Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): If we have a body such as the Electoral Commission which needs to be impartial, it is most important that we should not charge it with deeds that put it in a position where others may think that it is not being impartial. I therefore hope that the Minister will listen carefully to the points made from the Opposition Front Bench and to those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), because there is a danger here.
The process may start with the best of intentions. The Electoral Commission might feel that its draftsmen and women are sufficiently capable of setting out, in short and clear prose, exactly how the two different systems operate. However, it is easy to tiptoe from straightforward explanations of complex systems to value judgments. As we have already heard from my hon. Friend in speaking to his amendment, the language describing the two systems is already charged with prejudice and opinion. Calling the current system “first past the post” may make it attractive to those who like horse racing, but it may also make it anathema to those who do not, because it perhaps invites a comparison with the grand national, about which people have passionate views, both for and against.
“First past the post” is not a particularly elegant way of describing a system in which the person who gets the most votes wins, which is probably how I would describe the current system. People can win an election by having more votes than any other candidate in that election.
That is a relatively simple approach, but it is not contained in the name of the system. I find the alternative vote much more difficult to describe. As colleagues will know, I am probably not a great fan of it. It is inherently complicated, because of the reallocation of votes and the fact that people who vote for losing candidates effectively vote twice, while people who vote for winning candidates vote only once. Again, however, that takes us into opinion. I am setting out my opinion, but how does one describe the system in language that does not in some way prejudice that description or imply that the extra choice for some electors is a good thing, and that people should therefore warm towards it?
It will be very difficult for the Electoral Commission to come up with language describing both systems that is thought to be fair, and this is particularly true for the alternative vote. There will be rows over the question, which will drag the Electoral Commission into the proper conduct of the election. That raises the danger of a well-intentioned body being dragged into a political argument that it should be well above, leading to the possibility of one or both sides in the referendum campaign feeling that they have not been fairly treated, because a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph or even a whole document was in some way misleading, or was telling only half the story or using prejudicial language.
Mr Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): Let me apprise my right hon. Friend of an example of just such a problem. I have seen the Electoral Commission asked whether it is true that a candidate has to get 50% of the vote to win under the alternative vote system. The Electoral Commission immediately replied that this was a subjective judgment and that it would not get dragged into the evaluation of the two systems, but how then could it describe the system? It is either correct that a candidate needs more than 50% of the votes to win or it is not, so what is the Electoral Commission going to say? Will it decline to inform the voters about the very nature of the system in order to avoid controversy? If so, it might as well not put out any information at all.
Mr Redwood: I agree, and the conclusion is just that: the Electoral Commission should not put out information because that might drag it into the debate. The whole purpose of testing a proposition in a referendum or testing candidates in an election is to allow a free exchange of ideas and views. The two campaigns will, of course, be heavily involved, but there will also be lots of other people, institutions, media representatives and newspapers claiming to be doing impartial analysis on the claims of the two sides. Some of them might even do something that gets close to being an impartial analysis of the claims of the two sides, but they will all discover, as we saw in the last general election, that having something that everybody regards as impartial is an impossibility.
The issue behind this debate may be for the political classes only. I do not think that it is the subject of much discussion in the pubs, clubs or schools of Wokingham, for example, but it is of passionate interest to the political classes. A large number of people now earn their living out of politics one way or another, and they will be watching every word and every sign, in every part of the referendum campaign, to see how it is going and whether it is fair.
I do not think that the Minister is about to give ground on the non-Government amendments in this group. I would therefore urge him to say to the Electoral Commission, ex cathedra, from his pulpit, “We love you dearly. We wish you to be impartial. Hesitate, hesitate and hesitate again before you start to make statements about this highly charged territory.” While there may be 40 million people out there who are not much moved by this subject, there are another 1 million or 2 million who are very moved by it-whose livelihoods depend on it or who are preoccupied by it-who will be watching every word. It will be extremely difficult to come up with that perfect, impartial prose that even describes the system, let alone avoids the obvious pitfall of wandering into opinion. There is nothing more annoying in the heat of an election campaign than for someone to claim impartiality, but then to say something critical of one’s own position, which is what happened in the last general election.
Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): I would like to bring to my right hon. Friend’s attention a particular difficulty in Wales that may be relevant. On the day that the referendum is taking place, a Welsh Assembly election is also taking place, the vote for which will use yet another different system. I wonder whether he has a view on whether we are confusing people even further, and in particular the Electoral Commission, by suggesting that it needs to explain that the subject of the referendum is a different system from that being used when people cast their votes on the same day.
Mr Redwood: My hon. Friend makes an important point. A powerful point for the no case in the referendum-the case against a change in our electoral system-is just that: that so many electoral systems are already in use, particularly in Wales and Scotland, that it could become quite complicated for people trying to remember which system they are voting under. If people are voting under a system other than the current, general system for the national election, they may wish to vote more tactically. One feature of AV is that a natural Liberal Democrat voter who wanted to make their party greener might think it a good idea to vote Green for their first preference and to give the Liberal Democrats only their second preference. That would be a perfectly rational strategy for that voter to make their party greener, but they would need to know that they were voting under that system to make doing so sensible.
However, I have wandered a little from my main point, which is that in order to preserve that impartiality, it is better to say nothing. The whole point of an election is to tease out the issues, so that electors can make their own decisions. In the last general election, the different parties made claims, and we then had to watch or listen to the BBC come out with so-called experts who said that they could find the truth, either by saying that it was between the two parties, or by concluding that neither party was telling the truth and then coming up with the BBC truth. This is a free society, and that was probably quite helpful in the election-if that is what turned the BBC on and what it wanted to pay people good salaries to do-but I do not think that many voters think, “Ah! At last I’ve got the impartial truth! The BBC correspondent has told me that Labour weren’t right on this issue and that the Tories weren’t right on that issue, so I now know the truth.” I think that the elector goes off and forms their own judgment.
George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con): I want to pick up on the point about impartiality. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to guarantee the impartiality of the Electoral Commission and the information it puts out is to ensure that it has the agreement of both campaigns, which would prevent it from straying into this area? It was said earlier that the no campaign in a previous referendum was putting out misinformation, but in this referendum the NO2AV campaign has called for the Electoral Commission to issue an explanatory booklet because we want that information out there. Does my right hon. Friend understand that that information will be stronger if it is agreed by both campaigns?
Mr Redwood: I am grateful for that intervention, from which I learned that the no campaign would like one of these booklets. However, I rather prefer the lock on the door that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex is proposing, as I remain to be persuaded that such a booklet can be phrased in a way that everybody would find fair. The fairest thing to do is to put this lock on the door; then we will know that we have had a fair referendum because everybody will have consented to it.
If the Minister will accept amendment 247, that will be wonderful and my hon. Friends will rest content. If, as I suspect, he will not, will he at least say that he will warn the Electoral Commission not to try to write a definitive document, as it would just be torn to pieces?
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): There are three amendments in the group, which seek to clarify the role of the Electoral Commission in providing information about the voting systems on which the public will be asked to vote. I ask hon. Members to support Government amendment 264, which clarifies the Electoral Commission’s role, making it clear that it can make appropriate information available in line with its stated intention to provide strictly factual or neutral information to voters on how the different systems work in practice.
Hon. Members will know that when the Electoral Commission was doing its research on the question, which we debated last week, one important conclusion highlighted the limited knowledge of voters about different voting systems. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) raised the same point in his remarks. The report acknowledged that the referendum campaigns and media coverage will increase public understanding. The current public awareness role of the Electoral Commission, seen in paragraph 7 of schedule 1, is to provide information about the mechanics of the referendum-how it takes place and how to vote in it. My hon. Friend had a bit of fun with the language earlier, but I am sure we can agree that what is important is the practicalities rather than whether to vote yes or no. We are not going to table an amendment to mandate the answer, I am afraid to say. The Government are, of course, neutral on the result.