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Earl Russell: The last occasion on which I obviously suffered the misfortune of being the House's dinner bell, was on Second Reading of the poll tax Bill. On that occasion, I felt, nevertheless knowing the risks of the position, that I had to speak. I am sorry to say, so do I now.
I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for introducing this amendment. In supporting it, I must declare a non-pecuniary interest. I am president of the Electoral Reform Society, by which I am in large measure advised. I entirely endorse the noble Lord's tributes to Peter Facey and Enid Lakeman.
STV is also the policy of my party. It has most recently been reaffirmed at the Southport Conference last March. The arrangement we reached in Scotland was a compromise. But the smaller party in a negotiation must necessarily consider compromise. That is what it is.
The first thing we do if we adopt STV is to introduce a uniform electoral system for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, STV has been in use for a long time
At this juncture, it would be most unwise of us to convey the impression that in Northern Ireland they are lesser breeds without the law and what is good enough for them is not good enough for us. I simply do not agree with that.
There are two functions in an election: it should give victory to the most popular party and to the most popular candidate. It is the first which first-past-the-post is most often reproached for not doing. The reproach is valid. It does not always do that well in relation to the other. When the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to the peril of safe seats I was reminded of an incident in Chester in the general election of 1955. Mr. John Arlott, who was as great a Liberal as he was cricket commentator, said that if you put up a pig with a blue ribbon round its neck, the voters of Chester would send it to Westminster. However, he very rashly added, "This might not happen this time", and the Conservative candidate threatened to sue him.
Mr. Nick Brown, now the Government Chief Whip in another place, in a letter to the Independent on 15th August 1996, said that the purpose of an election is to elect the most popular party. With respect, that is an incomplete statement. That is one of the purposes of an election. The other purpose is to elect the most popular candidate.
Because so much of the propaganda for proportional representation has been in terms, perfectly justified terms, of striking the right balance between the parties, we have tended to lose sight of the real importance of having individual candidates who are accountable to the electorate and acceptable to them. Both of those are responsibilities of an electoral system.
It is my contention that STV is the only one that does both. It is also the one which is most likely to be made acceptable to the voters. That is not a negligible consideration. At our party conference in Eastbourne last September, one speaker said that before the referendum--I know that is wide of the present Bill but it is nevertheless of interest--we should consider what is the most powerful argument that might be used against proportional representation. I think the most powerful argument by far will be the one which I have heard and respected from the Benches on my left; namely, the extent to which other systems of proportional representation tend to increase the power of party patronage. Mr. Andrew Rawnsley writing in the Observer last Sunday reported that the Jenkins Commission through its research had found an overwhelming extent of public reaction against the growth of party control of the electoral machinery. I do not know whether that is true but it certainly coincides with my own experience.
It is extremely easy to underrate the power of party patronage. It has been with us for centuries. When Sir Robert Walpole introduced Queen Anne's bounty, pensions for clergymen's widows, he was told by one of his advisers that there was not enough to go round.
The point about STV is that it restores the choice of who the member is to the voter. That is surely where in any democratic system it belongs. We may be told it is too difficult. The slogan that it is as simple as one, two, three is flawed. It works in Northern Ireland. It works in Southern Ireland. It has been used in numerous cities in the United States. It was used for a long while in New York City. It defeated Tammany Hall until Tammany Hall ultimately managed to get its own back. It was used in Cincinnati where, to the horror of the party bosses, it led to large numbers of blacks and women being returned. So much the better. There is no sign in any place where it has been used of any difficulty in understanding it. Not long ago the Committee heard the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, say that it had been used in Scottish university constituencies. It is used in a large number of trade union ballots. It seems to me to be quite as simple as any system we have.
Earlier today the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, referred to the present system as being a closed list of one. Technically he is right but there are 659 closed lists of one. They do not all work the same way. Some 659 monopolies can compete; 11 monopolies are a cartel, and one national monopoly is simply a monopoly. Therefore there is a certain saving pluralism in the present system, but that saving pluralism by the introduction of STV would be spread round on a national basis, and that it would encourage cross-party voting is all to the good. The only people who do not like it tend to be the party managers. In explaining why I support both this amendment and Amendment No. 6, I can best tell the story of two Victorian admirals, Rear Admiral Goodenough and his superior, Admiral Toogood. That is a true story. If there is any objection to STV it is that it is too good for the party bosses. So much the better.
Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe: I wish briefly to try to help the Committee by mentioning a few facts. I believe the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned the Jenkins Commission travelling the country, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, spoke of its finding an overwhelming reaction. I have spoken before in this Chamber about the way in which we have been given to believe that there is a great ground-swell of opinion in this country for change in the constitution. I draw the Committee's attention to the Written Answers in yesterday's Hansard on the number of public meetings which the commission has held. There were eight, in Cardiff, Belfast, Edinburgh, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester, Plymouth and Newcastle. The average attendance at those meetings was 80. Therefore some 640 people have flocked to the colours to hear this great message.
My noble friend Lord Williams did not answer my question as regards the total attendance of the general public as a percentage of the total electorate entitled to vote in the United Kingdom. I am happy to supply the answer which my noble friend did not give. The number of people who have turned up for those meetings is--this great ground-swell!--0.0000625 per cent. of the entire electorate.
Lord Evans of Parkside: My noble friend Lord Cocks made an interesting intervention but I suspect his comments were aimed more at retaining the first-past-the-post system for elections rather than at the amendment which is at present before us. Obviously the argument about the first-past-the-post system will resurface when the commission reports. As I said earlier when commenting on a previous amendment, I suspect that our discussions tonight will strengthen the hand and the arguments of those who are opposed to any change whatsoever.
Earlier I said that I would listen to the arguments put for the three amendments to the Government's position which are proposed from three different parts of the Chamber. That is what I intend to do. However, I am inclined towards the single transferable vote. It is a form of election which was used throughout the Labour Party in the selection of parliamentary candidates for the previous general election and for the selection of candidates for the European elections. I am sure that my noble friend Lady Gould will confirm that the NEC was not inundated with complaints from party members about the system that was being used by the party to select candidates. That is one reason I am inclined towards this amendment because at least the members of the Labour Party have had plenty of practice in operating the system. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and I have said, this system has been used since 1979 in the United Kingdom. It has been used successfully by the electorate in Northern Ireland. I greatly respect my noble friend the Minister, but his arguments against the system which is in use in Northern Ireland being transferred to the mainland were not particularly convincing.
I think it is also fair to say that the electorate will have some difficulty in coming to terms with the party system. It will confuse people. They will have a list placed before them from which they will have to choose candidates from the Conservative Party, the Labour Party or whatever; whereas in the past the list has always been of named candidates. It is a comparatively recent innovation that a candidate's party appeared on the ballot paper. In all the years that I have been active in politics, as a candidate and an organiser, I have never noted any difficulty on the part of the electorate, even when party names did not appear on the list, in deciding who was the Labour or Conservative candidate. That was the function of party activists, who had to make sure that their candidates were well known. So the electorate may have some difficulty with the system proposed by the Government.
I also wish to place it on record that I believe the statement attributed to my right honourable friends in the other place about the electorate being unable to distinguish between candidates of the same party is an arrogant, even dictatorial statement. I have more faith in the electorate. Certainly when we have held elections every four years--a circumstance that has been widespread--and there have been three or four party candidates on the ballot paper, the electorate has had no difficulty whatsoever in distinguishing between the candidates of the different parties or the candidates of each party.
I wish to address a point directly to my noble friend the Minister. I am concerned about the danger of disillusionment among party members in relation to having candidates imposed on their regions. It is a growing danger. I know that there is a rather complex form of democracy surrounding the methods of arriving at the candidates with whom party members will be involved at European constituency level in a one member, one vote ballot and at hustings. All they will be doing is arriving at two or three candidates to put forward, who will then be placed on a national panel of candidates. It is from that national panel that the 11-member sub-committee of the NEC which I mentioned earlier will decide who will be the candidates in each of the regions.
Perhaps I may conclude with a comment on an issue that has been mentioned on a number of occasions; namely, the huge size of the new regional constituencies. The only reason they are so large is that the Home Secretary decided that. There is no particular electoral or European reason why we could not have maintained single-member constituencies. The present situation is rather odd, in that new regions in England do not conform to the party's own regional structure. Indeed, the Secretary of State has imposed upon the Labour Party the government regional offices. That is why Cumbria has been placed in the north-west. I imagine that in the views of most party people in Cumbria and the North-east of England, Cumbria should have remained where it was. That argument went out of the window in relation to Merseyside, which has a
Further, I urge upon him to recognise the danger of disillusionment among ordinary party members, who will find that they have been deprived of their right to cast their vote in a one person, one vote ballot to select their parliamentary candidate. They will suddenly find that they have had imposed upon them by party headquarters a list of candidates, some of whom they will probably never have heard and about whom they know nothing. If the party members will be in danger of disillusionment, God knows the disillusionment that the electors will feel.
Lord Waddington: The noble Lord, Lord Alton, was so beguiling and persuasive in the way he delivered his speech, I almost lost sight of one of the important characteristics of the single transferable vote system. The same goes for the eloquent speech made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell.
One of the most important characteristics of an STV system is that it has to be based on large, multi-member constituencies. That is why the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, incorporates the basic scheme of the Bill. The noble Lord's STV system would be based on the absurd regional structure which is the very essence of the Bill. I shall certainly give way to the noble Earl. Am I giving way too soon? I do not want to encourage the noble Earl to intervene.
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