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Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, I find this a disagreeable debate--and I have hardly been encouraged by what has happened in the last 30 seconds. As is well known, I shall be advancing a point of view which is not well received on this side of the House, but at least it will be listened to.
This is an increasingly disagreeable subject for me. On the whole, I like to be with my friends and colleagues in the voting Lobbies and in terms of general argument about political matters of importance. But I find it rather depressing, having studied the latest debate on 10th November in the House of Commons, that the argument is becoming increasingly petty and unserious. No new argument was put forward during that debate. One does not have to go over the whole ground because nothing new was said and we are now quite familiar with the old ground. In one way, of course, a very, very, old argument was put forward as being now the only remaining reason why the Government should be supported in these defective provisions in this Bill. The reason put forward was the old classic reason that the will of the House of Commons as the elected, democratic body should prevail over that of the unelected House of Lords.
I find that to be a serious argument and I would be the last to dismiss it. But it requires not just, as it were, bowing down before it; it requires serious examination. There have been many occasions when the two Houses
I have a second point to make which I referred to when last I spoke on this matter. In this House, particularly after it has been reformed, it will matter a great deal that independent voices are heard and listened to. We do not want a rubber stamp Chamber. We want, therefore, legitimate and serious objections to be properly considered. There is a slight indication of that independent opinion. I have looked at the voting on the previous two occasions, particularly at the distribution of votes as recorded by Cross-Benchers. I am not naieve and if I was not sufficiently alert to this point I would be quickly corrected by my colleagues. There are many Cross-Benchers who have at least a small "c" commitment if not a large Conservative standing and bias. But when you are putting a serious issue of a constitutional nature, where no obvious vested interest, apart from that of the Liberal Democrats, is involved, and you find that among the Cross-Benchers 36 voted against and only one voted with the Government, it is at least some indication that people who have reasonable independence of judgment have not had sufficient information, argument and substance put before them to cause them to change their view. That should make noble Lords on this side of the House think; and think very carefully.
So I am not prepared to accept that it is a simple Commons versus Lords issue in the way that it has been put forward, I think rather speciously, because those who put it forward know that it will carry particular weight with people who support the Labour Government under normal circumstances. I say no; it is not Commons versus Lords; it is not democracy against autocracy in the sense that the advocates of the original closed system would like; it is something quite different. I shall sum it up in just a few words.
The issue is about the open list against the closed list. It is about an open democratic list against a closed party management list. It is about accountability to the electorate, to the voters, against accountability to a party committee--what we are now officially informed is a joint panel of regional representatives and members of the party's ruling National Executive Committee. It is indeed--I repeat the words I used on the previous occasion--the electorate versus the electorate.
Earl Russell: My Lords, in the great days of Don Bradman, when he used to play in a Test in Sydney, once he got set the crowd on the hill would start chanting, "You'll never get him out". Well, of course, in cricket, "never" is an even shorter time than it is in politics. Usually, after two or three days, we did get him out, but during those two or three days he usually settled the destination of the Ashes. That is the answer to the riddle: What do Don Bradman and the closed list have in common? That is why I do not put very much weight on the review which the Home Secretary offered us.
So far, the discussion has concentrated on the issue of party discipline. Not enough attention has been given to the fact that the closed list presents the party managers of all parties with a pork barrel. Party managers are not in the habit of giving away pork barrels for nothing. So that is why I do not have very great faith in the review.
The Home Secretary appears to have had two arguments. The first is that the vote was carried by the votes of hereditary Peers. I would ask the Government to be wary of that argument because it might have the effect of making hereditary Peers rather more popular than they are at present. That is not an effect which I wish. I hope that the Government do not wish it either.
The other argument is that the voters are incapable of coping with the flow of information. That has been the classic anti-democratic argument for centuries. I give it no weight. In 10 years in this House I do not think I have ever thought quite so long or changed my mind quite so many times about what to do in one vote. In fact, yesterday I changed my mind no less than five times, each time on the basis of further, more up-to-date information. That is why I was not in a position to do any consulting about what I was going to do because my mind changed like the moon. It was not settled until I saw what was tabled and had considered everything at about lunchtime today.
Granted that the review is no good, we must consider the consequences of what we do. The closed list is a blow to democracy. But we on these Benches also believe that the loss of the Bill would be a blow to democracy. All of us, whichever way we have gone, have had to weigh one of those points against the other. I hope the House will bear that in mind. That is why I believe that my noble friends, although I believe them to have been mistaken, have been acting honourably, and I will not say anything to the contrary.
I found the question as to whether I prefer to assault democracy with a blunt instrument or with a pillow rather forbidding. Before anyone laughs at the pillow, Desdemona discovered that it was a lethal weapon. I did not succeed in answering that question to my own satisfaction. The question that I found more constructive was this. Which of those consequences is more likely if
I understand that matters always become very heavy when there is confrontation with another place in November. I took the precaution of taking advice before coming here today. The advice was that there is clearly time for one more round of ping-pong. That is confirmed in forthcoming business where the return of this matter from the Commons is scheduled for 17th November. Perhaps I may remind the House that the Third Reading of the Registration of Political Parties Bill is down for 18th November. The Government must have considered the hypothetical possibility that there could be an amendment carried to that Bill which would require the attention of another place. If that is manageable, so is this. The argument that time has run out is, in my opinion, not satisfactory.
I now touch on the consequences for the Prime Minister if he should abandon the Bill. I would not go as far as the Home Secretary, who described the situation as "chaos", but it is pretty serious. The organisational consequences of abandoning the Bill will cause him great difficulties, as will the political consequences. The impression would be given that the Government are prepared to accept proportional representation only in situations where they have a closed list, those being the only circumstances in which, to date, the Government have introduced it.
As the House knows perfectly well, my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead and his commission recommended a different system. Their views on the closed list are very close to mine. So were the Government to drop the Bill it would, in effect, pre-empt the debate on the Jenkins report and give a clear answer "No" at this moment. For all I know, it is possible that the Prime Minister may at some stage do that. I would be extremely surprised if he were prepared to forego all the advantages of delay by doing that now. In fact, "extremely surprised" understates the case.
I believe that loss of the Bill is extremely unlikely. Until 4 p.m. yesterday I was planning to abstain. Since then my thinking has been concentrated on the fact that much though I want proportional representation--I want it very deeply indeed--its achievement at the price of a return to the two-party system, which would be the result of concessions such as voting for the Bill in its present form is not a price worth paying.
Lord Barnett: My Lords, I should make clear that I prefer the open list system. I am sure all noble Lords will have read the detail of the open list and closed list systems and will know that the open list system, as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, would eventually entail determining something by lots. I am sure all noble Lords are aware of that and I apologise for reminding them again. But
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, called in aid the report of the commission of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, on a single list--an open list. Of course, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, is not in favour of that; he wants nothing to do with it. Nevertheless, he called it in aid. In practice it is a very different open list system from the one proposed here. I am sure all your Lordships are aware of that. On balance, I prefer the open list system. I believe that your Lordships are perfectly entitled to ask the other place to think again.
I ask my noble friend Lord Shore: how many times can we ask the other place to think again? This is the third time. I am bound to say that whether the other place puts forward a proposition that is good, bad, awful or just plain wrong, as I believe it to be in this case, after three times of our asking it to think again--and it is the elected Chamber--it is entitled to have its way.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, enjoys himself too much on these occasions. I never begrudge him that because I know how much he likes to enjoy himself. As I have told him before, I hope he does so for many more years on that Bench. The plain fact is that he is opposed to the Government in principle. He is a very shrewd noble Lord. He uses the end of term situation to his and his party's advantage. I understand that only too well. All oppositions may have done it from time to time. I have no doubt we did it.
I say to my noble friends Lord Shore and Lord Stoddart that they too are entitled to vote against the Government. I understand that. However, I take exception to the constant use by my noble friend Lord Stoddart of the word "duty" that leads him to vote against the Government. The noble Lord did not tell us, of course--but perhaps most of us know--that he was speaking, as he always does on European Union matters, as a leading Euro-sceptic. My feeling is that Euro-sceptics like my noble friends Lord Shore and Lord Stoddart would vote against anything the European Union proposed, even if it proposed that we should all be given a gold bar as a present. I must say that I would be inclined to vote against that as well.
I can understand the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, and my noble friend Lord Shore, with whom I served for some years and whom I like. But I find it offensive and distasteful in the extreme when my noble friend Lord Stoddart implies that he is the only Labour Peer who cares, the only one who has a duty, and all the rest of us do not care. I take offence at that. I care and I also have principles, but after the House of Commons, the elected Chamber, has voted three times against this unelected Chamber--and I am not referring to whether noble Lords are appointed or hereditary--it is entitled to have its way.
I return to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. In my view, he does not care about the system because he knows that if he looks at the system which he has recommended, in practice the likelihood is that it and the closed system would have virtually the same result. Anyone examining the situation in detail
I accept that situation. I recognise that the noble Lord is prepared to accept the support of Euro-sceptics on either side. I hope, however, that some noble Lords opposite and on the Cross-Benches will recognise this for what it is and will not vote with the Opposition.
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