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Business of the House: Debates this Day

3.7 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend the Leader of the House I beg leave to move the Motion standing in his name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the debates on the Motions in the names of the Baroness Hamwee and the Baroness Thomas of Walliswood set down for today shall each be limited to two-and-a-half hours.--(Baroness Jay of Paddington.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Proportional Representation in Local Government

3.8 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee rose to call attention to the case for the introduction of proportional representation for local government elections; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this debate concerns the case for proportional representation for local government. There is a quite notable move towards more co-operative and less confrontational politics, and we welcome that very warmly. That move means that there has been talk of and now plans for democratic renewal (to use the current buzzword). It is in that spirit, and because we believe that proportional representation tends to engender cooperation, that this debate is intended to put the case for proportional representation in local government. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if in this debate I tend to use the acronym "PR"

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which is perhaps not very elegant. It is also in that spirit that in particular we seek assurances from the Government--I hope that they can be given today--that although this topic is not yet on their agenda, it is not off it.

I am not today arguing for a particular electoral system. Examples may well be given during the course of the debate to demonstrate that objections to the first-past-the-post system, or defences of it, can be met by the different systems. My objective is to keep the door open. PR for local government should be on the Government's agenda for a number of reasons, the very least of those being its fairness to politicians.

I asked the Electoral Reform Society for recent examples of the effects of the first-past-the-post system. Inevitably my own borough, the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames, figured in that list. In the last election the Liberal Democrats polled some 46 per cent. of the vote and won 83 per cent. of the seats. That follows eight years when, on less then 50 per cent., we won more than 90 per cent. of the seats. So we are either moving in the right or the wrong direction depending upon your criteria. In Newham the Labour Party polled 57 per cent. and won 99 per cent. In Westminster the Conservatives' 53 per cent. won 75 per cent.

Perhaps the most perverse of the results in the last London borough elections--which I am sure would have been endorsed by the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, were he able to take part in this debate--occurred in the London Borough of Croydon. There the Conservative Party polled 42.5 per cent. of the vote and won 30 seats; the Labour Party polled 39 per cent. and won 40 seats and took control of the council.

In the county elections in 1997 there were similarly odd--or wrong--outcomes in a number of counties. In Buckinghamshire the Conservatives polled 46 per cent. of the vote and won over 70 per cent. of the seats. In Devon the Liberal Democrats' 39 per cent. winning 57 per cent. of the seats; the Conservatives' 34 per cent. won only 24 per cent. These are very considerable discrepancies, and other counties produced similar results.

Since then the political context has changed. The elections to the European Parliament next year will be on the basis of regional lists. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly will see elections using a form of additional member system. The word is that the Government will use a proportional system for the Greater London Authority. At the same time the commission under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead is considering proportional alternatives to first-past-the-post for Westminster.

This House, ironically, has been traditionally less anxious about keeping to the old ways than another place has often shown itself to be. In 1983 my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich presented a Bill dealing with proportional systems at local level. That failed to proceed by only eight votes. Two years later the noble Lord, Lord Blake, successfully piloted through this House a Bill dealing with the same subject which was blocked in another place.

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There are quite often discussions about the effects of first-past-the-post on elections to the House of Commons. I do not defend that system for that House but the effects there are not as bad as they can be at local level. The very numbers make a difference. In local government, where local authorities are much smaller than the total membership of another place, it can mean that the minority, the opposition, disappears.

Local government is part of the political scene. I do not subscribe to the view that local government should not be political, but it should not be driven by central proscription of whatever party. For example, competitive tendering may be the right approach in borough A; it may not be the right approach in district B.

Other noble Lords will mention low standards and even corruption, of which there are striking examples--certainly too many examples--and almost all of those are in authorities where one-party rule has been the norm.

Central government intervenes too much in local government. One of the benefits of a new electoral system which produces a more proportional outcome is that it would have less excuse and less reason to do so.

Those who have most knowledge of an involvement in local government affairs are rightly concerned about bringing government closer to the people. Sir Jeremy Beecham, the chairman of the Local Government Association, has said on a number of occasions, and recently in an article in The Municipal Journal, that ways need to be found of encouraging bringing government closer to the people. He said:

    "We need to look at how councils are run in order to achieve this. It is unhealthy for a party with a significant share of the local vote to be unrepresented in the council chamber, as happens with all political parties."

The examples I have given have deliberately covered all three of the major parties. He continued:

    "We need to look at adding a minority of councillors elected by proportional representation for the area as a whole to the majority of councillors elected for wards through the current system--this is one way to encourage better electoral turn-out."

The justification for local government is that it is a democratic, fair way of governing and delivering local services. It is widely said that democracy does not mean rule by the majority; it means rule by the majority with deference to the interests of the minority.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, in a debate on the Bill presented by the noble Lord, Lord Blake, said:

    "council decisions, local government decisions, are taken collectively. Therefore, unless there is a proper, fair system of representation which can ensure that the citizen can affect those decisions, even if they are about drains, highway cleansing, and that kind of thing, then he is denied his democratic rights; he is denied his liberty; he is denied his influence over decisions which affect him".--[Official Report, 4/3/85; col. 1176.]

That encapsulates the point perfectly for me. Fairness to the electors and confidence of electors in their local government, put another way, is about the reputation of government.

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The Deputy Prime Minister, in his preface to the recently published consultation paper Modernising Local Government, wrote:

    "Our agenda is the renewal of local democratic government leading local communities and serving local people. We want councils to gain a new democratic legitimacy."

I agree with that and with much of what is in the paper, but the electoral system is a notable omission from it and the proposals for rejuvenating local government must be incomplete without it.

One of the aims of the paper is to increase local turn-out and that is very important. In December there was an example in Liverpool of a turn-out of less than 7 per cent. That hit a new low. Parties ought not to be able to take the outcome of elections for granted and make assumptions about turn-out. Michael Thrasher at Plymouth University has written that he believes that low turn-out levels would be improved by proportional representation. He writes:

    "There is strong evidence that you increase turn-out immediately by at least 7 per cent. because people see that their votes are less likely to be wasted ... people vote for candidates and not parties, which is particularly appropriate in local government."

Having turned out, would people be faced with difficult systems as is often suggested? I believe not. In Northern Ireland there are different systems for different elections. In England, Scotland and Wales we will soon have parallel systems for different elections. As is often said, electors, wearing different hats, may also be fillers-in of pool coupons and lottery tickets.

To those who say that proportional systems lead to contrived boundaries, that our system is good because it allows for the direct geographical community link, I would say that that depends on the system which is chosen. Perhaps I may take an example close to home. The ward which I represent as a councillor is hardly perfect. If it has a centre it is the south circular road and I suggest that that is more of a barrier than the centre of a community.

We must not let the debate pass without pointing to the better representation that is achieved by a proportional system. By "better" I mean more representation by women and by members of different minorities. In other countries, that has been shown to be an outcome of proportional systems.

I return to what I see to be the insidious effects of the first-past-the-post system creating what I may describe as false majorities. Even if that does not lead to corruption, it means that the administration has too cosy a relationship with the officers of local authorities. Things become too easy; the critical edge is lost. Without realising it, the officers can become more relaxed in testing the practicality of political directions. Neither the officers nor the politicians will necessarily think through all the answers to the questions which would be asked if there were an adequate active opposition.

Of course, if electors do not like what is happening they can, through the ballot box, get rid of an administration, but probably more effectively so if there is a proportional system. It is often said that if there had

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been PR it would have been the voters and not the Prime Minister who would or could have responded to the GLC. That would have saved a great deal of trouble.

It is not just a matter of overturning majorities. One can have the same administration but with a bigger opposition. There probably will be a bigger opposition. An increased minority means better scrutiny, the load better spread among opposition councillors and the opposition reaching a critical mass, which can be more effective.

If it is not a question of overall control, if there is not a hung council or, as I would prefer to call it, a balanced council, is that a bad thing? I think not. It often means that there must be real discussion and real arguments which must be won. If that is inconvenient to the administration and to the officers, without wishing to minimise the effort involved, I would say, "Too bad".

It used to be said that PR for local government would be the thin end of the wedge; that if the wedge were jammed in further there would be all kinds of national horrors in our electoral system. We are seeing changes, not horrors, to the electoral systems nationally. It would be odd if the Government ruled out the prospect of change at local level. I hope that they will indicate that they will not do so.

John Stuart Mill argued for proportional representation of the minority as well as the majority. He said:

    "Unless they are [fully represented as a minority] there is not equal government, but a government of inequality or privilege, contrary to all just government, but also, above all, contrary to the principle of democracy which professes equality as its very root and foundation".

I beg to move for Papers.

3.23 p.m.

Lord Watson of Invergowrie: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on introducing this debate. It is a timely and important subject. Proportional representation is on the agenda in many other fora. I agree that it is inappropriate that local government should be passed to one side and not considered when such changes to electoral systems are proposed.

Local government appears to be held in disdain by many electors who see that in many cases there is no purpose in voting either because one party has such an overwhelming majority that voting makes little difference; or because there is a belief that local government services are not being delivered in the most effective fashion and that many committees are staffed by councillors who have been elected--and I use the word advisedly--by local parties rather than by the electorate.

It is only a matter of time before local government comes firmly within the frame for a change to the electoral system. When the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly have been set up and the 1999 elections have taken place the electorate will have a greater understanding of what is involved in the different electoral systems. There has been a

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conservatism in voting systems within this country. We have been slow to move in the direction that many other countries have taken. As a result, we have not had such an effective form of government. That is particularly true at local government level where electors often feel alienated from the process and therefore from the services which the process provides.

It is important to consider not only the electoral system but the state of local government. It is largely in need of overhaul. Although it is true that a change in the electoral system would not be a panacea for the ills of local government, it would make an important contribution to bringing local government closer to local people, to making it more accountable and, most important, to be seen to be more accountable.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, quoted some frightening statistics and I should like to give a few more. It is unfortunate, at best, that the 1997 figures for local elections in the London boroughs show that in 14 of the 32 boroughs one party has 70 per cent. of the seats. People might say that that gives firm local government. Yes, it does, but in Scotland, where I come from, many local authorities have firm local government. The question is: what does that firmness produce? In what way is it channelled and in whose interest? I shall name no names, but in many local authorities where a party committee selects the candidate members know that they are effectively electing a councillor. The electors are shut out from the process; they have no say. Yes, they have the opportunity to go to the polling booth on election day and place their X on the ballot paper. However, realistically, they have no real say in the choice of candidate because the tradition in many local authorities is to vote for the party rather than the candidate. With few exceptions, that party is regularly returned to power.

That does not mean that the party in power in a local town hall or city chambers is responsive to the views of local people. However, people within that group tend to respond to the stresses and strains of the leadership. They follow certain personalities and give all their attention to which camp they should follow rather than to the best means of delivering local services. Of course, that is a generalisation; of course many dedicated councillors do a good job and do the best job they are permitted to do in the circumstances. But I say that that is not good enough in local government. We need a system which makes it less likely that one party will have an overwhelming number of seats and therefore have such a firm grip on power that the local electorate have virtually no say in what it does.

I was interested to read a quotation from the Minister without Portfolio printed in the Local Government Chronicle in December 1997. He stated that much of what government want to do can be delivered only through local authorities. He continued:

    "But when they become out of touch with the communities which they represent--and certainly when they become victims of political infighting--they become worse than useless".

I wholeheartedly accord with those sentiments. The question then is: what do we do about changing that situation? Fundamentally, we address the system by which those representatives are elected.

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The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, also referred to voter turn-out. I believe that in local elections people vote with their feet. There is a low turn-out, it being unusual for more than 50 per cent. of voters to vote in elections for the whole council, and far less in by-elections. That seriously undermines the legitimacy with which local representatives claim to represent their local community. It is important that people from those communities should represent people whom they know, whose problems they know and among whom they live, if at all possible. But it seriously affects the legitimacy if there is such a poor turn-out, if people have very little interest in even going to the polls to record their vote.

We have a situation in which the greatest disinterest in local authorities tends to be shown in areas where there are safe Labour seats. Recent research from Plymouth University showed that where there are safe Labour seats in London, people are less likely to vote at all; where the Labour share of the vote exceeded 50 per cent, the average voter turn-out was just 40 per cent.; where Labour's share exceeded 70 per cent. the turn-out dropped to 36 per cent. That shows that people are aware of the necessity of voting. Where there is a real chance of influencing the outcome, people generally do exercise their right to vote, and understandably. But without that, we should not be surprised when people show less interest. That affects their view of local government and the services which are provided.

I am not at all convinced by the view that to change the electoral system would be unwelcome because it would be confusing. Apparently, it would be confusing on two levels. First, there could be different voting levels. For example, in my country of Scotland voting would take place at local government level, Scottish parliament level, at Westminster level and at European Parliament level. It is not necessary for all those systems to be identical. They deliver different services, involve different people and are elected at different times. It is quite possible for people to differentiate, understand what and who they are voting for and understand that there is an importance in those differences.

I am not persuaded by the second argument; that is, the patronising view that the electors will find the system too complex. Our European cousins do not find other systems too complex. They have managed to handle the issue quite effectively. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, gave the example of lottery tickets. I refer anyone who says that we should not be introducing any means of involving the public which is too complicated to the recent Inland Revenue income tax forms. They have been distributed widely throughout the country and have not been withdrawn or even modified because they are too complex. It is insulting to people to say that we cannot change the system because it is beyond their ability to understand what they are voting for or how to vote. That is not the case.

There is a debate going on in Scotland at present because when the parliament is elected in 1999 it will have a system whereby people will be asked to vote for the candidate and also for the party. Incidentally, on the same day they will be asked to vote for local government candidates. Nobody suggests that that will be too confusing for people. The media in Scotland are

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already starting to explain what will be involved and how people should approach it. It is a new system. It is a new way of electing representatives; and I say that it is all the better for that. The sooner we embrace change in the electoral system, the sooner we shall begin to modernise our democracy and, I believe, bring it closer to people and connect with more of the people for whom local representatives should be providing services and active and proper representation.

I believe that the system of local government in this country--I mean the UK as a whole--needs an overhaul. The first step in that process could very usefully be the electoral system, because that is the main reason for the level of disrespect with which people view local government these days. When I was a Member in another place I used to pick up many complaints, most of which had nothing to do with the Member of Parliament because they referred to services delivered by local authorities. I would ask why the local councillor had not been approached and I would be told, "It is a waste of time. He is never there". In many cases, that was untrue. But the perception of the people was that the locally elected member was there for his personal gain. That is manifestly untrue in the vast majority of cases.

I represented a part of Glasgow and I do not mean to characterise in any way the individuals who represented that part of the city in Glasgow City Council. But people felt that it made very little difference who they voted for and that therefore the councillors, or the candidates who wanted to be councillors, had very little reason to go to the electorate to explain what they were doing, to connect with them regularly and to report to them on a regular basis. That applies in many cases throughout the country where there is overwhelming control by one political party or another. It is a system which really must end.

When the electors on the outside are looking in at in-fighting within a local authority, they feel that they have no control over that. They feel that they have elected their representatives but they have no control over what they do. There is little point in saying, "Well, when the election comes round, we can always vote for somebody else". In theory, that is the case but we all know that in practice it is extremely unlikely to take place.

I welcome the debate today which opens up the discussion on what kind of electoral system we should have in local government. For many people the door seems to be closed. I say that the door for most people is closed in terms of those people who are electors. Those doors must be opened. We do that by reviewing the system by which we represent our local representative. In so doing, not very far down the road, if we modernise our system we shall improve the effectiveness of local authorities and the services which we provide and we shall improve immeasurably the regard in which our local representatives are held.

3.35 p.m.

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Hamwee for giving me the opportunity to take part in this debate this afternoon. We have heard already there is little disagreement about the problems facing local government and local democracy

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in Britain today. But agreeing about what we must do about those problems is quite another matter, particularly when looking at the merits or otherwise of different voting systems. However, I hope that as views are shifting in Britain today, after this debate a few more people will see the value of having a system of proportional representation for local government and the value of that playing a part in what my noble friend has already referred to; that is, the democratic renewal of local government in Britain today.

The Government's latest paper on that entitled Modernising local government: Local Democracy and Community Leadership highlights some of the issues and problems already raised today. Indeed, the Minister for the Environment, Transport and the Regions expresses his wish that councils should gain a new democratic legitimacy.

Two of the problems about which the Government have expressed a desire to do something are voter apathy--and that has been demonstrated clearly by low turn-outs in our local elections--and the problems of one party domination of local councils. As we have heard from the eloquent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, that can lead to complacency. We read in our newspapers that it can lead also to corruption.

What is disappointing about the document that the Government have published is that it misses out some important facts. It explains graphically about poor turn-outs and how they compare with turn-outs in other European countries. It explains graphically that we have no standard system of local government elections in this country. But it fails to tell us what are the systems in those European countries where they have a better turn-out. It fails to point out also that if one compares Britain with the rest of Europe, there is a huge difference in the ratio of elected representatives to voters.

Those matters are an essential part of any investigation into improving democratic accountability and representation at local level. I shall expand a little on those areas. For example, if we look at turn-out, the Government give us the average turn-out in sub-national elections in the European Union and we see Great Britain right at the bottom with an average turn-out of 40 per cent. If we look at Ireland, we see a turn-out of 62 per cent. and for Denmark it is 80 per cent. I do not give as examples places like Luxembourg which has a 93 per cent. turn-out because there is compulsory voting. I am trying to compare countries where there is no compulsory voting.

But the document does not explain that in all those countries which have a higher turn-out, they nearly all have a system of proportional representation. That is the common theme. I recommend that noble Lords read the table I am discussing which explains the complexity of the different kinds of council that we now have in Britain. Those councils hold elections at different times. Some of them comprise single member wards while others are three member wards. Sometimes the elections take place every year and sometimes it is every four years. We need to consider having a rather better

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uniform electoral system. As regards elected representatives and the number of people who elect them, in this country every elected person has been elected by, on average, 1,800 electors. The average ratio in Europe is between 1:250 and 1:450.

We may hear, particularly from the Liberal Democrat Benches this afternoon, that we do not believe that proportional representation is the total panacea to problems in local government. Nevertheless we believe that it forms an essential part of measures needed to improve the democratic accountability and the breadth of representation of local government. We make no bones about the fact that our preferred system is the single transferable vote. We believe this has been shown to ensure a much wider cross-section of elected people in local government. I hope that the Government will take that to heart because the local government Minister, Hilary Armstrong, stated at a local government conference that there was poor representation in local government. She said that 35 per cent. of councillors are now above retirement age; only a quarter of them are women and that there is little representation of ethnic minorities in local government. She believed this meant that local democracy is not as healthy as it should be.

We certainly agree with that. That is one of the reasons we believe that the single transferable vote would achieve better representation across all areas. It also gives the best choice to voters. It gives them a choice not only of party but also of person. We believe that is important. It also maintains the geographical connection between elected representatives and those who elect them. It does not often result in--this almost never happens--"one party states" that remain in power year after year.

European countries have shown that the system works. In the time that I have tried to promote proportional representation two main arguments have emerged against PR and the single transferable vote. We are told that it leads to weak government and that we want it only for our own political ends. One needs to consider the first-past-the-post system in this country and the way councils are run at the moment and who is running them. In nearly 40 councils three or more parties share the administration. In 29 councils the Liberal Democrats run a minority administration which involves support from others. There are 19 Labour minority administrations. There are only two Conservative minority administrations. There are five independent minority administrations and roughly 50 councils have joint administrations of every possible combination.

I do not believe it is those councils which give rise to the stories about poorly run councils and corruption. Studies have been undertaken to consider how hung councils are run. I believe that "hung" is a negative word; I prefer to call them balanced councils. It has been revealed that in the main they run efficiently and many local communities are satisfied with their councils. That is the case with the majority of local government in this country.

I was a local councillor on a balanced council--I shall use the more positive word. That was in the days of the Militant faction and the Labour Party. I believe that the

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Labour leader of that council at the time was extremely grateful that my group acted as a brake on the Militant people. Members of three parties on that council had to work together. The leader of that council was able to tell the Militants that they could not do such and such a thing because they had to work with others. That is a powerful consideration for seeking to impose a system which ensures that people must work together and extreme elements cannot take over.

We as a party have demonstrated that we can win in first-past-the-post elections in local government. Therefore it is not for that reason that we think proportional representation is a good idea. My noble friend Lady Hamwee has mentioned various councils in this respect. We have a huge majority on some councils but we did not gain the majority of the vote. We are now the second party of local government. We control outright about 50 councils. We have a minority administration in 29 councils. The Conservative Party now controls fewer than 21 councils outright. We are critical of a system which is unfair, whichever party is in control in local government if it has gained that control through having many seats but it has not gained the proportion of votes to match that situation. That has been clearly illustrated by figures. I am sure it will be illustrated again today.

Elections are the prime way that a community expresses its political will. Clearly in Britain today our people have been short-changed. I hope that the Government will not close their eyes and ears as regards introducing a new electoral system for local government. I believe that the debate today will demonstrate that there is evidence in support of adopting a new system, and that there are systems that will serve us better than the present one. We must adopt a new system if we are to have real democratic reform in local government in Britain as we go into the 21st century.

3.46 p.m.

Lord Tope: My Lords, I wish to speak a little longer than is customary as regards a declaration of interest, although in view of the comments that have been made by both my noble friends who have spoken so far it is probably more of a confession than a declaration of interest. I have been my party's leader on the council of the London Borough of Sutton for nearly 24 years. Virtually half of those years were spent in opposition, mostly as a small opposition, and nearly half have been spent in majority control.

Since 1994 my party has held 84 per cent. of the seats on Sutton Council. Unlike the case of my noble friend on the Front Bench, at least we gained a majority of the votes, but only 56 per cent. so we are substantially over-represented. I am grateful to be informed that we are over-represented by 16 seats. In my wilder moments of fantasy I have tried to determine which 16 seats those are. Perhaps other leaders do that from time to time.

I hope that we have not become a complacent council. Every two years we engage MORI to conduct a residents' attitude survey on a whole range of matters. However, the first question is always, "How satisfied are you with the way in which the council is running

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the borough?" The survey that was carried out last November indicated that 81 per cent. of our residents were either very or fairly satisfied, compared with only 7 per cent. who were dissatisfied. I hope, therefore, that we have not yet become one of the rotten boroughs that I read about which arise from huge majorities.

However, it has not always been like that. Back in 1982, at the time of the Falklands War, I remember vividly that we polled 35 per cent. of the vote in the borough as a whole and gained three seats; just 5 per cent. of the council. Some 21 of our candidates came within 150 votes of winning their seats. That is probably a record for the number of near misses on one evening. It was at that moment that I became convinced of the need for annual elections because for me it felt like a four year sentence even though ours was the only party able to claim a 50 per cent. increase in our representation on the council, from two to three.

My noble friend Lady Hamwee made reference to the borough next door to mine, the London Borough of Croydon. My friend--I say "friend" with a small "f"; I do not want to endanger his political career any more--the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, lost the leadership of Croydon council in the 1994 elections. It was a shame, because the Conservative Party actually polled 4 per cent. more votes in the borough than did the Labour Party, but ended up with 10 fewer seats. It is not the first time that has happened, although the other occasion is less well known or less well remembered. In 1986, in the London Borough of Wandsworth the Labour Party polled more votes than the Conservative Party. I leave noble Lords to ponder what might have happened to the politics of local government had there been a proportional system in place in Wandsworth at that time, and had Wandsworth been run by the Labour Party rather than the Conservative Party. Just how different things might have been. We should probably still have had the poll tax, but I suspect its effects in Wandsworth might have been rather different.

We have talked about a voting system that produces huge majorities for parties. That is bad enough. But a system that gives victory, and a clear majority, to a party that comes second in an election must be ludicrous and is not deserving of any respect, least of all from voters. Yet that is what has happened.

I share with a passion the Government's commitment to renewing local democracy, although I do not necessarily agree with all the ways in which they wish to do it. I believe passionately in local democracy and it has been much of my life's work. I am grateful to the Electoral Reform Society for sending me another copy of the Fabian Society publication of March 1997 (before the general election) on electoral systems. I wish to quote from the end of the introduction, which states:

    "Democratic renewal is at the heart of Labour's programme for Britain. Renewing local democracy is a key element; and PR for local elections one vital means to that end".

I agree with that wholeheartedly. I look now to the Government's recent consultation paper on modernising

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local government and, as a true Liberal Democrat, turn first to the paragraphs on voting systems. Paragraph 3.46 states:

    "However, in some parts of the country there is virtually one-party rule with few, if any, opposition members on a council".

I omitted to mention that on my council there are five Labour Members who now form the principal opposition, on the basis that they lost fewer seats than the Conservatives; and there are currently only three Conservatives. So perhaps the document refers to my own borough. The paragraph continues:

    "Some argue that local democracy does not operate as effectively as it might in such situations, and that this can lead to councils becoming complacent and incompetent. Others say that the problem is not with the democratic system".

I turn the page to the following paragraph (3.47) to see what the Government are proposing to do about that. It states:

    "Reforms to the electoral, political and consultation arrangements discussed elsewhere in this document are of greater importance and urgency".

Welcome though some of those reforms are, they will do nothing to address the democratic deficit that we have been discussing.

The Government's answer appears to be annual elections. I must say straight away that there are some in my party who favour annual elections. As I said, in the particular circumstances in which I found myself in 1982 I was then one of them. In the circumstances in which I find myself now, I am not. I want, however, to quote with more legitimacy again from the Fabian Society publication. It states:

    "Annual elections are often advanced as a means of increasing local government's representativeness and accountability; our view is that reforming the electoral system would be a much more reliable way of achieving these goals".

I entirely agree with that.

Paragraph 3.4 of the Government's consultation paper refers to the question of annual elections. I wish particularly to draw this to the attention of the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, who will reply to the debate. It states:

    "The Government also believes that it is not always healthy for a single party to dominate a council, particularly where this position is not the result of an overwhelming advantage in votes cast. It may be that this situation is more likely under whole council elections every fourth year, than with more frequent elections".

The noble Baroness was for some years a very distinguished chairman of the Association of County Councils. During that time she dealt much, and closely, with the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, of which my council was a member.

County councils are elected once every four years. As I am sure the noble Baroness will recall from her chairmanship, most of those county councils did not have a majority. Very few had large majorities. She dealt with the metropolitan authorities, where all the worst effects of very large majorities were seen--and yet they elect by thirds. In replying, will the noble Baroness explain whether she agrees, and how she can justify the statement in the Government's consultation document from her own experience?

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There is no doubt that turn-out is the Achilles' heel of local government--although, incidentally, in London the turnout has risen steadily since the 1960s. In 1968, the turnout was only 36 per cent. By 1990 it had peaked at 48 per cent.--perhaps as a result of the poll tax and also because the election was held on a very sunny day--and it dropped back slightly to 46 per cent. in 1994. That is not good enough. I welcome the Government's proposals to review the electoral arrangements. I very much hope that we shall move from what is essentially a 19th century system of elections into a 21st century system.

We also need to address the question as to why local government elections have such a low turnout. It is due in part to a lack of interest on the part of the public and the media; it is due to the lack of esteem in which local government is held; it is because such elections are so often seen as a national referendum rather than about local issues; it is because local government is perceived, rightly in my view, as not having sufficient power; and it is also because votes are seen to be largely meaningless.

Many of those issues could be addressed with a proportional system. I do not for one moment argue that PR is the panacea for all that is wrong with local government; nor do I suggest that it is the whole answer. It most certainly is not. I do not wish today to argue for any particular system, although I share the views previously expressed that the single transferable vote system is probably the most suitable. However, I do argue strongly that, whatever system is in place, we should retain the link between councillor and voter. That is extremely important. I would strongly reject a system of party lists--even though they might be the purest form of proportionality.

I share the views already expressed on balanced councils. Some of us in this Chamber are party politicians and strive for a majority. That may be in our party's interests--though that is arguable--but it is not necessarily in the public interest. We cannot renew local democracy without examining the electoral system, which has produced so much of what is wrong with local government.

Without PR, the Government's reforms will be rather like a Polo mint--quite tasty round the edges, but with a whacking great hole in the middle. If the Government are not yet ready and able to rule PR in for local government, then I urge them not to rule it out.

3.58 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I must declare a non-pecuniary interest. I speak as the recently elected president of the Electoral Reform Society, by which I am in part advised. The society will not misunderstand me if I say that I regret that I am in that position, for I succeed Lady Seear whose shoes I shall never be able to fill, and which I wish she were still filling.

In 1986, on local election night, I remember listening to the results coming in from my own borough of Brent, where the Labour Party, with just over 40 per cent. of the vote, came in with an enormous majority. As those results came in, I forced open my second eye, and

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murmured, "That is a very bad result for Neil Kinnock". So indeed it proved, for that was the council which was compared by Mr. Ken Livingstone--who used to be my representative in another place when I still needed one--to Pol Pot. To be dismissed as "loony Left" by Mr. Livingstone is a distinction of some standing.

In Lambeth in 1982, Mr. Ted Knight, the memorable "Red Knight", won control of the council with 33 per cent. of the vote, while the Conservatives, with almost 40 per cent. of the vote, lost control. Those two examples illustrate that first-past-the-post is capable of giving an advantage to, shall I say, somewhat unusual political outlooks. For if we take 40 per cent. of the majority and apply the principle of the majority within the governing party, then 21 per cent. may be taken as a majority of the whole. It is curious arithmetic and occasionally it leads to curious results.

The Prime Minister has objected in the past to PR on the grounds that it gives too much power to small parties. On 25th June, speaking at Westminster, I replied by saying that the disadvantage of first-past-the-post is that it gives power to even smaller parties.

That is also true in local government. In 1990, again in my own borough of Brent, there was for a brief while a balanced council, a brief stage of civilisation between loony Left and raving Right. The Conservatives then succeeded in securing a defection from a certain councillor Nkechi Amalu Johnson. When she joined the Conservative party she announced that she admired Margaret Thatcher for the same reasons for which she admired Winnie Mandela and Idi Amin. This was in the only borough in the country with a greater concentration of Uganda Asians than the city of Leicester. And she knew perfectly well what she was doing. Thus first-past-the-post can give the power to extremely small groups. To my mind, that is one of its disadvantages.

I am interested in a speech made by Mr. William Hague at the Centre for Policy Studies. I have here, I confess, only the press reports and the PA summary; I have not yet succeeded in getting a text. But it seems to me to show some slightly unexpected thinking. He says that one of his objections to PR is that it interferes with accountability to the voter. That might just be defensible if he believes that the closed list is the only possible form of proportional representation. If so, the Leader of the Opposition is guilty of believing the Minister without Portfolio. That would be a cardinal sin on the Government Benches. Of the Opposition Benches, words fail me when I contemplate what type of sin it might be. It marks a certain unevenness in the performance of the Leader of the Opposition. I noticed last summer when he was wearing his baseball cap he had "William Hague" on the front and "A Fresh Future" at the back, thereby earning the title of the youngest leader ever to have a fresh future behind him.

William Hague also said, at the Centre for Policy Studies, that:

    ""proportional representation is a profoundly undemocratic measure, masquerading under the banner of democracy and the Conservative Party I lead will have no truck with it".

I wonder exactly what the Leader of the Opposition means by "democratic". When I receive the full text of the speech, I shall endeavour to discover. I think I owe

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it to him to attempt some definitions of my own. First, it is a vital principle of democracy that we should be able to change the Government through the ballot box. In fact, arguably that is the most important thing democracy is all about. Secondly, it is a vital principle of democracy that there should be an opposition. Thirdly, it is a vital principle of democracy that all votes should count equal. It is my contention that first-past-the-post in local government does not meet any of those tests.

During the European elections of 1994, I was visiting a small town in Sussex where I was proudly assured by my host that my party in two elections had gone from having no seats on the parish council to having every single seat. I said to them: "You had better watch it. You'd better make sure at the next election that you lose at least one of those seats because you've got to have an opposition". They replied: "You are quite right, but we need some co-operation from our opponents. I am not sure we can get it".

In the London borough of Newham, the Labour Party has every single seat. In Castle Point, in 1983, the Conservatives won every single seat on 51.3 per cent. of the vote. That does not suggest that first-past-the-post guarantees an opposition in local government. All votes count equal. My noble friends who have already spoken addressed that point. Ever since the Conservative Party in 1867 abandoned Disraeli's proposed fancy franchises, they have accepted the proposition that all votes should count equal. Since they do, the Conservatives should accept that in some ways first-past-the-post is undemocratic.

What interests me most is the possibility of changing a government through the ballot box. As the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, pointed out in a powerful and extremely interesting speech, that sense that it is possible to change control is vital to turnout. I am sure that all of us here who belong to a political party, when we have taken part in election canvassing, have always met the response: "Oh, it's no use voting, they'll never lose here". That--

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