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Mr. Linton: Of course, but the result was convenient. Only after the result of their hustings--when they realised

2 Dec 1998 : Column 974

that they had a complete Euro-sceptic ticket--were the Opposition prepared to offer the electorate choice among their candidates. [Interruption.] If, perchance, the Opposition were successful in pressing their amendments and they were lumbered at the last moment with their Finnish-Luxembourg open system for selecting candidates, it would cause anarchy in the Conservative party. The party would have to reselect candidates at short notice, and that would open up the splits that it has done so much to conceal.

We are discussing the Bill because of the opposition of Conservative hereditary peers in the House of Lords. It is well within our rights to question their right to tell us how to run a democratic election, and to challenge their credentials for pontificating on, of all things, electoral systems. If there is one area that they cannot claim to have expertise in, it is elections.

I shall mention some of the Conservative hereditary peers who voted in the House of Lords to ensure that the Bill fell in the last Session and has had to be re-introduced and discussed again tonight. Why is the Marquess of Ailsa a Member of the House of Lords? Because, in 1831, one of his ancestors married William IV's illegitimate daughter. Why can Viscount Cranborne, the late lamented leader of the Conservatives in the House of Lords, vote on our electoral system? Because one of his ancestors was Elizabeth I's adviser, whom she affectionately referred to as her pygmy--he was surely the original Blackadder. I refer of course to Robert Cecil, the founder of that aristocratic house.

Why is the Earl of Romney a Member of the House of Lords, and why did he have the power to reject this Bill? Because one of his ancestors, Sir Robert Marsham, paid £5,000 for his barony in 1716. Why did Lord Ampthill, a Cross-Bencher, have the right to vote against the Bill and to send it back to the House of Commons? Because he is a descendant of a Victorian diplomat, Lord Odo Russell, who was a member of the family who happened to own Bloomsbury.

Why was Lord Palmer, another Cross-Bencher, able to vote on the Bill, and why was he able to determine our electoral system? His name gives us half the answer. Lord Palmer was one of the great biscuit tycoons of the Victorian era--he was half of Huntley and Palmers. Far more relevant to his ennoblement was the fact that he was a large-scale contributor to the Conservative party.

I come lastly to Lord Sudeley, another Cross-Bencher, who cast his vote against the Bill in the Lords and is one of the causes of our having to discuss it tonight. His family made a fortune in the slave trade in the West Indies. In a recent interview in one of the weekend supplements, he justified his family fortune by saying, "We used to be better orff with slavery." We would be better off getting on with Third Reading.

9.9 pm

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): I followed the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) in a debate a few weeks ago. He was confusing and confused then, and he is no better now. This time he spoke even more claptrap. I shall be extremely brief, because a number of colleagues want to speak.

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In the past, it was a characteristic of dictatorships that when a messenger came with an unpopular message, the dictator executed the messenger.

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East): Is that what happened to Lord Cranborne?

Mr. Sayeed: No, Lord Cranborne is still going strong.

With this Government we have an elected dictatorship. For them, the merits of the argument count for nothing. The only thing that matters is the size of their House of Commons majority.

We have a Prime Minister who, either through fear of Parliament or contempt for it, does not bother to vote in this place, rarely bothers to attend and relies on obsequious Back Benchers to push his sometimes cockamamie legislation through. Rather than test on the anvil of parliamentary debate the measures that he wishes to put forward, he prefers to use taxpayers' money to pay for spin doctors, who manipulate a sometimes acquiescent media.

Because the Prime Minister does not like the message that the Lords have been sending him, knows that they may do exactly what they did to a Conservative Government--reject certain Bills that the Government put forward--and does not like the Lords, or even the threat of the Lords disagreeing with him, he has decided to execute the political messenger. As he cannot do it fast enough, he has been denigrating the Lords with ridicule, and the Home Secretary has been his assiduous servant.

What have the peers been saying? They have been saying something very simple: local people have the right to determine who their candidate is. They have not been opposing the Bill. They have kept strictly to the Salisbury convention. They have been supporting the Bill, but asking the Commons to remember that this is a democracy; that is all that they have been doing.

I hope that, when the Bill goes back to the Lords, they will continue to support democracy and stand firm because what has happened in this place is a denial of democracy--true democracy. Even though the majority in this place dislike the way in which the Labour party operates closed lists, the majority have voted for them. That is a denial of democracy.

If the Government had had the humility to accept that the way in which the Labour party operates closed lists is a disgrace and abhorrent to any democrat, and had operated the list system, even a closed-list system, in the way our party or the Liberal Democrats operate it, with local people deciding who the candidates are and the ranking of the candidates, the Lords would probably have let the Bill through. It is because the Government have not done that that they have brought on themselves their own difficulties.

I would have hoped that the House would oppose the guillotine motion, which was disgraceful. I hope that it will oppose Second Reading, but I do not expect it to do so. I hope that the Lords will stand firm because they will certainly need to do so.

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9.13 pm

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed), who, at earlier stages of our debates, has made similar distinguished contributions and taken a principled stand on the Bill.

What has depressed me in this debate is that, from the Home Secretary and other Labour Members, including the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton), we have not heard any recognition of some of the new arguments that have been advanced in relation to the Bill. In particular, I was depressed and saddened that the Home Secretary, who in his speech on the guillotine motion suggested that he had answered every question, conspicuously failed to pick up on both questions that have been asked in previous debates and issues that have been brought forward in relation to this Second Reading.

Time is short, so I want to refer just to two points--well, perhaps three, if you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is important that they be debated. I fear that they not going to have sufficient debate, but I want to raise them, so that the Minister can at least give some sort of reply.

The first concerns an argument that has been made time and again and was propagated by the hon. Member for Battersea. The Home Secretary and others have suggested that open lists are unacceptable because if voters can express a preference between individual candidates, it is statistically possible that a candidate of party A could be elected even though he secures fewer votes than the candidate of party B. The Home Secretary signally failed to accept that that occurs for two reasons.

First, the system gives proportionality to parties. The Home Secretary asserts--and, fundamentally, it has not been denied--that people primarily, but not exclusively, vote for parties. Some people choose to vote for candidates rather than parties, though they are probably in the minority. It is purely because of the insertion of proportionality into the system that someone in party A with fewer votes than the candidate of party B might get elected.

Secondly, under the Government's closed-list system, it is possible--indeed, likely--that candidates will be elected for parties when they would be shown to be much less preferred than the candidates of other parties if voters were able to express a preference. The point is that we will never know. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) talked about his candidate preferences, but we will never know what differences may exist among voters in respect of their preference for particular candidates.

Mr. Linton: Does the hon. Gentleman concede that in his Finnish system, it would be possible for a Conservative candidate who attracted no votes on a ballot paper to be elected?

Mr. Lansley: Of course that is possible, but it would only happen if a party's No. 1 candidate was a particularly well known national figure who is likely to attract the largest number of votes. My noble Friend Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish instanced some such examples on closed or semi-open lists. By virtue of winning such a proportion, a candidate can bring through a tail of much less well

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known candidates who have had a negligible or even, statistically, a nil return. That is a direct product of proportionality.

Even, however, if we accept the principle enunciated by the Home Secretary--that party is the principal reason why people vote--that does not preclude the possibility that significant numbers of people may wish to express a preference--or wish to have the chance to--between candidates from one party. The hon. Member for Battersea would admit that, even in his party, the homogeneity imposed by the panels in Millbank tower has not yet reached the point where supporters of the Labour party are completely incapable of distinguishing between Labour candidates. Even to this day, they are capable in certain circumstances of distinguishing between them.

That would particularly be so where, as in the west midlands, at the top of the list imposed by Labour's selection system sits someone who is self-evidently not familiar with the west midlands and whose fame derives from work in the acting profession. The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) apologised for having to leave, so we will forgive him for not being here; but if he were, we could chide him for seeming to argue that a candidate's notoriety would be a reason for a party not to put him at the top of the list. When it came to it, his party went down precisely that route and sought a famous candidate.

That points to one of the besetting sins of closed lists: the examination of candidates down to the second, third, fourth or fifth place on a list is irrelevant. All parties seek to do is to signal party allegiance and, perhaps, in respect of the No. 1 person on a list, seek someone to present it in the best available light. That is an abuse.

Conservative Members have instanced cases in continental systems in which people have been placed first on the list simply to attract the party vote, but who subsequently resign and hand over their office to someone else.

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