Caroline Lucas on the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill

Caroline Lucas MP had prepared a speech for the Second Reading debate on the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill, but was not called by the Speaker to give it. Here, with Caroline's permission, OurKingdom publishes the speech she would have delivered calling for a proportional option and condemning the "old politics" of the Coalition's restrictive referendum.
Caroline Lucas head shot
Caroline Lucas
11 September 2010

Caroline Lucas MP had prepared a speech for the Second Reading debate on the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill, but was not called  by the Speaker to give it. Here, with Caroline's permission, OurKingdom publishes the speech she would have delivered calling for a proportional option and condemning the "old politics" of the Coalition's restrictive referendum. 

I welcome the fact that this house is at long last debating the possibility of a referendum on electoral reform. 

I also acknowledge that the Alternative Vote system does have a number of advantages over first past the post and, in some respects, is a step forward.

The Electoral Reform Society has conducted a thorough analysis of AV, and personally I share their assessment that there are some positives. 

  • the ability of voters to record a sincere first preference,
  • the widening of political choice available to the elector,
  • and the disincentives it offers for parties to pursue core vote strategies that ignore the wishes of the majority of the electorate

The Green Party will reach a formal decision on its position on the referendum later this week at our conference in Birmingham.

And there will certainly be some in the Party who won’t want to support it as it stands.

Because it is hugely disappointing that AV is the only alternative to first past the post contained within this bill – a bill which as a result fails to live up to the promise of genuine reform and reengaging people with the political process. 

FPTP is undoubtedly deeply flawed.

Remember that in May’s election 16 million people cast votes which had absolutely no influence on the result.

Moreover, 2/3 of MPs – including myself - lacked majority support, the highest figure in British political history.

First Past the Post has in fact a long record of failing to deliver governments that command genuine majority support. In 1997 Labour gained 43.2% of the total votes cast, but won 63.6% of seats at Westminster.

The combined number of votes for the Tories and Liberal Democrats represented 47.5% of the total votes (nearly 4% more than Labour) yet between them they got 32.1% of the seats available at Westminster. 

And that’s before we get onto the way that swing voters in a tiny number of seats effectively decide who is going to run the country – resulting in targeted funding of marginals, and voters in most other parts of the country being sidelined if not ignored.

Or the fact that first past the post creates seats so safe that some incumbents are so relaxed as to be almost horizontal – and were twice as likely as those with the smallest majorities to be abusing the expenses system according to analysis by Channel 4 news.

It is also noteworthy that, whilst a direct correlation between first past the post and turnout is difficult to prove, many voters claim to be turned off politics by the very trends that are encouraged by the first past the post system – these include safe seats being treated as irrelevant, targeting of swing voters in marginals that makes all the parties sound the same even when they are not, and the adversarial posturing that goes on at and between elections 

Many advocates argue that first past the post is tried and tested. That may well be true, but it does not follow that it has successfully passed the test.

The flaws of the outdated first past the post system were historically confirmed following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Emerging from years of totalitarian rule, Eastern and Central European countries were keen to adopt modern, democratic electoral systems.

Significantly, not one chose the Westminster model.

So it certainly timely that the coalition government has grasped the nettle that the previous government dodged so effectively and for so long – albeit that said grasping appears to have been done with protection against any potential self inflicted stings taking priority.

My primary concern as we consider this parliamentary voting and constituencies’ bill, is that it is the public who should chose our voting system – not politicians.

One of the many arguments used against a more proportional system of voting is that it is too complicated or that voters will not understand what they are being asked to do.

But it hardly stands up to much scrutiny.

British voters already make good use of a number of systems including  first past the post for Westminster, Additional Member System for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly; regional party lists for the European Elections; and Single Transferable Vote in Northern Ireland.

All of these systems have advantages and drawbacks, but none are so mind-bending that the public cannot be allowed to debate them.

Voters even regularly manage to make the best of first past the post, one of the most impenetrable systems used in any election and one which fails on 3 key counts:

  • It does not deliver seats that look like the votes cast.
  • It does not represent society fairly for example when it comes to women or minorities.
  • It does not reflect voter choice. 

Under most PR systems, on the other hand, there is a simple relationship of cause and effect for the voter. If you vote for a candidate, you increase his or her chances of getting elected.

If you vote for a party, you increase that party’s entitlement to seats. By doing this, you achieve more representation for your views.  

Voters understand this and they also understand that the bill brought before Parliament today does not go far enough and will again deny them a real say when it comes to electoral reform.

So, rather than simply offering a narrow choice between first past the post and the AV Alternative Vote system, I want to give voters the opportunity to express a preference for any of the voting systems already successfully used in national, local or regional elections.

Of course, I have my own views about which system would be preferable – the Green Party advocates the Additional Member System as the fairest – but I also think that the most democratic thing to do is to give the public themselves the options and allowing them to make the choice.

It seems entirely contradictory to me to be talking about electoral reform, and then seeking to offer little more than a Hobson’s Choice.  

May 2011 is not only the planned date of the referendum: it will also be two years since the MPs expenses scandal first broke.

And that’s why I hope that all MPs committed to the cleaning up of politics – whatever their preferences on voting systems – will also support an amendment to widen the referendum and give voters the option to express a preference about more than one alternative to first past the post.

And I’d also like to avoid a clash with elections in Wales and Scotland – it cannot be right that the result of either be influenced by the other, especially when we are talking about something as fundamental as fairness and democracy.  But that’s not an overriding reason to vote against second reading tonight – that could be addressed through amendments at committee stage

Reforming the voting system is a vital part of the process of reconnecting people and politics, but is not in itself sufficient to achieve this aim. I hope that this government will look to other reforms such as an elected House of Lords, the right to recall MPs and root and branch reform of party funding in the future.

Finally, I’d also like to draw attention to the fact that women make up just 22% of MPs, despite being over 50% of the population. The UK trails behind 57 other countries with a higher percentage of female MPs.

A just and effective democracy should involve and reflect the needs of the entire population. Women pay the same taxes as men yet barely a fifth of the legislature are women – meaning they don’t have a fair and proportionate say in how policy is made and managed.

At the present rate of change (just 2% at the last election) it will take tens if not hundreds of years to achieve parity between women and men in parliament. This is an issue that is major democratic deficit and should be at heart of debate. Government also has a legal duty to assess how these measures it is proposing could promote equality between men and women and tackle discrimination.

At present the Bill contains no reference to sex or gender, yet it is a necessity that any serious political reform, attempting to move towards a ‘new politics’, includes measures to address the democratic deficit that is the under-representation of women.

In the meantime, I want to just say a few words about the other aspect of this Bill, namely the proposal to equalise constituencies and reduce the number of MPs.

I know that many Honourable Members who are opposed to electoral reform cite the importance of the link between an MP and a community or communities of a reasonable size as one of the main arguments in support of first past the post.

Of course, this link can be retained in a proportional system and under AV. What is striking, however, is the lack of consistency – on the one hand we have members of the coalition government claiming they want to protect the constituency link and on the other hand attempting to weaken that link.

For rest assured that will be the result of reducing representation - making it more difficult for voters to get advice and help from their MP.

Many of us are already inundated by case work and do not want to undermine our ability to properly represent constituents and champion their rights, whilst at the same time holding government to account and contributing to the legislative process.

Yet I very much fear for the case working role that MPs fulfil if these plans go ahead. I also fail to see how rendering political institutions more remote and inaccessible – as will happen with fewer MPs -  is good for democracy.

MPs are the bridge between governing and governed. Further devolution of power may one day make this role less critical, but I worry that until vastly better local and regional representation, with teeth, is in place, this move is nothing more than a symbolic one and will do more harm than good.

Any changes should be driven by sound democratic principles, not simply be about populism dressed up as saving money.

The principle of equalisation of constituency sizes is certainly a sound one but let’s unbundle it from the proposal to bring MP numbers down.

We also need to guarantee that equalisation is carried out fairly.

The proposed boundary changes are reported as being based on electoral registration figures NOT eligible voters.

According to an Electoral Commission investigation published in March this year, “under-registration is notably higher than average among 17-24 year olds (56% not registered), private sector tenants (49%) and black and minority ethnic British residents (31%)”.

It found that:

“The highest concentrations of under-registration are most likely to be found in metropolitan areas, smaller towns and cities with large student populations, and coastal areas with significant population turnover and high levels of social deprivation.”

What this means is that unless equalisation is of those entitled to vote, rather than those already registered to do so, the representation of people from some social groups is severely at risk from this bill. We cannot allow this to happen.

Parliament has come to be seen with contempt by many people because it acted in its own interests, not those of the people it is supposed to serve. A stitched-up referendum that denies people a real choice stinks of the old politics. So too does dressing up an attack on democratic representation as cost cutting. If politicians put aside their own instincts and interests and trust the people, Parliament could win back some of the trust it has lost.

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