Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Earl Russell: My Lords, can the Minister tell us of any electoral system which is incapable of producing anomalous results?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, of course not. Some representation depends upon no election at all and that produces anomalous results--for instance, as the noble Earl will know, the hereditary principle.

One has to make a judgment of what the appropriate scheme is. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, said that the proposal would not necessarily be of universal benefit to the Labour Party. I accept that. Similarly, mention

20 Oct 1998 : Column 1329

was made of Scotland and Wales. My noble friend Lord Evans of Parkside said that the amendment would solve the Welsh problem. I do not think that anything is capable of solving the Welsh problem, certainly not the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. I am not adopting a partisan stance because I think we are entitled to look for your Lordships' support. The fact is that the Conservative Party had significant electoral support in Scotland at the last general election but secured no Members of Parliament there. In Wales, 20 per cent. of the electorate voted Conservative but the party has no Members of Parliament there. As I have said on a number of occasions, we have specifically designed these schemes to do away with a monolith in Wales and in Scotland, neither of which is likely to be healthy for the Scottish parliament or the Welsh assembly.

I revert to where I began. The party, I suggest, should not be confused with the mechanism we are proposing. A number of observations have been made. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, says that the Conservatives are very democratic internally; the noble Lord, Lord McNally, says that his party is more democratic; and the noble Lord, Lord Evans, over the years, has tried to make the Labour Party more democratic internally, but that is nothing to the point of the system adopted. If one wants a better, more democratic internal party selection system, that is one thing. What we are doing here is offering to the voters a list of party supporters in a way which has been determined by internal party choice.

Internal party choice can be good or indifferent but that is nothing to the point on the list. I do not believe that it can be gainsaid--it has not been gainsaid on any occasion when we have had these lengthy debates in Committee and on Report--that the open list system can produce results which are deeply offensive to the public. I believe I am right in saying, from memory, that the sort of NOP polling to which the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, referred, absolutely confirmed that.

Perhaps I may give an illustration. I want to put it neutrally. I think that most people of fair mind--that means most people who agree with me--would accept that women are grossly under-represented and ethnic minorities have an even less favourable deal. I believe that it is competent and proper for a party to select what is called a closed list; to bear that in mind; and to give women a fair deal and ethnic minorities a fair deal by putting them appropriately high in the list.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Evans of Parkside: My Lords, I accept the premise that my noble friend puts forward in relation to women and ethnic minorities. However, will he accept from me that a close study of the Labour Party's list of candidates indicates clearly that there will be 13 women elected to the European Parliament under these new proposals, as there were 13 elected under the first-past-the-post system, and one representative of

20 Oct 1998 : Column 1330

ethnic groupings--one black member--will also be elected? There is an outside chance that a second black member may be elected, but that is somewhat doubtful.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not think that focuses on the principle I am contending. I readily recognise that there are some women and some people from ethnic minorities who do not want any consideration of this sort applied to them. But I believe that a party has a moral duty to ensure that women and those from ethnic minorities are not disadvantaged.

Perhaps I may give an example from the Home Secretary's own constituency. In a multi-member ward constituency it was noticeable that those who had names which were apparently of ethnic minority origin did significantly worse than those with apparent English, Welsh or Scottish names. We can argue and differ about these things but I believe that if a party wants to bring forward a certain number of women; to redress the monstrous endemic injustice from which ethnic minorities suffer or to bring forward--let us not forget--people of particular expertise whom it wishes to have at the top of the list, it is entitled to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, expressed displeasure about first-past-the-post. This provision remedies that in part. He expressed displeasure about the solution we propose. But if the Labour Party, the Conservative Party or the Liberal Party have people with particular expertise in the European context, people who are knowledgeable, experienced and practised, it seems to me perfectly justifiable that the party which is bringing forward the candidates should offer those candidates in the list as this Bill offers.

Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, perhaps I may take my noble friend back to where he was when he discussed the Belgian system and pointed out that it contained a defect; namely, that you could get more votes--but not be elected--than someone who was elected and that that causes resentment. I think that point has been understood in the House during our debate. But it is not true that only the Belgian system is available. As the noble Lord will remember from earlier exchanges, there is a Finnish system. The Finnish system rules out the danger of someone being elected who has not had a majority of votes cast by eliminating the chance of voting for a party. It simply lists the names of the candidates. Their party loyalty is indicated as well so that when the vote is cast, if the aggregate of those votes cast were for a particular name and he comes top of the list, he will be elected. That exists in practice. What is the defect with that?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I remember on the earlier occasion that the noble Lord was contending for the Finnish system and the Luxembourg system. The Luxembourg system seems to have fallen by the wayside.

I return to my fundamental point, namely that it is parties that bring forward candidates. If parties internally choose their candidates, I suggest to your Lordships that they are entitled to do that and offer that list in the way they have chosen for the reasons--

20 Oct 1998 : Column 1331

perfectly honourable and legitimate reasons--I have outlined. If the individual voter does not wish that, he or she is perfectly entitled not to use the vote for that party or to use it for another party in exactly the same way as on the presently closed system.

If the only Labour candidate in my constituency--if I were able to vote--was someone I did not care for, I would have to come to a conclusion. Do I vote on party loyalty lines, identified by the noble Earl? Do I not vote for that particular candidate? Or do I swallow my doubts and vote for that candidate.

To revert to the description of the noble Lord, Lord Shore, the "Finnish system", as I understand it, has the same weaknesses as the Belgian system. Candidates in Finland can be elected with fewer votes than candidates who are not elected.

My next observation is simply a part of the picture and is not intended to be an overwhelming argument. It will be the fact that, should we go the way that this Bill indicates, Germany, France, Greece, Spain and Portugal will all have the same system that we do; in other words, it will apply to rather more than 70 per cent. of the voters in the European Union. It will not surprise your Lordships that I have not changed my view about the propriety of that.

I listened carefully--we listen sometimes with a full House and sometimes with a scanty House--to the arguments that have been rehearsed. I do not say that impolitely because many noble Lords feel strongly about this matter. First, I feel that we were honourably right in moving away from the first-past-the-post system for European elections. We are entitled to say that this is a reasonable scheme whereby, essentially, we are voting in large regional areas. That is wholly different from and unrelated to the size of our present constituencies. It is the fact that on the lists many voters--I say this without disrespect--will not have much knowledge of the individuals offering themselves except for the fact that they are on the party list.

It has been said--again it is not accurate--that this is an unprecedented step. In fact, this is a scheme which worked in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act 1996, piloted by the party opposite, provided for a list-based electoral system exactly the same as this in all essentials for elections to the peace forum. Therefore it is not unprecedented. The argument that it has not happened before and the question as to where it will all end--unattractive as it is--is not even founded on recent history.

I cannot usefully contribute further to these discussions. I invite your Lordships to come to the conclusion that this is an amendment that should not be supported.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, we have had an interesting and thoughtful debate and I am grateful to all those noble Lords who took part. In summing up perhaps I can make a few points in response to what was said.

First, I say to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that it is not a fair proposition to say that I tabled this amendment because I do not like the Bill. The

20 Oct 1998 : Column 1332

amendment does not damage the Bill. My view is that it improves the Bill because it improves the PR method being used. As to sending Liberal Democrats to the European Parliament, which seems to be the objective of the noble Lord, Lord McNally--I suppose it is a reasonable one--having an open list will not prevent that happening if it is going to happen. It makes no difference to the numbers who go; it means that those who vote Liberal Democrat will actually decide who will go. That is the important point.

I shall not embarrass the noble Earl, Lord Russell, too much. As those noble Lords who were in the House in the last Parliament will know, he and I were frequently at daggers drawn, though they were genteel daggers. We had considerable differences of opinion. However, one thing I knew was that the noble Earl would conduct his arguments with dignity and honesty. He has done that again today and, if it does not embarrass him too much, as usual I take my hat off to him for his skills in that regard.

The noble Lord, Lord Evans of Parkside, said that this does not upset the principle of the Bill. The open list system which I brought before your Lordships obeys the Labour Party's manifesto in every way as much as the closed list system brought forward by the Government. Therefore it is not a problem. In relation to the need to hasten this Bill, I must say that this Bill has made the most stately progress through both Houses of any Bill of its size. My noble friend Lord Henley reminded me that it started in the other place last November. The Bill will not be lost simply because your Lordships ask the other place to think again.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, performed many of his usual clever tricks--if I may so call them--learnt, no doubt, in many years of making excellent submissions at the Bar. In doing so he introduced a series of red herrings and, so to speak, "kippered" them. He produced an argument in relation to PR. But we are not arguing for or against PR; we are arguing inside the PR system.

The noble Lord argued against the Belgian system. But it is not the Belgian system. In this system, if three people are elected from the Labour Party, the three people who will go to Brussels will be the three who obtained the largest number of votes. Nobody with more votes than the three who go will be on the list. It cannot happen. The returning officer will take the candidate with the biggest vote, the next and the next. So I am afraid that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, produced a bit of a red herring in that argument.

The Belgian system has nothing to do with it; this is not the Belgian system. This is not an argument about PR. It is an argument about offering the voter a choice. Towards the end of the submissions of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, he showed us that he did not believe that Labour Party voters should have a choice; he did not believe that they would exercise it properly--properly was the way he defined it. That may be what he thinks about Labour Party voters. It is a sad reflection of what the Government think about the people who returned them to power with such an excellent majority, at least

20 Oct 1998 : Column 1333

in the other place. I believe that Labour voters deserve better. It is not simply a matter of giving the voters a choice between the parties and ending up with proportionality; it is about giving the voters a choice between the candidates of their favoured party.

After last year it is not easy to say this, but I say it now because it is the position that I am taking here, clearly and firmly, and the Government are not. We should trust the electorate to decide who from a party's list should go to Brussels. We should trust the electorate. As a result of the debate last week it may seem a little odd to ask your Lordships to come to the rescue of democracy and voter choice. But that is exactly what I ask your Lordships to do. I do not believe that, unlike his usual performances, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, made out his case and I invite your Lordships to make a judgment.

4.26 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 1) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 165; Not-Contents, 140.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page