THE ALTERNATIVE VOTE AND PR SYSTEMS – 17 January 2001

Dr Julian Lewis: Over the past week, the papers have been full of the trial of a former member of a German terrorist group. The reason for this is less to do with the ex­terrorist himself than with a friend of his, who is giving testimony as a witness. That friend, Joschka Fischer, is the Foreign Minister of Germany. He holds that position on the basis that his party – ­­the Green Party – ­­received less than 7 percent of the popular vote in the German parliamentary elections.

Not only does Mr Fischer have an extremist past dating from the 1960s, but in the 1980s, the Greens, of whom he is now a representative, had a relatively extreme view on the one­sided abandonment of nuclear defences by NATO. Since the 1990s, and right up to the present day, Mr Fischer has taken yet another extreme position­­ – he supports the development of the most unified type of European state. He has declared that openly. He has consistently, throughout his political career­­ – if one can dignify the earlier parts of it with that term – ­­taken extreme positions. How has such a man risen to be Foreign Minister of his country on such a small proportion of the vote?

Mr Stephen Twigg (Enfield, Southgate): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Lewis: I look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman's explanation.

Mr Twigg: The German system to which he alludes is an almost purely proportional system. Does he accept that the system proposed by the Jenkins commission is not such a system, so 7 percent of the popular vote would be unlikely to secure any automatic representation in the House of Commons?

Dr Lewis: That does not affect my argument. The answer to the question that I was posing can be summed up in two words­­ – coalition governments. All systems proposed for the conducting of elections must deal with the following question: will the outcome be government by the party that wins most votes in the election, or government by coalition? The Jenkins system, to which the hon. Gentleman refers, would tend to lead to coalition governments as the norm. Systems that lead to coalition governments allow small parties with a small proportion of the vote to exert disproportionate influence on the Government.

A coalition must be formed to get a majority in Parliament, and that cannot be done without the support of small parties. Do those small parties say, "We recognise that we enjoy a relatively small amount of support in the country, so we will settle for an equivalently small amount of influence in the Government"? Do they heck. They exploit that system for everything it is worth, and ensure that they get positions and power in the Government that are wholly out of line with the extent of their support in the country.

Mr Martin Linton (Battersea) rose­­ –

Mr Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) rose­­ –

Dr Lewis: I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr Linton), then to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr Mitchell).

Mr Linton: Has the hon. Gentleman read the Jenkins report? I ask that because it goes to some lengths to work out simulations of the effect that the Jenkins system would have had on the last five elections, from 1979 onwards. The report comes to the conclusion that the system would have led to the same overall result in 1979 – ­­it would have been better spread geographically and the majority might have been smaller, but the outcome would have been the same. The results of the 1983 and 1987 elections would also have been the same. There would have been a different outcome in 1992, but the hon. Gentleman will accept that that was a closely fought and unusual election. The outcome in 1997 would have been the same. The Jenkins report refutes the whole basis of his argument.

Dr Lewis: I do not accept that. I read the report before I took part in the debate on 5 November 1998 ­­ 5 November is an appropriate date for an attack on the parliamentary system. It was clear that its recommendations would tend to lead to a greater proportionality between the number of Members of Parliament elected and the number of votes cast than is the case under first-past-the-post. Why would that be a bad thing? The answer is simple: no Government elected in Britain, at least since the second world war, have achieved anything like 51 percent of the vote. Even the present Government achieved only 43 percent of the vote. Under a system that would lead to proportionality in outcomes, even a Government with Labour's level of support at the previous general election would still be dependent on an alliance with another party to form a majority in Parliament.

Mr Mitchell: The hon. Gentleman is criticising coalitions as a system, but if that is what people vote for – ­­if the result of their deliberations and votes is that there is no clear majority for one party – ­­that is what people should get. That is a fair democratic verdict. The reverse of that is to say that people should have imposed on them a party with a minority of votes, one that people do not especially want and that most of them voted against. That is a fairly exact description of, say, Margaret Thatcher's Government in the 1980s. Such a Government are then free to use the enormous power of the centralised Executive of this country to do what they want with the system. That is exactly what happened. It is a dictatorship of the minority.

Dr Lewis: The question to be considered is whether it would be fairer to have, as a result of an election, a combination of parties that offered its junior partner or partners disproportionate amounts of power. The snag with what is recommended is not only that small parties in coalition Governments have far more power than they deserve according to their support in the country, but that the electorate have little say in the policies that will result from the process. Under the present system, in which the winning party tends to form a majority Government on its own, the people know that they can subsequently hold that party to account for what it proposed in its election manifesto. Under a system that leads to combination and coalition­-style government, the policies produced by the process are the result of backroom deals and bargaining between the parties that form the coalitions, and they may bear little if any resemblance to the manifestos proposed to the electorate in the first place. I have pointed out before that Dr Robert Waller, the well-known psephologist, has said that any move towards proportional systems of government would be the greatest transfer of power from the people to the politicians in British political history. I am sure that that is true.

Bearing in mind your strictures, Mr McWilliam [Deputy Speaker], about keeping contributions short, given the time available for this debate, I shall make a couple of points more quickly. I alluded to the first in my earlier intervention about the Liberal Democrats. For many years, they and their predecessor parties have maintained that the voting system is unfair, and that fairness and proportionality are one and the same. If that is a position of principle, they should be at the forefront of those rejecting the simple 'alternative vote' system. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-­West Hampshire (Sir George Young) pointed out in his excellent speech, the Labour Government, who were elected with a majority of 169 under the present first­past-­the-­post system, would have had a majority of 245 under AV.

In other words, AV tends to exaggerate the disproportionality of the result. Therefore, if the Liberals – who claim that proportionality equals fairness – acted on principle, they should reject AV. They do not act on principle, and they do not reject AV, because they know that, proportionality or no proportionality, AV will increase the number of Liberal Democrat seats gained at a general election. That is all that really motivates them.

I can ask the same question of members of the Labour Party's first­-past-­the­post group. There are two possible motivations for what they are doing. Some of them are acting on principle, because, like me, they believe that a strong Government and a strong Opposition are important. Others are motivated by the knowledge that under a proportional system many Labour Members of Parliament who currently hold seats on a minority of the vote would lose them. Those members of the Labour first­-past-­the-­post campaign are willing to accept the unalloyed alternative vote, which would avoid the proportional route while damaging the Tories and keeping marginal seats safe.

I believe that the Prime Minister has gone cold on proportional representation because he has studied the results under PR in the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. I come from Wales, where they used to weigh Labour votes rather than count them. However, under proportional representation Labour could not obtain a majority of seats in the Assembly, despite the long tradition of Welsh support for Labour. What has happened in Scotland and Wales? The Labour Party has had to form coalitions with the Liberal Democrats, the party that came fourth. That gives the Liberal Democrats power out of all proportion to their support in Scotland or Wales.

Democracy requires a clear result at the end of the electoral process. A Government who can cobble together a coalition can defy the will of the people. The fact that Governments stand or fall according to the votes of the people benefits democracy and contributes to the health of the country. It avoids the corruption that inevitably comes from the intricacies, manoeuvrings and disreputable nature of coalition-building. I strongly urge hon. Members to realise that the reason for the health of British democracy, in comparison with so many of the systems on the Continent and elsewhere, is that our system gives voters a clear choice and makes it easy for them to remove a Government who have failed to keep their promises.