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Mr. Allan: We are grateful to the Conservatives for allowing us such a long and detailed constitutional debate on electoral reform by bringing this measure back to the House so often. It allows us to discuss a subject dear to our hearts that has not often figured in the House until recently.

It is a particular pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who is now an ardent voice in this place for the rump Liberal party.I have sympathy with much of his argument, except that

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I believe that it advanced a romantic view of the world. The world is not like that these days. For every instance of a person judging between candidates, there are far more of people having to vote for the closed list of one, the single party candidate with whom they are presented. People have to vote for a candidate against their judgment of him because they want to vote for Tony Blair or Paddy Ashdown as Prime Minister.

Sympathy for the arguments of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield leads my party to back the single transferable vote system as our preferred option. The amendment neither meets the Conservatives' wishes nor ours. Our preferred system is used in Northern Ireland in many elections. We accepted the Government's system for these elections with some reluctance; it is not our choice.

We have two fundamental objectives. First, we want to achieve greater proportionality. We believe that one of the best ways to get people to turn out and vote is the knowledge that their votes will matter. To date, Conservative votes in Sheffield have meant nothing in the European elections. We hope that those Conservatives will now vote because they have a chance. The same logic applies up and down the country where votes in the European elections will count whether we have closed or open lists.

The second objective is to increase voter choice. We believe that STV is the best way of doing that. If the right hon. Members for Chesterfield and for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) were standing in the same constituency on a list, voters who wanted to support Labour could vote Labour and number them one and two, according to their shade of opinion in the party. That is our preferred option but it is not on the table.

We have accepted with some reluctance that the system should go forward as it is. Having accepted that, and having argued in Committee for the option that we thought sensible--the Belgian list system--and lost it, we are led to the point that with only a few days of parliamentary time left, we believe that our key objective of achieving fairer representation means that we cannot make further progress on voter choice without risking the Bill running into the buffers. That is the basis on which we have decided to vote.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): The hon. Gentleman does not like the choice and would prefer something not on the menu. The Liberals must choose between the two choices on offer, a closed list or an open list. Irrespective of the argument for rushing the measure through, which alternative would the Liberals prefer in the abstract?

8.15 pm

Mr. Allan: I know that the hon. Gentleman is sympathetic to fairer voting systems. In the abstract, we would prefer open lists. I have stated that repeatedly.I have no problem with that but I have one with being drawn into an issue, despite the seductive offers of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), by the idea that because we oppose the Government on this, my enemy's enemy is automatically my friend. In this case my enemy's enemy has an open preference for first past the post. We have to judge whether co-operation furthers our cause of fairer votes or would aid a measure designed to spoil the outcome of the Bill. We have made that judgment and acted accordingly throughout.

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Three main issues have emerged in our lengthy debates. First, the main problems discussed have nothing to do with the principle of whether lists are closed or open but concern the Labour party's selection methods. Many of the quotes in the press and in debates in both Houses--Welsh Members in particular have attended because they have some little local difficulties--have been about how Labour selected its candidates for the European elections.

Mr. Sayeed: Is that not a legitimate concern? That is how the law will operate, and it is perfectly proper to complain about it. If the law allows such operation, it should not be the law.

Mr. Allan: The hon. Gentleman makes a case to which I was going to come about how the law is moving forward in respect of selection for lists. The important thing is that but for the problem in the Labour party selection system, we might not have been debating the matter now. If all three parties had had an open selection process based on all their members voting, we might not have been here now because we would all have accepted the system.

The problem is not a fault of the closed-list system per se. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield feared that this is the way that things are going in the Labour party. I suspect that it already is. With any of the systems that we have discussed, a party could impose candidates from the centre. Labour's national executive committee could, if members were foolish enough to allow it the power, impose candidates in every Westminster seat. Candidates would be presented as a closed list of one. It is not the closed list that causes the problem but how parties decide to select their candidates.

Mr. Lansley: Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the remedy for the Labour party's method of selecting candidates is through an open list? That follows from his point about voter choice by giving voters the option of choosing between candidates presented by a party list.

Mr. Allan: My second point relates to the specifics of the open list as proposed by the Conservatives and will serve to answer the hon. Gentleman by suggesting that the Finnish system is not the best.

Reference has been made to Lord Bethell, who is himself a candidate. He pointed out not only the specific difficulties of the semi-random or arbitrary nature of the way in which the proposed system would operate, but the practical difficulties in respect of next June's elections if we to make a sudden change. It is quite clear that there would be problems with the Finnish system. My party has a perfect slate of candidates and those at the bottom of the list are just as good as those at the top. Although we would be happy for any of them to be elected, that may not always apply to every list in every region. Given the possibility of a random selection of MEPs on the list being elected, some parties might wish to revisit the list and check who was on it.

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I refer the hon. Gentleman to his own party's selection procedure. Is it not the case that the Liberal Democrats

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use the zipper system which gives undue preference to the smaller number of female candidates who wish to stand as Liberal Democrat MEPs?

Mr. Allan: The hon. Gentleman is straying into a matter of some detail. However, he raises an example of where the open-list system would remove the democratic decision that we made as a party. One of our priorities is to have decent representation of women. The party voted for that and in that sense we are ashamed of our representation here. We wish women to be better represented and we are prepared to take steps to ensure that. That is a perfectly sensible choice given that the party voted for it.

Mr. Benn: If all the Liberal candidates next year are as good as each other, why cannot the electors choose who they want? Is not that the issue? If the hon. Gentleman favours the open list, why will he go into the Lobby tonight and vote for the closed list? If he voted for the open list the matter would go back to the Lords with the Lords' view prevailing.

Mr. Allan: While I believe that any of our candidates would be equally good, the members of my party have decided on a particular order. As they had made a democratic decision, they would wish to revisit it, as would the members of any party, once the system had been changed.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Is not the hon. Gentleman elucidating exactly what is wrong with the system? In Germany, which has already been mentioned, the bizarre situation can arise whereby someone who is thrown out by the electorate can be put back onto the list system. That is quite ridiculous.

Mr. Allan: I would respectfully suggest that the hon. Lady is referring to a completely different system--the German additional-Member system.

To return to the system that we are debating, if we were to proceed with the Conservative proposal, the tacticians within every party would advise withdrawing all candidates except those likely to win. The parties would wish to put forward a slate of candidates that, in our case, had been democratically selected. As Lord Bethell quite rightly said, no party would favour putting forward a random list of 10 or 11 candidates in the south-east.

Mr. Lansley: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving way to me again. He keeps talking about a random list. Does he not recognise that the Bill--with the Lords amendment to proposed section 3(5)--would make it perfectly possible for a party to present a list in the order of its own choice, but the voters, by their preferences, could choose to change it?

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