Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Norman Fowler: No, I will not. I am just finishing. [Hon. Members: "Go on."] Well, I will if they wish it.

Mr. Stunell: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. At the start of his speech, he said that he infinitely preferred the first-past-the-post system. Does he accept that if he succeeds in retaining that system for the European elections, there will in fact be a closed list for each individual European constituency?

8 pm

Sir Norman Fowler: That shows the value of giving way to the hon. Gentleman. I shall learn from that for the future. The hon. Gentleman is a bit slow on the uptake so I shall take him back a little. We are not debating the first-past-the-post system.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Oh yes we are.

Sir Norman Fowler: Oh no we are not. I shall not be rude to the right hon. Gentleman, but he is mistaken.I could put it more strongly than that.

We are debating what kind of voting system will be used under the type of proportional system that the Government are forcing through. Will we have an open-list system, or a closed-list system? I find the attitude of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) extraordinary, hypocritical and baffling in every way. He argues for an open-list system, but he will vote tonight for a closed-list system. That is the hypocrisy of the Liberal Democrats.

The Home Secretary's proposals take power from the electorate, and give power to the party bosses. That is our fundamental criticism of his system. It takes power from local people, and transfers power to the centre. It is no surprise that the Home Secretary's proposals have been almost universally condemned as there is no serious justification for them. For those reasons, the House should reject the Home Secretary's latest amendments.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): I have not participated previously in debates on this matter. I have abstained until now, and I have not voted for the Bill as I think it a very bad Bill. I hope that I can be acquitted of having any sympathy for the House of Lords. To be invited to disagree with the Lords on any matter is to be tempted to do so, but the arguments against the closed-list system are absolutely overwhelming. Indeed, those arguments are the same as the arguments against the House of Lords itself for its Members all got in on a closed list. The Prime Minister draws up a little closed list, and he puts all its members into the House of Lords. If we get rid of the

16 Nov 1998 : Column 685

hereditary peers, which I would welcome, we shall have nothing but a closed list in the Lords. They will all be the Prime Minister's friends. My objection to the Bill is, therefore, the same as my objection to the House of Lords.

Is there a mandate for the Bill? No one came up to me during the general election campaign to say, "Tony, we will vote Labour only if you promise that we cannot vote for an individual candidate in the European elections." No one said any such thing, and I did not know that that was the policy. I have dealt with many Members of the European Parliament who are conscientious, who work with local Members of Parliament and who become known over a period in their constituencies, although that task is difficult as they cover nine parliamentary constituencies. They go to Brussels and Strasbourg to take up local cases, and they are as conscious of their constituency link as we are. I have reservations about the European Union, but that is another matter. If we must have an EU, and a European Parliament, the best way in which to elect that Parliament is to do it in the way that we do here. People are elected to speak for their constituents, and their constituents can, in the end, dispose of them.

The House will forgive me for quoting five democratic questions that I have developed during my life. If one meets a powerful person--Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler--one can ask five questions: what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system. I am alarmed that any party should seek to impose candidates.

I served for 34 years on the national executive of the Labour party, and I was often responsible for decisions when contested parliamentary selection conferences came up. The rule that we followed was simple. If the procedure adopted to select a candidate was correct, the national executive always endorsed that candidate.

Mr. Beith: Always?

Mr. Benn: Yes. That was the principle involved. Liberals refer to closed lists under the first-past-the-post system, but the lists are not closed when the constituencies choose the candidates. Candidates are chosen by a selection process within their constituencies. The party should do no more than indicate whether it accepts that that is a valid principle on which to operate.

If we get away from that principle, MEPs will always look to the party leader, not to their constituents. There is a difference between being employed by one person and being employed by everyone. During last week's debate on proportional representation, I drew attention to the fact that we are employed by our constituents, and not by our parties. The idea that Members of Parliament or MEPs are simply local managers for the national party is absolutely contrary to everything for which people fought over many centuries as they argued for representative government.

The Liberal Democrat view puzzles me. That party has always been a great public advocate of being free from party hacks. I know why the Liberal Democrats are accepting the Bill; they have been given a job. I can see

16 Nov 1998 : Column 686

members of a Cabinet Committee as I look across the Floor of the House. Part of the deal is that they should go along with the Government, and they will be given a bit of useful work. That is what the whole thing is about, and everyone knows it. No traditional Liberal would look twice at the Bill. Of course, when the Liberal Democrat party was set up, there was a split, and a real Liberal party still exists, which keeps writing to me.

Mr. Beith: A small one.

Mr. Benn: It may be small, but the Liberal Democrat party has had that problem itself on occasion. Better to be small and right, the Liberal party might argue, and I take that view myself.

I believe that the Bill is a test run for parliamentary elections. New Labour--a completely new party, as the Prime Minister has regularly reminded us--has a plan. The new system will be tested in Europe, and applied to the House of Commons. We shall all be worried then, not only about our Whips, but about the leaders of our parties and about our national executive, rather than about our constituents. That would destroy democracy.

One distinct effect would be a much lower turnout. Funnily enough, candidates of all parties become known and quite well liked in their constituencies; they would not be elected otherwise. Parties are not particularly popular. If I go round in the European election campaign and tell people to vote Labour, they may say that they rather like so-and-so. I will have to tell them that they cannot vote for him or her, and must vote Labour. That could well lead to a much lower turnout. A lower turnout undermines the legitimacy of the election process. In a way, I might welcome it if no one voted in the European elections. Part of me might say that that would be an early run of the referendum on the single currency. However, I do not believe in not voting. People should vote.

A further effect will be that Labour will lose a lot of seats. Everyone knows that the closed-list system will give us fewer MEPs than last time.

Mr. Beith indicated assent.

Mr. Benn: The right hon. Gentleman is nodding in such a friendly way because he knows that that will happen. We are selling out the party that won the election to other people under a system that has never been specifically endorsed by the electorate.

Mr. Beith: The right hon. Gentleman stood on a Labour manifesto that specified that there would be a system of regional proportional election for the European Parliament. Does he recognise that low turnouts have occurred in previous European elections--particularly the record low turnouts of by-elections--and that the first-past-the-post system simply does not give a fair representation of the votes that are cast?

Mr. Benn: That is a general argument about proportional representation. The idea that every Liberal voter is a Liberal is wrong. To take a case from my constituency, a leading Liberal councillor voted for me because he did not like the Liberal candidate. I rather agreed with him. The Liberals went around the constituency saying that the only way to beat me was to vote Liberal, so the Tories voted Liberal.

16 Nov 1998 : Column 687

To give another example against myself, a man told me after the general election that he had joined the Labour party on polling day. I said, "Fine. Who did you vote for?" He said, "I voted for the Liberals.". The idea that every voter is seeking proportionality is wrong. Every voter is seeking to be represented. The choice may well be a tactical one. I do not have to tell the Liberals that. They have been saying, "Vote tactically", for years, to keep the Tories or Labour out. Occasionally, they have argued their own case as well, although that has never been very successful in the final outcome. I have heard Liberals make the Liberal case; when they make it, I have always found it attractive and historically interesting.

The Home Secretary is in a jam with the House of Lords; they are for the chop, so they have nothing to lose. I was disappointed that we did not abolish the Lords last year in the first Queen's Speech. If we had, we would never have had the problem at all. If the Government had had the guts to deal with the Lords straight away, we could have had an election for the House of Lords by last Christmas and an election of any sort we liked in the European elections. The Government cannot do anything about it.

It does not please me that the Lords are likely to win. I sat through the age of consent debate when the Home Secretary pleaded with the House not to lose the Bill by insisting on an age of consent at 16. He argued that we must face reality. I thought that that was what new Labour was all about. The reality is that if the Lords vote the Bill down next time, we will be back to the old first-past-the-post system. All the lists will be scrapped. God knows what will happen in party headquarters when it is discovered that people can vote for the candidates that they like again. It will cause panic in Millbank tower and perhaps in the Liberal headquarters as well. There is no power for the Government to enforce their will on the Lords because they did not tackle the Lords early enough.

For all those reasons--I know that they are complex--I base myself on the simple principle that democracy will be destroyed if people cannot vote for and remove candidates, and if candidates are simply instruments of whatever may be a party's majorities and machinations when an election comes.

Parties change. I have known parties change from left to right. The Liberal party dissolved itself into the Liberal Democrats; it disappeared. It was one of the most remarkable acts of all time. The Liberals joined up with David Owen, who then voted Tory, and produced a new party. The only person the electors can rely on is the candidate whom they have heard, argued with, listened to, voted for and can vote out. Give that up, and we not only wreck the European elections, but begin to undermine the basis on which this House comes to debate issues and ultimately to decide them.

Next Section

IndexHome Page