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Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): If STV is so successful, why do only Southern Ireland and Malta use it? Why should someone's second preference outweigh someone else's first preference? That is how the system works.

Mr. Öpik: One person's second preference does not outweigh another's first choice. It is simply that if the candidate of first choice is eliminated, a person's vote is not wasted but transferred to their second preference. Before the hon. Gentleman rises again, let me stress that no system of election is perfect. We are trying to optimise

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the system that we have. He is wrong to say that Southern Ireland and Malta are the only places that enjoy STV systems. The United Kingdom uses STV in Northern Ireland because it was believed that STV would be the fairest system in an area where, more than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, fairness has to be seen to have been achieved.

Mr. Ancram: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the reason for the introduction of STV in Northern Ireland is that Northern Ireland does not have pluralist politics? Its politics are very different from those of the rest of the United Kingdom. If STV were introduced in the rest of the United Kingdom, its effect would be the reverse of that which it has had in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Öpik: I find it hard to understand the right hon. Gentleman's second point. He is almost saying that if we have a fairer system, people will have to become more partisan and sectarian. I do not accept that. Having grown up in Northern Ireland, I praise the STV system there. It is understood and accepted by pretty much everyone as a fair system for creating a representative outcome. Must we wait for things to get so bad in communities that people are no longer operating effectively in their political system before we are prepared to introduce a fairer system of government? The Liberal Democrats do not operate like that. We think that if something is working effectively in one part of the United Kingdom, the rest of the UK deserves it too. Let us not wait for troubles in our political systems to optimise their operations. The right hon. Gentleman has a deep knowledge of Northern Irish politics. Will he not ask himself whether he agrees with me and many people in Northern Ireland from both sides of the political divide that, for all the problems in Northern Irish politics, the STV system is one thing that is generally regarded as a success? That can be argued for particular reasons, but the most particular reason of all is that STV is the fairest system of electing a Government that anyone has yet come up with. I shall listen with great interest to speeches from colleagues from other parties if they wish to express their worries about STV. We shall try to allay some of their fears. I wish to talk a little more about the additional member system.

8 pm

Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, may I point out that a big negative for the STV system is that it creates multi-Member constituencies. I notice that he has not made any remark about that. He represents a rural seat that has its own strong identity, and so do I. Unfortunately, multi-Member constituencies mean that the attachment of people in a given area to their Member is lost.

Mr. Öpik: I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing that up. I am discussing the STV system this evening rather as I would eat a pizza--I am saving the very best bit until last.

Mr. Ancram: The best bit is the crust.

Mr. Öpik: I knew that I would regret saying that. I shall move swiftly on, not be distracted by these

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gastronomic accusations and return to the point made by the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Mr. Williams).

It is important that we discuss the merits and demerits of multi-seat constituencies, but I want to talk about the additional member system first. I shall describe our concerns about the AMS system. I shall be brief because I am sure that many other hon. Members wish to speak on the matter. The AMS system maintains the first- past-the-post system for the 40 constituencies. That means that the voter has to develop a certain understanding of the nature of the political process. That is our job, not the voter's job. Our job is to create the simplest structure so that the voter can enjoy the outcome for which he or she or, to be more exact, his or her community, has decided to vote.

The AMS system creates party lists. Party lists can be open or closed, but in essence the voter votes for a political party. In a closed list system, the political parties decide who goes on those lists. As Liberal Democrats, we are worried about the power that that gives political parties to establish who will sit in the assembly. We would like a more open system, and there is more than one open system to choose from. We want a system that gives voters choice and we want an open list so that the parties do not enjoy a stranglehold on the 20 seats.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): Does my hon. Friend think that the Government ought to be persuaded that parties that insist on closed lists may be punished by the electorate, who resent being presented with cloned candidates rather than the genuine range of opinion that is apparent even within new Labour? Does he agree that the Government should perhaps consider that a more pluralist system might benefit them?

Mr. Öpik: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. By amazing coincidence, I have an example of just such an event. In Bavaria, which has a form of open-list AMS for its state Parliament elections, in a celebrated case in 1962, Dr. Hildegard Hamm-Brucher was sensationally moved from 17th position to first, despite the protestations of the political parties, by the wish of the voters. The voters reacted to party bullying and elected the person they, rather than the party, wanted.

There is resentment among the public when they feel that there is a party stitch-up. Some valuable points were made by Labour Back Benchers earlier about jobs for the boys--jobs for the boys and the girls. The STV system gets rid of all that, but with AMS there is still a danger, especially in the 20 seats, of patronage and that the situation will be exacerbated by the closed list.

The hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr expressed concern about multi-seat constituencies. I want to explain why we think they are an advantage. There is nothing new about them in the United Kingdom. In any large metropolitan authority, members of different parties are likely to represent the same ward. I have experience on Newcastle upon Tyne city council of a three-party ward. For a long time there were two Tories and one Liberal Democrat councillor. Now, I am glad to say, there are three Liberal Democrats. We learnt to work together. The public chose which councillor they wanted to use. There was a surprising degree of co-operation. The party issues came second and the interests of the people came

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first. In local government, we already have abundant evidence to suggest that people are effectively represented by multi-seat wards.

Another example is to be found in the Republic of Ireland. I have had many discussions with politicians in Southern Ireland in fulfilling my responsibilities as Liberal Democrat spokesman on Northern Ireland. They often talk about STV. One of the most interesting consequences of the multi-seat STV system in the Republic of Ireland is the regular and consistent interest that all Members of the Irish Parliament must take in the activities and problems of their constituents. More to the point--this is perhaps something that we as Members of Parliament would not enjoy--there is an element of competition within the parties to be the best constituency representatives. That may make us work a little harder in our constituencies, but there is no doubt that the winner is the voter.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): Is not one of the strongest benefits of the STV system that individuals who hold strong political views are more likely to be represented by a range of political representatives? For example, strong Conservatives in Wales cannot find a sympathetic ear because only one party represents large areas of Wales.

Mr. Öpik: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I should like to think that there is no such problem in Powys and that the voters would repeatedly fill up all the spaces with Liberal Democrats, but I am sure that even in Powys there is a cross-section of political views. In rural areas, for the sake of simplicity, we may end up with single-seat constituencies, but in places such as Cardiff and Swansea there is no doubt that the first-past-the-post system mitigates against proportional representation of a cross-section of opinion. We do not get two Labour, one Liberal Democrat, one Conservative and a Plaid Cymru Member representing such cities.

I agree emphatically with my hon. Friend's point. In the interests of democracy, leaving aside the stress and anxieties for us as elected representatives, it would be preferable if a 50 per cent. vote for Labour delivered 50 per cent. of the seats to Labour and if 25 per cent. of the votes for the Liberal Democrats gave us one quarter of the representatives.

One point about multi-Member constituencies that is not always made is that women and ethnic minorities tend to achieve more representation by being allowed to choose between candidates of the same party and, more to the point, by the elimination of some of the closed-shop mentality which, whether we like it or not, often pervades the political system. In that sense, the system is effective even in helping to redress some of the traditional inequities thrown up by the first-past-the-post system.

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