Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Simon Hughes: I am grateful to the Minister for his serious consideration of that matter. The electoral commission will examine the effects historically of the threshold introduced by the Bill, but will it be able to make a recommendation about the appropriateness of continuing with it in elections in London or elsewhere?

Mr. Raynsford: As the commission is not in existence, it would be premature of me to anticipate its powers. However, I have given the hon. Gentleman the undertaking that he sought, which is that we believe that this is a matter that could and should be referred to the electoral commission. We must trust the commission to decide how best to respond. I have no doubt that, if recommendations are considered appropriate, the commission will wish to make them. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me to flesh out his thinking on this matter in more detail, I should be happy to discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

This is a serious and important matter which the House should consider with care. The Government have considered the issues and reflected on the views expressed in Committee. We have discussed our proposals with the principal Opposition parties, and we believe that the proposals that we are making now are right.

Mr. Ottaway: We expressed our concerns about the threshold proposal some months ago, in the Committee deliberations on the Floor of the House. We were worried that minority views--such as those of the Green party--could be shut out. If 4.5 per cent. of London wants an extreme candidate--of the left, the right or the environmental lobby--there is an argument that asks why those people should not be able to vote for such a candidate.

The events of recent weeks have persuaded Conservative Members that the argument lacks merit. I accept that the arrest--and it is no more than that at this stage--over the weekend of a gentleman in connection with the recent nail bombings suggests that they were not the work of an extreme group. I suspect that that was the thinking behind the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). Nevertheless, the series of outrages raised again the spectre of extremism in London--it tends to be in London--and we must address that in setting out the political arrangements for elections to the London

4 May 1999 : Column 715

authority. While most people talk about this as a matter of groups on the extreme right, most civil disobedience in London in recent years has been from the extreme left. I am thinking in particular of the miners' strike and the poll tax rioters.

With some reservations, we support the amendment, but the Minister must answer two questions. First, he must explain to those who still have doubts why someone's extreme views are abhorrent if he gets 4.5 per cent. of the vote but acceptable at 5.5 per cent. Secondly, can he confirm that a repeat of the Greater London council election result of 1977, when the British National party polled 5.3 per cent., would mean that it would get someone elected to the new assembly? Where it put up candidates in 1994, the BNP polled 18.2 per cent. of the vote, and in 1998, 7 per cent. So it is possible that extreme candidates will be elected to the authority despite the amendment.

That highlights the weakness of proportional representation. If the Government feel that there is a threat, the solution is to rethink in the other place whether it is the right form of electoral system for London. The greatest weakness of proportional representation is the disproportionate power that it gives minority parties and the fact that it allows into office parties whose views most democrats find unacceptable. The answer is to return to first past the post for the London authority.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): I am delighted that the Government have tabled this amendment, which I called for on Second Reading on 14 December. Many of my constituents have been anxious over the past few weeks after the London bombings. I have in my constituency mosques, Hindu temples, gurdwaras and synagogues. I have ethnic minorities from all over the world and thousands of refugees. The people of Ilford are united in resolute opposition to all forms of racism and fascism. They have good reason, because many of them--or their grandparents or parents--came to this country fleeing fascism, racism and xenophobia.

I was therefore surprised by the argument of the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway). I thought that he was arguing that 5 per cent. discriminated against the Greens and that it would be good if they were elected even with only 3 or 4 per cent. However, he also seemed to argue against the electoral system that would make that possible. I am no great fan of proportional representation. I am a fan of electoral reform, but we can discuss that another time. Once we have agreed an assembly, we have to make a judgment. Do we wish to allow any party that can get a minimum vote to be represented, or does democracy require vigilance and safeguards against extremist, undemocratic, racist and xenophobic parties? I make no apology for believing that democracy must be defended against its enemies. One defence is a threshold to prevent the parties that peddle race hate, xenophobia and anti-semitic propaganda from getting a platform to start their insidious progress in electoral systems, but there is no guarantee.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South may be right that 10, 15 or 20 years ago, some such parties might have gained a foothold. They were not standing everywhere in London, of course. They might have had concentrated pockets of support in some local authorities but that would

4 May 1999 : Column 716

have been offset in other areas, including my own borough, where their support would have been extremely low. On an all-London basis, I suggest that a threshold of about 5 per cent. might be appropriate. However, if there were any suggestion that those racist parties--peddling hatred and extremism--which are anti-democratic in their practice and their propaganda would achieve a breakthrough, it would be quite right to have a threshold higher than 5 per cent.

Mr. Ottaway: May I clarify the matter? In the 1977 GLC elections, the National Front put up candidates in every GLC constituency and received 119,000 votes, which was 5.3 per cent. That is very close to the figure of 120,000 given by the Minister. The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) seems to be arguing for a threshold that is higher than 5 per cent.

Mr. Gapes: I should be happier with a threshold that was higher than 5 per cent., but I am happy to support that threshold rather than for there to be no threshold at all. We must stand firm against the possibility that the Greater London Authority will provide a platform for racist, fascist, neo-Nazi parties.

Reference was made to electoral systems in other countries. In Israel, where elections are to be held on 17 May, there are 120 Members of the Knesset and 33 parties are standing for election. The largest party in the Knesset has between 25 and 30 Members, and the second-largest party--at present that is the Government party--has 18 Members. Without a suitable threshold, there may be problems of coalition building and building alliances, whereby, for example, some extremist rabbi based in New York may determine which party forms the Government in Israel. We do not want the situation to arise in London where an eccentric, mad or extremist group could hold the balance of power in the authority and demand, from an extreme platform, the support of the other parties to ensure their majority. That would be extremely dangerous, and we need the 5 per cent. threshold to keep such people out.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I stand to be corrected, but I understand that Israel has a threshold of between 2 per cent. and 3 per cent.

Mr. Gapes: That is correct, but extremist parties can still hold the balance of power, so the threshold is obviously too low.

My final point is that, even with a first-past-the-post electoral system, there is no guarantee that extremist parties will not gain support. We know from experience that, from time to time, extremists have tried to infiltrate political parties for their own purposes. That has happened to the Conservatives, to the Labour party and also to the Liberal Democrats. I am not trying to make a party political point here; I am making the general point that it happens in all parties. From the history of the Liberal Democrats, I could give a list of places--Birmingham, Tower Hamlets and elsewhere. I could talk about some of the problems for the Labour party in some parts of the country. I could talk about Brentwood and the current problems of the Conservative party.

We must continue to be vigilant about the democratic structures in all our political parties; we must have real democratic vitality, so that when we put candidates up

4 May 1999 : Column 717

for election, they are standing for democratic values. We must not allow extremist anti-democratic elements to gain a foothold in the democratic system. That is why I welcome the amendments and I strongly urge the House to give them overwhelming support.

4.30 pm

Mr. Wilkinson: When it comes to electoral systems, it astonishes me that rational, reasonable people who pride themselves on their liberalism display a degree of authoritarianism that seems quite alien to their normal behaviour. We have seen, even in our own experience, periods in which we have proscribed Sinn Fein and forbidden its representatives' utterances. Now, Sinn Fein has elected representatives in Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly contains representatives of minority loyalist groups that were previously thought diabolically evil because they supported those who pursued the defence of the Union by terrorist means. Surely, the experience almost universally has been that it is much better to allow representatives of small parties--even those whose views appear extreme at the time--to have a democratic platform on which to utter those views, for if they are driven out on to the streets and frustrated, they are far more likely to pursue their ends by violence than if they are accommodated within the normal body politic.

The Government amendments betray the deficiencies of the d'Hondt system of proportional representation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) made clear. If we accept them, we might not only be excluding small parties, some of which are not necessarily extremist at all. Large parties, like large companies, have their origins in small organisations. Parties have to be small at one stage of their political development--the early, initial stage--and it is reasonable for such parties to aspire to have representatives on the new Londonwide assembly. Why should they be forbidden from pursuing that objective to success--the election of a representative, or conceivably more than one--by the imposition of an artificial threshold?

The threshold would affect parties within the mainstream, such as the Greens and many others, and regional parties which want to pursue the interests of individual parts of our capital city. It is likely that certain groups will feel that the grouping together of boroughs into ultra-large constituencies does not give them the opportunity to ensure that their area's particular interests are represented on the assembly. Such groups--say, the Middlesex preservation party, or some other such party--will have to pursue their interests through the list of Londonwide elected assembly men, but they will find themselves frustrated by the provisions of the amendment.

I understand the sentiment behind the drafting ofthe amendments and I comprehend Her Majesty's Government's feeling that they have a power of ethical judgment that most of us would not and do not presume to possess. We would leave that judgment to the electorate, because we believe in a democratic society. Our electors are fully capable of judging the qualities of those whom they elect to representative office, and who are we to put artificial barriers in their way?

I conclude, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South, that the amendment demonstrates, perhaps more clearly than any provision of the Bill,

4 May 1999 : Column 718

the fundamental flaws of the d'Hondt system of proportional representation. We never had such a problem when our elections took place entirely according to the first-past-the-post principle, but because we are to have an extraordinary combination of first past the post for ultra-large constituencies, which will probably not satisfy the electoral aspirations of all Londoners, and the d'Hondt system for the assembly men, we need the amendment. The amendment is anti-democratic; it will never satisfy everyone; and it will be the source of much criticism in future.

Next Section

IndexHome Page