will ultimately emerge from the European Parliament. The Government will, however, consider on their merits any recommendations from the Council of Ministers for a uniform procedure. Until then, we have a system which is familiar to us and one which we believe suits us best.

5.33 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, in the short time remaining, I should like to thank all the speakers who have taken part. They are distinguished speakers who from their past experience or interest have been able to contribute to the debate, which, as I indicated at the beginning, was a Motion attempting to go into the subject rather than one to take sides upon.

I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, who, having been ambassador in Rome, pointed out that what was happening there was done very much in order to keep a communist government out. I have followed events since 1947, and 1948 was a very near thing; and the Communists nearly got in. I am grateful to him for pointing that out.

I am also grateful to my noble friend Lord Caldecote with his background of knowledge about industry and business in this country; to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, who expanded with clarity on the points in favour of the present system which I had been able only briefly to outline in my opening speech; and to the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, who drew attention to the point that the European Parliament—because it does not have to form a government or an executive—does not present the problems for change which the Westminster Parliament would have to face.

I am especially grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Plant, who is chairman of the Plant Committee and in a very significant and important position. He was able to give us a peep into the results of his work so far. I am also grateful to my noble friend Lord Ferrers, who clearly gave us the Government's present views on these matters.

A very simplified summary of my views is that the introduction of PR will be difficult until adversarial politics are modified. The question is put, usually by the Liberal Democrats: which comes first? Some will say and will argue that the introduction of PR should be first, and that that would assist changes in adversarial attitudes. I do not go along with that view. I believe it would be taking a great risk, for the reasons which I and other people have indicated. There is a great deal of preparation to be done and information to be given to the public about the changes before one can implement PR. It cannot be done at very short notice or overnight.

I foresee, however, that PR will eventually come. I hope that the two developments (changes in adversarial attitudes and an advance towards some form of proportional representation) will proceed together, albeit gradually. With those remarks, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.