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Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I must have been mumbling more incoherently than usual. I said that I thought it was healthy for the area, but it was certainly good for me.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that correction. The absence of competition among MPs also means the absence of choice for voters. A strong socialist may be represented by a right-wing Conservative throughout his entire political career, or vice versa. I often found in the other place that the individual Member falls in love with his or her constituency, not fully recognising that the MP is one of the few people who knows where the constituency is. I pride myself that I was one of the few people who knew the exact boundaries of the Shipley constituency. I used to spend a great deal of time before elections explaining to people that they were in that constituency and not, as they thought, in the one next door.

I remember one evening walking through the park in Saltaire when I ran into Bob Cryer, who had just been defeated as MP for Keighley. I discovered while chatting to him that most of his family lived in the Shipley constituency. He was thereupon re-elected as Member for Bradford South, the next constituency but one to the south-east. The idea that Bob Cryer would have been any worse off representing a single five-member Bradford constituency is laughable. That city, which swung from four Conservative MPs and one Labour to now five Labour MPs on a small proportion of votes, seems to me to be a misrepresentation of the different and diverse parts of this country. Bradford has a population of which more than 25 per cent. is Asian yet has no Asian MP.

There is a great temptation for the parties to pack seats. When I was in Manchester it was clear to me that we built Manchester Moss Side as a 90 per cent. council house constituency because that made it into a safe Labour constituency. We bargained over redistribution so that there were safe Conservative seats in one part of the city and safe Labour seats in another--a highly undesirable development.

Therefore the arguments in favour of our current system all seem to me to be extremely weak. The only defence of our current system is that it is the one we have and it suits the two established parties. But perhaps it no longer suits the two established parties. It may suit

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our present Government to change the system in the hope of persuading the Conservatives to go their separate ways.

It is not my aim, as a supporter of proportional representation, to entrench three parties in this country. I hope that we will have a more diverse pattern of representation in Parliament. It is my aim to loosen the stranglehold of Britain's small two-party selectorate over Britain's semi-democracy; to improve the quality of Britain's democracy and political culture; and to bring the growing army of disillusioned back into democratic politics.

6.17 p.m.

The Earl of Carlisle: My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire. Though I cannot summarise his speech in one word, I shall try: fairness. I thank my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important matter.

I declare an interest. When I left Her Majesty's land forces--the Army--in 1987 I decided to do so to protest against the then Prime Minister's obvious desire to salami-slice the Armed Forces and simultaneously to wrap herself around the Union Jack. I found that distasteful.

I was selected as the Social and Liberal Democrat candidate for Easington in the County of Durham. Until that moment I had taken no part, as a commissioned officer, in political life. Like any other parliamentary candidate, I did my homework. I had around two weeks. As I walked around I met the fine East Durham people; I talked with them; I explained who I was and what I was doing. They were surprised. They said, "There is no point standing here. Labour will win and you have no hope. We weigh votes; we do not count them".

I finally found myself in the Easington Colliery Library. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, who represented the Easington constituency with great skill and dedication for more than 17 years, as I do to my good friend the current Member of Parliament for Easington, Mr. John Cummings. I looked through documents, statistics and unemployment figures. Finally, I saw a dusty old book which was called Miss Crimdon Beauty Contest--The Crimdon Beauty Queen from 1935 to 1970. I turned over the photographs. I learnt that the judge of the contest was the late Lord Shinwell, who was greatly respected in your Lordships' House. I noticed one thing that surprised me, because I had learnt that the late Lord Shinwell had a fair eye for a pretty lady and a dram. Every single one of the Miss Crimdons, the Beauty Queen of the Year, was in fact rather ugly. Armed with all the material that I had collected I went to see the Nestor of the Liberal Party in Easington Colliery. I asked him questions. He answered them. I said, "There's one thing I don't understand. Why was Miss Crimdon less pretty than the other competitors?" He said, "Wei, marra. You don't understand; lass Miss Crimdon always had to be Labour councillor's daughter". I said, "What if Manny Shinwell did not

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like that and could not go along with it?" He said, "Weee'l then it had to be Labour councillor's wife". That was very old Labour. What is the difference, I ask, between very old Labour, old Labour and new Labour? The Labour Party in East Durham even gerrymandered the beauty contest. Noble Lords laugh. But if it gerrymandered the beauty contest, what else is it gerrymandering?

I shall not rehearse the disadvantages of our present system. No electoral system is perfect. But the one we have at the moment is the worst. I fear for my friends on the Benches opposite. Their majority is vast and it is going to crush them. I hope it will not crush us. What I propose--we are a constructive Opposition--is a single transferable vote system. We would have multi-Member constituencies. We could vote for the candidate in the party we support; we could vote across party lines; we could vote for an independent, as the people of Tatton did. I respect them. I salute them. When I came to your Lordships' House, having taken part in the election, I saw a great gentleman in a white suit, the newly-elected Member for Tatton. I had never met him before but I walked up and shook his hand. He went "Ahh!" His hand hurt because very many people from around the country had shaken his hand. They were saluting him. They were saying thank you for voting out one type of the corrupt system that I saw in Easington and that we saw in Tatton.

I suggest that if we had the single transferable vote the electorate would be allowed a greater choice. Its merits are that the constituency link is retained and there is accountability. I can give one example. When I fought my second election in Leeds, West, I learnt that the late Lord Joseph quite understandably decided that he could not deal with constituency matters which were anti-Jewish, anti-Israeli or anti-Zionist. And so it was my good friend, who was once in my party, Michael Meadowcroft, the neighbouring MP, who took on those matters for him. The electors had a choice as did the elected representative.

I live and I work in Eastern Europe. The people of Eastern Europe, particularly the people of the Baltic states--Estonia where I live--would be fascinated to listen to the speeches of noble Lords who are opposed to proportional representation. In 1990, after 55 years of oppression--during that 55 years the minority population had in some cases, as in Estonia, increased by 30 per cent.--they did not introduce a first-past-the-post system; they have a single transferable vote. As a result, 18 per cent. of the members of the Riigikogu--the state house or state assembly: their House of Commons--are from minorities. What would we say if they had introduced a first-past-the-post system and the minorities were not represented in their parliament? We must be careful not to talk about human and democratic rights in Eastern Europe before we have put our own houses in Europe in order.

Finally, I am grateful that the Government, to whom we offer a fair wind, have introduced about 80 per cent. of our manifesto into their first government programme. We thank them and wish them well. We shall constructively oppose. But if the noble Lord the Minister does not give us an assurance that before 1999, when the next European elections are held, a fairer

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voting system will be in place, I personally will quote at him the words of Alexander Pope: "To promise, plan, propose, postpone, And end by letting things alone; In short, to earn the people's pay, By doing nothing all the day".

I earnestly hope that I will not have to say those words.

6.27 p.m.

The Earl of Halsbury: My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I shall jump into the gap in order to waggle the solution of these false dichotomies at you. I normally wear it around my neck and I am troubled by Black Rod if I do not. It is my identity card. It also enables me to open locked doors to which I have privileged access. It can perfectly well contain voting strengths.

First-past-the-post and proportional representation are not incompatible with one another. I beseech your Lordships to come into the electronic age of the 21st century. A parallel computer can record all this in the Division Lobby, assigning you your voting strength. If a party returns only 10 per cent. of the representatives with 20 per cent. of the vote, each one counts as two votes. If it is the other way round, they count as only half a vote. By this means you can align proportional representation with the first-past-the-post system and avoid all the embarrassments to which the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, referred. This has been a very brief intervention. But I beseech your Lordships to come into the 21st century.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, this is one of those perennial subjects which we discuss in this House. It is like a garden shrub which you go back to year after year but, rather disappointingly, it never flowers. You continue to tend it assiduously, particularly from these Benches. Over the years there have been other noble Lords who have put equal effort into the subject. It is difficult to believe that buds are now appearing on the old shrub; it is possible that we might even get some flowers. So what has been for a long time a subject which some people would say is as dry as dust is now coming alive politically as part of the potential programme of the new Government. I shall return to that in a moment.

When I say it is a dry as dust subject, the last two contributions from my noble friend Lord Carlisle and the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, have livened things up considerably. I do not believe that anyone could possibly describe the subject as being dry as dust after their respective extremely interesting contributions. I am not sure that I am capable at short notice of dealing with the full implications of electronic voting, but I recognise that it is an important subject.

We owe a great debt of thanks to my noble friend Lord Rodgers for introducing this subject. There have been many notable contributions from all sides of the House. Those of your Lordships who are of statistical bent, which seems appropriate on this subject, may care to note that a simple majority of those contributing are

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Liberal Democrats--seven out of 13 speakers. Thanks to the help of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer and the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, and the free spirit of the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, probably those in favour of reform have had the best of the argument. Indeed, I am tempted to say that up to this point they have had the whole of the argument. For one intoxicating moment I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, intended to argue against proportional representation, but I have to admit that I got lost in his syntax. I do not know quite where he stands on the matter.

With that exception there seems to be quite a welcome in the House for electoral reform. It falls to the noble Viscount, in his usual doughty way, to make the arguments against with all the force of the massed Benches behind him. I am sure that he will do a grand job. It is slightly surprising that there are not more Conservatives here because this is an issue of the greatest possible relevance to the new, diminished Conservative Party. My noble friends referred to the absence of any Conservative representation in Scotland or Wales. If I were a far-sighted Conservative and did not believe in Winston Churchill's accusation of the Conservatives being the stupid party, I would say how curious it is that the Liberal Democrats have been allowed to get away with having 10 Members of Parliament in Scotland with a smaller share of the vote than the Conservative Party won. As that admirable body Conservative Action for Electoral Reform was 20 years ago, I should be a flame and a sword to change and improve the electoral system. It may be that that spirit will now revive in the Conservative Party.

I put the matter deliberately that way because I do not anticipate that when the noble Lord, Lord Williams, sums up he will be against electoral reform. How could he be since it is spoken highly of in the Labour Party manifesto and in the Cook and Maclennan Commission that preceded it. The greater interest will be what the Government are going to do about it.

One recurring question has been that of electoral systems. It is crucial. Anyone who simply says in a blanket way that proportional representation is a good thing has got it wrong. One has to recognise that there are good, better and poor systems. If the proposed commission which the Government are to establish is going to compare a new system with the existing system, there is a burden of proof in arriving at a system which represents an improvement on what we have.

Both the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, and the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, spoke strongly against national lists. I agree with them. I believe that the kind of system that went astray in the Weimar Republic in Germany and which today does no credit at all to the Israeli or Dutch democracies is not the kind of system we want in Britain. I do not believe that any serious advocate of electoral reform wants to have national lists.

In an extremely interesting speech, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, said that he was interested in historical societies. I am not surprised, because of the interest he took in Sandwell. He reminded us of the great Reform Bill which the great-grandfather of my

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noble friend Lord Russell introduced. Perhaps I may remind him of one thing. When that Bill was being campaigned for in the country, the slogan was not just "Votes"; it was "Bread and Votes". It made the connection between the right electoral system and the improvement of the quality of people's lives. There is an onus on those of us who want reform, which includes so large a part of the Labour Party, to make that connection between the bread-and-butter issues, the quality of our democracy, and, as my noble friend Lord Wallace said, the durability of the measures that are passed into law. So there is a connection between the product of our politics and the process by which we arrive at them.

When the commission is established--I certainly accept the Government's good faith that it will be established before too long--I hope that it will have a remit to try to find the good qualities we would all want in the electoral system which is to replace the first-past-the-post system.

Perhaps I may suggest several of the criteria. The first is to extend voter choice. Because they are thought to be safe seats, in many constituencies the voter has remarkably little practical choice because the party's electorate, as other noble Lords have said, have identified who they are to vote for if they want to support a particular party. Secondly, it is necessary to maintain a geographical link. Any system that does not have a close relationship with the locality is not going to work within the British political tradition. Thirdly, it is necessary to produce a more representative Parliament. By that I do not simply mean representative in terms of parties because if I said that the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, would accuse me of simply making a Liberal Democrat point, although it is a fair one to make. I mean a Parliament which is more representative of the people in the House of Commons as well as the parties there. It is a notable change in the other place that there are now many new Labour and Liberal Democrat women MPs. But we still have women under-represented in the House of Commons. We still have far too few members of ethnic minorities and of a multi-cultural society. We certainly do not have party balance. Fourthly, I suggest that the commission should be asked to arrive at a system where preferably all votes--but, if that is not possible, where most votes--count. It is an extraordinary thing that in this country most people get neither the Member of Parliament nor the government that they want out of an election. That is a statistical fact.

If we can re-establish the strength of the connection between the voter and the ensuing Parliament, we would do a lot to deal with the problem of alienation which noble Lords have mentioned. Finally, we have to recognise that our present voting system is overwhelmingly negative. I myself got involved during the election with the question of tactical voting. What people were really saying about the British system was, "Let us see how we can vote in order to get out someone we do not like." There was a lot of that going on. Those of us who are honest know that that was the case. There may have been those who were worthy of dislike and

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who needed to be got out. But is that an adequate motive for voting? Is it not preferable for people to vote for policies and candidates in whom they believe positively and not simply to emphasise the negative at the expense of the positive?

In conclusion, the new Government have ushered in a new political era of great hope for many people. I include in that many Liberal Democrats who, after 18 Conservative years, look to the Government as a beacon of hope. We would like to see the Prime Minister and the Government living up to some of the hopes that the people of this country have in them to be positive rather than negative; to be pluralist, which the Prime Minister has often spoken about, rather than simply monolithic, replacing one elected dictatorship, in the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, with another; to be in favour of a more representative form of government rather than one which is distorted.

I was particularly interested in what my noble friend Lord Alderdice said about the national interest. I put the matter slightly differently: I put it as the public interest. The public interest is an extremely difficult creature in British politics. We are so inured to the partisan interest that the motives of anyone who even says "public interest" in Parliament are suspect. Part of the gap between people and Parliament is that the people do not sufficiently trust us to be speaking for the public interest. The public interest demands a change to a system in which the Government have nearly two-thirds of the seats in Parliament for 44 per cent. of the votes cast; where the Conservative Party received 31 or 32 per cent. of the vote but has only 25 per cent. of the seats in Parliament; and where my own party's relative deprivation is too well known to be rehearsed again.

However, the Liberal Democrats have learned not just to complain about the system--you all know that we are quite good at that!--but also how to beat it. Indeed, in some parts of the country, such as Scotland, the south west and other parts of Great Britain, the Conservative Party has suffered from that. I want us to get the strength to help the Government to reform the system to one which properly reflects people's views. The point has been made about electoral reform not stopping with elections to the European Parliament but embracing also local government elections and elections to the new regional level of government for London, about which my noble friend Lady Hamwee spoke. The same also applies to Scotland and to Wales--the Government are already committed to that--and to Europe.

Finally, perhaps I may ask the Minister to respond to a specific question: will we know before the Summer Recess definitively whether the Government are to proceed with legislation for the European elections in 1999 to be conducted on a fair system of proportional representation? From these Benches, I certainly hope that they are. If the Labour Party does that, it will be being faithful to its manifesto and, much more importantly, it will be reflecting the wishes of the great majority of the people of this country.

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