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Mr. Linton: I challenge the hon. Gentleman's assertion that Britain has never before experienced a threshold in its voting system. Although we have never experienced an explicit voting system, the Opposition recommend that we accept the natural threshold of 3.8 per cent. We had a natural threshold in our voting system throughout the 19th century when, in all seats other than those in Ireland,

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there were only two candidates in practically every election. There was therefore a natural threshold of 49.9 per cent. During most of this century we have had three-cornered contests, so the threshold has been 33 per cent. Our system does include a threshold, so it is odd that the Opposition argue against one.

Mr. Hughes: The hon. Gentleman's point is relevant to the wider debate, although it is not as relevant to recent history. I thought that he was going to give the example of Northern Ireland. It is true that Northern Ireland has a natural threshold, because it has had a single transferable vote system for a long time, but Great Britain does not.

We have never had a prescribed threshold, nor has the Secretary of State had the power to determine a threshold. I am troubled about the prescribed threshold, because it is arbitrary--a 5 per cent. maximum is arbitrary. Even if the Secretary of State acts in good faith, the power would be on the statute book and could be varied by order at a later date.

The Neill committee, and the Nolan committee before it, recommended that such electoral matters should go before an electoral commission. The Government have accepted that for Scotland, and there is such a proposal for the House of Lords. My instinct is that the matter of whether we have a threshold and what it should be must be referred to someone who does not have a party political view and does not have a party vested interest--a point that the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) made in debates on other amendments. I am making the point in a non-oppositional way.

The threshold will be set by a Labour Secretary of State, who will assess what will be the right threshold for the elections to be held next year. It will make a big difference to the Green party whether the threshold is 5, 4, 3, 2 or 1 per cent. It could determine whether Labour has a majority in the assembly. In the general election, Labour got 49 per cent. of the votes cast in London, so it almost had a majority. If that were replicated, a decision on the threshold could determine whether Labour would get a majority on the assembly. That is a hugely political matter.

Whatever advice the Secretary of State takes--the Callaghan Administration rejected the boundary commission recommendations at the end of the 1974-79 Government--he may make a much-criticised decision that is alleged to be party politically driven. We should avoid that. I ask Ministers to subject the matter to independent assessment before they make a proposition, so that it is out of the party political domain.

Mr. Fitzpatrick: Will the hon. Gentleman express his personal opinion about whether the Government are taking a cynical approach to deciding the threshold for party political advantage or whether their approach is a genuine attempt to ensure that extremist parties have no place in a London assembly?

Mr. Hughes: I am coming to that point and, in that sense, the hon. Gentleman and I come from the same political part of London. I hope that the hon. Gentleman heard me when I said that I respect the good faith of the Secretary of State. I do not doubt that the Government want to deal with that issue, and they would be criticised if they did not do so. I am not suggesting that they are

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trying to gain party political advantage. I am making the point that if the House gives any Minister of any Government the power to make the choice, his choice, given he is a political animal, will be affected by the political factor. The choice of a 2, 3 or 4 per cent. threshold could determine whether the Green party got a seat, and that could determine whether the Labour party had a majority.

I want to address the question of how we deal with non-democratic, right-wing, illiberal, extremist and fascist parties. In every parliamentary election that I have fought in the docks and in the east end of London, I have had right-wing, racist opponents. I am happy to say that, without any thresholds, we have taken them on and seen them off. Over the years, the one thing that has united all three of the main political parties in my seat is the fact that, between us, we have been able to keep the vote for right-wing parties as low as possible, and in spite of expectations, they have never achieved more than about 2 per cent. I regard that as very important.

What dangers do we see coming down the track from the right-wing parties? Philosophically, being a purist, I would prefer to start with a natural threshold, but I concede that we should not reject a prescribed threshold out of hand. There is a danger that, with 14 seats and a list system, extremists could whip up a right-wing agenda and get people out to vote for a right-wing party when they otherwise would not have done so.

A racist candidate knows that he cannot win in the seat of the Minister for Transport in London or in the seat of my friend and neighbour, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). In a first-past-the-post system he will never get more than a few per cent. of the vote, but he takes part to incite racist views. Thank God, the right wing has only ever won one election, which was in Millwall a few years ago. The problem was rapidly dealt with, for which I pay tribute to the Labour party. The Secretary of State for Health and the Minister for London and Construction played a large part in that, and I pay tribute to them unreservedly. I would rather a thousand times that Labour won every seat in Tower Hamlets or anywhere else, than any of the right-wing parties. It would be unacceptable if right-wing parties were to win seats.

A list system makes a difference. I am concerned that if we present to people the prospect of an extreme right-wing candidate being elected with 3.8 per cent. of votes cast, it may act as an incentive. They may think that they will get a right-wing candidate elected, whereas post-war electoral history shows that extreme right-wing parties have done badly in London--I put aside the rest of the country.

We should not be simplistic about the past. The figures for the average votes cast across London for the British National party or the National Front show that they have done badly in the past, but their candidates have not stood in most seats. They have stood in only a few seats, so the figures give a false average. They have got a higher percentage of votes in the seats for which they have stood. It is still only about 1 per cent., so we must be careful not to award them a bigger influence or political importance than they have. Under the legislation, members of those parties will be able to stand as candidates for the

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assembly. Past voting figures are not a good comparison, because there has never been a slate of right-wing candidates.

We share the Government's view that if the assembly is to represent London and if black people, Asians, Africans, Caribbean people and people of all backgrounds, races, creeds, colours and characteristics are to feel part of the electoral process and to be encouraged to take part in it, we must ensure that they are not subject to harassment, intimidation or political annihilation by people who have a dogmatic, undemocratic and racist agenda.

I am sympathetic to the idea of a threshold, but I am unsympathetic to the proposal that it should be decided by the Secretary of State, however ethically aware and eminent he may be. I am unsympathetic to the idea that we should today, without any further debate among colleagues whose views we have not heard, decide that it should be no higher than 5 per cent. and that that is the absolute, because that figure has been plucked out of the air.

I hope that, however we vote, hon. Members will agree that there should not be a "take it or leave it" conclusion--that the Government should not say "We have thought about this, and therefore we are absolutely right." They may be right, but we nevertheless need to have the debate. Let me make an offer to the Minister for Transport in London, whose credibility in this regard I have no reservations about endorsing. Ultimately, I should prefer an agreement to be reached between conventional, democratic, proper political parties, in relation to "green" parties but also in relation to how we deal with right-wing, racist, anti-democratic parties. If the outcome of this debate is Ministers' being able to say, "We are happy to get the best objective answers to these questions", it will be very welcome.

8 pm

We support the removal of the provision from the Bill for the moment, but that should not be interpreted as opposition to a debate or a threshold. We need consensus. I am sure that the hon. Members for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) and for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick), who represent the borough opposite mine across the Thames and who have had experience of such issues, agree that is better for democracy. We have a common interest in securing the best possible democratic traditions. We all want to ensure that people who are bigoted, prejudiced and racist--people of whom I have been a victim when, as an MP, I have taken them on--are put on the margins of politics and never obtain a toehold in this country, as they have in some of our neighbouring countries across the channel.

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