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Earl Russell: My Lords, I must declare an interest as the president of the Electoral Reform Society. This amendment is the policy of the society by which I am advised, which is one good reason for supporting it. It is also the policy of my party, which is another good reason for supporting it. My noble friend Lord Bradford, who was in the Chamber a short while ago, may possibly remember that when I addressed the adoption meeting for our candidate at Richmond at the last election--now happily elected--I said that if anyone wanted to vote for Tony Blair as Prime Minister, they could not do it in Richmond. Although the Minister might wish to quibble about the detail, for practical purposes it is true.
The disadvantage of first-past-the-post is that it does not allow you to express a free and effective choice for government. The disadvantage of a closed list is that it does not allow you to express a free and effective choice of candidate. Since the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Parkside, provided the details, I shall let that stand. I am most grateful to him.
In an election one has two legitimate objectives. One is to choose a government and the other is to choose a Member of Parliament. First-past-the-post allows one; this system allows the other. The point about STV is that it is the only system which leaves us genuinely free to do both. A genuine advantage, I believe, is that it allows for a degree of cross-party voting. Not every political commitment--indeed not every passionate political commitment--is one which is entirely confined to one party. One knows that in this Chamber there are groups of people with specialist interests in one subject, for example, childcare or asylum, who have friendships and working partnerships that stretch across party. Under an STV system one is allowed to give effect to those partnership in one's vote. I believe that to be an electoral right and that a system which discourages it is mistaken.
It has been argued that the first-past-the-post system is a closed list of one. That argument has a certain amount of force. I do not believe that it goes all the way because under that system a single candidate is accountable to the voters. Very frequently it happens that because voters do or do not like the candidate they vote for a different party from the one they would otherwise have supported. I have known many examples among my friends and I do not believe that I need to labour the point. Suppose that in a list of 11 candidates there is just one whom one absolutely cannot stomach. Even the greatest party loyalist must have at least once experienced a candidate of his own party that he absolutely cannot stomach. There is no way that one can give effect to that except by voting against all 10 of the other candidates of the party for whom one may have great devotion or perhaps an intense personal friendship. It breaks the accountability of the candidate to the voter and I believe that to be the most serious aspect of elections by means of a closed list. The point of this amendment is that the single transferable vote restores that link.
As it was put in the 17th century, people regularly seek to please them in whom they see the power resteth. In any system where the voters choose which candidates are elected there is a very powerful incentive, of which most of us have knowledge, for the candidate to please the voters. That is right and is democracy. But under a closed list system the candidate has no incentive whatsoever to please the voters, especially if he is placed low down on the list. He has every incentive to please whatever group of party members is doing the selection. I point out to the noble Earl, Lord Dartmouth, that we had hustings as well as a postal ballot in our party, but I do not believe that that makes it all right. After all, we are only a party and a party is not the people. I am sure that the noble Earl will say the same for his party.
The choice of Members of Parliament, European or British, should be for the people. To give individuals an incentive to please their party and not the people breaks the crucial link between the member and those whom he is supposed to represent. I believe that to be dangerous. A party is not a single monolith; it is not a corporation with only one will. A party is a family. Some families work harmoniously; some do not from
The only possible reason for opposing the amendment is the argument that it is too late in the Parliament. But we have a good many weeks of this Session still to go. Any Bill that is lost at this stage will be lost because the Government want it lost already. I do not believe that that can possibly be the case. Just as we and the Conservatives have selected our candidates, the Government have also selected their candidates. I do not believe that the Government want to go back to the old constituencies and system and re-nominate even the existing MEPs. If they did they would be unable to turn their coats.
There is no danger to this Bill in accepting the amendment. I hope that we shall do so. I also hope others will follow the noble Earl, Lord Dartmouth, in saying that although they do not support PR if we must have it--within the Long Title of the Bill we must--it is the first-past-the-posters' preferred form of proportional representation. There are many good reasons for saying that. I believe that it is the best system of representation and I am happy to support this amendment.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I too support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I congratulate the noble Lord and others who framed the amendment, which is so simple, involves so few words and takes so many out. It is therefore easy to understand and, I hope, easy to vote for.
I believe the first-past-the-post system is an eminently good and respectable method of electing people not only to this Parliament but also to the European Parliament. It has worked successfully for a very long period of time. It has the merit of ensuring that the electorate elect the person named on the ballot paper and the ability to hold the elected person to account. That is important in electoral and democratic terms, but it provides a benefit to the elected persons themselves. If there is a difficulty between their constituencies and the party they can say to their party that that is what their constituents believe and want. Therefore, the MP or councillor has a strength that he simply will not have under this system. It will not be possible for even 11 people to get up and say that this is what their 10 million constituents--whatever the number may be--say because it is too amorphous. Under this system no proper link is maintained between the elected representatives and the electorate, as has been eloquently said by other speakers.
My noble friend Lord Evans of Parkside explained exactly how bad in democratic terms was the closed list system. It is beyond belief that the new Labour Party should make such a proposal. The Labour Party which I joined over 50 years ago, if it believes in nothing else, believes in democracy. As my noble friend explained, this system is not and cannot be democratic. The opportunity exists this afternoon to put the matter right and I hope that we shall do so. There is a great possibility of putting it right if the Official Opposition decide to support it and
I hope that Members on all sides of the House will rally to the amendment. Let us ensure that the European parliamentary elections maintain that essential democratic link between the elected and electors.
Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, I urge noble Lords to support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, supported by my noble friend Lord Evans. The House may forgive me if I say that I should not care to take lectures on democracy from the noble Earl, Lord Dartmouth.
Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, I do not think that the noble Earl can point with any pride to the reputation over the years of his party as any kind of authentic author of democracy as I understand it. I know perfectly well what goes on in the selection of Tory Party candidates, in the same way as I think I know what happened hitherto in the selection of Labour Party candidates. But the European Parliament is not a parliament as we understand it. In terms of the membership of the so-called parliament, it has no identifiable connection with its large constituencies of half a million apiece, such as we have in this country with electorates of between perhaps 50,000 and 70,000.
My objection to the Government's proposals is that they tend to enshrine the party and its officials in a position that should never occur within a democracy. It is all very well to denounce party officialdom, the party official machine, and so on. But a party has to have a machine in order to pursue the election. It is the assumption by the party machine of a role that it has no business to assume--that of the final censor as to who should or should not be selected from the ranks of the party for the position for which the election has been held--that I regard as completely repugnant.
As has been pointed out by numerous other speakers in the debate, one is bound to have a drive by the official machine for uniformity, for conformity with whatever views dominate the policy of the party for the time being. I believe that that is most undesirable. If they are to be even remotely successful, or taken into account by the population of the country, all parties need a degree of diversity within the parties. Dissent within the parties is needed as well as dissent by one official party against another. All progress is inevitably by dissent. It is a dialectical process which one would not propose to go
A selected list completely violates that concept. Power tends to feed upon itself. The more successful a party machine, the more efficient it becomes, the greater number of seats that it gains, supported by massive propaganda either in the press or in Parliament, the more that power tends to feed upon itself. So we would have a narrowing of the requirements of the party machine as regards the views expressed and the actions taken by its new Members of Parliament if they are selected. I regard that as the death of democracy.
What we require is a system whereby local or regional districts, and perhaps personnel within those regions or districts, have a discretion which will reflect ultimately in different types of people with different grades of policy and different depths of belief being elected across the whole spectrum. A person elected on behalf of the Conservative Party list in one region need not necessarily have the same views as a Member of the European Parliament elected as a Conservative from perhaps two regions away. That would permit diversity. There is no point in having complete unanimity--a driven unanimity, a callow unanimity, an almost cowardly unanimity--among Members of the European Parliament, another place or elsewhere. Diversity is the key.
The proposals are an enemy of diversity, even within the limitations and sometimes the generalities of party policy. It is a dull effort to produce a uniformity which is unhealthy for democracy. It is not only unhealthy for the people themselves but also for the leadership of those parties. Leaders are human, like everyone else. I believe that there are leaders who, the moment they are elected, think next about how to be re-elected rather than to fulfil the mandate for which they were elected. So they are a little weak too. It does leadership good to know that it has to deal with diverse people, not a series of automatons who are elected at the behest and choice of the party machine. Therefore I support what the noble Lord, Lord Evans, said.
The noble Lord knows perfectly well that when we were in the European Parliament it was not uncommon for us to disagree with one another on a subject. It was not always the same subject. Nevertheless, we were still good members of our party. But there was a diversity and dissent; and that I wish to keep as far as possible. It may not be all that possible. The appreciation by people of the real validity and value of the democratic institutions may have sunk so low that they do not give a damn whether members are to be elected through a party list or as individuals. That spark still remains. As Members of what one sometimes thinks of as the thinking Parliament, it is our function to give such measures our support.
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