HC Deb 08 February 1984 vol 53 cc901-4 4.36 pm
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish an electoral system for the European Assembly based on proportional representation; and for connected purposes.

As a preface to my remarks, may I say that the chronological sequence of events leading to today's Bill repays careful study. The treaty of Rome was ratified by the House in October 1972. Its provisions applied to this country from 1 January 1973. The relevant part of the treaty dealing with the system of elections is article 138, paragraph 3, which says: The assembly shall draw up proposals for elections by direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all Member States.

Therefore, it was clearly envisaged in the treaty of Rome that a common system of elections would ultimately be adopted. It is a matter of some regret that more than 10 years later we find that that important provision is yet to be fulfilled. It remains unfulfilled because of the obstinate refusal of the Government to implement a system of elections which embraces an element of proportionality.

The House will know that the first direct elections to the European Assembly took place on 7 June 1979. In 1979, except for Great Britain, all countries, including Northern Ireland, used some form of proportional representation. It is worth noting that the Government of the day were willing to allow a system of election in Northern Ireland based on the single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies—thereby tacitly recognising the case for proportional representation when it is necessary to protect religious minorities—but they are not prepared to allow the provisions to apply to political parties in a minority position in other parts of the United Kingdom.

In March 1982 the European Assembly debated the system of elections to be used in 1984. It wisely sought to fulfil the spirit of the treaty of Rome by recommending not a common system but a common electoral framework within which each country may choose one of several related methods of election. The proposed electoral framework provides for proportional representation in multi-member constituencies of 3 to 15 members. The system of first-past-the-post in single member constituencies was ruled out; so were the various additional member systems. It is also worth noting in passing that the principal opposition to that proposal at that time came from the British delegation to the European Assembly.

The last time the House considered the reform of the European electoral system was during the seminal days of the Lib-Lab pact, on 13 December 1977. I remind the House that on that occasion 224 hon. Members voted for a system of proportional representation. The Division Lists for that debate repay careful study. Contained in the same Lobby in favour of a PR system were such unlikely bedfellows as the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan), the former right hon. Member for Huyton, now Lord Wilson, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey), the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), the right hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) and the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour).

Many opinions were ventured during that debate. Some hon. Members thought that the shock of a new European election coupled to a novel system of polling would be too much for our electorate to cope with at one go. The present Minister of State, Home Office—the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd) — took that view and voted against the proportional representation option because he favoured a common system for all the EEC countries and did not want to pre-empt a joint decision.

During the debate on the European Assembly Elections Bill, the right hon. Gentleman said: I came quickly to the conclusion that it would be a mistake to depart from the existing system for the first round." — [Official Report, 13 December 1977; Vol. 941, c. 318.] In the rest of his remarks, the right hon. Gentleman implied that he foresaw that a proportional system of representation would be in place before June 1984. That argument may have been tenable then, but it is no longer tenable now.

When one looks at the results of the first direct election in 1979, the most cursory inspection shows an indefensible discrepancy between the distribution of the votes cast and the distribution of the seats won. The Conservatives won half the votes and three-quarters of the seats. The Labour party won a third of the votes and a fifth of the seats. The Liberals took an eighth of the votes and were left totally without representation.

It is, I believe, true to say that there was widespread concern at that imbalance in the aftermath of the last European election—so much so that The Sun newspaper—not a noted organ of Liberal propaganda—said in an editorial on Tuesday 12 June 1979: But NEITHER major party can feel any satisfaction at the shocking turn-out — nor at the sheer injustice done to the Liberal party … we MUST come into line with the rest of the Common Market and accept PR BEFORE it is forced upon us.

Since that election, an increasing number of people from different walks of life—from all parties and from none—have joined the cause of electoral reform. They have included such diverse personalities as Mr. Arthur Scargill, Mr. Ken Livingstone, Mr. Gavin Laird and Mr. Frank Chappie and a group of leading industrialists, loosely described as "mainly enlightened Conservatives" chaired by Sir Graham Wilkins, the chairman of the Beecham group, and Lord Caldecote, chairman of Finance for Industry. Even the Archbishop of York has joined the cause.

Apart from individual support, which has increased since 1979, the latest Gallup opinion poll conducted in June 1983 jointly for the Daily Telegraph and the Channel 4 programme "A Week in Politics" found a clear majority of voters favouring a change to some form of proportional representation—and that on a question relating directly to Westminster elections.

In parenthesis, I would say that those who have objections to PR because it leads to a sharing of power within Government do not have that argument open to them in the context of the European Assembly, whose function is exclusively deliberative, not executive.

That brings me to the system of PR recommended in the Bill. My Bill is drafted in such a way as to encourage the maximum possible number of hon. Members to vote in favour of the principle of a fairer system. That can be done in a series of ways, and the choice of a system can be left to a later stage in the Bill's progress.

The last Bill introduced by the previous Labour Government was based on a regional list system, as is the present recommendation from the European Assembly. The Government have continued the single transferable vote system in multi-member constituencies from the June poll in Northern Ireland. Any of these systems would give a much fairer and more acurate result than the system of first-past-the-post.

It is an interesting coincidence that the appropriate orders giving effect to the procedures to be used in the forthcoming European election in June were introduced only the week before last, and the appropriate order for the STV system in Northern Ireland was confirmed by the House last Thursday, only a few days after notice of my Bill appeared on the Order Paper.

I should report that the Bill has sponsors from all quarters of the House, including both major and minority parties. The charge that the Government must answer today is that they have not taken timeous steps to introduce a system of elections to the European Assembly to bring us into line with the spirit of the treaty of Rome and our Common Market partners. It is my submission that the Government are guilty of deliberate and self-interested procrastination. Further delays can no longer be defended.

Unfortunately, the reality is that the forthcoming European election will now be held under the first-past-the-post system. The introduction of this Bill serves notice that those of us who have promulgated the cause of PR will be using the platform afforded by the coming election to introduce the necessary changes to ensure that the next election after this is conducted, in concert with the rest of Europe, using some system of PR.

Mr. Speaker

The Question is, That the hon. Member have leave to bring in his Bill.

As many as are of that opinion say Aye.

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Of the contrary opinion, No.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)


Mr. Speaker

I think the Ayes have it—the Ayes have it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Archy Kirkwood, Mr. Roy Jenkins, Mr. Tim Rathbone, Mr. Austin Mitchell, Mr. Donald Stewart, Mr. Stan Thorne, Mr. Dafydd Wigley, Mr. Charles Morrison and Mr. A. J. Beith.