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Mr. Forth: In the context of the desirability of independent members, on which the hon. Gentleman lays great stress, has he considered the implications of clause 11(2)? With reference to the filling of vacancies, it states:


That means that if in the London party elections the hon. Gentleman and I elect a sturdily independent candidate who is not on a party list, and if that candidate then resigns or--heaven forbid--dies in office, we risk that vacancy remaining unfilled and our being left unrepresented. If my reading of the subsection is correct, is not it a disincentive to vote for a sturdily independent candidate?

Mr. Hughes: Although I do not want to be tempted too far down the road that leads to a subsequent debate, I shall deal with that point.

I understand why the clause is drafted as it is. The Government have distinguished, as they must, between a person who stands on a party ticket, on a list, and a person who is elected as a cross-London member, as an individual, who, by definition, has no one in the same party as him or her. If an elected party member dies or resigns, the list system not only in this country but worldwide provides that the next person named on the list gets in. People understand that in advance; they know that, if a party gains five seats, they get the first five people on the list, and that, if a vacancy arises, they get the sixth. However, a practical difficulty arises when an independent member is lost.

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I share the view of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) that the right answer is not to leave a vacancy. I hope that, when we come to the wider debate, we shall find ways of holding an election to fill the vacancy because I agree that it is unfair that, if we end up with a London assembly of 25 members with one or two independents and one of the latter dies or resigns--perhaps for unavoidable family reasons--we shall lose that independent voice for the rest of that assembly's life. That assembly may sit, however, for four or five years. If we lose an independent member, we should have the chance to elect another independent candidate, as a result of a proper election.

Mr. Forth: It is worse than that. If several members elected from a list resigned and there were not sufficient names on the list to fill the vacancies, would not another electoral embarrassment be in store for those who support such an electoral arrangement?

Mr. Hughes: That is true, and we shall return to that subject, but, unless something very funny happens, I do not anticipate that we shall have a situation such as the one that we had in this place some years ago, when most of the Northern Ireland Members resigned and by-elections were held. Considering the crude politics of it, I believe that there would be pressure from the parties to ensure that large-scale resignations should not take place. Let us consider those perfectly proper issues.

In the full submission that Liberal Democrat Members and representatives in London made to the Green Paper, we argued that the electoral system should follow three principles: fairness to all voters; real natural constituencies; and genuine voter choice. I would argue that the best way of achieving that--not the only way, not something that makes all the other options impossible--is to have the famous single transferable vote. I say that not because we, as a party, have become wedded to that system, picked off the shelf, irrespective of anything else--I believe that we have shown ourselves to be as pragmatic as others--but because all the evidence is that it produces the best choice for the voter, and the most accurate reflection of differences of view.

If an election were held today, according to a proportional system, and if voters followed the voting patterns reflected in the results of the most recent general election, the Labour party would return 12 of the 25 members of the assembly and the other parties would return the remaining 13. Labour would not have a majority in the assembly: no one party would have a majority. When the GLC existed, there was always a three-way split in London politics. Happily, our party has grown; others--naming no names--have diminished more recently, but London has very rarely had a majority of the voters turning out for one party, so there has always been a balance. We therefore seek an electoral system that gives the most accurate balance--because then the system does not distort the conclusion--and voter choice.

As was said in the previous debate, we strongly argue that an advantage of the single transferable vote system is that it allows the reflection of natural geographic communities, especially in outer boroughs. Myhon. Friends the Members for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) and for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake), who represent the borough of Sutton, and my hon. Friends who represent the boroughs of Richmond

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and Kingston feel very strongly that their communities need to be represented. I strongly share that view. It would have been better, and it would have locked in more strongly people's commitment to the electoral process, if, for example, those parts of London that are Kent had seen themselves as one community, electing four, five or six members, who would then speak collectively, across the party divide, for the Kent part of London.

As I have said, we support the proposition that it should be possible to choose between candidates in the same party. I pray in aid the support of the Institute for Public Policy and Research, which is more closely affiliated with the Labour party than others, for our argument that the best option is the single transferable vote. At the end of December 1997, it said in response to the paper on the Greater London authority:


STV is used in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, and we believe that it would be the best system for London.

Because we are pragmatists, realists and do not always get what we want--some would argue that a pedigree in the Liberal party means getting used occasionally to not getting what one wants--we have, however, produced alternatives for the Committee to consider. If the Government are not willing to accept our first choice, we offer them a second one, in amendments Nos. 38 and 52, which we hope they will accept.

In amendments Nos. 38 and 52, we suggest that those whom the Government call constituency members--people from the proposed 14 geographical areas, the boundaries for which the Minister has confirmed today--should be elected not by first past the post but by the alternative vote. We then suggest that that should be topped up, becoming a system that has recently become known as the alternative vote plus.

The alternative vote plus has gained credibility since this Parliament began. As a result of its deliberations, the commission that the Government set up on electoral systems for this place has put on the table for public debate and consideration in the House--it must therefore be a valid proposition--a similar system for London, too. The alternative vote plus was recommended by the Jenkins commission in the autumn.

I understand--it is obvious--that the Jenkins commission was set up too late to influence the Green Paper and the White Paper on London. It is therefore no criticism of the Government that they have not picked up its idea. However, I would be grateful if the Minister at least indicated that the Government do not rule out the idea that such a system has merit for London, too. I hope that that will find appeal, and that the Government will say that it is as good a system as any other. As one of the five people who represented the views of Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats Members to the Jenkins commission, and having been sceptical about whether it would come up with an appealing system, I think that it has very cleverly and reasonably met hon. Members' objectives of constituency links and proportionality.

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It is important--I want the Minister specifically to reply to this--to grasp the nettle of the open list rather than the closed list. The Government propose 11 members elected by lists. All our parties are beginning to ratchet up the process of choosing their representatives for such lists. I think that all our electors resent a little the fact that, in order to influence that process, one must be a member of a political party. Most people in London are not members of any political party. Indeed, with respect to us all, most people have no desire to be so. I do not blame them for that in the slightest.

Members feel very strongly about individuals. One of the banes of our life in debating London government over recent months is that the press, because they think that it is what the public want, speculate far more about who will be in power in London than what they will do. The press spend far more time on who will be the candidates than on what their policies are, but the level of road charges and parking charges will be much more important to Londoners than who is running the city. The policies matter much more than the personalities, although obviously the two go together.


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