Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman made exactly the same point yesterday about the voting system for the assembly. He said that the system was wonderful and ideally crafted for the purpose the assembly is to fulfil; however, he did not explain the link between the system and the purpose, nor has he done so today. I do not doubt that he is such a loyalist that, whenever the Government come up with a system, he will say that it is wonderful and perfect for the purpose. However, I have not said, either yesterday or today, that the proposed systems are entirely inappropriate. If he is to be true to his own arguments, the hon. Gentleman has to explain why the proposed system, which was in part devised by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) and is to be uniquely applied in Britain, is the perfect system, when many others that are already used, in both this country and others, work perfectly well.

Mr. McNulty: I know that, more often than not, the hon. Gentleman is polite, but I also know that he must be seen to attack Labour in such a distasteful manner if he is to establish his leadership credentials, so I shall let him off for now. If we have a clause stand part debate on clause 4, I shall certainly elaborate on why the proposed system is the appropriate electoral system for the institution of mayor. However, with my limited grasp of parliamentary procedure--a failing which Madam Speaker and her deputies have had cause to bring to my attention on many occasions--I thought that the current debate related to the amendments tabled by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives and I was endeavouring to stay in order. If we have a broader debate, I shall be happy to oblige the hon. Gentleman.

I am sorry to say that colleagues on the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs were wrong to say that the reform is piecemeal. We are making constitutional change in appropriate areas and our agenda is as clear as day. Although it might be slightly off message to say so, I am at one with the rumblings emanating from Hull, East about having a regional tier of government for England to fit in with the rest of the jigsaw. With the greatest respect to all those who serve on Select Committees, I have to point out that the fact of an opinion being expressed in a Select Committee report does not make it right.

It is not irresponsible or blurring by accretion to have a plethora of different electoral system and institutions that are appropriate to regional responsibilities. Unlike the way in which the body politic and all its parts developed during the 18 years of Tory Government, all the developments made under Labour are, at root, democratic. Opposition Members might think that a trite point, but I happen to believe that it is fundamental to our entire constitutional agenda that all the elements are democratic.

20 Jan 1999 : Column 951

It is rather lame to say that first past the post is tried and tested, so if we have an election for a single post, we should use first past the post and ensure that we get a recognised voice for London. That is the old "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" argument, and no consideration is given to the context within which the London mayor is to operate, or to London's diversity. No single system is ideal. All we can do is try to use each system appropriately and I believe that, on balance, the system set out in the Bill is the most appropriate.

Neither is it the case--this argument is equally weak--that we have decided to introduce a new electoral system for this novel new post. That might be how the new "British way" Conservative party organises policy, but it is not how we do it. We organise policy in a far more responsible manner. If I thought that first past the post would be more appropriate given the nature and role of the mayoralty in London, I would say so.

In recent months, we have had many nauseatingly boring debates in this Chamber about electoral systems. The right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk said that a mayor elected under first past the post could claim to have a clear majority, but nothing could be further from the truth. Many hon. Members in this place are not elected by a clear majority. I suspect--I have not done the research--that very few hon. Members could put their hands on their hearts and say that they were elected by more than 50 per cent. of their electorates. I was not, and I am sure that many of those opposite were not either. I was elected by 52 per cent. of the 70 per cent. of people who voted. I asked whether hon. Members were elected by more than 50 per cent. of the electorate, not of those who bothered to vote. Very few hon. Members could make that claim, and a London mayor certainly could not do so in the absolute terms suggested in the context of a first-past-the-post electoral system.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam will expect me to say that the examples in the Electoral Reform Society document aim to prove a point. I was touched by his naivety when he said, "They are in the pamphlet, so they must be true." That is like saying that something is true because a lawyer said so. If that is the hon. Gentleman's experience, I would like the name of his lawyer. It simply does not follow.

The system outlined in the Bill is the most appropriate and the arguments advanced by the PR anoraks do not stand up. We are told that the system is dreadful because a candidate with a low number of votes could win, as occurred in the worked example in the ERS document. However, nothing was said about that last night when the Liberal Democrats mentioned the single transferable vote--it is their pure flame. It consistently results in more and more Johnny-last-in candidates in terms of the Teachta Dala in Ireland. Such candidates hang on by dribbles of preferences and never get anywhere near a significant amount of the vote, especially in five-candidate constituencies. They get elected simply because they are the last ones standing--and there is nothing democratic about that. So the Liberal Democrats' "pure" system is completely impure as well.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) said earlier--I was going to intervene but it was not worth it--the Electoral Reform Society makes it clear that the supplementary vote plus system is the same in Alabama and Sri Lanka. That is what it says in the document, so my hon. Friend's valid

20 Jan 1999 : Column 952

points stand in relation to both examples. It does not prove anything to ask, "But what about Alabama?". If the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam does not believe me, he should take up the matter with the Electoral Reform Society. It says clearly in its introduction that Alabama and Sri Lanka have the same supplementary vote modified system. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Workington does not make the hon. Gentleman's case.

Mr. Simon Hughes rose--

Mr. Burstow rose--

Mr. McNulty: I shall give way first to the new Liberal Democrat leader.

Mr. Hughes: The Electoral Reform Society is in my constituency, so I must defend it. It says in the document that the Alabama system is no longer used, and cites the example of the winner who had 29 per cent. of the vote. I accept the assertion by the hon. Member for Workington that the situation is not quite the same in Sri Lanka because there are three people in the final count between whom the votes are transferred. However, the issue is the same: should we allow the accumulation of the preferences of all those who vote? Under that system, we could get nearer to a plurality of votes for one candidate. Under the Government's proposed system--[Interruption.]

6.15 pm

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. Mr. McNulty.

Mr. McNulty: As hon. Members have said, the Electoral Reform Society document refers to the 1926 gubernatorial primary in Alabama when the winning candidate got 29 per cent. of the first and second choice votes. I fully accept that. It then defies the argument that the supplementary vote systems are different in Sri Lanka and Alabama by saying:

The system is similar in terms of the supplementary vote variation, not in some other way. I hope that we shall return to the debate about STV, although it is not appropriate to do so now. I suppose that I shall have to discuss it with the hon. Gentleman over a cup of tea, which is a shame.

It is true that the system is similar to the French system--although we shall complete the process in one day. The Bill's key point is that we must break free of the mindset of fighting elections under the first-past-the-post system. I hope that all parties will fight the first election on the basis of not just "Support our candidate because we're the best" but also "Support so and so for second". Under this system, if political parties do their jobs correctly, they will tell the electors clearly what to do with their second preferences. It is not a case of candidates simply winning more than 50 per cent. of the vote. We must appreciate each of the different systems in that context. I suspect that we will face the same hurdles when we ask people to vote in their constituencies, but for different reasons.

20 Jan 1999 : Column 953

I do not understand the legitimacy of amendmentNo. 48, which fundamentally ignores--or at least misunderstands--the new architecture of London governance. In the event of a tie in an election for an executive position that is distinct from the assembly, the amendment seeks to give the assembly--which had nothing to do with that election--the power to choose the winner. The only justification for that position--we return to the naked self-interest of the Liberal Democrats wrapped in treacle, as I said last night--is that it is designed to reinstate Liberal amendments that have been rejected by the Committee. The Liberal Democrats want a proportionately elected assembly that will elect the mayor. That position profoundly misunderstands the relationship between the various elements of London's new government.

Next Section

IndexHome Page