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Mr. Simon Hughes: Having also watched and listened to the debate in the other place, I should like to add that there is one other argument. The Minister in the other place speculated that it might cost about £30 million. Do Ministers not realise that already polling cards are delivered, and will be delivered, and that one could perfectly reasonably combine the polling card delivery with the free post delivery, and perfectly reasonably combine the information from all the candidates in one or two mailings? Ministers are inventing figures to undermine an argument that everybody else accepts.

Mr. Davey: My hon. Friend is exactly right. Ministers and other Labour Members may shake their heads and say that it is a ludicrous suggestion, but they should talk to the Electoral Reform Society, which says that this is done in other countries. Indeed, it is done on the continent and in the United States of America for elections for mayors of cities. If exactly that process can be applied elsewhere,

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are Ministers saying that they run such an incompetent administration that they are not able to do it? That would be the logic if they said that they could not. On the issue of whether the free post is too expensive, the Government really have no grounds for their position.

Finally, I should like to address what happens if the statutory instrument falls. It may not fall tonight, but we are fairly sure that it will fall when it comes before the other place. Who will be to blame for the elections for the Greater London Authority not going ahead? The Government and their spin doctors will, of course, try to blame the Opposition parties, but the people of London will not believe them. The people of London see a Government with a majority of 179, a Government who put forward this new authority in their manifesto, who went to a referendum on it. They are expecting the Government to deliver the election, and they are very well aware that the Government have a few internal problems over the issue. They will suspect, quite rightly, that the Government backed down because there were such internal problems and divisions in their own party.

The idea that the Government will be able to blame the Opposition parties just will not wash. The reality is that the Opposition parties, throughout the process of setting up this new authority, have been very constructive. There has been an attempt to achieve consensus about the form of the new authority and over the electoral system. Indeed, the Government have been active in trying to achieve that consensus in many of their constitutional reforms, through setting up commissions, having cross-party working parties and so on. When it comes to the grubby issue of whether they are prepared to put their money where their mouth is and allow people to contest the election on a fair basis, they do not seek consensus; they just go with what suits the Labour party. That is a democratic outrage, and we shall be supporting the Conservative party tonight in the Lobby.

11.4 pm

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): To preface what I shall say, I have campaigned in every general election and every local election in London since the abolition of the GLC in 1986, and the central plank of our campaign in all of them has been a policy programme based upon the restoration of democratic strategic government in the capital city.

Like my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who described himself as a foot soldier in the party during that period, I have knocked on doors, delivered leaflets, spoken from soapboxes and run street stalls. All the way through, we have been arguing that what distinguishes us from the Conservative party is our commitment to democracy. Therefore, I am somewhat saddened by what has happened tonight and recently, because some incompetent bungle or tactical manoeuvre has now presented us with a situation in which the Tory party, which abolished democratic strategic government in this capital, can present itself as the defender of a democratic process by which candidates can communicate with the electorate. There is an irony there somewhere, that the party has moved on so much.

Let me say this to my own side. We can play games with party rules; we can manipulate selections--I suppose that that is all part of the political process--but I think that we interfere with the democratic process at all our

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perils. It is one thing to sort out selections; it is another to undermine a basic freedom that we established as a party in 1948.

It is worth remembering the arguments that our Government--a Labour Government--advanced in 1948 for the establishment of a free post. First, they argued that elections should be based on an informed choice by electors. The free post would allow candidates to set out directly to electors the policies on which they wanted to determine their votes. They also argued strongly that it would overcome the problem of any one party's having a monopoly of resources, either financial or in terms of ownership of the media. They reserved it to large-scale elections; they left it to local volunteers at local elections to be able to contact each House.

I feel that the arguments in defence of the Government's position have opened us up almost to ridicule, certainly in the other place and now, I think, among the public. We have discussed some of those arguments, but the one about scale is overwhelming. We have a 5.1 million electorate for the mayor here; in Scotland there was a 4 million electorate, in Wales one of 2.2 million and in Northern Ireland one of one of 1.2 million, and they all had free posts. This is not like some by-election in Ambridge; this is a major election.

There is another argument about the status of the capital. This election will have implications for every Londoner but, because this is the capital, it will also have implications for the whole country. We are the gateway to the country; we are a major resource of the country; we are the ambassador for the rest of the country throughout the world.

We have heard an argument about cost. A mail-out to each household would cost £420,000. Even the figures presented by a Minister in the other place do not "stack up", but I do not think that there is a cost to democracy. If we carry the argument to its logical conclusion, why have five-yearly elections? Why not have them once every 10 years? That would be cheaper. Why not have a Prime Minister for life? That would be much cheaper altogether.

If we want to be more creative, let us look at some of the proposals presented by the electoral registration officers. They suggest a ballot standardising election addresses, and one delivery for all that are used elsewhere. The arguments about abuse of the system have been dealt with adequately, in the other House and here. The material is already vetted by the Post Office. There are already powers for intervention to prevent abuse of candidatures. It is noticeable that we argue that this is a local government election, and at the same time introduce a deposit as though it were a national election. We cannot have it both ways.

The weakest argument that I have heard so far is that a direct free post is not needed because the media will cover the election so intensely that candidates will have no problem in putting their policies across. Such faith in the fairness, balance and competence of the British media is touching. The gentle objectivity of The Sun, and the philosophical jesuitical balance of the debate in the Murdoch media empire, will of course be accepted by all candidates.

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): Is the hon. Gentleman's experience the same as mine? Does he

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think that, in many cases, the addressed free post will be the only delivery that multi-occupancy houses will receive during the election campaign? That very group of people are probably least likely to vote in an election.

Mr. McDonnell: I rarely have the same life experiences as a Liberal Democrat, but in that respect I do.

It is largely because of the bias, prejudice and, at times, bigotry of the media that the free post was introduced to give a candidate at least one opportunity to communicate directly, in an untrammelled way, with the electorate.

The arguments against the free post for the elections have been demonstrated in both Houses to be specious. The debate goes beyond the normal knockabout of party politics. A healthy democracy is founded on a ferocious and combative debate on policy issues, and on principles; but there must be a general consensus about the procedures on which that debate is based. That is why election orders such as this are usually agreed on a consensual basis.

That manipulation undermines that consensual approach, but, more important for me and for many of my colleagues, I think, it sets a precedent. A more ruthless Government may pray it in aid for more serious curtailments of democratic processes. By denying candidates the free post, we edge towards the American system, whereby democratic participation for candidatures is available only to those who can afford it. In that way, politics and candidatures become almost a commodity. When we have a commodity, people can be bought.

It is a mistaken act. We need to think again about it and to come back with a compromise formula before it goes to the other place.

11.10 pm

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Thank God for old Labour. It is striking that it is new Labour which is Leninist now. It is new Labour for which the end justifies the means. The end is the imposition on London of the Prime Minister's preferred candidate. It does not matter if democracy is sacrificed in the process.

As usual, the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) spoke with intellect on her side. The sad thing was that force majeure is against her. I am sure that her natural courage would have induced her to vote against the order, but the Labour party now deselects individuals who vote against the party line on a three-line whip. The hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) admitted as much in the early stages of the Greater London Authority Bill.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell), who is a political neighbour and whom I know well, is one of the foremost experts on local government in the House of Commons. He knows more about local government in London than me. I defer to him on many matters. When he speaks as eloquently as he does, I take note, but he, too, does not have the courage of his convictions. I do not think that he is prepared to take on the Labour leadership and to say that it should not foist what is an ill-begotten idea on London--that London is so unimportant that it does not merit a free post.

As Londoners, we know that it is we who have subsidised the free post for the Assembly election in Northern Ireland, the Assembly election in Wales and the

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parliamentary election in Scotland, yet, although we have the biggest electorate, we are led to suppose that we are not important enough to merit a free post, even though we have perhaps the most complicated system of them all.

In my constituency in outer London, the areas to be covered are huge. Harefield ward in rural Middlesex is as big as the whole of the Islington borough. This is just one ward. To ensure that every elector is informed about the programme of the candidates, it is our democratic duty to ensure that each and every elector receives an election address.

The electors have to be informed not only about the respective programme of the candidates, but about the system. With the mayoralty, there is the question of the double vote--how the second vote should be exercised. The mayoral candidate might want to give advice on that.

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