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Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw: One second. I always try to ensure in these debates that more information is imparted. Cambridge, Massachusetts, has a system of proportional representation, whereas Louisiana, reflecting its French heritage, has a majoritarian system similar to the one that operates in France.

Mr. Linton: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. Before he is given the golden anorak award for being the greatest expert on counting systems, will he accept that the correct name for the d'Hondt system is the highest-average system and the correct name for the Sainte-Lague system is the rounding-up system? The habit of naming such systems after their inventors rather obscures their simplicity.

Mr. Straw: I am afraid that I shall give my hon. Friend only a bronze award for trying, as I do not think that he is correct. The principal difference that has concerned hon. Members lies in the numbers in the divisors. The d'Hondt system divisors go 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, the unmodified Sainte-Lague system divisors go 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and--as everyone will recall--the modified Sainte-Lague system divisors go 1.4, 3, 5, 7, 9. Hon. Members should know by now--I am happy to give an anorak to anyone who can tell me--why the modified Sainte-Lague system starts with 1.4.

Mr. Linton: I shall be receiving the silver anorak award. Those mathematical formulae only obscure the point that a divisor of 1, 3, 5, 7 is another way in which to describe the simple process of taking an average, as hon. Members will discover if they try it on the back of an envelope--it is the process by which one rounds up. The point of starting with 1.4 is to avoid what was discovered to happen when the system was first used--that a party with only 5 per cent. of the vote could have its vote rounded up to 10 per cent. and so win a seat. Starting with 1.4 provides an effective threshold.

Mr. Straw: I award my hon. Friend a second-hand anorak for that. As we all know, 1.4 is the square root of two.

At Second Reading, I sought to be open-minded on the exact list system--as I have tried to be on many Bills, as I hope my record makes clear. That has been held against me. The closed-list system was in the Bill. I said that that was our preference, but that we were open to argument. I made no undertaking that we would change our mind, but I said that we would listen to the argument. Indeed, we did--we examined it in great detail. In the event, we came down against the so-called Belgian system, and against the open-list system.

It adds no strength to the argument of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield to criticise us for not being willing to listen to the argument. We took part in considerable debate about the matter. Had the argument been slightly more weighted on one side, we might have

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gone for the Belgian system. In the event--and for the reasons that I explained in February or March--we decided not to do so.

We felt that the open-list system, proposed by the Opposition, would produce the worst consequences of all. It would not provide people with voter choice. It is called an open-list system, but a proper open-list systemensures that there are as many votes as there are vacancies on the ballot paper. Under the Conservatives' back-of-the-envelope proposals, even if there are 11 vacancies--as there will be in one region--there can be only one vote. Therefore, how does one express a preference for the other 10 candidates who are to be elected? The Opposition cannot explain how that will be sorted out.

The Opposition must face the fact that one consequence of their proposal is that somebody in one party who gets 500,000 votes may not be elected, while someone in another party who gets 300,000 votes is elected. The British public will not regard that as fair or explicable.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): What is the point of having regions at all? If the people will not play a part in deciding who is elected, why do we not have a national list and a national voting system?

Mr. Straw: We could have a national list, and it is perfectly fair to say that some European countries have such a system. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that there has not been a great deal of argument about this point. However, we judged that it was better and fairer to operate the system in regions, but to have national lists in Scotland and Wales. It is a balanced argument--it is not a huge issue of principle one way or the other. A national list would increase the chances of a small extremist party gaining not only support, but Members. That would be an argument against it, but this is not an issue on which people have been engaged.

In my region, people have a strong sense of place for Knowsley, Liverpool, Manchester or Blackburn, but they also have a sense that they are part of the north-west region. Interestingly, that is partly due to the development since the 1950s of commercial television. People's sense of regional identity--even in England--is strong, and it is reasonable to reflect that in the system.

We are told that the closed-list system is a complete abberation and is undemocratic. However, it is used by the majority of voters within the EU--it is used in France, Germany, Greece, Portugal and Spain. We know that, generally, the Conservatives are European-haters. However, the implication of what they are saying is that, in all those countries, the people are not interested in democracy. I do not accept that argument, and their experience has, on the whole, been satisfactory.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): By-elections are a subject close to my heart. I cannot see how it can be democratic that, three or four years into a term, the electors of a region do not have the opportunity to choose--if they want to--someone from a different party. I also wonder what would happen in the case of someone

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crossing the Floor, as it were--I do not know what one does in the European Parliament. Would that person have to resign his seat?

Mr. Straw: That matter will come up in discussion on the amendments later. The hon. Gentleman's point would be entirely fair if what we were sustaining in the European Parliament was a Government. I readily accept that by-elections play an important part in regulating the conduct of the Government, and in giving the electorate an opportunity--on the random, but reasonably frequent, occasions that they arise--to send a message to the Government and to Opposition parties. However, those arguments do not apply in terms of a representative Assembly. It is not the case that by-elections in the countries concerned have caused difficulty, and I do not think that they will here.

No system is perfect, and this is about the balance of advantage. Given the nature and function of the European Parliament, it is more important to ensure that it is broadly representative than to accommodate the prospect of by-elections. On the occasions when by-elections have taken place, the earth has not moved--[Interruption.] Not even in Scotland, where there was a 20 per cent. turnout and 80 per cent. stayed away. In Merseyside, we had the lowest-ever turnout in any by-election--11 per cent.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): There was one that was lower.

Mr. Straw: I bow to the hon. Gentleman's superior wisdom.

The Opposition should have some humility about the system before they try to elevate it into some great moral principle. The Conservative Government introduced closed lists for the Northern Ireland forum.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: No, with great respect; I am just about to finish.

The Conservatives can wriggle as much as they like, but they proposed the closed-list system for Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK. It may have been for a particular purpose--this system also is for a particular purpose. At the time, the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), said that the closed-list system was fair and reasonable. If it was fair and reasonable then, it is fair and reasonable now.

7.58 pm

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield): I can see why the Home Secretary is so keen on a guillotine. Even by his own standards, that was not a persuasive speech. Calling in aid the constitution when he is bludgeoning the Bill through in a few hours will not persuade even his most uncritical supporters. Nor do I think that any of us finds his argument on Northern Ireland at all convincing, given the situation when my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), the then Prime Minister, made it clear that the system was for the special circumstances of Northern Ireland.

Let there be no question about it--the debate on the Bill has gone overwhelmingly against the Government. Labour Member of Parliament after Labour Member of

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Parliament has spoken against it. However, let me tell the House who has done the best destructive hatchet job on the proposals in the Bill.

The other day, the Home Secretary chided me for a book that I had written. The Home Secretary has not written a book, as far as I know. If he has, it was remaindered before I got to it. However, he has written articles. His House of Commons file is stuffed full of them, including one for The Times, entitled "What's So Fair About PR?", dated 4 August 1985. What is significant about the article is not so much the general view as the particular views that he put forward, which go to the heart of the Bill.

In the article, the Home Secretary said:

That, of course, is precisely the case that we have put throughout the debate.

Under a list system, power is transferred from the people to the party organisation. I have made that point, as have the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek), and now we know that the Home Secretary agrees with it.

When the Home Secretary wrote the article, he was observing the position in France. He noted that the system had caused a major battle between national and regional parties, with the latter objecting to the "parachuting in" of national candidates without roots in their area.

Again, that is precisely the point that we have been making. That is precisely the case in the west midlands, where an EastEnders actor who appeared at the Birmingham rep is preferred over the local candidate, who may be politically incorrect but possibly knows something about the west midlands.

The Home Secretary then turned to the Liberal Democrats and our old friend Roy Jenkins, if I may be so familiar. He said, correctly, as the Social Democratic party--of happy memory--and the Liberals were about to hold their conferences, that we would be in for two weeks of high-flown phrases about the superior morality and fairness of proportional representation and the way in which it can lead, as Roy Jenkins said, to greater stability of national direction of policy.

The Home Secretary then said:

I am not sure that I go all the way with that argument, but as it is directed at Liberal Democrats I will not quibble over the details.

Then the Home Secretary produced an entirely new argument. He said:

I have debated the Bill four or five times--it seems more--and even I have not adduced Hitler in argument, but according to the Home Secretary, the "inconvenient little fact" is that Hitler

    "rose to power in the Weimar republic which used a very respectable system of PR. I do not suggest that any other system would have prevented his rise. I do assert that PR did not prevent it--yet moderation and stability is the large and wild claim made for this system by our own centre parties."

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I do not believe that any Minister could have more effectively demolished the case for a Bill that he has introduced. The Bill does all the things that he previously condemned. That is why it has been so condemned by his colleagues. The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson) took courage this afternoon and made a speech that I believe was intended to be in favour of the Government, but she must be joking if she thinks that the Bill has been overwhelmingly supported by her colleagues.

On October 27, the Bill was attacked by the hon. Members for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). On another occasion, the hon. Member for Wrexham said:

In case we were in any doubt, the hon. Member for Walsall, North reiterated his position. He said:

    "I am not in favour of the closed-list system, I have never voted for it and I do not intend to do so tonight."--[Official Report, 10 November 1998; Vol. 319, c. 222-28.]

On 16 November, the closed-list system was effectively demolished bit by bit by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield. He was supported by the hon. Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). The hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) intervened to support the Government--I think--but his support was qualified by his later confession. When challenged, he said:

    "I would prefer an open-list system, but I gave the rationale for a closed-list system."--[Official Report, 16 November 1998; Vol. 319, c. 701.]

Not perhaps the most overwhelming support in principle that we have heard.

On 18 November, the Bill was attacked by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie), and the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) said:

The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) sought to make a helpful intervention. He proclaimed:

    "The closed-list system ensures that women and people from ethnic minorities can have their rightful place in the list."

Unfortunately for him, the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) was sitting directly in front of him at the time. She said:

    "As a woman from an ethnic minority who succeeded under first past the post, I ask my hon. Friend whether he thinks that the closed-list system proposed tonight would be passed in the House on a free vote."

The hon. Member for Swansea, East rather weakly replied:

    "I am not a Whip . . . and my arithmetic is very bad, so I would not like to answer that question."--[Official Report, 18 November 1998; Vol. 319, c. 979-81.]

So it goes on. The prize for the most fatuous comment and stance goes, I regret to say, to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan). Attempting to define the Liberal Democrats' position, he said:

    "My party's position remains consistent. Our preferred option is neither a Belgian nor a Finnish model, but one closer to home--the Northern Irish model of the single transferable vote."--[Official Report, 27 October 1998; Vol. 318, c. 183.]

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    The hon. Gentleman spent the whole debate voting for the closed-list system.

The Government are putting power into the hands of the party, not the public. Outside candidates, with no local roots, are being "parachuted in", to use the Home Secretary's phrase. The public are being given no choice. The Bill does away with the public's right to choose a candidate and abolishes by-elections if a candidate resigns or defects.

The Home Secretary justifies all that with a series of arguments that, frankly, convince almost no one but his Front-Bench colleagues; and they probably do not convince even them. He reveals an obsession with candidates being parachuted into constituencies--he was at it again on Monday when he accused Conservative central office of doing it at the general election--but who, may I ask, is the biggest political parachutist of them all? How did he get his seat? He inherited it. He was special adviser to Lady Castle, and when she moved on to Europe, she bequeathed it to him in her living will.

It is becoming a quaint old custom for Labour Ministers to look after their special advisers. Lady Castle gave the Home Secretary her seat. He cannot do the same for his special adviser, Norman Warner, so he puts him in the House of Lords: new Labour, new hereditary principle.

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