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Earl Russell: I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his anticipation. I merely wanted to draw his attention to the point that this provision may apply to one election only and that the Boundary Commission could address the matter for the following election.
Lord Waddington: The Boundary Commission does not come into the matter at all. If the Government have anything to do with it, it will be a matter for the Secretary of State--which brings us to the subject of a later amendment. The Secretary of State will do this over my dead body after the gerrymandering by the Labour Government in 1969. The then Labour Government introduced the terrible device of tabling in the House of Commons the conclusions of the Boundary Commission together with a draft order to approve its conclusions, and then whipped the party to vote down the order. That is a very unfortunate precedent. I should not on my life let a Labour Government loose on arranging the boundaries of constituencies after what happened in 1969. But that is a different story entirely.
There may be changes over the years to the regions as presently set out in the Bill. The fact remains, and I know it is unchallengeable, that an STV system cannot be operated without having multi-member constituencies.
That brings us directly to one of the problems that I tried to identify a few hours ago. With a single-member constituency, as advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Parkside, at least constituents who have a problem know who to turn to. There is only one person to whom they can turn, and there can be no question of confusion as to whose responsibility it is to look after the constituent. There can be no misapprehension in the mind of the constituent as to who is responsible for looking after his concerns.
There will be no group of electors for whom a particular MEP will have particular responsibility under the scheme proposed by the Government. There will be no MEP who will be responsible for a particular group of electors under the scheme advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. There will be no one person to whom an elector will be able to turn in the knowledge that that MEP will accept the elector's problem as his responsibility and not the responsibility of an MEP from another party or an MEP who lives in another part of the region.
We have these bizarre regions. In the case of the north-west area there is no conceivable community of interest between the people in Merseyside and those in Cumbria. We are all lumped together, and we are told that there will be proper representation in the European Parliament under a system that will throw up 10 MEPs, none of whom will have any particular responsibility for Merseyside, Manchester, Lancashire or Cumbria. It is a terrible scheme. I agree that the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, would improve it to some extent, because at least it would get us away from the closed list system under which one cannot even register one's dislike of someone who has not performed well, having been elected, or who is not thought to be capable of performing well. However, it does not get us over the basic difficulty that arises as a result of having large multi-member constituencies, which I believe is fatal.
I return to what I said earlier. With respect to the noble Earl, I do not think he was right when he tried to define the purpose of an electoral system. The purpose of an electoral system is not just to throw up the best candidate; it is to have a scheme that will provide service to the electors. That is the fundamental point. Service will not be provided to the electors when the poor old elector has not the faintest idea who is responsible for sorting out his problems. I give way to the noble Earl again.
Lord Waddington: I could no doubt say that for a number of Liberal Members of Parliament. We are not necessarily enamoured of all those who find their way into Parliament on another party ticket. But I shall not quarrel with the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I nearly said "my noble friend Lord Alton", because we have
I cannot support the amendment proposed by the noble Lord. It would certainly produce a better system than that put forward by the Government, but I cannot persuade myself that it would be good for democracy in this country to have these appallingly large multi-member constituencies which are not based on any community of interest.
Lord Monson: As first past the post is not an option where this Bill is concerned, whatever its merits, emphasised so strongly by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, it seems to me that STV is the least bad of the available alternatives. My noble friend, Lord Alton, has made out a very powerful case for it. STV is certainly far preferable to the deplorable system proposed in the Bill, which gives so much power to the party Whips and so little power to the voter.
The Earl Kitchener: The main difference between the two voting systems we are considering is that STV gives power to the voters rather than to the politicians and that nearly all voters will have a link to one or more candidates whom they have helped to elect. It also has the merit of simplicity. With the proposed number of MEPs per region being about eight, the proportionality of party votes to members would be much the same as that given by the system proposed in the Bill.
STV has been used for many years in the Republic of Ireland, where voters have twice rejected attempts by politicians to abandon it. I think that that tells us something about the system. The longest user of it is Tasmania, and it is also used in many other Australian elections.
The only serious objection that I can see to STV is that it may encourage a sitting member to devote too much time to his constituents at the expense of his wider duties because he is vulnerable to being replaced by a member of his own party who has cultivated the voters. The remedy for that lies in the good sense of the electors, who should give full weight to the work the member is doing outside his constituency. This objection has been raised mainly in the Republic of Ireland, where members do much of the work which in this country is done by local government councillors and by the citizens advice bureaux.
An objection has been raised that STV is complicated, but it is not complicated for the voter, and the effort involved in the counting has been much reduced by computerisation. The Minister referred to the need for the voter to express 50 choices. It is true that in a very close contest any vote that does not include at least all candidates except one may be partly wasted. In practice it is the early preferences which will count, unless they are for very weak candidates.
The Committee is in a particularly strong position to put the interests of the voters before those of the politicians. A vote for this amendment would at least stimulate a careful examination of the many virtues of the single transferable vote.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: When I entered politics, over 50 years ago, I was taught that the essence of British democracy was the link between the elected and the electors; that that was the whole essence not only of parliamentary democracy but of democracy in the town halls and everywhere else. I have never forgotten that. Throughout my life I have represented people in various ways, on local authorities and in the House of Commons. I have always had that link with them, and I would not be without it.
Without that link one does not know what to do. What on earth would a Member of the House of Commons do without seeing or hearing his constituents every so often, without being buttonholed by them as he walks through his constituency on a Friday or a Saturday afternoon? The essence of democracy is that there is a real contact between those represented and those who represent them. Once that contact is broken, we are on a very slippery road indeed. Once the representative feels no allegiance to those whom he represents, once he feels that there is no contact and that it does not matter what they do or say, or how they vote, the tendency is to lose interest. And, vice versa: if the electorate feel that they have no contact with, or influence on, their representatives, they lose interest. The essence of democracy is contact between the governed and the governors.
The other lesson I learnt--I now have to unlearn it apparently--was that the political parties were the guardians of our democratic system; that it was they who ensured that democracy would always prevail. Now it seems that our political parties are becoming control freaks. They want to break that contact that is so essential to democracy. They--not the electorate, but the party--want to be in control of who is elected. As my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington pointed out on an earlier amendment, that is a very dangerous road to go down. We shall regret it if we do not pull our political parties up and warn them that that is the road to authoritarianism. It is a road that I do not want to go down.
We are discussing the possibility of a system of a single transferable vote. I had hoped that this afternoon we would be able to discuss all the options that are being put before us, that we would have an opportunity to consider them and would perhaps vote at Report stage. Perhaps that is not to be. I still hope that it might happen in regard to this amendment.
The system of the single transferable vote is better than the system proposed in the Bill. It is not necessarily better than first past the post. Everyone is writing off first past the post, but I understand that the Swedes are trying to introduce it because they believe that the European Parliament has now got too far away from those whom it is supposed to represent.
So it is not only the British who feel that the first-past-the-post system may well be the standard system in the future. We should not write it off for all time, even if we have to write it off for this debate. In my view, the single transferable vote is preferable to the system being put forward by the Government. In the final analysis, if that was all that was available, I would reluctantly have to vote for it, though I am opposed to PR per se.
It is no good my noble friend saying that Northern Ireland is different. In this context Northern Ireland is no different from any other part of the United Kingdom. We know the reasons why the system was introduced in Northern Ireland. But, in relation to the European parliamentary elections, it makes no difference whether it is used throughout the United Kingdom or simply in Northern Ireland. The result will be exactly the same except that it will apply throughout the United Kingdom instead of only in Northern Ireland.
Therefore, if I were asked to make a choice this evening--I hope I will not be--I would have to vote for STV. But, when we discuss the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, I may feel that that is even better and would have to vote to undo what I did this evening--not a very productive exercise. Those are my views. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, has produced a better system than appears in the Bill. However, I hope that he will not press it this evening but bring it forward at another stage.
I wish to disclose an interest. I have the honour to be selected for my party in Yorkshire and the Humber to stand in the European elections next year. My already predetermined placing on the list is below the statistically-likely level of election, which is perhaps another disclosure I should make.
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