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Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, in Committee and on Report I moved an amendment supported by the noble Lord, Lord Evans, which would have deleted closed party lists and inserted the single transferable voting system. I am not a Euro-sceptic and I am in favour of electoral reform. I do not suspect the motives of the Opposition Front Bench because it has advanced the same arguments at every stage of the Bill--arguments in favour of modifying what is a far worse system than first-past-the-post. I have some arguments that I wish to advance as to why we should stand firm in asserting the rights, not of this place, but of the public in the constituencies outside.

The first of those arguments is that the Home Secretary caricatures this as a set-piece battle between hereditary Peers and the House of Commons. It is clear to anyone who followed the debates that there was support throughout your Lordships' House and another place for genuine reforms which would improve our system but not at the expense of the accountability of the elected representative to his constituents. The argument was not about hereditary Peers. The noble Lord, Lord Evans, is the former chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party. If noble Lords read the record of our proceedings at Report stage they will note that the noble Lord set out the extremely democratic reforms that he introduced 10 years ago for the selection of candidates for European elections. It was he who told your Lordships' House, quite properly, that it should have nothing to do with a closed party list system.

Another specious argument is placed before us: that it is a manifesto commitment. The Labour Party manifesto states that they have supported a proportional voting system for elections to the European Parliament. The amendment to the Bill moved by the Opposition also refers to a proportional system. So there is nothing to choose in that respect. The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, said that the results would in any event probably be the same. That is an argument in favour of the amendment. If the results would be the same from an electoral point of view, then let us choose between the merits of the respective systems. My last point concerns the merits of the respective systems. The closed party list system ensures that the politicians produced come straight out of central casting at Millbank. That produces a politician who will merely be accountable to the party machine. It is about machine politics.

I find it tragic that my former noble friends--with the honourable exception of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, who has spoken in the debate today and speaks as the President of the Electoral Reform Society--said at Report stage that they had made a "deal", in the words of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, with the Government.

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The debate should not be about deals. It should be about creating consensus between the political traditions, about a system that can work to the advantage of the people in this country. Anyone who has been elected to public office in this country surely knows that there is almost a mystical allegiance between an elected representative and the people who voted for him. To sever that, and to replace it with an allegiance merely to party machines will give us a situation such as that which led to Mr. Canavan not being selected to fight for the Scottish parliamentary elections despite his extraordinary track record as a great Member of Parliament. He has given his constituents great service. It will lead to the kind of disputes that we see currently in Wales; and those that we see with Mr. Livingstone and the Labour Party over the elections for a directly elected mayor in London.

It is not desirable that the party should exercise that degree of discipline. Severing the umbilical cord which links an elector with the people in the constituencies is an act of folly. That is why your Lordships should stand up to the other place and on behalf of the people of this country who, when they examine the detail, I think will be extremely resentful that such a cynical system could be imposed upon them.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Evans of Parkside: My Lords, I should like to start by putting the record straight. I was not the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party. I was chairman of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party. There is a difference between the two bodies.

I think that most Members of the Government Front Bench are aware that since the Bill's inception over a year ago I have opposed sections of the Bill. In particular I have opposed the closed list; and I have been even more vehement against the party's methods of selecting candidates and placing candidates in a batting order on the electoral list.

It is the third time that the House has debated the issue. At Third Reading on 20th October, I spoke in favour of the opposition amendment and voted for that amendment. At col. 1322 of the Official Report I asked:


    "Is this Chamber a revising Chamber, as has often been pointed out?"
I continued:


    "An argument is being presented in relation to one aspect of the Bill. It is not an instruction to the House of Commons that it has to accept anything from the House of Lords; it is an opportunity for it to have second thoughts about this particular aspect".
The amendment was carried. It was passed to the House of Commons which considered it and rejected the House of Lords amendment. While I was not impressed with the Government's simple flat rejection of the amendment, I nevertheless accepted the absolute right of the Commons to refuse to accept a Lords amendment. Indeed, at col. 282 of the Official Report of 4th November, I said


    "I will not tonight vote for the Opposition amendment; I shall respect the Commons' decision. However, I must make it clear that I will not, indeed I could not, vote in the Government Lobby on this occasion".

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The Government were again defeated and the matter was returned to the Commons for further discussion.

The Commons discussed the Lords amendment on Tuesday of this week. I took the trouble to attend that debate and listened to the Home Secretary. I have to inform your Lordships that on that occasion the Home Secretary was in a more conciliatory mode than previously. While he referred to the hereditary Peers and their vote, he was not sneering in any way at hereditary Peers. In fact he said:


    "The Government have carefully studied reports of the debates in another place ... We therefore give proper consideration to any suggestion that it might make that a piece of legislation . . . ought to be revised. Having done so, I am moving an amendment to make one important change to the Bill which we hope will meet some of the concerns that have been expressed".--[Official Report, Commons, 10/11/98; col. 206.]

He added a new clause to the Bill which ensures that a review of the new electoral system for European elections will be examined in detail and a report produced which will be laid before both Houses of Parliament, and debates will be held on the effect of that review. So, effectively, he put something into the Bill which was conciliatory. He also expressed his appreciation of the proper role of this House. I believe that that was a victory for this House in that context: that he recognised those two factors.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, now invites the House to reject the new clause. I find that slightly surprising because in Committee on 25th June of this year the noble Lord moved an amendment to set up a review body to report on the workings of the European election. At col. 355 of the Official Report of 25th June he said,


    "I am therefore being realistic in considering that next year's parliamentary elections will probably be done in the way the Government want. In that light, we ought to set in place now a mechanism for a review of what has happened".
Although the noble Lord did not press the amendment to a Division, nevertheless he expressed himself quite forcefully on that subject on that occasion. And that is what the Government now propose.

As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, we now have to consider the effect and impact of what happens if this House again rejects the Commons amendment. It is obvious to all of us that the parliamentary clock is now ticking into its final hours. The Government have recognised the depth and strength of the arguments about closed lists. They have also recognised the role of this House. The new clause means that there will be an examination and there will be future debates.

We also have to recognise the rights of the House of Commons. When the House of Commons debated the issue on Tuesday night of this week--I have drawn attention to this, as have other Members of this House--despite the fact that there was no vocal support from the Government Benches from either this House or the other House, when the issue was put to the vote the Government had a majority of 182 in the Lobby. That is a significant vote. It has to be recognised that the House of Commons has put forward an amendment. It has also recognised our situation and has chalked up a huge majority in arriving at that conclusion. If this

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House tonight rejects the House of Commons amendment we shall create an unnecessary constitutional crisis.

I also ask noble Lords opposite: If this matter is returned to the Commons next week, as is possible, is it suggested that the House of Commons will realistically change what this House has already done? There is no chance whatsoever of that happening. Indeed, I suggest that the authorities in the House of Commons would ensure that another 100 votes would be added to that majority of 182 to let this House see the views of the elected Chamber.

Perhaps I may also point out that we also have a duty to the candidates who will contest those elections. Almost 300 candidates of all parties are now in place. I believe that their thoughts and views must be considered. It is essential that this Bill receives Royal Assent before Prorogation--indeed, after this debate, I hope.

I shall continue to oppose closed lists. I shall take up, through my party's machinery, the absolute necessity of getting rid of the appalling methods we have used to select candidates. However, that is for future debates; it is not the issue now before us. This is about respecting the House of Commons' majority and its right to be the main legislative Chamber in the British system. I shall oppose the Opposition's amendment and support the Government's new clause.


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