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Orders of the Day — European Assembly Elections Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th July 1977.

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Photo of Dr Colin Phipps Dr Colin Phipps , Dudley West 12:00 am, 7th July 1977

I understood my hon. Friend to be suggesting the strengthening of the party political machine within the Labour Party by the process of extending democracy in the Labour Party. I am sorry if I misunderstood him.

Let me turn to the system of election which we should use. I am very much in agreement with the right hon. Member for Down, South that the proposed proportional system has many defects. Among its major defects appears to be not only the enormous advantage possessed by a "Mr. Abrahamson" in the electoral list, because he would also appear at the beginning of it, but the fact that it opens up a primary system which I suspect would lead to members of individual parties fighting each other at an election rather than fighting members of an opposing political party.

Let us suppose that in one area one Labour candidate under the PR system may be returned, although there may be seven Labour candidates on the list. The net effect may involve seven Labour candidates fighting each other rather than fighting Conservative or Liberal candidates. This appears to be a weakness in such a system. I would prefer the single transferable vote system, which would allow a Labour voter to put candidates in order of preference—candidate No. 1 to candidate No. 7. In other words, he would instance those members of his own party whom he wished to represent him in Parliament.

If we must retain the current system, I suspect that the only way we shall achieve some fairness is by following the Finnish system. I understand that that system involves an additional box which includes purely the name of the party. There are objections to such a course. I agree with the right hon. Member for Down, South that it is an unsuitable way of voting in a democracy to vote merely for a party.

If we are to retain the system, we need to provide for the person who does not know any candidate's name. He may know nothing at all about the various candidates who are put before him, and he may put a tick against the first Labour man because he wishes to vote Labour. In other words, he will choose the most convenient and easiest course. If there were a box marked "Labour" he could tick that box and choose in that way. That would have the same result in respect of total votes cast for each party in establishing the proportion of seats. But we should not back a ridiculous situation in which the first candidate on the list is much more likely to be elected than is any other candidate. One could have a situation such as that outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), in which a member who had not received a single vote of preference was elected. If we are to have a system that also needs to include a little box entitled "Labour" or "Conservative" or whatever it may be. I would prefer to move to some form of STV.

There is one element in the PR system which has not been discussed by Ministers—namely, that there appears to be no limit to the number of candidates which can be put up by individual parties. If the vote is for an individual, I see no reason why even in a seven-seat region there could not be 77 or 700 candidates. If each were approved by the party concerned, I find it difficult to see how we, as legislators, could restrict political parties in the number of people they put up. I can see that parties will find great difficulty in deciding whether to reject the eighth man or woman if no restriction is placed on the numbers in the list. That eighth person would have a strong argument for saying "I believe that I can fight a campaign in this election sufficiently good to give me enough votes to enable me to be one of those elected." That would be a difficult argument to counter.

Therefore, I see great difficulties in the proposed PR system which is being advanced by the Government. I would prefer the STV system, or possibly even the block list. But that is subject to the kind of patronage to which many of us on the Labour Benches are opposed since political parties would make a list in order of preference.

My final point I mentioned a little earlier, when I intervened in the speech of the Minister, but he did not give a satisfactory answer. Although I prefer the PR system I accept that many people in the House continue to prefer a first-past-the-post system. I believe that we must be prepared for both eventualities if we are to hold the direct elections on the date when they are due to be held in other European countries. To say that we cannot do anything before Royal Assent is given to this legislation seems to me to fly in the face of the sovereignty of this House. Surely we can do what we like. If we wish to have a Boundary Commission to examine the matter we can let it do so. It is not beyond the wit of 635 adult men and women to decide that this is what is to be done.

I commend most strongly to the Front Bench the suggestion that if, tonight, there is a major vote showing that it is the will of the House that we should have direct elections to the European Parliament, irrespective of which of those methods is chosen, we should devise machinery that will allow the Boundary Commission to begin its work, and to begin that work soon.