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4.45 pm

We would be extremely unhappy with the proposition that, because a threshold is acceptable once, and because, for exceptional reasons, we might agree that 5 per cent. is right, we must go on looking ever upward. A higher threshold is likely to affect bona fide democratic parties such as the Green party far more seriously than it would affect people who are interested in politics as a means of inciting others against their fellow citizens.

Mr. Wilkinson: The hon. Gentleman is intellectually honest, but is not the perverse and wholly unsatisfactory effect of the provision that, instead of the seat being left vacant because the party did not achieve the threshold, another party would be over-represented? By the provision, we are choosing to secure the election of a representative who would not otherwise, by the number of votes that he scored, have secured election.

Mr. Hughes: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point.

The last concern that I intended to express, which was the subject of one of our debates, was whether we could have left the threshold to be arrived at from the fact that there would be 11 top-up members of the Greater London assembly, which would require a mathematical threshold to be achieved. The figure is about 3.8 per cent. I did not sign up to that view, nor did Ministers, because that threshold is entirely dependent on the number of members. If there are 25 members, the threshold is 3.8 per cent. With 40 members, the threshold is lower. To determine the threshold purely on the basis of the size of the assembly struck us as arbitrary and much more difficult to defend.

The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood is right. If the percentages are altered and the threshold is set at 5 per cent., the division across London is not as clear. My hon. Friends and I are prepared to agree with the other two major parties that, on this occasion--and as far as we are concerned, on this occasion only--there should be a threshold, because, when London's government is reinstated after 14 years, we do not want the first election for it to be detracted from by people who are interested not in the government of London, but in peddling their own partisan and divisive views.

We must not jump to conclusions after the events of the past few days. One person has been arrested, who may have nothing to do with extreme right-wing views. The measures proposed can be justified only by the sweep of history, not by recent events. From time to time in London, more frequently than elsewhere, the electoral system has been used by people who were clearly divisive, racist and extremist. For the first election, we must protect the process from being hijacked by that agenda.

I hope that such a measure will not be necessary in future, but I am happy to take the advice of the electoral commission before we as a Parliament and, I hope, as individual Members of Parliament, make the decision.

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This should in any event be a matter for the individual votes of individual Members, not a whipped vote. If the proposal goes to the vote, I hope that the Whips will not be employed.

Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town): I add my support to the Government's decision to introduce the threshold into the forthcoming elections. I accept that it was a difficult decision. Cogent arguments have been articulated in Committee, outside this place and in the Chamber today about the validity of various tactics and methods for dealing with extremist views and defeating them.

I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) that no threshold is likely to eliminate or deter extremist views or, indeed, can guarantee exclusion of extremist candidates, as we have seen from recent electoral history in London, when such candidates got a higher vote than the threshold that is being laid down. However, after witnessing at first hand the victory of the British National party on the Isle of Dogs in my constituency and having seen the climate created there--which lead to intimidation, fear, alienation and hostility in Tower Hamlets and throughout the east end--I am strongly persuaded that everything possible should be done to prevent any repetition.

The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) asked, "Who are we to make such an arbitrary artificial decision?" With the greatest respect, we are the elected political leadership and we are obliged to give our society a political lead. Some people may perceive the provision as a gesture; it is an important signal that there should be no place in our society for those whose ideology is to discriminate against a minority or minority groups. We are a pluralistic society now, and the House has a responsibility to demonstrate that by saying that we are introducing the threshold to prevent those extremist views from taking hold.

This has been a difficult decision for the Government. Following discussions in Committee, which have been repeated here today, and outside this place, strong views both for and against have been expressed. As one who supports the first-past-the-post system, I take the view--I agree with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes)--that we need to ensure that this new electoral system and structure for London send a signal to the London public that we are creating a new democracy and a new government for London and that this is our society, which will be inclusive for all its elements.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): I shall make two brief points. First, while I do not agree with the electoral system proposed for elections to the Greater London assembly, given the system that has been proposed, I utterly support the Minister in making the threshold 5 per cent. I note that, while paragraph 7(3) of schedule 2 proposes that the Secretary of State should have a prescriptive power to decide the percentage, paragraph 7(4) states that it should not be greater than 5 per cent. Therefore, the Minister is announcing a threshold at the upper end of what was presumably envisaged by the Government. I accept that.

Secondly, I think that the Minister said that, if there were a 50 per cent. turnout--I very much hope that there will be, although I will be agreeably surprised if there is--

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the 5 per cent. threshold would require a party to have of the order of 125,000 or 150,000 votes. Frankly, and this is where I may disagree with one or two Labour Members, no matter how obnoxious the policies of a party, if it gets 100,000 votes in the election on 4 May next year, it can reasonably claim to have a stake in the assembly. I do not want to rehearse or overstress this point, but we may find that we get more trouble if people are barred from being members of an assembly, or Members of Parliament, by structures that are deliberately devised to keep them out. If a fair threshold is set and they get in, so be it.

I would point out to the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick)--I may not agree with his views, but I deeply respect them--that a member of the BNP may have got in in a London borough or local authority election, but we are not seriously considering changing the electoral and the ward system on that account for our borough elections. We have to be robust about the obnoxious nature of some parties, but, if they get beyond a reasonable threshold, they are perfectly entitled to representation, in this case in the Greater London assembly.

Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East): We should look at the narrow point at issue in terms of numbers of votes cast. We are introducing a threshold which means that a fascist party will have to get 5 per cent. of the votes to qualify for a seat. We know from the 1977 GLC election, when the British National party contested all seats across London and got 5.3 per cent. of the vote, that that is an achievable objective for a fascist party in this country. If we did not impose a threshold, a party would still need to win 4 per cent. of the vote to get a seat. Given 25 seats, it would need to get 4 per cent., unless a vast number of minor parties got 2 or 3 per cent. each. So we are drawing a small margin of difference.

Across Europe, it is not unusual now for fascist parties to get 15 per cent. of the vote. There have been breakthroughs in France and Austria. To guarantee to keep the fascists out for all time, we would most probably have to set the threshold at 15 per cent. or more and that would also eliminate the Liberal Democrats in many areas. When I first entered local government in London, the Liberals did not get 5 per cent. in the borough council elections Londonwide. So we are working ourselves up over the wrong issue.

It worries me that people could use candidacy as a platform to propagate their racist views. We should consider what to do to prevent that. My fear is about what may have motivated the young man who has been arrested for the bombings. He was not linked into an organised fascist party, but the contagion of fascist views had reached him. What worries me most is not the threshold--whether the 4 per cent. without a bar or the 5 per cent. bar that we are introducing--but the fact that the new election for mayor could give a fascist candidate access to broadcasts and a big distribution of literature which, while with clever lawyers working on it may narrowly stay within the race relations law, would pander to racism, homophobia and bigotry and help to stir up the sort of passions that have led to deaths on the streets of London in the past few days.

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Mr. Raynsford: We have had a full, extensive and good debate on a difficult and extremely important issue. Hon. Members have covered a wide range of points, to which I shall respond briefly.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), who spoke for the official Opposition, asked why a party that got 4.5 per cent. should not be elected when one that got 5.5 per cent. would be. In my opening remarks, I made the point that any threshold is, by its nature, arbitrary, but there are precedents. We had much to do with the imposition of a 5 per cent. threshold in the constitution established in Germany after the war to provide a bulwark against a resurgence of national socialism. That has been seen to work effectively without precluding opportunities for smaller parties such as the Greens to be elected. So there are good reasons for the threshold. While I accept that it is arbitrary, it is right that we should have safeguards against parties that set out to destroy and damage the electoral process and, above all, to stir up hatred against different sections of the community.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South said that, in certain circumstances, the extreme right wing could be elected. I accept that, on the 1977 GLC election results, it would have secured a place on a 5.3 per cent. overall vote. It is not our objective to prevent a party from being elected. In setting a threshold, we seek to send a clear message that a party has to establish a substantial body of support among the electorate before it will secure a place in the electoral system. In general, the extreme racist right in this country has not achieved that substantial proportion. The figures that the hon. Gentleman quoted for 1994 and 1998 were, he will accept, from relatively small areas rather than pan-London figures.


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