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Lord Renton: My Lords, we have heard three very impressive speeches in favour of the amendment. I am sure that all your Lordships will carry their mind back to other occasions when Parliament has had to decide on electoral reform. Certainly in this century--it was not so true in the previous century--we have generally managed to get a high degree of agreement between the parties on that matter and we have tried also to put the interests of the people first. One's mind goes back to giving votes to women, to the lowering of the voting age, and so on. It would be very unfortunate if an amendment which should achieve agreement between the parties, even though it is something of a compromise, were to fail in your Lordships' House. I therefore implore not only the members of the Government Front Bench but also the members of the Liberal Democrat Front Bench to bear in mind those two worthy ends: meeting the interests of the voters and trying to get agreement between the parties.
Lord McNally: My Lords, when I was Member of Parliament for Stockport, South I once went to a local club. The chairman said, "Before we start the bingo, we will have a few words from our Member of Parliament". Until the intervention of my noble friend Lord Russell, that was the most daunting softening up for any speech I had to make. Of course I understand his strong commitment to proportional representation, to democracy and to open lists, and certainly no orders are going from this Front Bench. We have a position, as we are entitled to have, and that is that we will invite Liberal Democrats to vote with the Government and against the amendment.
My favourite political play is "Antigone" in which Creon explains to Antigone that politics is sometimes about getting your hands a little dirty. I fear that my noble friend Lord Russell is my Antigone.
Lord McNally: I hear the "Ohs" from former Conservative Ministers who spent 18 years getting their hands dirty, so let us have a little silence from those Benches. I also remember George Woodcock, the former General Secretary of the TUC, reminding his members on many occasions that progress was often based on shabby compromises.
Of course my party believes in the single transferable vote. At earlier stages we have argued for the open list system. We have been working--that is not a matter of deals--with the Government across a wide range of constitutional reform. We wish we could have persuaded the Government at earlier stages of different shapes for not only this Bill but also for the Bills dealing with Scotland, Wales and so on. But what do we have tonight? We have the noble Lord, Lord Evans, telling us that he thinks this is a bad Bill. We have the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, telling us that he would have
I shall tell the House what we want. We believe that the Bill is a substantial advance on whatever has been on offer before for elections to the European Parliament. We have had nominated Members of the European Parliament and we have had Members of the European Parliament elected by first-past-the-post. As has been pointed out on a number of occasions, the first-past-the-post system on large constituencies produced grotesque swings in the representation of one or other party, Labour or Conservative, and until the last election totally excluded the Liberal Democrats. Under this system not only will parties be represented according to some proportion of the votes they receive in those elections but, almost as important, we will have a geographic spread so that from the south-west for the first time we may hear a Labour voice in the European Parliament, or from the West Midlands a Liberal Democrat voice, or from the north-east a Conservative voice. I believe that that makes a healthier representation in the European Parliament.
I also believe that it will bring about a development where those who hanker after the constituency system are really and truly behind the game. These elections will bring genuinely regional voices into our politics and into the European Parliament, not block voices but individuals who are voted in from those Euro-constituencies. They will then become a voice for their region.
As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, was generous enough to acknowledge, many of the objections rest not on what is in the Bill but on how some powers internal to various parties have been interpreted. For my part, I know the individuals who will be holding the banner for the Liberal Democrats. I know how they have been chosen. They have not been chosen by any central committee but by our members voting freely. They have produced lists with an order which is their choice and which they will put to the electorate with enthusiasm.
Of course this Bill is not everything that we wanted. However, I say to my noble friend Lord Russell that I can face exactly the same activists as he has trouble facing. I shall tell them that by securing this Bill, for the very first time we shall send to the European Parliament a delegation, a representation, of Liberal Democrats commensurate with our support in the country. That is closer to my ideal of democracy than we have ever achieved before and it is worth supporting.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, we heard some extremely distinguished speeches this afternoon. I rise to support my noble friend Lord Evans of Parkside who made a very penetrating, indeed distinguished, speech in support of this group of amendments.
I believe that my noble friend Lord Evans speaks for a number of people on the Labour side of the House. That must be taken into account. My noble friend has had a long and distinguished career and past in the Labour movement and, indeed, in the body politic. He was a Member of another place for a long time and has been a
However, he has also been extremely active in the Labour movement generally, serving for many years as a member of the National Executive Committee. Therefore, he knows what he is talking about and has represented a wide range of people in the Labour Party over a long period of time. What he said about the Bill and the amendments is correct. Although he and I are for the continuation of the first-past-the-post system, which is respectable, he supports an attempt to make the proposals in the Bill more workable and more responsive to the people of this country.
What he wants to do and what the amendments seek to achieve is to give the electorate a voice in who is elected to the European Parliament. I see nothing wrong in that and everything right in it. I hope that the Minister will accept the amendment, but I should say to him that I have been in this House, in another place and in the Labour Party for a long time. My guess is that if the proposal in this Bill had been put forward by a Conservative government, the Labour Party in this place, led by the Front Bench, and indeed in another place, would be opposing it. I am quite sure that my noble friends in Opposition would say that this is a disgraceful Bill which strikes at the very roots of representative democracy. It is a great pity that we are not saying so now.
Only one mistake was made from the other side; it suggested that the Labour Party is doing this for its own electoral benefit. That is not so. I do not think that will happen. Labour supporters should not believe that this will be better for the Labour Party than the first-past-the-post system or an STV system. Oh no, it is designed not to help Labour candidates; it is designed to help Liberal candidates. They will gain most from this measure.
Therefore, I hope that the Minister, as was suggested to him by my noble friend Lord Evans, will understand that this House is entitled to make recommendations to another place. Indeed, with his support we should be very pleased to make the recommendation contained in these amendments.
Lord Cockfield: My Lords, as your Lordships will know, I had at one time a relationship--fortunately, an arm's length relationship--with the European Parliament. I was always extremely concerned about the peculiar effects of the first-past-the-post system in the United Kingdom on the balance of power in the European Parliament. Therefore, I was always in favour of some reform. But, frankly, I regard the closed list system as even more objectionable than the first-past-the-post system. Therefore, the proposal which my noble friend puts forward is at least an improvement on the thoroughly objectionable proposal in the Bill promoted by the Government.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, it almost seems that the world reserves of hyperbole have been somewhat exhausted. Therefore, I shall try to approach the matter in a calmer way.
The fact is that for any modern functioning democracy, it is political organised parties which bring forward candidates to elections. It is the party activists, the deeply committed minority, who organise party structures to bring forward candidates. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, indicated that our colleagues in Europe are somehow Johnnies-come-lately, whereas in this country for centuries we have been voting democratically. That is not really so. It was after 1918 that women got the vote on a basis of any sort of equality. If the noble Lord doubts my history, I shall indicate the dates: 1832, 1868 and 1884. Those are the dates of the Reform Acts which were significantly opposed by a large number of his then party.
The noble Lord said that NOP had carried out research. He said correctly that when it carried out that research about the closed list, the reaction was immediately negative. Is it not also the case that when the systems were explained to those who were polled, they changed their views quite significantly?
The noble Lord contended, as he does always most agreeably, that he does not want the Bill at all because he favours the first-past-the-post system; and, secondly, as he did in Committee and on Report, that he is the champion of internal party democracy. Again, that is not really so because the other day he confessed, which is always good for the soul, that he is one of the three not quite hereditary clansmen in Scotland who would determine not the order of the list but whether or not anyone should be allowed to stand at all for the Scottish parliament.
The fact is that when this matter was discussed in another place, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said that he would look at the Belgian system. He commissioned research on that which indicated that one could have quite absurd results in terms of public acceptability.
We have been over this in the past, and I shall trespass very briefly on your Lordships' time and patience. The fact is that the so-called open list system, as shown by the way it has worked in Belgium, is quite capable of producing anomalous results. That is to say, someone can be elected with a lesser total of votes than someone who fails to be elected. That has never been gainsaid. I do not think that anyone controverted that proposition when I developed it previously; indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, described it as "a fiddle and manifestly unfair."
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