Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Murphy: My point was that the system distorts the purpose of top-up Members. When the House debated the Government of Wales Act 1998, the purpose of those Members was not only to represent the proportion of votes for parties, but to represent all the parts of the region equally. That has been perverted and distorted because political resources are put into those constituencies where the party can go for both seats.

Lembit Öpik: In his heart of hearts, the right hon. Gentleman surely cannot pretend that this change has anything to do with forcing the regional list Members to represent their regions rather than their immediate locality—[Interruption.] Labour Members, including Front Benchers, seem to object to that, but I look forward to hearing the Minister's explanation of how this mechanism will ensure that individuals who have been elected as list regional Members will not tend to use their resources of time and money to focus on the locality within which they live. If the Minister is suggesting that is the reason, why has it taken five days of debate to reach that justification? Why was it merely a sedentary response to my comments?

Chris Bryant rose—

Lembit Öpik: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a minute, but I want to respond to the more interesting of the points that he made earlier on, which also ties in with something that the right hon. Member for Torfaen said. The hon. Gentleman said that losers should not be winners. What a dramatic change for the Labour party: losers should not be winners. Where does it say that manifesto commitments secured by only a third of the popular vote mean that a party has the justification, in any democratic sense, to force through such provisions?

Labour Members know as well as I do that two thirds of the British population voted for parties that were not Labour, yet when they are talking about democracy that fact seems to go out of the window. Today, it is convenient for Members sanctimoniously to masquerade as keepers of the democratic process, but we should never forget the complete contradiction in the Government's justifying their proposed changes on the basis that there is some kind of democratic deficit in Wales, while forcing through these and many other provisions when they very well know that most of the electorate voted against their manifesto.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is getting into what the House of Lords should do to legislation from
27 Feb 2006 : Column 43
this place. His argument seems entirely consistent with what other Liberal Democrats and Conservative Front Benchers have said since the last general election—that they have no intention of standing by the Salisbury convention because they believe that we did not properly win that election. The hon. Gentleman is introducing a second version of losers shall be winners.

Earlier, the hon. Gentleman said that he felt that I was urging that we have a system that disbenefited smaller parties, but the present system gives smaller parties an extraordinary advantage. My experience in south Wales is that smaller parties are smaller parties because they do not command the support of the people of Wales, and I do not think that we should give them an additional leg up.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman is obviously beginning to panic about how the upper House may interpret this debate—as well he might. Sadly, and increasingly of late, the unelected upper House remains the last stand between the authoritarian autocracy of the Government and the interests of the people and democracy as a whole—

Chris Bryant: Autocracy?

Lembit Öpik: Yes, autocracy—[Interruption.] I will not be drawn on that. The hon. Gentleman should remember that English is my second language—

Chris Bryant: Not Greek?

Lembit Öpik: Greek is certainly not my second language, but English is, so the hon. Gentleman should cut me some slack if he has issues with my terminology.

I want to focus on the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that losers cannot be winners. Today and in previous debates, he and others have claimed as justification that the public in Wales want the proposed changes. However, just as two thirds of the British population as a whole voted against the Labour party in the 2005 general election, so too did a majority of electors in Wales. It is thus obvious that if Labour Members claim democracy as justification for making these changes to our electoral process they are contradicting their own arguments. Most people in Wales who used their vote did not support that manifesto commitment. I do not understand why it is so difficult for Government Members to grasp the contradiction between what the public said then and what the Government are saying now.

5 pm

Incidentally, I do not want to stray too far from the debate, but if the Government are suddenly so concerned about what the people think, how is it that they ignored the obvious anecdotal judgments of the public about the war in Iraq, about the anti-terrorist legislation or about something that we have discussed already—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take the advice that he has just given to himself.

Lembit Öpik: I value the person who gave that advice, so I will take it and I will stop there. I simply say in
27 Feb 2006 : Column 44
general terms that the Government cannot have it both ways. They cannot say that they will take the advice on one occasion and not on another.

We hear an age-old argument about the general public's confusion. We are told that they do not understand how the system works. Once again, I simply ask the Government to provide some solid hard-core data to show that people who voted either in the most recent Welsh Assembly election or perhaps even in the one before have genuinely said, "If I had understood the system better, I would have changed my vote."

Mr. Llwyd: The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) said that, when he spoke to people in the pubs about the issue, there was a certain amount of confusion. Perhaps they were confused because they were in the pubs anyway.

Lembit Öpik: And 24-hour drinking will not help the case of the right hon. Member for Torfaen. While sort of thanking the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, I want to point out that hon. Members are mixing up two things when they cite the public's alleged confusion as a justification for this change, which is nothing to do with changing the list and constituency system. All it will do is prevent individuals from exercising their human right to stand for election on the list as well as in a constituency. At the heart of it, there is nothing very complicated about our difference of view.

To summarise, it happens that it will be convenient in my constituency if the amendment is accepted, but that does not make it right. It is unquestionably convenient for some hon. Members to consider making it more difficult for their opponents; but, once again, that is not a good enough reason to monkey with the democratic system. The greatest irony of all is that the provision will make almost no difference in the way that the Government intend, but it will make a significant difference to the opportunity for individuals to express their democratic right to stand for election on the list and in a constituency.

Mrs. Gillan: Does the hon. Gentleman intend to join me, my party and Plaid Cymru Members in the Lobby if I ask for votes on amendments Nos. 1 and 2?

Lembit Öpik: To raise the suspense, I will come to that in just a minute.

To finish off, I ask the Minister to reflect on what he is asking us to do today. Is he really so sure that he will achieve the intended goals and that, if we have such a debate again in the Chamber in four years' time, he will be able to point to evidence and say, "Look at all the things we cleared up"? I simply do not believe that. I do not believe that he really believes it either. This is a sop to bitter Labour Assembly Members who are concerned about the trouble that the Opposition parties cause in their constituencies. Therefore, I suggest that if the Government are serious about democracy rather than opportunism, they will think again. To answer the hon. Lady's question, if she chooses to divide the House on the issue, the Liberal Democrats will unquestionably support her amendment.
27 Feb 2006 : Column 45

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Opposition Members have repeatedly alleged that the proposal to disbar candidates from standing for election on the list and in constituencies is in some way to the party political advantage of the Labour party. I rise to suggest that that is entirely incorrect and that we have heard no evidence to that effect at all. On the contrary, one group will be disproportionately affected adversely if the proposal is accepted: Labour Assembly Members.

Labour Assembly Members are the largest group of directly elected Members and, if the proposal goes through, they will be prevented from using the safety net that exists under the current system for constituency Members who wish to preserve their position by remaining on the list.

Next Section IndexHome Page