Speeches from Parliament's electoral reform debate II

Guy Aitchison
7 September 2010

i) The chairman of the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform, Graham Allen MP (Lab), Committee eloquently summed up the concerns with the absence of proper scrutiny:

My Select Committee has had a grand total of two sessions to discuss and take evidence on the Bill, which is arguably the most important that the House will pass in this Session-the most far-reaching and fundamental Bill. It changes our electoral system, it changes the number of Members of Parliament, it changes the balance between the Executive and legislature-for the worse, because fewer Members will mean that a larger percentage of us will represent either the alternative Executive or the Executive themselves, making it even harder to hold the Government to account-and it changes the relationship of individual Members to their constituents.

My Select Committee has a good bunch of people on it, from different parties, who are independent-minded and who speak their minds. One thing that unites them, in the sliver of a report that we have had a chance to put before the House, is the belief that we have not been adequately consulted during discussions about the Bill.

The Leader of the House, whose statement I welcomed, said that if we were to take the House of Commons seriously, we must have proper pre-legislative scrutiny. There must be a period, before any Bill comes to the House for its Second Reading, that would allow us to say, "We have studied this Bill, and here are some of our conclusions." The Leader of the House wrote to the Liaison Committee-which consists of all the Chairs of all the Select Committees-stating in terms that he believed that 12 weeks constituted the minimum amount of time that we should spend on each Bill before it came to the House for Second Reading, but I am afraid that he has had to eat his words.

This is not some small order or statutory instrument, but potentially the biggest Bill that the House will consider in five years, and my Committee has been given just two sessions in which to consider it. I do not regard that as the new politics. I do not regard it as involving all Members in the House. I am not making a partisan point on behalf of one party or another; I am making a point on behalf of my Committee, which believes that it is inappropriate for a Bill of such magnitude to receive such cursory attention from the House before its Second Reading.

I hope very much-and I hope that the Minister of State will take my words away with him-that it will never be possible for this to happen again, but my hopes may be forlorn. The Fixed Term Parliaments Bill will come down the tracks next Monday, and again we shall have only two sessions in which to consider it. That must strike at the heart of every Member of Parliament. It must cause all Members to ask themselves what they really feel is their role in this place. Of course they must support their Government or their Opposition, but they must ask themselves whether this is the way in which we want to pursue our politics over the next five years. I ask them please to find it within themselves to say, "We can do better."

ii) Margaret Becket MP (Lab) gave a rather extraordinary speech on behalf of the status quo:

Our current system has substantial strengths and virtues. It is simple and easy to understand, and the British people know exactly how to operate it to get the result that they want. For decades, I have listened to the most arrant rubbish about how our electoral system somehow cheats the British people of the Government whom they want. I have never believed that, and I do not know how anyone can continue to argue it with a straight face after the elections of recent years.

In the '80s and '90s, those who support PR argued that votes cast for the Labour party, the Liberals and others outweighed those cast for the Thatcher and Major Governments, and said that our system prevented the people from removing them. However, people knew perfectly well that if they voted Tory or for a third party rather than the Labour alternative, they were actively choosing or risking the re-election of a Tory Government.

Over the years, many people, especially in other countries, have asked me to explain why Britain has such comparative political peace and stability. I believe that that is in large part because the British people know perfectly well how to make dramatic electoral change if that is what they want. If on the basis of a false prospectus of giving them more power and influence that power is taken away or diminished, I believe that there is a risk of a backlash that jeopardises precisely that stability.

iii) David Davis MP (Con) made clear his concerns with changing the voting system:

The Deputy Prime Minister, when he opened this debate, presented this Bill as something designed to increase people's respect for the political system that we work under. The people might respect us more if we admitted the real reasons for what we are doing...There are understandable grievances, and there is nothing wrong in our political system with parties doing things that are to their advantage and in their own interest, but we must do such things with open eyes, and in a way that subordinates party interest to public interest, and that is where I have a problem with the Bill, because we must recognise that we are proposing to change a system that has worked extremely well for well over a century. Arguably, it has worked better in this country for our democracy than in any other country and for any other democracy in the world. We have avoided extremism and, in general, had good outcomes throughout that time.

We are going to replace that with the alternative vote. The Deputy Prime Minister quite rightly said that it was very difficult to predict the exact outcome of an alternative vote. We do not have to do our own calculations, however. The Blair Government asked Lord Jenkins to chair a commission on proportional representation, and one thing that he considered was the alternative vote. Interestingly, Lord Jenkins rejected it, and one of his grounds was that it was too anti-Conservative- Lord Jenkins, let alone anybody else, said that. More importantly, he rejected it also on the ground that it was not just not more proportional than first past the post; in many cases it was actually less proportional-more disproportional-than our current system...

This House has many characters with very interesting differences, and the other thing about AV is that it acts to create a coalition of antagonists, picking the least unpopular rather than the most effective Member. I think of AV as an anti-Carswell system. It is a pity that my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) is not in the Chamber in order for me to tell him that. AV disadvantages bold and unconventional Members, something that the House should treasure, and that is an important side effect.

We are measuring that system against a first-past-the-post system that has been very effective throughout history. It has been decisive, radically and ruthlessly so when it needed to be. When it brought in the Attlee Government after the second world war and the Thatcher Government in 1979, it recognised times of crisis and responded to them. At other times of crisis, when it decided that none of the major parties had all the answers, it created a coalition, and that is what it has done this time. That is what it did in the 1930s and the 1970s...

What we need to make sure is that we inform the people and give them enough notice and enough knowledge to make the decision properly, and to have it resolved clearly. What I fear is that instead we shall have circumstances where perhaps only 30% of the population will turn out, so only 15% or 16% will vote for the system, and on that basis, we shall have the biggest change in our constitutional history for half a century.

iv) Angus MacNeil MP (SNP) damned AV, regretting that the Lib Dems have not held out for STV and voicing strong concerns with the timing:

As a supporter of democracy, I was at one with the Liberals in the past in supporting the single transferable vote. However, they have now moved downmarket, sadly, and have left us in the nationalist parties alone in supporting STV. AV is not the halfway compromise that the Liberals imagine it to be. It is not halfway between first past the post and STV or even a quarter of the way; it is not a 10th of the way or a 20th of the way. At best, it might be a 50thof the way. Perhaps that is progress, but it is not much of a leap.

The confusion of electoral methodology, boundaries and the date is a strategic master class in creating opposition to the Bill. Surely respect demands another day.

As I have said, the Deputy Prime Minister spoke about political reform and letting the people decide. Why, therefore, do the Government not trust the people to decide properly? Why do the Liberals and the Tories not trust the people to discriminate between first past the post, AV and STV? Do the Government not trust the people? The rhetoric behind it all was that this programme would be greater than the Great Reform Act of 1832, but it is certainly falling down badly in the sidelines.

All we ask for in Scotland is some respect for what is happening there and for Scottish dynamics. We do not want the media to be dominated by a secondary issue to the main bread-and-butter issues that will apply in Scotland. If we are to have a referendum in Scotland on the day of the election, why will the Government not consider having a referendum on giving greater powers to the Scottish Parliament? This is going to happen in Wales this coming spring, so why can we not have it in Scotland? Why can we not have either independence or greater fiscal powers under the status quo?


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