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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. It might produce a good result for the Conservative Party if I and my two colleagues decided who was on the list. There is a difficulty with using the word "list" in a different way from the way that we have been used to. I am one of the three people who decide whether someone can go forward for consideration; in other words, people who get on to the panel--as we have described
Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, the noble Lord is certainly the starting point of that process, if not the finishing point. Of course the noble Lord is quite right. He will accept that certainly in our party--and I guess in his too--the numbers of people who attend hustings meetings are but a small minority of the total membership. I think I am right in saying that when I was elected first on the list in the Lothians--that is a little plug!--there was a ballot of 60 per cent. which is unusual for a postal ballot among party members. I think that is the proper, democratic way to compile a list.
I hope very much that the Government even at this last moment--I note that both the noble Lords, Lord Williams of Mostyn and Lord Sewel, are present--will have a change of heart and will decide that we should allow the voter greater choice in this matter. However, I suspect that will not be the case and that in the end we shall just have to live with a slightly imperfect but nonetheless much better system than we have had up till now.
Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, the House will be disappointed by that rather feeble intervention from the former leader of the Liberal Party from whom in the past I have come to expect much more decisive contributions, particularly in support of major principles. A major principle is involved here. I find myself in the hideously embarrassing position of agreeing with virtually every word that the spokesman for the Conservative Party has said in his short but powerful intervention a few moments ago.
As I develop my point, I make a point which we should all remind ourselves of because we must not deceive ourselves. The system of election for the European Parliament is, frankly, a matter of secondary importance to the electors in this country. They do not vote in large numbers because they have no regard or affection for the European Parliament. On the contrary I do not think they have regard or affection for it; I think they have a considerable hostility and indeed at times contempt. They have a contempt for it because they know it is a bogus parliament. It is a bogus parliament which claims for itself privileges, rights and so on when it has in no way any authentic roots in the British democracy and the wishes of the British people.
The electorate see the European Parliament as, above all, the place where that classe politique, or rather the representatives of the classe politique in Europe, come together for their mutual support and satisfaction in the pursuit of policies which are often remote from the wishes of their own people. There is such a thing as a classe politique; it is recognised everywhere. Associated with the existence of this classe politique--separated from the democratic wishes
There are two kinds of objections to what is being done. One of them was put succinctly by the noble Lord, Lord Henley. He drew our attention to the way in which this system deprives the electors of choosing a Member of Parliament. They are unable to do that because the Member's name is not even before them. All the electors are offered instead is to vote for the anonymous party, which decides who is to be the Member of Parliament. It decides not only the list of candidates but the order of preference. A small committee appointed by the party leaders decides who are to be the Members of Parliament. It is outrageous and quite unacceptable to anyone who treasures the traditions of democracy in this country.
Perhaps I may add a relatively minor point. The electors are not allowed to vote for candidates. Whenever a by-election takes place there is no opportunity for an expression of opinion during the four-year period in which general elections are held. All that happens is that the next anonymous name on the list is chosen to be the Member of Parliament and fills the vacancy. These are great disadvantages and, worse, insults imposed on the electors.
As regards our own party members I do not believe that we are doing them any favours. I do not speak with venom against the methods of the Labour Party, the Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrats in choosing under a list system. I suppose they all have their advantages and disadvantages. But there is a big difference from the system today which the ordinary members of our three parties expect to use. In the constituencies a range of people is interviewed who wish to have the honour of representing the constituency. They are interrogated and then they are chosen. There is a vote; they are known; they are judged and it is decided whether they are right. They are the people and if what they do is not liked they can be got rid of at a later stage.
How different is that procedure. It is the right of every party member to take part in the choice and election for what is now on offer. With the best will in the world, with the huge "selectorates" the whole process has to be reduced to the separate constituency Labour Party or Conservative Party associations that form a region. The individual association or party can at best have the right of nomination to a long list
I do not make any accusations because, after all, we have not yet adopted these systems: they have not been introduced. But the dangers of cronyism, patronage and corruption are obvious in a system which concentrates power in such an important area on so few people who are basically self-selected. These seem to me to be very powerful reasons why we should not have a list system at all and why we certainly should not have a closed list system.
Those points were in my mind when we debated these matters on 24th June. I recalled to the House then my concerns and worries, which were certainly not confined to myself. I knew them to be widely shared in the Parliamentary Labour Party and indeed among Ministers. We know very well that the Home Secretary himself was so unhappy and dissatisfied about the almost inevitable results of the system of lists that he set up a short inquiry--it had to be short because the Bill had already had its Second Reading--to try to find a way out. I am sure that he did his best, but he should have given himself more time. He looked at only one alternative system which I thought had the good will and support of the Liberal Democrat Party, as it is now called; namely, the Belgian system. That system allows the elector a choice: he can vote for the party or for named people. The Home Secretary was unhappily persuaded that there was a great deal of dissatisfaction with the Belgian system because people who came top of the list--the people whom the electors wanted--were often outvoted by people who got fewer votes. But because of the party vote and because they were more preferentially regarded by the party managers, they became the members. The man who got the most votes did not get the seat and, hardly surprisingly, that produced a good deal of dissatisfaction, unhappiness and disquiet.
I come to my last point. If my right honourable friend the Home Secretary had had more time to search more widely he would have identified another system practised by the Finns and, I believe, the Luxembourgers. Under that system an open list is insisted on. But there is no option for voting for the party: one can vote only for the named candidate. Inevitably, the candidate who has the most votes gets the seat. I put it to my noble friend that that system is so self-evidently more attractive than this dangerous and untested system which is riddled with difficulties, anomalies and dangers and which we appear to be supporting. If my noble friend cannot produce a really satisfactory reply he cannot expect us to support this measure tonight. We would be doing our duty and serving the country well, and the House of Commons, if we gave the House another chance to reconsider the whole matter.
Lord Russell-Johnston: My Lords, I shall detain the House briefly. I had no intention of speaking at all until I heard the speech of my old sparring partner in the Commons who has always been famed for his capacity to conjure up the apocalypse and its four horsemen almost instantaneously. He did it tonight eloquently and very well, but not all that persuasively.
Let us take, for example, the idea that the whole intent of voters in general elections in the United Kingdom is naturally to vote for a particular candidate. I remember vividly when I was elected in Inverness. Feeling very cheerful about it all, I went into a local public house in Newtonmore to celebrate--incognito, naturally, I say in the face of grimaces from the Government Front Bench. I asked a gentleman there how he had voted. He said, "I voted for Mrs. Thatcher". I told him that that was a mistake, but that she was not standing in that constituency! "Well", he said, "I don't know who the Tory was, but I voted for Thatcher". That is the reality in many places, as the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney, well knows.
Equally I would say: please do not tell me that parties never manipulate constituency choices. Noble Lords may remember the large signs all over Wales saying, "Wales needs Hain". That was not true at all. The reality is that sometimes parties do these things--even the Liberal Democrats.
Finally, I make a plea to the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney. In a slippery slide during his remarks he said that the European constituencies were rather big. Rather big! They represented a quarter of a million people. The idea, if the first-past-the-post system is justified in single-member constituencies, that it is workable on that scale is absolute nonsense.
The reality is that in the European Parliament, where I have briefly had the opportunity to serve, one was interested in general indications as to philosophy, political attitude: were people Conservatives, Liberals, Socialists or Communists? General political attitudes were important. The Bill answers that problem. The noble Lord, Lord Shore, was uncharacteristically unkind to my dear friend who sits in front of me, my erstwhile leader, for whom I have some continuing respect. Believe it or not, we the Liberal Demcorats are realists. I understand the views of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, who, true to form, made an excellent speech. However, the priority now is to secure the passage of the Bill. We have been through this argument before. It has been well rehearsed and does not require further rehearsal.
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