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It is essential that we maintain the theology that if a political party puts a measure in its election manifesto, it should have the right to see it put through the electoral process. Members who throw that principle aside do so at their peril.
Lembit Öpik: I rise to speak to amendment No. 130 and to talk about the principle under discussion. I understand the Secretary of State's dislike of the system as it stands, but having listened to the debate, I can say with fair confidence that, regardless of how inconvenient it may be for some of us that regional list Members may purport to focus primarily on a constituency, there is nevertheless a compelling democratic case to allow that to happen. I start where the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) left off: unless I am very much mistaken, one is entitled to stand for election in two constituencies in a general election. However, if one is elected in both seats, one must decide which to represent.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is correct about that, as the law stands. The same candidate stood against the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) and me in the general election last year, but under the Electoral Administration Bill, supported by the Conservative and the Liberal Democrat parties, the law that allows that to happen will be abolished.
Lembit Öpik: The bottom line is that things have not changed. Furthermore, I have not heard a single hon. Member on either side of the House argue that Britain's parliamentary processes have been perverted by the opportunity to stand for election in two places. Obviously, by inference, the Secretary of State may want to respond to that point. Let me be clear that I do not disrespect the difference of viewI understand itbut the Liberal Democrat party is concerned that, whatever the motivations of the Secretary of State and others, the provision very much looks like a partisan step, because of the current electoral mathematics of Wales.
The provisions are obviously intended to prevent candidates from standing for election on both a constituency and a regional list. We have been discussing the two reasons that Government have cited for that course of action, the first of which is the Clwyd, West problem, whereby candidates who seem to lose constituency elections can become Assembly Members via the list. To paraphrase a member of the Government, people who are losers are seen to be winners. The Government's second argument is that the provisions will prevent list Members from abusing their position for political advantage. Both arguments have been rehearsed to an extent.
Many arguments have been cited, but it is still undeniable that such a change would not stop the
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abuses, as alleged by the Labour party, because a list Member, even if he did not stand for the constituency, could still open an office and say that he was the regional Member based in Rhondda or wherever. So the provision will not stop the very things that Labour Members are bleating about.
Mr. Hollobone: As someone who has followed the debate closely but who represents an English seat, what I do not understand is why, if Assembly Members are abusing their position, that is not dealt with by Standing Orders in the Assembly.
Lembit Öpik: The answer is that the perception of abuse is not an objective interpretation of what is going on; it is a subjective interpretation derived entirely in the minds of Ministers and other Labour Members. Their paranoia causes them to interpret such things as abuse, while other people may interpret them as showing political initiative.
Lembit Öpik: That puts me in a difficult position, because I listened with the greatest of interest as Leanne Wood's words were quoted. Perhaps I should now rule myself out of order and therefore not speak about her specifically, although I am sure that other hon. Members will, and perhaps the Minister will say something about that, too.
However, we have heard already that, despite the jovial and ironic comments made by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), none of us has received sacks full of post about the issue from the general public. This has not been the cause of insomnia or outrage in Montgomeryshire and I do not believe that it has been to any significant extent outside the village of politicians themselves. I do not believe that the public really talk about this. Although that does not mean that we should not talk about it, we need to recognise that it is not realistic for the Government to suggest that they are responding to public opinion. The pressure of public opinion simply is not there on this issue.
That also seems to be the opinion of the Labour party in Wales. In its manifesto of 114 pages and, I estimate, about 30,000 words, it merely manages
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one single sentence on this subject. If it was the burning issue, one would think that it would have been highlighted all over the manifesto.
To return to the Electoral Reform Society and its comments, I should first say that I believe that it is biased. It is hell-bent on ensuring democratic systems that are actually fair to the electorate and to candidates. In that sense, we can agree that its agenda is fairly transparent. Which one of us in the Chamber disagrees with its intent? Let us get away from the suggestion of partisanship because the Electoral Reform Society has a laudable record of acting in a non-partisan way in what it believes to be the best interests of democracy.
"There is no evidence that the Clwyd West so-called problem has had any impact on voter participation . . . We have got a very extensive body of research on what makes people vote and not vote across Britain and particularly specifically in Wales, and it is on that basis that we say it is not an issue we could say has ever been raised with us".
It is not an issue that has even been raised with the Electoral Reform Society. I shall be very interested to hear the Government's alternative evidence on that. We have already established that the Electoral Reform Society has quite clearly categorised itself as little short of obsessive about democracy in this country. One would imagine that it would act as a magnet for comments, but it did not receive a single piece of evidence on this matter.
I suggest therefore that we may not have worked out the answer to why turnout was, in many people's view, depressingly low, but it is extremely unlikely that the finger of blame points at this particular constitutional circumstance in which an individual is able to stand as a constituency candidate and simultaneously on a list.
It is true that the Welsh Affairs Committee was split on this issue. It voted 5:4 to back the Government's stance but sadlyand exceptionally on this occasionit was perfectly obvious that the vote split on party lines. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) voted against the proposals in the Bill, as did the three Conservative Members. It is clear that the situation was, at least to those of us who observed it from the outside, motivated by party political interests.
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