Method of Election

Part of European Assembly Elections Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th December 1977.

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Photo of Mr George Reid Mr George Reid , Stirlingshire East and Clackmannan 12:00 am, 13th December 1977

In fact, we had a meeting earlier this evening to try to get that matter settled. Certain Members of the Scottish National Party might still vote for the regional list system if they feel so moved.

The hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston) will have to eat his hat. The whole business of electoral reform has to a large extent become one of semantics. If the hon. Gentleman has followed speeches made by myself and my colleagues over the past few years, he will know that we have not suggested adopting a system of proportional representation. We have talked about electoral reform, which is a different matter. We want a straight electoral reform which is much fairer than the present first-past-the-post system. If the hon. Gentleman will bide with me, I shall come to that point later.

I was dealing with the failings of the regional list system. The major failing is that the bond between the Member and his constituency falls. I appreciate that certain hon. Members would say that that bond is bound to go when dealing with electorates of 500,000 or 600,000. But, as the hon. Member for Southend, West said, American Senators seem to get by quite easily. Obviously the bond will not be the same kind as exists now between a Member of the House of Commons and his electorate. There will be no question of European MPs dealing with social worker problems of the type that we deal with here.

But many industrialists, local government authorities and trade unions will want a clear channel of communication to their "man" in Europe, who will be the conduit for them into the institutions of the European Communities. The alternative—under the regional list—is for them to pick and choose. For example, in Scotland some people might say "We will write to a Socialist Member, but we had better get double cover by writing to a Tory Member and, to make absolutely sure, we had better write to a Scottish National Party Member of the European Parliament as well." That would lead to gross confusion.

It is also sad and alien to British parliamentary traditions that, under the regional list system, an individual should feel moved to see only the Member for whom he himself voted. That is quite wrong, because in the House of Commons—and I hope in the EEC as well—Members will be representatives of the whole community from which they are elected.

It could be argued that the next time round there will be regional list voting anyway, so why not get the whole thing clean cut and dried now? I find that a curious argument. I have no stomach for a European Community where everyone is doing the same thing, the same way, at the same time, all the time. That is the kind of mentality that has led us to the standardisation of eggs and, indeed, water that has posed the question whether Scotch whisky can go on the market because water in Scotland might be impure, and so on. European ideals should flourish from the diversity of all the European peoples.

For all those reasons the Scottish National Party is extremely hesitant about the regional list system. At the same time, in common with the right hon. Member for Sidcup, we are not keen on the first-past-the-post system, either. In time past that has led to blatant unfairness in representation, not least since the war, for the Liberal Party. It has also led to unfairness for the Scottish National Party, but, being open about it, since we are "regional", the effect has not been as continuingly adverse as it has been on the Liberal Party.

Under the first-past-the-post system, it would not be impossible in certain circumstances for England to be represented in the European Assembly exclusively by Conservative Members, for Wales to be represented exclusively by Socialist Members, and for Scotland to be represented exclusively by Scottish National Party Members. Our friends and neighbours in Europe would find that a crazy system. Indeed, there would be adverse effects on this Parliament if British representation in Europe were of that imbalanced kind.

All those reasons lead the Scottish National Party to the voting system under which, but for the financial crisis of 1931, all of us would have been elected anyway. Perhaps I may remind the Committee of a little history. The Labour Government of 1931 put through an alternative vote Bill. That measure went through all its stages in this place, but it got into difficulty in another place. At that point the then Labour Government determined to use the Parliament Act to force through the alternative vote Bill. That would have been the system now but for the financial crisis of 1931 intervening. That is the system by which Members of the Australian House of Representatives have been elected this week.

That brings be back to the tiff that I had earlier with the; hon. Member for Inverness. Under the alternative voting system, one has one vote which is marked 1, 2, 3, 4, in order of preference up to the total number of candidates. There is no wasted vote. Second preference comes into use if no candidate has 50 per cent. of the votes. The bottom candidate drops out and preferences are added up until one candidate has an absolute majority. Only AV results in a single-Member constituency with ties between the Member and the constituency and a winning candidate who must have broad majority popular support. That seems to my colleagues and myself to be an eminently sensible system.

The hon. Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd) conceded something along similar lines. He wanted single-Member seats and electoral reform, and therefore he voted for the alternative-Member system, as did this Bench when the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) proposed it earlier, because two-thirds of the seats on the alternative- Member system are single-Member seats. There are difficulties about using that for Community elections because that two-thirds of the seats would be single. Member seats and the topping-up list would be 27. Therefore, the whole of the United Kingdom would have to be one constituency, but that is the ultimate logic of regional lists anyway.

This has been a useful opportunity for the SNP to put its position on the record. We have a third option, and I hope that after Christmas it will be possible for the House to come back to it if the voting goes as I think it will tonight. For the reasons that I have given, the SNP will abstain.