Minister appears to show support for poll reform

By Marie Woolf, Chief Political Correspondent
Published May 27th 2005 in Financial Times
A minister responsible for the voting system appears to have softened the Government's opposition to electoral reform.

Speaking for the Government in a debate on the electoral system, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, a Constitutional Affairs minister, appeared to suggest she was in favour of replacing the current first-past-the-post system with the Alternative Vote system (AV).

"I have seen AV operating in Australia and I think personally it is a very interesting approach," she said. Lady Ashton said the AV system, which allows voters to mark their preferences of candidates rather than ticking a single box, was a system that "people can understand".

Her comments came after Labour and Liberal Democrat peers made a series of impassioned speeches in favour of reform.

Lord Lipsey, the Labour peer, said Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, seemed to be on a different planet when he said there was no groundswell of support among the public for change. "On every possible indicator of public opinion, my Lords, concern about the election system has dominated since the general election," he said. "The only place this clamour fails to penetrate is the closed mind of the Lord Chancellor and I fear that of the Prime Minister under whom he serves."

He then accused the Lord Chancellor of having a "closed mind" on the issue of electoral reform and of making a "schoolboy howler of confusing electoral reform with proportional representation".

Lord Lipsey, who is in favour of electoral reform, went on to accuse Tony Blair of "arrogance that defies belief". Citing a poll in The Independent, he said there was "a wilful ignoring of the message delivered by the electorate" on voting reform. "NOP's opinion poll for The Independent showed 62 per cent support for reform; 16,000 people have signed up to The Independent's campaign," he said. "Phone-in programmes ,for example, Any Questions and Any Answers, have been dominated by the debate."

The Labour peer, the chairman of Make Votes Count, challenged the Government to stick to its 1997 pledge to hold a referendum on the voting system.

On behalf of the Government, Lady Ashton replied: "A referendum we have indicated would be the way forward and we remain absolutely 100 per cent committed to do it."

But there were sighs of dismay among Liberal Democrat peers when she said the results of a review of the UK voting systems being conducted by civil servants would be considered by the new cabinet committee on electoral systems, chaired by John Prescott. The Deputy Prime Minister is vehemently opposed to extending PR to Westminster. The Liberal Democrats' leader, Charles Kennedy, said this week that the Prime Minister's decision to make him chairman was criticised as "putting King Herod in charge of a maternity ward".

Lady Ashton admitted that public surveys had shown "a majority for PR", but not a specific system. "There is a majority for PR but if you ask people for a second choice run-off first- past-the-post got a clear majority," she said. Lady Ashton challenged assertions that the Government did not have a mandate to govern because it had gained only 35 per cent of the vote. " I believe in the legitimacy of the electoral process," she said. "We won."

Her remarks followed a string of interventions by Liberal Democrat peers in favour of a public review of the voting system.

Lord Maclennan, the Liberal Democrat peer, who played a central role in the talks with Labour on voting reform after the1997 election, said the first-past-the-post system distorted election results while reform would lead to more female and black MPs. "First-past-the-post produces results in parliamentary elections that are neither representative of views nor fair to political parties. It is also unfair to individual electors," he said. "There are groups to whom the system is simply unfair. The under-representation of ethnic minorities in this country and the female gender owe a great deal to the distortions of our voting system."

The Liberal Democrat peer explained that the current system allowed governments to form big majorities without a majority of votes. He said unless there was reform, "public regard in our democracy will continue to decline". Lord Smith of Clifton, a former university vice-chancellor, argued that the present voting system "cannot be sustained" because of public pressure for reform.

Paying tribute to The Independent's Campaign for Democracy, he said the Government "will be forced to yield to public opinion". He also argued it would be in the Conservative Party's "best interests" to support a change.

Lord Goodhart, a leading human rights lawyer, said the results of the general election, where Labour formed a "working majority" with only 35 per cent of the vote, were "blots on our democracy ... It is time we got on with reform," he said.

In a scholarly contribution to the debate, the Liberal Democrat peer argued that although the first-past-the-post system does produce single party governments, they are not necessarily stable or strong.

He cited the John Major government of 1992-1997 as an example of a "weak" majority government elected under first past the post. He also referred to examples of "strong" and stable coalition governments, such as that in Germany, which had been elected by a proportional voting system.

The peer asserted that a proportional system puts a check upon extremes. He hypothesised that Lady Thatcher would have been unlikely to have introduced the poll tax had she been elected under PR because she would not have had a mandate. The current voting system was designed to deal with the two party system of yesteryear, and not the modern political landscape made up of three - or in Scotland and Wales four - main parties.

"First past the post is simply unable to cope with three-party politics," he said. "Now we have a government with a smaller share of the vote than the Labour Party in 1974 [when Labour had a majority of three with 39 per cent of the vote]."

Speaking for the Conservatives, Baroness Hanham said that "despite all the blandishments to the contrary, we are still very much wedded to the first-past-the-post system".

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, a former frontbench Labour MP, launched a scathing attack on The Independent's Campaign for Democracy, and said the Lord Chancellor was right when he argued there was no "groundswell" for support. "The Independent newspaper ... has as other noble lords have said launched what it grandly, rather pompously perhaps, calls its Campaign for Democracy.

"But lo and behold, although Simon Kelner [the editor] ... devotes the whole of this morning's front page to this great campaign for democracy, tucked away on the inside under the heading '24,417 and Counting ...' we can see the massed ranks of the troops assembled carrying the banner of this great campaign.

"I have to say to your Lordships that 24,000 people is just about half of the size of a crowd that would turn up at Birmingham to Aston Villa's football ground for a home match. And I don't believe that is evidence of a great groundswell of interest in this matter."