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European Parliamentary Elections Bill

Volume 319: debated on Monday 16 November 1998

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Lords Reasons for insisting on certain of their amendments to which the Commons have disagreed and for disagreeing to the Commons amendment to the Bill in lieu, considered.

Lords Reason:

The Lords insist on their Amendments in page 2, lines 1, 2, 15 and 18, to which the Commons have disagreed, for the following Reason:
Because electors should be able to vote for the individual party candidate of their choice.

7.20 pm

I beg to move, That this House insists on its disagreement with the Lords in their amendments, but does not insist on its amendment in lieu.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the further Government amendment in lieu of the Lords amendments, in page 3, line 46, at end insert—

'Review of electoral system

.—(1) The Secretary of State shall appoint one or more persons—

  • (a) to review, in accordance with subsection (2), the operation of the system of election provided for by section 3 of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978 as substituted by section 1 of this Act, and
  • (b) to make a report to the Secretary of State within six months from the day of appointment.
  • (2) The review shall consider, in particular, how the ability of electors to vote for particular persons on a party's list of candidates might affect the results of an election.

    (3) The Secretary of State shall carry out his duty under subsection (1) within one month from the date of the first general election to the European Parliament which takes place after the coming into force of section 1.

    (4) The Secretary of State shall lay a copy of any report received under subsection (1)(b) before each House of Parliament.'.

    This is the fourth time that I have had to invite the House to approve the election system for the European parliamentary elections, and the third time that I have had to ask this elected House to override their unelected Lordships.

    The arguments against the proposals from the other place are, on their merits, overwhelming; so are the arguments in favour of the closed or simple-list system that we have advanced. The so-called open-list system is not more democratic than the closed-list system, but less democratic. If it were implemented, the result would be anger and incredulity on the part of the electors, directed against those who had instigated it. The electors would feel that an elaborate confidence trick had been played on them. Let me explain why.

    The essence of a democratic election system is that those who win the most votes win the most seats: winners win, and losers lose. Under this Conservative system, the winners may lose and the loser may win. The Conservative party claims to support first past the post—it claims to be united on that, if on nothing else. This, however, is not first past the post, but last past the post. Although the proponents of the system on the Opposition Benches here, and in the other place, understand this only dimly, their system is so flawed that a candidate from, for example, the Conservative party who receives 500,000 votes may not be elected, while a candidate from, say, the Liberal Democrats who receives 350,000 votes may be elected in his place. Is that the result that Opposition Members want? Do they understand the nature of the system that they propose? What explanation would they offer their candidates and their party—let alone the public—if that happened? It is the politics of the absurd; and the fact that the Tory party has chosen this of all propositions on which to manufacture a battle between the Lords and the Commons shows the extent to which good judgment has now departed the leadership of the Conservative party.

    If the Home Secretary considers the arguments in support of the closed list to be so overwhelming, why did 36 Cross-Bench peers vote against the Government, and only one with?

    I must say, with all due respect to the Cross Benchers in the House of Lords, that most of them are also hereditary peers, and I do not believe that they understand the arguments any more than the Front Benchers.

    Let us be clear about this. I tried it to help the hon. Gentleman on the last occasion. When Conservative Members engage in complexities, they usually end up making a complete dog's breakfast of their suggestions, and that is what is happening now. The unavoidable truth of the so-called open system that the Conservatives propose is as I have spelt out: candidates receiving more votes may not be elected, while candidates receiving fewer votes may be elected.


    The Conservatives have synthetically manufactured this battle. What gives the lie to their claims that they are defending some grand democratic principle against a dastardly new Labour scheme is the fact that they, as a Government, were the first to use the closed list. I know that they do not wish to be reminded of that—I have watched them squirm every time we remind them—but the system that I am0 now recommending to the House, for the fourth time, is the same in every particular as the scheme that the Conservatives recommended to this House and the other place in 1996. If the closed-list system is so bad in principle today, why was it not so bad two years ago, when the Conservatives suggested it?

    The only excuse to which the Conservatives resort—a threadbare excuse—is that they proposed a closed list for Northern Ireland. What kind of argument is that, especially from a party that was once proud to have "Unionist" as part of its name? The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), did not say that Ireland needed the closed-list system because it had particular problems. Speaking of the very same system that we are now discussing, he said:
    "I believe that this is a fair and balanced system that will produce a representative outcome."—[Official Report, 21 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 498.]
    In Committee on the same Conservative Bill, proposing closed lists, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram)—the Conservative party's constitutional expert, and its chairman—said:
    "The strength of the system that we are proposing is that, for the voter, it requires only one cross to be put against one party. We must make sure that the voter understands that when he goes into the polling booth and is faced with the ballot paper. I think that what we are proposing is the best way to achieve that."—[Official Report, 23 April 1996; Vol. 276, c. 283.]

    The Home Secretary is making a terrible case for his measure—even worse than usual. Does he not concede that the former Prime Minister made it clear that that position was being adopted only in the context of Northern Ireland? [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman laughs. Will he not also concede that his Prime Minister, then Leader of the Opposition, said:

    "As I am sure that the Prime Minister"—
    my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major)—
    "would agree, the solution on the election process is certainly not ideal "?—[Official Report, 21 March 1996; Vol. 279, c. 499.]

    If the right hon. Gentleman had bothered to read the debate properly, he would know that one of the reasons why my right hon. Friend said it was that what was proposed was a combination of the single transferable vote and the closed list. We never objected to the closed-list system at that stage, and—this is more to the point, as it is they who are now objecting to it—neither did the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues.

    What the right hon. Member for Devizes said about the strength of the system as it applied to Northern Ireland must also apply to the rest of the United Kingdom. After all, it is the same system. As I said in the House last week, it is extraordinary that the Conservative party should now propose one of the most complicated of the alternatives—leaving aside its other defects—given that one of its many objections to the Jenkins proposal related to its complexity.

    If the right hon. Gentleman will not take advice from me, he might be wise to take advice from one or two of his noble Friends, particularly those who are standing for the European Parliament under the closed-list system. There was a fascinating letter in The Daily Telegraph today from Lord Bethell, who was MEP for London North-West until he lost his seat in 1994 under the old first-past-the-post system. He now stands as No. 3 on the Conservatives' closed list, and plainly hopes and expects to be elected. Having gone through a ritual congratulations to the Opposition in the Lords, he said—I quote directly from the letter:
    "I wonder, though, if the Conservatives want the elections to be fought on the fully 'open list' system. If so, they will run into problems. The open list offers a choice so wide as to be confusing, especially since hardly any of the several hundred candidates whose names will be put forward have any public profile. Ballot papers will carry 50 or more names. Hardly anyone will know of them. Voters will mark their crosses at random."—[Interruption.]

    Order. Some hon. Member has an electrical device that is sounding off in the Chamber. Madam Speaker takes an extremely strong line on these matters. Members must either ensure that they have properly switched them off, or leave them outside the Chamber.

    7.30 pm

    You are right, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to upbraid the Conservative who had failed to turn his pager off. The same thing happened on Second Reading of the Bill on 25 November last year.

    I will give way to the hon. Gentleman when I have finished reading Lord Bethell's excellent letter. Lord Bethell goes on with this sage advice to his party:

    "A change to the open list will also cause conflict between candidates of the same party, who will be competing as much against their colleagues as against their adversaries. One advantage of the closed list is that in London, for instance—where I hope to stand—all 10 of us Conservatives are in the same 'job lot'. A vote for one is a vote for us all."
    I would have thought that, these days, some mechanism that ensures some Conservative unity would be welcome to the Conservative party.

    My understanding is that Lord Bethell voted against the Government on the issue, but did the right hon. Gentleman see the article on the opposite page by Daniel Hannan, placed fourth in the list for the south-east? If he did not, I commend it to him.

    I did read Mr. Hannan's article. I have marked it up and have it here. By the way, although I have a high regard for Mr. Hannan, whom I know, he erred. He said:

    "In Britain, where democracy preceded parties".
    Tories often make the error of believing that the development of representative government that we had in this country over many centuries up to the end of the previous century was democracy; it was not. We did not get around to establishing a properly democratic franchise until this century, so Mr. Hannan, on that key point, is in error.

    Did the Home Secretary read Lord Bethell's speech of 12 November at columns 862 and 863? If so, he would have recognised that Lord Bethell was not just speaking against closed lists, but recommending a different system.

    The hon. Gentleman shows the degree of confusion in the ranks of the Tory party. I have read out what Lord Bethell wrote in The Daily Telegraph today. I assume that, like quite a number of other Conservatives, he now has a touch of the panics. He realises the considerable problems that will arise to the Conservative party if the leadership of his party and the Conservative Whips in the other place continue this process.

    I am listening carefully. I hope that we will not hear too much of Lord Bethell because, although he is a dear man, he once marched around a kibbutz and said solemnly to the young man in charge, "Wouldn't it be better run by private enterprise?" I have never had quite the same faith in his judgment since.

    None of us will vote for Lord Bethell, even if we are presented with the opportunity to do so, but his words speak for themselves. He makes the point that I have been making to Conservative Members for many months: to have a so-called open list with 50 or more names on the ballot papers, where hardly any of them—says a candidate who is pretty well known himself—is known, will lead to voters marking "their crosses at random".

    I am following the Home Secretary's observations with close interest. Is he aware that Lord Bethell, who is an estimable individual, is also a constituent of mine residing in Brill in the Buckingham constituency? Is he further aware that Lord Bethell is a lifelong opponent of centralism and deeply disapproves of the thoroughly undemocratic, Stalinist fashion in which the Labour party wishes to select its candidate for the European elections?

    My party is a lifelong opponent of centralism as well. We do not need any lectures about centralism from the Conservative party. Some of us remember when the Conservative party was in power, and the Stalinism of Conservative central office knew no bounds.

    Does the Home Secretary agree that, under the system that is proposed by the Conservatives in their amendment, the single biggest factor in whether Lord Bethell got elected was whether he was listed as Bethell, Lord or Lord Bethell?

    That is likely to be the case, but even though Lord Bethell has the advantage of being at the top of the alphabet, a problem from which I have suffered all my life, being near the bottom of the alphabet—look where it has got me—he is firmly against the so-called open list.

    The suggestion that the closed list is anathema to our British way of politics is synthetic nonsense. All of us were selected for closed lists—one party, one candidate. That is how it works. A Tory in Sutton Coldfield, a Liberal Democrat in Berwick-upon-Tweed and a Labour supporter in Blackburn have no choice whatever of party candidate. It is take it or leave it. It is no good saying that that is an inherent characteristic of single-member constituencies; it is not. It would be feasible to devise a system for single-member constituencies where each party had to offer two or three candidates, and the voter separately chose the winning candidate from the winning party. Is that what the Conservative party now wants for Westminster? That is the logic of its position.

    As to how the closed-list system works out in practice, although we believe—I have made this clear—that it has inherent advantages over any other variant, we do not suggest that this debate should be Parliament's last word on the subject. It was for that reason that, last week, I moved that there should be inserted in the Bill an amendment stating that a statutory review should be carried out into the new system.

    I think that that proposal had general approbation, but questions were raised about the review. One was as to who should conduct it. A second was as to whether the review could deal with the principle of closed lists, as well as their operation.

    On the first question, I undertake that there will be consultations with the Opposition parties about who should undertake the review. The amendment makes it clear that, formally, the appointment will be a matter for the Secretary of State, but I recognise that the review will be far better if there is agreement on who should undertake it.

    May I re-emphasise the issue that I raised last week on the review? Will there be a role for the Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly, because the lists for the European elections are separate? Will there be a determination to ensure that there are representatives of those bodies on that review?

    I understand the hon. Lady's concern. I undertake to consult her about that. We have not made decisions yet about how many people should conduct the review, but I accept her point that there should be a proper input from Scotland and Wales. I think that the review will have to take place in advance of the formal establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, but I take her point and I hope to meet it.

    On the second question, the amendment proposed last week spoke of the "operations" of the new system. I told the House that I took that to include the principle behind the system, but the new Government amendment makes that clear beyond doubt. Subsection (2) states:
    "The review shall consider, in particular, how the ability of electors to vote for particular persons on a party's list of candidates might affect the results of an election."

    Overwhelming though the arguments are on their merits against the open list, and in favour of the closed list, this issue has now gone beyond that. It is now about Lords versus Commons, about whether a Labour Government, elected just 18 months ago with one of the strongest popular mandates this century, should be blocked from meeting one of their promises to the electorate by a Conservative Opposition who suffered their greatest defeat this century. It is about whether democracy should be defeated by aristocracy—by the in-built majority of hereditary Conservative peers appointed to the other place not because of their own merit but because of the accident of their birth.

    I think that the public will find it extraordinary that, for a Conservative party seeking to modernise itself for the next century, Tory Whips in the other place are dragging out hereditary peers to stop the Government securing the clearest of manifesto commitments. For Lord Cranborne to argue—as he did yesterday—that we did not say exactly which list system we would use is to take sophistry to its extremes. It was highly probable that we would use a system used by most voters in the European Union—the closed-list system—and inherently improbable that we would fetch up with the Conservatives' strange alternative of last past the post. Moreover, I have no recollection of any Tory, at any stage during the general election campaign, ever raising the issue—perhaps because fresh in their minds was the memory that they had used the closed-list system in Northern Ireland.

    As long ago as 1791, in "The Rights of Man", Tom Paine said:
    "The idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges, as hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; as absurd as an hereditary Poet Laureate."

    There is no rule of politics or history stating that political parties are bound to survive, however distinguished may be their past—as is the Tory party's. Last Friday, the Adam Smith Institute and MORI published the results of a detailed survey of the attitudes of young voters—of the so-called "millennial generation"—who will reach the age of 21 around the turn of the century. The survey made dismal reading for the Conservative party. Only 12 per cent.—one in eight—of those questioned said that they would support the Conservative party.

    If Conservative Members want some explanation of the reason why they are regarded as irrelevant to Britain's future by so many of those who are Britain's future, they need look no further than the unedifying pantomime of their party's behaviour on the Bill, in which they seek to use an undemocratic and unelected institution that is locked in the 18th century to block the will of the elected House.

    As the Home Secretary said, this is the fourth time that we have debated the subject. I think that everyone who has listened to our previous debates will think that the Home Secretary's speech today is easily the weakest one on the subject that he has made so far. The most extraordinary claim he has made so far is that there are overwhelming arguments in favour of closed lists. The arguments are so overwhelming that he has failed to convince anyone except Ministers. He has certainly not convinced Labour Back Benchers, the press or the public, which is why he was so glad to move on to the party politics of Commons versus Lords, and to get off the substance of this debate.

    The Home Secretary seemed to suggest that there was some type of constitutional problem with the Bill. For the reasons that Lord Shore—who is not a Conservative—gave in the other place when he voted once more against the Government, I believe that that is an exaggerated claim. The point that the Home Secretary avoids is that, if there is a problem, the man who is responsible for the problem is the Home Secretary himself. He chose closed-list voting. He cannot shuffle that responsibility on to anyone else. It is because of his blunder and his mistake that we are debating the issue yet again.

    The Home Secretary also cannot claim that he was not warned of the consequences of going down the closed-list route. In the very first speech that he made on the Bill, 12 months ago, on Second Reading, he was challenged directly on closed lists. He was challenged not only by Conservative Members but by Labour Members. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said quite bluntly:
    "many of us will not be persuaded by the argument that closed party lists on a regional basis are the right horse for this course."
    The hon. Gentleman suggested that it would be appropriate to give the House a choice of proportional systems.

    Replying, the Home Secretary said:
    "Today we are implementing a manifesto commitment on which all Labour Members stood."—[Official Report, 25 November 1997; Vol. 301, c. 807.]
    However, the Home Secretary knew as well as we know that Labour Members did not have a manifesto commitment on the closed list. Although they had a commitment to proportional representation in the European election, that is not the issue in this debate.

    7.45 pm

    I make it clear yet again that Conservative Members would infinitely prefer a first-past-the-post system. Much of this prolonged debate has simply confirmed that belief—which I suspect is shared by my hon. Friends. However, that is not the issue in this debate. The Government have forced through the PR system and forced through regional lists. The only remaining issue is whether the public shall have the right to elect their Members of the European Parliament on a named candidate basis—on an open list—or be confined to voting for only one party on a closed list.

    Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether he accepts the principle that the closed-list system that the House is considering is identical to the systems used in Germany and France?

    Even if it were identical to the system used in Germany and France, I am not sure where that would take the argument.

    Where does that take the argument on democracy in the United Kingdom? If the hon. Gentleman wishes to argue that the system advances democracy, I very much hope that he will make a speech on the subject. I very much hope that he will make a speech on it also because we have not heard one Labour Back-Bench speech in favour of closed lists. We have not heard one serious speech by a Labour Back Bencher in favour of the system. Although I am not sure that a speech by the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin) could meet my definition of a serious one, I look forward to hearing one from him, if and when it comes.

    Yes. The right hon. Gentleman should refresh his memory about the debates on Second Reading. My hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden), for Stroud (Mr. Drew), for Wyre Forest (Mr. Lock) and for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) all supported the Bill as published, which included closed lists.

    I now understand why the Home Secretary is such a good lawyer. It is perfectly true that there were such arguments—I have read them—on Second Reading. It is true also that the Home Secretary won for the Bill a majority of votes on Second Reading. However, can he name one Labour Back Bencher who has spoken in favour of the Government's proposals on closed lists? I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman. The fact is that they all voted, but none of them spoke in favour of closed lists. The Home Secretary is squirming, and he knows that he is squirming. He should perhaps let the debate proceed.

    Everyone—regardless of party allegiance—agrees that the closed-list system gives power to the party. It must do that; that is what it is all about. Virtually everyone agrees that, under the system, the Member of the European Parliament will become responsible to the party and not to the public. The whole point of closed lists is to transfer power from the public to the party bosses. However, despite all the arguments, the Home Secretary has persisted in proposing a voting system that has been almost universally condemned in both Houses of Parliament.

    As I said, not one Back Bencher—not only in the House, but in the other place—has spoken in the debates of the past two or three weeks in favour of the closed-list system. Even last Thursday, when two or three Labour peers were at last rolled out to support the Government, they were at pains to distinguish their case from the argument on the closed list.

    Lord Barnett, in his first sentence in support of the Government, said:
    "I should make clear that I prefer the open list system."
    Lord Richard, also supporting the Government, tackled the problem in a slightly different way. He said:
    "I am not concerned about the issue of open lists and closed lists".
    Lord Evans who, in the previous debate, had been an abstaining rebel, this time voted with the Government, but ended his speech with the warning:
    "I shall continue to oppose closed lists. I shall take up, through my party's machinery, the absolute necessity of getting rid of the appalling methods we have used to select candidates."
    However, he added that that was a matter for future debates, as he sought to explain his change of mind. I watched the debate and was glad to observe from the response that the Lords can spot a bogus reason when they see one.

    The debates are positively littered with examples of Labour Members and Labour peers attacking the Government. In the debate to which I just referred—it is only the latest one—Lord Shore, who is not exactly a Conservative peer, said:
    "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".
    Lord Stoddart, who was provoked to speak by Lord Barnett, rather against the interests of Lord Barnett and those on the Government Front Bench, said that he had been accused of being a leading Eurosceptic, which he was, but that had nothing to do with his motives. He said:
    "Indeed, as a leading Euro-sceptic, it would suit me very well to support this legislation because it divides and separates even further the Euro MPs from the electorate … The fact of the matter is that I believe that this legislation is bad because it removes the link between the electorate and the elected."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 November 1998; Vol. 594, c. 851-61.]

    So far, the argument that the Home Secretary believes is overwhelming does not appear to be going altogether his way. Perhaps the press has been kinder to him. However, the leader in The Times on Saturday does not lead to that conclusion. It said:
    "The Government should not continue to defend the indefensible. There is almost no Member of either House of Parliament who has any sincere enthusiasm for closed lists. It is not enough to conduct a review of a rotten exercise after it has happened. This could only challenge the legitimacy of those who are elected. Mr. Straw should make the most of the unwanted opportunity that their Lordships have thrust upon him. He should drop this dubious proposal entirely."
    That is exactly what the Home Secretary should do. The system that the Home Secretary is proposing is basically without friends. We all know that.

    If the Home Secretary wants a constitutional issue, I suggest that he examine the speech made in the House on Tuesday last week by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek). In taking up the argument of another Labour Member, the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who also criticised the closed list and who I see is in his place, the hon. Gentleman said that his hon. Friend had
    "argued, with good grounds, that there is no majority in favour of the closed-list system in the parliamentary Labour party. Yet, he also argued that the Government would have a large majority tonight. I ask the House to think about that contradiction. If there is no majority in the Labour party, but the system is such that the Whips and the Patronage Secretary can dragoon members through the Lobby—and I admit that I will be dragooned when the time comes—what legitimacy does the elected Chamber have in comparison with the unelected Chamber whose Members may, by and large, vote according to their own judgment on the right course of action for the country?"—[Official Report, 10 November 1998; Vol. 319, c. 226.]
    That was a Labour Member speaking only a few days ago, and surely he asked the question that we should be asking.

    We are being asked to accept a voting system that next to no one wants, yet the Government are forcing it through against opinion in their own party, against that of the Conservative party and against the vote in the House of Lords. Let us not pretend that it is a great test of the democratic process. The issue is not the House of Lords carrying out its right and proper function, but Labour Whips forcing support for a voting system which the Labour party, left to its own devices, would reject.

    As for the Lords, it is certainly true that hereditary peers helped to vote down the Government amendment, but so did Labour peers like Lord Shore and Lord Stoddart and, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) pointed out, the vast majority of Cross Benchers. I am no more convinced now than I was before that the votes of some of the Labour placemen who have been put into the House of Lords are in some ways superior to those votes. The Home Secretary will find it very difficult to establish overwhelming support for the Government's proposals. Even a Liberal Democrat broke ranks last week. Up to now, the Liberal Democrats have exhibited what is, even for them, the most extraordinarily pathetic attitude to the issue. They have argued for the open list but voted for the closed list. That is not being cruel—it is simply a fact. To his great credit, Lord Russell this time voted against the Government. He ignored the threat that he would be sacked from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. As far as I know, he has not been sacked. Of course, it would have been terrible had it happened, but the Liberal Democrats can no more make up their mind about sacking a spokesman than they can about anything else. In any event, it exposes the terrible sham of the Liberal Democrats in opposition, and can be explained only by their new coalition with the Government.

    This is the third time that we have debated the amendment regarding the open list and the Government's opposition to it. The Government's latest amendment makes no concession and is not intended to do so. The Home Secretary does not expect us to be persuaded by a review which, by definition, will take place after the European elections. His arguments are increasingly unconvincing, and the most unconvincing of all is that which he uses about the closed-list system in the exceptional circumstances of Northern Ireland.

    I took the trouble to confirm the position in Northern Ireland with my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, the former Prime Minister. He confirms that when it was used for the election for a deliberative forum in Northern Ireland, it was to meet the special circumstances there, and was so explained. That was not what the Home Secretary said tonight.

    My point is confirmed by the statement made by my right hon. Friend the former Prime Minister on 21 March 1996. Speaking of the list system, he said that the solution was "not ideal". He used those words because the then Leader of the Opposition, now the Prime Minister, had began his questioning by saying:
    "As I am sure that the Prime Minister would agree, the solution on the election process is certainly not ideal".—[Official Report, 21 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 499.]
    Yet it is that "not ideal" voting system that we are now to have for the European election. How does the Prime Minister defend that? Apparently, he says that it is simpler. That shows a deeply patronising attitude to the British electorate. It is saying that it is all rather complex for the public, so the Government will help them or, in fact, decide for them.

    I am most unconvinced by the Home Secretary's analogy with the election of Members of Parliament to Westminster. There is a fundamental difference. I leave aside cases in which the public have rejected the candidate in spite of the party label or in which people have resigned the party label to challenge the party, sometimes successfully—for example, Dick Taverne. Most of us in this House regard our first duty as being to the public and to the people who elected us. Under the closed-list system, the representatives' first duty can easily become a duty to the party because it is the party that selected them. That is a fundamental difference.

    There is one straightforward issue in this debate. It is the difference between the closed list, under which the public vote not for a candidate but for a party, and the open list, under which the public may choose a named candidate who will represent them. That is the choice we face.

    The Home Secretary attacks the House of Lords and the role of a second chamber. He is as unconvincing in those attacks as he is in all his other arguments. He avoids the real criticism that the argument against the system that he has proposed is that it is basically anti-democratic. He cannot raise a flag proclaiming "power to the people" when the system that he proposes will give power to the parties. However, he seeks to do just that.

    No, I will not. I am just finishing. [HON. MEMBERS: "Go on."] Well, I will if they wish it.

    I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. At the start of his speech, he said that he infinitely preferred the first-past-the-post system. Does he accept that if he succeeds in retaining that system for the European elections, there will in fact be a closed list for each individual European constituency?

    8 pm

    That shows the value of giving way to the hon. Gentleman. I shall learn from that for the future. The hon. Gentleman is a bit slow on the uptake so I shall take him back a little. We are not debating the first-past-the-post system.

    Oh no we are not. I shall not be rude to the right hon. Gentleman, but he is mistaken. I could put it more strongly than that.

    We are debating what kind of voting system will be used under the type of proportional system that the Government are forcing through. Will we have an open-list system, or a closed-list system? I find the attitude of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) extraordinary, hypocritical and baffling in every way. He argues for an open-list system, but he will vote tonight for a closed-list system. That is the hypocrisy of the Liberal Democrats.

    The Home Secretary's proposals take power from the electorate, and give power to the party bosses. That is our fundamental criticism of his system. It takes power from local people, and transfers power to the centre. It is no surprise that the Home Secretary's proposals have been almost universally condemned as there is no serious justification for them. For those reasons, the House should reject the Home Secretary's latest amendments.

    I have not participated previously in debates on this matter. I have abstained until now, and I have not voted for the Bill as I think it a very bad Bill. I hope that I can be acquitted of having any sympathy for the House of Lords. To be invited to disagree with the Lords on any matter is to be tempted to do so, but the arguments against the closed-list system are absolutely overwhelming. Indeed, those arguments are the same as the arguments against the House of Lords itself for its Members all got in on a closed list. The Prime Minister draws up a little closed list, and he puts all its members into the House of Lords. If we get rid of the hereditary peers, which I would welcome, we shall have nothing but a closed list in the Lords. They will all be the Prime Minister's friends. My objection to the Bill is, therefore, the same as my objection to the House of Lords.

    Is there a mandate for the Bill? No one came up to me during the general election campaign to say, "Tony, we will vote Labour only if you promise that we cannot vote for an individual candidate in the European elections." No one said any such thing, and I did not know that that was the policy. I have dealt with many Members of the European Parliament who are conscientious, who work with local Members of Parliament and who become known over a period in their constituencies, although that task is difficult as they cover nine parliamentary constituencies. They go to Brussels and Strasbourg to take up local cases, and they are as conscious of their constituency link as we are. I have reservations about the European Union, but that is another matter. If we must have an EU, and a European Parliament, the best way in which to elect that Parliament is to do it in the way that we do here. People are elected to speak for their constituents, and their constituents can, in the end, dispose of them.

    The House will forgive me for quoting five democratic questions that I have developed during my life. If one meets a powerful person—Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler—one can ask five questions: what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system. I am alarmed that any party should seek to impose candidates.

    I served for 34 years on the national executive of the Labour party, and I was often responsible for decisions when contested parliamentary selection conferences came up. The rule that we followed was simple. If the procedure adopted to select a candidate was correct, the national executive always endorsed that candidate.

    Yes. That was the principle involved. Liberals refer to closed lists under the first-past-the-post system, but the lists are not closed when the constituencies choose the candidates. Candidates are chosen by a selection process within their constituencies. The party should do no more than indicate whether it accepts that that is a valid principle on which to operate.

    If we get away from that principle, MEPs will always look to the party leader, not to their constituents. There is a difference between being employed by one person and being employed by everyone. During last week's debate on proportional representation, I drew attention to the fact that we are employed by our constituents, and not by our parties. The idea that Members of Parliament or MEPs are simply local managers for the national party is absolutely contrary to everything for which people fought over many centuries as they argued for representative government.

    The Liberal Democrat view puzzles me. That party has always been a great public advocate of being free from party hacks. I know why the Liberal Democrats are accepting the Bill; they have been given a job. I can see members of a Cabinet Committee as I look across the Floor of the House. Part of the deal is that they should go along with the Government, and they will be given a bit of useful work. That is what the whole thing is about, and everyone knows it. No traditional Liberal would look twice at the Bill. Of course, when the Liberal Democrat party was set up, there was a split, and a real Liberal party still exists, which keeps writing to me.

    It may be small, but the Liberal Democrat party has had that problem itself on occasion. Better to be small and right, the Liberal party might argue, and I take that view myself.

    I believe that the Bill is a test run for parliamentary elections. New Labour—a completely new party, as the Prime Minister has regularly reminded us—has a plan. The new system will be tested in Europe, and applied to the House of Commons. We shall all be worried then, not only about our Whips, but about the leaders of our parties and about our national executive, rather than about our constituents. That would destroy democracy.

    One distinct effect would be a much lower turnout. Funnily enough, candidates of all parties become known and quite well liked in their constituencies; they would not be elected otherwise. Parties are not particularly popular. If I go round in the European election campaign and tell people to vote Labour, they may say that they rather like so-and-so. I will have to tell them that they cannot vote for him or her, and must vote Labour. That could well lead to a much lower turnout. A lower turnout undermines the legitimacy of the election process. In a way, I might welcome it if no one voted in the European elections. Part of me might say that that would be an early run of the referendum on the single currency. However, I do not believe in not voting. People should vote.

    A further effect will he that Labour will lose a lot of seats. Everyone knows that the closed-list system will give us fewer MEPs than last time.

    The right hon. Gentleman is nodding in such a friendly way because he knows that that will happen. We are selling out the party that won the election to other people under a system that has never been specifically endorsed by the electorate.

    The right hon. Gentleman stood on a Labour manifesto that specified that there would be a system of regional proportional election for the European Parliament. Does he recognise that low turnouts have occurred in previous European elections—particularly the record low turnouts of by-elections—and that the first-past-the-post system simply does not give a fair representation of the votes that are cast?

    That is a general argument about proportional representation. The idea that every Liberal voter is a Liberal is wrong. To take a case from my constituency, a leading Liberal councillor voted for me because he did not like the Liberal candidate. I rather agreed with him. The Liberals went around the constituency saying that the only way to beat me was to vote Liberal, so the Tories voted Liberal. To give another example against myself, a man told me after the general election that he had joined the Labour party on polling day. I said, "Fine. Who did you vote for?" He said, "I voted for the Liberals.". The idea that every voter is seeking proportionality is wrong. Every voter is seeking to be represented. The choice may well be a tactical one. I do not have to tell the Liberals that. They have been saying, "Vote tactically", for years, to keep the Tories or Labour out. Occasionally, they have argued their own case as well, although that has never been very successful in the final outcome. I have heard Liberals make the Liberal case; when they make it, I have always found it attractive and historically interesting.

    The Home Secretary is in a jam with the House of Lords; they are for the chop, so they have nothing to lose. I was disappointed that we did not abolish the Lords last year in the first Queen's Speech. If we had, we would never have had the problem at all. If the Government had had the guts to deal with the Lords straight away, we could have had an election for the House of Lords by last Christmas and an election of any sort we liked in the European elections. The Government cannot do anything about it.

    It does not please me that the Lords are likely to win. I sat through the age of consent debate when the Home Secretary pleaded with the House not to lose the Bill by insisting on an age of consent at 16. He argued that we must face reality. I thought that that was what new Labour was all about. The reality is that if the Lords vote the Bill down next time, we will be back to the old first-past-the-post system. All the lists will be scrapped. God knows what will happen in party headquarters when it is discovered that people can vote for the candidates that they like again. It will cause panic in Millbank tower and perhaps in the Liberal headquarters as well. There is no power for the Government to enforce their will on the Lords because they did not tackle the Lords early enough.

    For all those reasons—I know that they are complex—I base myself on the simple principle that democracy will be destroyed if people cannot vote for and remove candidates, and if candidates are simply instruments of whatever may be a party's majorities and machinations when an election comes.

    Parties change. I have known parties change from left to right. The Liberal party dissolved itself into the Liberal Democrats; it disappeared. It was one of the most remarkable acts of all time. The Liberals joined up with David Owen, who then voted Tory, and produced a new party. The only person the electors can rely on is the candidate whom they have heard, argued with, listened to, voted for and can vote out. Give that up, and we not only wreck the European elections, but begin to undermine the basis on which this House comes to debate issues and ultimately to decide them.

    We are grateful to the Conservatives for allowing us such a long and detailed constitutional debate on electoral reform by bringing this measure back to the House so often. It allows us to discuss a subject dear to our hearts that has not often figured in the House until recently.

    It is a particular pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who is now an ardent voice in this place for the rump Liberal party. I have sympathy with much of his argument, except that I believe that it advanced a romantic view of the world. The world is not like that these days. For every instance of a person judging between candidates, there are far more of people having to vote for the closed list of one, the single party candidate with whom they are presented. People have to vote for a candidate against their judgment of him because they want to vote for Tony Blair or Paddy Ashdown as Prime Minister.

    Sympathy for the arguments of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield leads my party to back the single transferable vote system as our preferred option. The amendment neither meets the Conservatives' wishes nor ours. Our preferred system is used in Northern Ireland in many elections. We accepted the Government's system for these elections with some reluctance; it is not our choice.

    We have two fundamental objectives. First, we want to achieve greater proportionality. We believe that one of the best ways to get people to turn out and vote is the knowledge that their votes will matter. To date, Conservative votes in Sheffield have meant nothing in the European elections. We hope that those Conservatives will now vote because they have a chance. The same logic applies up and down the country where votes in the European elections will count whether we have closed or open lists.

    The second objective is to increase voter choice. We believe that STV is the best way of doing that. If the right hon. Members for Chesterfield and for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) were standing in the same constituency on a list, voters who wanted to support Labour could vote Labour and number them one and two, according to their shade of opinion in the party. That is our preferred option but it is not on the table.

    We have accepted with some reluctance that the system should go forward as it is. Having accepted that, and having argued in Committee for the option that we thought sensible—the Belgian list system—and lost it, we are led to the point that with only a few days of parliamentary time left, we believe that our key objective of achieving fairer representation means that we cannot make further progress on voter choice without risking the Bill running into the buffers. That is the basis on which we have decided to vote.

    The hon. Gentleman does not like the choice and would prefer something not on the menu. The Liberals must choose between the two choices on offer, a closed list or an open list. Irrespective of the argument for rushing the measure through, which alternative would the Liberals prefer in the abstract?

    8.15 pm

    I know that the hon. Gentleman is sympathetic to fairer voting systems. In the abstract, we would prefer open lists. I have stated that repeatedly. I have no problem with that but I have one with being drawn into an issue, despite the seductive offers of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), by the idea that because we oppose the Government on this, my enemy's enemy is automatically my friend. In this case my enemy's enemy has an open preference for first past the post. We have to judge whether co-operation furthers our cause of fairer votes or would aid a measure designed to spoil the outcome of the Bill. We have made that judgment and acted accordingly throughout. Three main issues have emerged in our lengthy debates. First, the main problems discussed have nothing to do with the principle of whether lists are closed or open but concern the Labour party's selection methods. Many of the quotes in the press and in debates in both Houses—Welsh Members in particular have attended because they have some little local difficulties—have been about how Labour selected its candidates for the European elections.

    Is that not a legitimate concern? That is how the law will operate, and it is perfectly proper to complain about it. If the law allows such operation, it should not be the law.

    The hon. Gentleman makes a case to which I was going to come about how the law is moving forward in respect of selection for lists. The important thing is that but for the problem in the Labour party selection system, we might not have been debating the matter now. If all three parties had had an open selection process based on all their members voting, we might not have been here now because we would all have accepted the system.

    The problem is not a fault of the closed-list system per se. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield feared that this is the way that things are going in the Labour party. I suspect that it already is. With any of the systems that we have discussed, a party could impose candidates from the centre. Labour's national executive committee could, if members were foolish enough to allow it the power, impose candidates in every Westminster seat. Candidates would be presented as a closed list of one. It is not the closed list that causes the problem but how parties decide to select their candidates.

    Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the remedy for the Labour party's method of selecting candidates is through an open list? That follows from his point about voter choice by giving voters the option of choosing between candidates presented by a party list.

    My second point relates to the specifics of the open list as proposed by the Conservatives and will serve to answer the hon. Gentleman by suggesting that the Finnish system is not the best.

    Reference has been made to Lord Bethell, who is himself a candidate. He pointed out not only the specific difficulties of the semi-random or arbitrary nature of the way in which the proposed system would operate, but the practical difficulties in respect of next June's elections if we to make a sudden change. It is quite clear that there would be problems with the Finnish system. My party has a perfect slate of candidates and those at the bottom of the list are just as good as those at the top. Although we would be happy for any of them to be elected, that may not always apply to every list in every region. Given the possibility of a random selection of MEPs on the list being elected, some parties might wish to revisit the list and check who was on it.

    I refer the hon. Gentleman to his own party's selection procedure. Is it not the case that the Liberal Democrats use the zipper system which gives undue preference to the smaller number of female candidates who wish to stand as Liberal Democrat MEPs?

    The hon. Gentleman is straying into a matter of some detail. However, he raises an example of where the open-list system would remove the democratic decision that we made as a party. One of our priorities is to have decent representation of women. The party voted for that and in that sense we are ashamed of our representation here. We wish women to be better represented and we are prepared to take steps to ensure that. That is a perfectly sensible choice given that the party voted for it.

    If all the Liberal candidates next year are as good as each other, why cannot the electors choose who they want? Is not that the issue? If the hon. Gentleman favours the open list, why will he go into the Lobby tonight and vote for the closed list? If he voted for the open list the matter would go back to the Lords with the Lords' view prevailing.

    While I believe that any of our candidates would be equally good, the members of my party have decided on a particular order. As they had made a democratic decision, they would wish to revisit it, as would the members of any party, once the system had been changed.

    Is not the hon. Gentleman elucidating exactly what is wrong with the system? In Germany, which has already been mentioned, the bizarre situation can arise whereby someone who is thrown out by the electorate can be put back onto the list system. That is quite ridiculous.

    I would respectfully suggest that the hon. Lady is referring to a completely different system—the German additional-Member system.

    To return to the system that we are debating, if we were to proceed with the Conservative proposal, the tacticians within every party would advise withdrawing all candidates except those likely to win. The parties would wish to put forward a slate of candidates that, in our case, had been democratically selected. As Lord Bethell quite rightly said, no party would favour putting forward a random list of 10 or 11 candidates in the south-east.

    I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving way to me again. He keeps talking about a random list. Does he not recognise that the Bill—with the Lords amendment to proposed section 3(5)—would make it perfectly possible for a party to present a list in the order of its own choice, but the voters, by their preferences, could choose to change it?

    The voters would still be left with the option of simply voting for individual candidates, without the Belgian option of voting for the party's choice.

    My third point is that everyone who has spoken so far, including the Home Secretary and Opposition Back Benchers, has highlighted the problem of first past the post being a closed-list system of one and expressed the wish to enhance voter choice—and we agree. However, the first-past-the-post system, which we believe is the alternative if we are unable to resolve our dispute tonight, would represent a significant step backwards. I hope that the fundamental point made by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield about transferring power from the people to the party is an indication that he now supports some form of single transferable vote.

    As the right hon. Gentleman knows, under the current system we all owe our presentation to the electorate to our selection by a small group of party members. We do not have a primary system and the voters in our constituencies do not get to choose the candidates for each party. We are often selected by an odd group of party members in a village hall somewhere—I think particularly of the Conservatives when I say that. Once we have been selected, we know that we are the party candidates in a closed list of one.

    It really is nonsense for people to keep talking about a closed list of one. There is no such thing. Closed lists are the opposite of open lists. We cannot have an open list of one, therefore we cannot have a closed list of one.

    The arguments that are often put forward by Conservative Members suggest that they are moving towards proposing some form of primary, which would effectively be an open-list system of one because a primary system establishes the number one candidate for a party. Their arguments against the current system relate to what happens to those at the bottom of the list, who are in the same position as those who come second or third in a selection battle for a Westminster seat—they are simply unlikely to win.

    We believe that the MEP candidates who have been selected by the Opposition parties at least have the endorsement of thousands of their local party members. We should like to extend voter choice and revisit the issue in the review that the Home Secretary has promised. We welcome that review as it will provide an opportunity to argue again in favour of the single transferable vote, which is our first choice of voting system. We do not believe that this is the right time to oppose the Bill or join those who, at this late stage, seek to amend it when, at the appropriate stage, they declined to vote with our Peers in another place for the amendment that would have introduced the far more sensible Belgian open-list system.

    Listening to tonight's debate, one word springs to mind; it is not principle or opposition, but opportunism. The Conservative party has always believed in the closed-list system and only last week told the House of its total faith in the first-past-the-post system. With due respect to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), the latter is a closed-list system because if one wanted to elect a Conservative candidate to Parliament, but had the misfortune to live in Sutton Coldfield, one would have no alternative but to vote for the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler). There is no choice of candidate—only of party.

    I would be intrigued to hear from Opposition Members whether they would really support an open-list system for the European elections when the likes of Mr. Paul Sykes might provide millions of pounds to campaign in favour of voting solely for eurosceptic candidates. That would wreak complete havoc in those elections. I leave them to dwell on that point. However, I will not deny the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield the opportunity of hearing yet another Back Bencher acknowledge that there are some advantages to an open-list system, provided that it allowed people to tick either the party box or the candidate box—which would not be a truly open system, but a Belgian system—and provided that the voters had the possibility of knowing something about the candidates, which is the case in respect of all those standing in European elections.

    Nevertheless, as a Back Bencher, I will give the right hon. Gentleman the rationale for why closed-list systems should sometimes be preferred—there needs to be a separation of power. Parties select candidates and voters elect them. The more say the voters have about the choice of candidates, the less influence they have on the result of the election.

    Let me give two simple examples of countries that allow voters to have some say, not only in the election of parties, but in the selection of candidates. The Irish voting system uses the single transferable vote, which allows voters to pick between candidates of Fianna Fail or of Fine Gael and between parties. It has resulted in there being no clear ideological distinction between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, and sometimes between them and the Irish Labour party. That is the result of giving voters the luxury of choosing candidates, which detracts from their power in the choice of parties.

    8.30 pm

    The second example is that of the United States, which uses the first-past-the-post system, which should meet with the Conservatives' approval. However, it also makes use of primaries, in which voters are able to exercise a choice in the selection of candidates from their own party, and sometimes those of other parties as well—we have all heard of Republican raids on Democratic primaries. What is the result of that system, which allows the voter two bites of cherry, first in the choice of candidate and then in the choice of party? It is that there is no clear difference between the parties; as any textbook will say, there is a huge ideological overlap between Democrats and Republicans. The reason is that, in the desire to give voters more choice, the US system has given them so much choice that it confuses the choice of candidate with the choice of party.

    That is the rationale for arguing that open lists can sometimes be self-defeating. They cannot give the voter more choice overall: voter choice is concentrated either on the choice between parties, or on the choice between candidates; and any system that tries to do both confuses the issue.

    Is there a single Member of Parliament for any party who stood for election last year on the basis of a closed-list system for Europe?

    I admire the chutzpah of the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends, who are all totally opposed to any change in the voting system and totally in favour of first past the post, which is a closed-list system. They probably had not even heard of open and closed lists until a few weeks ago, but suddenly they are the world's greatest advocates of open lists. Some of them do not even understand what open lists are—witness the fact that they so often confuse the issue of open or closed lists with that of how candidates are chosen.

    That is the other side of the coin regarding the rationale for closed lists. If one has closed lists, one must have the candidates clearly selected and ranked by the political parties. That must be done on the basis of one member, one vote.

    I am somewhat confused by my hon. Friend's argument. Like me, he is a supporter of proportional representation, so I cannot understand why he is arguing that the electorate are not intellectually up to the level of decision making exercised by the parties in choosing the lists.

    As I explained, I acknowledge the arguments in favour of the sort of open lists that were discussed earlier. I am, however, explaining the rationale for closed lists: if people are allowed to choose between candidates, the inevitable effect is to fudge the basic issue of the choice between the parties. I am simply making the point in principle that one cannot give people the choice offered by open lists without detracting from their choice between parties.

    As I said, the corollary of that must be that the parties choose their candidates in a democratic way. The issue is quite separate from that of open lists, but the Labour party, which has been mentioned several times, uses panels to rank candidates. That process was described by the general secretary of the party as a transitional system for one election only and I shall be glad to hold him to his word.

    There is a specific difficulty facing each of the parties in the coming election: for example, the system offers the Labour party more seats in the south-west, but fewer in the north-west. There was a temptation to manage the transition so that we did not end up with too many of our people representing seats in the north-west and too few in the south-west.

    I do not understand the logic of my hon. Friend's argument, or why we need to move Glyn Ford from Manchester to No. 1 on the list for south-west England. I do not perceive the logic in that. The answer to the problem is to allow party members in each region to state their preferences by way of one person, one vote. Will my hon. Friend defend what has happened in Wales, where the person who is third on the list did not receive one vote in Wales? Can he explain why Alec Smith in Scotland, Mike McGowan in Leeds and Christine Oddy—

    Order. I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to go on for so long.

    My hon. Friend anticipates my point. I was arguing against a system whereby a party took upon itself the job of managing the transition. Glyn Ford, who represents a seat in the north-west in the European Parliament, actually comes from Stroud, so it would not have been at all difficult for him to win the selection that he has got—that of No. 1 on the list in the south-west—under a system that allowed the party members to choose democratically. It could have been done democratically, instead of being managed by the party.

    I have always said that it is a mistake for parties to get involved in managing the transition. That is nothing new-I told the national executive of my views when it asked for them, and I wrote publicly on the matter at the time. I shall continue to argue that case, but the issue involved is entirely different from that of open and closed lists.

    We now know the birthplace of Glyn Ford and how that justifies his going to the south-west. Can my hon. Friend now tell me the birthplace of the person who is No. 3 on the list in Wales?

    I am arguing on the same side as my hon. Friend—in favour of a democratic decision on the selection and ranking of candidates. However, the issue of open and closed lists is quite separate. All the discussion about control freaks, centralisation and party bosses is totally irrelevant to the issue of whether we have open or closed lists.

    One of the better aspects of the report of the independent commission on the voting system is that it advocates voting on open lists, but within counties and smaller units. The level at which open lists will work worst is in large regions, where the possibility of voters being familiar with the characteristics and politics of each of the candidates on a long list of up to eleven people is remote.

    Take an individual candidate—Michael Elliott for London, who has been a Member of the European Parliament for 14 years and who has been put at the bottom of the list. Despite the fact that, in three European elections, the people of his constituency have chosen him to be their MEP, the party machine has put him down to the point where, unless everybody votes Labour, he will not get back. What is the justification for that?

    My right hon. Friend has mistaken my argument. We are entirely as one on that issue. During the consultation period, I wrote to the NEC to say that the question should be decided by OMOV. What is more, I would chance the view that the members of London voting in a one member, one vote ballot would have resulted in much the same listing as was obtained through the panel. The point is that it should be done in a democratic way. I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend on that point. I am simply trying to make it clear that the issue of how parties select their candidates is totally different from the issue of open or closed lists. Germany, France, Greece, Spain and Portugal use closed lists because they recognise that in European elections, when electoral regions are largest, the open-list system works least well.

    I ask the House to see the issues in perspective. We are about to pass a Bill that will bring about a huge change in our voting system and hugely increase the choice for voters. It will mean that Labour voters in Surrey and Conservative voters in Glasgow will, for the first time, have some chance of having a representative of their own party in the European Parliament. It will enfranchise millions of people in this country.

    Has the hon. Gentleman not given the lie to his whole argument by saying that the voter will have, not his representative, but the representative of his party in the European Parliament?

    8.45 pm

    It is about time that hon. Members had the humility to recognise that when the good denizens of New Forest, West put their cross against the hon. Gentleman's name, nine out of 10 are not expressing their personal admiration for him. I am sorry to have to tell him that they are probably expressing a preference for the Conservative party. Although, as I have said repeatedly, it is good if a system allows the voters to have some influence on candidates as well as parties, we must start from a clear understanding that nine out of 10 voters, or probably 99 out of 100, are making a choice between parties and Governments, not between individuals.

    Although the issue of whether we have semi-open or closed lists in European elections is important and worth debating, and I have opinions on it, by comparison with the thrust of the Bill it is a tiny issue. This is the Opposition's attempt to stir up the mud to cloud the overall issue.

    The parties have 300 candidates in place. The Bill went through the House of Commons last time by a majority of 307 to 125. The system is already used by the major countries in Europe, including Germany, France and Spain. To take opposition any further will merely expose the Conservative party's opportunism. At any time in the past 100 years the Conservatives could have proposed multi-member lists in first-past-the-post elections.

    My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire said that such a system cannot be applied to first past the post. Of course it can. We could easily have more than one candidate standing in the first-past-the-post system and allow the voter to choose between candidates of the same party. We prefer not to do so because it might split the vote, as Conservative Members know full well and they would not risk that. Technically, however, it is perfectly possible. In the past 100 years, the Conservatives have never expressed any interest in or support for open lists.

    I have been following the hon. Gentleman's argument with interest but also with difficulty because he appears to be riding the fence, and that can be very painful. As one of those Members who perhaps falls into the 10 per cent. that he referred to in response to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), can I ask him whether he is trying to enfranchise the people of this country or the political parties and establishment?

    It is well known that even Mr. Brian Redhead voted across the party divide for the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) because of his admiration for the hon. Gentleman's constituency work. It is sad to say, however, that even allowing for the fact that many people in Macclesfield no doubt admire the hon. Gentleman's work for the local hospital and so on, most of them vote for him because he represents the Conservative party. His Front-Bench colleagues may not agree.

    It might be better if the name of the hon. Member for Macclesfield were not printed on the ballot paper. The logical conclusion of my hon. Friend's argument is that we print only party names, not those of candidates, and we pick the candidates afterwards. [Interruption.]

    Order. There is far too much background noise in the Chamber. The hon. Gentleman who is speaking should be heard properly.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) knows that it is a dilemma of every electoral system that although we put forward candidates, most people are choosing parties and Governments. Of course it is important to keep the safety valve of having candidates as well as parties, which gives the people the possibility to choose one without the other. However, we must face the fact that under our existing system of first past the post, people must go to extraordinary lengths to remove Members such as the hon. Member for Macclesfield—not that they would want to do so—or the hon. Member for New Forest, West. There would have to be a revolution in the New Forest before so many people swung away from the Conservative party that New Forest, West went Labour. I look forward to that very much but it is unlikely to happen.

    Semi-open lists, which we are offered by the Opposition, would make very little difference. The Under-Secretary will correct me if I am wrong, but in all the time that such lists have been used in Belgium, there has been only one known instance of a candidate in a lower position being moved up by the votes that he or she received on the open list to be elected when that person would not otherwise have been elected. There may have been two cases at the very most. The issue is a dot and comma in the electoral system that we are discussing. The House should remember that compared with the issue of whether the Bill is passed, the newly discovered question of open and closed lists, which the Opposition are still trying to get used to, is tiny and should be put in perspective.

    It is customary to respond to the preceding speech, but I found the speech of the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) so confusing and internally contradictory that I do not intend even to try to respond to it.

    As this bad Bill has shuttle-cocked between the two Chambers, the same old lags on the Labour Front Bench have made the same old tired and specious arguments. Government supporters have been laggardly in coming forward and supporting what the Government are trying to do. Even the Home Secretary today made a speech that was designed to fill a space rather than make a difference. He repeated the same old canard that the Bill's defeat in the Lords was the fault of those wicked Conservative hereditary peers.

    The hon. Gentleman may learn something if he listens. He seems to forget that 38 of the 53 Cross-Bench peers—I have a list here and I have counted—who voted in a Division on 12 November voted against the Government. More than 70 per cent. of those peers who owe no party allegiance voted against a Government measure because the principle was wrong.

    Will the hon. Gentleman accept that in all the three votes on this issue in the other place, the Conservative party's victory—if that is what it is—has occurred because of the votes of hereditary peers?

    The critical point is how those who owe no party allegiance vote, and it is absolutely clear that on 12 November over 70 per cent. of them failed to support Labour's proposals. Indeed, on that date not one Labour or Liberal Back-Bench peer spoke in favour of the Government's measures, just as on 10 November not one Labour Back Bencher made a speech supporting the Government's proposals.

    Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether the measure would have been passed in the other place if the hereditary peers had been discounted?

    That is not the critical point. We must consider how those who owe no party allegiance vote, because that is probably the best way of judging the merits of an argument.

    I recall that the situation was the same with the poll tax, but I do not remember Conservative Ministers coming to the House and saying, "We are dropping this measure because we have counted the Cross-Bench peers and more of them voted against it than voted for it."

    The right hon. Gentleman should deal with this specific measure, on which his party does not have a very honourable position to defend.

    Perhaps I should point out that, if the then Conservative Government had had the common sense to abandon the poll tax because of the result that they achieved in the House of Lords, they might not have got into nearly so much trouble.

    I thank the hon. Lady for her assistance in supporting my arguments.

    It is quite surprising that not one Back-Bench Labour peer or Labour Member in this place has spoken in support of the Government's proposals. It is even more surprising bearing in mind the subservient nature of Labour Back-Bench questions and how Tone's clones have been parachuted into the House of peers—not because they have any merit but because they are friends of the Prime Minister. Even they were not prepared to support the Bill. I suspect that that is because this debate is not about closed lists versus open lists—although I believe that open lists are far superior and more democratic.

    I believe that not one Labour Back-Bench Member of Parliament or Labour Back-Bench peer is prepared to support this measure because of the way the Labour party intends to operate closed lists. That is the real reason and that is what has really stuck in their craw.

    It is worth reminding the House of the speech made by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) on 10 November. He said:
    "I took part in a vote, with many fellow members of the north Wales Labour party, for those whom we thought should be on the list for the Welsh constituency of five members. We voted for our sitting candidate, Mr. Wilson, by, I think, about 98 per cent, yet, at the last stage, after the matter went into Millbank tower, where heaven knows what happens, a candidate from across the border in England appears on our list in Wales in third position".
    The hon. Gentleman continued:
    "he came from outside the area and we in Wales had no knowledge that he was interested in being on the list in Wales and he was not considered as one of those in contention for a place on the list by the Labour party members in north Wales. Yet there he is in third position and the candidate for whom 98 per cent. of Labour members in north Wales voted is in fourth position—an unlikely winning position for the Labour party in the elections.
    That cannot be right."—[Official Report, 10 November 1998; Vol. 319, c. 228.]

    Order. Hansard is available to every hon. Member, so the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) does not need to read an extract from it verbatim. The hon. Gentleman has made his point and perhaps he should now move on.

    I thank you for your help, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Wrexham—a Labour Member and a former shadow Minister—was making the point that this system cannot be right because it is not open and it is undemocratic.

    I think that even the Home Secretary is seized of that argument. I believe that, if the Labour party had chosen the system that we favour, whereby the party membership selects, openly and democratically, both those who should be on the list and the order in which they should appear, we would not have seen this Bill return from the Lords again. However, the Labour party has not done that. Its operation of the closed list is so undemocratic that I consider it an affront to democracy.

    Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in the south-east—where my constituency of Hove is located—our Member of the European Parliament, Mr. Brendan Donnelly, has been de-selected by his own party not because of any democratic views but because of his views and those of the Leader of the Opposition regarding the single currency?

    I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's assistance, but he has got it totally wrong. Mr. Donnelly was not selected by the party members who attended a selection conference. The hon. Member for Wrexham made the point that the candidate in north Wales who received 98 per cent. of the votes was placed in such a low position on the list by the party executive at Millbank that he had no chance of getting elected. That is wrong.

    My constituency adjoins that of the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin), and I know that almost 2,000 members of the regional Conservative party voted to put that MEP in that position on the list. Does my hon. Friend know how many members of the Labour party in the south-east region had an opportunity to select the candidates that will appear on the ballot paper representing the Labour party?

    I have not been to Millbank tower, so I do not know whether it is one, two or three apparatchiks. However, I presume that the Prime Minister will decide what the party gets.

    I was interested to listen to the Home Secretary's speech tonight, which was surprisingly half-hearted. It was slightly jokey—as most of his speeches are—but it was extraordinarily shallow. I believe that the Home Secretary's heart is no longer in this Bill. His amendments to the Bill are so banal that he must recognise that he has no chance of placating the Lords. I suspect that, after consulting his friends in the parliamentary Labour party, he has concluded that closed lists are undemocratic. He has never been a particular supporter of proportional representation, but he now recognises that this is an opportunity to double-cross the Liberal Democrats. He will not only double-cross the Liberal Democrats by ensuring that we do not get PR for European elections but he will ensure that we do not get closed lists, which his parliamentary party does not want. He will then blame—

    Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman is associating the Prime Minister with a double cross. I hope that he is not suggesting that a Member of this place would do anything underhand.

    I am glad to clarify my comments. First, I was referring to the Home Secretary and, secondly, I did not say that he was double crossing anyone. I suggested that he had the opportunity to double-cross the Liberal Democrats—there is a difference.

    The hon. Gentleman should make himself clear. I hope that he is not suggesting that any Member of the House would do anything underhand. If he says that he is not trying to do that, I am happy to let him continue.

    Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Of course I would not even suggest that the Home Secretary would attempt to double-cross any other person or do anything underhand. I am saying that this is a way of getting at the Liberal party. This is a way of preventing PR. This is a way of getting rid of closed-list systems, which he knows that Labour Back Benchers do not like. As he has shown, he is in a position to blame the change of direction on hereditary peers, however erroneously ascribed that blame is.

    We know for certain, however, that the way in which the Labour party intends to operate the Bill, if passed, is an affront to democracy. It will allow the Labour party—the Labour party machine—to determine who is elected; and the responsibility of those who are selected and, consequently, elected will be, not to the electorate, but to the Labour party machine.

    I must be a bit naive. Surely the hon. Gentleman understands that, if he succeeds and the Bill fails, first, more Labour MPs will be elected than under the present system, and secondly, it will be open to the central machinery of the Labour party, through the selection panel system, to ensure that only those that it wants are elected. Therefore, the results that he fears will happen in much larger measure if he succeeds in killing the Bill.

    That casts some light on why the Liberal party, having said that it wants open lists, now says that it wants closed lists, but the right hon. Gentleman has got it wrong. I believe that, as the people realise how much contempt for democracy is revealed by the things that the Government are trying to do, they will demand of the Labour party more honest, more open selection and election procedures.

    9 pm

    The Bill may have a quixotic result. I believe that it has emboldened the House of Lords and enhanced its legitimacy. The Bill has shown the need for an independent second chamber. I believe that it will make the Government's life more difficult, and I am delighted with that.

    I have previously abstained in Divisions on this measure. It was the most difficult form of abstention, because I always come along to abstain in person. I shall now air my indecision by giving the arguments for the abstention, although my indecision is less decisive than the indecision of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan).

    At this stage in what looks like a futile argument, we need a futile gesture, because what is going on is a battle of prehistoric monsters—a virility contest between the Government and the House of Lords. I am too old to be into virility contests. I am a safe pair of trousers, of course—we all are, on the Labour Benches—but I am not a virility contest person. In this eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation—it is pink eyeball to pink eyeball, one from principle and the other from port—neither side is effectively right.

    I am the biggest fan of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I hope that the Under-Secretary will transmit that message to him; it might do me good. The Home Secretary chose the worst possible form of proportional representation—which I support—for the Bill, perhaps deliberately, in the hope of discrediting proportional representation; whereas the House of Lords is kicking over the traces on behalf of the Conservative party, which does not want any PR at all, in the hope that the Conservative party will go out on a limb and support the hereditary peers. The Lords are scratching the back of the Conservative party by doing what they believe will please it—making a nuisance of themselves for the Government.

    It is an argument in which neither side is right, and it is depressing in the extreme to watch the battle of mastodons going on at the expense of the European elections next year. The Government's majority is in single hundreds, it is true; we do not yet have total control, as we shall eventually, but we have a majority to do anything, and the hereditary peers are just having a bit of fun—a last fling before extinction. It is not really Lords versus Commons; it is the hereditary peers versus the hereditary believers in first past the post. Most MPs believe in first past the post because they believe that any system that elected them must be the wisest, most effective system available. It has been suggested to me, in the friendly discussions that one has with Whips—I am a big admirer of my personal Whip—

    Perhaps they will put me on the list.

    It has been suggested that I should regard this as a battle between Lords and Commons, and that I could do myself a bit of good by voting with the Government this time. [Laughter.] Labour Whips do give us helpful advice; that is what they are there for. As Opposition Members are laughing, I want to make it clear that the Labour party is not a party of control freaks—I am authorised to say that.

    We should therefore decide on the basis of the argument, but the argument has been extremely confusing for someone like me. I always admired the Liberals as men and women of principle—a party of principle—but after admiring them for that for 18 years, it is terrifying to see how cheap they come now. We used to say in the back row of the Glenroyal cinema in Shipley that some girls were easy and some girls were not. The Liberals are easy: a few crumbs from the table of power, and they will throw away their principles on terrorist legislation, on proportional representation and on open lists. That is cheap.

    I want the same thing myself. I would like a bit of power too, so I can understand the Liberals taking that approach. My friends, my fellow executives of the Labour campaign for electoral reform, in which we have all fought together, will tonight take a firm stand and say that we shall hold the Government to the review. We shall be really tough about the review, after the election is over.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) has confused me with the argument that we should have closed lists because the people cannot judge, except on a party basis, but that the parties should choose on the basis of one member one vote. They have not done so, which to my mind destroys the argument for closed lists. I could not follow that argument.

    My hon. Friend has a short memory. I said at the beginning of my contribution that I would prefer an open-list system, but I gave the rationale for a closed-list system.

    I had not understood for the wrong reasons. Now I do not understand for the right reasons. I am much happier with that situation.

    There is one simple principle on which we should judge the argument between a closed list and an open list, which is that the electorate will resent having a closed list imposed on them. They will resent not being able to make any choice at all. It is not a burning issue. Most of them will not bother to vote in the European elections. They will stay a mile away, and rightly too. European elections are boring.

    If voters are told that they do not have the power to choose, they will mostly vote on party lines. I am sure that they will want to vote for us—we are extremely popular, we are a good party, and we have a leader who throws his cloak over the whole party. We shall do well in the elections, but we are telling the electorate that they cannot make any choice—they must vote as the party wants them to vote.

    That will produce a festering resentment, which will do us no good. It is a basic flaw in democracy. We cannot say that to the people. We should maximise choice. They will resent it if they feel that they cannot pick and choose within the list when they know enough about the candidates to pick and choose.

    I have aired my agonising indecision. I shall leave the Chamber for a little while to commune with destiny. I shall be sitting in the Cafeteria downstairs, eating my sausage and mash, and awaiting offers. After 18 years in futile opposition, I would like a bit of power. My ambitions are higher than those of the Liberals, because I want to be a PPS. I intend to contemplate my vote, eat my sausage and mash, and hope that somebody comes down to see me.

    I am glad that there is no ruling from the Chair that we are not allowed to be amused by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). He made the speech by the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) look no better than it was when we first heard it, and he has made the speech by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), which looked good by comparison with the speech from Battersea, look not quite as good as it did after we had heard only the latter.

    We have heard from hon. Members that the voting system is a bit of fun, that it is a tiny issue, that being able to vote for an individual is something to do with a safety valve, and that it is a dot and a comma. It will be the first vote in this island in which not a single voter will vote for a single candidate, and not a single candidate will receive a single vote from a voter. That is more than a dot or a comma.

    It is also worth noting that the Government would intend that in most cases there would not be by-elections. If that applied to this House, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby would never have been chosen by the control freaks to stand in general elections. His constituency party was looking for someone in a by-election to hold a seat that it thought it might lose. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) was another by-election entrant, and so was I.

    One of the disadvantages of a party-list system, or even of the big multi-constituency system, is that we begin to lose the opportunity between elections of understanding what the voters are thinking. I shall give one example from outside my constituency at a local level. Even though the Labour party is apparently standing with more than half the popular support, it cannot put up candidates in many of the south-coast by-elections. When one considers the swings from the Liberal Democrats, say, to the Tories in the area which I represent in part, real votes being counted encourages putting forward good candidates whom the voters like and tells us something about the way the wind is moving between the parties.

    As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) said, we are not now debating whether to have the first-past-the-post system in single-Member constituencies. The Bill is not about that. The test is the simple one of why, when the Prime Minister last Wednesday defended the closed-list system, not one of the independently minded Back-Bench Labour Members nodded agreement to what the right hon. Gentleman was saying.

    If there were a secret ballot among Labour Back Benchers to give them the choice of an open system or a closed system, the vast majority would vote for an open system. If they were given a free vote, they would vote for an open system using their own names on the Division list. Instead, they are being told by their Whips to support the closed-list system for reasons which most of them do not understand. Perhaps we cannot assume that, because most of them are not speaking; but those who have spoken have shown that they do not understand. They have said clearly in most of the arguments that they would prefer to have an open-list system.

    The Liberal Democrats have said that they would prefer to have more of an open-list system, which is why they will vote with Labour Back Benchers for something that they do not want. If the choice is, as the Lords Labour Minister said on the radio, whether one wants to vote with the hereditaries for what Labour Back-Bench Members want or to overturn their judgment and, for example, stand with cross-Bench Members of the House of Lords, I would go on the whole for those with some degree of independence rather than for those being controlled by the Whips—however engaging the Government Whips might be.

    I suggest an extra question that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) might consider. His first five questions are good ones but I suggest that the sixth might be how much power we give to a few people. At present, I believe that the Labour Whips—I use them as a sort of cloak for the people round the Prime Minister—have too much power. They have persuaded Labour Back Benchers to vote for something in which they do not believe. They have also managed to persuade the Liberal Democrats to vote for something in which they do not believe either.

    If the Government do not insist on having closed lists, that will be good for democracy, good for the House and good for the country. It might even start a tendency for those in other parts of the European Union to say, "Why don't we go more to smaller constituencies than, in some cases, the whole nation; why don't we go for smaller constituencies than the multi-Member mammoths?" We are facing multi-Member mammoths in this country.

    There has been talk of the various ways of selecting candidates and where they stand on the list. I think that the Tory party has the best system of the three parties but in my view it is still a bad system. It would be far better to have Members of the European Parliament representing areas where they have a chance of getting to know the people and to be known by the people. That would be far better than having nine, 11 or even five Members for the same area.

    I believe that when historians of politics write up this period they will say that what the Labour Government were doing was wrong. For those who have any sense of independence—I include the hon. Member for Great Grimsby in that category—I have some advice. If I were the hon. Gentleman I would return from my meal and, instead of being like a poached egg on a fence, vote for what the majority of his colleagues want. The hon. Gentleman's Labour colleagues will not vote for the open-list system but he should.

    When I was a Member of the European Parliament, one of the constant arguments between myself and other Members of the socialist group arose from their saying that we should have proportional representation and a list system. Their constant complaint was that the British were the only people who did not have the name at the top of the list of a very well-known socialist politician. They said that that was the only way in which they were able to obtain any sensible vote. They asked why we could not at that time have someone such as the gentleman they called "Nail Kinnock" at the head of our list.

    I had some difficulty explaining to them that even the most inadequate of our elected Members had a direct connection with the area which they were elected to represent. That was something that they found extremely difficult to understand. Having worked for many years on the continent, I understood their confusion: their system has always been party-controlled and party-based. For example, the Dutch system has both religious and political divisions, so I was one of the first people to work for both a socialist and a Catholic radio station.

    The link between voting for a person and voting for a candidate is important. We are all here because of our commitment to our party. I have been a member of the Labour party since I was 16 years old, although I sometimes wonder which Labour party. The other day, my lovely Deputy Chief Whip suggested that I had one of my own, which was a bit rotten of him.

    9.15 Pm

    Although we are all here because of our party connections, in our system of government people connect parties with individuals. Individual Members of Parliament take the flak in their constituencies for the views of their party, and take their constituents' views back to the elected Chamber. They have a direct link with a geographical area, and are regarded as the representative of that area. It would be a dire day if we were to lose that.

    I have argued about this matter within my party, and I understand those who said that, because an undertaking was given many moons ago that we would move towards the same system as the rest of Europe—this is really all about conformity of electoral systems—we would have to come up with a system that was different from the one that we operated. I was prepared to argue about that, but I lost the argument within my party.

    I have grave reservations about the idea that, in the final analysis, the electorate should not be given the ability to decide their own candidate. That is why I have abstained on this Bill. Candidates come in all shapes, sizes and types—some admirable and some not quite so admirable, some well known to the electorate and some building a reputation.

    My objections to the Bill do not stem from the Labour party's behaviour. The Labour party has got itself into a hole, which is not altogether unusual in my lifetime, and I should like it to stop digging. If it persists, I simply want to put it on the record that I firmly believe that, when the electorate vote for me they show great intelligence, ability, understanding and sensitivity, whereas, when they vote for anybody else, they show a great inability to understand political issues. The reality for politics in this country remains that the electorate should decide.

    I am very fond of the hon. Gentleman. If he has not yet learnt that I am not a man, we are in trouble.

    I am grateful for the hon. Lady's tolerance. Will she be frank enough to admit to the House that, two or three elections ago, she should have lost her seat, because, in normal circumstances, the swing would have had her well defeated in Crewe and Nantwich? However, I am happy to say from the Conservative Benches that, because of the respect in which she is held as a result of the wonderful work that she has done for her constituency since she was first elected, she won the seat. Does she believe, as I do, in trusting and respecting people because they know what they are doing?

    I frequently explain to people that my constituents may say, "She is an unfortunate person with unmarried parents, but she is our unfortunate person with unmarried parents." That is quite important in elections.

    I feel very strongly about this matter. I speak tonight not because I believe that we are being asked to choose between an inadequate system and an even more inadequate system, but for a very different reason. I saw the effect of list systems on the European Parliament and the control that all political parties exercised. I explained time and again—wrongly, it now appears—that we would find it difficult to accept that system in Britain, because we had a genuine commitment to a constituency link and we believed that the individual was tremendously important in our system of government. I believe that very strongly.

    I shall not vote tonight, which is unusual for me, because it is the coward's way out. I want to record my deep worry about the breaking of that link. Whatever we think of the electorate, on the whole they come up with sensible results. Sometimes I like the results, and sometimes I hate them, but I support the right of the electorate to decide those results.

    This has been an entertaining debate, which has often been about something else, but the issue that we should have been debating—put in its simplest terms—is the people's choice against the party's choice.

    Despite the constant debating of the subject, wherever I speak to well-informed people, I am amazed that t c he vast majority are blissfully unaware that they will not be able to vote for the candidate of their choice when they go to the polls at the European election next June. There is enormous ignorance of the reality of what is being debated and of what will result if the Bill is passed in this form.

    People in this country like to think that they have some control over the candidate who represents them, that they have a link with that representative, that they know their representative's name, and that, if push came to shove, they could speak to, or get rid of, that representative.

    That may be a slightly rose-tinted view of the way in which our democracy works, but most British people take comfort from that state of affairs. Suggesting that they are not up to the job of selecting their first-choice candidate to represent them—in Europe, in Wales, in Scotland or in Westminster—shows utter contempt for the ordinary people of this country.

    The Home Secretary argued on numerous occasions that all that is pointless, because candidates will be virtually anonymous in these huge European regions, and are virtually anonymous as Members of the European Parliament for the smaller constituencies at present, but that they will be wholly anonymous in a constituency which—in my part of the country, for example—will encompass 5.9 million people and elect 11 representatives. Goodness knows where someone will go for a surgery to see one of the MEPs in such a large area.

    That is a fallacious argument, however: it suggests that, because they will be anonymous, we may as well condemn all MEPs to a lifetime of anonymity through being a person on a closed list. That will not improve the turnout at European elections, which has been the raison d'être for reforming the system. It will make people feel more detached and more remote from their MEP, whom they could not vote for as a person.

    As many hon. Members have said, the problem is that many of the least anonymous candidates in the Labour party tend to be those who are most out of line with Millbank tower, which is what the argument is about. The closed-list system is designed entirely to suit the internal machinations of the governing party.

    We have heard about the strange goings on behind closed doors in respect of the Welsh list, after which the top candidate chosen by members of the Labour party in Wales mysteriously dropped well down the list. A small number of regional representatives and members of the Labour party national executive committee decided who went on that list and in what order.

    Do I detect a small chink in that control freak mentality, at least in Wales, with the story that the members of the Labour party in Wales may get one person, one vote, to select the leader of the Welsh Assembly, should he or she happen to be a member of the Labour party? If that is the case, it is a welcome development, albeit late in the day. It follows the example set by Conservative Members many months ago, when we went for one person, one vote. All the candidates on Conservative party lists up and down the country were selected under a system whereby every member of the Conservative party in each region had the opportunity to cast an equal vote for a candidate to decide where on the list they were placed.

    Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that is nonsense? In my part of the world, members from Berkshire had to travel to a caucus meeting in docklands to deselect their MEP. It was not one member, one vote. Only one party has offered that system: the Liberal Democrat party.

    If the argument in favour of the legislation is that a bus journey to docklands is too far, that is a fairly sorry state of affairs. It was not a caucus meeting; every paid-up member of the Conservative party in the south-east region was able to attend the meeting and cast an equal vote. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will reply to the question I posed earlier. How many members of his party had an equal vote in the selection of the Labour party candidates who will be set against the Conservative party candidates in my region? Can we count them on one or two hands? We cannot count them, because we do not know who selected those candidates, how many people made the selection and on what basis. Perhaps they used a ouija board. Did they get pager messages from Millbank tower? Did the Prime Minister appear and say, "These are the people I want to appear on the list"? We do not know.

    The Labour party has dismally failed to tell us how it selected its candidates. How Labour Members have the audacity to claim that they have a better system than the wholly democratic one person, one vote system used by the Conservative party beggars belief.

    I am sure that the hon. Gentleman took part in the democratic exercise to select his party's candidate. I hope that he will confirm that the Conservatives have selected candidates who will serve the public in a genuine spirit of public service, and not be merely party hacks. Some of the tone of the debate is insulting to candidates, because it suggests that they will have no notion of serving the public in their larger regions. That is not true in the Liberal Democrat party.

    That is a bit rich, given that the Liberal Democrats used a hybrid zipper system to choose a small number of female candidates. They feel guilty because they so dismally failed to get many female MPs elected at the last general election [Interruption.] The Conservative party made no pretence about trying to fix the list. In the London region, a woman who is certainly no party apparatchik came top of the list, and good luck to her. Her name is Villiers—I shall give her that extra bit of publicity to promote her chances at the election next year. There was no prospect of party apparatchiks getting any favours. In fact, the list shows that the opposite was true.

    It is appropriate that, on 6 December, we celebrate—or perhaps do not celebrate—the 250th anniversary of Pride's purge. Under Cromwell, Members of the House who happened to be out of tune with the Commonwealth Government of the day mysteriously disappeared from these Benches. We have a lesson to learn, because, 250 years on, history seems to be repeating itself on the Labour Benches.

    I return to this little chink of light. On 12 November 1997—a year ago—the Home Secretary said:
    "We are a party and a Government who listen to argument."
    Let them prove that this evening. They have repeated the absurd suggestion that all will be well because we will have another review. As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said, the review will take place after the changes have happened.

    Can any Labour Member name a European country that changed its electoral system and six months later had a review about changing it back? It does not happen like that. The right thing to do would be to keep the status quo until next year's elections, and then review it—if that really is the Government's intention.

    It is absurd to insist on a closed-list system that, in the end, would probably make little difference to the way in which party votes fell. Moreover, there is no need to fall into line totally with other European states for the purpose of these elections. There is a multiplicity of different electoral systems. As I have said, we do not even have a commonality between the parties in regard to the way in which candidates are selected—although, if we are a progressive House moving towards more democratic accountability, I expect that the Conservative model will be emulated by all the other parties.

    9.30 pm

    Another absurdity is that the Labour party's manifesto at the last election expressed no preference for a particular type of proportional representation. Labour cannot even claim that it is only living up to its manifesto commitments—although we know that it is not very good at doing that, anyway. Besides, the proposed system goes against the Jenkins report. Conservative Members disagree with the thrust of that report, but the one thing to which it holds dear is an open-list system and some contact with the individual Member. That, at least, Lord Jenkins has tried to preserve.

    The truth is that this whole debate has become a convenient way of bashing the House of Lords, just as foxhunting was some months ago. In fact, the noble Lords are doing their job, and doing it rather well. They have been representing the views of the electorate rather closely—on student tuition fees, the age of consent and, in this instance, the people's right to vote for people, not parties. But, if we are to accept what we are being fed by the Government, their Lordships have already been dismissed. They have already been summarily executed.

    Labour Members might do well to listen to some of the wise words that were spoken in the House of Lords just a few days ago. Lord Shaw said:
    "So the argument that it is simply a matter of elected Commons versus unelected Peers and that the unelected Peers, because they are dominated by hereditary Conservative Members, should always be brushed aside, is not in itself strong enough."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 November 1998; Vol. 594, c. 851.]
    He is right. The idea that anything said in the House of Lords does not matter is absurd. It is ironic that the unelected Lords should be most in tune with the democratic principles that are held dear by the majority of democracy-loving people.

    It is time to show that the Home Secretary does listen, not just to the majority in the upper House but to the silenced voices on his own Benches, and elsewhere among the majority of his own party members in the country at large.

    I wish to make only two brief points. One relates to the peculiar argument advanced by the Home Secretary and Liberal Democrats, that there can be such a thing as a closed list of one. I accept that one person can be foisted on the electorate, just as a list of people can be foisted on the electorate. They can be foisted by a decision of the party—by one member, one vote, or what you will—or by the bureaucracy of the party. Both lists and individuals can be foisted on people who will not have much choice if they want to vote for the party concerned.

    The phrase "a closed list of one", however, is very odd. I do not have a very good memory, so when my wife sends me shopping, she gives me a list. Even my memory, however, is not so bad that my wife will give me a shopping list containing only one item. I therefore found it strange that an argument should be advanced whose aim seemed to be to confuse the two systems. It is not logically possible to have a closed list of one. It is neither false nor true to say that it is possible; the idea is simply meaningless nonsense.

    A closed list means something in comparison with an open list, and there is no way in the world or in logic that we can have an open list of one. As we have agreed, one candidate can be foisted on people whatever the method that has been chosen, so I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Liberal Democrats will stop speaking in ways that are entirely meaningless. If they mean to say something else—this is the point that I first made—about it being possible for people to be foisted on the electorate, whether as individuals or as candidates on the lists, they should say that, but they should not try to invent a type of language that finishes up saying nothing.

    Aside from the semantic argument, we are simply trying to make the point that there would be an alternative, and it is the logical outcome of that proposed by the proponents of the amendment. To follow the same logic that they are using in this debate, in first-past-the-post elections, each party should put forward a list of several candidates, and the highest one should get selected. I apologise for any semantic confusion that was caused.

    It is a matter not of semantics, but of meaning. I do not think even politicians should say things that are meaningless, although they happen to feel that they say something. It may be that, in the era of spin doctors, we are given to that, but we should be considerably aware of it.

    My second point is about why I am abstaining on all this to-ing and fro-ing with the other place. It is because I oppose lists, whether they are open lists or closed lists. I agree that a closed list can emerge because it has been democratically determined by membership within a party, by delegatory or by individual vote means; it can also be foisted on people.

    Nevertheless, a closed list is presented to people, and there is no opportunity to make any choice between the half dozen or so candidates that are presented. However, if we had an open list and we could choose between the half dozen, that would produce other problems. As occurs with the single transferable vote system in the Republic of Ireland, members of the same political party would be in contest with one another to get higher up the list and to get the vote compared with someone else.

    I do not think that that is a good thing for political parties, or for democracy generally. We can fight each other enough within the Labour party without organising it for electoral arrangements. Why should we institutionalise conflict? The conflict that the Conservative party had, and still has, over Europe—why should we extend that to the ballot box, to allow the choice then to be made by the electorate in going for one person or another? It is a matter that the parties need to sort out by their different representatives as to what their general position is, which they should then put before an electorate.

    Therefore, I do not like lists. There are other forms of proportional representation in which lists are not things that are put to the electorate. Lord Jenkins' report refers to a system that the Hansard Society suggested on one occasion, that of the fastest loser. We can top systems up out of the votes that have taken place in constituencies by the people who came nearest to taking those seats in the election.

    Something like that might be possible. It does not refer to the situation that is before us now, because we have no choice. Those of us who dislike this type of proportional representation, or think that first past the post is better than some other forms of proportional representation, have nothing else to do in these debates but to continue abstaining in a principled way—something that the Liberal Democrats used to know about at one time.

    The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) may have struck a chord with the House—perhaps he will also with future electorates and Labour party candidates—by being so confident as to say that he, like other Labour Members, will abstain in today's Division. If a closed-list system were ever introduced for elections to the House, I am not sure that they would feel quite so confident in making such a statement.

    The Government are today stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock is the open list, and the hard place is the current first-past-the-post system. The Home Secretary said that Conservative Members should follow Lord Bethell's advice, which was published in an open letter in today's The Daily Telegraph. I wonder whether the Home Secretary and other Ministers would like to follow the advice given by Mr. Henry McCubbin—who was the former Labour Member of the European Parliament for north-east Scotland from 1989 to 1994—in a letter to my noble Friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.

    Mr. McCubbin wrote to Lord Mackay—the letter was used last week in a debate in the other place-that Rule 2 of the European Parliament's rules, under the heading "The independent mandate", clearly states:
    "Members of the European Parliament shall exercise their mandate independently. They shall not be bound by any instructions and shall not receive a binding mandate."
    Therefore, that honourable gentleman, who—in his own rather eloquent words—had dropped out of the "comfort zone" and been excluded from the closed list, would stand to gain quite substantially if the House votes, and the other place continues to vote, for an open list system.

    Mr. McCubbin wrote to my noble Friend Lord Mackay simply to say:
    "To my mind the open list is the only way to meet this simple but important criteria",
    and has written to the Lords to
    "support the Lords amendment to provide for open lists"—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 November 1998; Vol. 594, c. 849]
    in the hope that sufficient peers would follow that suggestion.

    I am one of only three dual mandate Members and, on personal experience, can put Ministers' minds to rest on the matter of voter recognition, which certainly exists. On leaving this place and arriving on a train, at 12.30 in the morning, at the constituency of the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell), I was picked up by a taxi driver who was rather concerned that I had nowhere to stay that night. However, when I assured him that I was not only the Member of Parliament for the Vale of York but a Member of the European Parliament for that constituency, he got part of my name right and called me Anne. He could not quite get the second part of my name right, but then he was not voting that night.

    If a taxi driver in Colchester town knows who his MEP is, that is good enough for me.

    The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) has struck a chord with the House today. We know that the only beneficiaries in the House today are the Members of one small group—the Liberal Democrats—and that the proposals are the prelude for proportional representation being introduced, perhaps on a similar basis, for elections to the House.

    If first past the post has been and still is good enough for this place, why should it not be good enough—as it has been since 1979—for electors to the European Parliament? What are Ministers so afraid of? They speak so often of Labour being the people's party and of creating a people's Britain. This is the one occasion on which we can allow voters to make the people's choice. Let the people choose.

    It is not really a question of the Lords versus the Commons. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) said today, throughout this whole experience—my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) called it "the shuttlecock procedure"—the Lords have been more in tune with voters than Ministers have. Ministers are so out of tune on the matter, that, on reflection, they may want to leave the rock and the hard place and join Conservative Members in voting for nothing more simple or clear than an open list. As the Lords stated, electors should be able not only to vote for a party but to state their own personal preference of candidate. Let the people decide.

    9.45 pm

    We have heard a great many romantic notions from Conservative Members about the present set-up. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) was identified late at night, at least by her first name, by a taxi driver in her European constituency.

    Listening to Conservative Members, one would believe that this country had the highest turnout in the European Union at the European elections, rather than one of the lowest, and that everyone knew the name of his Member of the European Parliament. I would stick my neck out and say that the majority would not know the name of their Member of the European Parliament. I would make an exception for my own excellent MEP, Pauline Green, the leader of the Socialist group in the European Parliament. I am delighted that she is also No. 1 on the Labour list for London, and look forward to her continuing to represent the people of my constituency in the European Parliament.

    I shall concentrate on three points. First, it is worth reminding ourselves of the Bill's purpose, which is to give fair representation to voters across the country. I contest the view that the beneficiaries of the proposed system will be any one political party. I think that the beneficiaries will be voters who do not currently have a voice in the British delegation to the European Parliament, whether they be Liberal Democrat voters in Greater London, Labour voters in many of the home counties or Conservative voters in Scotland and Wales. The Bill deals with what the Jenkins report identified as electoral deserts, which are those large parts of the country where significant groups of voters have no representation. It is for that reason that the Bill should become law as soon as possible.

    Secondly, when we debated the Jenkins report in the House a couple of weeks ago, hon. Members of all parties accepted that there is no such thing as a perfect voting system. Every voting system has its advantages and disadvantages, and we should bear that in mind tonight.

    Thirdly, at an earlier stage of our consideration of the Bill, we considered proposals, put to us by the Liberal Democrats and endorsed by organisations such as Charter 88, for a partial open system—the so-called Belgian system. Many of us felt that that option had merits, and said so in this place and elsewhere. Unfortunately, we did not proceed with that proposal. I welcome the Government's proposal for a review, which will enable us to consider the issue again after the elections.

    Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that, should the Government choose to do so, they could, with their order-making powers, get something very close to the Belgian system by using the open-list system set out in the Lords amendment?

    That point was not made by the hon. Gentleman or any of his colleagues when the proposal was before the House. The hon. Gentleman's proposal and that being considered now are very different. The Lords proposal is essentially a wrecking amendment from people who want the first-past-the-post system to be retained in the European elections.

    I want to take up the point about closed lists of one. It is appropriate to talk about the first-past-the-post system as a closed list of one. The purpose of an open list is to enable the voter to have a choice of different candidates, including different candidates from the same party. The argument against a closed list is that it does not give that choice. For example, a Labour voter in my constituency who does not want to vote for me either has to vote for me with gritted teeth or does not vote Labour. It is therefore perfectly legitimate to argue that we have a closed system with first past the post.

    Of course we could have a system whereby the parties offered a range of candidates and the voters were allowed to decide among them. The logic is the same as that deployed by those arguing for the Lords amendment. [Interruption.] I am being asked to wind up so I shall do so.

    We have an opportunity to pass a Bill that will be an important part of the Government's constitutional reform programme. We have an undertaking in the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that there will be a review and that Opposition parties will be consulted. That should be welcomed. The House of Lords has had its chance. The will of the House of Commons should prevail. The Bill is a significant democratic reform, which I hope will be supported by hon. Members of all parties.

    We have had a good debate, and a good-humoured one. We have gone over well-trodden ground, but we have once again heard widespread concern about and hostility towards the Government's proposal for a closed-list system. It is striking that the hostility has become greater and greater during debates on this matter, not least on the Government side of the House. We have heard hon. Member after hon. Member speak with great feeling against the closed-list system and in favour of the principle of the open-list system. I have listened carefully tonight to each speech from the Labour Benches, and not one of them favoured the closed-list system in principle over the open-list system.

    The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) gave a speech that the House enjoyed. He set out his five principles of democratic choice, as he put it, and it was clear that the system proposed by the Government did not fulfil any of his criteria. In particular, he rightly said that it is impossible under a closed-list system for a voter to use the ballot box to get rid of a Member of whom he or she disapproves.

    I thought that the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) would be a supporter of the closed-list system when he began to speak. However, he said, during his speech and in clarifying an intervention later, that he favoured the open-list system over the closed-list system. His logic was not entirely clear, but I do not want to be unfair to him. I did not follow his point about the danger of having members of other political parties voting in a party's internal elections of candidates. There is no risk of our having anything like the American system in which, for example, Republicans can vote for Democrats. There is, at least, no risk of that in the Labour party, which will not allow even its own members to vote to choose a candidate. Late in the hon. Gentleman's speech, it emerged that he has serious concerns about the way in which Labour is proceeding, and that he has protested to the national executive committee.

    The House also enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). I gather that he is now communing with a cup of tea, but we understood his strong feeling against the closed-list system. He said that he would abstain, but that the closed-list system is futile and will, in his words, cause festering resentment. The Home Secretary will have been pleased to hear of the hon. Gentleman's personal admiration for him. The hon. Gentleman also said that he was a safe pair of trousers. Notwithstanding all his efforts to get into his party's good books, however, the hon. Gentleman could not bring himself to support the closed-list system.

    The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) spoke with considerable passion about her support for the open-list system, and about the need for the electorate to have a direct link with its representative. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) also spoke passionately on that theme.

    The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) seemed at one point to be a late entrant as a supporter of the closed-list system, but even he managed— diplomatically—to qualify his speech. He said that he would have preferred the Government to take another course, and that he preferred the open-list principle.

    No, he did not.

    The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate said that the Government had taken an unfortunate decision at an earlier stage, and that he supported the Belgian system—a semi-open form of list—in principle. The fact that the Minister seeks comfort in that makes it plain how desperate the Government Front-Bench team has become in its search for support.

    There was, of course, no support for the Government from the Conservative Benches. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) made a very good speech in which he drew fairly attention to widespread concern about and lack of support for the Government's proposals in the other place. My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) made the important point that the Bill was not a minor detail. When history comes to be written, historians will, as my hon. Friend asserted, argue that the Government acted wrongly, and that they set a bad precedent for our electoral system by depriving voters of choice.

    My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) also made a good point in asking why Members of the European Parliament should be condemned to a life of anonymity through the use of a list, rather than being able to create a direct link with the electorate. The same point has been made by many others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), who spoke from experience to show that voter recognition can exist.

    In response to all that condemnation of the course that he has taken, the Home Secretary, in a speech that was perhaps not as good humoured as some of his earlier contributions to this debate—we can forgive him, because we have been over this course so often—gave up any pretence of making an argument on the subject. He did not try to build a case on the evidence but simply showed brass neck and what the hon. Member for Battersea described as chutzpah. He advanced ludicrous arguments.

    The Home Secretary said that this was all a conspiracy got up by the Conservative party. He called it a conspiracy of non-understanding. If it was all got up by the Conservative party and the hereditary peers, I have to say that it extends to many groups and individuals not normally associated with the Conservative party. There has been widespread concern across many different groups about the Government's course.

    Concern extends to Charter 88, whose briefing when the matter was first proposed last autumn said:
    "We believe that the closed list system originally proposed in the Bill where voters can only put their cross next to the party name should be replaced with a more open list system."
    The Electoral Reform Society expressed a similar view. Its president, Earl Russell, is a member of the Liberal Democrat party.

    He was fine in that he had the courage to vote against the Government's proposal, against the Whip put on by the Liberal Democrats.

    Concern extends to many in the media. Last October, when the proposals were first unveiled, The Times said that they were bad for democracy and would be bad eventually for the parties too. It described it as the worst possible kind of proportional representation for the European elections and said that it would result in placemen being put in the European Parliament, rather than individual representatives. The Times is also part of the conspiracy.

    The Home Secretary reached his most ludicrous when he said that the idea that the closed list is anathema to our system of politics was pure nonsense. He forgets what he said last October in a leaked letter to a colleague reported in The Guardian. In setting out the case for a closed-list system, he said:
    "though this is not a term which I think we should use."
    The conspiracy of non-understanding may even extend to the Home Secretary himself.

    The Home Secretary went on to say that, despite all our concerns, we have to agree because their manifesto commits the Government to the closed-list system. The Labour party manifesto is not something that I normally carry around with me, but I have been helpfully furnished with a copy. It states:
    "We have long supported a proportional voting system for election to the European Parliament."
    There is no mention of the closed-list system and no reason why there should not be an open-list system. At least eight other members of the European Union have open-list systems that would have been compatible with that pledge. Why, out of all the systems that the Government could have chosen, did they choose one that maximised party control?

    We think that the answer is clear, and it was given by another member of the Conservative hereditary peers' conspiracy against the Government, Lord Shore. He said:
    "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".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 November 1998; Vol. 594, c. 851.]
    That view has been echoed time and again through our debates.

    We cannot accept the latest review put forward by the Government. We regarded their original concession—it was described as a concession—as so minimal as to be meaningless. Their new concession is ludicrous. They now say that, in addition to the review of the operation of the closed-list system, we should have one of the operation of the open-list system. How can a review be conducted when that system is not operating? We welcome the fact that there will be consultation on who will chair the review, but we wonder what on earth it will find to do. All the evidence that will be available in six months' time is available now. It is a matter of principle, and the Government have come down on the wrong side. They have come down in favour of party control, rather than representative democracy—not voter choice, but control by the party bosses.

    We hope that the closed-list system is not a harbinger of things to come, because it is bad in every conceivable respect from beginning to end. The debate and the Government's proposal are about promoting party control over individual choice and representative democracy. The proposal is a thoroughly bad thing and we are fully entitled to continue opposing it.

    It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.