PR AND POSTAL BALLOTS – 22 June 2005

Dr Julian Lewis: Because we have so little time left, I propose, if asked to do so, to give way to one intervention from each of the remaining two speakers; otherwise, I fear that they might not get in.

I want briefly to deal with four issues: proportional representation; turnout; the experience of the trade unions; and, in a rather more whimsical vein, the Labour Party. PR is commonly regarded as an abbreviation for "proportional representation", but I have always believed that it stands for something else: "permanent rule" – by the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats constantly say that there is massive under-representation in seats when one compares seats won with votes cast. But what really matters to a Government in an election – be it a Government in Wales, in Scotland or in the United Kingdom – is not how many seats a particular party gets, but whether that party gets into government.

Under PR, the party that comes third – or fourth, as the Liberal Democrats have on more than one occasion in Scotland and in Wales, let alone in the United Kingdom – holds the balance of power. So on the basis of the smallest share of the vote, it gets into government and, indeed, chooses which of the other two parties will form that Government. That is a much greater distortion of the election result than the artificial exaggeration of seats. Power in this House, for example, is not in proportion to the number of seats held by each party. That power goes to the party that has the overall majority, and it makes very little difference whether that majority is 50 or 150.

Turnout is constantly regarded as the paradigm of whether a new system is working. It is a misleading paradigm.

Adam Afriyie: It strikes me that one of the most significant developments in British democracy was the secret ballot, which was introduced in 1872. In the light of the various points that have been made, does my hon. Friend agree that the continuing use of the ballot box – in which people can physically cast their vote securely, free from coercion, intimidation and observation – is important?

Dr Lewis: It is important, and I am glad that my hon. Friend made that point which has not been mentioned today, but which was referred to before the General Election, when these issues were being discussed. It is understandable that we have postal ballots for people who might not be able to get to the ballot box. We take the risk that their privacy – their right to vote in a polling booth in secret – might be affected. However, we should remember that when people vote in private at a polling station, they may well vote differently from how they would vote at home, where they might come under pressure. People have often said to me on the doorstep, "I will vote for you but my other half won't". How often will that be allowed to happen when people have to vote at home?

John Hemming: Oddly enough, I had intended to raise the issue of the secret ballot myself. I represent a local government ward as well as a parliamentary constituency, and in that regard I share part of the Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath constituency. It is true that there is substantial intimidation in the streets from time to time. The Labour Party leaflet on getting out the postal vote describes everybody's house as a polling station. The big question is, where is the presiding officer?

Dr Lewis: I pay tribute to the work that the old Liberal Party and the current Liberal Democrats have done over many years on secure postal ballots and the avoidance of intimidation and fraud.

Some 20 years ago, I worked with a cross-party group of Social Democrats, Liberals, Conservatives and Labour peers to amend the Trade Union Act 1984 to make postal ballots compulsory for trade union elections. That worked because the papers being distributed were under the control and verification of the Electoral Reform Society. Postal ballots can be a blessing when they are properly controlled; they can be a curse when, as in the Electrical Trade Union scandals of the early 1960s, they are not properly controlled.

My final, more whimsical, remarks relate to the Labour Party. The Labour candidate who stood against me in the general election turned out, after the event, to be a senior figure in an organisation called tacticalvoter.net. He sabotaged his own campaign – he did not even issue an election address – in his attempt to help the Liberals beat me. It appeared later that the reason why he, rather than a local candidate wanting to fight a straightforward campaign for Labour, was nominated was that Labour selects its candidates partly by postal balloting. He went around to many people in the local Labour Party and got their postal votes. Did he tell them that he was going to sabotage his own campaign? I doubt it. If the Minister is to clean up postal voting for the country, she should think about cleaning up postal balloting in the Labour Party.