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Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Shore of Stepney. I believe that he put the position correctly and concisely as to the rights of this House and why the House is entitled to exercise those rights. There is no need for me to elaborate further on that.
However, I wish to make one further point. We are in our difficulty tonight, as my noble friend Lord Evans of Parkside has pointed out, because of the leisurely pace at which the Bill has gone through the Houses of Parliament. That is why we are in this position. Indeed, I can understand the embarrassment that will be caused to all parties: they had selected their candidates before the Bill had completed its passage through Parliament. In other words, they took this House for granted. I do not believe that in a democratic and proper parliamentary system one can afford to take either House for granted. But that is what has been done and I think that the Government may now regret it.
I shall certainly, regretfully, vote again in the Lobby with the Conservatives. Nevertheless, I shall do so because I think that the system which is being proposed, as I have said so many times before, is not a good system. It is not consistent with what I believe is a democratic system; and it takes away the relationship between the elector and the elected. I believe that that is entirely bad for our democratic system.
In conclusion, I believe that the electorate generally--this was demonstrated by a poll on BBC2 this morning--understand what the issue is about. They do not like closed lists. If the House of Lords throws the provision out tonight the people will be on their side.
Lord Bethell: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Mackay on again exposing the damaging effect of the closed list system which the Government seem determined to foist upon this country. There is no case for saying that this is an open and shut matter about closed lists or open lists. However, a good 70 per cent. of right belongs to the open list system.
However, having supported my noble friend on many occasions, I have come to the conclusion that if we do as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, advises, we are in danger this evening of doing what the English cricket team do so often: grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory. We may not succeed in fulfilling the promise that came from the early achievements of my noble friend Lord Mackay. I have seen the issue grow like Topsy. It started as a technical matter about the number of boxes on a ballot paper; and whether there should be the name of a party or just the name of candidates. But over the past few days it has become a debate about the rights of your Lordships, about whether candidates should be allowed to carry on their achievements, and about the practicalities of reselecting new candidates after tens of thousands of people were involved in the previous process. It has become a matter of arrangements between the Liberal Democrat Party and the Labour Party. It has become an issue of many colours.
Lord McNally: My Lords, there is no doubt that over the past 24 hours we have heard some good speeches and some great speeches, from both sides and with great personal commitment. If it helps the noble Lord Lord Beloff, and the Cross-Benches, let me say at once that I am under no illusion that this is a government Bill fulfilling a government manifesto commitment.
Despite making a speech in a bearpit at present, the point about the debate has been its good humour. In many cases that has been due in no small measure to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. I have grown very fond of him over the last three years. The noble Lord is a parliamentary bruiser whose skills we all appreciate, but this amiable and unambitious Scot has, I am afraid, fallen victim to some more sinister forces. It is clear that the Conservative high command saw in this relatively minor and technical piece of legislation the confluence of three deep prejudices--Euroscepticism, hostility to proportional representation and hostility to reform of this House.
Our debates in recent weeks have exposed how bogus is that sudden hostility to lists, which have been accepted by your Lordships in other legislation. The open list system is itself not without flaws. The freedom of the open list compares with the freedom to dine at
Why else in the last couple of years have we been striving to put party names on ballot papers and register the names of parties? As the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, was honest enough to admit, the vast majority of people vote for parties. An open list system, about which he was equally honest, would take away campaigning between parties, their manifestos and messages and replace them with battles between personalities.
The new synthetic enthusiasm for European parliamentary democracy has been entirely absent from our debates every four years, for the quarter of a century that successive governments have ignored treaty obligations to send to Strasbourg British contingents that have been the very perversion of democracy. Let us not forget that if we lose the Bill, we would revert to first-past-the-post. We would revert to a system that totally distorts British political representation in Strasbourg, which has been elected by closed lists of one.
Lord McNally: I do not understand why Conservative Members are so hostile to stopping 20 per cent. of the people having their representation in the European Parliament. That will create a different kind of regional politician. I ask noble Lords to think this through. One cannot have in an electorate of 8 million people the relationship between an MP and his constituency that is so dear to existing and former Members of Parliament. As the system develops, and develops in Wales and Scotland, we will see a different kind of political relationship--but a democratic one nevertheless and one that will have an important part to play.
I say to members of the Government Front Bench that if they blink now, they will embolden those who oppose constitutional reform across the board. Stop them here, and the Government will save themselves a lot of blood, sweat and tears.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, everyone here tonight knows the genuine regard that I have for this place, which grows--as for all of us--from year to year. I say "everyone here tonight"--even those noble Lords whom I have never seen before.
It is only fair that I should put the Government's view, I hope not brutally but plainly, right at the outset. This is the end of our road. Prorogation is upon us. If the Government are again defeated tonight, the Bill will fail. The Government will therefore have failed to secure safe passage for a manifesto commitment.
The Government will have failed--your Lordships will not like this--because of the clout of the hereditary vote. The other place was elected. We were not. Defeat, if it comes to us, will be from a Chamber with no elected mandate. I say with all humility, because I never stood for the other place, that former Members of Parliament have spoken in our debates, not only tonight but on other occasions, and I wonder how they really feel.
The arguments have been rehearsed time and time again. On closed lists as opposed to open lists, honourable people can honourably differ. Our manifesto commitment was clear. It was to have a proportional representation system. May I say this one word? It cannot be denied. A PR system introduced by a Labour Government with a vast majority gives power away to Opposition parties in Europe, Wales and Scotland. The Tories have no representation in Wales in the other place but they had 20 per cent. of the vote. If Conservatives stand for the Welsh assembly with a PR closed-list system, they will have 20 per cent. of the seats.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is right to say that we did not specify in the manifesto an open or a closed list. It was reasonable to go for a closed list for four reasons. First, the overwhelming bulk of our colleagues in Europe have closed systems--more than 70 per cent. if we join. None of those points is determinative or absolute, but a sensible mind would take them into account and put them each in their proper proportion.
Secondly, the only other comparable system in the United Kingdom is the closed list system for Northern Ireland introduced in 1996 by a Government of which Mr. William Hague was a prominent Member. Thirdly, the system has been proved perfectly acceptable as a concept for Wales and Scotland in the Bills that respectively establish the assembly and parliament. The May elections to those bodies will predate the European elections in June that are the subject of the Bill.
Fourthly, we ran a model on the open list system and found, as the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, keenly pointed out last night, that one MEP can be elected in the same region, in the same election with, say, 400,000 votes, and another candidate in the same region, in the same election, can fail to be elected with a vote of, say, half a million. The public see that as nonsensical and offensive.
The arguments have been fully deployed. I underline the grace and courtesy with which almost all your Lordships have spoken. Virtually no one has claimed the monopoly of all the wisdom in this world. So we can honourably disagree. I hope that we continue to do so on an amicable basis where we regard difference of view as being a virtue not the mark of the outcast.
We are coming to our moment of decision. There have been successive majorities in the House of Commons, another place, of 170, 180, 200 and, earlier today, 193. On no occasion in this House would we have lost without the hereditary vote--
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