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Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, I have studied with great care the debate that took place yesterday evening in the House of Commons, hoping not for the first time that I would find there some new and persuasive argument that would put me ad idem with so many of my former colleagues and present colleagues in the Labour Party here in the House of Lords. But I searched in vain. Indeed, the arguments were hardly put forward in terms of merit. They were put forward in terms of the Commons versus the Lords--the will of the House of Commons must prevail over that of the House of Lords. As a general principle, I agree with that without any trouble. However, on this occasion I think it has been used bogusly. It is not a true description of what is at stake.
What is at stake is whether, faced with the choice of two systems of proportional representation, which many of us dislike in any event, we should go for a system which greatly increases the powers of officials--of what I previously called the "selectorate"; whether we should deliberately, with our eyes open, do that in a period when, on the whole, centralised power is being challenged everywhere; and whether we should do that deliberately in this case in preference to a system which gives no such extra power to what is basically an unelected or very indirectly elected committee of officials who choose who are to be members of the European Parliament in the future.
Of course, I looked once again at the arithmetic of the last time we voted. When one looks at the number of votes cast by the Conservative Peers, whether hereditary or appointed, one reaches a certain total. That total, if they had had no other support from more independent sources, would not have enabled them to win last time. The Government would have won the vote if they had been faced with a combination of Conservative Peers, hereditary and appointed. The Government would have won the same vote on 20th October. But they did not win. It is bogus to describe this as being one of those classic conflicts between hereditary Peers dominating this House through the Conservative Party and the democracy outside. It is
I want to go just one step further. I remain puzzled at the insistence of the Government and of the Commons. It is an amazing persistence. It is true that the Bill is now getting very near to the deadline. In a very short time we may actually play this game of ping pong once more, but the Session will come to an end. It may well be that the Government will lose the Bill. Why on earth should they take such a risk? Surely they do not invest such merit in a closed electoral system. The Back-Benchers can hardly bring themselves even to acquiesce in it, let alone to support it. Are they to risk the Bill for that? Good heavens, it is ridiculous. I have been scratching my head about it.
Under Article 190 of the Treaty of Rome we are committed to a European Parliament elected by a common procedure. Under the treaty we are required to harmonise our system with that of the European Union. It has not yet reached the point when that is an instruction but it is there in the treaty and sooner or later a regulation will come forward requiring us to make that alignment. For all I know, and for all the House knows, there may have been some tacit understanding between the Government and their European allies that they will bring forward such a procedure and bring the British system into alignment with that of the majority of countries in the European Union; or it may be that the Government, so anxious to establish their European credentials, have gone out of their way to make a gesture of good will, as they would see it, to our European friends and neighbours; in which case, I think it is bad judgment--I say no more--but it does not give any additional argument for the Bill in the form in which it has been presented to us.
So, with great reluctance, I have to say this to my colleagues. I am not persuaded. I cannot vote for what is proposed. If the Government do persist, they may well lose the Bill. But, need we be very sad about that? If they do lose the Bill, they will then find that they have already in being a system which, although far from perfect, is based on first-past-the-post and the constituency system which most of us in any case prefer.
Lord Jacobs: My Lords, I shall not detain your Lordships for long and I hope the House will excuse me for not having spoken at the Committee stage or the Report stage or at any of the three previous votes we have had. There are elements in the progress of the Bill which are somewhat reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes--the mystery of the dog that did not bark in the night. I shall come to that in a moment.
Perhaps I may give a brief summary of the position as I understand it. There have been four voting systems: first-past-the-post; the single transferable vote; the closed list; and the open list. Those four systems have been discussed interminably. On first-past-the-post, in their manifesto the Government made it clear that they wanted to bring in a system of proportional representation for the European elections, so first-past-the-post could not be considered. At this point
Then we come to the single transferable vote system. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, proposed amendments to bring in the STV system at both Committee and Report stages. Our party is strongly in favour of STV, but the single transferable vote does not work well with an electorate of 43 million and just 84 seats to be decided upon, and therefore regretfully we were unable to support those amendments. The system does, of course, work well in general elections.
Then we come to the closed list. I want to make clear that for both the closed list and the open list the candidates are decided upon by the party. In our party we vote for the candidates. When comparing the two systems, there is no fundamental difference on this important point.
In the open list system there is also another method of voting. At Committee stage our party proposed a system known as the Belgian system. I will not explain it; noble Lords must know it inside out and backwards. That system would enable electors to vote for either a party or individual candidates. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, saw what he described as a small defect in the system, and indeed it does exist. In about three out of 24 elections carried out under this system someone low down on the list has received more votes than someone higher up on the list but has failed to be elected because of the way the quota is allocated. Because of that defect, when we divided the House on the proposal, the Conservatives--particularly the Front Bench--were regrettably obliged to sit on their hands.
All was not lost because the Conservatives put forward an amendment proposing the Finnish system, in which I think there is merit. Under that system one votes for each candidate, and many here have made a great deal of that point. If candidates appear in alphabetical order on the ballot paper or are randomly selected in a list system, electors can make a good selection if they know who all the candidates are, and so the system would work well. In practice, as I think almost everyone
I should like to quote again from that well-known Conservative Party speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. What he said was important because he wanted to ensure that the system he was proposing would work well. He said:
We now come to what I call the Sherlock Holmes element. With regard to what happened next Sherlock Holmes might have asked, "What was the curious incident about the vote on this amendment at Committee stage?" Watson might have replied, "But there was no vote". "Exactly", Sherlock Holmes would have said, "that was the curious incident; the matter was not voted upon". However, there was a reason for that. The noble Lord's reason was very simple: it was getting late; it was twenty to ten. Although the issue was very important, the noble Lord was not prepared to put it to the vote and so we could wait comfortably for the Report stage of the Bill, when the noble Lord again moved the amendment. At the end of the debate he declined to test the opinion of the House, on the grounds that many would perhaps not support him, which seems unlikely to me in view of what happened at Third Reading.
Two votes that should have taken place were not called for and we thus came to the twelfth hour--Third Reading. This is not the way that Bills should be amended if one is serious about amending them. We now realise that what the Conservatives wanted was not to bring in an open list system but to defeat the Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Shore, stated, if the Bill were lost, we should go back to the first-past-the-post system, which is what they wanted at the outset.
Lord Bach: My Lords, I declare an interest in that I am that Back-Bencher whom the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, mentioned a few moments ago. I should like to inform him and the House that I was eager and willing to speak in the debate last Thursday but, out of courtesy to the House, because I thought that the House had probably heard enough by that stage and because I suspected that there were a few day return tickets that needed to be cashed in, I decided not to speak on that occasion. I am delighted this afternoon to have the chance to speak briefly in support of the Government's position on the Bill. I know that I speak not just for myself but for many Members of this House.
My interest is not as a candidate: I am not number one, three or 11 for a European seat on the 2nd June. My position is much less exalted. I have been for many years the elected chairman of the Northamptonshire and
This debate is not about internal party affairs, although noble Lords on all sides have at various stages tried to make it so. Each party has chosen its candidates in its own way, and I dare say that none has been perfect--except as regards the Liberal Democrats, of course! The candidates are now in place and anxious to get on with it.
There are real disadvantages in the system advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. I hope that the court will be gentle with me as I go through them.
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