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Mr. Forth: What we have here, I fear, is a muddle produced by the Government's need to rush into these matters without having thought them through properly. Given all the Green Papers and the other documents that we have had--to give the Government some credit--one might have thought that we would have had a better result. Regrettably, that is not so.

I hope that we will have a chance in Committee to debate the subject of the directly elected mayor, because I am still waiting to hear, not only from the Government, but from my own colleagues, what that is all about and how it will work--more of which, perhaps, later. The difficulty arises from the combination of the election of the mayor and the assembly with the completely experimental electoral approach, which fails on almost every count of desirability.

The first failure is that of the list, which will be new and relatively incomprehensible to most of the voters in London. It has all the other disadvantages of the closed list, which we need not rehearse yet again. However, we have just heard from the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton)--almost for the first time in the Chamber--a Labour Member of Parliament who is prepared to endorse and support the closed list. That has perhaps made this evening worth while, if nothing else has. It will go down as a little moment of history in our Committee.

9.15 pm

The difficulty is that the experimental new system that produces the constituency members will fail another of the basic tests of electoral desirability, because the

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constituencies will be so big and so removed from the voters that there will be very little connection between the electors and the elected. Voters will have little connection with the London members on the list and I would argue that they can hardly be expected to have much connection with the constituency members.

The constituencies will be rather akin to European constituencies, and how many of us would claim that voters have any connection--intimate, knowledgeable or otherwise--with their Members of the European Parliament? That, however, is the system that is proposed for the representation of London voters in vital strategic decisions. Before we even get off first base, there are real problems in the Government's approach, because the system in no way measures up to what one would expect of a proper electoral system.

It gets worse, because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) said, when the members elected by this rather bizarre scheme arrive in the assembly chamber, they will inevitably fall into two classes: those who will claim an association with their constituencies, however large and amorphous, and those on the list, who will have some claim to represent the whole of London, but only through the prism or viewfinder of their party. We will have a peculiar assembly consisting of members elected in different ways and, inevitably, with different perspectives and a different status.

Worse even than that, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said, there will be no majority in the assembly. Some may argue--the hon. Gentleman implied this--that it will be a virtue if the assembly is not dominated by any one political party. I have some experience of a democratic institution without a stable majority. I make a confession to this secret and private meeting that for five years, I was an elected Member of the European Parliament. I do not want that to be held unduly against me, and I have been trying to live it down ever since.

That experience taught me several lessons. The one that is relevant to this debate is that the institution suffers from not having an in-built party majority. We have seen an example of that very recently, I submit. The problem is that majorities vary, not only from issue to issue, but from time to time; there is no continuity of purpose or thrust in the institution so it loses its way on almost every issue.

The great danger is that the assembly will suffer the same fate. In my view, it is likely to be ineffective because of the proposed system of election and the fact that it will almost certainly not have a party majority, especially when it is placed in an adversarial position with the mayor, as the hon. Member for Battersea said, and has to provide a check and balance.

I fear that the assembly will be politically less effective as a result of not having a party majority and that a skilful mayor will be able to pick off issues and play members off against one another, thus, at worst, rendering the assembly completely ineffective as a check or balance on the mayor's activities. Surely, on any analysis, that would be a denial of the Government's intentions--as I understand them from all their arguments--for the authority as a whole and for the relationship between the mayor and the assembly. We seem to be getting the worst of all possible worlds in terms of transparency, comprehensibility to the people of London, accountability

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or predictability of the outcome of elections. On none of the normal tests that one would wish to apply to an electoral system or a political decision-making body does the system measure up. That is a powerful indictment of the Bill.

I do not believe that the multiplicity of solutions offered by the Liberal Democrats would repair any of the Bill's grievous shortcomings, and that is why I support my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk. Whatever the shortcomings of first past the post--and it has some--it is at least understandable to the people of the UK and London. It provides predictability, stability and continuity that will be extremely desirable, especially during the early experimental phase of the new form of government for London.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Does the right hon. Gentleman hold the view that the good old first-past-the-post system is a better way to select someone to represent a constituency than the alternative vote system? No one can argue that AV is complicated, and it provides a member for the constituency who commands the support of a majority of the voters. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that some Members have been elected to the House with a share of the vote as low as 25 or 26 per cent. in recent years.

Mr. Forth: I understand that argument, but I have never entirely gone along with it. The idea that someone has the support of the majority once votes have been moved around, shuffled and prioritised does not hold good. The strength of the first-past-the-post system is that everyone understands it clearly, and they accept good times and bad.

The hon. Gentleman--uncharacteristically--suggested to my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk that the Conservatives should favour whatever electoral system we imagine might benefit us most in some future political environment. That is a shoddy argument, and it was unworthy of the hon. Gentleman. It appears that the hon. Member for Battersea wishes to come to his rescue.

Mr. Linton: Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us why the Conservative party does not use the first-past-the-post system to elect its leader?

Mr. Forth: That is a very good question, and I should like to hear the answer to it myself. I certainly favour a first-past-the-post system for that election, but I lost the argument on that. It may be that my party will live rather to regret the way in which it decided to go. We shall unfortunately learn that only at some time in the very distant future, so we need not concern ourselves with it for some considerable time; the hon. Member for Battersea should not hold his breath.

Mr. Hughes: I sensed something of a recovery operation in the last few words from the right hon. Gentleman.

When I intervened on the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), I was not arguing that the Conservative party should adopt the system that most benefits it. My argument was that we should have a system under which if 25 per cent. of Londoners vote

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Conservative, a fair representation results. I am not bothered about what the Tory party thinks, but I am bothered about what the electors think.

Mr. Forth: That is a familiar argument, and it is, in its way, perfectly fair. My difficulty with that analysis is that it is always dangerous to try to make judgments about electoral systems on the basis of what one imagines people will do when the election takes place. We all know that political opinion is often extremely volatile, and that much can change in a short time. To advocate a system that may reflect what we would like--or, even, what we would fear--is a dangerous approach.

From my experience in the political business, I do not detect that the electors necessarily feel particularly cheated, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. I do not think that he has heard any great complaints yet from the Conservative party, or even from voters in Scotland and Wales that they feel cheated because they do not have any Conservative Members of Parliament. Even if that were the case, it is one of the prices that one pays for the many other benefits of a first-past-the-post electoral system. On balance, these things are judgments and our judgment--that of the majority of Conservative Members--is that first past the post has many more virtues than vices and shortcomings.

Mr. Hughes: This is an important argument, but I shall be brief as I do not want to delay other hon. Members. There are two remaining snags in the right hon. Gentleman's analysis. First, he is wrong to say that people do not resent the fact that they are carved out of representation, although a large number of them voted for a certain party. For example, in Liverpool and other big cities where there has been no Conservative representation for years, people resent the fact that their voice is not being heard. It is strange to argue that there is not a large voice and that people are therefore content not to have representation. For example, if Tory voters in Scotland where there are no Tory Members are content, it says little for the representation that they had before.


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