Conservative MPs lined up yesterday to oppose Labour's plans for a £80m referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote system for electing the House of Commons. Shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve led for the Conservatives.
Richard Shepherd on how AV elects the least objectionable candidates: "I know that the Prime Minister has abolished boom and bust, and I now know that he wants to reform our voting system, but let me make an observation. The first-past-the-post voting system goes back to before time almost. It was the way by which, in ancient societies, in a one-vote system, the individual who had the most votes came first. It was the most simple rubric for determining who should be elected. That is how things were, but there has been a reversion. I am told that the Liberal Democrats support the money resolution and the purposes behind it. They have forgotten the advice of Lord Jenkins in his commission’s report. The system that we are debating cannot be said to be an equal or proportionate system any more than the first-past-the-post system can. It therefore means that the least-objectionable candidate is elected."
John Gummer protests at the £80m cost of a referendum on AV: "My constituents do not have the wherewithal to keep our current systems going, because the Government have taken money from the national health service and local government and spread it elsewhere in order to distribute it to their heartlands. It is therefore a scandal to talk to my constituents about £80 million, and they will not forget it at the election. More importantly, the neighbouring constituencies, which are very marginal, will certainly not forget it. They will return to this House people more willing to care for the public finances."
Dominic Grieve says £80m would fund 15 rape crisis centres: "I do not know where the £80 million is supposed to come from, but on my calculation it would pay for the prison places needed to scrap the early release scheme, which the Secretary of State says is so important to him; it would fund 15 rape crisis centres, if that is what he wants to do out of the justice budget; and it would enable him to drop the disgraceful policy of refusing to meet the legal costs of acquitted defendants who do not enjoy legal aid. All those things could be done, and I have to say to him that that would be money much better spent."
Patrick Cormack says the debate is all about Labour wooing the Liberal Democrats: "The motion not only illustrates the prodigality of the Prime Minister—with his busted reputation for financial acumen, which went down the drain a very long time ago—but shows that the Government have no place in their affections or regard for Parliament. They are thrashing around like a dying tyrant, seeking to use their majority to take the public eye off the things that really matter and, perhaps, to save their skins in what they think might become a deal in the future—we remember the Lib-Lab pact, Mr. Deputy Speaker—with those who might come to their aid and succour."
In his main contribution, Dominic Grieve notes that the left-wing blogosphere oppose AV: "The best starting point would be for the Secretary of State to take a short absence from the Chamber to look at the excellent blog site run by his son, Will Straw, on which there has been extensive polling in left-of-centre areas of radicalism about these proposals. No more than 20 per cent., he has concluded, support the alternative vote proposed by the Government and 29 per cent. want no referendum at all. Perhaps we should not be surprised to learn, particularly from a left-of-centre blog, that the vast majority of the remainder want such disparate things that it is impossible to assess what they desire. I think that the Secretary of State would have done rather well to have considered that blog first."
Dominic Grieve says that few voters want the paralysis of PR: "In my constituency—I make this point also in the context of the Liberal Democrats—I get very few representations about changing the electoral system. I suspect that the same is true for many hon. Members. The more that people study proportional representation systems, including purist systems such as that in Israel, the more they must conclude that such systems saddle countries with impossible legislatures, that no proper governance can be carried out under them and that they bring inertia. For those reasons, PR does not commend itself to me."
Mr Grieve on AV favouring Labour: "The alternative vote system would have delivered more seats than the first-past-the-post system for Labour in 2005, even though it only gained 36 per cent. of the popular vote. That seems to me to be a very poor starting-point for change in that direction."
Frank Field highlights another unfairness of AV: "What worries me about the proposals that we are debating is that it is not difficult to imagine some of our colleagues initially being clear winners against three or four other candidates, but, through a process of elimination, losing their seats because the votes eventually go to the runner-up. There is a terrible illogicality in having a system in which a candidate can have a clear lead in the first-preference votes, but in which the second or third-preference votes become equal to the first-preference votes in further stages of the counting. Clearly, those other votes are not equal to the first-preference votes; if they had been, people would have voted differently in the first place."
John Redwood corrects the idea that the Conservatives use AV in internal leadership elections: "Labour and Liberal Democrat representatives seem keen to say that we use the alternative vote system for our internal party elections, but we do not. The system used for our leadership election is the progressive rounds model, under which one candidate drops out at each stage, with everyone being given a vote on the remaining candidates. That could not conceivably be adopted for general elections, as having six or seven candidates at the start would mean that the election would take about three months. The electorate would get bored, and the costs would be massive."
Grieve quotes Ken Livingstone's opposition to AV: “Many people like myself who have long fought for a truly representative voting system will be left with no alternative but to support first-past-the-post because the AV alternative is even worse…Those voters who have backed one of the two strongest candidates in a constituency get no further say in the process, whereas those who have voted for minor parties and crank candidates then get a second vote to determine the outcome between the two leading parties.”