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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: That has more to do with the noble Lord's party's cosying up to the Government and the fact that before the election they reached a pre-electoral pact on these matters. Oh, I have got them all up!
Lord Thomas of Gresford: Does the noble Lord agree that on his definition his government were complicit in fiddling the votes in Northern Ireland where they introduced proportional representation in local government some 10 or 12 years ago?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: There are, and the ignorance of the Liberal Democrat Party about Northern Ireland is well shown by the fact that it does not seem to believe that there are particular circumstances. I see that the Minister is coming to its aid.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: Does that mean that if there are particular circumstances one is properly entitled to devise a system which will produce the result that will deal with those circumstances, otherwise known as a "fiddle"?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The point about Northern Ireland is that for better or worse a significant minority of the population there do not wish to be members of the United Kingdom. They find it difficult to operate within the United Kingdom system. As a result, the previous government introduced a form of proportional representation to give that particular minority--not a political party minority, but one which wished to belong to another country--some say in the
In any event, the situation in Northern Ireland is so special. If one looks around the rest of the English-speaking world, proportional representation is not used at all except in one country. I shall say a little about its rather unsuccessful and unhappy experiment over the past two years where the system which this Bill proposes has been tried.
The Bill proposes to create two classes of Members of Parliament or members of the assembly. Two-thirds will be elected in the conventional first-past-the-post system. The other one-third will be wholly unaccountable to the electorate as individuals. It will also transfer power from the individual voter to the political parties. It will add a complication to what I believe is a very simple, democratic system which has served us very well indeed.
The case for the first-past-the-post system is one which I fear is not being heard too clearly at present. Indeed, the commission set up by the Government has been told specifically not to consider the merits of the first-past-the-post system. It is there to consider only which variation, which different methods of fiddling, which different tune will be played on the proportional representation system. As I have said to the Chamber before, it seems to me odd that these people are entirely paid-up members of the proportional representation club and not one person will ask critical questions.
I have been told before that I should not worry about that because this commission is merely asked to suggest an alternative PR system. When the commission reports, I shall look forward with interest to hearing the Government's response. I am sure that they will say that that does not in any way negate the importance of first-past-the-post. Perhaps they will say that the commission has not studied the first-past-the-post system and is not arguing against it but is merely looking at the system of PR. The Government will say, "Here is our great commission of people who have concluded that PR is the way and this particular version of PR is the way". That is not what the commission has been asked to do. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, intervened during my remarks recently and I must say to him that his remarks on that occasion are being kept close to my heart for the day on which the commission reports in the autumn.
The first-past-the-post system clearly gives us accountability at constituency level and at national level. The accountability is clear: it allows the electorate to remove the governing party if it no longer retains its confidence. That is something which we experienced a year ago. Under the British system, the verdict is decisive. An unpopular government cannot be kept in
It is interesting that during our consideration of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, underlined the important difference between European parliamentary elections and elections to the other place and--dare I say it?--elections to the Welsh assembly and Scottish parliament. As the noble Lord pointed out to me, the European Parliament does not have a government arising from it. But of course, the other place does, as will the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly.
I do not suppose for a moment that the Liberal Democrats would at all accept that argument as having any merit because they would like proportional representation regardless of whether or not the elected body creates a government. Therefore, it is important that we look at the Welsh assembly as being much more akin to the House of Commons in creating a government for Wales than to the European Parliament which does not create a government for Europe, although one never knows, the Liberal Democrats may be quite keen to do that one day.
The other matter is that accountability exists quite clearly. It is a direct accountability that the electorate can and does exercise at the ballot box. It can remove an unpopular party from power. That seems an important aspect of our system. Proportional representation systems can keep one party, usually a very small party, in power for ever and ever. It just shifts partners as in an elaborate dance and is never properly accountable to the electorate. It is interesting that in one or two countries where PR has developed, on occasions the larger parties have become so infuriated at the dictatorship of the minority that they have created coalitions between the larger parties to prevent the tail continually wagging the dog.
Therefore, there is accountability in government. There is also accountability of Members of Parliament who are representatives and not delegates. They are entitled, if not obliged, to use their own judgment once they are elected. If the electorate does not like them and the way they use their judgment, they can be thrown out at the next election. They are accountable to their constituents.
The important point is that they are accountable to all their constituents. Every Member of your Lordships' House who has been a Member of another place will know that is the case. If one is a Member of Parliament, one does not say, "No, you did not vote for me. Take your problem elsewhere". As a Member of Parliament, you are responsible to every one of your constituents. You must look after their problems and take up their cases. You must take up the issues which concern them. You are the sole representative of that constituency and that is an extremely important link.
The first-past-the-post system undoubtedly, over time, has given us stable and effective government in this country. The governing party has, by and large, had a working majority in the House of Commons and has been able to run its term safely through the course of a full Parliament. Our current system also enables governing parties to get their business through the other place. It tends to give the winning party a healthy majority. That is one of the aspects which advocates of PR do not like. They do not like the thought that the winning party has a healthy majority and is able therefore to give the country effective government with effective parliamentary scrutiny from the Opposition. Therefore, on that basis, it seems to me that first-past-the-post is hugely superior when it comes to selecting a government than any method of proportional representation.
As regards the representatives themselves, in the British system, although of course the political parties play a major part--and nobody would pretend otherwise--they must ensure the widest possible support for themselves if they are to win an election. A party cannot hope to win an election by promoting a narrow sectional viewpoint, as does happen in those countries with a PR system. Accordingly, each party represents a fair settlement between competing philosophical interests within the same large framework. In this country, we tend to call it a broad church and the two major parties--the Conservative Party and the Labour Party--have traditionally been that broad church.
As I said, each individual MP is exposed to that broad range of views because in his constituency, even within his own party--let alone outside--he must listen to the different views of the different parts of his own party. Therefore, it seems to me that the political parties, inside themselves, must reconcile what is sometimes a wide variety of interests. That is not a fault. I know that some people consider it to be so. I believe that our system, in which our political parties represent a wide spectrum, has served this country well.
As regards the various methods of proportional representation--fiddle systems, as I am going to call them, even though some people may not like me to do so--I must say that I find some of the systems--not necessarily the one proposed here--which give people second, third, or fourth votes while other people only have one vote, to be a negation of, "one person, one vote". I believe that one vote should count for each person and not that your second, third or fourth vote should count if you happened to vote first for a party which does not succeed in gaining many votes. It seems to me that that is something about which you have to make a decision, and live with.
Our system is clear. The amendments before the Committee today would in fact remove the AMS system from the Welsh Bill and would mean that the members of the Welsh assembly would be elected by the first-past-the-post system. If I am told that that would not be particularly beneficial to my party at present, my response to the Minister will be, "So be it". I do not believe that the narrow interests of my party in 1998 should necessarily determine how the electoral system of this country works. I give way to the noble Lord.
Lord Harris of Greenwich: I am much obliged. The noble Lord is approaching the matter in a very high-minded way. Given that fact, can he say whether he intends to put himself forward as a Scottish Conservative for election where exactly the same electoral system will be proposed and where in fact, if we have the first-past-the-post system, the prospects of the noble Lord being elected are minuscule?
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