Proportional Representation Westminster Hall Debate

On Monday 30th October, Stephen spoke in the Proportional Representation Westminster Hall debate in Parliament. The debate was called because over 100,000 people signed an e-petition asking for a debate. You can read the text of Stephen's contribution below:

It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to follow the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), who, though he did not persuade me, made a powerful speech.

I thank everyone who signed the petition for enabling us to have the debate, and I pay tribute to the range of organisations working in the field, many of which have done so for decades, including the Electoral Reform Society, Make Votes Matter—a younger organisation—and Unlock Democracy. In particular, I thank the members of Merseyside Unlock Democracy, with whom I have had the pleasure of working regularly, on this and other issues.

I agree with the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire that there is no such thing as an ideal electoral system. We all seek to balance competing criteria, to try to fashion the best system for the circumstances of our country. Having debated the issue over the years I am familiar with the fact that Italy is often cited as an example of a country using PR that has not been very successful. Those on our side of the argument counter with Germany as a great example, and one in which proportional voting has been part of the reason for the country’s success over the past 70 years. However, we should agree among ourselves that we are debating different criteria, one of which is fairness.

My answer to the very fair challenge with which the hon. Gentleman finished his speech—fairness and democracy for whom?—is that it is for the people. It is for the voters. The reason I favour a broadly proportional system—I am not a purist and do not want to adopt the Israeli system, which is near to being precisely proportional representation—is that in our political situation now the system does not work any more.

We have long heard during debates on the issue that one of the main arguments in support of first past the post is that it delivers a clear majority for the party that comes first, which enables it to govern. My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) reminded us of the anomalous elections when that was not the case—1951 and February 1974. However, there is a more powerful point: the fundamentals of voting in this country have changed. From 1945 to 1970 well over 90% of those who voted in every general election voted either Conservative or Labour. It really was a two-party system, but since 1974 the system has essentially been more diverse, pluralistic and fragmented, and it is therefore more volatile. It is relevant to say that two of the past three general elections have resulted in hung Parliaments. That might be an anomaly. It might turn out that, in future, we shall elect five majority Labour Governments in a row, which would be great by me, but I suspect that the pluralism and volatility of the previous few decades might well be with us to stay. Therefore, a system that might have been okay for the ’50s and ’60s, when a vast majority of people voted Labour or Conservative, is not right for the world we live in now.

I want briefly to respond to some points made in the debate. As to tactical voting and the reason that parties, despite decrying it, use it, I think that is just the reality of working in the system we have. I am delighted that a good friend—my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous)—is seated next to me. He and I campaigned together 20 years ago in Enfield, Southgate to win the seat for Labour for the first time. We said clearly to Liberal Democrat and Green voters, and others, “If you want to defeat Michael Portillo, only a Labour vote will count,”—and it worked, but we should not have a system in which it is necessary actively to encourage that, and to support that negative style of campaigning. I want a system in which Liberal Democrats in Enfield, Southgate can vote Liberal Democrat and Green supporters can vote Green, and in which Labour supporters in areas that are Liberal Democrat versus Conservative can vote Labour. That, for me, is one of the most powerful arguments for electoral reform—ensuring that voters, wherever they live, can cast a vote by conviction rather than tactically.

All parties target a relatively small number of seats and, within them, a relatively small number of voters, and all Members present will, in the recent general election, have spent time not only in their constituencies, but campaigning elsewhere—because a relatively small number of seats determine the outcome of an election. That is unhealthy for the voters in the non-target constituencies.

The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) made an important point, which is that proportional representation is not a silver bullet. Those of us who favour voting reform must be careful, sometimes, not to present it as a panacea for all the ills of our democracy, or even of society more widely. It is important o see the issue in the context of a broader set of social, economic and political challenges. It is important to have a package of democratic reforms that will address the democratic deficit we still have. I was delighted that the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) spoke about the need to elect the second Chamber, and mentioned that proportional representation could be used. I am also delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) has introduced a private Member’s Bill to reduce the voting age to 16; the Representation of the People (Young People’s Enfranchisement and Education) Bill is due to be debated on Second Reading on Friday. We need to go back to the question of citizenship education in schools, and what can be done to equip the voters of the future. The devolution settlement in England needs serious attention, because it is hugely variable around the country.

Bambos Charalambos - MP for Enfield Southgate - On the point about devolution, we have proportional representation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in London. It works very well. People understand it, and it delivers good government in all those regions.

I agree; I concur with those who have said in the debate that we can really learn lessons from the experience of those broadly proportional voting systems in Scotland, Wales and Greater London. There has been a suggestion that the system should be abandoned in England and that we should move to first past the post, but it is hugely helpful that there is a range of parties in the Greater London Assembly. Minority parties in London such as the Conservatives can have a voice in the Assembly. [Laughter.] I said that expecting to elicit a laugh, but there is a serious point: I think I am right to say that at the previous elections, if first past the post had been used—I think the Conservative manifesto position is that it should be—there would be a clear Labour majority in the London Assembly. Particularly when the Mayor is Labour, it is right that the other voices of London citizens and parties—the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Greens and others—are there to hold him to account.

There is a risk that we are today engaged in a Westminster bubble debate, in which Members of Parliament rehearse arguments that we have had over many years. We need to take the debate out into the country. I still think that the idea of some kind of democratic or citizens’ convention to consider the issues would be welcome. It played a productive role more than two decades ago in Scotland, as the devolution settlement was framed in the 1990s. Citizens need to have their say, which comes back to the question of the system. Rather than having a system that politicians dream up, let us engage citizens and see how they want to balance proportionality versus strong government, voter choice and all the different factors. I am confident that if we allowed citizens to do that, through a convention, they would come to a different system from the one we have now. They would not necessarily want to import one from another country; they would devise one suited to the history and traditions of democracy in this country.

I finish where I started, by thanking the more than 100,000 people who petitioned us and enabled this important issue to be discussed.