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Mr. Allan: The voters would still be left with the option of simply voting for individual candidates, without the Belgian option of voting for the party's choice.

My third point is that everyone who has spoken so far, including the Home Secretary and Opposition Back Benchers, has highlighted the problem of first past the post being a closed-list system of one and expressed the wish to enhance voter choice--and we agree. However,

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the first-past-the-post system, which we believe is the alternative if we are unable to resolve our dispute tonight, would represent a significant step backwards. I hope that the fundamental point made by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield about transferring power from the people to the party is an indication that he now supports some form of single transferable vote.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, under the current system we all owe our presentation to the electorate to our selection by a small group of party members. We do not have a primary system and the voters in our constituencies do not get to choose the candidates for each party. We are often selected by an odd group of party members in a village hall somewhere--I think particularly of the Conservatives when I say that. Once we have been selected, we know that we are the party candidates in a closed list of one.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): It really is nonsense for people to keep talking about a closed list of one. There is no such thing. Closed lists are the opposite of open lists. We cannot have an open list of one, therefore we cannot have a closed list of one.

Mr. Allan: The arguments that are often put forward by Conservative Members suggest that they are moving towards proposing some form of primary, which would effectively be an open-list system of one because a primary system establishes the number one candidate for a party. Their arguments against the current system relate to what happens to those at the bottom of the list, who are in the same position as those who come second or third in a selection battle for a Westminster seat--they are simply unlikely to win.

We believe that the MEP candidates who have been selected by the Opposition parties at least have the endorsement of thousands of their local party members. We should like to extend voter choice and revisit the issue in the review that the Home Secretary has promised. We welcome that review as it will provide an opportunity to argue again in favour of the single transferable vote, which is our first choice of voting system. We do not believe that this is the right time to oppose the Bill or join those who, at this late stage, seek to amend it when, at the appropriate stage, they declined to vote with our Peers in another place for the amendment that would have introduced the far more sensible Belgian open-list system.

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea): Listening to tonight's debate, one word springs to mind; it is not principle or opposition, but opportunism. The Conservative party has always believed in the closed-list system and only last week told the House of its total faith in the first-past-the-post system. With due respect to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), the latter is a closed-list system because if one wanted to elect a Conservative candidate to Parliament, but had the misfortune to live in Sutton Coldfield, one would have no alternative but to vote for the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler). There is no choice of candidate--only of party.

I would be intrigued to hear from Opposition Members whether they would really support an open-list system for the European elections when the likes of Mr. Paul Sykes might provide millions of pounds to campaign in favour of voting solely for eurosceptic candidates. That would

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wreak complete havoc in those elections. I leave them to dwell on that point. However, I will not deny the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield the opportunity of hearing yet another Back Bencher acknowledge that there are some advantages to an open-list system, provided that it allowed people to tick either the party box or the candidate box--which would not be a truly open system, but a Belgian system--and provided that the voters had the possibility of knowing something about the candidates, which is the case in respect of all those standing in European elections.

Nevertheless, as a Back Bencher, I will give the right hon. Gentleman the rationale for why closed-list systems should sometimes be preferred--there needs to be a separation of power. Parties select candidates and voters elect them. The more say the voters have about the choice of candidates, the less influence they have on the result of the election.

Let me give two simple examples of countries that allow voters to have some say, not only in the election of parties, but in the selection of candidates. The Irish voting system uses the single transferable vote, which allows voters to pick between candidates of Fianna Fail or of Fine Gael and between parties. It has resulted in there being no clear ideological distinction between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, and sometimes between them and the Irish Labour party. That is the result of giving voters the luxury of choosing candidates, which detracts from their power in the choice of parties.

8.30 pm

The second example is that of the United States, which uses the first-past-the-post system, which should meet with the Conservatives' approval. However, it also makes use of primaries, in which voters are able to exercise a choice in the selection of candidates from their own party, and sometimes those of other parties as well--we have all heard of Republican raids on Democratic primaries. What is the result of that system, which allows the voter two bites of cherry, first in the choice of candidate and then in the choice of party? It is that there is no clear difference between the parties; as any textbook will say, there is a huge ideological overlap between Democrats and Republicans. The reason is that, in the desire to give voters more choice, the US system has given them so much choice that it confuses the choice of candidate with the choice of party.

That is the rationale for arguing that open lists can sometimes be self-defeating. They cannot give the voter more choice overall: voter choice is concentrated either on the choice between parties, or on the choice between candidates; and any system that tries to do both confuses the issue.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): Is there a single Member of Parliament for any party who stood for election last year on the basis of a closed-list system for Europe?

Mr. Linton: I admire the chutzpah of the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends, who are all totally opposed to any change in the voting system and totally in favour of first past the post, which is a closed-list system. They probably had not even heard of open and closed lists until a few weeks ago, but suddenly

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they are the world's greatest advocates of open lists. Some of them do not even understand what open lists are--witness the fact that they so often confuse the issue of open or closed lists with that of how candidates are chosen.

That is the other side of the coin regarding the rationale for closed lists. If one has closed lists, one must have the candidates clearly selected and ranked by the political parties. That must be done on the basis of one member, one vote.

Mr. Mitchell: I am somewhat confused by my hon. Friend's argument. Like me, he is a supporter of proportional representation, so I cannot understand why he is arguing that the electorate are not intellectually up to the level of decision making exercised by the parties in choosing the lists.

Mr. Linton: As I explained, I acknowledge the arguments in favour of the sort of open lists that were discussed earlier. I am, however, explaining the rationale for closed lists: if people are allowed to choose between candidates, the inevitable effect is to fudge the basic issue of the choice between the parties. I am simply making the point in principle that one cannot give people the choice offered by open lists without detracting from their choice between parties.

As I said, the corollary of that must be that the parties choose their candidates in a democratic way. The issue is quite separate from that of open lists, but the Labour party, which has been mentioned several times, uses panels to rank candidates. That process was described by the general secretary of the party as a transitional system for one election only and I shall be glad to hold him to his word.

There is a specific difficulty facing each of the parties in the coming election: for example, the system offers the Labour party more seats in the south-west, but fewer in the north-west. There was a temptation to manage the transition so that we did not end up with too many of our people representing seats in the north-west and too few in the south-west.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): I do not understand the logic of my hon. Friend's argument, or why we need to move Glyn Ford from Manchester to No. 1 on the list for south-west England. I do not perceive the logic in that. The answer to the problem is to allow party members in each region to state their preferences by way of one person, one vote. Will my hon. Friend defend what has happened in Wales, where the person who is third on the list did not receive one vote in Wales? Can he explain why Alec Smith in Scotland, Mike McGowan in Leeds and Christine Oddy--

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