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Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring): How does the Secretary of State define "collusion"? For the sake of clarity, when he says that the Labour party will not collude, to what is he referring specifically?

Mr. Davies: I am happy to explain, because this was the subject of some discussion in the House of Lords. The hon. Gentleman's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), also raised the issue, and I gave him a similar assurance.

For example, it was suggested that the Labour party would put up candidates in the south Wales east region to contest all the constituencies quite properly on a first-past-the-post basis, but would not enter any candidates for the additional member seats, putting forward instead candidates standing in the name of the Co-operative party. The Co-operative party is part of the Labour party. The suggestion is that we would then encourage Labour voters not to vote for the Labour candidate--there would not be one--but to vote for the Co-operative party candidate and that, after the election, the Co-operative party candidate would form an immediate one-party alliance with the Labour party.

It has been suggested that we would not put forward candidates in mid and west Wales, for example, but would choose individuals who were known to be Labour party supporters, and that the party machine would support them as independent candidates. Immediately after the election of the Assembly, those independent candidates would automatically take the whip of the Labour party.

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Such collusion is technically possible, which is why I want to assure the House that, as far as I am concerned--as Secretary of State for Wales, I have some influence in these matters--there will be no such collusion when we fight the election.

Dr. Fox: Although I accept the Secretary of State's assurance--I give the same assurance on behalf of the Conservative party--we cannot speak for other parties. The Secretary of State admits that collusion is possible. Does he not therefore think that there should be a provision in the Bill to prevent such activity?

Mr. Davies: That may be so, but the proposal that we are discussing strikes at the very heart of the democratic arrangements. It does not achieve the objective that the Opposition seek to achieve, but strikes out the principle of proportionality in the electoral system. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's assurance that there will be no collusion by the Conservative party, but I must tell him in a spirit of friendship that I would not mind if the Conservative party did collude, because, according to the latest information available, even with collusion the Conservatives would be unlikely to win many seats in the Welsh Assembly.

The Conservatives are not really afraid of the possibility of collusion--that is a smokescreen; their real fear is that there is such a broad-based consensus in Wales that people will choose to vote for, dare I say it, a Liberal Democrat candidate in Brecon and Radnor if they feel that that vote is most likely to succeed in getting rid of the Conservatives.

In exactly the same way, it is clear that, in the 1997 election, a range of people who were broadly left of centre in Monmouth, Vale of Glamorgan or Vale of Clwyd were prepared to support the Labour candidate, because they thought that that was the best way to guarantee getting rid of what they considered to be a discredited and unacceptable Conservative party candidate. They wanted a Tory-free Wales, and to set Wales on the path of creating a new democracy.

That actually happened. We cannot quantify it, because I can give no direct evidence to the Opposition, but I know from my experience of canvassing in Brecon and Radnor--Montgomery was not top of the Labour party's hit list at the last election--where I spent many happy days trying to persuade people to vote Labour, that many people told me that the only way to get rid of the dreadful, rotten, corrupt, incompetent and feckless Conservative Government was to vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate, even though they did not admire his personal qualities.

Mr. Letwin: I wonder whether the Secretary of State has understood what he has just said. If the amendment were accepted and people were to follow the tactic that he describes, that would do worse damage to the Tory cause than the system that he proposes.

Mr. Davies: That intervention shows how difficult the Conservative party finds it to come into touch with the reality of modern politics. I do not regard the electoral

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system as something that should be constructed in order to advance the interests of my political party. Politics in Wales has moved on from that.

The hon. Gentleman clearly cannot understand that I want a system that ensures that the 20 per cent. of people in Wales who voted Conservative at the last election are properly represented in the Assembly if they choose to vote Conservative again. I do not want them to vote Conservative, and will do all I can by argument and campaigning to prevent them from doing so, but if they choose to vote for the Conservative party, they should be represented in the Assembly.

Mr. Letwin: As Secretary of State, the right hon. Gentleman owes it to the House to maintain some intellectual integrity in this argument. Did he not argue that the Conservative party was supporting the amendment not because we were concerned about alter ego parties but because we were trying to preserve ourselves against the circumstances that he described? He should have the grace to admit that that argument is wholly fallacious, because the amendment makes our position under those circumstances worse, and we must therefore have a different motive--genuinely to prevent the problem of alter ego parties.

Mr. Davies: I do not accept that. I am trying to save the Conservative party from itself. The hon. Gentleman must understand that these moments of generosity are few and far between, so I urge the Conservatives--

Mr. Grieve rose--

6.15 pm

Mr. Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman sit down? He has now been in the House long enough to know that, when someone is responding to an intervention, it is courteous and sensible to allow that intervention to be dealt with before making another. If he will contain himself for a moment, I shall finish dealing with the previous intervention.

This is a serious matter. We are trying to construct a new form of inclusive democracy in Wales, and the Conservative party seeks to strike at the heart of the electoral arrangements that we propose.

Mr. Grieve: Does the Secretary of State agree that the alternative way of viewing the matter is that he is concerned for the time when the worm turns? When the worm turns, his party might be at a disadvantage in Wales.

Mr. Davies: It is quite clear that I am wasting my time. Despite my best efforts and those of all political parties in Wales, the Conservatives refuse to be brought into touch with the reality of modern politics. I am not concerned about the time, in five, 10 or 15 years, when the electoral cycle has moved on and the Labour party has 40 seats rather than the current 34. When that happens, we shall have to grin and bear it, with fortitude and good humour.

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I know that the electoral cycle swings. Hon. Members must now recognise that we have a broad-based consensus. The last election was fought on that basis, as was the referendum--

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) rose--

Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman should contain himself, because it is possible to strain my tolerance and good humour. If anybody can do so, it is the hon. Gentleman.

As I was saying, we have a broad-based consensus. The House of Commons passed the Bill with a record majority of 220. It was accepted in Committee, and there were never any questions about it, but we are now faced with the prospect of the House of Lords striking out a measure that is at the heart of the creation of the Welsh Assembly.

I shall give way to the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), but, as the House wants to listen to the views of other hon. Members, I should like to make some progress thereafter.

Mr. Swayne: The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the consensus cannot be judged to last for ever. The undertaking that he has so willingly given that none of the parties present will indulge in so-called "split ticket voting" cannot be held as a guarantee for ever. We are simply trying to put in place processes that will prevent that once the electoral cycle has moved on. If the right hon. Gentleman does not like the measures that we propose, should he not think of other more appropriate measures to put in the Bill?

Mr. Davies: I have thought of other more appropriate measures. They were put in my party's manifesto at the last election, and we won 34 out of 40 parliamentary seats in Wales. The other parties with similar proposals also won the confidence of the majority of the people of Wales.

The Conservative party, which was the only one trying to defend the status quo--it was stuck in a time warp, and was not prepared to move on to a new form of inclusive, rational, sane, democratic politics--paid the price. The people endorsed our proposals again in the referendum, and this House has endorsed them. What we are now seeing is Conservative Front-Bench Members trying to justify a measure that was inserted against their better judgment in the House of Lords. I want to move on now, if I may.

The Lords amendments are driven by party self-interest. The last thing that the official Opposition want is the people of Wales to be able fully to exercise their democratic rights--they fully realise the difficulties that befell them at the general election. I would not dispute the intelligence of the United Kingdom electorate, and we should leave it to them, not to a diktat from the Conservative party, to decide who they want to represent them in the Assembly.

The changes would discriminate against independent candidates by denying them the opportunity to stand in an electoral region, and by undermining their chances in individual constituencies. The single vote system would mean that anyone who voted in a constituency for an independent candidate would not register a vote in the indirect election of the additional members.

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How many voters who might vote for an independent in their constituency would do so when they realised that they would disfranchise themselves in the regional election? Very few, which is where the Lords amendment would discriminate so directly and blatantly against independent candidates. It is important in politics, certainly in rural Wales, that individual candidates should be able to come forward.

I do not understand why the Conservative party wants to impose such draconian restrictions on small parties such as the Green party and on the independents, especially when the Conservative party faces the prospect of becoming an even smaller party. I do not understand why voters should not be able to vote for one party in a constituency and for the list of another party in the electoral region. That is the heart of the arrangements we propose. Ours is a democracy of long standing, and we have a mature electorate who are well able to take responsible decisions for themselves.

Lords amendment No. 21 greatly extends the reference in respect of the party list to be used in the event of a vacancy in a party list seat. It is otiose. The original drafting made it perfectly clear which was the relevant list, and did so quite succinctly. The Government amendment to Lords amendment No. 21 will restore the clarity of the provision. I urge the House to overturn these amendments and to agree to the Government amendment to Lords amendment No. 21.

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