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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, we have discussed this before as the noble Lord would know if he had attended. The first-past-the-post system is not a "list system" in the sense that we are discussing such a system. It is a "one member, one vote, one person is elected" system. It is quite different. People can make a choice about the individual. They can decide to vote for the individual or not--as, for example, they did in Tatton.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for that. I knew that I could rely on him to come to my aid when it came to the history of these matters. That was not too long ago, but the two systems are profoundly different. I am amazed that the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, for all his brilliance, does not understand the difference between first-past-the-post single-member constituencies and regional lists which will mean a number of members being elected from the one party.
I was about to come to Scotland. The members of the Labour Party in Scotland were not consulted in any way about the European list, let alone asked to take part in any one member/one vote election. A London-dominated selection panel decided. Two sitting MEPs were placed one and two, but when it came to number three--also likely to be elected--the other two sitting Labour MEPs suffered the drop; down they went to numbers five and seven. It served them right, I suppose, because they are Old Labour and they were not on message. In at number three came Kathleen Walker Shaw. "Who is she?", I hear your Lordships ask. "Who is she?", we Scots asked. "Who is she?" the Labour Party in Scotland asked. She turned out to be a GMB union official who works in Brussels. Was she Scottish? A good question. "Yes", she said, "I am Scottish; I was born in Aberdeen". Unfortunately for the young lady, along comes a by-election in the SNP-held Euro-seat of North East Scotland caused by the death of Alan MacCartney, who took the seat from Labour at the previous Euro-election. Kathleen Walker Shaw was parachuted in from London without as much as a "by your leave". But why not? She was born in Aberdeen,
Of course, the electorate gave a resounding thumbs-down to this mysterious, unknown lady who did not even know where she was born. The by-election, which was billed to be a two-horse race between Labour and the SNP, turned out to be a disastrous humiliation for Labour. The people dumped their imposed candidate into third place behind the Scottish Conservative candidate, Struan Stevenson. After that experience, I am surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, still thinks that the party knows best.
On a number of occasions, I have drawn your Lordships' attention to the opinion of Labour Members in another place--not their Whipped opinions in the voting Lobbies, but their expressed opinions in debate. Every time this Bill was debated in another place, for every Blair babe dragooned into speaking in support, two or three more Labour Back Benchers came forward to condemn the closed list. Jack Straw defended it in a kind of a way. I am not surprised it was "in a kind of a way" because in 1985, in an article in The Times headed "What's so fair about PR?", this is what he had to say about the list system:
I agree with Jack Straw. I invite your Lordships to agree and to say to the Government, "We believe it should be the people's choice who represents us in Brussels not the party's choice. If you want this fundamentally undemocratic system, use the Parliament Act, and may there be lots more Kathleen Walker Shaws to haunt you". I beg to move.
Moved, as an amendment to the Motion That the Bill be now read a second time, to leave out all the words after "That" and insert "this House declines to give the European Parliamentary Elections Bill a Second Reading on the grounds that it includes an undemocratic "closed list" system providing for the selection of MEPs by party choice, an approach which would end the historic right of the British people to choose the candidates they wish to be elected, a step for which the House notes with great concern no mandate was sought or given at the last general election".--(Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.)
There is a good deal of discussion at the moment about the need for declarations of interest. I hope I may take the opportunity to declare a non-interest. To my total amazement, I read in the Sunday Times that I was lobbying hard to be made chairman of the Royal Commission on the second stage of the reform of this House. My Lords, I heaved a great sigh of relief when I completed my work on electoral reform at the end of October. The idea that at my age, or indeed at any rational age, I should be looking for another commission within six weeks is frankly farcical. The difficulty with a total perversion of the truth in a Sunday newspaper is that one cannot correct it for seven days--seven days when falsehood has seven league boots and the truth can only limp along slowly behind it. So perhaps your Lordships will permit me to take a minute or so to set the record straight. So far from seeking that job, I would not accept it if, improbably, it were offered. But it is extraordinary what statements, without any foundation, or any subsequent evidence of shame on the part of the authors, one reads in relatively serious papers.
The Bill has had a remarkably tangled history. This applies particularly to the specific issue raised in the very unusual wrecking Second Reading amendment that has been moved by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, on behalf of the Opposition. I must tell your Lordships that I am in favour of open lists. With the unanimous support of my commission, I recommended them for Westminster, and I take the same view about elections for the European Parliament. In that respect I am no different from other members of my party except that I have had to spend a lot of time studying the different open or semi-open systems applied in some other countries and in trying to see what are their effects.
My main conclusion is that in practice they make remarkably little difference. I very much doubt whether more than one, or at most two, of the 87 Euro-seats would end up in the hands of a different individual if open lists rather than closed lists had been preferred. Nevertheless, I believe that the Government would have been wise to do so on at least two grounds. First, the right to freedom of choice is important even if not all that many people choose to exercise it. Secondly, excessive power for party machines is deeply unpopular. That was perhaps the clearest single message which we received from our consultative hearings around the country. So I regret that this Government in the Commons were so stiff-necked on this issue.
That being so, I deliberately did not vote in the first couple of stages in the game of ping-pong, but I decisively changed my attitude after that, for three reasons. First, it is a ludicrously narrow issue on which to have one of the biggest and longest running Lords-Commons clashes for decades. Secondly, closed lists are a minor evil. But to lose the Bill and to go on with the old distorted and totally isolating from the rest of Europe system of voting for the European Parliament would be a major evil. The legislative process is essentially based on not allowing the best to be the enemy of the good. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there is the fact that it is simply impossible to take seriously the sudden passion of the Conservative Party for open lists. I have long been in favour of them. I am not aware that the Conservative Party has been. On the Scotland Bill and the Government of Wales Bill, it did not seriously engage. Even at the beginning of this Bill the Conservative Party did not give the issue much priority. It has been a late flowering passion of opportunism. Well, a little opportunism has to be acceptable--it very frequently exists--but it ought to be wise opportunism. When I look at the present state of the Opposition, I am not sure that it has been that.
There is one further point on the Bill itself. I find it impossible to give any constitutional credence to the argument that the Bill is not entitled to what can be called manifesto protection. As I understand it, the argument goes like this. It is admitted that the Labour Party announced in its manifesto that it would introduce proportional representation for the European Parliament but it did not specify whether it should be by closed or open lists. It is argued that, therefore, the House is perfectly entitled to impose its will over that of the Commons on the shape of the Bill. If that central proposition is seriously advanced, it makes nonsense of the Salisbury rules, of the Addison doctrine and of every other convention which has grown up to civilise relations between the two Houses of Parliament.
Of course details of Bills are not specified in manifestos. They never are. But if that is to entitle the Leader of the Opposition, whether he be right or wrong, to dictate the shape of any Bill and to say to the Government, "You can have the Bill but you can only have it in my shape", and in the shape which has been rejected, rightly or wrongly, by the considered will of the majority in the Commons, five, six or seven times now, that is, in my view, a very revolutionary doctrine.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is apparently to blood himself this evening in a cavalry charge. In literally a few weeks it will be one hundred years since Omdurman, when the last such charge took place, so perhaps there may be a certain appropriateness. But, before noble Lords take themselves too seriously, they might recall the deflatingly elegant words of Arthur Balfour, Tory leader at the time when Conservative Peers were last getting themselves into a great state.
Admittedly Balfour ceased to be Leader of the Conservative Party three and a half months after he wrote those deflatingly elegant words. But I suspect--although one never knows until the play is over--that he will stand in history higher than Mr. Hague.
Mr. Hague and the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, will have their cavalry charge and the Government will have their Bill. I do not know whether the Conservative leadership thinks it will be a humiliation for the Government to have to get their Bill under the Parliament Acts. It will be only the fourth time that procedure has been used. But when one recollects what was the last occasion on which the Parliament Act was used--and by a Conservative Government--which was to force through the ridiculous, unwanted and inoperative War Crimes Bill, it hardly lies in the mouth of that party to talk about humiliation.
Lord Weatherill: My Lords, when we debated this matter last on 18th November, I made the plea that it was wrong for this unelected House to oppose the will of the elected Chamber, the House of Commons, on five occasions--other than on matters of high constitutional principle. I do not think that the Bill falls into that category.
In the few weeks since we last debated the matter, I have visited my former constituency of Croydon on three occasions. On each occasion, I asked a group of old friends who was the MEP. Several of them thought that I was the MEP. The majority of them--and there are sophisticated people in Croydon, as your Lordships will expect--did not have a clue. They have no idea. That is rather bad luck on Mr. James Moorhouse, who has been an assiduous MEP. The truth is that few people know who are their MEPs.
I listened, in common with the Minister, to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, on "Today" this morning. He was asked why his party under Mr. John Major had imposed a closed list system on Ulster but was against it for Europe. The noble Lord replied that the Ulster Assembly was a forum, not a parliament. In my submission, the European Assembly is much more a forum than a parliament in the sense that we understand a parliament here at Westminster. After all, in European elections we are not electing a government. Furthermore, MEPs sit in their parliament by parties, not countries. The European Parliament is much more a forum. Given that so few of the electorate know the names of their MEPs, I have reached the conclusion--rather like the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead--that I have perhaps changed my mind on this particular issue and that there is quite a good case for electing MEPs on the closed list system.
The closed list system will give the Conservative Party increased representation, whereas under the open list system, that party is likely to achieve few seats--and none at all in Scotland, Wales and the north of England.
Tonight we have a dilemma. If the Government lose in the Lobbies, the closed list system will survive under the Parliament Acts--which might suit them very well. If the Government win in the lobbies, there may follow delay and possible confusion. Nevertheless, as a former Speaker of the House of Commons, I cannot support what may be expedient rather than what is right.
I repeat that we play a dangerous game if we oppose the will of the elected House of Commons for the sixth time. The Bill is not a matter of high constitutional principle and in effectively voting for the Parliament Act, we seriously devalue that coinage. I shall support the Second Reading of the Bill tonight and hope that others will do likewise.
Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, on previous occasions noble Lords have criticised the closed list system and expressed their preference for the open list. I agree with them and therefore with my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.
There has also been criticism that this House sent the Bill back to the other place five times in the last Session. It has been said that this, the second Chamber, must eventually give way to the will of the Commons, which will prevail in the end. I remind the House of an episode of ping-pong when that did not happen because this House was proved to be right and the Labour government of the day had to accept that was so.
On that occasion, the second Chamber successfully protected the rights of citizens. I recall the episode well because I was dealing from the Opposition Front Bench with the Aircraft and Shipbuilders Industries Bill. That Bill to nationalise those industries fell because the House of Lords persisted in rejecting Commons amendments to restore shiprepairing, a service industry that Lords amendments had taken out of the Bill. The main reason for that ping-pong and the insistence of this House was that only 12 shiprepairing firms out of about 100 throughout the country had been selected for nationalisation, using criteria that had not been uniformly applied. That part of the Bill, the Lords contended, was not appropriate in a public Bill and should receive the special treatment applicable to a hybrid Bill, enabling citizens to make their case in person, with their lawyers, to a Committee of Parliament. In the Commons, the option of referring the matter to the examiners to consider hybridity had been ruled out because the government of the day procured the suspension of standing orders with their large majority in a Division.
When the Government reintroduced the Bill in the following Session, clearly intending the use of the Parliament Acts, the Bill was first sent to the examiners impartial lawyers and parliamentary clerks. Their findings proved the Lords to be right. The Bill was declared hybrid before it had gone to either House in that Session. Then the Government withdrew the Bill. The part of a hybrid Bill deemed not to be public legislation is not subject to the Parliament Acts. Another reason must have been that the Government would have had to cope with the lengthy procedure required for a hybrid Bill.
The Government decided to accept the Lords amendments. They offered a deal to the Conservatives through the usual channels: if the Lords amendments were made and shiprepairing excluded, would the Official Opposition allow the Bill to proceed through Parliament without further hindrance? The answer was "yes". A new Bill excluding shiprepairing was introduced and accepted by both Houses. There was no further argument about the nationalisation, which had been in Labour's election manifesto. Shiprepairing had disappeared from the Bill and the rights of individuals personally to present cases in Parliament had been successfully protected by the second Chamber. That protection of rights was achieved by the ping-pong procedure. In that case, the Commons came back three times and the Lords twice before the parliamentary Session ended and the Bill died. If necessary, we might have batted that Bill back five times in 1977. That would have been justified by the later events and the complete vindication of the Lords' objections to that Bill.
Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, it is quite clear this evening that the main issue is the right of the country to have the votes of the democratic Chamber of Parliament count. That has been expressed far better by other speakers than I can express it myself. However, I speak tonight because in the earlier, seemingly interminable, debates that we had--they were frequently repetitive--we heard constantly the assertion of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, that this Bill is not supported on the Government Back Benches in principle or in detail. I rise to tell him quite clearly that I support both the principle of the Bill and its detail.
To have heard some noble Lords fulminate against closed lists, one could momentarily imagine that they were a unique device that would put the United Kingdom at odds with the civilised world and with the democratic community. Yet some 70 per cent. of the people of Europe who vote by proportional representation are represented by Members of the European Parliament, who are elected from closed lists.
Change to our electoral system is imperative. Yet the Opposition have flirted with actions in your Lordships' House which could have forced a return to first-past-the-post. That would have been one of the greatest offences to democracy, done in the name of democracy. In no other country in the European Union could a party secure 74 per cent. of the seats on the basis of 44 per cent. of the votes. Yet that is precisely what Labour did in the previous European elections: 44 per cent. of the votes secured 74 per cent. of the seats. Labour did that in 1994, and would possibly do the same in 1999 were the Opposition's flirtation with forcing a return to first-past-the-post successful. That kind of victory would be unfair, unjust, unrepresentative and undemocratic. In my opinion it is an act of great courage for a government or a party to pursue electoral justice when the short-term effect could well be electoral disadvantage.
I want briefly to mention the alternative that was put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, on a number of occasions. While he constantly used the word "democracy" he talked about offering electors in multi-member constituencies a single vote. If he was so concerned about full electoral choice, he should have commended the Luxembourg system where for six seats you get six votes. That is a genuine electoral choice. However, to offer in a multi-member constituency of six, eight or even 10 members one vote is really not choice. It is saying that you can have one vote and one choice but 10 people will ultimately represent you. That seems to me to be the antithesis of democracy. I hope therefore that in the interests of the rights of the democratic Chamber but also that of having a proper electoral system based on proper representation, despite the Opposition's wish for their amendment to be carried to enable them to get off the hook on which they are impaled, we shall vote against their amendment and support the Government.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I support the amendment which is before the House this evening. My reasons for doing so are the same as those I have deployed at every stage that we have considered this Bill previously. Those arguments have not changed. Many of them have been rehearsed again tonight. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, who joined us in the debate tonight, made a point of saying that this matter is just about the narrow issue of closed lists. It is not. It is about how politics are conducted in our country, how governments are elected and how representatives represent the voters in their constituencies. It is not about games of ping-pong or even about cavalry charges. It is a central constitutional question because if how we elect our representatives is not to be regarded as a central constitutional question, one has to ask your Lordships, what is?
I wish to mention what I think have been three red herrings which have been thrown into the debate again this evening. One has been the role of hereditary Peers. It should be pointed out to your Lordships' House that without the votes of Cross-Benchers on every occasion the Government would have achieved their business. Is the moral of that story that Cross-Benchers are also to be considered for abolition on the basis that they have frustrated the Government's business?
Secondly, one might also reasonably refer to manifesto commitments. The manifesto says nothing about closed party lists, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, has reminded the House tonight. Your Lordships' House can just as reasonably vote for this amendment as vote for the Bill and be in accordance with what the Government's manifesto said to voters at the previous general election. I contrast the approach adopted by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins--who was appointed by the Prime Minister to head an independent Commission to report to Parliament and to be backed up in due course by a referendum to be put to the entire people of this nation as to how the Westminster voting
Thirdly, the other red herring is the question of Northern Ireland. It is not the forum which we should consider in this context but indeed elections to the European Parliament, and indeed this very Bill, because in this Bill before your Lordships' House tonight is a provision which was laid before both Houses of Parliament in 1984, 1989 and 1994 by the then Conservative governments and in 1979 by the then Labour government to introduce for European Parliament elections the single transferable vote in multi-member seats. Therefore there are other forms of proportional representation which have been favoured by all parties in this and the other place and which in the context of the European Parliament elections should be considered again in my view.
I have four great anxieties about the way in which this Bill is being tackled. The first concerns what we might call robotic politics; namely, that by the nature of things where you have closed party lists the kinds of people who will undoubtedly come through the list system will not be the bits of grit that have to enter the oyster to bring out the pearl but people who by definition conform. They will not be dissenting voices; they will be the politically correct. That is the way in which centralised systems of politics work. The umbilical link--which we rightly regard as so important in our parliamentary system--between the voter and the person he elects will be severed.
The second point is that this measure crushes dissent and leads therefore to a more elitist form of politics. I think that is highly undesirable. Thirdly, it destroys conscience. This was a widely overlooked question during previous consideration of this Bill. About a month ago 17 academics, Bishops and Archbishops sent an open letter to the Prime Minister urging the Government to think again about the closed party list system. The reasoning behind their argument is that in this take-it-or-leave-it form of politics of closed lists it will be impossible in the future for a voter to be able to decide between different candidates on moral and ethical questions, on issues as diverse as capital punishment and abortion or the sale of arms and euthanasia. Those have always traditionally been issues which have been hotly debated in our parliamentary constituencies, and rightly so. We could take contrary views. But under this system you will be given a list of three or four and it will be a case of take it or leave it. If three take one view and one takes another, it will be impossible to distinguish between those views. When this point was put to the Government, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, wrote in a letter on 1st December,
My last point is the effect on voters. There is already deep cynicism and alienation under our existing electoral arrangements in many parts of our country. I have mentioned to your Lordships' House before that in the city of Liverpool, where I contested seven parliamentary elections, in one recent European by-election the turnout was 11 per cent. In the city council elections last May the turnout was 22 per cent. In one local council by-election this time last year, the turnout was 6 per cent. In other words, vast numbers of people, the overwhelming majority, are already staying away from the polling booths. We should do nothing to increase the cynicism and alienation that already exist.
I say to Liberal Democrats who supported the Government because of what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, described as "the deal" which had been made between the two parties that this will also damage the cause of electoral reform. Once new systems are introduced, if it is done without proper consideration and consensus, they can be damaging to the cause, such as that of proportional representation. There are many forms of proportional representation; the closed party list system is the worst. If I am faced with the choice of the closed party list or staying with the first-past-the-post system until something better can be devised, I would stay with the first-past-the-post, and I shall vote accordingly tonight.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I too support the amendment. With great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, if he attended the previous debates he must have realised that in this context we do not oppose PR. With respect to the noble Lords, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead and Lord Weatherill, in practice the question simply does not arise of a lost Bill.
I ask your Lordships: to what honourable end shall noble Lords who are opposed to closed lists sit in this Chamber to nod the Bill through all its stages? Our function as guardian of the constitution has already been discharged to the ultimate degree. To what constructive purpose could we amend, or again insist, to delay the Bill?
As no accommodation may be had on this occasion to the point of deprivation of a basic tenet of the constitution as expounded by Burke--and I know the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill does not think much of it, but some other noble Lords do and I am one--noble Lords may think that without let or hindrance the will of another place should now be done by resort to the Parliament Acts, which enshrine the legitimacy of the amendment.
By supporting the amendment, this House neither defers to another place nor does it indulge in any form of confrontation. In effect we say: "Take your Bill on your own--but this is a matter of constitutional importance upon which we object in principle. We shall have none of it. This facet of the new style of government is unacceptable to us and to the people."
I conclude by removing a misapprehension. The situation of disagreement between the two Houses bears no kinship with the War Crimes Bill. I was concerned in it, and it was whipped. I know, because I went into the Lobby with my noble friend Lord Denham. The objection was concerned with the prospects for a fair trial, an unprecedented assumption of extra-territorial jurisdiction and basic questions of morality. On Rhodesian sanctions, your Lordships' House was not concerned with the derogation from our unwritten constitution, of which this House stands as the sole guardian, which is the concern of this debate.
Earl Russell: My Lords, first I join in the congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, on the extraordinary stamina he is showing today. In today's proceedings, he is alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, used to be known in this House as "Marathon Man". Now it will be a marathon to see which noble Lord has the right to that title.
It is so long since we had the Second Reading of this Bill in the Chamber that not merely have noble Lords forgotten what I said, I have forgotten myself. I checked and found that I said two things: first, that I wished the Bill to become law; secondly, that I wished it to be amended. So long as those two objectives appeared to me compatible, I pursued both. When they appeared to me to become incompatible, I pursued the primary objective that the Bill should become law.
It is a matter of regret to me that it did not become law in the last Session. In the two-chamber parliament, compromise is essential. Without it, a two-chamber parliament is impossible. I have no desire to see a pantomime contest in which two groups of grown people hurl abuse at each other for refusal to compromise. So I shall merely regret the absence of compromise in the last Session.
However, as it stands now, our power to amend the Bill is nugatory. We may table and carry amendments, but the Bill is sailing under the protection of a naval escort from the Parliament Acts. That means that if there should be disagreement between the Houses it would be presented to Her Majesty bearing only those amendments which had been agreed by another place. That means we could huff and puff and amend the Bill as many times as we liked and those amendments would not be presented to Her Majesty to be made law.
Under those circumstances, it is true to say that our power to amend the Bill is neutered. So there is only one question which the behaviour of this House is capable of determining. That is whether the Bill becomes law in time for the European elections this June.
I know that that election must take place because it is laid down in European law that it shall. But to call the effect of transforming the constituencies, reforming constituency associations, going through the selections again, and reappointing agencies, disruption is, I think, an accurate and mild statement. That, I think, would have the effect of creating chaos. As my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead reminded the House, it would reintroduce a distortion into the European Parliament as a whole. That, I think, would be a bridge too far for this House.
My objective is that the Bill should become law as quickly as possible. The question is how that should be done. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, put his speech on his Motion rather in the style in which it is done in another place. He might have attracted a bigger vote for a rather more economical Motion. In drafting Motions, it is a good rule that for every extra word one puts in one loses approximately three votes. According to that rule, the noble Lord has been positively reckless.
On the other hand, I remember a film which I saw when I was a small boy about the breaking of the sound barrier. The central proposition was that at the speed of sound the effect of the controls was reversed. When we vote on a Bill with Parliament Acts in the offing, something rather like that principle applies: if we keep the Bill alive, we kill it; and if we kill it we allow it to be resurrected. I may not be voting for the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, but if it were to succeed it would not cause me profound grief.
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