HC Deb 17 January 2001 vol 361 cc71-94WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned—[Mr. Touhig.]

9.30 am
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

My purpose in initiating today's debate on electoral reform is not so much to discuss which system for electing Members of Parliament is the best, but to try to bring some clarity to the Government's proposals for electoral reform—a matter on which they have become, at best, confused and, at worst, evasive. While other systems may be appropriate for other institutions, I believe that first past the post is right for Westminster.

There are many issues in which the House has a legitimate interest, but where the Government's policy is less than clear. However, nothing affects us all more than the method by which we secure election here, and it is particularly difficult to find out what is going on.

Today's debate shines a torch on that murky area of policy making and, in order not to take the Government by surprise, on the day that I knew this debate would take place—last Thursday—I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), to gave him advance notice of seven questions that I wanted to put to him. I wrote to the Home Office because electoral reform is its responsibility, but also because an official from the Home Office had telephoned my secretary to establish the purpose of the debate and whether it would be more appropriate for a Cabinet Office Minister to reply. We made it clear that we expected the Home Office to reply.

Last night, I discovered that the Home Office asserted that it had not got my letter. It passed the chalice, not to the Cabinet Office, but to the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, who has some acquaintance with these issues having played a key part in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. I gave him a copy of my letter and I now see in his place the Under-Secretary of State, Lord Chancellor's Department, the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Lock). He will not be offended it I say that the Lord Chancellor's Department was no one's first choice, but as this is a debate on PR perhaps that is appropriate.

Constitutional reform has not been the Government's strongest card. Reform of the House of Lords appears to have stalled, although only two years ago we were told that stage two could happen in this Parliament. There is no sign of the promised joint committee a year after Lord Wakeham reported. Devolution has left an imbalance so far as England is concerned, which the Government pretend does not exist. An internal argument about elected mayors or elected regional assemblies has led to yet more stalling and, so far, they have not embarked on electoral reform for Westminster, and I hope they do not. So, what are they up to?

The history, briefly, is that the manifesto gave a clear commitment on a referendum on voting systems. It said: We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system. I note at this stage the use of the word "proportional". Anyone reading that sentence would conclude that Labour believes that first past the post is not proportional and the alternative should be. The Minister may tell us that that commitment was undated, but in another sentence at the beginning of the manifesto the Prime Minister addressed the need to counter cynicism about politics, saying: I want to do it by making a limited set of important promises and achieving them. Later, he said: That is why we have made it our guiding principle not to promise what we cannot deliver and to deliver what we promise. To put the matter beyond doubt, on BBC Radio 4's programme, "The World at One", on 6 January 1997, the Home Secretary said: What we are committed to is having a referendum on voting systems … this is a major advance for any party to be able to offer the British people that choice and then for that choice to go forward during the course of the next Parliament That strikes me as unequivocal.

When elected, the Government established the Jenkins commission. In the 2 June 1998 debate, before the report was published, the Government were still telling us that a referendum would be held in this Parliament. The Home Secretary said: I shall go through the expected time scale for the referendum. The Jenkins commission hopes to report in October. After that, primary legislation will be needed to permit a referendum to be held. The plan is that the referendum should take place well before the next election. It will offer the public a clear choice between first past the post and an alternative, drawn from the recommendations of the commission.—[Official Report, 2 June 1998; Vol. 313, c. 190.] The report was published on 29 October 1998 and it recommended a mixed system, that it described as limited AMS or alternative vote top-up, but is now popularly know as AV-plus. Between 80 and 85 per cent. of Members would be constituency Members, elected by AV, with the balance elected through open lists using small top-up areas based on cities or counties. Voters would have two votes, one for the constituency and one for the top-up area. It is worth looking at paragraph 82 of the report, Cm 4090–1, to read what the Jenkins commission says about AV on its own. That is important in view of signs that the Government are now moving towards AV. It said: Beyond this, AV on its own suffers from a stark objection. It offers little prospect of a move towards greater proportionality, and in some circumstances, and those are the ones which certainly prevailed at the last election and may well do so for at least the next one, it is even less proportional than FPTP. Simulations of how the 1997 result might have come out under AV suggest that it would have significantly increased the size of the already swollen Labour majority … The overall Labour majority could thus have risen from 169 to 245 … The Conservative 30.7 per cent. of the votes should strictly have given them 202 seats. Instead FPTP gave them 165, or 25 per cent. of the seats, whereas AV would have given them on one estimate only 96 (or 14.6 per cent. of the seats). Paragraph 85 continued: far from doing much to relieve disproportionality, it is capable of substantially adding to it. My first question to the Minister is: does he agree that AV would not deliver the manifesto commitment of a proportional alternative to first past the post?

On publication, we saw the first signs of equivocation and the Government taking cover. The Home Office press notice on 29 October 1998, stated: Fourth, the Government will want to take account of the radical and ambitious programme of constitutional reform that is taking place, particularly the reform of the House of Lords. It will want to consider how the new systems of election soon to be in operation in Scotland, Wales and for the European parliament settle down. The constitutional reform programme should be looked at as a whole prior to any decision being made on this issue. It is worth pausing to consider the appearance of this new alibi. There had never been any hint that the manifesto commitment was to be qualified in that way. Only a few weeks earlier, the commitment had been reasserted—I quoted the Home Secretary— although it was known at that time that elections for Europe, Scotland and Wales would be held using a different system.

Further evidence of the change of heart came in the debate on the Jenkins report on 5 November 1998. The Home Secretary said: As to timing, we have always envisaged that the referendum would be before the next election, and that remains an option. However, plainly, in the light of Lord Jenkins's specific recommendations, this is less certain, because the new system cannot be introduced until the election after next. Nor, in our judgment, is there a need for the Government to come to an early view about the commission's recommendation.—[Official Report, 5 November 1998; Vol. 337, c. 1036.] The wordsmith had been hard at work with those three sentences, which deserve close analysis. I have three comments. First, an event to which the right hon. Gentleman was "committed" on 6 January 1997, namely a referendum in this Parliament, became an event that he "envisaged" on 5 November 1998. A commitment had been demoted to an option. Secondly, he asserted that because the new system could not be introduced before the next election, the referendum on it need not be held before it either.

The manifesto commitment was never to introduce a new system in this Parliament. Indeed, if the referendum on the alternative were defeated, it would clearly not have been introduced. The commitment was on the referendum, not the introduction of a new system and the Home Secretary conveniently, but wrongly, elided the two. Finally, he asserted that there was no need for the Government to come to an early view on Jenkins. However, an early view was necessary if the Government planned to keep their manifesto commitment. It was ingenious to reverse the argument: to assert that there was no need to come to an early decision and from that assertion to conclude that the referendum should not be held.

I would ask the Minister whether he accepts that the commitment at the election to hold the referendum on PR will be broken. The question is appropriate today because I woke up to a Home Office Minister boasting on the "Today" programme of how the Government were carrying out their commitment on hunting. The debate produced one other quotation that is relevant to our debate this morning. Winding up the debate, the Under-Secretary said If we are to have change—and ultimately that will be, quite properly, a decision for the voters—we now have an alternative, whether we like it or not, alongside which the status quo of the first-past-the-post system can be judged and debated. In that important sense the commission members have done us a service.—[Official Report, 5 November 1998; Vol. 318, c. 1110–1111.] In other words, when we have a referendum, it will be first past the post against AV-plus.

Will the Minister confirm that the statement made on 5 November is still the view of the Government? I see from the briefing supplied for this debate by Charter 88 that at last year's Labour party conference, the Minister for the Home Office said that he expected that AV-plus would be the alternative to the status quo.

On 23 June 1999 the Opposition initiated a debate on PR, inviting the Government to hold a referendum or to ditch the commitment. A plausible speech was made by the then shadow Leader of the House of Commons. The Government amendment declined the invitation, but welcomed the Government's approach which allows for a full debate in the country on the merits of the Jenkins system before a referendum is held. There was the sound of long grassing opening up to embrace that difficult question.

We can now pass to last year and the concern behind today's debate. The Sunday Express on 23 April, stated: Tony Blair and Charles Kennedy are close to a deal on voting reform aimed at keeping the Tories out of power forever. The Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat Leader are moving towards a compromise they believe they can sell to both their parties. The deal, discussed by the two in secret talks, is for a stop-gap voting system known as AV. The Times ran a similar story on 1 April, stating: This would not be PR and would preserve the traditional link between MPs and their constituencies, but would give the Liberal Democrats dozens more seats.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that for many years the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors have argued that what comprises fair votes is a system that would give proportionality between the votes cast and the number of MPs elected? Is it not remarkable that they should therefore be willing to consider AV, which as my right hon. Friend pointed out, would give a disproportionate result, but which—it just so happens—would enable the Liberal Democrats to get many more seats?

Sir George Young

We look forward to hearing the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan)—I hope that he may catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker—denouncing that squalid deal to which I referred and which my hon. Friend criticised so perceptively.

By 8 July, events had moved on. I read in the The Guardian: Tony Blair's allies last night brokered a deal on electoral reform which will lead to a commitment in Labour's next manifesto to hold a referendum on modernising the system of elections to the House of Commons. The deal, which will lead to the party embracing the alternative vote (AV) system, will end an internal Labour row between supporters of proportional representation and traditionalists who want to maintain the first-past-the-post system. The national policy forum in Exeter—an event that we know the Home Secretary attended, as he made his way there at some speed—retained the commitment to hold a referendum, without specifying a voting system to put to the public. However, I understand that the party refused to give its support to AV-plus. By 31 August, The Times tells us that Lord Jenkins was reconciled to Labour ditching AV-plus and quoted the great man, as saying: He was disappointed but not surprised. On 5 September, the Financial Times reported: Given the hostility of many Members to a complex voting system proposed by Lord Jenkins, any referendum would almost certainly be confined to a reform that involved the election of all MPs on a constituency basis. Sir David Frost can help us a little on that issue, as he examined the Foreign Secretary on the subject on 26 October, asking: Do you feel, in terms of PR that having made the general promise of a referendum on PR, not hinged absolutely on this Parliament, but that next time you'll need to make a pledge for a referendum on PR within the next Parliament? To which the Foreign Secretary replied: That is our policy, David. Commitment to consulting the public on an alternative to the present voting system is one that has been endorsed by our party twice in the course of this past year, and it will be the policy at the next election. David Frost, then said: It will be, that, that's an important clarification there, people were concerned that might not happen. The Foreign Secretary replied: Well David the manifesto hasn't been written, but that is the commitment of the party and that is the policy of the party. That leads me to my next question. Was the Foreign Secretary correctly setting out Government policy in committing them, if re-elected, to a referendum in the next. Parliament?

To understand what is going on behind the scenes we need the help of the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), whom I am delighted to see in his place. On 4 November, he issued a press release that says it all: There are twelve Tory seats where, if fewer than one in ten of the voters who voted for the third place candidate had voted differently, we could have seen seven more Labour MP's and five more LibDems. All it takes is for a couple of hundred voters to vote tactically and we can push the Tories to the margins of British politics. Developing the theme, the hon. Gentleman said: To achieve this, we need to show that we are keeping the door open to electoral reform. He spoke approvingly of the system in France, where the social democratic and labour parties vote tactically, saying: In France, it is called the republican tradition so that in the two round voting system they have there, the best placed non-Conservative candidate gets the votes of the third place party. That is exactly what the alternative vote system does. That is not a fair or a proportional system; it is simply a system that seeks to scupper the Government's principal opponents.

I shall quote from a speech to Make Votes Count by the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), who deplored that cynical approach. He said: However any change of voting system must be made for national, not party reasons. It is my dearest wish as a Labour politician to dish the Tories and to create in the 21st century a progressive century, in the way the Conservatives, against a divided centre-left opposition, dominated the last. But the case for electoral reform cannot be advanced as a private arrangement that suits Labour and Liberal Democrats. If it is, in a referendum, the cause will surely fail. The case has to be made on grounds of national interest and the solution must be one that lasts. On tactical voting, for which the hon. Member for Rotherham has high hopes, it would be helpful if the Minister would confirm that the Labour Government, when they seek the endorsement of the electorate, will be offering every voter in Britain the opportunity to vote for a Labour candidate. If he cannot give that assurance, the House will be entitled to conclude that some covert deal is being concocted. Colleagues and hon. Members may have seen The Independent on Sunday that had a headline: "Lib-Lab poll pact aims to crush Tories. Secret 'hands-off deals' could cost Conservatives up to 100 seats." The article went on to say: Sources close to the Leaders of both parties acknowledged that in many of these seats local arrangements had been made to ensure that there would be a "candidate, but no contest" …It is proposed that no central resources will be directed into those areas.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

In my remarks, I said, as a Labour Member of Parliament, that my duty was to urge all people and all Labour voters to vote for a Labour candidate. I regard Liberal Democrats, especially at local level, as little more than genetically modified Tories. However, as the Conservative party is now so ideologically extreme, so far to the right and so racially opportunistic, it is everyone's duty to defeat the Conservative party at every possible moment in parliamentary elections.

Sir George Young

The hon. Member was not born yesterday. He must have realised that when people read the totality of his speech they would see it as an inducement to vote for the third candidate, or for the second candidate, if that displaced the Conservative. That is a clear consequence of the course that he was advocating, and he has no one to blame but himself if his remarks have been misconstrued.

Sources close to the leaders of the two parties are here this morning and we look forward to hearing that there is no covert deal of the type mentioned in the press. My party proposes to contest every seat in Britain and will not be taking part in any behind-the-scenes fixing.

The issue was raised on 15 November at Prime Minister's questions by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who asked the Prime Minister not to support AV. He got an equivocal, but interesting reply: In relation to PR, however, I am not in favour of any system that breaks the link between constituency and Member of Parliament.—[Official Report, 15 November 2000; Vol. 356, c. 930.] That rules out AV-plus and the Jenkins system.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock)

It does not.

Sir George Young

It does, because under the top-ups there is no link between the constituency and the Member of Parliament, and that is the alternative system on which the Government are committed to going into a referendum. The Prime Minister has not ruled out AV but he has ruled out AV-plus in that reply, which underlines the importance of my second question to the Minister today.

It would be helpful to have the Minister's thoughts on one matter. How does the Labour party plan to spend the £5 million that it is allowed on a referendum on PR? We have never had a satisfactory reply to that question. We are aware that the Labour party is split on the issue—there is nothing wrong with that. Does the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 allow the Labour party to spend the £5 million in proportion—spending £2.5 million for those who want to keep the first part of the vote and £2.5 million for those who want to change? Who is going to make the decision? Will it be the leader of the party, the national executive committee, or a membership-wide ballot? Who will be disappointed—the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) or the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell)?

That question has been mentioned many times. I hope that we may have an answer this morning. In short, what we have had so far is a manifesto commitment that is not to be honoured, then a commitment to a referendum between first past the post and AV-plus, which has apparently been broken. We have seen a move towards a system—AV, which is not proportional, but which happens to make life difficult for the Government's main opponents— and, finally, equivocation from the Prime Minister when he is asked to make his position clear.

What has happened to the Prime Minister's ambition to realign the centre-left of British politics? Is it, as the leader of the Liberal Democrats said, gently residing in a coma? The Minister has an opportunity to clarify and define the Government's decision, which is a matter of interest to all hon. Members, and we will hang on every word.

9.52 am
Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) on securing today's debate. I found his speech amusing, but the logic was sometimes confusing. The first thing that I found confusing was the way in which he described the alternative vote system. He appeared to be advancing the argument that it arose, in some way, from a wish to further tactical voting in elections, and he suggested there could be a deal between parties to introduce that system. I find that confusing, because if there is one feature that the alternative vote does not encourage it is tactical voting.

Under the present system—indeed, it is one of the problems with the system of first past the post—the voter is often faced with the necessity of working out who they least want to be in office, and then which other candidate will be the best challenger of that person. That encourages voters to look not for the party that they most support, but for the one, out of those that have the best chance of winning in that constituency, that most closely mirrors their own views. This is where tactical voting comes in: in trying to work out who is best placed and therefore who to vote for. The very fact that the alternative vote system is a preferential voting system means that the voter has a great deal more power and choice to say, "Party A is the one that most closely mirrors what I believe in, so that is the one I am going to give my first preference to— but I do not want mine to be a wasted vote." The ability to state another preference allows that vote to be transferred.

I accept that hon. Members may have different views about whether preferential voting is a good idea, but to say that it encourages tactical voting is nonsense. It encourages precisely the opposite.

Another reason why a system of preferential voting needs to be an element of the voting system for Westminster is the simple argument that says that, if we are to come here claiming to represent all our constituents, is it toe much to suggest that we should have had majority support in the ballot box from those constituents? After all, that is the principle on which we elect our leaders.

I realise that the Conservative party has a chequered history about the precise voting systems that it has used to elect its leaders in the past, but the principle of preferential voting is not outlandish, and today it is operated by the Labour and Conservative parties. So why, when it comes to Parliament, does it have such difficulty with this? If one is going to claim to speak for a constituency, one should at least be able to say, "I secured majority support amongst those who voted in an election"—it is not a bad principle to adopt.

There are powerful arguments for a preferential voting system to be part of a new electoral system for this country. There is great support for the principle of the constituency Member of Parliament link. The most appropriate way to achieve that is through a single Member, from a single constituency and, therefore, AV meets that bill.

There is, however, an issue about whether AV on its own is really appropriate or sufficient to achieve the type of fairer voting system that I should like. That is where I would advocate that we have a system that includes AV but includes something else as well. The problem with the alternative vote on its own is that it focuses purely on the constituency. The individual Member of Parliament will be able legitimately to claim that he or she has a majority of voters supporting him or her, if elected to this House. It does not correct any imbalances nationally, and it has a similar problem to that of first-past-the-post, in that it measures geographical concentrations of votes rather than the support of voters across the country.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman's argument. There may be arguments for AV-plus and arguments for AV, but I do not understand, when he has just issued his panegyric in favour of AV, why there should then be any need, on the logic of his argument, for any kind of regional representation, because there is no longer an issue—I am sure that he would agree with me about this—about a disproportion having crept in. Will the hon. Gentleman explain that? I think that both systems—AV and AV-plus—are nonsense, but I shall return to that in my speech.

Mr. Burden

If the hon. Gentleman had contained himself just a little longer, I would have explained precisely that point. The problem is that, while AV does measures proportionality or a degree of proportionality within constituencies, it does not necessarily do so on its own across the country as a whole. For example, in the US in the past couple of months, an odd spectacle has arisen from the results of its presidential election system. My constituents and others think it peculiar that one can end up with, arguably, the most powerful individual in the world not necessarily having gained the majority of the votes in a democracy. It sounds crazy, does it not?

People might think that it could never happen in this country, but it has. For instance, the Labour party achieved a fantastic result in 1951; it did better then than ever before—or since. However, despite achieving more votes than the main challenger party, it lost the election because the geographical dispersal of votes meant that that majority was not reflected in the result. To prove that I am not making a party political point, I must point out that it happened the other way round at the first of the elections held in 1974. We should be concerned about perverse results.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East)

My hon. Friend makes the point well that, on occasion, the popular vote does not secure the greater number of seats. However, does he not accept that if the rules had been different and we were fighting for the popular vote alone, the parties would have waged a different campaign? We would have concentrated on the seats where the greatest numbers of votes might be gained, in order to secure the popular vote, which would have frustrated the system, just as happens under the system that he now complains about.

Mr. Burden

The history of the major political parties in recent years shows that in order to win under the first-part-the-post system, they have to do exactly that. They target the seats that they believe will make the difference between winning and losing. All parties do it. It is interesting to note that the overall percentage of votes gained by the Liberal Democrats at the last election was not one of their best results, but that the number of seats that the party gained was one of its best results. One reason for that is that the party has worked out how to target and concentrate its efforts. I am not sure that that is the best way to generate the sort of public debate that is necessary at election time.

Dr. Lewis

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his great courtesy in giving way to me. He rightly pointed out the occasional perversity whereby, once in a while, the party that wins the largest number of votes does not win a majority of seats. However, does he not accept that a far more frequent perversity operates under PR, which is that, because it is essential to build a majority for a coalition Government, a party with a low level of support in the country is offered posts of an influence disproportionately greater than its support could possibly bring it?

Mr. Burden

The hon. Gentleman leads me on to my next point. No system is perfect; no system can offer pure democracy. In considering the various electoral systems in other Legislatures and Executives, we should try to work out the criteria that we want. The most important factors were set out clearly in the terms of reference of the Jenkins commission. If the result of an election does not show a clear majority among the voters showing what kind or colour of Government they wish to see, it seems wrong that the mechanics of the voting system should create one. That said, the sort of pure proportional system used in Israel can have serious consequences for effective and stable government. That is why I would not support such a system.

I believe that there are three broad ways to address the problem of the geographical concentration of votes. First, one could get rid of the geographical concentration argument by getting rid of constituencies—but that is entirely unacceptable. It would be the purest form of proportional representation, but it would be chaotic, and as far as I know no serious analyst would advocate it for this country. Secondly, one could build in a degree of proportionality by massively expanding constituencies and building a sort of multi-member system, the most common form of which uses the single transferable vote. That has some merits. However, it has an important flaw in terms of our democratic traditions—the weakening of the link between the individual Member and his or her constituency. That is a problem in relation to STV and multi-member constituencies.

The third way of operating proportional representation is to build in some form of top-up system, with extra Members of Parliament, to correct those imbalances, and the system that came out of the independent commission would do that. The right hon. Gentleman said that Jenkins broke the link between the MP and the constituency. It does not. Under the Jenkins system, every voter in every constituency would have the opportunity to vote for his or her constituency MP.

Mr. Grieve


Mr. Burden

I shall not take any more interventions, because I know that several people want to speak. The question is whether it is wrong to have top-up MPs as well. Jenkins advocates a small minority of top-up MPs, which would correct some of the worst imbalances of the first-past-the-post system. That does not destroy the constituency system, for two reasons. First, there are still the constituency MPs, and secondly, the top-up MPs would themselves have constituencies. Jenkins is clear that they would be elected through an open list system from clear constituencies, normally the size of a county area.

The objection may be made that there is something intrinsically wrong with having two representatives for an area that may include the same voters. However, if that is a problem for Westminster elections, why is it not a problem that councillors, Members of this Parliament and Members of the European Parliament represent the same area? Why do those who put forward that objection not have the same objection when it comes to their local authority, where multi-member representation is often the norm?

The Jenkins system retains the constituency link, although in a different form. People will decide whether that is good or bad. I believe that it is constructive. Let us not hear the argument that the constituency link is somehow abolished. Some forms of proportional representation do that, but the Jenkins system does not. It retains the constituency link, while allowing for the correction of some of the worst excesses of first past the post in terms of proportionality.

A number of hon. Members want to speak today, so I shall finish my speech. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire put a lot of emphasis on the issue of a referendum, and I shall conclude by saying that I hope that there will be a referendum on the voting system in the next Parliament. Whatever the result, it would be a positive thing for democracy and for politics in this country if we encouraged voters to debate not only the political colour of the people they want to represent them, but what democracy means, what government means, what legislation means and how they relate to the political process. One way to achieve that—and to do so constructively—is through a referendum on the voting system.

I wish to encourage that debate, and I ask Conservative Members whether they want it to take place. If they are for the debate, would they like to clarify whether they are for or against a referendum in principle, so that voters—rather than Opposition Members or myself—decide the way in which they are governed?

Several hon. Members


Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair)

Order. Before I call the next Member to speak, may I remind Members that we have an hour and a half for the debate, and appeal for brief speeches?

10.9 am

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Over the past week, the papers have been full of the trial of a former member of a German terrorist group. The reason has less to do with the ex-terrorist himself than with a friend of his, who is giving testimony as a witness. That friend, Joschka Fischer, is the Foreign Minister of Germany. He holds that position on the basis that his party—the Green Party—received less than 7 per cent. of the popular vote in the German parliamentary elections. Not only does Mr. Fischer have an extremist past dating from the 1960s, but in the 1980s, the Greens, of whom he is now a representative, had a relatively extreme view on the one-sided abandonment of nuclear defences by NATO. Since the 1990s, and right up to the present day, Mr. Fischer has taken a further extreme position—he supports the development of the most unified type of European state. He has stated that openly. He has consistently, throughout his political career—if one can dignify the earlier parts of it with that term—taken extreme positions. How has such a man risen to be Foreign Minister of his country on such a small proportion of the vote?

Mr. Stephen Twigg (Enfield, Southgate)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Lewis

I look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman's explanation.

Mr. Twigg

The German system to which the hon. Gentleman alludes is an almost purely proportional system. Does he accept that the system proposed by the Jenkins commission is not such a system, so 7 per cent. of the popular vote would be unlikely to secure any automatic representation in the House of Commons?

Dr. Lewis

That does not affect my argument. The answer to the question that I was posing can be summed up in two words—coalition Governments. All systems proposed for the conducting of elections must deal with the following question: will the outcome be government by the party that wins most votes in the election, or government by coalition? The Jenkins system, to which the hon. Gentleman refers, would tend to lead to coalition Governments as the norm. Systems that lead to coalition Governments allow small parties with a small proportion of the vote to exert disproportionate influence on the Government. A coalition must be formed to get a majority in Parliament, and that cannot be done without the support of small parties. Do those small parties say, "We recognise that we enjoy a relatively small amount of support in the country, so we will settle for an equivalently small amount of influence in the Government"? Do they heck. They exploit that system for everything it is worth, and ensure that they get positions and power in the Government that are wholly out of line with the extent of their support in the country.

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea)


Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)


Dr. Lewis

I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) and then to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell).

Mr. Linton

Has the hon. Gentleman read the Jenkins report? I ask that because it goes to some lengths to work out simulations of the effect that the Jenkins system would have had on the last five elections, from 1979 onwards. The report comes to the conclusion that the system would have led to the same overall result in 1979—it would have been better spread geographically and the majority might have been smaller, but the outcome would have been the same. The results of the 1983 and 1987 elections would also have been the same. There would have been a different outcome in 1992, but the hon. Gentleman will accept that that was a closely fought and unusual election. The outcome in 1997 would have been the same. The Jenkins report refutes the whole basis of his argument.

Dr. Lewis

I do not accept that. I read the report before I took part in the debate on 5 November 1998— November is an appropriate date for an attack on the parliamentary system. It was clear that its recommendations would tend to lead to a greater proportionality between the number of Members of Parliament elected and the number of votes cast than is the case under first past the post. Why would that be a bad thing? The answer is simple: no Government elected in Britain, at least since the second world war, have achieved anything like 51 per cent. of the vote. Even the present Government achieved only 43 per cent. of the vote. Under a system that would lead to proportionality in outcomes, even a Government with Labour's level of support at the previous general election would still be dependent on an alliance with another party to form a majority in Parliament.

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Gem leman is criticising coalitions as a system, but if that is what people vote for—if the result of their deliberations and votes is that there is no clear majority for one party—that is what people should get. That is a fair democratic verdict. The reverse of that is to say that people should have imposed on them a party with a minority of votes, one that people do not especially want and that most of them voted against. That is a fairly exact description of, say, Margaret Thatcher's Government in the 1980s. Such a Government are then free to use the enormous power of the centralised Executive of this country to do what they want with the system. That is exactly what happened. It is a dictatorship of the minority.

Dr. Lewis

The question to be considered is whether it would be fairer to have, as a result of an election, a combination of parties that offered its junior partner or partners disproportionate amounts of power. The snag with what is recommended is not only that small parties in coalition Governments have far more power than they deserve according to their support in the country, but that the electorate have little say in the policies that will result from the process. Under the present system, in which the winning party tends to form a majority Government on its own, the people know that they can subsequently hold that party to account for what it proposed in its election manifesto. Under a system that leads to combination and coalition-style government, the policies produced by the process are the result of backroom deals and bargaining between the parties that form the coalitions, and they may bear little if any resemblance to the manifestos proposed to the electorate in the first place. I have pointed out before that Dr. Robert Waller, the well Known psephologist, has said that any move towards proportional systems of government would be the greatest transfer of power from the people to the politicians in British political history. I am sure that that is true.

Bearing in mind your strictures, Mr. McWilliam, about keeping contributions short, given the time available for this debate, I shall make a couple of points quickly. I alluded to the first in my earlier intervention about the Liberal Democrats. For many years, they and their predecessor parties have maintained that the voting system is unfair, and that fairness and proportionality are one and the same. If that is a position of principle, they should be at the forefront of those rejecting the simple alternative vote system. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) pointed out in his excellent speech, the Labour Government, who were elected with a majority of 169 under the present first-past-the-post system, would have had a majority of 245 under AV.

In other words, AV tends to exaggerate the disproportionality of the result. Therefore, if the Liberals, who claim that proportionality equals fairness, acted on principle, they should reject AV. They do not act on principle, and they do not reject AV, because they know that, proportionality or no proportionality, AV will increase the number of Liberal Democrat seats gained at a general election. That is all that really motivates them.

I can ask the same question of members of the Labour party's first-past-the-post group. There are two possible motivations for what they are doing. Some of them are acting on principle, because, like me, they believe that a strong Government and a strong Opposition are important. Others are motivated by the knowledge that under a proportional system many Labour Members of Parliament who currently hold seats on a minority of the vote would lose them. Those members of the Labour first-past-the-post campaign are willing to accept the unalloyed alternative vote, which would avoid the proportional route while damaging the Tories and keeping marginal seats safe.

I believe that the Prime Minister has gone cold on proportional representation because he has studied the results under proportional representation in the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. I come from Wales, where they used to weigh Labour votes rather than counting them. However, under proportional representation Labour could not obtain a majority of seats in the Assembly, despite the long tradition of Welsh support for Labour. What has happened in Scotland and Wales? The Labour party has had to form coalitions with the Liberal Democrats, the party that came third. That gives the Liberal Democrats power out of proportion to their support in Scotland or Wales.

Democracy requires a clear result at the end of the electoral process. A Government who can cobble together a coalition can defy the will of the people. The fact that Governments stand or fall according to the votes of the people benefits democracy and contributes to the health of the country. It avoids the corruption that inevitably comes from the intricacies, manoeuvrings and disreputable nature of coalition building. I strongly urge hon. Members to realise that the reason for the health of British democracy, in comparison with so many of the systems on the continent and elsewhere, is that our system gives voters a clear choice and makes it easy for them to remove a Government who have failed to keep their promises.

Several hon. Members


Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair)

Order. Before I call the next hon. Member I should point out that the winding-up speeches should start at half past 10, to give the Opposition spokesman and the Minister adequate time.

10.22 am
Mr. Stephen Twigg (Enfield, Southgate)

Thank you, Mr. McWilliam. I shall bear that in mind.

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). I note that he ascribed motives of self-interest to some hon. Members, whether in the Liberal Democratic party or the Labour first-past-the-post group. I am sure that there is no such self-interested motivation among Conservatives who support a system which, over 50 years of general elections in which the Labour and Conservative vote has been remarkably similar, has produced Conservative Governments 70 per cent. of the time. Sometimes those who argue against electoral reform claim that those of us who favour it deal only with the issue of proportionality of representation, not with the issue of proportionality of power. Looking at the argument in the way that I have just outlined reveals that massively disproportionate power was exercised by the Conservative party in the last century, partly because the electoral system works as other hon. Members have explained this morning.

The constitutional reform programme is one of the Government's most exciting undertakings since 1997—although much remains to be done and there are many loose ends. Many people expected that if the Labour party was elected with a big majority, the constitutional reform plans developed in Opposition would be abandoned. Far from it; they have proceeded. In many ways the programme is the legacy of the late John Smith, the former leader of the Labour party. John Smith did not support electoral reform for the House of Commons, but recognised that it was an important, burning issue, and one that should be decided by the people in a referendum. That is why he gave a commitment to set up an independent commission, and why I believe that a referendum will take place in the next Parliament.

Many of the arguments used by those who oppose reform are arguments against a pure system of proportional representation, as is used in Israel and Germany. Many of us who have long supported reform favour broad proportional representation. However, that is not what the Jenkins commission proposes. It proposes a system that builds on the strengths of first past the post, and the positive aspects of the British system, but seeks to remedy some of its faults, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) referred.

The system proposed is uniquely British in seeking to retain a constituency link and prevent the situation that was outlined by the hon. Member for New Forest, East—that of permanent coalition and disproportionate power for smaller parties. I accept that it would make hung Parliaments or coalitions more likely than under first past the post, but it would not result in permanent coalition as in Israel and Germany, which have much purer systems. Last year the Labour party, through its national policy forum and its conference, decided to reaffirm the commitment to hold a referendum prior to reform. However, a decision was also taken to look at how the new systems for Scotland, Wales, London and the European Parliament bed down. That is sensible, and an important contribution to the debate.

Today's debate is focused on the relative merits of the alternative vote and the alternative vote plus. I believe that an alternative vote system would represent an improvement on the first-past-the-post system, for the reasons outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield. However, I do not think that that kind of reform is sufficient to meet the need. The remit of the Jenkins commission—which had a tough challenge was—to seek a system that would deliver greater proportionality, greater voter choice and stable government. Clearly, AV delivers greater voter choice and is positive in terms of stability of government, but, as various hon. Members have said, it does not deliver greater proportionality. The "plus" in AV-plus is, therefore, essential.

We must address the question of electoral deserts. In 1997, almost one in five people in Scotland and Wales voted Conservative, but not a single Conservative Member was elected there. About one in four of the people who voted in Surrey and Dorset voted Labour, yet there are no Labour Members in those counties. In north London, part of which I represent, there are no Liberal Democrat Members, although about one in six of the electorate there voted for the Liberal Democrats.

Not only would AV-plus give greater voter choice within the constituency. but significant minorities—such as Conservative voters in Scotland, Labour voters in Surrey and Liberal Democrat voters in north London—would have the opportunity to secure additional representation through the top-up members. That is a clever way of dealing with the problem without either delivering permanent coalition, or giving power to very small parties, which the high threshold would prevent. AV-plus recognises that large numbers of votes are wasted and that wasting votes feeds public cynicism about politics, and it tries to give a voice to significant minorities in constituencies in various parts of the country.

We are now in the run-up to a general election campaign. As my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield said, all the parties will focus their energies on certain constituencies and make much less effort in other constituencies. One of the features of the cynicism to which many speakers have referred is low turnout in elections—there have been miserably low turnouts in recent parliamentary by-elections, local elections and European elections. A system that encourages parties to focus their energies in a minority of seats contributes to such low turnouts. In 1997, the highest turnouts in the country, by and large, were in hotly contested marginal constituencies. The low turnouts were in constituencies that parties—especially the Labour party—tended to take for granted. If we want to connect people with politics, political parties must take their message nationwide. That will happen only under a system in which people's votes count, regardless of where they live, and people can vote according to their conviction rather than tactically.

Mr. Purchase

Like me, my hon. Friend will be campaigning hard for Labour candidates wherever he finds them and can support them. Does he agree that our aim in life as politicians is to ensure the largest possible vote for every Labour candidate and to return a Labour candidate in every seat? If not, which Tories, fascists, communists—or Greens, browns, blues and pinks—would he like to be elected?

Mr. Twigg

As a Labour Member of Parliament and a member of the Labour party, of course I want people to vote Labour throughout the country and to achieve the best possible Labour representation in this place—but we could have a system that enabled people to vote according to their conviction rather than tactically. In last year's by-election in Romsey, the Labour vote collapsed. I do not believe that the Labour party is uniquely unpopular in Romsey. Rather, ordinary Labour voters decided to vote for the Liberal Democrats, for tactical reasons. I would prefer a system that enabled Labour voters in Romsey to vote out of conviction for the Labour candidate, and the Labour party. The system that the Jenkins commission devised is one such system, and I look forward to a referendum campaign, so that the people, who should make the decision, can do so.

10.31 am
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

I welcome the initiative of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) in introducing the debate. It is not the first time that he has initiated such a debate, although on the previous occasion, in June 1999, he spoke for his party. I noted that on that occasion he concluded his speech by saying: In our hearts, we know that PR for Westminster is dead.—[Official Report, 23 June 1999; Vol. 333, c. 1187.] If he thought that it was dead in the summer of 1999, why is he resurrecting the issue today?

The right hon. Gentleman raised several important questions about the Government's intention, and speculated about a clandestine arrangement between the Government and the Liberal Democrats. I must disabuse him of the idea that if such an arrangement existed it would be kept secret. It is well known that before the last general election the Labour party and my party reached agreement on the programme of constitutional reform. The agreements were not clandestine. We held a press conference and published a document detailing several proposals for constitutional reform, including commitments on the introduction of proportional representation for Westminster and on holding a referendum, which were embodied in the manifestos of both parties. If we make agreements of which we are proud, we shall no doubt trumpet them to the country. It is our view that for constitutional reform, it is highly desirable to proceed with the broadest possible support across the parties, as such change is intended to be stable and long lasting, and not to be capable of being displaced as a result of changes of Government, as other legislation might be.

Another general point of some importance has emerged in the debate. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) suggested that the system of voting advocated by the Jenkins commission would result in continuous coalition government, which would enable minority parties to wield disproportionate influence. I question whether the hon. Gentleman has read the Jenkins report sufficiently carefully or sufficiently recently, because that issue is firmly and squarely covered in the report, which demonstrates with conclusive power that that Would not be the consequence of its implementation. Although the recommended system adheres to the requirement that it be broadly proportionate, it does not give absolute proportionality. The supremely important task of determining the system should be a matter for the electorate. A number of other considerations—there were four criteria—outweighed, or at least modified, the commitment to proportionality. Not least of those were the requirement for stable government and the retention of the link between Members of Parliament and their constituencies.

Are the wishes of the electorate truly reflected under the present system, when minorities are clearly sufficient to establish Governments? The hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) mentioned what would have happened at the 1992 election—the only one of the last five elections that the Jenkins report said would have resulted in a different configuration of government. The 1992 election resulted in what was effectively a divided Government, in which the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, who introduced the debate, was a luminary. With the help of his Department, he took it upon himself to carry through the privatisation of the railways as though that were the settled will of the British people—as though it were what they wanted. I do not know the views of those inside the Conservative Government on that issue, but in many respects, it was a dishonest coalition, totally divided on the major issue of Europe and the Maastricht Treaty.

I recall that that Government depended on the support of the Liberal Democrats, who went into the Lobby and voted for a policy that large numbers of Conservative Members were not prepared to agree with.

Mr. Mitchell

Shame on you.

Mr. Maclennan

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to that opinion, but it was our view that the will of the country was much closer to that of those who were leading the Government than that of the large minority who were, ostensibly, sustaining them as a dishonest coalition.

The time has come to recognise that when the country's voice is not clear, as quite often happens, it is better to have a Government of coalition who seek to bring together policies that are acceptable across the board and command widespread support in the country. It is not enough, as has been suggested by Conservative Members, to say, "Oh, well, we can put it all right when the Government stand at a general election." That was the thrust of the right hon. Gentleman's argument, but we are still stuck with the wretched mess of the privatised railways, and with Railtrack, which were both the result of that dishonest coalition. The general election did not resolve that issue, and it would have been better if such policies had not been pursued.

The prospects for a change in our voting system remain bright, because British people are essentially fair minded and conscious that the systems that have been introduced in Scotland, Wales and the European Parliament—I can speak authoritatively about Scotland—are working well and reflecting in the decisions of government the measures that enjoy broad support throughout the country.

Sir George Young

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maclennan

Yes, but this must be the only time that I give way.

Sir George Young

Will the right hon. Gentleman answer a key question? Would his party support a referendum that offered a choice between first past the post and AV? Would he regard that as in keeping with the agreement between his party and the Labour party?

Mr. Maclennan

AV is the system that would undoubtedly favour the Liberal Democrats more clearly than any other—indeed, to an almost distorting extent—and ensure the largest representation of Liberal Democrats in the House. However, we have never made a secret of the fact that we would advance not AV but AV-plus; we would not choose to put forward any alternative to the Jenkins report. There is no equivocation about that; there is no clandestine agreement or any kind of agreement on that issue, between my party and the Labour party.

We have already compromised our view that the single transferable vote system is the preferable one, as it is more proportional. We accepted the Jenkins report proposal, which, retaining as it does the link between the Member and the constituency, is the one most likely to commend itself to the British people. I underline, too, our judgment that the top-up arrangements do not sever that link, as they are based on wider constituencies—counties and cities. There is a long history of parliamentary representation from counties and cities, even after the reform Acts of the 19th century.

We look forward to the Labour party carrying forward constitutional reform in the next Parliament, if it is re-elected as a Government, with or without the participation of my own party. We hope that it will complete the modernisation of government programme that it has begun with great distinction.

10.42 am
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

This has been a fascinating debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) is greatly to be commended for giving us the opportunity to debate these matters.

The debate has raised two issues. First, we have discussed the merits of the different systems. I was struck by the comment of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) that all those AVs and AV-pluses did not, or could not, deliver perfect forms of democracy. We should count ourselves fortunate in that, however, because the only people who tried to practise perfect democracy were the Athenians, who tended to cut off the heads of their Executive at the end of their yearly mandate because they had failed to fulfil the criteria given them by the assembled people.

We start on the basis that we are not seeking pure democracy, which is unachievable. We seek, instead, parliamentary democracy with accountable government. The official Opposition have always been wary of the various concoctions put forward to improve the existing system. It may be worth restating that that system works because there is clarity of choice and, above all, a real opportunity for the electorate to get rid of unpopular Governments, as they did in 1997 with the Conservative Government and in 1979 with the Labour Government. Under this system, too, we do not have the politics of "transformismo" so beloved of Mr. Crispi in the Italy of the 19th century, whereby Governments who incurred the utter displeasure of the electorate would hold an election and—hey, presto—a new coalition would emerge, with Mr. Crispi still in control. That went on for a long time; that system is, undoubtedly, a source of corruption.

We would do well to ponder the fact that political corruption is so absent from this country, because many of our western European partners—France, in particular— do not have such a good record. The example of Israel is telling in that respect, as that country has a system whereby clarity of decision making by government is almost impossible. Small and extreme minorities can hold the Government to ransom, which produces, all in all, an undesirable mix.

Secondly, we discussed the link between Members of Parliament and their constituencies. I was interested to hear the comments made about those links by the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) and the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg). The new system in Scotland has clearly broken the constituency links between MPs and their constituencies, because it offers constituents an alternative place, or person, to go to with their problems and grievances.

Mr. Stephen Twigg:

It offers a choice.

Mr. Grieve

That may be a choice, but it has a demerit that the hon. Gentleman might do well to ponder. A feature of Members of Parliament is that we represent all our constituents. It does not matter whether they voted for the Liberal Democrat or the United Kingdom Independence party candidate—they have a right to treat us as the people who will act on their grievances. In Scotland, however, people pick the person whose political view best represents theirs, which has a bad effect on the way in which business is conducted in this House and on the willingness of Members of Parliament to take up matters for constituents who do not support their party. That has clearly happened in Scotland, and my party has benefited, because list Members have been able to attach themselves to particular areas and constituencies.

I have dealt with the principles, and I am sorry that I do not have time to develop those matters further. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire touched upon how we are proceeding to resolve the issue. That is a relevant point, and I hope that the Minister will deal with it. There was nothing wrong in the suggestion that a referendum should be held on proportional representation. John Smith is said to have been instrumental in making that part of Labour party policy, although he did not believe in PR himself. He should be commended for that. The Government were elected in 1997 on the basis that they would offer choices on matters such as the euro and proportional representation, which would be placed before the electorate through referendums. That is a sign of a mature Government, I suppose, as it implies that the electorate may reject the choice that it is offered, even if the Government favour another outcome.

I have been worried by the way in which the past three and a half years have unfolded because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire correctly said, the Government have gone through a series of somersaults and convolutions as they have wriggled out of a crystal-clear commitment to give the electorate a choice. We are entitled to speculate why that has happened, and I shall make several suggestions.

First, the Government, far from wishing to allow the electorate mature choices and then to accept its verdict, are wedded to the idea of spin and the need to succeed at all costs. They cannot tolerate the thought of the jolt that they would suffer if they were to ask a referendum question and their view of the desirable outcome were rejected. Far from using referendums a mature tool of government, they want to use them after the manner of Napoleon III, to provide a boost and sustenance to a populist Government. The Prime Minister is, in that sense, Napoleon III writ small.

Secondly, the Prime Minister, is a man of great sensitivity and sensibility, and requires the constant reinforcement of public opinion for his light to continue shining. That is what I call "the Tinkerbell factor". If, for any reason, the light were snuffed out by an audience refusing to give him the expected answer—as happened with the Women's Institute last year—the Prime Minister's light rapidly starts to flicker and fade. I suggest that that is why no referendum has taken place.

There is ample evidence that the British electorate, which has a good dose of common sense, far from desiring such a change in the system, realises that it would represent a massive transfer of power from the electorate to government, and does not wish to endorse it. That has placed the Government in a difficulty from which they have been quite unable to escape. I have to say to the hon. Member for Southgate that it was fascinating to listen to his speech, but he never provided any explanation why the promise had not been honoured—although it was crystal clear.

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said that he could not understand why we had resurrected this issue. We have not resurrected it, but we have disinterred it— preferably so as to drive a stake through its heart. The sooner this question can be resolved by the electorate—I believe it will be resolved by a decisive "No" to these various convoluted proposals—the better. The Minister has to tell us today why that choice has not been offered, when it was a clear election promise. That is what we wait to hear with bated breath.

10.50 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock)

This has been an interesting debate, and I sincerely congratulate the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) on having secured it. Strong views have been expressed on both sides, and passion, perhaps not always followed by logic, has characterised the discussion.

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the clarity with which he has put the six questions that he raised in his letter to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Department, the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien). Given the amount of time available, rather than respond to all the points raised by hon. Members, I propose to go through those six questions and provide him with answers, so that he can appreciate the Government's position. I hope that that will be the most constructive use of the limited time available.

The first question the right hon. Gentleman asked was: does the Minister agree that the alternative vote system would not deliver his manifesto commitment of a proportional alternative to first-past-the-post? The manifesto commitment was to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems was to be appointed early, to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system.

A number of issues arise from that manifesto commitment. The first is that the commission was to be appointed to make recommendations, not to fix the alternative—and indeed, that was what happened. I think that the right hon. Gentleman is focusing on the question whether the alternative vote system could be said to be a system of proportional representation. That is a matter of semantics.

Rather than acting like someone out of "Alice in Wonderland" and saying that words mean precisely what I say they mean, I went to a dictionary of politics and looked up "alternative vote". It has an interesting definition—the system of proportional representation in which electors cast a second vote, and perhaps further votes, which come into play if their first preference candidate finishes at the bottom of the poll.

It is clear from that definition that the alternative vote system is a form of alternative proportional representation within the meaning of the expression, so the answer to the right hon. Gentleman's first question is that AV would be a form of proportional representation, were the Government to put that forward to Parliament in a Bill for consideration at a later date.

Sir George Young

I agree with Lord Jenkins, who came to the opposite conclusion—that, far from relieving disproportionality, the alternative vote is capable of substantially adding to it. The Minister disagrees with Jenkins.

Mr. Lock

No; I think that the right hon. Gentleman and I are asking different questions about Jenkins. He asks whether the alternative vote would produce a form of proportional representation. I have referred him to the dictionary definition, which accepts that it is a form of proportional representation. Therefore, within the terms of the manifesto commitment, it is appropriate.

The Jenkins report asked whether that was the best form of system for electing people to Westminster, which is an entirely different question. The right hon. Gentleman referred to paragraph 82 of the Jenkins report—which sets out the problems with the alternative vote—carefully gliding over paragraph 81, which explained how the alternative vote would meet four of the set criteria. There was a balance.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman asked: does the Minister accept the commitment in the 1997 election to hold a referendum on PR will not be kept?

The answer is that there was a commitment to set up a commission, and for there to be a referendum. Once the commission had reported, the Government had started a debate, but one does not start a debate by defining the result of that debate, and it remains the policy of the Government that there will be a referendum.

The right hon. Gentleman's next question was: can the Minister confirm that the statement made by the Under-Secretary of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton East (George Howarth) in the debate on 5 November 1998, col. 1110 and 1111, remains Government policy? That is, the commitment that when the referendum is held, it will ask voters to choose between the first-past-the-post system and the Jenkins recommendations.

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that I have read with care the words spoken by my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East—who is now the Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office—in that debate. He clearly said that in introducing the alternative, he was starting a debate. As a debate gets under way, one asks what would be the right way to proceed. It is not right to say that the proposed debate on the alternative to be proposed in due course is settled before the debate has taken place. In any event, as the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, there is a process to be followed.

The Government will have to bring forward an alternative, which will have to be put to Parliament in a Bill setting up the referendum. In the end it will be the decision of Parliament what precise alternative is decided, before the matter is considered in a referendum. Therefore, there are a number of stages to pass through before a referendum is held.

However, if it helps, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that no decision has been taken on the precise form of the question that will be proposed to Parliament in any such Bill. To clarify that, he must wait for the next Labour manifesto.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Foreign Secretary's comments on "Breakfast with Frost". I repeat that no decision has been taken. The right hon. Gentleman might draw inferences from the close and constructive working relationship between the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, which might lead him to suggest that in the discussions in setting up the Labour manifesto for the next general election, the Foreign Secretary's views might bear considerable weight—and his inferences might be correct—but in the end, he will have to wait to read the next Labour manifesto to know what the next Government's platform is.

I was intrigued by the right hon. Gentleman's fifth question. He asked whether it was the intention of the Government, when seeking the endorsement of the electorate, to offer every voter in Britain the opportunity of voting for a Labour candidate. That seems to be the nub of what is bothering him—the prospect that in some seats at the next general election, there will be either a Liberal Democrat or a Labour party candidate, and the traditional anti-Conservative majority will coalesce around one candidate. I am afraid that that is a matter for the Labour party, not the Government.

I am trying to be constructive, and I realise that the right hon. Gentleman will want to raise the matter with the Labour party, so I shall suggest to him a letter that he could send to the general secretary of the party. I suggest that he puts his case along the following lines: Dear Margaret— That is, Margaret McDonagh— As you know, we Conservatives did not do too well in the 1997 election: in fact, to quote my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring in the debate referred to on 5 November, "we were slaughtered". I am sure that you would think it right, in the interests of democracy, that it should not happen again. It is just not right that we Conservatives, who see ourselves as the natural party of power, should be out of office for too long. As this is a private letter, I accept we made a complete Horlicks of the last Government, but, with present company excepted, you saw who was in Government and you "cannot make bricks without straw". This gets me to my main point. I am very worried that you and the Liberal Democrats might be getting too close. You know that we Conservatives rely on you and the Liberal Democrats splitting the anti-Conservative vote to let us through the middle. That is how it has been, and in my view rightly so. Now if you introduce this alternative vote nonsense or, even worse, if you withdraw your candidate in favour of a "white knight", or a journalist in a "white suit" as the case may be, or even worse a Liberal Democrat, we simply will not get enough MPs to form an Opposition. That is not how things are supposed to work. I am sure that you would not like that to happen. We will get very, very cross and, to quote Mr. Fox, we might get slaughtered again.

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